Willis: The Big Bad Baptism Verse, 1 Peter 3:21

We are reaching the end of my Baptism series soon, which means I will then move on to mental health and sin, connecting everything together. Here we have one of the most important verses in all of Scripture concerning Baptism. The Greek text is absolutely critical to understanding the text, which isn’t saying much because that is the case 99.9% of the time.

I hope this helps to educate. Enjoy.

1 Peter 3:21

ὃ καὶ ὑμᾶς ἀντίτυπον νῦν σώζει βάπτισμα, οὐ σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου ἀλλὰ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, δι’ ἀναστάσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ1

Of all the verses that could be discussed, 1 Peter 3:21 is perhaps one of the most disputed and discussed verses in the whole of Scripture, with the discussion focusing primarily on Peter’s use of the word βάπτισμα.2 What is being said here concerning Baptism? Does it match what we have learned from the previous verses? Or is it saying something different? In order to discuss this verse, it is perhaps best here to take a different approach as that which was taken for the other verses, and look at the writings of John MacArthur, who takes a figurative theological understanding of Baptism to the text. MacArthur writes in his commentary on this verse:

Peter here uses baptism to refer to a figurative immersion into Christ as the ark of safety… Peter made clear that he did not want readers to think he was referring to water baptism when he specifically said “not the removal of dirt from the flesh”…That he was actually referring to a spiritual reality when he wrote ‘baptism now saves’ is also clear from the phrase, “an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The only baptism that saves people is dry—the spiritual one into death as well as the resurrection of Christ—of those who appeal to God to place them into the spiritual ark of salvation safety.3

But is this accurate based on the text? Let us break down some of MacArthur’s claims one by one and see if they match what is revealed here in this verse.

First, we have the claim that what is occurring is a figurative immersion—that is, figurative baptism. He bases this claim on the fact that Peter writes “not the removal of dirt from the flesh” as to say that this completely removes water from the process. Francis Beare addresses this specific point, saying, “In the Christian rite… the ‘filth of the flesh’ was [indeed] washed away, but that was not the important thing.”4 In this, Beare is saying that there was indeed water within the act of Baptism, but that Peter’s point is not to dehydrate the rite, but instead to get readers to understand that it is not the washing either alone or specifically itself that does any special work. It is similar to how Martin Luther explains in his Small Catechism concerning Baptism saying:

How can water do such great things? Answer: Clearly the water does not do it, but the Word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without the Word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism…5

This is all to say that the reason Peter mentions the removal of filth, is that it is not the critical or the important action in Baptism; it is what is being achieved by God and what He has promised it will do in His Word. Paul Achtermeier supports this conclusion, saying, “The power of baptism to save is drawn not from the water in some mysterious way but rather from the resurrection of Christ…”6 Peter Davids, writing on this, states, “…while baptism does consist in washing in water, it is not this outward washing… that is salvific. The water does not have a magical quality; neither does the outward ritual.”7 Davids also writes, “’Baptism… now saves you’ is Peter’s point, and baptism saves ‘through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,’ that was already referred to in 3:18-19. Just as in 1:3, it is union with the resurrected Christ that is salvific, as Paul similarly argues in Romans 6:4-11 and Colossians 2:12…”8

Davids’ point brings the focus to Peter’s focus—the true power of Baptism—that being Christ and His resurrection. By no means does this mean that water is not present, as the material which God has chosen to deliver Himself. Plus, Davids hammers the point home by not only bringing in other verses around 3:21, revealing the greater context, but he also points back to Romans and Colossians, which have already been discussed above. By pointing to sources beyond 1 Peter, Davids is allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, and allowing what is said in Romans (and Colossians for that matter), that the believer is united to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in Baptism to inform what Peter is writing about in his own Epistle.

This is additionally supported by Beare, who writes, “The saving efficacy of the sacrament lies in that it applies to the baptized the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection; the outward signifies a spiritual transformation.”9 This is to say that what is truly occurring cannot truly be seen, but rather the importance of Baptism is that which occurs in the believer. This is not to say that water is irrelevant. Rather, water is indeed the means in which God delivers His Word and His Spirit, but it is not the water alone that does or accomplishes the work. 

