Here we have one of the clearest baptism passages in the New Testament. Unfortunately, this text has been a major battleground among Christians over the last few hundred years or so. There have been numerous interpretations put forth regarding the proper meaning of this passage. Some have been good, others feasible, and still others have been quite a stretch. I think, at the end of the day, it is not that difficult of a passage to figure out.
|Top: John Piper Bottom: 1 Peter 3:21|
Certainly, interpretations of this passage fall along denominational lines. Consider Baptist pastor John Piper: "Now the problem with this is that Peter seems very aware that his words are open to dangerous misuse. This is why, as soon as they are out of his mouth, as it were, he qualifies them lest we take them the wrong way. In verse 21 he does say, "Baptism now saves you" - that sounds like the water has a saving effect in and of itself apart from faith. He knows that is what it sounds like and so he adds immediately, "Not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.""
And then later, "God saves you through the work of Christ. But you receive that salvation through calling on the name of the Lord, by trusting him. And it is God's will all over the world and in every culture - no matter how simple or how sophisticated - that this appeal to God be expressed in baptism."
Piper's article can be found here: Piper - Baptism
Hence, Pastor Piper is essentially arguing that Peter put the words in verse 21 regarding "removal of dirt" as a warning to not use his words to mean that baptism saves. As an aside, why would Peter write that at all if he thought they could be dangerously misconstrued to mean what they say? That makes a grand total of no sense whatsoever. And finally, Piper concludes that baptism is a symbolic appeal or pledge to God done by the believer as an expression of faith.
The most glaring problem with Piper's interpretation of this passage is that the passage simply does not say that. Peter is drawing a type and antitype parallel here. He references Noah and the ark. Moreover, Peter also is clear that Noah and his family were brought safely through the water. This is a type. The flood, in which Noah and his family were on the ark, were brought safely through the water. They were quite literally saved through the water in the physical realm.
The antitype, the greater reality which the flood pointed to is baptism. Just as Noah and his family were safely brought through the waters and saved, Peter says baptism, which corresponds to the flood, now also saves you.
And in this light, I agree with Pr. Piper when he says that Peter inserts language about removal of dirt as being important in that Peter does not want his words to be misused. However, the parallel that Peter is drawing actually speaks in the opposite direction as Pr. Piper would have us believe. Pr. Piper is essentially saying that Peter is saying that baptism now saves you, but not really saves you. It doesn't make you clean. In short, Piper is inserting somewhat of a contradiction into Peter's words in order to fit his preconceived theological leanings.
The more likely meaning, and really the plain meaning of this passage, is that Peter does not want his readers to believe that baptism is a strict one for one parallel with the flood. In other words, when Peter says that baptism now saves you and then continues with the removal of dirt language, he is telling us that baptism does not save us physically and temporally as God saved Noah and his family through the water. This water of baptism is a Word of God and is not a physical salvation from calamity. It is an eternal salvation. It is the greater antitype. Hence, Peter continues on: "...but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him." (1 Peter 3:21b-22)
In other words, whereas Noah was temporally delivered through the water, we are eternally delivered through the water. How? How can water do such things? Well, it can't. But God can. As Luther reminds us in his Small Catechism:
How can water do such great things?
It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul says, Titus, chapter three: By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost,which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.
How then? Peter answers thus: Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Baptism gives us Jesus. All the power and authority that Jesus has due to His crucifixion and resurrection is given to us in Baptism. (Matt 28:18-20)
Hence, Pr. Piper's answer, while creative and in attempt to be faithful to the biblical report, is untenable. Not only because Piper creates a contradiction in Peter, but also in that his preconceived theology simply will not allow the passage to speak clearly as it does. Where Pr. Piper thinks he is doing the church a service by exegeting Peter, he is in reality teaching people the opposite of what Peter has said, and that is never a good thing.
Baptism now saves you. Thanks be to God.