First Peter No. 20 “The Baptism that Saves”
1 Peter 3:17-22
April 8, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
v.20 “Eight in all”, i.e. Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives. The significance of eight is how small that number is. Only eight out of the whole world. The Christians to whom Peter was writing were a tiny minority as well.
v.21 The word the ESV translates “corresponds to” is the word “antitype.” An antitype is that thing that is prefigured by or corresponds to the type. A “type” is a person or thing or event or practice that foreshadows some reality still to come; in other words, it’s an embodied prophecy. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10, for example, regards Israel’s passing through the waters of the Red Sea as a type of baptism. Peter here sees the waters of the flood in the same way, as a type or foreshadowing of baptism. Typology is founded on the conviction that the same God who is at work in all eras of history and is working out the same purposes in all that history, has left his fingerprints, as it were, all over that history. There is a continuity of action and meaning because there is one God and one salvation from the beginning of history to its end. Because he knew what was to come, he filled prior history with anticipations of later historical fulfillment. Think of the OT offices of prophet, priest, and king. They were important in their own right and necessary for the people of God, but they were also embodied prophesies of the coming one who would be the prophet, the priest, and the king. In any case, the flood waters saved Noah and his family and Peter is going to say that in an analogous ways baptism saves us.
“Through the resurrection of Christ” means “by our union with Christ in his resurrection,” we share in his victory over sin and death, as Paul often says. Peter had already established the context for this short phrase in v. 18: it was Christ’s dying for sins, the just for the unjust, and his rising again that brought us to God.
“Removal of dirt from the flesh” may hint at the mode of baptism, as if it appeared to be a bath. We know that in earliest Christianity baptism was administered in various ways. We actually have comparatively little information to go by, but we know that. Some written references to it seem to suggest that it was done by immersion – the dipping of the entire body under water – but the earliest artistic representations, some very early, show the catechumen and the minister standing in shallow water, perhaps a river, with the minister pouring water over the convert’s head. Sprinkling asserted itself as people gave more attention to the ways in which ceremonial washings were performed in the Bible – none by immersion, all by sprinkling or pouring – and the way in which in Scripture both the blood of Christ and the water of cleansing is said to be sprinkled upon the heart. My own view is that sprinkling is the mode most in keeping with the biblical data, but, of course, it is important to acknowledge that the Bible never actually tells us how baptisms were performed or how they ought to be performed.
v.22 “With angels, authorities, and powers…” picks up the point of vv. 19-20 we considered last time, now three weeks ago. Christ has conquered the demonic realm and that conquest has been proclaimed to the evil spirits. And here the thought is repeated at the end of the paragraph.
Now, here we encounter a phenomenon more often encountered than we may at first realize. I mean, we find the Bible speaking in a way we would not, saying something we would never think to say. In fact, it says something, to be frank, we think it would have been better had it not said, or, at least, we think that we now have to explain what was said in some way so that people don’t get the wrong idea! Every Christian has experience of this. We Calvinists have work to do to interpret some texts that seem difficult to harmonize with our theology of sovereign grace. Think, for example, of Peter’s remark in 2 Peter 2:1 to the effect that the false teachers were “denying the Master who bought them.” Arminians gleefully point out that harmonizing that statement with limited atonement or particular redemption is no easy task. If Christ bought them, if he died for them, if he undertook in their place the punishment of their sin, then certainly they must be saved – that is, after all, the Calvinistic understanding – so how can it be possible for them to deny the one who bought them? How can those Christ died for not be saved?
Arminians, of course, have a whole set of texts that pose similar problems for their doctrine that salvation depends finally on the unfettered decision of the human will. And there are hosts of other texts that in one way or another complicate our understanding of the Bible. Charles Simeon famously said that there isn’t a Christian anywhere who, had he or she been standing over the shoulder of the Apostle Paul as he wrote his letters, wouldn’t have suggested that he alter his wording in this way or that to avoid possible misunderstandings. Of course, Paul would have said to such know-it-alls, “What I have written, I have written!”
