Baptism Now Saves Us


These three blog posts written by Rev. Martyn McGeown were originally posted on the Reformed Free Publishing Association's website. We place them together here for the benefit of the reader and because of the importance of the subject.

Baptism Now Saves Us

The apostle Peter writes certain words about baptism that are strange to our ears and that we might be reluctant to say. Some quote these words in defense of their doctrine of baptism, for they believe that baptism saves. The Reformed must not be shy about this text, for, it too, is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable—when properly understood, of course! Peter writes, “Baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter 3:21). Salvation in baptism! By carefully studying the text, we ward off wrong notions, but we also derive the meaning that the Holy Spirit would give.

And in so doing we shall have a better understanding of baptism and appreciation for baptism.

In 1 Peter 3 the apostle makes a comparison between the flood of Noah and baptism: “the like figure whereunto baptism doth also now save us” (v. 21). The antecedent of “whereunto” is the water of the flood in verse 20. The flood, therefore, was a type for the word “figure” in verse 21 is the Greek word “antitype.” Since the flood was the type, there is also an antitype or corresponding reality, for an antitype is the New Testament fulfillment of an Old Testament type. Already we should see that a bald reading of the text, “Baptism saves us,” will lead us astray. To understand the Spirit’s meaning here, we need to examine the relationship between the type and the antitype.

A type is an object, event, person, or action in the Old Testament that foreshadows or points to a greater reality in the New Testament. For example, David is a type of Christ; Canaan is a type of heaven; and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a type of the judgment of the wicked on the last day. The New Testament identifies two types of baptism from the Old Testament: the crossing of the Red Sea, the example expounded by Paul in I Corinthians 10; and the flood, the example explained by Peter in 1 Peter 3. There is, therefore, in these two historical events from the Old Testament something that corresponds to, points to, and foreshadows baptism in the New Testament. To understand 1 Peter 3:21, therefore, we must identify what the correspondence is.

Moreover, it is very important when studying typology to identify the point of comparison. Many violate this rule, for in typology they allow their imagination to run wild, finding typology in the Bible where there is none. Bear in mind that (1) there are only a few types, which are clearly designated as such in the New Testament; and (2) we must not seek for typology in every detail of the type. These rules are ignored; for example, if you have ever read books about the tabernacle, you will see this: expositors seeking for typology in every knop, board, and pin of the tabernacle, but missing the main point of comparison, fellowship with God in Jesus Christ!

To take the example of the flood, the fact that only eight souls were saved in the type has no corresponding reality in the antitype; the dimensions of the ark have no hidden, typological meaning; the construction of the ark from gopher wood—as opposed to any other kind of wood—is not typological; and the day, month, and year of the flood need not become an obsession for the sober exegete of God’s word. These are important historical details, but they are not part of the typology.

Finally, every Old Testament type must fail, for it is not the reality. David and Solomon, for example, are types of our Lord Jesus Christ, but they had to fail (thus, they fell into grievous sins), lest we confuse them with Jesus Christ. A type fails because it is only a foreshadowing of some greater reality. Therefore, it is not, and cannot be, the reality itself. The flood was a type of salvation, for Noah was saved through the flood, but the flood was not the salvation itself, for the waters of the flood did not cleanse Noah from sin and bring him to heaven.

Return to the words of Peter in 1 Peter 3:21: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us.” What Peter is saying is this: the water of Noah’s flood is in some sense a type of baptism, which is a picture (a sign and seal) of salvation. Baptism saves us as the antitype—the New Testament corresponding reality—of Noah’s floodwaters.

Apply now the rules of typology to Noah’s flood.

First, what is the point of comparison between Noah’s flood and baptism? Surely, the point of comparison is water: Noah was saved by water and in baptism we are saved by water, a point that I will explain later. That might surprise the reader, for we might think that Noah was saved by the ark. Nevertheless, Peter writes, “Wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water, the like figure whereunto baptism now saves us…” (1 Peter 3:20–21). Noah and his family then were saved from the ungodly world by the water of the flood. Through or by means of the water of the flood, God cleansed the old world of the wicked and he separated godly, believing Noah from the ungodly inhabitants of the old world, and he brought Noah into a new world. (Similarly, through the waters of the Red Sea, God separated Israel from Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and consecrated them unto Moses, who is a type of Jesus Christ as the Mediator).

