‘Baptism Now Saves You’

The Meaning of a Misunderstood Text

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Professor, Bethlehem College & Seminary

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Throughout church history, 1 Peter 3:21 has proved to be one of the more challenging texts to interpret in all of Scripture. Not only does the verse appear in one of the more puzzling paragraphs in the New Testament (1 Peter 3:18–22), but Peter seems to depict baptism as actually being salvific. How does baptism save us?

As is the case with so many difficult texts in Scripture, persistently pressing on the biblical text sheds light on its meaning — in this case, that baptism is not regenerative in itself, but powerfully expresses the individual’s faith in the sufficiency of Christ to save.

Righteous Sufferers Will Be Exalted

In the immediate context of the verse, Peter’s main point is that faithful Christian suffering results in eternal blessing. Christians are “blessed” if they suffer for the sake of righteousness (1 Peter 3:14), and they should deem it “better” to suffer for doing good (1 Peter 3:17).

The word “for” at the outset of verse 18 is crucial, for it shows that 1 Peter 3:18–22 grounds why Christians should believe such suffering is “better.” Verses 18–22 recount the story of Christ, who suffered and died (verse 18a) but who then was “made alive,” proclaimed victory, and ascended to God’s right hand (verses 18b–22). Though Christ is unique in that he accomplished redemption through his death and resurrection, he also serves as an example for us to follow (see 1 Peter 2:21). Just as Christ’s suffering led to his exaltation, so too will our righteous suffering.

In the midst of Christ’s story, Peter offers Noah as another example of a righteous sufferer whom God exalted in due time. In contrast to those in Noah’s generation who had disobeyed, Noah and those with him — they numbered eight in all — “were saved through water” (verse 20). Peter then draws out a typological relationship between the flood and baptism: the flood is the type and baptism the antitype, the latter of which “now saves you” (verse 21).

Just as Noah and his family were delivered by means of the ark “through water,” so Christians are delivered by means of Christ through baptism. In this sense, since Noah’s salvation typifies ours through Christ, Peter includes it at this point in his letter to help us grasp more clearly our own salvation through Christ and to ground more firmly our hope for future exaltation.

With this context in mind, what does it mean that baptism saves a person? Does baptism save apart from faith, or does baptism express faith? Do the baptismal waters in themselves wash away sin and infuse new life into the baptized, or is baptism a metonymy (a figure of speech that stands for the thing it represents) for Christ’s saving work that we receive by faith, which is expressed in baptism?

Does Baptism Actually Save?

One of the major interpretations of 1 Peter 3:21 is that Peter teaches some version of baptismal regeneration. According to Roman Catholicism’s understanding of the verse, for example, baptism is salvific in three ways: it washes away sin, grants new life to the baptized, and admits the baptized into the church.

In its purifying function, according to this view, baptism washes away both original sin and actual, pre-baptismal sins. The baptismal waters wash away both the guilt and the condemnation of sin. In its regenerative function, baptism infuses new life into the baptized so that the individual is actually and really dead to sin and granted a share in eternal life. In its ecclesiological function, baptism admits the baptized into the church, the communion of the saints, outside of which there is no salvation.

Baptism, then, conveys saving grace in that God’s grace becomes effective to the individual in baptism, for what baptism “signifies” it “actually brings about” in the baptized (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1234). According to Thomas Aquinas, the sacraments, of which baptism is the first, “effect what they signify,” not as the principal cause (which is God alone), but as the instrumental cause of God’s saving grace (Summa Theologica 3.62.1). This view of the sacraments, sometimes labeled ex opere operato (“by the work worked”), places the efficacy of the sacrament in the act itself. In this sense, the Roman Catholic interpretation of 1 Peter 3:21 is that baptism is necessary for salvation because baptism in itself actualizes salvation.