Additionally, within the specific context there is no reason to take the word βάπτισμα as to mean anything other than a washing of water. This is especially true when one considers the other verses which have been discussed above. None of the other verses in Scripture speak of a symbolic or figurative Baptism devoid of water.10 So, why in this case would we hold that it is anything outside of that same Baptism as spoken of in John 3:5? The answer is that there is no reason to think of it apart from or differently from, other than the mention of the removal of dirt via the accident of water washing away dirt due to its nature. But as has already been stated, this is not a matter of the Baptism being figurative, but rather a matter of Peter’s theological focus being on what is accomplished in the waters of Baptism, not upon the water itself.11

But MacArthur’s theological conclusions do not hang solely upon the mention of dirt being removed from the body, but he also mentions that the focus on the “…appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” is evidence for an exsiccated Baptism. But what is the nature of this appeal? Is it an appeal by the believer to God? Or is it something else?

Jonathan Fisk explains it is an appeal to God for a good conscience, specifically translating it as “a request for a clean conscience into God,”or “for a clean conscience as a request into God.”12 Fisk explains that ἐπερώτημα literally means to ask or to request.13 The ἐπί enhances or accentuates ἐρωτάω, and as a result indicates a long term result of the request.14 Additionally, he explains that συνειδήσεως is in the genitive case. This means it modifies the request (ἐπερώτημα). This can result in either “for a clean conscience” or “of a clean conscience” depending on how the genitive is used. Given the context, Fisk concludes it is likely that the genitive is being used epexegetically, and so the genitive is explaining that which comes before it.15 In this case, it would be best to translate it as “for a clean conscience as a request into God.”16

Achtermeier writes concerning ἐπερώτημα, explaining that ἐπερώτημα comes from and that “ἐπερωτάω (‘ask a question, make a request’) is more frequent in the NT than the verbal noun ἐπερώτημα, one can derive the meaning of the less clear noun (ἐπερώτημα) from the clearer verb (ἐπερωτάω), and define the noun as ‘request’ or ‘plea’, and since it is directed to God, as a ‘prayer’…”17 This is in agreement with how Fisk uses the word, in the form of a request to God, where the baptized asks God to give to them that which is promised in Baptism, that being a clean conscience.

It is within the waters of Baptism where the believer appeals to God to receive a good/clean conscience on behalf of Christ.18 This is delivered and granted on behalf, on account of, by the person of, and on the work of Christ Jesus—most importantly, His resurrection. This is what Baptism delivers: Christ.

Beare would again be a source of support for this conclusion. Coming off his comment concerning the efficacy of Baptism being found in the resurrection of Christ, he explains that it is in this prayer addressed to God, this “petition to God”, this ἐπερώτημα, that the believer seeks what God has promised, that being forgiveness and a “conscience liberated from the burden of guilt..”19 This, God grants to them in the very same Sacrament, upon the resurrection of Christ.20

As discussed above, Romans 6:1-6 makes this very clear, that Baptism delivers Christ, it joins and applies to the believer all that is Christ and all that He accomplished. As concluded above, Galatians 3:27 reveals that it is Baptism that clothes the believer in Christ. Likewise, Ephesians 5:26-27 reveals that in Baptism one is sanctified and made clean. It is not incorrect to both conclude that the clean conscience is granted because of Christ, and it is by the clean conscience granted to them by Christ that one is able to ask God to receive that which is promised, which is Christ. One is brought to God in the waters of Baptism, by the resurrection of Christ, so that they may receive what was accomplished in Christ, that being a clean conscience, a clean spirit, to be made clean (as in Ephesians 5:26 and καθαρίσας).21 22

Peter’s example of the flood should not be overlooked when considering if he is speaking of real water in Baptism. The context does not permit one to desiccate this Baptism of which Peter speaks. The flood was a literal event in history and contained literal water. This point should not be overlooked and is rather plain. Peter is not attempting to on the one hand discuss an event that contained real water, and then in turn spiritualize those very events with the next. As Beare writes, “…the salvation of Noah and his family ‘through water’ is the type, the prophetic image of the salvation which is brought to Christians ‘through water’, in baptism.”23 Both events include very real water. Just because the flood is the type, and Baptism is the antitype, does not mean that either are devoid of the element which makes them what they are—a flood and a washing (Baptism), both which need water to be what they are. Without water, a flood is nothing. Without water, one cannot wash. Both are waters of deliverance.24 Achtermeier writes that “the emphasis is here on baptism as another use of water for deliverance [with the waters of Noah being the first].”25

Edward Selywyn also discusses the idea of type and antitype. In doing so, he retranslates the text to say, “And water now saves you too, who are the antitype of Noah and his company, namely the water of baptism…” 26 This is to say that the water which saves is Baptism, and it saves all people. Though Selywyn does deny that divine grace is at work, he does quote St. Basil, saying, “’if there be any grace in the water, it is not from the nature of the water, but the presence of the Spirit.’”27 And this is correct and in keeping with the conclusions already made that grace is indeed there because of God and His Work and Word in and with the Water.

