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Q A friend recently pointed to 1 Peter 3:20-22 where it says that ''even baptism doth also now save us.'' I'm a bit confused about the meaning of these verses. Do we need to be baptized to be saved? 

A First, a few general points on baptism and salvation by works. The New Testament makes it perfectly clear in many places that baptism is not required for salvation. In 1 Cor. 1:17 Paul makes the statement, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.” Yet Romans 1:16 says the gospel is the power of God to salvation. Acts 10:47 says, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” There the receiving of the Holy Spirit is before baptism. Also the entire Gospel of John is written so that people can be saved (John 20:31), but never gives baptism as a condition for salvation. 

The Bible never considers an unbaptized believer; baptism is seen as a natural follow-up. In Acts 2:38, Peter includes baptism as the natural outcome of repenting—not as a condition. Never does the Bible say “he who is not baptized is not saved.” But it says over and over that whoever does not believe will not be saved. In fact, notice Acts 3:19, a similar situation, where Peter says to "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” No mention of baptism. There is a similar misunderstood passage in Mark 16:16, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Notice that when the negative is stated about being condemned, baptism isn’t mentioned. 

Anything I could do toward my salvation would be considered a work. Works are dealt with in such passages as Rom. 4:4-5 and Ephesians 2:8-10 and Titus 3:5. When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas (Acts 16:30 NKJV)  “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul’s answer was simply (Acts 16:31 NKJV), “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Nothing is mentioned that he should do at all. When the thief on the cross expressed faith in Christ (Luke 23:42, 43), Christ said, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” There was no time for baptism. Acts 8:26-39 tells the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip. Notice that when the eunuch asked if he could be baptized, Philip said “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch was only baptized AFTER he expressed his faith in Christ.

Baptism is simply a symbol of what the Lord has done for us in Christ. Romans 6:3-5 shows the symbolism: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.”

In 1 Peter 3:21, Peter shows that spiritual baptism saves us as the ark of Noah delivered him and his family. If you look carefully at the context, you’ll see that Peter takes great pains to explain that it is not water baptism he is talking about. After he mentions baptism, he says (in an explanatory parenthesis), “not the putting away of the dirt of the flesh [which would be water baptism], but the answer of a good conscience toward God.” This “answer of a good conscience toward God” is the baptism he is talking about. Baptism is then a symbol of the actual spiritual renewal that has taken place, as Paul says to Titus, “He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5b). Challenge your friend to explain what Peter means by this phrase “not the putting away of the dirt of the flesh.”

Note also that it is “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Compare that to Paul’s statement in Romans 6:4 that “we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” As I said, it is our identification into Christ’s death and resurrection that water baptism symbolizes. Peter shows that that real identification with Christ in His resurrection saves us in the sense that it leads to newness of life, which is the answer of a good conscience toward God. This is the baptism that saves us, not water baptism.


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