Baptisms are wonderful celebrations. When a new believer is baptized, we see first hand a life that has been saved from sin and wrath that can now “live by faith in the Son of God.” (Gal. 2:20) Although visibly we see someone going under and coming up out of the water, invisibly that person has been “buried with him by baptism into death…in order to walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4)
In Baptist churches across the world, the scene is common: the pastor and the new believer stand in the water, the pastor says a few words about the person’s new belief, and then takes the new believer and immerses them in the water. Although there is no efficacy, nothing happening in the baptism itself, the congregation knows that this ordinance is a symbol of the believer being united with Christ by faith and a pledge of hope to share in the resurrection.
Some of our Christian brothers and sisters, however, have alternate beliefs about what takes place in the act of baptism. They may, for example, point to passages such as 1 Peter 3:21, which states that “Baptism…now saves you.” Therefore, the act of baptism itself must do something on behalf of the believer rather then simply symbolizing invisible realities.
1 Peter 3:21 is a notoriously difficult passage to understand. But does it really mean that the act of baptism saves? In today’s Wednesdays on the Word, we’ll explore the meaning behind Peter’s bewildering statement.
The Wooden Boat
Peter leads up to this passage by recounting the story of Noah and the ark. He reminds his listeners that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Pet. 3:18) Christ has suffered on behalf of the unrighteous in order to bring them pure and holy to the God that bought them at the high price of his own Son.
Then, Peter makes an initially bizarre connection between Christ’s death and resurrection and the story of Noah. Peter mentions that Christ preached to “the spirits in prison because they formerly did not obey.” (1 Pet. 3:19-20) Commentators are divided as to who these spirits are. Some suggestions are:
- Fallen angels mentioned in Genesis 6
- Demonic powers who seek to lead Christians astray
- Sinful humans alive during Noah’s time
Whatever viewpoint one chooses, what is important for our study is that Peter acknowledges that Noah’s ark was the means by which God saved Noah and his family. Peter uses the image of the ark bearing Noah’s family through the dangerous waters to salvation as a type of something greater to come.
“Having a Good Conscience”
Peter connects the story of Noah’s ark with Christian baptism. “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.” (1 Pet. 3:21)
The Greek word for “conscience” (συνείδησις) only appears in two places in 1 Peter, both of them in chapter 3. In the first appearance, Peter desires for his readers to remain steadfast during trials “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” (1 Pet. 3:15)
In the face of a hostile Roman government and the craving of the masses for Christian blood, believers in the churches were tempted to either assimilate to the prevailing culture or to lash out. Instead, Peter encourages them to remember the Lord Jesus, offer a defense of their beliefs with a gentle spirit, and do it with a clear conscience. (1 Pet. 3:16)
The Ark and Our Baptism
Our baptism functions as an “appeal” to God for the good conscience that we will need when we face suffering. Peter is not providing a complete theology of baptism. Rather, he is reminding his listeners of what they did at their baptism (making an appeal through the power of Jesus’ resurrection).
Baptism functions in a similar manner as the Ark: it marks off those who belong to the Lord and will be saved. Those who have made their appeal for a good conscience to God have been baptized, they have been marked as belonging to the Lord in the same way that Noah and his family appealed to God and gained their lives via the Ark.
Remember Your Baptism!
As we have seen, Peter’s point in 1 Peter 3 is not to give us a full-fledged theology of baptism. Although we long to better understand the nature of the two ordinances that Christ has handed down to us, at some point we must remember that “the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” (Deut. 29:29)
Instead, remember well that persecution and trials are coming. Every Christian experiences them and should expect them-our enemy, the Devil, still prowls around this world like the blood-thirsty lion that he is.
But blood has already been spilled. Blood that “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel”. (Heb. 12:24) Blood that breaks down the dividing wall between those who hated one another. (Eph. 2:14) And we have pledged ourselves to the Savior who gave himself up to die on the bloody tree.
In times of trial and shame, or peace and harmony, remember the resurrected savior and your pledge of loyalty to his kingdom.
Remember your baptism!