by Bruce Reeves
Synopsis: Despite the error of denominationalists, the apostle Peter proclaimed, "Baptism doth also now save us" (KJV). Bruce explores the meaning of this significant passage.
There is no more important question than, "What must I do to be saved?" The Scriptures answer this question simply and explicitly. Yet, due to the popular but unbiblical teachings of men, there is much confusion in the religious world concerning salvation.
While many quote 1 Peter 3:21 to emphasize the fact that the Scriptures say, "baptism saves us," it is important to consider the richness of the context of these few verses in Peter's first epistle.
Who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 3:20-21).
Some attempt to dismiss the evident meaning of this passage by appealing to the phrase, "like figure," of the King James Version to reduce baptism into merely a ceremonial picture of salvation that has already been received. The Bible nowhere describes baptism as a picture or sign of salvation. The phrase "like figure" (KJV) originally meant "antitype" (NKJV) or "corresponding to" (NASB). In other words, Noah's deliverance in the ark foreshadowed the spiritual reality of baptism, saving us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The term "antitype" does not reference the notion of a shadow, but the very opposite, i.e., the spiritual reality. For instance, in Hebrews 10:1 we read that "the law" possessed "a shadow of good things to come," i.e., a pre-figure in contrast to the "very image of the things," that is, the spiritual reality attributed to the New Covenant.
Likewise, the Passover sacrifice of the first economy served as a shadow of the spiritual reality of Jesus as our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7). The Hebrew writer refers to the Levitical priesthood as those "who serve the copy and shadow of heavenly things" whereas Christ as our High Priest "is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, not man" (Heb. 8:5, 2). The earthly tabernacle and temple served as a shadow of the "true tabernacle" in which Christ dwells.
Again we read, "Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us" (Heb. 9:23-24). Likewise, animal sacrifices, in and of themselves, were not efficacious to "take away sins" (Heb. 10:4); nevertheless, they served as a shadow of the greatness of the offering of the blood of Christ (Heb. 9:13-14).
Consequently, baptism is described as an "antitype" of Noah's deliverance in the ark. This in no way reduces this obedient act to a ceremonial church extra, but emphasizes that the story of Noah pointed toward the role of baptism in our deliverance from a sinful world. Thus, the phrase some have tried to use in the passage to dismiss baptism in our conversion demonstrates the necessity of baptism as an expression of faith in Christ as our Savior.
Much of the confusion in the religious world and the misrepresentation of members of churches of Christ may partially be due to a failure to distinguish between efficient causes and instrumental causes of salvation. In other words, a distinction must be made between theagent of our salvation, i.e., God, theagency of our salvation, i.e., the death, resurrection, and intercession of Christ, and the necessaryvehicle of our salvation, i.e., faith expressed in baptism.
The agent of Noah's deliverance is attributed by Peter to a longsuffering God, whereas the agency of his deliverance was the flood, ("in which a few, that is eight souls were saved through water"), and the vehicle of his deliverance was the ark (1 Pet. 3:20). Some may ask, "I thought he was being saved from the water, not 'through' or 'by' the water?" Actually, the flood separated Noah and his family from the sinful world in which they previously lived and upon which God had poured out destruction (2 Pet. 3:4-6).
The counterpart to this historical account is our deliverance from a sinful world by Jesus Christ, as the agent of our salvation; in baptism, as the vehicle of our redemption; and through the agency of Jesus' resurrection. The correspondence between the phrases: "through water" and "through the resurrection" help us understand Peter's point. It is not that baptism is our Savior, for Jesus is our Savior. Nor is it that we are saved by baptism alone, for Peter affirms that baptism saves…through the resurrection of Jesus.
Additionally, those who attempt to deny that the term "salvation" references "justification" are fighting aimlessly against Scripture. Peter contextually binds this salvation to Jesus' resurrection. Similarly, the apostle points to the relationship between the new birth and the resurrection in 1:3. This is sensible since we read of the new birth in terms of being "born of the water and the Spirit," as well as the "washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (John 3:5; Titus 3:5). Various passages demand that we understand this to be referencing justification (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16). Therefore baptism is a condition of the new birth, and the term "saves" in the text under consideration is speaking of justification before God (1 Cor. 6:9).
