Continuing on in our series on baptism and salvation, we look at an even more difficult passage but one that is none the less used in Lutheranism to support the theological stance that baptism saves (at least from Dr. Jordan Cooper). If he has anything going for him in the Scriptures that supports a soteriological effect of baptism, this is (in my opinion) the best he has. It is an explicit declaration that baptism saves. However, if this is his best argument from Scripture and it can be refuted, then there is nothing else for him to turn to that could possibly support his position. But as we look at the passage further, we will see that soteriology is not in Peter’s mind when it comes to being “saved” by baptism. Let us look at the passage.
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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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. 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.1 Peter 3:18-22 (ESV) Emphasis Added
Peter is laying out from chapter 2 into chapter 3 what the Christian life is to look like. Christians are not be a malicious, conniving people (2:1). They are to live in a way that is honorable in front of sinners (2:11-12) and submit to the authorities (2:13-17). Christians are to be distinct from those around them while still living in the world (John 17:15) obeying God’s commandments and glorifying God in their good works (Matthew 5:16). This theme of Christian living then is continued on into chapter three with family life being discussed and how Christians should handle persecution. The apostle gives a simple Gospel reminder to his readers. Jesus suffered as Christians might suffer under their pagan rulers. They are to remember Christ’s work in that they are not alone in their trials. This then leads us to the discussion on baptism. There is a clear type vs. antitype distinction being made between what we see in Noah’s case and with baptism. As Steven Cole says,
“Peter is using the flood and deliverance of Noah and his family as a loose analogy or type of what is portrayed in Christian salvation and baptism. Just as Noah passed through the flood waters into salvation from God’s judgment, so believers pass through baptism into salvation from God’s judgment.”Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 18: A Difficult Passage Explained and Applied (1 Peter 3:18–22) | Bible.org.” Bible.org, Bible.org, 2 Aug. 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-18-difficult-passage-explained-and-applied-1-peter-318-22.
I am honestly not sure if this is the best rendering of the relationship between the type and antitype, but it gives us an idea of what Peter is doing. Given this relationship and that the word for “baptism” is the Greek word βάπτισμα which means, “a dipping, a baptism” (A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament), Peter is talking about water baptism here and not simply the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” or something to that effect. This is the general typology that we see in the Scriptures. You have a type (the Noaic flood) pointing toward something to come (baptism).
“The grammar in the opening of verse 21 is difficult. To simplify, we should probably understand it in this way: “which (water) now also saves you, (who) are the antitype (of Noah and his family)—(that is) baptism.” In other words, the experience of Noah and his family in the flood is the type of which Peter’s audience and their baptism is the antitype (antitypon).”Storms, Sam. “Does Baptism Save? (1 Peter 3).” Crossway, Crossway, USA, 5 Jan. 2019, http://www.crossway.org/articles/does-baptism-save-1-peter-3.
And this typology is part of why the apostle’s meaning is so difficult to shed light on. This leads to the question: is Peter talking about soteriology or some other type of salvation? Cooper would hold that this is talking about soteriology. This would tie in at least in part to Acts 2:38 which was discussed in my last blog post. But the assumption is that this usage of “saved” (Greek σῴζω) must be soteriological. Problem with this argument is that salvation can refer to more than one thing in the Scriptures. It can most certainly refer to soteriology (Romans 10:9-13), but it can also refer to the progression of sanctification throughout the Christian’s life. Let us look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.1 Corinthians 15:1-2 (ESV) Emphasis Added
In this famous chapter, Paul is laying out the Gospel with a focus on the resurrection but in the beginning of the chapter he says what the Gospel’s current effect is on the Christian. It not only saves completely in our legal standing before God (Romans 1:16-17) but it also sanctifies us as we live out our lives. Sin still clings to the believer but we are being redeemed so to speak as we rest in the Gospel. And that work will be completed (Philippians 1:6). We also see this language earlier on in the Corinthian letter.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV) Emphasis Added
Paul in talking about the Gospel message says it has a sanctifying effect upon the believer. Certainly these passages imply soteriology in that in order to continue on in salvation you must be saved initially (and finally I might add). All this to show that the concept of salvation in the Scriptures is not monolithic and can take on different meanings depending on the context. It must not be assumed that when salvation language is used that it must be soteriological.
Now that doubt has been cast upon the interpretation of “saved” in 1 Peter 3:21, how is Peter using that term? He says, “but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Peter even explicitly condemns any notion that the act of baptism has any saving effect (“not as a removal of dirt from the body”) which is amazing how this is missed by Cooper who emphasizes the actual act of baptism as being needed to be saved (again going back to Acts 2:38).
“Appeal” (ESV) is the translation of eperōtēma, which others render as “pledge.” If the former is accurate, the one being baptized “appeals” to God, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ (or more literally, “through” or “by means of,” if dia is instrumental; cf. 1:3), to cleanse one’s conscience and forgive one’s sins.21 In good faith or conscience we appeal to God for vindication, that we might be considered part of his victory won by Christ in the resurrection (3:21b). It is only in this light that God uses the water of baptism to save us—as it links us to Christ and his victory and promises.Storms, Sam. “Does Baptism Save? (1 Peter 3).” Crossway, Crossway, USA, 5 Jan. 2019, http://www.crossway.org/articles/does-baptism-save-1-peter-3.
Baptism is the identification with Christ in His death and a declaration that we are His. Although I don’t know if I would agree with Storms’ rendering of this passage as it seems he is saying that soteriology (initial salvation) is happening at baptism, but it does help us to see at least that baptism is declaring something. Not only to the world, but to God Himself. I think the salvation noted here is us appealing, pledging, answering to God saying we are going to live rightly now that we are saved. We are identifying with Christ and are therefore declaring our submission to Him going forward.
Peter is using the flood and deliverance of Noah and his family as a loose analogy or type of what is portrayed in Christian salvation and baptism. Just as Noah passed through the flood waters into salvation from God’s judgment, so believers pass through baptism into salvation from God’s judgment. But, before you leap to wrong conclusions, Peter clarifies—it is not the act of baptism which saves (“the removal of dirt from the flesh”), but what baptism signifies—the appeal to God for a good conscience. “Appeal” can point either to the moment of salvation, when a person cries out to God for cleansing from sin; or, to the pledge given at the baptismal ceremony, when a person promises to live in a manner pleasing to God. Either way, baptism testifies to our faith in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf (3:18). Since Christ’s suffering did not minimize His witness, but rather enhanced it, Peter is urging his readers to be baptized, even if it means persecution, in order to bear witness of Christ’s saving grace.Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 18: A Difficult Passage Explained and Applied (1 Peter 3:18–22) | Bible.org.” Bible.org, Bible.org, 2 Aug. 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-18-difficult-passage-explained-and-applied-1-peter-318-22.
I think Cole’s latter option that, “a person promises to live in a manner pleasing to God,” is probably the correct view. This verse is very difficult but we can at least say what it is not. There is no soteriological view of salvation here. It is merely the appeal to God for a good conscience that is saving us. Proper qualification must be given as we look at this passage.