Baptism as Clothing in Galatians 3:27: A Crucial Insight

Christian Living, The Church, Theology, Worship

[By: Matt Foreman]

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ”
– Galatians 3:27

In Galatians 3:27, the Apostle Paul brings up baptism seemingly ‘out of the blue’.  Baptism is not mentioned anywhere else in the book.  He doesn’t expand on the point or give much explanation.  But the short statement he makes, and the context in which he says it – actually reveal a lot.  Galatians 3:27 becomes a very revealing and important verse for understanding baptism.

The Context
The verse occurs as part of one long argument that begins in 3:23 and runs down to 4:7.  And Baptism is actually the ‘pivot point’ of the argument.

Paul’s opponents, the Judaizer false teachers in Galatia, were teaching that the Gentiles were second class citizens, not yet fully part of the people of God.  They were teaching that the Gentiles needed to do more to become truly acceptable to God and truly heirs of God’s covenant promises.  Specifically, they needed to keep the Old Testament ceremonial law – to be circumcised, ritually pure and culturally Jewish.

But Paul argues that those outward Old Covenant signs like circumcision were temporary, anticipatory, and no longer necessary, because a new and better covenant reality had come.  As a result, Paul finally says in vs.26, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.”  Believers are already full sons of God.  Tim Keller writes, “It is not something we are aiming at, it is not a future attainment.  It is something that we have already, in our present state.”1  Believers are not “looking forward” to the date of their adoption, where afterwards they’ll be fully sons.  Paul is saying, You already are sons!

Furthermore, he argues, it’s not something had by virtue of birth.  It’s not something people have naturally – just because they’re born into a believing family.  Paul has argued – only “those of faith are the sons of Abraham” – see 3:7…  Only through faith do we “receive adoption as sons” – ch.4:5. (Notice: If we needed to be adopted, that means we’re not natural sons.  God only has one natural-born son – who is Christ.)  But now, all who believe in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, Paul says, are already fully and completely adopted as sons, and already made to feel the benefits of that adoption through the Spirit sent into their hearts: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father’.”

The Meaning of Baptism
But in the middle of this argument, right after saying, “In Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith”, Paul refers to Baptism:  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  Obviously, for Paul, baptism is a sign signifying the present spiritual reality of sonship.  The fact of Baptism should be a sign to Christians affirming their identity and relationship to Christ.  For Paul, the Baptism of a Christian was a definitive moment in their life that should have ongoing significance for their life

But why?  What does Baptism add to Paul’s argument?  What exactly does Paul think Baptism means?

The answer is found in the somewhat surprising metaphor Paul uses.  Paul connects Baptism with the imagery of putting on clothes.  He says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” [or literally, “clothed yourselves (ἐνεδύσασθε) with Christ].  Where did Paul get this image? And why does he use it?

Three Connections for ‘Clothing’
The first intriguing connection is with the Roman practice of the toga virilis – the garment of manhood.  When a Roman boy reached the age of 15-16, he would finally be allowed through a ceremony to take off the crimson bordered toga praetexta (toga of childhood) and put on the pure white toga of manhood.  It was a coming of age ceremony, a rite of passage.  Interestingly, Paul had just been using the image of Old Testament believers as being like children under a chaperone (see 3:24-25 – “we are no longer under a guardian” – a pedagogue), whereas New Testament believers are spiritually come of age by virtue of faith in Christ.  Therefore, Baptism marks that spiritual coming of age ceremony: putting on the garments of manhood, of spiritual maturity.

A second intriguing source for this imagery of baptism as clothing may have been the early Christian baptismal rite itself.  When the early Christians were baptized (similar to Jewish proselyte baptism), the candidates would take off their outer garments, go into the water to be baptized, and after exiting the water, they would be re-clothed (possibly even in white linen – as a sign of cleanliness and righteousness in Christ).2  So the image connecting baptism with clothing would have been very naturally fixed in the minds of believers.

