Baptism Now Saves Us
In light of everything written thus far, as long as one knows that faith is means of justification, sanctification, adoption, new birth, etc., and that the Holy Spirit is He who acknowledges that faith and is the sovereign administrator of all the benefits of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ without dependence on baptism, then it would be easy to come to a passage like this and confidently assert that Peter cannot be talking about water baptism for the regeneration of the soul (especially when taking Acts 15 into account). If anything, all this portion of Scripture does is offer a sense of doubt to the undiscerning or uninformed mind. I pray that I can provide ample clarification.
First, when we systematically look at 1 Peter, we see that he repeatedly affirms salvation by faith in the word of God through the resurrection of Jesus. I will not reference clipped verses because there are many that reveal that Peter depends on the work of Christ through the word of God in faith as the means of regeneration. Second, Peter’s letter has a lot of emphasis on suffering and enduring through trial. It is this exhortation, which Peter reveals, that through suffering and trial that we identify ourselves with Christ. Finally, Peter is encouraging obedience to Christ despite the world’s pressure and persecution, and commands obedience to Christ in the midst of a world that is perishing. With all this said, I hope that it would be easy to see how this kind of thinking would be a segway into baptism.
So let’s think about this for a moment. Peter spends a lot of time in teaching those whom he is writing to persevere, to be obedient, to live holy so that God may be glorified and man may be ashamed despite the trial and suffering we face for the name of Christ. Then, in Chapter 3, it is almost like he “rabbit trials” as he begins to talk about Noah, the flood, and then comparing that to baptism. This rabbit trail is linked to the train of thought that Romans 6 and many other verses speak about concerning our identifying with the burial and resurrection of Christ. The reason why, I think, Peter would follow this trail of thought, seemingly out of nowhere, is because when we are baptized, we are also identifying ourselves with His suffering, not just the death of the old man. When Jesus commanded that we take up our cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23), He wasn’t just speaking about dying, but suffering, which the cross signifies. This should cause no wonder when Jesus speaks about being baptized with suffering (Matt. 20:22-23), and that the disciples, too, will experience their own suffering. It would be no further wonder that Paul states in Philippians 3:10-11, “…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His death, if, by any means [he] may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is linked to our identification in suffering with Him, and baptism is a figure of that, which Peter says, and I will expound on. With these preliminaries in place, let’s move on to the text.
Note: It’s important to know that there are various ways in which you can approach this text. I don’t mean there are various interpretations. I am simply saying that my approach is unique in that I have not yet heard anyone approach it the way I am about to right now.
The string of words that a proponent of BR hangs on is that the text says, “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism…” I am not saying every baptismal regenerationist will ignore the parenthesis in this text, but it is generally true that they do. This parenthesis is important because it is an exposition, a little clarification if you will, to the reader. I want to focus on that so that we can make coherent sense of what Peter means by “saves.”
When you cut out the parentheses, the text will say this:
“There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
If this were the case, then many theologians would have some serious, textual reconciliation they would have to accomplish. But since we have “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,” we have something to help us in our understanding.
When you look at how this passage is introduced, you notice that Peter reveals that Noah’s flood was a past type and shadow of baptism. But he calls baptism an “antitype.” Not only does he call baptism an antitype, but he says that baptism “saves,” but not for the “removal of the filth of the flesh.” There are two things that are important here. One, an antitype, in the English sense, represents a fulfillment of the type. For example, there are many types of Christ in the Old Testament (Joseph, David, Elijah), but Christ is the antitype. However, even though baptism is called an antitype here, in the Greek (antitupos) it is supposed to represent a heavenly model. If you notice, in Noah’s figure, they were all actually saved by an ark. In the baptismal figure, we are also only saved by Christ! While Noah’s flood may prefigure baptism, we must still remember that baptism is a figure of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Moreover, although Peter states that the eight were saved through water (v 20), notice how Peter inserts the word “also” in this passage (v 21), which is means the subjects can be correlated, but treated as separate entities (not necessitating complete agreement in every aspect). This is the reason why Peter can interject with the idea of the removal of the filth of the flesh, which is part of the next point. Two, in Peter stating that this antitype of baptism saves us, even though it somewhat corresponds to the flood of Noah in the destruction of the old and the rebirth of the new through judgment (like Jesus’ death and resurrection), he goes out of his way to say that it does not remove the filth of the flesh. Why?
When you turn to Hebrews 9:24, you see the word antitype used once more (total of twice in the NT) to signify how the tabernacle and the sacrifices were “copies” of the heavenly arrangement in which Christ purified all things. What is important to grasp is that before verse 24, there was an exposition of ceremonial cleansing during the times of the Old Testament that the priests partook of in order to be clean, until the time of the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, came to purchase redemption (v 1-12). It was in verses 13-14 that the author states:
“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?”
Notice here that purifying of the flesh is compared to receiving a truly cleansed conscience as an example. If the ceremonial ordinance (which were called fleshly in verse 10, along with the various washings) “sanctified” in the sense that it “purified” the flesh, how much more Christ, through His blood and His Spirit cleanse your conscience from dead works? This is important to remember in going back to 1 Peter 3.
