1st Peter 3:21 Explained

By David J. Stewart
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"The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us..."

        Many false religions attempt to use 1st Peter 3:21 to mandate baptism for salvation, "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.Lutherans pervert the Gospel by twisting this Scripture.  So also do United Pentecostal Churches.  It's important for any Bible student to look at the surrounding Scriptural context in which a statement is made in the Bible.  If you read the entire chapter of 1st Peter 3, you'll learn that Peter was instructing us in Christian living (i.e., wives obeying their husbands, husbands loving their wives, being a law abiding citizen, etc). 

1st Peter 3:21 is difficult to grasp if you don't take into consideration other related Scriptures.  In verse 20, Peter mentions Noah and the ark, and likens "baptism" to Noah and his family being saved through the flood.  That's very interesting.  There are many great men of God who put forth differing opinions as to what this particular verse means; but they ALL agree that water baptism is NOT required for salvation.  I am firmly convinced that this Scriptural passage is speaking of being baptized into Christ through His Spirit, because verse 21 clearly ends with the phrase ... "by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."  Thus, it says "baptism saves us ... by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."  1st Corinthians 15:14 states, "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain."  It is the FACT that Christ has arisen that makes it possible for us to be born again by God's Spirit.  Just as Noah and his family entered "into" the ark by faith, and were saved from the flood by the ark (a kind of "baptism"), so we go "into" Christ by faith through the Spirit's baptism and are saved "in Him."

Baptism With The Holy Spirit (Salvation)

It is CRITICAL that you understand that baptism is often used in a FIGURATIVE sense in the Bible, and not just in a LITERAL sense.  For example: In 1st Corinthians 10:2, Paul speaks of the Jews being "baptized unto Moses" (i.e., the Hebrews had been living and working "unto" their Egyptian taskmasters.  They labored as slaves unto Pharaoh.  The Red Sea crossing had separated, or marked the death of, themselves to Egypt, and the Egyptians to them.  Now they had a new leader, Moses.  Their being baptized "unto Moses" simply meant that they no longer were forced to heed the voice of the slave masters in Egypt, but the voice of a new Master - God - whose spokesman was Moses).   Some theologians believe that baptism is used in a figurative sense here (i.e., that the ark of Noah's day represents our baptism by the Spirit of Christ, which IS our salvation).  If 1st Peter 3:21 uses baptism in a figurative sense, then it can only be referring to the baptism of the Holy Spirit (which has nothing whatsoever to do with water baptism).  The baptism which "doth also now save us" in 1st Peter 3:21 is the "baptism of the Spirit" which John the Baptist spoke of in Mark 1:8 ... "I indeed have baptized you with water: but he (Jesus) shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost."

The following exegesis of 1st Peter 3:21 is brilliant, and I believe accurate.  It is well worth the time to read it thoroughly, as it blows the heretics right out of the water (no pun intended):

To take first things first, here is my translation of 1st Peter 3:21:

And it is [just] this true baptism [of the Spirit] which saves you. Not any [literal] washing away of filth from your flesh, but an appeal to God for a clean conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 1st Peter 3:21

The context of this verse is twofold:

    1) Christ's pre-resurrection stay in Hades (specifically, in "Abraham's bosom" or paradise) during which time He made proclamation of His victory to the offending fallen angels of Genesis 6, this proclamation having been accomplished "by means of the Spirit" (v.19), "through which" Holy Spirit He was resurrected (v.18).

    2) The "baptism" of Noah and his family "into the ark" which forms an analogy to our baptism into Christ.

... Peter brings the whole period to a conclusion in verse 21 by comparing our salvation through the Spirit's baptism to Christ's resurrection by means of the Spirit in verse 18. This is complicated, I know, so let me give a synopsis of these verses to try and bring the argument out in a more understandable way, keeping in mind that the two-fold main idea here is first the power of the Spirit for deliverance our Lord, our exemplar and Savior and for us, and, second, the Spiritís means of accomplishing this for us, the baptism by which are made one with Christ, which is foreshadowed by the entrance of the righteous into the ark:

v.18: Christ died for us, but was resurrected by the Spirit's power, and

v.19: by the Spirit's power He proclaimed victory to the imprisoned spirits,

v.20: who offended when Noah was saved through a symbol of Spirit baptism (the ark),

v.21: just as we are now saved by Spirit baptism through Christ's resurrection.

Verse 21 answers verse 18: as Christ was resurrected through the Spirit, so we are saved by being united to Him in resurrection by the Spirit.

Verse 20 answers verse 19: as Christ was empowered to preach to the disobedient men and women in Noah's day through the Spirit, so the righteous of that day were saved in the ark, a type of Christ in whom we are by the Spirit.

Verse 18 complements verse 19: It is the power of the Spirit that took Christ to Hades, and it is that same power of the Spirit that raised Christ.

