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First Peter 3:21—“Baptism . . . now saves you”—is a difficult passage. Even revered figures in history, the likes of Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, have said as much. To appreciate the interpretive challenges this verse provides, we need only to read through a few commentaries, and we will no doubt see a wide range of opinions on display.
One of the things we learn from difficult passages such this is that we need to hold our interpretations loosely. We shouldn’t fight to the death over our understanding of 1 Peter 3:21. It is in an altogether different category than, say, John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We cannot hold a wide range of opinions on John 14:6, at least not within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy, and that is why it is appropriate for us to take a stand in defending the truth of that passage in a way that it isn’t appropriate in regard to 1 Peter 3:21. Peter’s comments demand greater patience precisely because they are less clear.
With this in mind, we can rightly give ourselves to considering this passage—every word of which is God-breathed (see 2 Tim. 3:16) and, as such, warrants our careful attention. The first thing we can say about 1 Peter 3:21 is that the analogy of faith (which teaches that Scripture interprets Scripture) prevents us from understanding this verse as a reference to baptismal regeneration. Other Bible passages explicitly tell us that regeneration is grounded on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and is a work of the Holy Spirit who, like the wind, “blows” when and where He wills (John 3:5, 8; Titus 3:5–6). Still other passages declare that we are not saved by the “will of man” or by “human . . . exertion,” which would obviously include baptism, but by God who “has mercy on whomever he wills” (John 1:12–13; Rom. 9:15–18). Regeneration, therefore, happens when God wants it to happen and not necessarily in the act of water baptism. What is more, the account of the thief on the cross teaches us that regeneration and baptism have no necessary temporal connection whatsoever (Luke 23:43).
The next thing we can say is that the analogy of faith also helps us see that 1 Peter 3:21 is not unique in terms of the language it uses. Several other Bible passages speak similarly in regard to the relationship between a sacrament and the thing that the sacrament signifies. I think immediately of Genesis 17:10, which states: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep. . . . Every male among you shall be circumcised.” Here the Lord so connects the sacrament of circumcision to the thing it signifies (i.e., the covenant) that He speaks of them coextensively. The whole of the covenant can be reduced to just one thing: circumcision.
The Westminster Confession of Faith refers to this connection between a sacrament and the thing it signifies as a “sacramental union” and defines it as a “spiritual relation” in which “the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other” (WCF 27.2). We see this idea in several places in the New Testament. In Acts 22:16, for instance, Paul urges the people of Jerusalem to “rise and be baptized and wash away your sins.” Here again, just as in Genesis 17:10, we see a very close alliance between the sacrament—baptism, in this case—and the thing signified, the washing away of sins.
Likewise, in instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus uses the language of sacramental union when He says of the bread “this is my body” and of the wine “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26, 28; see 1 Cor. 10:16–17). Jesus doesn’t say that the bread and wine merely represent His body and blood. He says that they are His body and blood, even though they physically are not (His body is holding these elements). To borrow the words of the Westminster Confession, Jesus is speaking of the “spiritual relation” that exists between the elements and the things they signify.
This spiritual relation is grounded on the fact that the sacraments are means of grace. They don’t simply exhibit grace; they are vehicles that God uses to grow us in grace as we partake of them in faith. They do this not insofar as they are bread and wine or baptismal water but insofar as they communicate Christ to us. Spiritually speaking, then, the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Christ given for us, and the water of baptism is the blood of Christ that washes away all our sins.
Keeping these things in mind, it would seem best to conclude that 1 Peter 3:21 is adopting the language of sacramental union, just like Genesis 17:10. The sacrament and the thing it signifies are connected to such a degree that the whole of our salvation is reduced to only one thing: baptism. We are continually “saved” (note that the Greek word for “save” is present tense, showing ongoing action) by baptism because the baptismal water is, spiritually speaking, the blood of Christ that washes away all our sins. As such, it is “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” which is the same thing as saying “an appeal to God to preserve us in faith and obedience” (see the phrase “good conscience” in 1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 1 Peter 3:16; see also Heb. 9:9, 14; 10:22). This divine preservation takes place within the context of our sanctification “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Every time we faithfully meditate on our baptism or witness it being applied to others, we receive grace from the God of all grace to persevere to the end and be saved.