What Is Baptism and Does It Save?

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21 And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.

Controversy is Essential and Deadly

Let me begin today with a brief introductory word about controversy. The main thing I want to say is that doctrinal controversy is essential and deadly. And the attitude toward controversy in various groups of Christians depends largely on which of these two they feel most strongly. Is it essential or is it deadly? My plea is that at Bethlehem we believe and feel both of these. Controversy is essential where precious truth is rejected or distorted. And controversy is deadly where disputation about truth dominates exultation in truth.

The reason controversy is essential in the face of rejection and distortion is that God has ordained that the truth be maintained in the world partly by human defense. For example, Paul says in Philippians 1:7 that he is in prison for the "defense and confirmation of the gospel." And Jude 3 says that we should "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." And Acts 17:2-3 says that Paul's custom in the synagogue was to "reason" from the Scriptures and "explain and give evidence" that Jesus was the Christ. So the preservation and transmission of precious truth from person to person and generation and generation may require controversy where truth is rejected or distorted.

But controversy is also deadly because it feels threatening and so it tends to stir up defensiveness and anger. It's deadly also because it focuses on the reasons for truth rather than the reality behind truth, and so tends to replace exultation in the truth with disputation about the truth. This is deadly because thinking rightly about truth is not an end in itself; it's a means toward the goal of love and worship. Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:5 that "the goal of our instruction is love." And he prayed in Philippians 1:9-11 that our "love . . . abound in knowledge . . . unto the glory and praise of God." Controversy tends to threaten both love and praise. It's hard to revel in a love poem while arguing with someone about whether or not your sweetheart wrote it.

John Owen on Controversy

So controversy is essential in this fallen world, and controversy is deadly in a fallen world. We must do it and we must tremble to do it. A wise counselor for us in this is John Owen, the Puritan pastor from 340 years ago. He was involved in many controversies in his day - theological and denominational and political. But he never ceased to be a deep lover of God and a faithful pastor of a flock. He counsels us like this concerning doctrinal controversy:

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth - when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us - when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts - when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for - then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.*

I think that was the key to Owen's life and ministry: he didn't just contend for doctrine; he loved and fellowshipped with the God behind the doctrine. The key phrase is this one: "When we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for - then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men." In other words, we must not let disputation replace contemplation and exultation.

I am keenly aware that this series of messages on baptism is more controversial than usual. I am also eager that this pulpit avoid two great errors: losing truth in the quest for exultation; and losing worship in the noise of disputation. So let us all pray that in our lives and in our church we walk the tightrope balanced by the necessity of controversy on the one side and the dangers of it on the other.

The Bible itself is a great help in this because it teaches about baptism, for example, in contexts that are so rich with good news that it makes it relatively easy to exult as we deal with this practice of baptism. In fact, baptism itself is meant, like the Lord's Supper, to point to realities that are so great and so wonderful that. over all the controversy, we must hear the music of God's glorious goodness and grace.

Exulting in Christ's Substitution for us

So it is here in 1 Peter 3:18-22. Sandwiching the teaching on baptism in verses 19-21 there are the same great truths about Christ and his death and resurrection that we saw last week in Colossians 2. Let's get these before us for the sake of exultation before we look between for the necessary disputation.

Verse 18: "Christ also died [literally: suffered] for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit." Now here is something worth exulting over. Put it in five parts.

1. We are cut off from God.

First, the greatest problem in the world, the greatest problem in your life and mine, is that we are cut off from God. We have no right to approach him. We are alienated from him. You see this behind the words of Peter when he says that the aim of Christ's suffering was "that he might bring us to God." Now if Christ had to die that we might be brought to God, it is clear that we are alienated from God without Christ. This is the big issue. Not floods, and not cancer, and not crime, and not war, and not our job or marriage or kids. The big issue is that we are cut off from God, our Maker. And if that problem does not get solved, then the anger of God will rest on us and our eternity will be miserable.

2. It is sin that alienates us from God.

Second, we see what the problem is that alienates us from God, namely, sin. Peter says, "Christ suffered for our sins . . . that he might bring us to God." It's our sins that cut us off from God. This is true legally and it's true emotionally - as we all know. Legally, God is a just judge and does not simply pronounce the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent. He is holy and does not relax in the living room with rebels. Every sin is serious and pushes him farther away. And emotionally, we know that as our consciences are defiled by sins we feel so dirty in the presence of God that we can't lift our faces.

3. God substituted his Son for us.

Third, God has taken the initiative to overcome this alienation from him by offering Christ to suffer in our place. You see this great reality of substitution in the words, "Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the just for the unjust." Here is the great ground of our hope, that we really can and will come home to God. O let us exult in this above all the works of God - that he has substituted his just Son in our place. This is the great gospel. This is what holds us late at night and early in the morning when sin and Satan assail us with their accusations and say, you can't pray to God, much less go to heaven. Look at you! You're a sinner! To this we say, "Yes, but my hope does not lie in not being a sinner. It lies in a substitution of the Just for the unjust."

4. The substitution was once for all.

And to add to the glory of it, in the fourth place, Peter, just like the book of Hebrews (7:27; 9:12; 10:10), says that this substitution of the Just for the unjust was "once for all" - once for all time. It need not be and cannot be repeated, because it was perfect and complete the first and only time it was done. The debt for all my sins - past, present and future - was paid in a single sacrifice for all time. O the glory of an objective, finished, once-for-all gospel performed by God in his Son outside of me apart from my psychological fickleness.

