A Tough Text on Baptism

Baptism, which corresponds to this [the waters of Noah’s flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 3:21 (Revised Standard Version)

No two ways about it, literally speaking, the verse above gives baptism a “saving” function.  On the basis of this verse, I can’t hold to a view of baptism that’s merely symbolic, i.e. an outward symbol of an inward reality.

Think back with me to the days of the early church.  After Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, his commission by the Lord, and his welcoming by Ananias as a “brother”, Ananias calls upon Paul to take action.  He doesn’t tell him to get on with his mission.  No, instead, he tells him to get up, be baptized, and wash away his sins, calling on the Lord’s name (Acts 22:16).  The Scripture speaks of baptism as a “washing away” of sins, not as a mere outward action that reflects a past inward event of conversion.  Paul had been blinded by the light, confronted by the Lord, and convicted of his sin.  Yet, there was still more to do.

Why still more?  In my reading, the biblical intent for baptism is that it serve as an event where sins are “formally” washed away.  More to the point, baptism is seen biblically as the completion of the story of how one comes to faith.  

And so, we come to our troublesome First Peter verse.  From Peter, one notices several stipulations about baptism:

  • First, as the water of the flood which sustained the ark was the vehicle by which Noah and family were saved from destruction, so the water of baptism is to be the vehicle through which salvation comes to the believer.  Baptism is a saving instrument.
  • Second, baptism does not have saving power in and of itself.  That is, the physical washing of baptism does not convey special power.  There is no inherent saving significance to having the flesh washed by water during baptism.  Baptism is the medium for salvation only insofar as it consists of an appeal to God made from faith (Although there’s disagreement on the translation of the word rendered “appeal” in 1 Peter 3:21, the basic dictionary definition of the Greek word is “question”.  “Appeal” does make sense.  Baptism literally washes dirt from the body, but its true purpose is the spiritual cleansing of the conscience through forgiveness.)
  • Third, baptism is rightly pictured as a “death” (linked with Romans 6:4) which ushers forth into a new life of resurrection.  So, the appeal made to God in baptism (i.e. signifying union with Christ in his death) has saving effect only through the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the grave.  Thus, baptism is only meaningful as an act of sincere faith and the means of its saving efficacy is the historical resurrection of Christ from the dead.  According to First Peter, in baptism, an appeal is being made to God to apply the benefits of Christ’s resurrection to the person.

What’s the bottom line?  God’s desire is for baptism to be a unique event where God’s forgiving grace answers our appeal to be cleansed from sin.

Some final thoughts on the significance of baptism in the next post…

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