Baptism Now Saves You? (1 Peter 3:21)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles once again to the book of 1 Peter. In our time together this morning we will wrap up our study of 1 Peter 3:18-22. If you do not have a Bible with you today, I encourage you to make use of one of the pew Bibles where you will find this passage located on page 1016.

Now, as I have said for the past two weeks, this passage is considered by many to be one of the most difficult to understand passages in the whole Bible. Yes, there are some very plain things here, and those plain things are the main things. But there are also some difficult things here as well. We talked about some of them last week, and we will talk about some more of them this week as we focus our attention on what Peter has to say about baptism in verse 21.

Let me go ahead and read the whole passage to us again, but I want you to pay special attention when we get to verse 21 because that is where we will spend our time today. And notice specifically what Peter has to say about the relationship of baptism to salvation. And don’t be surprised if it strikes you as kind of strange.

Beginning in 1 Peter 3:18, Peter says,

18 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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. 21 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, 22 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)

What Does The Bible Says About Baptism?

Now, before we approach this verse that says something about baptism that seems a bit confusing on the surface, I’d like to look at some of the very clear things the Bible says about baptism in several other places. My hope is that by doing so, we can return to this passage with a clear understanding about what baptism actually is and, thus, avoid some of the confusion about what Peter is getting at when he says that “Baptism now saves you.”

Now, I am not going to have time this morning to look at everything the Bible says about baptism, but I do plan to cover enough passages that we get a good understanding of the meaning and purpose of baptism. So, just what does the Bible have to say about baptism? Well, let’s look at four things.

Baptism Is Not Optional

The first thing I’d like to point out is that from Jesus’s perspective, baptism is very important and not optional. It was so important, in fact, that even he was baptized. This was such an important event that we have a record of his baptism in three of the four gospels and a reference to it in the other. But in addition to knowing that baptism is important, we also know that baptism is not optional for us as believers because Jesus included it as part of his Great Commission to the Church. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus said the following:

18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20 ESV)

In these verses, Jesus left us with a mission. And that mission is to make disciples by preaching the gospel. And, when people believe the gospel and respond in faith, Jesus says that we are to baptize them. Then, after we baptize them, we are to teach them or disciple them regarding what it means to follow Jesus. So again, the fact that baptism is included in the Great Commission in this way, tells us that it is important, and it tells us that it is not optional. Yes, friends, baptism is something Jesus commanded. It is something he ordained, and that is why we say that baptism, along with the Lord’s Supper, is one of the two ordinances in the Church.

Baptism is part of the disciple-making process just like teaching is part of the disciple-making process. And what this means is that if you are going to be a disciple and a follower of Jesus, you need to be baptized. That is part of it. Jesus commanded it. And if we are going to be obedient to Jesus, we must begin by being baptized. That’s the first thing the Bible teaches us about baptism.

Baptism Is A Picture Of What Has Happened To Us

The second thing the Bible tells us about baptism is that baptism is a picture of what has happened to us as a result of our faith in Jesus Christ. We find these details in Romans 6:3-4. Let’s turn there in our Bibles and see what the Apostle Paul has to say about baptism. He says,

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4 ESV)

Think about this with me. Jesus died on the cross, was buried in the tomb, and at the beginning of his third day in the tomb, he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. And according to these verses, baptism is meant to portray how we have been united with Christ in those things—in his death, burial, and resurrection. Yes, according to Paul, we have been baptized into Jesus’s death. We have been buried with him by baptism into death. And as Christ has been raised from the dead, we are also raised up out of the baptismal waters to walk in newness of life. That’s why, when people are baptized, it is common to hear the pastor say something like, “Buried with Jesus in the likeness of His death… Raised with Jesus in the likeness of His resurrection to walk in the newness of life.” We say that because that is what baptism symbolizes and portrays to the world. It symbolizes a person’s union with Jesus in his death and his resurrection. It is a reminder that we have died to sin and are now enjoying a new life in Jesus Christ. Again, it is a picture of what has happened to us as a result of our faith in Jesus Christ. That is the second thing the Bible teaches us about baptism.

Now, I’m not going to make too much of this today, but it should be obvious that this visual portrayal of what has happened to us as a result of our faith in Jesus Christ works best when the mode of baptism is immersion. With immersion, the picture of someone being buried with Christ and raised with Christ is significantly more clear than it could ever be with sprinkling or pouring. And, it is also worth pointing out, that the Greek word baptizō, doesn’t mean pour or sprinkle, but it means to dip, plunge, or immerse under water. And most biblical scholars agree—even those within traditions that now baptize in other ways—that baptism by immersion was the way that the early church performed baptisms.

One of the best descriptions we have in the Bible about a person’s baptism is found in Acts 8 where Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch. After believing the gospel Philip has shared with him, we are told in Acts 8:38 that both Philip and the eunuch got out of the chariot and went “down into the water” where Philip baptized him. Now, it is reasonable to assume that the eunuch, who was traveling in a chariot on a long journey, would have been traveling with some quantity of water and would have been willing to spare a few drops to be baptized right there in his chariot. But, that is apparently not the way baptism was done. It required more than a few drops or even a cupful of water. And perhaps that is why we are told in John 3:23 that John the Baptist “was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there.” Again, there is no need for a plentiful water supply unless you are taking people down into the water and immersing them.