Verse 21 complements verse 20: Noah and his family were saved in the ark, a type of being saved by being in Christ through the Spirit, and in the true antitype we are saved by actually being in union with Christ through the Spirit.

Peter needed to add the "Noah argument" to keep this construction parallel, because while both Christ in His humanity and believers are resurrected by the Spiritís power, we can be baptized into Him but not the other way around (so that the "baptism into the ark" is added both for the sake of analogy, and to add a second instance of the Spiritís power working for Him in his humanity, also one which applies only to Him and not to us). This approach also allows Peter to explain the truth about baptism in general and to do so in a delicate way so as to avoid offense. To take the essential argument in reverse (i.e., working backward from verse 21 to verse 18 and expanding the translation to make the issues more understandable), I would paraphrase this section as follows:

Water baptism doesn't save you. No, rather it is the Spirit's baptizing you into Christ following your calling upon God in repentance and in faith in Jesus and His resurrection that saves you as God answers your prayer for a clean conscience before Him: it is repentance and faith that saves you, not any literal washing off of the dirt on your body but the washing of your hearts through repentance and faith, for this is the true baptism, the baptism of the Spirit which follows your repentance and faith. Now the baptism of the Spirit is analogous to the "baptism" that Noah and his family experienced, for they entered the ark as you entered Christ, and they were really saved by this entrance into the ark rather than by the water which destroyed the world, just as you are really saved by your entrance into Christ through the Spirit rather than by any literal water administered in ritual ... yes, and Jesus has proclaimed the victory of His cross through which you have been saved, and He did so through the power of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that three days later resurrected Him, even though He had died for your sins, once and for all, the Just for the unjust, to bring you to God [accomplished through your appeal for a clean conscience and faith in His resurrection and sealed by the Spirit baptizing you into Him.  -1st Peter 3:21, 20, 19, 18 [reverse order expanded translation]

To put it into a "nutshell", these verses make the following points: 1) it is Christ's sacrifice which is the key to salvation; 2) that sacrifice is appropriated for salvation by repentance and faith in Him and His resurrection; 3) that salvation is sealed by the Spirit's baptism; 4) it is the baptism of the Spirit that is important in this process, not water baptism; 5) water baptism merely removes literal dirt, but the Spirit's baptism makes us one with Christ; 6) Noah's ark gives us an analogy of this, for just as he went into the ark by faith (a kind of "baptism") and was saved "in it", so we go into Christ by faith through the Spirit's baptism and are saved "in Him". This is Peter's equivalent to Paul's 1st Corinthians 1:17 ("For Christ did not send me to baptize"), and with an appropriate explanation: water baptism doesn't accomplish anything - it is the Spirit's baptism that is the key. One of the problems commentators, interpreters and people in general have had with understanding this passage is the failure to understand that the way the Bible uses baptizo is very often NOT one of merely dipping into water. For example, Paul does something very similar to Peter here at 1st Corinthians 10:2 where he says that all the Israelites were "baptized into Moses" - clearly no water there, rather they were "in Moses" (i.e., God considered them like Moses and delivered them in spite of their unworthiness, just as we are delivered in Christ when God sees Him instead of our unworthiness). Failure to see that the Bible uses "baptism" much more often in the figurative sense in the epistles than in the literal sense has caused many misunderstandings and false interpretations of scripture. Many people can't get beyond the water.

In 1st Peter 4:6, Peter continues this exact same refrain of the power of the Spirit and the importance of the spiritual dimension over that of the physical or literal one. Just as Christ was "put to death in the flesh" but "made alive by the Spirit", so God's first and best desire for all mankind is that they will come to realize in this physical life ("according to men") that they stand condemned before Him "in the flesh", in order that they may have eternal life ("according to God") "by the Spirit". -SOURCE

1st Peter 3:21 and Water Baptism

Our salvation is in God's hands alone.  When Paul said "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" in Philippians 2:12, he specifically mentions "your" salvation; not God's salvation.  In Dr. Jack Hyle's book, Salvation Is More Than Being Saved, he accurately states in Chapter 5 (Work Out Your Own Salvation) ...

"Notice the words, "work out your own salvation."  Notice, I am not commanded to work out God's salvation, for I cannot do that.  I am, however, commanded to work out my own.  I have no part in the salvation of my soul; I do have a part in the salvation of my life."

Water baptism has never saved anyone from Hell, and never will.  If you're trusting water baptism to forgive your sins, then you're just getting wet my friend, and you will go to Hell in your self-righteousness when you die.  Peter was simply saying that we should be willing to suffer for Jesus, because He willingly suffered for us ... "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit" (1st Peter 3:18).  The message of 1st Peter chapter 3 is that we should walk in newness of life, which Christ has purchased for us with His own blood.