Baptism Now Saves You: 1 Peter 3:20-21

Noah's sacrifice

The following is a response to a friend’s blog post where he begins to outline his refutation of the Catholic understanding of baptismal regeneration, focusing his analysis on 1 Peter 3:20-21, which reads:

“…who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 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 clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (RSV)

Before we continue, I would like to make one very important note concerning the manner in which Protestants seem to use Scripture when providing evidence to or for as opposed to Catholics; that is, Catholics understand that the Bible is not always black and white there is more to Scripture than just what is in print such as author, audience, culture, time, etc. Not to mention that there are many teachings that are part of Divine Revelation in the form of Sacred Tradition. These teachings are absolutely never contradicted by Scripture although sometimes they are not explicitly found within Scripture (Scripture never says that it is the sole rule of authority or instruction).

Immediately following is the quoted post, I will do my best at responding to his objections:

Baptismal Regeneration and 1 Peter 3:20-21

Catholics and most Protestants disagree on the question of whether baptism saves us – Catholics viewing baptism as a requirement for salvation. One text Catholics cite is 1 Peter 3:20-21:

who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.

There is also an antitype which now saves us––baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

Before digging into the text a few preliminaries are in order. First, this passage is not part of an extended discourse on salvation, such as Paul undertakes in Romans and Galatians. Nor is Peter addressing the specific question of what must we do to be saved as Paul was in Acts 16:30-31. Rather, Peter is addressing the subject in passing as part of his larger discourse on suffering for Christ. Not to say that we cannot dig out little tidbits on salvation here; it’s just that we must be careful in doing so.

Second, Protestants believe that the scripture elsewhere teach justification by faith in such black and white terms that the sacramental view of salvation is ruled out. God promises to save believers and it would be wrong to think God would not save a true believer who was un-baptized. Now I do think contempt of baptism is a sign of unbelief. But if for some legitimate reason someone were to remain un-baptized (i.e. the thief on the cross) they will still be justified by their faith as God has promised.

On to the text… We have two reasons to believe Peter was speaking loosely when he says the waters of baptism save us: one in the inbound context and the other in the outbound context.

First, Peter says Noah and his family were saved by water. Strictly speaking, Noah was saved from water not by it. In light of this people have understood Peter’s statement in various ways. Some spiritualize the text by saying that the threat of water was the occasion on which Noah exercised faith and was justified. But this interpretation portrays Noah’s deliverance as spiritual rather than physical. The error in this view is plainly shown by the word ‘anittype’ – Noah’s physical deliverance from the flood typifies baptism rather than parallels it.

Others say Noah was saved ‘through’ water rather than by it. Thus Noah is being saved by something else while he passes through water. But that destroys the parallel with baptism as well, since with respect to baptism the passage says water saves us. Water is said to act in our salvation rather than simply to be around us as we are being saved.

Others say water buoyed up the ark or that water carried Noah to a new life. These views seem closer to being correct but these explanations are still not totally satisfying, since Noah would not have needed salvation in the first place if it were not for water and Noah’s life was not biologically different after the flood. In the final analysis, Peter is simply speaking loosely, water is a metonymy representing the whole business of God delivering Noah from the flood.

Second, Peter clarified what he was saying (i.e. not the removal of the filth of the flesh…). And this is a tell that Peter was speaking loosely and wanted to tighten up what he was saying a bit to avoid misunderstandings.

So what did Peter mean when he said water now saves us? I take water as a metonymy – both in the case of Noah’s salvation and ours. Strictly speaking water didn’t save Noah and it doesn’t save us, but it does represent our salvation and his. Baptism is a sign of the covenant. No one questions that; the question typically is if it’s more than that. In Genesis 17:13 God verbally substitutes His covenant for the sign of His covenant (i.e. I will put my covenant in your flesh). Here Peter substitutes the sign for the covenant.

One of the main reasons I take it that way is the expression “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer [or pledge] of a good conscience toward God”. In baptism, we pledge ourselves to God and join the visible church. If a believer is baptized, they are expressing their faith and God is saving them. If an unbeliever is baptized, he is not saved by it.

Babies are an interesting case, but without getting into that issue it seems safe to say babies neither pledge themselves to God nor are they bothered by conscience, so to say this passage teaches infant baptismal regeneration is quite a stretch.

via Arminian Chronicles: Baptismal Regeneration and 1 Peter 3:20-21.


Let me start at the beginning of his post:

The Necessity of Baptism

I agree with my friend. This passage, even in its full context does not directly address salvation as a whole. What it does do is address an aspect of salvation, one that according to Jesus Himself, is a prerequisite for entry in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus says,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’

Jesus is making it very clear that baptism is a requirement for our salvation. Yes, it shows the world that we are Christians but more so it leaves an indelible mark upon the soul showing the purely spiritual that we are part of the New Covenant. Let address to items prior to continuing, first there is the passage where Christ states, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’ (Matthew (RSV) 7:22-23). This is obviously a meaty passage concerning faith/works and the status of a believer but I also make the point that one can see a parallel concerning that indelible mark upon the should received at baptism versus a professed believer who does not receive it through baptism. How is this? Well Paul tells us:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians (RSV) 2:11-12)

So to understand the sacrament of baptism one must see how this all comes together as part of our covenant relationship with God. Many already know that Old Testament Jews were required to circumcise their infant boys (or any converts no matter the age) in order to show that they were indeed Jewish and part of the that covenant. This was done without the assent of the will of infants and while it did not save (pre-Christ) those who underwent it, it did set the men apart from the Gentiles making Jewish men easily identifiable and was evidence that one’s family kept the Commandments of God.