Here Peter speaks in a way that is alien to Protestant evangelicals like us. I don’t simply mean that his thought here is very compact and perhaps somewhat difficult to unravel. I mean he puts things in a way we would never put them. The last thing it would occur to us to say would be that “baptism saves you,” no matter what qualifications he may go on to mention. Peter did this also on Pentecost Sunday, if you remember. When the great congregation had heard his sermon and, because the Spirit was powerfully at work in that sermon, they were cut to the heart and cried out, “Brothers, what must we do?” Peter said, “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” As good American evangelicals, we almost cringe at that reply. We think, “Peter, why on earth mention baptism in an evangelistic context like that? Don’t you realize how that can confuse people and lead them to think that they can be saved by some outward ritual? Roman Catholics might say that, Peter, but surely not an evangelical like you. Peter, you would be far wiser to lay all your emphasis on true faith in Jesus, real trust in him; that is the key: a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
And if we never exactly utter those words, because we at least have the good sense to know that we ought not to lecture an apostle on his choice of words when those words were added to Holy Scripture by the influence of the Holy Spirit himself, we as much as say them and as much as criticize Peter’s way of speaking, by never imitating it ourselves.
Much may be said in explanation of Peter’s way of speaking here of “the baptism that saves you.” The Bible’s sacramental language poses complex problems of interpretation, not least because nowhere in the Bible – and this may strike you as strange, it does me – are we given a straightforward explanation of precisely how the sacraments work. It is never explained in some comprehensive way, for example, precisely what baptism does to a person or for a person and what it does not. The Bible clearly does teach that it does something, that it changes a person in some important way. Text after text in the New Testament reads much like this one does here. John quotes Jesus in the third chapter of his gospel speaking of those born of water and the Spirit. Think of Paul in Romans 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death?” That death has a power, makes a difference, it liberates us from sin. Or Paul again in Galatians 3: “As many of you who are baptized have put on Christ and so become sons of God.” We were united to Christ in his death and resurrection by baptism. At the same time, of course, the New Testament writers were well aware that not everyone who was baptized was saved. Baptized people apostatized and gave up the faith. Think of Ananias and Saphira, for example. It is this latter fact that leads evangelical Christians, by and large, to views of baptism that reduce it to merely a symbol or to a rite that helps us to think about our salvation or serves as a way of bearing witness to our faith in Christ, rather than a rite that actually changes our status, alters our life in some very important way, or a rite that saves us.
Reformed theologians are not all on the same page in regard to the efficacy of baptism, but many of them and many of the most important of them respected the Bible’s own sacramental realism. That is the term used to describe the view that baptism actually does something to the person. It is the alternative to sacramental symbolism, the view that baptism and the Lord’s Supper only represent something else that does something for us, they do nothing themselves. Let me say that part of our problem with the Bible’s sacramental language is that we have largely lost portions of the biblical worldview that made such language as we have here both understandable and important. The biblical understanding is everywhere more corporate than individualistic, but in our life and in our understanding of salvation we are individuals more that we are corporatists. The Bible’s understanding is more attuned to the significance of ritual than we are. Though if we stop to think about ritual, we realize how extraordinarily powerful it can be. A young couple like Joe and Elissa this June will come into the church members of two different families; they will go out of the church a new family. It will be a ritual that does that; that creates a family. What is more, the Bible is more accepting of the limitations of our knowledge. We want to get to the bottom of everything, and we want to be able to explain everything. In the Bible there is a ready acknowledgement that the sacraments work but less of an attempt to explain precisely how they work. What is clear is that baptism puts a person in the family of God, into the circle of Christian living, Christian instruction, Christian worship, and Christian identity. That is, it entitles that person to the name “Christian.” It places a person in the sphere of salvation. It makes a person a Christian in all the senses that we as human beings can judge. God alone looks upon the heart and knows the end from the beginning, of course, but that does not make it any less important that, by baptism, a person enters the Christian church and is now subject to all the influences and blessings of that family membership, including the assumption that he or she belongs to Christ and is headed to heaven. A person can forsake those privileges; we know that. But those privileges and influences are precisely how we continue in the Christian life and eventually and finally enter the City of God. Baptism makes a person a Christian, but we are certainly not able to say that baptism, therefore, is proof that that person has been chosen by God for eternal life, has been born again, and has been justified, once and for all. Evangelicals tend to use the term “Christian,” not for those who profess faith in Christ, but for those who are actually born again, for the elect, for those justified. by the imperishable seed of the word. The New Testament does not use the term in that way, and that’s a great part of our problem. As C.S. Lewis expresses this point particularly wisely:
“Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say “deepening,” the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone…. We do not see into men’s hearts.We cannot judge, and indeed are forbidden to judge. It would be
wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense… We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts xi. 26) to “the disciples,” to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of it being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have…. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.” [“Preface,” Mere Christianity, 11-12]
Another way of saying the same thing is that the baptized who fail to live in accordance with their status as Christians are — if they continue in that lack of real faith and real believing life to the end – apostates, unbelievers. They were Christians who rejected their inheritance. [For all the above cf. Collins, “What Does Baptism Do for Anyone? Part 1,” Presbyterion 38/1 (Spring 2012) 1-33]
Remember, for these people, as for the Jews in Jerusalem who heard Peter on Pentecost, or for the people who are reading his letter when it was sent to them in the first place, baptism was the gateway into the new faith and life of the followers of Jesus Christ. As our Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, one of the purposes of the sacraments is “to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world.” They had become Christians, so far as anyone could tell and so far as their public identification with Christ was concerned, at their baptism. They would have said they became Christians by being baptized.
