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Is Baptism Just a Symbol of Our Salvation?

Some interpretations of 1 Peter 3:20-21 put the interpreter in a quandary

A go-to passage for Christians who believe that baptism saves us is 1 Peter 3:20-21. The passage reads,

God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 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 clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But some Protestants who deny the salvific efficacy of baptism argue that Peter isn’t saying baptism actually saves us. Rather, what saves us is the “appeal to God for a clear conscience,” which is interpreted as a pledge to God to follow Jesus, and baptism is merely an appropriate symbol for that confession of faith. Former Catholic and pastor of Shalom Messianic Congregation in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Todd Baker makes this argument:

Peter states in verse twenty-one the real purpose of baptism is the “appeal” or “answer” of a good conscience toward God. The believer makes the pledge that He will now follow Jesus Christ as His obedient disciple united with the Lord in His death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism is an appropriate symbol of this reality for a public confession and act upon the one baptized openly declaring he or she now trusts in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins with a pledge or an appeal to have a clear conscience now, cleansed from all guilt, condemnation, and accusation, that provides a good answer before God.

So, does this alternative reading of 1 Peter 3:20-21 undermine the common Christian belief, which is held by the Catholic Church, that baptism saves?

Peter’s statement, “an appeal to God for a clear conscience” (v.21), which Baker interprets as a pledge we make to follow Jesus, is one of two statements that Peter intends to explain what he means when he says, “Baptism now saves you.” The other explanatory statement, which comes first and is set in opposition with the other, is “not as a removal of dirt from the body.”

This creates a few problems for Baker’s interpretation that baptism doesn’t save us and is merely a symbol of our pledge to follow Jesus. First, such an interpretation would entail Peter’s explanatory statements directly contradicting his principal point: “Baptism now saves you.”

It’s unreasonable to think Peter would make such an explicit statement about the salvific efficacy of baptism and then immediately afterward deny such efficacy in his explanatory remarks. If Peter meant for the pledge to be what saves us, and not baptism, then the pledge or appeal would not have appeared in an explanatory statement. It would have been the principal statement rather than the one that clearly is: “Baptism now saves you.”

Second, Baker’s interpretation would have us think that the statement, “as an appeal to God for a clear conscience,” is meant to oppose the statement “Baptism now saves us.” But that’s not what Peter says. Peter contrasts the statement, “as an appeal to God for a clear conscience,” with the idea that baptism saves us “as a removal of dirt from the body.”

This leads us a third problem with Baker’s interpretation. Baker rightfully recognizes that Peter’s denial of an external cleansing implies the affirmation of an internal cleansing: a “cleansing of guilt,” as he puts it. Where Baker goes wrong is that he divorces this internal cleansing from baptism, saying that baptism is merely a symbol of the internal cleansing. And therein lies the problem. Peter doesn’t contrast external cleansing from internal cleansing in an abstract way independent of baptism. He denies baptism as “a removal of dirt from the body,” thereby implying that baptism is an internal cleansing.

If baptism were merely a symbol, as Baker asserts, then Peter’s contrast of external cleansing and internal cleansing, and how both relate to baptism, would make no sense. There would be no need for Peter to set up such a contrast if baptism didn’t entail an internal cleansing. In fact, there would be no need to associate cleansing with baptism at all.

Another problem with Baker’s interpretation, and the last that we’ll consider here, is that it doesn’t correspond with the logic of Peter’s comparison between baptism and the story of Noah and the flood. Peter introduces his comments about baptism by saying, “Baptism, which corresponds to this” (v.21). What is the “this” that Peter is referring to?

It’s the saving event of Noah and his family in the flood. As quoted above, the preceding verse, which tees up his comments about baptism, reads, “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water” (v.20). It’s the salvation through water to which Peter sees baptism corresponding.

Now, if Baker’s assertion that Peter intends baptism to be merely a symbol were true, then we’d lose the parallel with Noah and his family being saved through water. Having water as the only thing that connects baptism to the story of Noah and the flood wouldn’t tell us anything significant about baptism.

Lest we lose the intelligibility of the parallel between baptism and the saving event of Noah and his family in the flood, we shouldn’t interpret Peter to be denying the salvific efficacy of baptism in 1 Peter 3:21.

Thus far we’ve shown why Baker’s interpretation that Peter intends baptism to be merely a symbol of one’s pledge to follow Jesus fails. But what should we make of Peter’s statement, baptism saves as “an appeal to God for a clear conscience”?

Well, there are a variety of opinions on how to read this statement. Some, like Baker, see this appeal as a pledge or “answer” with a good conscience to follow Jesus. And this is not beyond the pale because the Greek word for “appeal,” which is eperōtēma, can mean “answer” or “a commitment to do something.” Others translate eperōtēma as an “appeal,” as the Revised Standard Version does, the implication being that in baptism Peter is saying we make a request of God to give us a clear, or good (1 Pet. 3:16), conscience.

Regardless of how we translate eperōtēma, both correspond with the salvific efficacy of baptism. Take Baker’s view, for example. The pledge to God to follow Christ with a good conscience doesn’t preclude a sacramental understanding of baptism.

Christians who believe in the salvific efficacy of baptism profess that such a pledge to Christ is a necessary condition to receive baptism (in the case of an infant, the parents and the Church make such a pledge on behalf of the child). The pledge is part of the baptismal rite. And this pledge is made “with a good conscience,” either because it’s a sincere commitment and/or the person making the pledge in the baptismal rite is doing so having repented of sin, which is necessary to be baptized.

The view that translates eperōtēma as “appeal” fits with the sacramental view of baptism as well. If we believe that God interiorly cleanses our souls by giving us a good conscience through the waters of baptism, then submitting ourselves to the baptismal waters is a request that God effect within our souls a clear, or good, conscience.

In sum, it’s contrary to the actual text to claim that Peter is saying baptism is merely a symbol of our pledge to follow Christ. Furthermore, there’s nothing contradictory between Peter’s statement about baptism being an appeal to God for a good conscience and a salvific understanding of baptism. Consequently, there is no reason for a Christian to stop appealing to 1 Peter 3:20-21 as biblical justification of the belief in the salvific efficacy of baptism.

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