October 31st, 2023
94. Baptism Saves Us
In 1 Peter 3:21 the EHV says “baptism now saves you.” But baptism can’t save anyone, can it? Only faith can save a person, and wouldn’t you agree, not all baptized people are saved?
Let’s begin by looking at the words “baptism now saves you” in their context:
Christ also suffered once for sins in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in flesh but was made alive in spirit, 19in which he also went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison. 20These spirits disobeyed long ago, when God’s patience was waiting in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In this ark a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. 21And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the body but the guarantee of a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There is probably no short passage in Scripture that raises more difficult questions than these verses. There are at least four major questions:
What does it mean that Jesus was put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit?
What does it mean that Jesus went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison?
What does it mean that baptism saves us?
What does it mean that baptism gives us the guarantee of a good conscience?
Each of these questions deserves its own FAQ.
The fourth question already has its own FAQ, FAQ 91, which explains in great detail why the EHV says that baptism gives us the guarantee of a good conscience. Because baptism is God’s promise to us for the forgiveness of sins, our conscience can be at peace.
The first question, “what does it mean that Jesus was put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit,” also deserves its own FAQ, but for now we will simply note that “being put to death in flesh” means Jesus was crucified in a humble, lowly condition, in which his divine glory was hidden. “Being raised in spirit” means that he was raised with a glorified body, that now displays his divine splendor (Revelation 1). Jesus had a human body and soul both before and after his death and resurrection, but the body’s condition was different during his state of humiliation and his state of exaltation.
Question 2 also deserves its own FAQ. Jesus went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison when he descended to hell immediately after he was made alive on Easter. He did not go to hell to suffer; he did not go to hell to give the people there a second chance; he did not go to hell to rescue Old Testament believers who had to wait for him there. He went there to declare his victory over Satan.
That brings us to the final question, “How does baptism save us?”. Before he answers that question, Peter first of all eliminates a false idea about baptism.
In this ark a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. 21And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the body but the guarantee of a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Baptism is not an outward physical act like washing dirt off the body. The power of baptism does not come from the water (though the use of water is commanded). The power of baptism comes from the word and promise of God which is connected with the water. Baptism promises forgiveness of sins. Baptism delivers forgiveness of sins because it is based on the gospel promise of forgiveness of sins through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, baptism is a special form of preaching the gospel.
The Bible directly connects the power of baptism with Jesus’s resurrection in Romans 6.
Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him by this baptism into his death, so that just as he was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too would also walk in a new life. 5For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united with him in the likeness of his resurrection.
The power of baptism comes, not from the water or from the outward performance of a rite, but from Jesus’ death and resurrection. We receive the benefit of Jesus’ death and resurrection through faith which is worked in us by the Holy Spirit through the gospel. The Bible associates rebirth and the Spirit with baptism.
5Jesus answered, “Amen, Amen, I tell you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God! (John 3)
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior toward mankind appeared, 5he saved us—not by righteous works that we did ourselves, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and the renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3)
These passages refer to the washing of baptism, through which we are born again (John 3); our sins are forgiven (Act 2:38); our sins are washed away (Acts 22:16); we are clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27), and we are saved (1 Peter 3:21). Through baptism, God gives rebirth (born again) and renewal (new spiritual life). All of this is done by the Holy Spirit, who creates faith through baptism and the word.
This leaves us with a secondary question, “what is the connection between baptism and the Flood of Noah?”
In this ark a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. 21And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you.
The point of comparison is simply that in both cases, the flood and baptism, water was an instrument of salvation. How did the flood waters save Noah? The simplest explanation is that the flood waters floated the ark.
How was Noah saved? The main cause was the grace of God. We can also say Noah was saved by faith (Hebrews 11:7). We can say that Noah was saved by the ark. We can also say Noah was saved by the same water that flushed away the world that had rejected God. These causes are connected in a chain. Every link of the chain goes back to the grace of God. Because people were “saved by water” during the Flood, the church has often used the Flood and the Ark as symbols of baptism.
When asking “how are we saved?” we must trace a chain of causes. The ultimate cause is the grace of God. The meritorious cause is the death and resurrection of Christ. We can also say we are saved by faith (though it is more precise to say we are saved by grace through faith). We can say we are saved by the Holy Spirit because he works faith in us. We can say that we are saved by the gospel. The Holy Spirit presents the gospel to us in two forms, the bare word” and the word accompanied by a visible sign in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In baptism the water directs our attention to the washing away of sins, which is done by grace through faith, which is worked in us by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.
We can say that we are saved by baptism because baptism is not a promise which we offer to God, but a promise that God gives to us as a gift of grace. All who cling to that promise will be saved. Those who reject the grace given to them will not.