Question from a Site Viewer
What does baptism do for us according to the context of I Peter 3:21?
I Peter 3:18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,
I Peter 3:19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,
I Peter 3:20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
I Peter 3:21 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 . . .
I am glad you are focusing on the context of I Peter 3:21 because every verse must be interpreted within its own context, within the context of the book as a whole, and within the context of the greater revelation of God. You ask the right question.
The immediately preceding context of this verse is found in verses 18-20. These verses tell us that:
- Christ suffered once for sins;
- He was just and we were unjust;
- The purpose for His suffering was to bring us to God;
- He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit (See also Romans 1:4);
- He preached to spirits in prison;
- These spirits are linked to Noah’s time; and
- Noah and 7 others were saved through water (his wife, his three sons and wives for his three sons).
Now, with this background, we come to verse 21. The first thing we note is that Peter sees a correspondence between the flood of Noah and our baptism. That is, in like manner to one, so is the other. In other words, as the flood saved Noah, so baptism now saves us. Noah was not saved by the flood, but God saved him through the flood. The flood becomes, in the mind of Peter, a reminder of our own baptism. We then, are not saved by our baptism, but we are saved through our baptism. That is, God saves us, he brings us safely through our baptism, just as He did Noah. This is akin to what Paul taught us in I Corinthians 10:1-2 where the children of Israel passed through the sea, another “baptism” according to Paul. Again, the baptism was a saving event, but it was not the sea that saved them. It was saving because God brought them safely through. The Red Sea and the great flood are similar events, where God’s people were saved and others were drowned. It is not surprising that Paul and Peter see these two events as being equated to our baptism. In Romans 6:3-5, Paul links baptism to our death and our new life in Christ. In Colossians 2:12 we are stated to have been buried with Christ in baptism. Baptism, in the minds of both Peter and Paul, is a death event through which we are saved. So it was with Christ. In Mark 10:38, when James and John wanted to have privileged places in the coming kingdom, Jesus asked them if they were able to drink the cup that He would drink and be baptized with the baptism that He would be baptized with. The association of baptism with deliverance from death is not incidental in Scripture. And Peter has just spoken of the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the preceding verses.
Coming back then to I Peter 3:21, if baptism saves us in like manner to the flood, then we should understand immediately that it is not the water that saved. This point Peter immediately drives home. Peter speaks of putting away the filth of the flesh. I do not think this is a difficult phrase. Baptism is not about outward cleansing. That is, it is not the action of water on the body that effects the salvation. The water does not save! Rather, according to Peter, it is something else. And He tells us what that something else is. It is the request to God from (or sometimes translated “for”) a good conscience. Some versions translate the word “request” as “answer,” but the Greek word translated here is never used elsewhere in Scripture in the sense of answer. The word is found some 60 times in the New Testament and it is consistently translated as “ask,” “demand,” “question,” or some similar word; it is never translated “answer,” except in some versions in this passage. Our request to God from a good conscience (that is, out of a sincere heart) brings us safely through our own baptism of death and into Christ’s resurrection, just as Noah’s righteous life and favor with God brought him safely through the flood.
Baptism, then, is a picture of the flood, that is, the anti-type of the type, the copy of the original. Baptism saves us, like the flood saved Noah. We cannot say that the flood was the causative agent of Noah’s salvation, any more than we can say that baptism is the causative agent of our salvation. Rather, the flood was the event associated with Noah’s salvation, and so baptism is the event associated with our salvation. It is the process whereby we die to our old selves and God brings us safely through that death by the power of the resurrected Christ, as Paul also explains in Romans and Colossians.
The question remains whether Peter is talking about water baptism here or baptism by the Spirit when we are placed into the body of Christ. See I Corinthians 12:13. I think Peter is looking at both, as he appears to link the physical act of water baptism (the flood triggers this linkage) with the spiritual reality (saved from death through Christ’s resurrection). This does not mean, necessarily, that he sees these two events as occurring at the same time. Rather, it means that he sees them as a whole. Thus, he invited those who believed to be baptized in Acts 2:38, 41. He did the same with Cornelius in Acts 10:47-48. Note that Cornelius first received the Holy Spirit and then he was baptized. That is, water baptism was clearly not the saving event, but rather was a confirmation of the work God had done already in the life of Cornelius and those who were with him.
So, in answer to your question, baptism does for us what the flood did for Noah and the Red Sea did for the children of Israel. It is the signature event through which we pass from one life to another. But it does not save us in the same sense that faith saves us (Acts 16:31; Romans 10:9-13). Calling upon God is a triggering act to God’s salvation. Having called upon God, God saves us by passing us from death to a new life. This is our spiritual baptism. Water baptism symbolizes this spiritual truth and follows belief and salvation.
If we were to conclude that water baptism saved us, then we would find Scripture a thoroughly confusing book. If water baptism saved us, then Jesus would not have saved anyone, because John tells us that He baptized no one (John 4:2). And why was Paul was sent to preach the gospel but not to baptize, if water baptism was the act that brought people to salvation (I Corinthians 1:14-17)? Paul tells the Corinthians that they were saved by the gospel he preached (I Corinthians 15:1-2). They were not saved by the baptism that he did not do. He explains the gospel in the following passage, and it does not include baptism (I Corinthians 15:3-11). Jesus also would be guilty of an incomplete gospel when he told Nicodemus that whoever believed would have eternal life (John 3:14-18), when He told the Jews that whoever hears His words and believes has everlasting life (John 5:24), when he links everlasting life only to belief in John 6:40, when He links the coming of the Spirit only to belief (John 7:38), when He told Martha that whoever lives and believes in Him would never die (John 11:25-26), and in many other instances. Such statements simply would not be true if water baptism was also needed. The thief on the cross could not have been saved if water baptism was required. There are many other passages that are addressed elsewhere in articles on the subject, providing strong evidence that salvation is totally upon belief and commitment to Christ. Water baptism is an ordinance of obedience and symbolism, but not of salvation.
I know this is a lengthy answer to your simple question, but I wanted you to understand my understanding of the passage.
May the Lord Jesus guide you into truth on this question and lead to a life fully reflecting Him.
A fellow pilgrim,