Finally I have some time to work on posting about key verses and passages used in the baptism debate. Now begins our series on difficult passages regarding baptism and how to refute claims that various groups make about water baptism being necessary for salvation.
Today we will start with a commonly used passage found in 1 Peter 3:21. Baptismal regeneration advocates love this passage for obvious reasons. Admittedly, if you just casually read the verse without allowing the context to speak to it's meaning, it sounds like it is saying that baptism is necessary for salvation. Church of Christ, Roman Catholics and other groups who champion baptismal regeneration have made this one of their hallmark passages to make their argument along with Acts 2:38, John 3:5, and Mark 16:16. We will go through each of these passages and show how they can be understood, consistently interpreted, in context, with what Scripture teaches about salvation by faith alone.
Let's go right on ahead and jump into our first passage, in it's surrounding context.
1 Peter 3:20-22
"20because 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. 21Baptism, 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, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him."
Now clearly verse 21 is the focus of baptismal regeneration proponents, however the context of the passage is crucial to a proper interpretation of the verse, especially that which immediately precedes verse 21 in verse 20. What is brought into the context of this passage is the familiar story of Noah and the ark. We are told that by the "ark" God brought 8 people "safely through water." Immediately after we are told "baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you."
Now a pertinent question to ask here at this point is, "what is it that baptism corresponds to?" Is it the water, or is it the ark?" The context tells us that it was the ark that brought Noah and his family safely through the water, it is the ark that saved Noah and his family, certainly it is not the water that saved them.
So the first important thing to understand in this passage is that baptism corresponds not to the water, but to the ark that Noah and his family entered.
Secondly, and equally important, we want to direct our attention to what the Scripture says next. "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."
This is very important to note because it's a clarification that Peter gave to us about what he means by what he has just said. It is not that baptism saves a person in the sense that it actually cleanses a person from something, rather, it is saves as "an appeal to God for a good conscience." Baptism is a work that expresses faith, it is a way of gaining "a good conscience" before God.
This is exactly the type of thing that James 2 talks about in verses 14-26.
"14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead."
Christian good works are not something that justifies a sinner, rather they justify a sinner's faith. It is faith and faith alone that saves, but as James eloquently points out if a person says that they have faith but they do not have works, can "that faith" save them? The point being that genuine faith produces good works and obedience to Christ's commands. Good works are an assurance of genuine, saving, faith.
Baptism is a perfect example of this, and this is the same principle that Peter is using in 1 Peter 3:21, it saves not in the sense of justifying or cleansing from sin, but rather as a work that justifies our faith, gives us a good conscience before God, an assurance of salvation by obedience to God's command to be baptized. Genuine faith produces good works, obedience to Christ.
This is very clearly what Noah himself did by believing God's word about the coming flood and building and boarding the ark. Look at what Hebrews 11 tells us about Noah's salvation.
"By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith."
As is clearly stated by this verse in Hebrews 11, it was not the work of building the ark that made Noah righteous before God, but it was his faith that God counted as righteousness, this faith was demonstrated by believing God's warning and constructing the ark. Baptism corresponds not to the flood waters, but to the ark that Noah built because of his faith in God, and Noah was saved by that faith.
"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 think that in this case, as is probably always the case, when we allow the context of Scripture to inform our interpretation and draw from relevant texts from the whole of Scripture that speak to the one we are studying, much clarity is brought to our study. And in case there be any confusion about who really matters in our salvation, we are told this appeal to God for a good conscience is rooted not in the work of baptism but the resurrected Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I hope this study is helpful to everyone. Stay tuned for more studies of passages that are used to try and teach baptismal regeneration.