Second, where is the failure in the Old Testament type, or how is the New Testament antitype superior to the Old Testament type? The salvation of Noah by the waters of the flood was not real salvation. It did not cleanse Noah of his sins, it did not justify or sanctify Noah, and it did not bring Noah to heaven. Certainly it did great and marvelous things, for it took the wicked out the world and swept them into hell (a fearful judgment!) and by means of the flood God preserved the line of Christ in the world (it was a mighty victory of the seed of the woman over the seed of the serpent).

What about the antitype: is it baptism? Does baptism by water cleanse us from our sins, does it destroy our sinful nature, does it justify or sanctify us, and does it bring us to heaven? No, it does not. That is because baptism is not the ultimate antitype. Christ is the ultimate antitype, the fulfillment of all the Old Testament types of salvation whether the flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the tabernacle, the sacrifices, or the reigns of David and Solomon.

With that background we are able to understand the comparison which Peter makes here and we are able to see what he means by that curious phrase “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us.”

Salvation is nothing less than full spiritual salvation from sin, death, and hell. Salvation is that work of God in delivering us from sin into the blessedness of eternal life, fellowship with God, and heaven. God saves believers and their children by forgiving them, by justifying them, by sanctifying them and making them holy, and by bringing them to the enjoyment of life with him. If that is the meaning of salvation, is Peter saying then that the sacrament of water baptism saves us? Not at all, for Peter does not say, “baptism saves us” (which is a loose paraphrase). Instead, Peter says, “the like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us” (v. 21). Notice the word “now”: as then the flood was typical salvation for Noah, so now baptism is salvation for us in another figure.

But we must explain this in a further blog post.

Baptism Now Saves Us: A Spiritual Cleansing

There are therefore, two figures in 1 Peter 3:21: the flood, which is an Old Testament type of baptism; and water baptism, which is the New Testament picture (or the sign and seal) of salvation in the blood and Holy Spirit of Christ. The reality is salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism elucidates: “Is then the external baptism with water the washing away of sin itself? Not at all; for the blood of Jesus Christ only, and the Holy Ghost, cleanse us from all sin” (Q&A 72). Water baptism, and its type, the flood, point to one great reality: the washing away of our sins by the blood and in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Peter teaches this when he writes: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us…by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (v. 21). Peter connects salvation not to water baptism, but to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and therefore also to the cross. There is no resurrection without the cross, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is his bodily resurrection from the grave three days after his death.

Peter has already explained the death of Christ in verse 18: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” Christ’s death was a substitutionary death, an atoning sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice. We are unjust or unrighteous, and Christ, the just one, paid for our sins. Thus Christ died both for our benefit and in our place, and by his resurrection God proves that he is perfectly satisfied with his Son’s work of atonement.

So we see the relationship between three things: the flood, water baptism, and salvation in the blood of Christ. The flood is the Old Testament type of salvation in the blood of Christ: by the waters of the flood Noah was separated from the wicked world and consecrated to God, but the waters of the flood did not wash away Noah’s sin or bring him to heaven. Baptism is the God-appointed New Testament sign and seal of salvation in the blood of Christ: as the waters of baptism wash away the dirt of the body, so the blood and Holy Spirit of Christ justify us and sanctify us from the guilt, pollution, and bondage of sin. But what is true of the flood is also true of baptism (it is not the reality): neither the water of the flood nor the water of baptism wash away sins. They are but God-appointed pictures of the true washing in the blood and Spirit of Christ. Or to use the language of sacraments, they are signs and seals.

The blood of Christ is the antitype or the New Testament fulfillment—not water baptism.

Lest we misunderstand Peter, he immediately adds this qualification (which appears as a parenthetical statement in the KJV): “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.” What does Peter mean by this? The “filth of the flesh” is sin—our sinful, polluting, corrupting nature. That, says Peter, is not put away when a person is baptized with water. Peter is not saying here that the water of baptism does not wash away or have the power to wash away physical dirt and filth from the body. The “filth of the flesh” in verse 21 is not physical dirt: mud, grime, and filth. If the “filth of the flesh” were physical dirt, Peter would not be saying anything particularly profound (of course, no one uses water baptism as a means to become physically clean—we bathe or take a shower for that purpose! We do not submit to baptism!). Besides, strictly speaking, it would be incorrect to say that baptismal water does not wash away dirt, for it does have that power, although baptismal water is not usually applied in sufficient quantities to remove dirt from the body, nor do we scrub our bodies in baptismal water to achieve physical cleansing. Instead, the “filth of the flesh” is moral evil; and the putting away of the filth of the flesh is spiritual cleansing from sin. This phrase is similar to a phrase found in Colossians 2:11: “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.”