There is no doubt that the focus shifts when the Bible addresses many in the church who are not, in fact, walking with God or trusting in Christ. You find that different perspective in the prophets, for example, as when Jeremiah complains that he is preaching to a congregation that is circumcised but uncircumcised, they have the outward position given them by circumcision, they are the people of Israel or the people of God, but are not living in faithfulness to that identity. The same note is sounded in the Lord’s own preaching when he told many of the Jews, circumcised as they were, that being a Jew would not save them if they lacked true faith.
But it is a simple fact that in those early years and, indeed, ever since, the gateway through which people passed into the house of faith and salvation was baptism. Peter himself, earlier in this same letter, speaks of Christians being sprinkled with the blood of Christ, certainly an allusion to baptism, much as Paul said that in baptism we were baptized into Christ’s death. It is not easy to work all of this out. I fully admit that. On the other hand, we need to acknowledge and respect the Bible’s language of sacramental realism. Baptism most definitely does something to us; it changes us; not in a way that makes it impossible for a person to fail to obtain eternal life, but in a way that places us on the road to eternal life. Remember, the Bible also speaks of people who are in Christ, that is they are united to Christ, as branches in a vine, who are later cut off and burned in the fire. However we explain this as Calvinists and however we can harmonize it with our doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, we cannot deny or ignore the reality that someone can be in some important sense “in Christ” at one time but later no longer be in Christ. That’s what baptism does: it makes us branches in the vine of Christ! Baptism saves us, of course, only instrumentally. It is God who saves us; the cross and the resurrection of Christ that save us. There are many things that save us according to the Bible. We are saved by the word of God, saved by preaching, as Paul says, saved by the loving involvement of others in our lives, as James says. God uses means by which to apply his salvation to our lives and baptism is one of the most important of those means. This is Peter’s point when he says in the next several lines that baptism saves by the resurrection of Christ. He has made the point that Christ is the one who saves us already a number of times and as recently as v. 18. Baptism doesn’t save us in the same sense in which we may say that Jesus Christ saves us. The latter is much more fundamental than the former.
But still more, the baptism that saves you, he says in v. 21, is not baptism conceived of as a ritual that operates physically or mechanically or even visibly, as if its effect were accomplished by the water itself when a person is baptized. Baptism doesn’t function like magic, accomplishing something because of the intrinsic power of the water or of ritual itself. It is not as if the water itself has the power to make someone clean before God. The water saved Noah and his family by floating the ark in which they rode out the flood. Baptism saves us by bringing us into the ark that is the church and people of God. Peter makes this clear here. No one gets clean before God, no one is made holy before God by the power of water to wash your body. Baptism saves you through the resurrection of Christ, “as an appeal to God for a good conscience.”
