Does Baptism "Save"?

Merrit asks this question: “Two friends and I have been talking about this verse (1 Peter 3:21) and passage for quite some time today. The more we seem to talk about it the more confused I seem to get about it.


It’s a difficult passage but not impossible when read in context.

Remember first of all that the context is Peter’s concern is that Christians, considered according to their profession, should live according to that profession. He’s been writing since 2:15 about how various kinds of people in the visible church should conduct themselves. Then he turns to the theme of suffering for the sake of our identity with Christ. For Peter, this naturally brings up the matter of baptism, which is our outward identity (not “union with”) with Christ (just as circumcision had once been the identification with Christ; Col 2:11-12).

In 3:18 he says “Christ also suffered.” This indicates the connection in his thought between our suffering and Christ’s. We only suffer because we’re identified with Christ. Thus we’re to give a reason for the hope of salvation we have in Christ and we should suffer for doing good, not for doing evil.

He suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous (Christ the substitute!). He was put to death in the flesh (so we should put to death the flesh) and he was made alive in the Spirit (as we have been). Now, notice the relative pronoun –“in whom,” i.e. in the Holy Spirit, which is the antecedent of the pronoun, he went and proclaimed. When did he do that? In the days of Noah. There’s nothing here about going to the place of the damned or the dead. The people to whom Jesus, in the person of the Holy Spirit, went and proclaimed weren’t dead yet. They were still alive then.

How did we, in the flow of the narrative, get to Noah? The ideas of death and deliverance through death that have been lurking in the background surface, as it were. Remember the analogy with the ark. The church went into the ark. They were saved through the flood waters not by them. This is where advocates of baptismal regeneration err. They miss the force of the analogy. The waters did not save anyone! The waters killed everyone but Noah and family. God saved his people by means of the Ark, not by means of the water.

The flood waters were a death. They were an ordeal. They were a literal death for those outside the ark. They are a metaphorical death for those inside the ark. Those inside the ark were as good as dead, except they weren’t dead. They were saved by the sovereign grace of God. Baptism “corresponds” to the flood.

By the way, [ed: Merrit also asked about the mode of baptism] Who got immersed? Everyone but Noah and family (the visible church). The church “went through on dry ground” as it were. What does baptism do? Just as the Noahic church was delivered “through” (i.e. they survived the judgment) the flood, so we now are saved through (not by but through = survival of the judgment) the “flood” which identifies us with Christ’s death.

It’s important here to see that identification is not union. The Federal Visionists err by teaching that baptism unites the baptized (ex opere operato) to Christ. Did the flood waters unite the drowning to Christ? No! Did they unite those in the ark to Christ? No. The church was identified with Christ typologically. They looked forward to the fulfillment in Christ. They were really saved, however. They didn’t drown. They got on to the ark because Noah believed. “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the whole world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Heb 11:7). The righteousness did not come instrumentally by baptism, but by faith.

That’s the “pledge of a good conscience.” Baptism doesn’t produce it but testifies to the reality of it in those who believe. Just as the flood was a sign/seal of deliverance, so baptism is now. Just as people didn’t believe Noah, they don’t often believe us. Just as they persecuted Noah for believing in Jesus so they persecute us.

The analogy of baptism and the flood helps explain why he says that baptismal waters themselves don’t make anything happen any more than the flood did. Humanity has two distinct relations to the waters. Either the the flood waters/baptism waters are a judgment, i.e. they signal condemnation (for those who are not identified with Christ) or they signal salvation for those who are identified with Christ, who are in the ark. Contra Rome and the FV, Baptism doesn’t work ex opere (automatically). Jesus’ resurrection saves us and we are united to him by faith. Jesus went through the greatest flood/death/judgment and his resurrection signals that he was righteous and survived the ordeal. Baptism is a sign of our union with him. Baptism is an outward identification with his flood-ordeal. The tomb didn’t save Jesus. He was delivered from the tomb. His righteousness saved him. His resurrection was a vindication of his righteousness. Jesus is the ark. He is the Savior. The flood waters aren’t the Savior.