Now, turning back to 1 Peter 3:21, it is interesting to note that the apostle also makes mention of the cleansing of the flesh in relation to the conscience. When Peter mentions the fact that baptism saves us, and then makes an interjection that it is not to function as a removal of the filth of the flesh, he is basically saying that baptism does not function in the ceremonial sense as some would think. Funny. How does the Old Testament ordinances of cleansing purify the flesh, and yet baptism does not? That is because that is not baptism’s purpose. In the Old Testament, the ceremonial ordinances were instituted until the time Christ. But baptism, as an antitype, or figure, even after Christ is resurrected, does not accomplish that purpose. Not only that, it doesn’t save us in the sense that it regenerates us. So what’s the deal?
As the next portion of our parenthesis points out, it is the “answer” (or it should be said that it is the “desire, appeal, or craving”) “of a good conscience toward God.” The Greek word eperōtēma is a word that signifies an answer after an interrogation by an accuser. This would fit Peter’s context of the book since Peter often speaks about living a righteous way before the lost even through reviling and persecution. Also, the word can be an indication a “promise” or “pledge” from a good conscience. This wouldn’t be far-fetched as well seeing that by baptism we identify with Christ’s death thereby promising with our lives to walk as He walked. Another proposition I have heard was that this word can be a desire for a good conscience, therefore the reason why the person is being baptized – to express obedience! In any of those cases, we can see the purpose of baptism is to affect the conscience, not for ceremonial cleansing in relation to our salvation, regeneration, etc. Furthermore, it is good to remind ourselves that if Peter really wanted to assert baptismal regeneration at this point, all he really had to say was that baptism didn’t cleanse the filth of the flesh, but purified the soul, or something along those lines. But since we know from Acts 15 what Peter truly believes purifies the soul, why then would he contradict himself here?
With all this in mind, we can now go to the word “saves.” Even if we expounded on all this, the fact that Peter says that baptism saves us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ is still pretty compelling evidence that baptism is essential to our regeneration, right? If we were to ignore everything I typed up, sure. If we also ignore being systematic with our approach to Scripture, absolutely! However, as we have already discovered, baptism “saves us” to the degree that it affects the conscience. Since it is for a good conscience, or from a good conscience, we can assume salvation has already taken place (Lord willing). If it is because of the desire of the good conscience, we can assume the same. If it is for a pledge, or promise, from a good conscience, the semantical value still remains. So in this sense, baptism does save us, but it is for sanctification in a progressive way. Allow me to explain what I mean.
In Scripture, salvation can be summarized in three tenses. We are saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved. The “being saved” is used three times in Scripture, but twice (and perhaps in all three passages) it can be affirmed that it is used in the progressive sanctification sense.
1 Corinthians 1:18 “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
2 Corinthians 2:15 “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”
If you look at these texts, believers are referred to as “being saved.” This is progressive sanctification that happens after our initial sanctification when we are regenerated. In all things that God has provided the saints, every means of grace and every ordinance is a means that is beneficial for our sanctification. In the sense that we are always “being saved,” whether it is through reading the Word, fellowshipping and sharpening with other Saints, attending corporate worship, or even baptism, we receive the spiritual benefit and grace to be conformed to the image of Jesus. Everything we do that is in accordance with the will of God after our regeneration is a part of our being saved. It isn’t until death and/or the resurrection that the “shall be saved” will be fulfilled. So in this sense, when Peter says that “baptism now saves us” he is correct. To the degree that it regenerates us is not evident or consistent with his theology or preaching, but it does have a sanctifying effect on our conscience. This being the case, it is easier now to see that Peter could not be speaking about baptism being the means for our regeneration.
In conclusion (for real), I pray this very long and thorough presentation was edifying and helpful in not only understanding your salvation, but in appreciating all aspects of it. Baptism is truly a blessing and plays a role in our salvation, but it cannot be the means by which God regenerates an individual. Faith/belief and repentance toward Christ and His finished work alone is what initiates salvation, and is a gift of God. Baptism is a necessary consequence, not a necessary element of our receiving eternal life. Baptism points back to faith, and faith points to Christ. Baptism is deficient because it depends on faith for its significance. We identify with Him through baptism, but without faith, baptism is nothing, and salvation is not possible. And even though we can profess to have faith and be baptized, yet still be lost, we can be confident that genuine faith leads to genuine regeneration. God is sovereign in making us born again and is not bound to material water for spiritual cleansing through the Holy Spirit. We are utterly depraved, but God is infinitely gracious. We must be obedient to Him in all things, but God’s graciousness in salvation is not dependent upon our perfect obedience, but upon Christ’s. His power changes hearts to make a new man and that is something that can only be done by His will, not ours. We renounce the death of the old man through baptism, but we are not imputed the righteousness of Christ by it. Baptism is a figure, and is not for ceremonial cleansing, but for a good conscience.
I hope that you will pass this along to your friends or anyone else who believes this theology so that perhaps the beauty of salvation by faith alone, in Christ alone, through grace alone, for the glory of God alone might be developed in their soul.