Now, what did Peter mean with those words? Well, commentators debate the fine points of the meaning of his words and of the phrase, but, by and large, it seems pretty clear that what Peter meant was this. Peter seems to be thinking of the fact that in baptism believers commit themselves to following Christ. They accept God’s verdict that their lives are sinful and that they need forgiveness and transformation. They acknowledge that only God can give these things to them, through Christ’s death and resurrection. They intend for baptism to be the beginning of a faithful Christian life. Indeed, baptism is an act of loyalty to Jesus. That is part of what happens in baptism. God grants his seal, but the believer by undergoing baptism is identified as Christ’s follower and undertakes to follow the Lord or in the case of an infant that undertaking is made on his behalf by his parents. It may even be that Peter is supposing that his readers would recollect their baptisms in which, as part of the ceremony, just as it is a part of the ceremony today, vows were taken, pledges were made to God. We don’t know that for sure; but it is not unlikely. [Clowney, 166-167] In the baptisms of adults today people, after first confessing their faith in God and in Christ as their Savior, will be asked a question like this one: “Do you promise to make diligent use of the means of grace, to continue in the peace and fellowship of the people of God, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s faithful disciple to your life’s end?” And they say, before God and the witnesses, “I do.”
Well, perhaps it was something like that in Peter’s day already. And Peter was thinking of that pledge, that promise of a faithful life to be lived for Christ and by his strength, when he wrote that baptism saves as a pledge of a good conscience towards God. The Church Fathers may have been reading their own baptismal practice back into Peter’s remarks, but that is how they took his remark here. In other words, Peter is saying to these converts to Christianity, baptism saves you insofar as it presumes that one’s receiving it represents a genuine commitment to Christ, not simply to be saved by him, but to follow, serve, and obey him, a pledge made, that is, in good conscience or sincerely. That interpretation seems to be confirmed as well by the “therefore” with which chapter 4 begins and the following verses which describe a faithful Christian life. That is what he is talking about. Baptism saves you because it leads you to a faithful Christian life.
The references in the context to Christ’s work, of course, remind us that we are not saved or made right with God by the consistency of our lives, by the purity of the pledge we make to him. Christ saves us by his life, death, and resurrection in our place. But only the one who sincerely believes in Christ, believes so as to confess him Lord, believes so as to obey him, believes so as to serve him with his or her life, believes so as to remain faithful in trial and trouble, believes so as to be willing to suffer for Christ – the immediate subject of this argument remember – only that Christian obtains the benefits and blessings of Jesus Christ having died for sins, the just for the unjust to bring his people to God. Who are his people? They are those who trust and obey him, those who first pledge and then keep a good conscience toward him.
Now it is possible for a conscience to be so seared by constant refusal to heed its verdict that it no longer speaks with any authority in the soul. But even in the life of unbelievers the conscience is not silent. The conscience is a powerful voice. When a good one is pledged to God, it is no small thing, for the conscience is a demanding thing! Let me illustrate the power of the conscience in this way. This incident came to light only comparatively recently when a historian dug more deeply into an episode, alas all too typical an episode, on the Western Front in the First World War. It seems a soldier in a Liverpool battalion, a Private James Smith, was executed for desertion on September 5, 1917. He had been in the army for seven years, had fought at Gallipoli in 1915, had been buried in the trenches by a German shell on the Western Front in 1916, had won several Good Conduct badges, and then lost them for various breeches of military discipline. And then in August of 1917, apparently, he had had enough and deserted. He was caught, tried, and sentenced to death (many thousands of soldiers were executed by their own armies in the First World War!).
Among those who had been assigned to the execution squad was a Private Richard Blundell, who, as it happened, knew Smith well. After the signal was given and the volley fired, it was discovered that Smith was still alive. Ordinarily, the officer in charge would finish off the prisoner with a round from his pistol, but in this case the officer simply couldn’t go through with it. Instead he gave his revolver to Blundell and ordered him to finish the job, which Blundell did. As reward for his action Blundell was given ten days’ home leave which began that very day. Seventy-two years later in 1990, as Blundell lay dying, he repeated over and over again in the hearing of his son, “What a way to get leave; what a way to get leave.” [Martin Gilbert, First World War, 359] There is a conscience refusing to be silenced and speaking to the end. But it was not a good conscience, but a bad one. It was an accusing conscience, a condemning conscience.