So too, the righteousness of Jesus saves us How do we benefit from Jesus’ righteousness? Union (not identification!) with Christ. It’s possible to be outwardly identified with Christ and lost. It’s not possible to be united to Christ and be lost. All those for whom Christ died, in whom he creates a true union by the power of the Spirit, are made alive, given faith, justified, adopted, etc. True union with Christ is the work of the Spirit (as he’s already intimated above) which creates faith in Jesus the ark of salvation.

This is a difficult passage but not impossible if we pay attention to the analogies that Peter uses. It’s not unlike Matt 24 where Jesus says, “As in the days of Noah.” If we pay attention to the Noah story, and if we notice that Jesus says that the flood came and “took them all away.” To be taken is not a good thing. So will it be when the Son of Man comes. “Two will be working” etc. One will be “taken” and the other left. According to the analogy, to be taken is to be destroyed in judgment not “raptured” to safety!

So too, if we pay attention to the analogy with Noah it helps us a great deal with the two major difficulties in this passage in 1 Peter 3.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Great article, thanks!

    So would you say that saved dia water would better be translated with “through” (almost in a sense of “from”) instead of “by”?

  2. I could get shot for saying this to the wrong audience, but don’t forget to throw Lutherans in to the “regeneration” crowd, too. Luther, in particular, was adamant about baptismal regeneration and it’s something that, to me, is a vague and evasive concept that is not well supported by scripture.

    Worse than the Roman, Lutheran, or FV, though, are those denominations who are descended from the anabaptists. They, in particular, seem to require various forms of QIRE when it comes to baptism including public testimonials. And about two-thirds of those testimonies I hear come from former RC’s who, like it or not, have been “legitimately” baptized (i.e., via effusion in the name of the Holy Trinity) as infants and are blasphemously re-baptized as adults. Regardless of what Rome teaches about baptism, the means are scriptural.

    Lowest on the rung, though, are those ex-RC’s who remind me a lot of former smokers, that go around telling their fellow evangelicals and existing RC friends that they cannot have a saving faith unless they follow the same process they went through.

    Give me the Reformed view any time. Which reminds me, since my daughter and her fiance were in town last weekend, I was able to talk my wife into attending services just down the street at the local OPC congregation. As expected I heard excellent preaching of Law and Gospel as it applied to the Ressurection, and a clear message of justification. My wife did not like it though, complaining that the congregation did not appear to be exuberant and joyful enough for an Easter Sunday. QIRE.

    • Hi George,

      I omitted the Lutherans because it’s complicated. I’m not convinced that Luther actually taught BR. I agree that the Book of Concord does and that Lutheran orthodoxy did but Luther is more ambiguous.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    As always, this was very helpful.

    Do you know if anyone (perhaps yourself?) has put together a chart of this “stuff” with terms (justification, baptism, Lord’s Supper, etc.) and their meanings, aligned with the various “camps” (Rome, FV, NPP, Historically Reformed, etc.). I’m not sure exactly what this would look like, but, as a lay person, I think it might help me to better sort it all out.

    Thank you for your work,

  4. Excellent, thanks! This is a subject I’ve been thinking a good deal about since my wife and I will be presenting our infant son for baptism this Lord’s Day. I think 1 Cor. 10:1-5 is helpful on this question too.

  5. FYI, there should be an article in the summer issue of Themelios on Martin Luther and baptism.

  6. Good stuff pastor.

    Just so this thick skull of mine gets it clear:

    We are united to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit through the instrument of faith, and this union is signified in baptism?

    2nd, have you written any thing on JW Nevin?

    • Vic,


      No, I’ve not written anything for print (that I can remember) on Nevin. See Hart’s bio in the Reformed biography series. We have it at the WSC bookstore.

      • I’m going through Hart’s book for a second time. Great stuff! I wanted to see if there were any other resources, lectures, etc. on the Mercersburg Theology. What are your thoughts on it?

        • Vic,

          Fwiw, I’ve done some work in Mercersburg.

          I’d suggest James Hastings Nichols’ work, “Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg” as one of the two most important secondary works, along with Hart’s bio. Those two books are the place to start. Also of note is William DiPuccio’s “The Interior Sense of Scripture: the Sacred Hermeneutics of John Williamson Nevin”. And if you are interested in Schaff too, Stephen Graham’s “Cosmos in the Chaos” is essential reading.