This is, in part, what baptism does for us. It sets us apart from others by a means that cleanses our soul of sin. When baptism is received as an infant it removes the stain of Original Sin and initiates us into the new and fulfilled covenant relationship with God as demonstrated by Christ  – Who is God. Despite the salvific properties of baptism, God also made it so that it only removes sin, whether inherited or personal (by commission/omission), on a person’s soul prior to the event. So, for example, if a child were to die immediately after baptism, they would be guaranteed entrance into heaven despite never personally proclaiming faith in Christ as most Protestants would say is a requirement.

What is interesting to note is that God mentions baptism as a requirement for entrance into heaven while also making it clear that simply believing in Him is not enough, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you” (Luke 6:46, Matt. 7:21–23, 19:16–21)? Simply put, it is Christ Who is God that binds us to this and all the sacraments because, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James (RSV) 2:24). This explicit contradiction to the majority Protestant doctrine of sola fide shows us why it is important to do as well as believe (Matthew 5:17).

Concerning the necessity of baptism, the Church teaches:

The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation (Jn 3,5). He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them (Mt 28,19-20 cf. Council of Trent (1547) DS 1618 LG 14; AGd 5). Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament (Mk 16,16). The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. (1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1257)

It is this last sentence that is most important when considering the Mercy of God and how receiving/not receiving the sacraments play out in one’s life. It is also important to note that the Church has a lot more to say concerning baptism.

The Saving Grace of Baptism is Prefigured in the Old Testament

As my Parochial Vicar often says concerning theology, “it is all about being precise.” How does this factor into our conversation? Well, to say, as my friend does, that Noah was saved from water and not through it is to miss the point of Peter’s words. Again, Peter is making it clear that baptism is not only required but salvific in nature. One could say that it is required because baptism is salvific. For example, the Haydock Catholic Bible Commentary explains the passage in this fashion:

Baptism, &c. That is, the ark was a figure of baptism, which saveth you from the death of the soul; and as no one was saved from the waters of the deluge but those few eight persons who were in the ark, so no one can enter into heaven if he hath not been baptized, or hath had a desire of it when come to the use of reason. And such persons as are capable of k
nowing what they receive, must come with the dispositions of faith and a true repentance, which is here called the examination (lit. the interrogation [3]) of a good conscience, who therefore are examined whether they believe in one God and three Persons, &c. Wi. — Baptism is said to be the like form with the water by which Noe was saved, because the one was a figure of the other.Not the putting away,&c. As much as to say, that baptism has not its efficacy, in order to salvation, from its washing away any bodily filth or dirt; but from its purging the conscience from sin: when accompanied with suitable dispositions in the party, to answer the interrogations made at that time, with relation to faith, the renouncing of Satan with all his works, and the obedience to God’s commands. Ch.

The Magestirum, through the Catechism teaches us that baptism was prefigured in the Old Covenant as follows:

1218 Since the beginning of the world, water, so humble and wonderful a creature, has been the source of life and fruitfulness. Sacred Scripture sees it as “overshadowed” by the Spirit of God:(Gn 1,2) At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness. (Roman Missal, Easter Vigil 42: Blessing of Water.)

1219 The Church has seen in Noah’s ark a prefiguring of salvation by Baptism, for by it “a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water”:(1P 3,20) The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of Baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness. (Roman Missal, Easter Vigil 42: Blessing of Water.)

1220  If water springing up from the earth symbolizes life, the water of the sea is a symbol of death and so can represent the mystery of the cross. By this symbolism Baptism signifies communion with Christ’s death.

1221 But above all, the crossing of the Red Sea, literally the liberation of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, announces the liberation wrought by Baptism: You freed the children of Abraham from the slavery of Pharaoh, bringing them dry-shod through the waters of the Red Sea, to be an image of the people set free in Baptism.(Roman Missal, Easter Vigil 42: Blessing of Water: “Abrahae filios per mare Rubrum sicco vestigio transire fecisti, ut plebs, a Pharaonis servitute liberata, populum baptizatorum praefiguraret.”)

1222 Finally, Baptism is prefigured in the crossing of the Jordan River by which the People of God received the gift of the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, an image of eternal life. The promise of this blessed inheritance is fulfilled in the New Covenant.

The Salvific Grace of Baptism

We are saved by Grace alone. The grace received through baptism is only salvific because it comes about through Christ Jesus, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians (RSV) 3:27, cf Romans 13:14). Going further, Paul says to us in Romans 6,4-7:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin.

Baptism is as much about becoming dead to sin as it is about being reborn – a “new creature in Christ:”

1265 Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of the divine nature,”(2Co 5,17; 2P 1,4; Ga 4,5-7) member of Christ and co-heir with him,(Cf. 1Co 6,15; 12,27; Rm 8,17) and a temple of the Holy Spirit.(1Co 6,19)

1266 The Most Holy Trinity gives the baptized sanctifying grace, the grace of justification:– enabling them to believe in God, to hope in him, and to love him through the theological virtues;- giving them the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit;- allowing them to grow in goodness through the moral virtues.Thus the whole organism of the Christian’s supernatural life has its roots in Baptism. (1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church)

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