“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.
This post first appeared on the HB in 2009.