Notice what Paul in Colossians 2:11 and Peter in 1 Peter 3:21 are saying: neither apostle is speaking of a cleansing from dirt. Paul teaches that Christ puts away our sinful flesh when he regenerates us (which, he says, is equivalent to spiritual circumcision made without hands, the circumcision of the heart celebrated in the Old Testament in passages such as Deuteronomy 30:6). Peter teaches that baptism does not put away our sinful flesh. The putting away of the body of the sins of the flesh occurs in regeneration; it does not, says Peter, occur in baptism: “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh” (v. 21).

So baptism, says Peter, saves us as a figure (“the like figure whereunto”), but it does not put away the filth of our flesh. In other words, water baptism does not remove our sins: it does not justify and it does not sanctify us. Peter, therefore, does not teach baptismal regeneration. Baptismal regeneration is the teaching of Roman Catholicism according to which the sacrament of baptism regenerates a person. By virtue of the act of baptizing by a priest, God gives a person spiritual life and Christ washes away a person’s sins. If the baptized person is an infant, baptism washes away his original sin; if the baptized person is older, baptism washes away both his original and his actual sins.

For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “By baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin” (paragraph 1263); “The sacrament is also called the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit, for it signifies, and actually brings about, the birth of water and the Spirit” (paragraph 1215); “Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God” (paragraph 1213).

In other words, Rome teaches that baptism is “the putting away of the filth of the flesh,” something which the apostle Peter denies.

But we shall have more to say in a further blog post.

To be continued…

Baptism Now Saves Us: An Assured Conscience

So what is the status of a baptized person in the Roman Catholic Church? His sins have been removed, but “concupiscence” remains. In Roman Catholicism, concupiscence is a moral weakness, a tendency toward sin, which is itself not sin and which can be resisted by grace (grace that God gives to everyone through the sacraments and through the good works of piety of a faithful church member). But the Bible teaches that all sinners (even believers) have a sinful flesh, a totally depraved and corrupted nature, which is not only inclined to all evil, but is itself evil, and which can do nothing good. This sinful nature exists in all sinners, although in believers it has been dethroned. Nevertheless, even in believers the flesh is still very active and produces in us all kinds of evil. Without a biblical understanding of sin, the Roman Catholic will lack a proper understanding of salvation: neither water baptism nor the power of free will (even when coupled with God’s grace) can deliver us from the “filth of the flesh.”

Why then does the Bible speak this way, linking the reality of salvation to the sign of baptism? Reformed theologians speak of the sacramental union, for in the Bible there is a close connection between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (the washing away of sin in the blood of Christ). The Heidelberg Catechism asks about this sacramental union, “Why then doth the Holy Ghost call baptism ‘the washing of regeneration,’ and the ‘washing away of sins’? God speaks thus not without great cause, to wit, not only thereby to teach us that, as the filth of the body is purged away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ; but especially that by this divine pledge and sign he may assure us that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (Q&A 73).

The relationship between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (salvation) is not one of identity. They are not the same, nor does the sign become the reality. A sign cannot be the reality; otherwise, it is not a sign. A sign cannot become the reality, otherwise it ceases to be a sign. Nevertheless, sometimes the Bible gives the name of the thing signified to the sign itself, because God would have us associate the reality with the sign.

I give a few examples to illustrate the point. “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:13). Circumcision was not itself the covenant—it was the sign and seal of the covenant (see Rom. 4:11), yet God speaks of his covenant in Abraham’s flesh. “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened, for even Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). The Passover lamb was not itself Christ—it was a sign of Christ, yet Paul calls Jesus “our Passover.” “And [they] did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). The rock itself was not Christ—it was a sign of Christ or a type of him, yet Paul does not hesitate to call the rock “Christ.” In a similar way, the Bible speaks sacramentally of both baptism and the Lord’s supper. In connection with the second sacrament, for example, scripture unhesitatingly calls the bread “my body” and the wine “my blood.” We know, however, for a number of reasons that the bread and wine are not (and do not turn into, and do not contain) the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Yet the Bible speaks of one (the sign) in terms of the other (the reality).