It is true that Noah and his family were spared from death on the Ark; it was also the waters of the flood which saved them as well. How? By purging the deadly world of those who would either corrupt or bring deadly harm to Noah and his family. As Genesis 6:5 reads in the ESV, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Likewise, Genesis 6:11-12 reads, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” The flood literally saved the world from total self-destruction in the throes of sin.

Nettles states, “Baptism itself does not remove the damnable filth but expresses one’s confidence that only the propitiatory death of Christ saves,” and that Baptism is a “clear symbol of the saving reality…” 28Yet the Greek text cannot be denied for what it states. The Greek makes a clear declaration that νῦν σῴζει βάπτισμα, or Baptism now saves. This βάπτισμα is said to now (νῦν) save (σῴζει). σῴζει occurs in the present indicative active, meaning that it is currently saving. It is not restricted to a specific one time event. Rather, this Baptism now and still and will save.

σῴζω carries with it the meaning to preserve, rescue; specifically save from death and/or destruction.29 This sort of rescue is occurring in the Baptism itself; it is not ascribed to something other than the washing of water with the Word. Though it must again be said that the water alone does not save apart from the Word of God, that is not to say that Baptism does not save. It is by the very nature of Baptism, being the thing that applies Christ to the believer, that allows it to save. There is nothing in the Greek that allows one to take Baptism as a symbol of something else that saves, but rather it is Baptism itself that is said to save in clear and concise wording.

We can, therefore, conclude that 1 Peter 3:21 is in agreement with the rest of the Scriptures discussed above, and that it clearly teaches that Baptism is the thing that saves, by the application and power of Christ’s death and resurrection.

1 Nestle and Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, 605.

2 Oscar S. Brooks, “I Peter 3:21: The Clue to the Literary Structure of the Epistle.” Novum Testamentum 16, no. 4 (October, 1974) 290, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.cui.edu/stable/pdf/1560225.pdf (accessed April 20th, 2017).

3 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Peter (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2004) 217-218.

4 Francis Wright Beare, The First Epistle of Peter: The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes (Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell and Alden Press) 149.

5 Martin Luther, “The Sacrament of Holy Baptism,” from The Small Catechism: in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000) 359.

6 Paul J. Achtermeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996) 267.

7 Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 144.

8 Davids, First Epistle of Peter, 144.

9 Beare, The First Epistle, 148.

10 As with all things, context is key to understanding Scripture. Therefore, when we read in Acts 1:5 that the Apostles were to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, the context dictates that this is a Baptism not specifically of water. The same is true of Mark 10:38 where Jesus speaks of His death as a type of Baptism. Due to context we understand these to be different uses of the word in question in that it is not a reference to water or a washing. But that does not permit or enable us to reinterpret the other clear verses which do in fact speak of water Baptism. Additionally, Jesus’ reference to His death as a type of Baptism connects us to Romans 6:1-11, as Jesus states that the Apostles will indeed receive this same Baptism as He had, that being His death. And how is this done? Through the waters of Baptism.

11 Ex. Davids, The First Epistle, 144.

12 Jonathan Fisk, Baptism Now Good Consciences You. Youtube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjcrsZFVyKw Accessed April 20th, 2017.

13 This is supported in Bauer and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 362.

14 Fisk, Baptism Now Good Consciencizes You, timestamp 6:05-7:05

15 Ibid, timestamp 7:14-8:20.

16 Ibid, timestamp 5:45-8:20.

17 Achtermeier, 1 Peter, 270-271. Also supported in Bauer and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 362.

18 Fisk, Baptism Now Good Consciencizes You.

19 Beare, The First Epistle, 149.

20 Ibid.

21 Fisk, Baptism Now Good Consciences You.

22 Also bear in mind all other verses which have been discussed. Matthew 28:19, Titus 3:5, Colossians 2:11-12, John 3:5. All of these verses when read alongside 1 Peter 3:21 begin to paint a very clear picture.

23 Beare, The First Epistle, 148.

24 Achtermeier, 1 Peter, 266-267; 268.

25 Achtermeier, 1 Peter, 267.

26 Edward Gordon Selywyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter (New York, NY: Macmillan & Company LTD, 1958) 203.

27 Selywyn, St. Peter, 205.

28 Armstrong, Four Views, 38.

29 Bauer and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 982.

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