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Water Baptism: The Interpretive Key

This brief primer is designed to provide an interpretive key for understanding the role of water baptism in our salvation. In my experience as both theologian and pastor, I found it was virtually impossible to reason with any individual who had already been indoctrinated with and blinded by the baptismal regeneration error: chiefly, members of the ‘Church of Christ’ cult.

The problem with these individuals, besides the spiritual blindness, is a hermeneutical approach that consists primarily of the ‘proof text’ method. In an effort to argue that water baptism is an essential requirement for salvation and the remission of sins, they quote scripture as ‘proof’ with no regard for the context. But the proof text method requires no wisdom, no intellectual honesty and no spiritual discipline. While it appears to be Bible-based, it produces nothing more than a lifeless formulaic system, which, if one can fulfill all the biblical ‘requirements’ for salvation, gives one a false sense of security. It basically amounts to ‘checklist’ salvation.

The proper method for the study of scripture is found in 1 Corinthians 2:13: “Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” And again we are told: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). Thus our interpretive method (hermeneutic) MUST avoid standalone proof texts. It must take into account the entire body of truth, allowing clear and unambiguous scriptural meanings to determine the meanings of other challenging texts or those that might appear to be contradictory. Our focus here is I Peter 3:20-21. If one properly understands this passage, he can then take its unambiguous meaning to texts like Acts 2:38 and avoid breaking his theological neck with the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

This passage is critical for two reasons. First, it was Peter who preached on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). In his remarks to a largely Jewish audience, he urged: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38). Some argue that Peter taught baptism as essential to salvation. But the text of I Peter 3:20-21 allows Peter to CLARIFY his understanding of baptism’s significance.

Secondly, this passage states that "baptism doth also now save us." It is therefore important to understand the MANNER in which baptism saves us. Peter's analogy in this passage allows us to do that. An honest and thoughtful exegesis of these verses will shed light upon the other passages cited as ‘proof' that baptism saves.

The first point of clarification must be that salvation has more than one tense or application in the New Testament. Actually, there are three. The first is justification. This act of God declares the sinner to have a righteous standing before him by virtue of Christ's imputed righteousness. This act constitutes a moment in time, not a process. This is also the moment of regeneration, wherein the very life of Christ is brought into the bosom of the sinner by the Holy Ghost. The act of justification is one time for all time. It is represented in the New Testament by the past tense, whether aorist or perfect.

The second is sanctification. This aspect of salvation is both positional and practical. The idea of sanctification is that of being "set apart" unto God. The believer is sanctified in a positional sense when he is placed into Christ by Spirit baptism (I Corinthians 12:13). He is sanctified in a practical sense as he walks in the Spirit after justification, not fulfilling the lusts of the flesh. As Paul made clear in Galatians 3:3, there is a beginning in the Spirit, and there is a subsequent perfecting (bringing to maturity and Christ-likeness) by the same Spirit. This perfecting is represented in Scripture by the present (durative) tense.

The third is glorification. This aspect of salvation is both present and future. There is something of the glory of Christ which is imparted to every believer (2 Corinthians 3:18). But the full manifestation of glory in the sons of God will come to fruition in the resurrection, wherein our vile bodies shall be transformed like unto His glorious body in sinless perfection (Romans 8:18; Philippians 3:20-21).

With these three salvation aspects in mind, I Peter 3:21 reads: "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us." The first question that ought to command the attention of the interpreter is the verb tense of the salvation in view. The tense is present, and therefore cannot refer to the act of justification, which is a past and finished work of God. It must therefore have reference to the second aspect of salvation, which is sanctification.

Let's examine that position. Verse 20 says “the ark was a preparing" (completed after 120 years of labor). It was in the ark that eight souls were saved. And yet it is said that they were "saved by water." So we have the ARK (a picture of the believer’s position in Christ) and the WATER (a picture of the believer’s separation from the world) both working together to provide salvation for the eight souls.

The question, then, is this: Exactly what roles did the ark and water play in this salvation? How were they instrumental? It may be said with certainty that the water, apart from the ark, would have resulted in the deaths of Noah and his family. The ark itself provided their salvation, which is a figure or type of Jesus Christ. The water saved them inasmuch as it separated them (set them apart) from a wicked world under the judgment of God.

The salvation of the eight souls was accomplished by (1) the ark with regard to position, and (2) the water with regard to separation. The analogy holds true for the Church age. The believer is first positioned in Christ by faith prior to immersion into the baptismal waters. Water baptism then separates the one who is safely sheltered in Christ from a world that still resides under the condemnation and wrath of God. Baptism is a public declaration of one's separation from the world by virtue of their position in Christ. Suggesting that baptism puts the sinner "into" Christ places the cart before the horse, and violates the analogy given here by scripture. If you are not "in Christ" prior to baptism, the water shall avail you nothing!

Verse 21 teaches us that water baptism does for the believer what the floodwaters did for Noah. The word "figure" means antitype. Water baptism corresponds to the floodwaters as a separator of saved men from lost men. Water baptism is a one-time event with an on-going benefit. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the reality that provides eternal life for the believer, corresponding to the ark. Baptism is the public affirmation of the believer’s relationship to (and position in) Christ, and corresponds to the floodwaters as a public separator (sanctifier) unto Christ.