While Roman Catholicism’s interpretation of 1 Peter 3:21 may account for Peter’s straightforward claim that baptism saves the individual, it fails to account adequately for two features in the text: (1) the typological relationship between the flood and baptism (1 Peter 3:20–21a) and (2) the close association between faith and baptism (1 Peter 3:21b).

What Do the Waters Picture?

Regarding baptism’s typological relationship to the flood, the flood was not the means of salvation per se, but the occasion for salvation through the ark. Baptism certainly represents cleansing from sin, but it also evokes salvation through judgment. In the ancient context, large bodies of water and floodwaters were foreboding and dangerous because they were uncontrollable elements in nature that often brought destruction. Peter’s link between baptism and the flood is meant to draw out the link between baptism and judgment.

The flood was God’s judgment on humanity for sin, and Noah and his family were saved because they were in the ark. While in some sense Noah’s salvation included his deliverance from the corruption of those around him, at a more fundamental level he was delivered from the floodwaters of death by means of the ark. In this sense, the floodwaters in themselves worked judgment, whereas the ark worked salvation for Noah and his family in the midst of judgment.

Peter’s link between the flood and baptism suggests that baptism operates in similar ways. Like the flood, the waters of baptism in themselves evoke judgment; they are not the means of salvation per se, but they signify the occasion in which God worked salvation for his people through Christ. Further, just as the ark was the formal means of salvation for Noah and his family, believers are saved “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (verse 21). The mode of immersion poignantly portrays such salvation through judgment, for immersion evokes both the overwhelming floodwaters of judgment (as the person is submerged) and the salvation from judgment the baptized receives through Christ (as the person emerges).

This observation about the typological relationship between the flood and baptism suggests that Peter did not conceive of baptism as effectual in itself. According to the typology, baptism is not an ex opere operato mechanism by which the baptismal waters effect what they signify. Rather, the typology points to Christ, who like the ark saves us in the midst of God’s judgment through his death and resurrection on our behalf. Since baptism signifies our union to Christ in his death and resurrection (see Romans 6:3–4), baptism is an apt metonymy for Christ’s saving work that draws our attention to the image of salvation and judgment as typified in the flood.

Baptism as Faith Expressed

The baptismal waters do not convey saving grace in themselves, for baptism, in expressing the faith of the baptized, inexorably contains a subjective element. Baptism is not the “removal of dirt from the body but . . . an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21b). The contrast between the “body” and the “conscience” points to an outward versus inward reality.

Peter wants us to see that the significance of baptism is not the outward washing of water but that which is inward. Peter’s point isn’t to minimize water baptism — quite the opposite! Rather, the water is an outward reality that corresponds to a greater inward reality. The inward reality is “a good conscience,” which refers to a conscience unburdened by guilt and an awareness of sins forgiven and a righteous standing before God. Since Peter identifies baptism as an “appeal” or a “request” for a good conscience (these words offer a better translation than “pledge”), baptism is the act through which the individual requests forgiveness and cleansing from a guilty conscience, a request made in the presence of God and God’s people.

Such an understanding of baptism shows its inextricable link with faith in Christ, since Peter clarifies that baptism is the individual’s expression of faith in the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection on his behalf. If the Roman Catholic view of baptismal regeneration were true (in which the sign actualizes the thing signified), it is difficult to see why Peter would downplay the baptismal water itself and instead draw our attention to the subjective element of faith bound up with that act of baptism.

Future Glory, Fresh Resolve

While 1 Peter 3:21 offers a hermeneutical challenge, Peter gives sufficient clues to elucidate in what sense he considers baptism salvific. Of particular importance is the way in which he frames the relationship between the flood and baptism, as well as his explanation of baptism as the request issuing from the individual’s trust in the sufficiency of Christ to save.

Peter reminds us that our accomplished salvation in Christ, typified by Noah’s deliverance from the flood, has already been powerfully expressed in our baptism, and that therefore we can find fresh assurance of future glory and a renewed resolve to endure present suffering for the sake of righteousness.