It’s one of the enduring clichés of old Western movies: the tattered poster tacked on a wall, featuring the name and scowling mug of some hard-boiled outlaw and emblazoned with the words: WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE. Well, you won’t typically find such things tacked up in churches, but you will encounter documents that bear people’s names and the implied message stated in our title: We call them Baptismal Certificates!
Now you might think that the enigmatic phrase “wanted dead and alive” suggests that God wants us to be His children, both now in our earthly life and also after our death, and that Baptism is how He accomplishes that. Well, that’s absolutely correct! Our Baptismal Certificate is indeed a written record of how God has adopted us now and for all eternity. But we actually want to talk about something even more remarkable – how God wants us to be both dead and alive, right now, in the midst of our earthy life, and Baptism is the way we enter into that highly-desirable condition.
Conventionally speaking, being simultaneously dead and alive is a weird notion that certainly doesn’t sound like a good thing! But that’s exactly how the Apostle Paul describes the redeemed life of a Baptized Christian:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:3-4,11)
Now, St. Paul is obviously talking about spiritual life and death (not some kind of ‘zombie’ thing), but even then, what does he actually mean? An important key to understanding the concept is that “alive to Christ and dead to sin” is not two things, but one – kind of like saying “the sun is up and night is gone.” The only alternative is “dead to Christ and alive to sin” and there are no intermediate possibilities: you can’t be alive to both Christ and sin, nor dead to both Christ and sin. If you’re alive to one, you’re dead to the other.
But that explanation itself raises questions – and anxieties! When I find myself torn by temptations and continually falling into sinful behaviors, doesn’t that then mean that I’m still alive to sin and therefore dead to Christ? But Paul himself, in the very next chapter, acknowledges his own ongoing problems with habitual sin. (Romans 7:15-19)
You see, being “dead to sin” isn’t the same as immunity. Rather, it’s closer to when a mob boss says about someone who’s betrayed him: “He’s dead to me!” To say that we are “dead to sin” echoes the vows that are traditionally spoken in the Baptismal rite (and personally reaffirmed at Confirmation) when the Pastor asks: “Do you renounce the Devil and all the forces that defy God?” By answering in the affirmative, we declare that we are rejecting sin’s ability to control our destiny. But that would be an empty claim if it were not that Christ brings us into a new life in Him.
In Baptism God initiates His Covenant with us: we receive all the benefits of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross and the assurance that we are His beloved child with a reserved place in His eternal Kingdom. And for our part, we do what? We promise to let God send His Holy Spirit into our heart so that our will may be gradually conformed to His – we’re giving Him permission to begin killing the part of us that wants to defy Him.
Doesn’t Baptism sound like a rather one-sided arrangement? God makes lavish and binding promises to erase the sin in our lives, and we merely commit to try to stay out of His way – and that with the full knowledge that we will repeatedly mess up. Who would sell you a car with such a feeble commitment to making the payments? Well, God’s covenant in Baptism is even MORE one-sided than that. You see God Himself picks up the payments (by the Son’s atoning death on the Cross) and simultaneously takes on the hard work of upgrading our ‘financial condition’ (by the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our hearts). In short, it is God’s doing alone which makes us “dead and alive” in our Baptism. What God covenants, He makes happen!