Legal change at baptism

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

Question or Topic

Where do the Scriptures teach that a legal change occurs in our relationship to God at baptism?


There is no Scripture which states that a legal change occurs at baptism using those specific words. Like many teachings of the Scriptures, the idea that baptism involves a legal change is inferred and reasoned from what has been revealed. It may be helpful to think of a "legal change" as a change in jurisdiction in relation to the governing law. If we think of it in these terms, it will be easier to see how it is an important part of the Scriptural teaching concerning baptism. Let's begin to study this question with an example of a change in jurisdiction to sovereign laws of human authorities.

Whenever we travel to a foreign country, we recognize that as a consequence of our changing jurisdictions, we become subject to a different set of laws. A simple example of this change would be that of a motorcyclist who crossed the Canadian border without wearing his helmet. In many states, helmets are not mandatory under the law. In the Province of Ontario they are required. As a result, if the motorcyclist proceeded without wearing his helmet on a roadway in Ontario, he would be subject to arrest and a fine. In this simple example, it would be important for the motorcyclist to understand the law in force in the jurisdiction he was riding in.

This principle of relationship to jurisdiction under the law is one that is taught also in the Scriptures. In the third chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul asks, "Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God." (Romans 3:19) In this testimony, the apostle Paul described a class of people who were "under the law." In the Greek language, the expression is en nomos, literally, "in the law." Law applies to those people under its jurisdiction. There are several scriptural illustrations of this principle:

1. The relation of a foreigner to the Passover feast

Under the Law of Moses, it was a capital offence for a man of Israel to fail to keep the Passover feast without cause. "But the man that is clean, and is not in a journey, and forbeareth to keep the passover, even the same soul shall be cut off from among his people: because he brought not the offering of the LORD in his appointed season, that man shall bear his sin." (Numbers 9:13) This law did not apply to the uncircumcised Gentiles who were dwelling among the children of Israel, who were expressly forbidden to eat the Passover. In Exodus 12:48 is a case where the status of a man before the law had very much to do with his relationship to the Passover meal. A circumcised man of Israel or circumcised foreigner that dwelt among the Israelites was obligated to eat the Passover. A severe consequence was imposed on those who disregarded this solemn feast. On the other hand, an uncircumcised Gentile was forbidden to partake of the Passover. The Passover ordinance was not addressed to the uncircumcised Gentiles and therefore it was not sin for them to fail to keep this feast.

2. The relation of a married wife to "the law of her husband"

In the seventh chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul explains this principle by reference to the relationship of a woman to her husband. "Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man." (Romans 7:1-3) First, he lays down the principle that there are certain circumstances in which the law has dominion, or, as we might say it, has jurisdiction. The dominion of the marriage law extends only as long as both the husband and wife are living. On the death of her husband, the apostle Paul describes the change in the wife's status that occurs in two different ways:

  • she is loosed from the law of her husband [Greek, katargeo - the same verb is translated abolished in Ephesians 2:15 in reference to the effect of the death of Christ]

  • she is free from that law [Greek, eleutheros - the adjective form of the verb translated 'hath made me free' in Romans 8:2]

He then repeats the profound significance of this change. As a result of the freedom from the marriage law gained on the death of her husband, she can marry another man without sin. On the other hand, it would be sin (adultery) for her to marry another man while her husband lived. The apostle set this example forward as an analogy which he develops in the following verse: "Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God." (Romans 7:4)

In the same way that there is a release from law on the death of her husband, the apostle Paul shows that by association with the death of Christ, there is also release from law. In this particular reference, the law under discussion is the Law of Moses from whose jurisdiction the people of Israel were freed by their association with Christ in baptism. In the second verse of the following chapter, he extends the analogy to the Adamic law of sin and death. * Relationship to the death of Christ is also the dividing line in changing the status of those who were formerly under the jurisdiction of the law of sin and death to the status of release, or freedom from its permanent claims. In the same way that a wife is released, on her husband's death, from the marriage law to him.

* The Statement of Faith references "the law of sin and death" in Article 6 as "God's just and necessary law" in context that makes it clear that it has always been understood as a reference to the Adamic sentence.

Free from the law of sin and death

With respect to baptism, the verse that most clearly states that baptism accomplishes a change in relation to the jurisdiction of law is Romans 8:2. "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death." It was recently expounded in an Advocate article that the verb "hath made me free" is in the aorist tense, a way of distinguishing an action in the past that occurred only once from an action in the past that was recurrent or continuing. In the Greek language, one would not use the aorist tense to express the thought, "The water cascaded over the falls" because it would be a continual thing. But one would use the aorist tense to express, "The ocean liner Titanic sank in the North Atlantic." It was a one-time action. The English language does not have an exactly equivalent tense that enables this distinction to be made. The fact that the aorist tense is used in Romans 8:2 is important because it shows that there was a one-time action that brought about the freedom from the law of sin and death. That action can only be baptism into the death of Christ. Romans 8:2 can be understood in terms of the analogy of Romans 7:1-4 to which we have already made reference. (Free from the Law of Sin and Death, December 2002)

What other evidence do the Scriptures provide of a change in jurisdiction as a result of baptism? In Ephesians 2:12, the apostle Paul describes our state before baptism as "without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise." In Christ, he describes our changed state as "fellowcitizens with the saints"(2:19) and "fellowheirs." (3:6) To obtain a change in relationship to a polity from the status of "alien" to "fellow-citizen" implies a change in jurisdiction. The authority having jurisdiction, in the case of a sovereign State, grants recognition to the citizen that he did not have before when an alien. A similar change of jurisdiction and recognition is implied in the change of status from "stranger" to "fellow-heir." An heir is one who is nominated in the terms of a covenant; a stranger is one outside its terms who has no part or lot in the matter. This is a matter of jurisdiction, a determination to whom the terms of the covenant apply or over whom they have jurisdiction.

Does an understanding of the jurisdictional changes that occur at baptism reduce baptism to a strictly legal matter? By no means. It is necessary to keep in view that a change in jurisdiction or, to express it another way, a change of status in relation to the law, is not something that man does for himself. It is something the Sovereign Authority alone has the prerogative to grant. In the case of baptism, the Sovereign Authority is the Almighty Himself. It is recognition of a change of status in His sight with which we are concerned. Baptism is much more than a change of jurisdiction granted by God in Christ - it also involves the heart (Romans 10:9) and the conscience (1 Peter 3:21). It is necessary to provide a balanced view of the Scriptures in teaching the meaning of baptism. An essential but not sufficient part of that balance is the understanding of the jurisdictional or changes in status before God that baptism accomplishes by His favour.