5. God was satisfied with Christ's substitution.

And fifth, after he had offered himself once for all the Just for the unjust, God gave him life. "Having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit." This means, at least, that God was satisfied with Christ's substitution. Which means that if you will cherish it as the foundation of your life, God will be satisfied with you, in Christ. God gave Christ life in at least two senses: one is that God gave him life in the spirit during the three days while his body was in the grave. We know this because Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Today, not in three days, but today. The other way that God gave Christ life is that he raised his body from the dead, and transformed it into a "spiritual body" - a new kind of body without the limitation of the old "flesh" - a body suited for the spiritual realm that "flesh and blood" cannot inherit (1 Corinthians 15:50). So God gave a mighty YES to Christ's substitution by raising him from the dead.

That's the top of the sandwich around the teaching of baptism: "Christ has suffered for sins once for all the Just for the unjust that he might bring us to God." Welcome home, are the sweetest words in the world, when God speaks them to our soul.

Exulting in the Subjection of Christ's (and our) Enemies

The bottom part of the sandwich is verse 22: "Christ is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him." Here we see the other effect of the death and resurrection of Christ. First was a substitution for our sins, now we see a subjection of his enemies. First substitution, then subjection. (Kids, ask mom and dad at lunch today, "What were the two words that started with "s" to describe the work of Christ?)

Now don't miss this: we saw the very same thing last week in Colossians 2:15. When Christ died and rose again, all the evil angels, and authorities and powers were subjected to him in a new way. From the beginning of creation he was sovereign over them. That's not new. But now he has nullified the one thing that they could use to destroy us, our sin. It's as if the demonic world had many weapons to harm us, but only one great tank of poison that could destroy the children of God. And when Christ went to the cross, he drank the entire tank.

O there is much to contend for here, but for now, this morning, let us simply exult in this. Let us commune with our God in this. Let us revel in this reality. That the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ subjected angels and authorities and powers to him, meaning that in him the elect of God cannot be destroyed by these enemies. Our great enemies are subjected to the will of the one who died to save us, and he will save us. He will not let his work of substitution or subjection be done in vain.

Does Baptism Save?

Now sandwiched between these two great truths about Christ (substitution for sinners and subjection of enemies) are the words about baptism. I preached on this text September 25, 1994. So I send you to the file cabinet if you want more, but I only have time here to go straight to the point at issue, namely, the meaning of baptism. In verse 19, Peter reminds the readers that, in the spirit, Jesus had gone to preach to the people in Noah's day, whose spirits are now in prison awaiting judgment. (I don't take the position that verse 19 refers to Jesus' preaching in hell between Good Friday and Easter.) But there was tremendous evil and hardness in Noah's day and only eight people enter the ark for salvation from the judgment through water.

Now Peter sees a comparison between the waters of the flood and the waters of baptism. Verse 21 is the key verse: "And corresponding to that [the water of the flood], baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Now there are some denominations that love this verse because it seems at first to support the view called "baptismal regeneration." That is, baptism does something to the candidate: it saves by bringing about new birth. So, for example, one of the baptismal liturgies for infants says, "Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ's Church, let us give thanks."

Now the problem with this is that Peter seems very aware that his words are open to dangerous misuse. This is why, as soon as they are out of his mouth, as it were, he qualifies them lest we take them the wrong way. In verse 21 he does say, "Baptism now saves you" - that sounds like the water has a saving effect in and of itself apart from faith. He knows that is what it sounds like and so he adds immediately, "Not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." (Or your version might have: "the pledge of a good conscience toward God").

But the point seems to be this: When I speak of baptism saving, Peter says, I don't mean that the water, immersing the body and cleansing the flesh, is of any saving effect; what I mean is that, insofar as baptism is "an appeal to God for a good conscience," (or is "a pledge of a good conscience toward God"), it saves. Paul said in Romans 10:13, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord - everyone who appeals to the Lord - will be saved." Paul does not mean that faith alone fails to save. He means that faith calls on God. That's what faith does. Now Peter is saying, "Baptism is the God-ordained, symbolic expression of that call to God. It is an appeal to God - either in the form of repentance or in the form of commitment.

What is Baptism?

Now this is fundamentally important in our understanding of what baptism is in the New Testament. James Dunn is right I think when he says that "1 Peter 3:21 is the nearest approach to a definition of baptism that the New Testament affords" (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, p. 219). What is baptism? Baptism is a symbolic expression of the heart's "appeal to God." Baptism is a calling on God. It is a way of saying to God with our whole body, "I trust you to take me into Christ like Noah was taken into the ark, and to make Jesus the substitute for my sins and to bring me through these waters of death and judgment into new and everlasting life through the resurrection of Jesus my Lord."

This is what God is calling you to do. You do not save yourself. God saves you through the work of Christ. But you receive that salvation through calling on the name of the Lord, by trusting him. And it is God's will all over the world and in every culture - no matter how simple or how sophisticated - that this appeal to God be expressed in baptism. "Lord, I am entering the ark of Christ! Save me as I pass through the waters of death!" Amen.