But, that is enough on that. The mode of baptism is certainly not as big of a deal to me as the timing of someone’s baptism. And the Bible says something about that as well.

Baptism Is For Believers

Yes, so far we have seen how the Bible shows that baptism is important and not optional, and that baptism is a picture of what has happened to us as a result of our faith in Jesus Christ. But the third thing the Bible has to say about baptism is that baptism is for believers. And, this is why we don’t baptize infants in Baptist churches. We don’t baptize infants because we believe that baptism for those who have personally believed what the Bible teaches us about Jesus.

As I said earlier, baptism is a picture of what has happened to us as believers—we have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection. And so, to baptize an infant is to say something about them that is not yet true. It is to say that they are united with Jesus in his death and his resurrection when that is something that only happens as a result of someone’s faith in what Jesus’s death and resurrection accomplished for them. And, obviously, faith in Jesus is not something that an infant has. And so, to baptize an infant—or anyone who has not yet personally believed—is not appropriate. It is getting things out of order.

The simple, straightforward truth is that all the examples of baptism we have in the New Testament follow a similar pattern. That pattern is that someone preaches the gospel, some other person or persons believe the gospel, and that person or persons who have believed are then baptized. That is the pattern over and over again.

In Acts 2, on the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter (the same Peter who wrote the letter we are currently studying), preached a very powerful sermon that led to the salvation of three thousand people. And what we are told in Acts 2:41, is that “those who received his word were baptized.” Peter told them to “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38 ESV), and that is what they did. They believed what Peter had told them about Jesus and about themselves, and they repented of their sin and trusted in Jesus Christ, and were baptized on the spot.

Later on, in Acts 16, a similar thing happens in the house of the so-called Philippian Jailer. After asking his two prisoners, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas answer the jailer saying, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And the story continues by telling us that Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” And that after hearing the word preached, “he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:30–33 ESV). So again, the Bible presents belief as a necessary prerequisite to baptism. And that is why we only baptize those who have personally come to believe that Jesus Christ died for their sins, and have understood what it is going to mean to follow him. We don’t baptize the children of people who have believed that. We baptize those who have personally believed that and who have personally decided that they are willing to follow Jesus no matter what it might cost.

Now, one of the reasons baptism is a requirement for church membership here and other places is because just like circumcision was the Old Covenant sign that you were a part of the people of God, baptism is the New Covenant sign that you are a part of the people of God. Now, many of our friends who are part of churches who baptize infants would say, “That’s right. And that’s why we baptize infants. Because baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of being part of God’s people and circumcision was performed on infants in the Old Covenant. And so, if baptism is the New Covenant replacement of circumcision, then we ought to baptize infants.” But, what people who argue this way are failing to acknowledge, is that unlike in the Old Covenant, you don’t become a part of the New Covenant people of God by birth, you become a part of the New Covenant people of God, or the Church, by rebirth—by being born again. And so, you don’t apply the sign of the New Covenant to every child who is born into a Christian family; you only apply it to those who have been born again into God’s family—the Church. Baptism is about spiritual birth, not physical birth. That is a big difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Does that make sense?

Now, with all of this having been said, believers baptism is not an issue we should divide with other Christians over. In fact, as Baptists, we should be humble about it because in many ways we are in the minority here. There are lots of folks baptizing infants, and they have been for a long time. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we should not allow our beliefs on this to cause division in the body of Christ.

Now, there is more that I could say with regard to what baptism is. For example, baptism, not walking an aisle in response to a pastor’s invitation at the end of the sermon, is our public profession of faith. Yes, baptism is how you publicly identify yourself with Jesus Christ and his Church. I won’t say any more about this though, because I need to stop here and keep going or else this sermon is going to get very long.

What Does Peter Mean in 1 Peter 3:21?

So, having explained what baptism is—something that is not optional, something that is a picture of what has happened to us as a result of our faith in Jesus Christ, and something that is only for believers—I think we are now better prepared to discuss what Peter says about baptism in 1 Peter 3:21. If you have turned away from that verse, go ahead and turn back to it now and let me read it again. Peter says,

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 Peter 3:21 ESV)

Now, the thing that ought to strike you as odd when you read this—particularly after the discussion we just had about what the Bible has to say in other places about baptism—is Peter’s statement that “baptism … now saves you.”

But notice that he actually says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.” So what is this thing that baptism corresponds to? Well, look back with me at verse 20. How does that verse end? That’s right; it ends with Peter talking about how God saved eight people—Noah and his family—by placing them in an ark and bringing them safely through the flood waters he used to bring judgment on the rest of humankind. That is what Peter says that baptism corresponds to.

