His message is not the simple one of the Baptist, "Be clean." Jesus' word is more painful - "Be killed." The washing of this prophetic baptism is not cheap. "You also must consider yourselves dead," Paul tells the Romans (Rom. 6:11). In baptism, the "old Adam" is drowned. "For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3)
To be baptized "into Christ" and "in the name of Christ" means to be incorporated into the way of life which characterized his life, the life of the empty one, the servant, the humble one, the obedient one, obedient even unto death (Phil. 2:6-11).
The chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns. Discipleship is more than turning over a new leaf. It is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. Nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death will do. So Paul seems to know not whether to call what happened to him on the Damascus Road "birth" or "death" - it felt like both at the same time.
In all this I hear the simple assertion that we must submit to change if we would be formed into this cruciform faith. We may come singing "Just as I Am," but we will not stay by being our old selves. The needs of the world are too great, the suffering and pain too extensive, the lures of the world too seductive for us to begin to change the world unless we are changed, unless conversion of life and morals becomes our pattern. The status quo is too alluring. It is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the six-thirty news, our institutions, theologies, and politics. The only way we shall break its hold on us is to be transformed to another dominion, to be cut loose from our old certainties, to be thrust under the flood and then pulled forth fresh and newborn. Baptism takes us there.
On the banks of some dark river, as we are thrust backward, onlookers will remark, "They could kill somebody like that." To which old John might say, "Good you're finally catching on."