The book of 1 Peter has several "tricky bits." In fact, in my estimation, there aren't too many other books of the New Testament with more tricky bits than Peter's first letter. It's ironic that Peter describes Paul's writings as "hard to understand" when, in my opinion, Peter is easily more confusing than Paul!
There are two "tricky bits" in just three verses of 1 Peter 3 that have confused Christians for centuries, and have even been used as a justification for division between Christian denominations. In my last post I answered a question about whether or not Jesus went to hell in the interim between his death and his resurrection. In this post I’d like to address another tricky bit from this section about baptism: does Peter teach that baptism saves a person?
Before I address this question, my personal belief is that the observable pattern in the New Testament is that baptism follows a profession of faith. That is, baptism is to be reserved for those who are already saved by grace through faith, and is a means of professing that faith publicly. I further affirm that the Bible teaches that baptism does not bestow grace upon the baptized. In other words, there is no additional saving grace administered by God upon those who have been baptized. There are numerous passages in the New Testament that speak to the issue of baptism, and these passages are debated frequently. I don’t plan to address any of these other passages in this post, but instead will focus exclusively on 1 Peter 3.18-22, especially since these verses seem to contradict my stated beliefs about baptism.
In 1 Peter 3.18-22 we learn that Christ suffered for sins by being put to death in the body. He was made alive in the spirit and went and preached to people who were imprisoned by sin. Then Peter makes a comparison between Jesus and Noah, who also went and proclaimed freedom to people who did not obey God. Noah is described in the Bible as a preacher of righteousness, and through his preaching God provided a means of salvation - the ark! That ark was the certainty of God’s salvation for Noah and his family. And now, Peter says that we also formerly did not obey God, so Jesus came and proclaimed freedom to us while we were prisoners of sin. And, like Noah, we have the certainty of God’s salvation through water - through baptism. Peter says, “Baptism…now saves you.”
Wait, what? We have God’s salvation through baptism? I thought that Baptists believed that baptism was just a symbol of what has taken place in our hearts? I thought that we were the people who said that baptism doesn’t save, and that’s one reason why we don’t baptize infants? That’s true, as Baptists, we believe those things. Thankfully, so does Peter! Then what does he mean by saying that baptism saves us?
Peter is not saying that the act of baptism is what saves a person, but rather that it is an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection. The whole verse reads, “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…” He says that baptism does nothing to remove the stains that cover our bodies. Simple, physical water can do nothing to clean us up.
Yesterday I went to vote in the local, state, and federal elections. When I arrived at my polling place I showed them my driver’s license and they had me sign my name in a record book, indicating that I had voted. My signature was a sign that I had participated in the election; it symbolized my appropriation of my civic duty to vote. Peter is saying something very similar about baptism.
Christians believe that Jesus died as a payment to God for their sins, and that his resurrection has conquered the grave and the eternal effects of sin in our lives. Peter believes this too, and he is saying that baptism acts as a sign and seal of the truth of this belief in a Christian’s life. In other words, baptism isn’t what saves us - it’s a sign that we are saved. And for those who have made a profession of faith and have undergone the process of baptism, it is a symbol of the salvation that God has brought about in their lives; a sign that I am trusting in Christ for my ultimate salvation. It’s an appeal to God that I have a clean conscience, because all of my sin has been paid for by Christ, and all of his righteousness has been given to me, and he has conquered death and hell through his resurrection, and baptism is the symbol that I have claimed that victory for my own by grace through faith in Christ.
Peter’s point is that baptism serves as an external sign that no matter what happens in my life, I can have the assurance that my salvation is secure. Peter says that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” Put simply, your baptism should remind you that your salvation is in the hand of the one who rules over all others. Could there be a greater assurance of our salvation than that?
Sometimes life beats us down and we can have doubts and discouragement. Peter’s original readers were being persecuted and losing their jobs, families, and even lives because of their faith in Jesus. Imagine the doubts that plagued their hearts. Perhaps they thought that they weren’t actually saved because they were suffering so much; perhaps they thought that God was angry with them or punishing them for something. Peter is saying none of those things are true, and their baptism proves it. Their baptism is a sign that their salvation has been, is, and forever will be secure.
The same is true for us. We should not look at baptism as something that has saved us, but as a sign that we are saved. If you are experiencing doubts and difficulty in your journey of faith, look back at your baptism and appeal to it for a clean conscience; let it remind you that Jesus died for all of your sins and that he defeated death so that you can live forever in victory. This is Peter’s message in these verses. Not that baptism saves, but that it shows that we have been saved, and that we can take courage from that reality.
And, if you haven’t been baptized, you should be (presuming, of course, that you are trusting in Christ)! Be baptized, and use the event of your baptism “as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”