Saved by Water

Saved by Water
By Daniel L. Segraves

One of the most interesting references to water baptism is found in I Peter 3:20, 21. Peter compared the role of water in saving Noah’s family with the role of water baptism in the church.

Specifically, the eight people in Noah’s family “were saved by water.” The same water that was the agent of destruction for unbelievers was the agent of salvation for Noah and his family; the water caused the ark to float above the world-wide destruction.

It might be protested that it was actually the ark that saved Noah and his family, but Peter’s emphasis was on water for the precise reason that he wished to draw a parallel between the salvation of Noah’s family and the significance of water baptism in the New Covenant.

The word translated “figure” by the KJV indicates that baptism is a fulfillment of what was typified by the role of water in saving Noah’s family. Obviously, this does not negate faith’s role in salvation. (See Ephesians 2:8-9.) It was Noah’s faith in God which caused him to obey God’s command to build the ark (Hebrews 11:7). Likewise, it is the New Testament believer’s faith which prompts him to obey the command of Christ to be baptized. (See Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16.)

It is difficult for those who see water baptism as merely an outward symbol of an inner reality to accept at face value Peter’s statement that “baptism cloth also now save us.” For example, Grudem offers a paraphrase: “Baptism now saves you–not the outward physical ceremony of baptism but the inward spiritual reality which baptism represents” (Wayne Grudem, I Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 17 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 163). This, he says, “guards against any ‘magical’ view of baptism which would attribute saving power to the physical ceremony itself” (Grudem, 163).

McKnight pointed out that this text has generated considerable discussion in the history of the church. What Peter apparently does is connect the “water delivery” of the ark with the “water delivery” of baptism. What is fundamental to understanding the early church’s attitude toward baptism is (1) that early Christians were much more ritualistic than most moderns, and (2) that all early Christians were baptized. Thus, there was no such thing as an “unbaptized believer” in Peter’s day. This approach to the rite permits Peter to say things about baptism that many modern Christians would not want to say (Scot McKnight, I Peter, The NIV Application commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 215, n. 8.).

McKnight’s observation is significant. There can be no question as far as the actual text is concerned that the genuineness of the saving effect of the water for Noah’s family is compared to the genuineness of the saving effect of baptism for the church. In other words, any attempt to make baptism an option is resisted by the fact that the water of Noah’s flood was not an option in the saving of his family. The fact that Noah’s family went into the ark certainly was evidence of their faith, just as baptism is evidence of our faith, but is was also an essential act of obedience if they hoped to survive the flood. All of the faith in the world would not have saved Noah and his family from the flood if they had refused to enter the ark. This does not mean the ark had “magical” powers; neither does baptism. Grudem’s reference to a “magical” view of baptism implies sacramentalism, the idea that the grace of God is imparted through the sacraments apart from or prior to faith. This, the Bible does not teach. Any act of obedience is validated only by faith. For Noah and his family, the ark was God’s means of delivering them from the flood, and they built and entered the ark as a consequence of their faith. For the church, baptism is God’s means of delivering believers from an unbelieving world very similar to the world in Noah’s day, and believers submit to baptism as a consequence of their faith in God.

The Early Christian View of Baptism McKnight’s comment that “early Christians were much more ritualistic than most moderns” and that “all early Christians were baptized” is important in that it reflects the understanding of first century Christians. As he points out, “there was no such thing as an “unbaptized believer” in Peter’s day.” The significance of this for our day is found in the question as to whether those closest to the origin of the church had a clearer understanding of baptism than those who look at the commands of Scripture from the distance of two thousand years. If, as McKnight suggests, the first century “approach to the rite permits Peter to say things about baptism that many modern Christians would not want to say,” it seems appropriate for modern Christians to reassess their perspective on baptism. In other words, any modern Christian should be able to wholeheartedly join Peter in his view of the significance of baptism.

It was, after all, Peter who responded to the queries of those who heard his sermon on Pentecost with the command, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). It was Peter who, at Cornelius’ house, “commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:48).

What Baptism Does Not Do

Baptism is “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.” Most commentators seem to understand that this means that the purpose of baptism is not to cleanse a person physically. Some, however, suppose that this is a reference to “moral defilement.” The latter view, of course, strips from baptism any actual connection to salvation. This is contextually problematic because it would imply that there was no real connection between the water of Noah’s flood and the salvation of his family. It is also problematic in that “moral defilement” is not a matter of the flesh only, but of the “flesh and spirit” (II Corinthians 7:1).

It may be that Peter’s declaration that the purpose of baptism was not to deal with the filth of the flesh was to respond to any idea that baptism was merely a ritual that cleansed a person from external defilement. This could have been the case, especially if I Peter was originally written to a primarily Jewish audience. Ritual washing was practiced widely in Judaism, as is attested by the mikvahs found in first century Jewish homes. Devout Jews immersed themselves daily to be cleansed from defilement. Many other ritual washings were inherent to Judaism. (See Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:4, 8; John 2:6; 11:55; Hebrews 9:10, 13.) Christian baptism was not in that category, however. The ritual washings of Judaism accomplished nothing; they were mere ceremonies which resulted in external cleansing.

What Baptism Does Do

Baptism is not merely an external ritual, but it is “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” When Noah entered the ark, it was evidence that his conscience was clear with God. He did what he did because of his faith in God; nothing stood between him and obedience to God’s command. Likewise, when a person comes to God in faith, turning away from sin, his baptism testifies to the fact that he is holding nothing in reserve; he is making a clean break with the past. In I Peter 1:22, Peter connected the purification of the soul with obedience to the truth. Only those whose conscience is not clear with God would have any reason to refuse baptism.

The statement “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God” is parenthetical. To discover the basis upon which baptism “saves us,” we must read directly from the first phrase to the last as follows: “The like figure whereunto even baptism cloth also now save us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” This connects the significance of baptism with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (See also Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:11, 12.) Michaels points out that “Peter speaks of water baptism in a way that recalls his reference to the new birth in (I Peter) 1:3. Both are said to take place ‘through the raising of Jesus Christ”‘ (J. Ramsey Michaels, I Peter, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49 (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1988), 221).

The meaning of Christian baptism is wide-ranging. By means of baptism, we are united with Christ (Galatians 3:27) in His death, burial (Romans 6:35) and resurrection. We are baptized into Christ because He was crucified for us (I Corinthians 1:13). Baptism is the New Covenant counterpart of Old covenant circumcision (Colossians 2:11-12). It was a primary response everywhere first century people turned to Christ. (See Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 13, 16, 36, 38; 9: 18; 10:47, 48; 16: 15, 33; 18:8; 19:5; 22: 16.) The doctrine of Baptisms is one of the principles of the doctrine of Christ (Hebrews 6:2).

Daniel L. Segraves is the Executive Vice-President and Chairman of the Department of Theology of Christian Life College. This article is adapted from his forthcoming commentary on I Peter, which will be published in 1998 by Word Aflame Press.