No one denies that God saves! Admittedly, if one to attempt to emphasize the vehicle of salvation, i.e., baptism, without the agency, i.e., the death and resurrection of Jesus, he could not be saved any more than if Noah had built an ark and the flood had never come upon the earth. However, this would be as if he refused to enter the ark but still expected salvation. Today, those who adopt this approach speak of the agency of salvation (death and resurrection of Christ), but they refuse to get into the ark of salvation (faith expressed in baptism).
The parenthetical statement in 1 Peter 3:21 deserves more attention than it has traditionally received in some circles. Some commentators argue that Peter is teaching that baptism is not merely a bath that removes physical dirt from the body. While this may be Peter's point, other possibilities remain as well.
The stronger possibility is that Peter is arguing that baptism is not merely a ceremonial cleansing, "but rather an appeal to God for a good conscience" (3:21). The critical terms in the phrase are the words "flesh" and "conscience." As we turn our attention to the book of Hebrews, those terms are used antithetically regarding the superiority of Christ's sacrifice in the cleansing of man's inner person in contrast to his "flesh," that is, an external, ceremonial cleansing. Peter is emphasizing that baptism is not like the washings of the Old Testament, which were ceremonial, but baptism through the resurrection is involved in the cleansing of man's conscience before God.
Paul writes, "It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation" (Heb. 9:9-10). This contrast is extremely clear in Hebrews 9:13-14, which says, "For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" The phrase, "purifying of the flesh," does not identify dirt cleansed from the body, but contrasts the ceremonial cleansings of the First Covenant with the "blood of Christ" which can "cleanse your conscience from dead works."
The Hebrew writer also relates baptism to the reception of the cleansing of our conscience by the blood of Christ in saying, "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our heart sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Heb. 10:23).
Positively, baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience. The contrast is between a ceremonial cleansing which does not inherently provide a good conscience, whereas baptism into Christ does!
Concerning "Interrogation," W. E. Vine says the Greek wordeperotema means "primarily a question or inquiry, denotes 'a demand or appeal' … Some take the word to indicate that baptism affords a good conscience, an appeal against the accuser" (331). In a related note on "Answer," Vine adds, "eperotema (1 Pet. 3:21) is not, as in the KJV, an 'answer.' It was used by the Greeks in a legal sense, as a 'demand or appeal.' Baptism is therefore the ground of an 'appeal' by a good conscience against wrongdoing" (29).
Joseph Henry Thayer comments, "…Which (baptism) now saves us [you] not because in receiving it we [ye] have put away the filth of the flesh, but because we [ye] have earnestly sought a conscience reconciled to God" (Thayer, 230).
Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich say that baptism is "an appeal to God for a clear conscience" (BDAG, 285). Additionally, Gerhard Kittel states the following: "Baptism…saves as a request for forgiveness…" (Kittel, 262). Charles B. Williams, a respected Baptist scholar in his translation of the New Testament, rendered the phrase in this fashion: "Baptism is the craving for a clear conscience…" (Williams, 520).
Baptism is simply an expression of faith and an appeal toward God for salvation. Far from being associated with any merit on our part, it reflects "the working of God" (Col. 2:11-12). In baptism, we are pleading for mercy and grace, and God tenderly and willingly offers abundant life to those who seek him with an honest heart. Let us understand that faith, repentance, and baptism, while distinct, are intimately and inseparably connected in our conversion to Christ. Thank God for His loving grace toward us!
Bauer, Walter, Frederick W. Danker, William Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich.A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley.Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Abridged in One Volume by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985.
Thayer, Joseph Henry.Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Rev. ed. Wheaton, IL: Evangel Publishing Co. 1974.
Vine, W. E. Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr.Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996.
Williams, Charles B.The New Testament in the Language of the People. Chicago, I: Moody Press, 1966.
Author Bio: Bruce has been working with the Highway 65 Church of Christ in Conway, AR for nineteen years. He and his wife, Rachel, have one child, Connor. The church website is hwy65churchofchrist.org. He can be reached at email@example.com.