Peter is careful, however, to explain to his readers what baptism is not! According to Peter, it is NOT “the putting away of the filth of the flesh”. That is, water baptism does NOT put away the moral filth (sins) born of the sin nature (flesh)! This phrase is variously interpreted. Some insist Peter's reference here to "the flesh" is simply the body itself. They interpret "filth" as physical dirt, which is removed from the body through ceremonial washing. In other words, baptism is no mere ceremonial act. This interpretation strains credulity!

Those who properly understand water baptism as an antitypical act of obedience see the word "filth" as a reference to sin and moral defilement, and "the flesh" as in the Pauline sense – the sin nature within the bodily flesh of man which produces moral and spiritual defilement. This second possibility seems to be the obvious intent of Peter.

What Peter DOES tell us is that baptism is "the answer of a good conscience toward God." The word "answer" speaks of a public reply to a query. It was often used in a courtroom context. For example, a defendant might be asked to issue a public response to charges leveled against him by his accusers. Peter says water baptism is an answer! It is the believer publicly affirming his response to this query: "Is Jesus Christ your Lord, and are you His disciple?" Baptism is the resounding "Yes!" to a lost and dying world, and separates him unto Christ from that world.

Peter adds the phrase: "of a good conscience." The Greek preposition for "of" is ek, and means "out of" (with reference to source, location, or sphere). A good conscience is in place PRIOR to, and at the time of, the answer of baptism. The NT clearly defines the "good conscience" as the result of grace and forgiveness in Christ. The believer, as the recipient of grace and a good conscience by virtue of justification by faith, proceeds to affirm by baptism that Christ indeed has saved him from sin and guilt. Thus the good conscience answers!

If the professor of faith in Christ demonstrates reluctance to answer by baptism, one of two things is true: (1) The professor possesses only mental and or verbal assent to the claims of Christ, has not received a good conscience, and thus casts a cloud of disingenuousness upon his profession, or (2) The professor has been saved, but jeopardizes his good conscience through disobedience to Christ's command to be baptized. The essence of Christ's teachings, and that of the New Testament, is that a profession that will not baptize is not worth a plug nickel in the kingdom.

Baptism is the answer that proceeds from a good conscience. The good conscience is the result of the blood of Christ having been applied to the soul. Even as Noah was "in the ark" when the floodwaters came to separate him from the world, so also the believer is "in Christ" prior to the waters of baptism which are ministered to him as the answer of his good conscience. Therefore baptism now saves us (present tense) as a matter of sanctification, locking in a good conscience going forward.

Proper understanding of the phrase "the answer of a good conscience" gives baptism its proper place. So whether one argues that baptism is no mere ceremony, or that baptism has nothing to do with cleansing one from the defilement of sin, he is correct. Neither position detracts from the reality that baptism is the ANSWER of a good conscience, and has an antitypical relationship to the floodwaters of Noah's day.

Peter, the preacher at Pentecost, has provided for us his understanding of the significance of water baptism. That understanding obviously had not changed during the twenty-seven years that elapsed between Pentecost and his First Epistle. His inspired insights can now be brought to bear upon other passages that speak of water baptism in relation to salvation and the remission of sins. The bottom line is this: Water baptism has NEVER washed away the first sin. If a sinner goes into the baptismal waters unjustified, he will be just as lost when he comes up and out!

With this interpretive key firmly established, the true Bible expositor, who compares scripture with scripture, can come to a text like Acts 2:38 and KNOW that what Peter meant MUST have been “repent, and be baptized every one of you FOR (in response to) the remission of sins (that repentance brings), and ye shall receive…” With a little exegetical effort, he will discover that ‘in response to’ or ‘as a result of’ is a perfectly legitimate translation of the Greek preposition ‘eis’ that the KJV translates “for” in Acts 2:38 inasmuch as the men of Nineveh repented “at” (eis. in response to, as a result of) the preaching of Jonah (Matthew 12:41; Luke 11:32). The usage of eis by Jesus in these contexts validates the 'in response to (as an answer)' meaning of Acts 2:38.

False teachers of baptismal regeneration, who have been indoctrinated with a salvation formula consisting of a ‘proof text’ checklist, will likely stumble over this truth. Perhaps this interpretive key will open the eyes of some. Based on decades of first-hand experience, I have NEVER found a false teacher within the Church of Christ cult that EVER believed 'repentance and baptism' alone, as they insist when quoting Acts 2:38, is the whole story behind our justification and ultimate salvation. The Church of Christ teaches a 'Checklist Salvation' that differs not a whit from the NT Judaizers that taught Mosaic Law as a salvation requisite in addition to faith in Christ.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about a relationship, not a checklist. That 'born again' relationship is established by faith mingled with repentance, not a checklist. Once a man is saved (born again) by the grace of God through faith, he is kept by the power of God his Father, not by obedience to a checklist! For a more in-depth treatment of water baptism, see The Role of Water Baptism in Our Salvation.


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