We Baptists have historically believed, as we should, that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Yet, in maintaining these solas, we occasionally come across a passage of Scripture that makes us take pause. One such scriptures is Peter’s treatment of baptism in 1 Peter 3. There we read how Peter compares baptism to the great flood: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…”
We are quick to cry out: “Now this doesn’t mean that getting dunked into water actually saves you,” lest we be accused of holding to a form of baptismal regeneration which doesn’t jive with our grace alone / faith alone understanding. But, there it is in clear, black and white font: baptism now saves you.
So what are we going to do with this verse? Some thoughts…
This strong linking between baptism and salvation is not isolated to 1 Peter 3. In Acts 2, the very same apostle preached the gospel after the manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Hearing about the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Lord, as well as their own sin, several people cried out to the apostles: “Brothers, what shall we do?” On that day, the apostles didn’t have to give an invitation because the conviction was so wide-spread that the people came to them longing for the solution.
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Peter didn’t speak in mysterious parables or deep theological theses. What he told them was quite straight forward: You want forgiveness? You want the gift of the same Holy Spirit we have received? Then you must repent and be baptized.
We’ll take this idea into our consideration of 1 Peter 3 as well, but it’s clear from the outset: Peter taught that baptism and salvation are very closely linked.
So back to 1 Peter, and let’s think about Peter’s flow of thought. One main theme in Peter’s letter is that of suffering. Every chapter touches upon the idea in one way or another: Followers of Jesus are going to suffer in this world. Peter’s aim is to get his readers to realize this isn’t a shocking reality. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, suffered greatly first, after all. Through his suffering, Jesus brought us salvation.
Peter makes clear this fact: The only way anyone anywhere will be saved is through the suffering sacrifice of Jesus (see: 1:11-2, 1:17-21, and 2:21-25). In our passage, Peter wrote, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (3:18). So without Jesus, and what he accomplished through his suffering, we will not be saved. This reality undergirds everything else we read.
Peter goes on to speak about Jesus making proclamation to spirits in prison who disobeyed during the days of Noah. The identity of these spirits is itself a matter of dispute, and many words have been spilled over the interpretation. We’re not going to get into that here, other than to say: Identifying the spirits is not Peter’s main point or even a secondary point. No, Peter used it to flow quickly into the reality of salvation.
Way, way back, Noah and seven others prepared an ark on which they boarded with all sorts of animals, then the flood gates opened and everyone not in the ark perished in the waters. Corresponding to this, Peter writes, “Baptism now saves you.”
When you think back on Noah, the ark, and the flood, one thing that sticks out is the reality that the waters were not a means to salvation. The waters instead were the manifestation of God’s judgment. The waters represented death. The waters in their global devastation was the instrument that God said he would not use again to judge the world. It was the ark that acted as the instrument of salvation. The ark was the very item that God used to bring 8 people and countless animals safely through his judgment upon all others.
So, in Peter’s symbolism, the ark would represent Christ.
Paul tells the same story with baptism in a slightly different way in Romans 6. There, he points to baptism as a reminder to the Christian that she/he has new life and should thus not remain in sin. Paul writes: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Again, the waters of baptism represent death. They represent burial into the ground, just as a body is immersed into the earth through a grave or tomb. Coming out of the water represents the newness of a resurrected life. And how do we pass safely through this death into life? By being in Christ.
Both apostles paint the same picture, just with slightly different colors: water is judgment and death, passing safely through the waters is salvation, and the instrument of salvation is Jesus.
So, Peter goes on to write: “Baptism now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscious through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Here we see that the “removal of dirt from the body” would be the act of washing in water. Peter says that’s not how baptism works in salvation. So the water itself is not having an effect.
Instead, through the act of being baptized, one is making an appeal to God. The word that Peter used for “appeal”—eperotama in the Greek—is used only here in Scripture. The BDAG lexicon, pointing as well to other ancient Greek writings of the time, formulates definitions of: asking a question or making a formal request.
Peter, then, is saying that through baptism a person is asking God for a “good conscious, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” When seen this way, baptism acts as a prayer from a sinner longing for salvation (a conscious cleaned from the stain of sin and guilt) through the victorious work of Jesus. Another way to word this is that baptism is the sinner’s prayer for salvation.
This idea fits well with Peter’s declaration in Acts 2. The people wanted to know what to do in response to the gospel, so Peter tells them: Repent—recognize that you’re indeed a sinner and commit to abandon that life for what Christ offers as Lord and Savior, and be baptized in the name of Jesus—cry out to the Savior in faith as you pass through the waters. This isn’t contra to faith alone but rather one’s expression of faith alone in Christ.
Part of our problem with clearly seeing what Peter means in these verses, in my estimation, is that we try to look at them first through our cultural lens. With the rise of the revivalist movements in western Christianity, we have separated baptism from the decision.
The earliest church saw baptism as an immediate act of faith. Again and again when you read about baptism in Acts it always occurs as someone hears and desires to respond to the gospel. So much so that even in Acts 8 the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Hey look, water! Let’s get me baptized!”
We have replaced this primarily with saying a prayer—what most even call the “sinner’s prayer,” in whatever form it takes. We then push baptism off for days, weeks, or even months. Some even advocate for a class to be taken before baptism is performed, just to be sure the person is ready.
Such concepts of walking an aisle, saying a sinner’s prayer, or taking a class before baptism would be foreign to Peter, Paul, and others in the earliest church. This so, precisely because they saw baptism as the natural and immediate affirmative response to the gospel. Baptism to them was the sinner’s prayer and the initial profession of faith.
Yes, baptism was a symbolic act, and, no, the water itself did not convey salvation in some mystical way. Rather, the act represented the cry of the heart and pledged faith to Jesus. Perhaps it is time for us “Baptists” then to reconsider and recapture the place of baptism as an appeal to God for a clean conscious.
For further reading:
George Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament
Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (New American Commentary)
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology