Does Baptism save?

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Generally speaking, most paedobaptists would stop short of teaching baptismal regeneration.  That’s the belief associated primarily with Catholicism that it is the act of baptism itself that objectively brings about salvation.  The closest we have got to that idea has been from  some Federal Vision proponents who insist that baptism does objectively do something and that therefore children who have been baptised are full members of the covenant community and so benefit from all of its benefits, including for example being allowed and encouraged to take communion.

Apart from not wanting to sound Catholic, another concern would be that arguing that the baptised child is regenerate leads to other problems and complications. For example what do we do with the child who decides they don’t want to continue with their parents’ beliefs?  Are they apostate? But then that means that grace was ineffective and didn’t last.  No problem of course if you are Arminian but that does cause problems for Calvinists!

However, from time to time I meet people who want to push a little further and to say that yes, baptism does save. Most recently this was stated unequivocally to my by a Lutheran.  Their basis for saying this was these words in 1 Peter 3:21

“ Baptism … now saves you.”

It seems fairly unequivocal doesn’t it. Peter is saying that we have been saved by our baptism. Now, at this stage it is worth observing that if baptism does save then you probably want to make it a priority to ensure that you have done it properly and that your baptism is valid.

  As always, it is best though to have a look at the full quote.

 21 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”

Now I want you to observe two things that were missed in the original quote. First of all, there’s the second part of the statement, the explanatory comment

“…. not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal (or pledge) to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Now, as was pointed out in discussion, this clarifies the first part of the statement it doesn’t negate it. That’s important because our initial temptation might be to say “look Peter is talking about the inner life not external things, therefore he doesn’t really mean that baptism saves. He means something different.”  I don’t think that’s quite right. However if the phrase clarifies what Peter means by “baptism saves” then we need to pay attention to how it clarifies things. 

The point Peter is making here is that somehow baptism makes a statement, an appeal, a pledge.  Now, that is probably going to bring a few other scriptures immediately to mind but hold onto those thoughts for a second because I want to draw your attention to the second bit of the verse that got missed out when it was first quoted at me. You will have noticed that there is an ellipse in the quote as I’ve represented it, though the original commentator sneakily left that out. So there is another crucial statement

“which corresponds to this.”

“What is it that baptism corresponds to?” I hear you ask. Well, that’s answered in the preceding verses. Peter is talking about the imprisoned spirits who Christ preaches to (that’s probably a topic for another day). He says that they were imprisoned:

“20 because[e] they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. “

In other words, there are parallels between baptism and the way in which Noah and his family were saved through and from The Flood on the ark. So, how did that happen? Well here’s Hebrews 11:7

“ 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 world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”

Noah and his family were saved because they responded in faith to God’s Word. They trusted God and showed that trust by boarding the ark.

Now, remember those other verses you remembered when we started to talk about baptism as a pledge/appeal/statement. No doubt you were thinking of:

38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)

And maybe:

“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”

In other words, that salvation is about faith, repentance and profession.  Peter therefore is using the word “baptism” here as shorthand for all that is included in that action. That’s the Baptistic understanding of the ordinance.

When I was baptised I was publicly putting on the record that I had faith, I had believed  in Christ for salvation and so I had repented from my sin in order that I might be forgiven through His death and resurrection. In other words, the baptismal waters don’t have any magical qualities that do something in and of themselves, just as the communion bread and wine don’t turn into the body and blood of Jesus.  Indeed, I doubt that any of Peter’s readers thought that baptism was about physically scrubbing up, so I suspect that his comments about removing dirt are a bit of an under stated way of reinforcing the point that it wasn’t something magical about the water that saved. Rather, what saves is what baptism signifies.

By the way, I take the view that we’ve spent so much time inventing ways for people to signal that they’ve repented and believed whether that raising a hand, signing a card, going forward or throwing a stick in a camp-fire when Scripture gives us clear guidance on how to go about it. Therefore, my preference is that baptism should happen as soon as possible once someone believes.

However, there is another point here.  If we take Peter’s comments seriously about baptism and salvation then doesn’t that mean we would want to get it right.  And we can be clear about what baptism isn’t.

  • Baptism is not sprinkling water over a baby’s head because it’s seen as the socially accepted thing to do.
  • Baptism is not sprinkling water over a baby’s head because his or her parent’s are members of the church.
  • Baptism is also not about an emotional service which your friends and family come to then you get dunked in a big tank followed by cake, cards and presents because it’s expected of you and has a bit of a coming of age feel to it.

Baptism is about publicly and visibly saying that I repent and believe.

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