Now, by saying that baptism “corresponds to this,” Peter is not talking about a perfect one-to-one comparison. Instead, what he is saying is that baptism is sort of like what happened during the flood. Just like Noah and his family were brought safely through the waters of judgment, Peter wants the recipients of this letter to know that those who have passed through the waters of baptism will also experience the salvation of God.

Yes, you could look at just a few words in this verse and insist that Peter is suggesting that the physical act of baptism is what saves a person. And, some have done that and continue to do that. But to do so is to ignore what the Bible says about salvation being by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Ephesians 2). And it is to ignore the fact that Jesus didn’t require the thief on a cross next to him to get down off his cross and be baptized before Jesus promised the man that he would be with Jesus in paradise. And it is also ignoring what Peter says in the rest of this verse.

Notice what he says. He says “baptism … 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.” In other words, this salvation that comes through baptism isn’t about the physical act of immersion into water that only washes dirt off a person’s body. Baptism is about a person’s “appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” It is their faith in what the death and resurrection of Jesus has accomplished for them that leads them to want to be baptized in the first place. Baptism is actually an expression of that saving faith. It is part of a person's appeal to God for forgiveness. Again, we have to interpret Scripture with Scripture. And when we interpret Scripture with Scripture we have to conclude that when Peter says that baptism, is what saves us, that he is, as one commentator suggests, using the word “baptism” in a symbolic way to represent “the whole process by which the gospel comes to people and they accept it in faith.”1 Yes, baptism saves us because it is part of our faith-filled appeal to God to forgive us of our sins (which results in a good and clean conscience) as we trust in Jesus’s death and resurrection.

You see, When Peter started talking in the previous verse about how God saved Noah and his family out of a world full of rebellion and wickedness, it made him think about how God has also saved this small group of Christians to whom he was writing. In fact, it doesn’t just make him think of the relationship between the two things, but in Peter’s mind, what took place with Noah and the ark was God’s way of foreshadowing the salvation that would come to us through Jesus Christ. And just like ark was a picture of that coming salvation, baptism is a picture of that same salvation that has come to us through Jesus Christ. That is how baptism corresponds to the ark and the flood waters—they are both a picture of the salvation of God. And because baptism, as we have already said, is just a picture of what has happened to us as a result of our faith in Jesus Christ, it cannot be the thing that has actually caused those things to happen to us. It is not the cause, but just a picture of what has happened to us as a result of our faith in what Jesus’s death and resurrection has accomplished.

So again, the physical act of being baptized doesn’t save anyone. All that putting someone in water does is remove dirt from their body. But the faith that is professed through a person’s baptism is the vehicle by which God saves them. Yes, the truth is, when Peter says that “Baptism now saves you,” he means it in the same way we mean it when we say, “Faith saves you.” But, the truth is, faith doesn’t save you, God saves you. The cross even, as important and necessary as it was, doesn’t save you either. God saves you. God saves you through your faith in what Jesus accomplished for you on the cross. And baptism is your public profession of that belief and a symbolic way of showing the world that you are united with Jesus in his death and in his resurrection. Yes, faith is necessary. And of course the cross is necessary. And, as we have already said, baptism is not optional. It is evidence of your faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection. It is evidence of the kind of faith that is necessary for you to be saved. That, friends, is how baptism saves you. It saves you because baptism is a public profession of your faith in Jesus Christ.

Conclusion/Application

Now listen, I don’t normally make a big deal out of baptism. And the reason I don’t make a big deal about baptism is because baptism is not the most important thing. The most important thing is what you are believing about Jesus right now—because that is what saves you.

But, at the same time, even though baptism isn’t the most important thing, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important thing. Jesus has commanded it. And, if you are going to follow Jesus, you have to start there, or you are starting your journey with him off on a path of disobedience. If you have placed your faith in Jesus, you need to make that publicly known by passing through the waters of baptism which are intended to symbolize your union with Christ in his death and in his resurrection. To not do so, would be like refusing to put on your new wedding ring as soon as it is handed to you during your wedding ceremony. Obviously, that is not going to start your marriage off on the right foot. And the same is true when we say we want to follow Jesus, but don’t want to identify ourselves with him publicly. In fact, our public profession of faith is so important to Jesus that he says, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32–33 ESV). Friends, that is pretty serious. There is no such thing as a private follower of Jesus. You cannot decide to follow him and keep it a secret. You must announce it to the world. And baptism is what God has given us to make that public profession of faith. Baptism is, as one writer explains, “where faith goes public.”2

So before I close today, let me ask you: Have you gone public with your faith by being baptized? And I am talking about baptism that took place as a believer. Have you done that? Have you stood up before others and publicly announced, “I am trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for my salvation”? Not with words, but by submitting in obedience to Jesus’s command to be baptized. If not, maybe you need to make a commitment before you leave today to talk with me about doing that. Maybe you need to make a commitment to finally identify yourself with Jesus in a public and open way.

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  1. I. Howard Marshall, 1 Peter, The IVP New Testament Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 130. ↩︎
  2. Bobby Jamieson, Understanding Baptism (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2016), 44. ↩︎