A third and related source for the imagery of baptism as clothing is actually far older, and is found in the Old Testament ceremony for the consecration of priests (see Exodus 29:4-5).  When a priest entered into his priestly service, he would first be washed with water…and then clothed with the garments of the priesthood, marking his endowment and readiness for service.  In fact, this practice probably provided something of the original background for the development of the baptismal rite.

In other words, Paul didn’t “create” the clothing metaphor for baptism.  It was a conceptual part of the rite itself and extremely relevant and fitting for his argument.  Baptism was a rite of passage, signifying entrance into consecrated service, spiritual maturity and adulthood with the full rights as sons.  Paul was signifying: New Testament believers are not in need of a tutor.  In Christ and with baptism, they are spiritually come of age.

‘Putting On Christ’
Even more powerfully, Paul calls it a ‘putting on’ of Christ himself.  Baptized believers “have put on Christ!”  What does he mean?  What does it mean to put on a Person?

Guthrie writes, “This is a favorite metaphor of Paul’s (cf. Rom.13:12; Eph.4:24; Col.3:12).  But here (and in Rom.13:14) is his most daring use of it, in which he likens Christ himself to a garment.  The expression conveys a striking suggestion of the closeness which exists between Christ and the believer.  Those who put on Christ can do no other than act in accordance with the Spirit of Christ…  The metaphor conveys essentially a new kind of life.  Everything is now to be related to Christ.”3  (Thus, for Paul, this imagery of baptism as clothing, though only seeming to appear once, was actually a central and controlling metaphor in Paul’s thought.  When Paul speaks in Colossians 3:9-12 or Ephessians 4:22-24 about “putting off” and “putting on” – this was likely baptismal language!)

Tim Keller calls it a “daring and comprehensive metaphor for a whole new life.”  What does it mean to put on Christ like a garment?  Keller develops the idea by saying, “This idea of clothing ourselves with Christ implies four amazing things: 1) Our primary identity is in Christ.  Our clothing tells people who we are… 2) The closeness of our relationship to Christ.  Your clothes are kept closer to you than any other possession…[It calls] us to moment-by-moment dependence and existential awareness of Christ… 3) The imitation of Christ…We are to ‘dress up like Jesus’… 4) Our acceptability to God…It covers our nakedness…The Lord Jesus has given us His righteousness, His perfection, to wear.”  Keller concludes,“This goes so far beyond the keeping of rules and regulations.  This goes even beyond simple obedience.  This is to be in love with him, bathed in him, awash in him.”4

‘Putting on Christ’ then is so important!  If believers have been baptized “into Christ”, then, through faith in Christ, they are, by definition, sons of God.  Paul wants every believer to know that he or she is already a fully adopted child of God.  It’s a status that is a present reality in their life.  It is a sign of full, conscious sonship by faith. Paul says, ‘You have the spiritual reality; you’ve been adopted as a full son.  You’ve been included in the unconditional covenant promise to Abraham.  You are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise – because you’ve been clothed in the Offspring, the true Offspring, who is Christ.’
Baptism thus encompasses and includes full redemption, adoption, and the experience of sonship through the Spirit (see 4:6).  The whole argument, after all, is connected.  So Paul makes deliberate connection between the sign of baptism and the spiritual baptism of the Spirit.  It’s a present reality in the life of believers that they’ve been baptized in the Spirit as sons; they have the experience of it in their hearts.  Rom.8:9 says, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him”.

[In forthcoming articles, I will draw out some implications for paedobaptism, and for baptism as a means of grace…]

——————

Footnotes

1. Keller, Timothy. Galatians For You, p.89-90.  The Good Book Company, 2013.

2. See Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church.

3. Guthrie, Donald.  Galatians, p.110. Eerdmans, 1981.

4. Keller, Timothy. Galatians For You, p.91-92.  The Good Book Company, 2013.

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