But do not Christians struggle with a bad conscience? We sin, we fail times without number. How can we pledge a good conscience to God, which is to say, how can we pledge a life that our own sanctified consciences, our consciences instructed by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit will approve? Well, in part, of course, a Christian’s good conscience is precisely his constant returning to Christ and the cross for forgiveness of his sins, his acknowledgment of his need of constant forgiveness, and his seeking that forgiveness for all that he finds in his life that displeases God. Confessing sins, depending upon the grace of God in Christ, these are part of that obedience, part of that loyalty, part of that honor and service Christians have pledged to offer to God. In fact, in the marvelous words of the Puritan Thomas Willcox: “This will be sound religion: to rest all upon the everlasting mountains of God’s love and grace in Christ, to live continually in the sight of Christ’s infinite righteousness and merits…rejoicing in the ruins of your own righteousness…that Christ alone, as Mediator, may be exalted in his throne.” That’s what Christians do: rejoice in the ruins of their own righteousness. No conscience that is out of step with the life of faith and the truth of God’s Word can be a good conscience before God. So it must be possible for sinners like us to have such a good conscience.
But Peter means also to refer to a real godliness, a real obedience, a real serving God as his words here as his words that follow clearly show, and as his present argument is designed to prove. Remember, it is Christian faithfulness under persecution, in particular, that Peter is urging upon his readers. Their obedience may be imperfect in many ways, deeply flawed in fact. But it is nonetheless real. The pulse may be too fast or too slow, the blood pressure too high or too low, but the vital signs are present sure enough.
The Christian life is, as a Christian conscience can tell, a life different from the life of unbelievers because of the Christian’s love for God and God’s people, his desire to serve the Lord for love’s sake, her love of God’s law and struggle to keep it in spite of the temptations of the world, her own flesh, and the devil. What does a good conscience toward God do? How does it manifest itself? It is always first noting and then acknowledging its sins, both to God and to those people against whom we have sinned. It is always seeking to put right, to restore wrongs that we have done. It is taking note of our duties and seeking to fulfill them, it is always turning from our sins and practicing and striving to practice new obedience. It is always coming to church seeking encouragement for the life of faith and love. It is always looking at life from the vantage point of the will of God and always wanting and seeking to do that will. And from time to time this good conscience surfaces in ways that will powerfully demonstrate its integrity, its genuineness. Not least when it willingly suffers for the sake of Christ and righteousness!
In 1977 Julian Imperial and an accomplice broke into the home of 73 year-old Mary Stein and bludgeoned her to death with a piece of wood. As they beat her without mercy she moaned “Lord, I’m coming home.” The police never solved that crime. But Imperial could not get Mary Stein’s words out of his mind. By the grace of God, years later Imperial became a Christian. His conscience was now captive to the Word of God. He had pledged a good conscience to God. He had been baptized. Years after the crime, long after the police had given up on solving the crime and were no longer looking for a suspect, Mr. Imperial turned himself in to the authorities. If he is still alive he is in prison today as he knows he should be making good on the pledge of a good conscience to God. [World (May 17, 1997)]
We are only too familiar with people in the news, often prominent people, who have been caught in sexual sin, or financial skullduggery, or some other bad behavior. We expect them to admit it only the same breath in which they offer extenuating circumstances. They defend themselves, excuse themselves. They cannot bring themselves simply to admit how badly they behaved and the wrong they did to others. Not so the Christian who has pledged a good conscience toward God. He or she may have sins to acknowledge and confess, and acknowledge them they will, for it is part of their confession of faith in Christ who died for sins the just for the unjust; but they will also devote themselves to scrupulous obedience and faithfulness, which is what they have promised to God. You will find such Christians mourning their sins and confessing them to God and one another; you will find them at all hours of the day and night seeking to perform some service in Christ’s name for God and man; you will find them always at work doing the will of their Father in heaven.
Such a person, any such Christian, who makes the pledge of a good conscience to God – and not only at the beginning, at his or her baptism, but from that point onward and at least every Lord’s Day in the worship of God’s house – I say that person has the right to claim the salvation of God. Peter is, with this argument, nerving his readers, urging us to show ourselves faithful to the Lord in the assurance that God will vindicate that faithfulness in due time. Such people who make and keep such a pledge of a good conscience to God may be a small minority, but the King of Kings who sits at God’s right hand calls them his children and will, in due time, prove that they are to the entire world.
As we come then to the table of the Lord, renew your pledge of a good conscience to God, and seek from Christ’s hand grace and strength to make good on your pledge.