The Heidelberg Catechism, in connection with baptism, quotes two passages to illustrate this: “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5) and “And now why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). By these expressions, the Bible does not teach that baptism regenerates or that baptism washes away sins. The Bible is speaking of the sign (baptism) in terms of the reality (regeneration and cleansing from sin). The same is true of 1 Peter 3:21: baptism saves, but only as a figure, which figure points to true salvation in the blood of Christ.

This explains the beautiful as…so… language of the sacraments in the Heidelberg Catechism and in other Reformed creeds: “I am as certainly washed by His blood and Spirit… as I am washed externally with water…” (A 69); “He will as certainly wash us by His blood and Spirit as we are washed with the water of baptism” (A 70); “As the filth of the body is purged away… so our sins are removed” (A 73); “We are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (A 73).

On the one hand, there is the sign of baptism, which is the washing of water: “as the filth of the body is purged away by water” (A 73); “as really as we are externally washed with water” (A 73). Water can do that: it cleanses us of outward filth and dirt. On the other hand, there is the reality, which is a spiritual cleansing by Christ’s blood and Holy Spirit: “so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ” (A 73); “we are as spiritually cleansed from our sins” (A 73). What water cannot do, the blood and Spirit of Christ do.

The “as…so…” language of the sacraments is beautiful when we rightly understand it!

But if water baptism does not “do” anything, in that it does not actually wash away our sins, is it then useless and vain? Not at all, for it is a “divine pledge” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 73). It is, as Peter calls it, “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Pet. 3:21). The conscience of a man is his inner judge placed there by God, which conscience evaluates all his actions, and either accuses or excuses him (Rom. 2:15). A conscience might be weak (1 Cor. 8:7), defiled (Tit. 1:15), or even seared with a hot iron (1 Tim. 4:2). The conscience in 1 Peter 3:21 is a good conscience, that is, a conscience which testifies to the believer that he is a child of God, that his sins are forgiven, and that he is acceptable in God’s sight. But how does the believer have a good conscience?

No ceremony or work of man can give a man a good conscience because no activity of man can remove the sin that gives him a guilty conscience. This was true with the Old Testament law of Moses: “in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience” (Heb. 9:9). The only thing that cleanses our conscience and gives us assurance that our sins have been removed is the blood of Christ: “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit, offered himself with spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:14); “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22).

But here is Peter’s point: baptism plays a role—a very important role—in assuring our conscience. Christ’s blood cleanses the conscience because we are assured that the sacrifice of Christ satisfies God for our sins. In addition baptism is “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (v. 21). Baptism itself does not cleanse the conscience, but it does something else. We need to understand the word “answer” in verse 21: “the answer of a good conscience.” The difficulty is that the word actually means “question” or “request.” It comes from a Greek verb meaning to “ask,” “request,” “inquire,” or “interrogate,” but the noun only appears here in scripture. The idea is that the conscience seeks an answer to the question, “Are my sins forgiven?” Am I right before God?” This is the conscience’s urgent question and without a satisfactory answer there can be no peace. Therefore, according to the grammar of verse 21, a man’s conscience is the one making the request and his conscience receives the answer. The answer to the believer is: “Yes, your sins are forgiven in the blood of Christ.

Baptism is a pledge of that: in baptism we are seeking an answer to that question and God gives it. He gives it using baptism as a means of grace to strengthen our faith: “By this divine pledge and sign God [assures] us that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (Q&A 73).

How, then, does baptism save us? Not by baptismal regeneration; not by the putting away of the filth of the flesh; but by acting as a beautiful picture of the true cleansing in the blood of Christ, which is the fulfillment of the typical flood. God uses baptism to assure us that our sins are forgiven, not in the waters of the baptismal font, but only by the blood and Spirit of Christ.

Last modified on 17 January 2019
McGeown, Martyn

Rev. Martyn McGeown

Ordained: 2010

Pastorates: Missionary-pastor in Limerick, Ireland for the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland - 2010.


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