When we published an article recently about the New Testament church compared to churches today, a preacher in Elk City (Okla.) wrote to us arguing that baptism is not necessary for salvation. One of the passages he cited was I Peter 3:21.
In the passage’s immediate context, Peter is talking about the disobedient people who were preached to while Noah was preparing the ark, then he writes that in the flood, eight souls were saved by water (1 Pet. 3:20).
The flood waters raised the ark, which contained Noah and his family, while the disobedient were destroyed below. Peter goes on to say in verse 21: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Our friend here in town argues from this verse that baptism “is merely a symbol” of our salvation.
But Peter does not say that. He says baptism is a figure—literally, an “anti-type”—of Noah’s salvation from the destruction that all other living creatures suffered. Peter’s point is that just as Noah and his family were separated from the disobedient by means of the flood, so Christians are separated from the disobedient by means of water baptism.
Just as Noah’s family was “saved by water,” even so “baptism doth also now save us.” Based on our friend’s interpretation of this passage, he would have Peter teach that baptism “doth not save us,” which is the opposite of what Peter actually writes.
Peter goes on to explain that baptism is not meant to wash away literal dirt from our bodies, but is “the answer of a good conscience.” Those who’ve been convicted of sin, and who genuinely want to make things right with God, respond by washing away their sins in baptism (Acts 2:33-41; 22:16).
Peter also ties baptism to Christ’s resurrection in First Peter 3:21. “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us…by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” This is the same point that Paul makes in Romans 6:3-4. A penitent sinner is buried with Christ in the waters of baptism, and he emerges from the water just as Christ rose from the tomb, with new life.
It’s sadly ironic that a passage which is used to try to explain away baptism actually teaches its necessity. Baptism is not a figure of our own salvation—it’s a figure, or likeness, of Noah’s salvation from the world of sin.
And that’s what baptism does. It takes us out of Satan’s kingdom and puts us into Christ’s kingdom. It’s the dividing line between the old life and the new—between being lost and being saved.
Peter told believers in the first recorded Gospel sermon to repent and be baptized so they could be saved (Acts 2:37-38). For those willing to submit to Jesus Christ today, baptism doth also now save us.