The following is a section of my book: Heaven: Where Few are Many! These are comments from the section dealing with 1 Peter 3:18-21.
Baptism Is Not The Savior!
It seems appropriate to note that the context in which this often misunderstood statement concerning the righteous “scarcely” being saved is found, is where we also have a statement that says there is a “saving” aspect to water baptism (1 Peter 3:8-4:19). Peter plainly says that baptism saves us (1 Pet. 3:21). But what exactly does that mean? And is it possible that a misunderstanding concerning this simple ordinance that the Bible calls baptism has led some to conclude that no one can know for sure that they are going to Heaven and, if they do, they will only “scarcely” be saved?
It seems to me that the subject of water baptism is commonly misunderstood by many people, both in the church and in the religious world at large. Some ignore it completely, some try to explain it away, and some simply deny that it is even commanded. Yet, others seem to place more emphasis on it than is justified and this could be at least part of the reason many think that we will only scarcely make it to Heaven. For example, I know of many cases where believers were “baptized” two, three, and in one case four times to make sure that they had observed the ordinance “exactly” right. It is no wonder that we would think that only a “few” will be saved and that even the righteous will only barely make it if we believe that we must understand every detail about the conversion process in order for Jesus to save us. And I am not being critical of those who choose to be baptized again because that is a personal decision that each must make for themselves. But in my experience, at least in some cases, it seemed to me that it was unnecessary—it really did not change anything. If we are baptized because we “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:31; 19:4) and His saving message in the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-4), then, according to the Bible, that is saving faith. If we are baptized because of our faith in the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, then surely that is enough faith to save us. I know that Peter clearly states to his readers that the “water” of the flood in Noah’s day “symbolizes baptism that now saves you also” (1 Pet. 3:18-21, NIV). But, obviously, he is not teaching that we are saved by “water” or by the “act” of baptism or by simply believing that the act of baptism “saves” us or is “for the remission of sins.” Surely he is not saying that there is any “saving power” in simply knowing and submitting to these things, is he? So what exactly does he mean? Why did Peter plainly say that baptism saves us?
First, in no way should we understand Peter’s words to contradict what the New Testament teaches over and over concerning salvation by trusting in Christ rather than by trusting in anything that we do. What can wash away my sins? The answer is nothing but the blood of Jesus (Rev. 1:5). Thus, our faith must be in His death for our sins and a believer’s baptism is into His death (Rom. 3:25ff; 6:3-4). The Bible clearly says that we are all saved “through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:25, KJV). Faith, repentance, and baptism all point to the work that Jesus did. Faith is not the Savior, Jesus is. Repentance is not the Savior, Jesus is. Baptism is not the Savior, Jesus is. However, we do express our faith and trust in the sacrifice of our Savior by turning to Him in repentance and by being buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through faith in the working of God (Col. 2:12). Thus, it is clear from the New Testament that God has tied believer’s baptism to the new birth—sanctification, justification, and conversion to Jesus (1 Pet. 1:23; John 3:5).
But Peter had already made it clear in chapter one that we are redeemed by the precious blood of Christ (1:18-19). He had already said in chapter two that Jesus Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree (2:24). Additionally, in this immediate context Peter had just stated that Christ suffered for us that He might bring us to God (3:18) Then, in the very next sentence, he says that baptism saves us by the resurrection of Jesus (3:21). Why did he say this? It is because water baptism is an external declaration of our internal trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus to save us, as well as our total surrender to Him as Lord of our lives. It seems to me that this is the sense in which baptism is said to save us.
Second, we must realize that our faith and trust is in the “working of God” who “raised Him from the dead.” In Colossians 2:12, we read that we are “buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (NIV). Our faith is not in anything we do, have done, or can do. It is important to understand that it is not the water of baptism that saves us. We do not have any faith in the “water,” but we do have faith in the “working of God.” Neither is it the act of baptism itself that saves us. We do not have faith in the “act,” but we do have faith in the “working of God.”
By the way, if “water” or the “act of baptism” or if simply knowing that baptism is “for the remission of sins” actually saves people, why would the twelve men at Ephesus need to be baptized again (Acts 19:1-5)? They had submitted to the “act” of baptism. They had been baptized in “water.” They had also been baptized knowing that baptism was “for the remission of sins” because that is what John’s baptism commanded (Mk. 1:4). If “water” or the “act” or being conscious of the fact that baptism was “for the remission of sins” actually saved people, then these twelve would have been as saved as anyone because they had experienced all of this!
What then was their problem? Why did they need to be baptized again? The answer is that they did not have the right faith in Jesus! They had not yet believed “on Him…that is, on Christ Jesus” (Acts 19:4). Their faith was not in the working of God that He had already accomplished by raising Jesus from the dead. Since they were baptized with “John’s baptism,” then they were still waiting on God to do the work that He had already done, but they did not know about it. That is, they did not know that Jesus had already come and had died for our sins, was buried, and arose again, which is of “first importance” (I Cor. 15:1-4; NASV). Therefore, “When they heard this they were baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 19:5).
It is trusting in the working of God that He did when He raised Jesus from the dead that saves us. When God raised Jesus from the dead, it was God’s guarantee that He had accepted the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. Therefore, our faith is in the working of God which “He worked in Christ Jesus when He raised Him from the dead” (Eph. 1:20). Paul prayed that saints would comprehend the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe because of what “He worked in Christ” (Eph. 1:15-21). Now read again Colossians 2:12 which states, “buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Please observe that Paul taught that it is “faith in the working of God” which God accomplished when He “raised Him from the dead” that saves us. Notice also that Peter taught the very same thing when he said that believer’s baptism saves us “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). If we accept the power of what God accomplished in Christ toward us who believe, then we will know that we will all get to Heaven and it will not be “by the skin of our teeth.”
Third, if we trust in our own obedience rather than in the working of God that He accomplished in Christ, then it is no wonder that we would think that righteous people will “scarcely” make it. If our faith and trust is in our “acts of obedience,” then I could understand how we could draw that conclusion. After all, we would always wonder about such things as: When I believed, was I sincere enough? When I repented, was it completely enough? When I was baptized, did I understand enough? When I was baptized, was I thinking the right thoughts at the time of my baptism?
But when we realize that repentance (faith turning to Jesus) and baptism (faith identifying with Jesus) are expressions of our faith, trust, and total dependence on Jesus and His sacrifice for us, then we will never, never, never think, say, or imply that believers will just “scarcely” be saved. We will know that because of the “exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Eph. 1:19-20), an “abundant entrance” will be given to us into Heaven (2 Pet. 1:11). Remember, we cannot preach the gospel and leave Christ out! When we preach the requirements (faith, repentance, baptism) but do not teach how those requirements relate to the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, we have not only missed the mark, we have also missed the message.