          Primary sources: go to Mystical Presence, then Anxious Bench, then Antichrist, then the essays contained in the Yrigoyen ed. volume “Catholic and Reformed”, esp. the one on Liturgy. After that, if you have access to a good theological library, start busting through the Mercersburg Review. I especially recommend the article from I think 1867 on the atonement, “Once for All.” It shows the later Nevin in his more confirmed Protestantism.

  7. Exactly. It’s the act of faith, not the application of water, that saves.

    I had always thought meaning of that passage was pretty clear, but there seem to be a whole lot of Reformed folk with their head torqued on backwards about that verse for some reason.

    I think that Grudem may have a good discussion on this in his Systematic Theology, even while coming from a credo-baptist perspective.

  8. But doesn’t baptism also “confer” grace efficatiously? To the elect it confers saving grace, to the reprobate it confers judgment. Faith receives, but baptism confers, not just signifies. This is at least how I see the WCF (28.6) putting it, am I wrong?

    • Jared,

      Yes and no. Definitions are very important here. It is one thing to say that God uses the sacraments to effect SALVATION (deliverance from sin and its consequences) and it’s quite another to say that God necessarily effects a union with Christ through sacraments. These are quite different concepts.

      The sacraments are used by God to confirm his promises and to sanctify us and to edify us and this is all part of salvation and thus, to the elect, they are efficacious and they do confer the grace they signify but they do so in conjunction with Gospel, as means of grace, not as instruments of magic.

      • Can we say God necessarily effects either blessing or judgment through the sacraments? I see the problem in saying baptism always has a positive effecacious force to salvation, but doesn’t always have some efficacious force for either salvation or condemnation? And when faith becomes present is it not appropriate to see baptism as the place where that happened (though not necessarily in time) where we were united to Christ?

        • M. G. Kline and others have talked about the curses attached to the sacraments. See 1 Cor 11 and the curse implied in baptism/circumcision. It is a death. Circumcision did implicitly threaten death as does baptism. If you’re united to Christ it is a witness to life because it testifies to the fact that Christ underwent the flood/circumcision ordeal for us. If you’re circumcised/baptized and not united to Christ then the judgment they represent still rests on you.

      • Can we say God necessarily effects either blessing or judgment through the sacraments? I see the problem in saying baptism always has a positive effecacious force to salvation, but doesn’t it always have some efficacious force for either salvation or condemnation? And when faith becomes present is it not appropriate to see baptism as the place where that happened (though not necessarily in time) where we were united to Christ?

  9. I Peter 3:21…Let’s take another look at this controversial Bible verse

    1 Peter 3:21 (ESV)

    1 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

    Ask an orthodox Christian what this Bible passage says and this will be his response, “Baptism saves you.” Pretty simple interpretation of the passage, right?

    Ask a Baptist or evangelical what this passage says, and he will say something like this: “Water baptism is a picture of our appeal to God for a clean conscience which occurs in our spiritual baptism: our decision for Christ/our born again experience. This passage is not talking about water baptism, it is talking about spiritual baptism.”

    Ok. Let’s take a look at another passage of Scripture:

    Hebrews 10:22 ESV

    let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

    What is it that gives us the full assurance of faith according to this Bible passage? Our decision to accept Jesus into our hearts? Our decision to be born again? Our decision to make a decision for Christ? No. The simple, plain rendering of this passage of Holy Scripture tells us that our assurance of faith is based on God sprinkling our hearts, cleansing us of our evil conscience, AND washing our bodies with pure water!

    There can be only one explanation for the “when” of full assurance of salvation: WATER BAPTISM!

    Both of these passages talk about having our consciences cleansed, and the verse in Hebrews clarifies that this cleansing does not take place in our mind or as a public profession; it takes place in our heart, our soul; and this cleansing occurs at the same time as “pure” water is applied to our body! This is water baptism, Baptist and evangelical brothers and sisters! Stop twisting and contorting the plain, simple words of God to conform to your sixteenth century false teachings!

    Believe God’s plain, simple Word.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    an orthodox Lutheran blog

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