Over the years I have had a number of friends who belonged to churches from different Christian denominations. As we discussed the differences and similarities in our faith, at some stage we would begin to talk about baptism. No matter how much we had in common, one key difference we had was our understandings of baptism.
The difficulty was usually around the question of whether baptism saves a person or not. My friends argued that baptism doesn’t save people because lots of people who have been baptised don’t live in ways that are consistent with believing in Jesus. For my friends, salvation comes through a decision we make for Christ, and then baptism gives a public testimony to that salvation. That could be why the New Living Translation describes baptism as ‘a response to God from a clean conscience’ (v21). The belief behind this translation of the text is that people’s consciences are made clean when they are saved and baptism is their response to that salvation.
However, Peter clearly says that baptism saves us (v21). To illustrate this salvation, he points to Noah and his family who were saved from a world that ‘had become corrupt’ and ‘full of violence’ (Genesis 6:11 NLT) through the flood. Peter argues that this becomes an illustration of how the water of baptism saves us by washing us clean of everything that makes us unacceptable to God and giving us new and clean consciences through, as the English Standard Version puts it, ‘an appeal to God.’
The problem we face is that the Greek word for ‘response’ (NLT), ‘pledge’ (NIV) or ‘appeal’ (ESV) is very difficult to translate, so we naturally prefer the interpretation which fits better with how we understand baptism. When we look at other texts in the New Testament, however, a strong case can be made that God saves people through baptism.
For example, Peter goes on to say that baptism saves because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (v21). This is consistent with what Paul writes in Romans 6:4, that
we were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (NIV)
For both Paul and Peter, in baptism people are united with Jesus in his death and resurrection through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why we can have a clear conscience: Jesus made himself one with us, putting all of our sin and brokenness to death by taking it to the cross, and then raised us up with himself to a new life as God’s children.
We find this idea of adoption into God’s family through baptism in Galatians 3:26,27 where Paul writes,
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (NIV)
For Paul, we are given a new relationship with God through baptism as his children when we were washed clean and given the family clothes of Christ. This isn’t something we do for ourselves or a decision that we make. Instead, it is the saving action of God in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit who is at work through the water of baptism and the word of God that is spoken with it.
The danger with identifying baptism as something we do for God is that it removes God from being the one who saves and places ourselves, along with our words, actions or decisions, in God’s place. If we are to trust in the God who saves that we meet in the person of Jesus, then we need to allow him to save us by whatever means he decides, including the water of baptism, just like he saved Noah and his family through the waters of the flood.
This can sound very theological and theoretical, and some may wonder how it makes a difference in our lives. How we understand baptism is important because if our consciences accuse us of things we have done wrong, or if we begin to doubt our salvation because of a guilty conscience, we can remember that Jesus has taken our sin, our wrongs and our brokenness from us. Our baptism is God’s pledge to us that we are forgiven for the sake of Jesus and we can live every day with a guilt-free conscience. This grace isn’t something to be misused or abused, but instead is a gift from God so we can stop worrying about our own salvation and start loving the people around us the way he wants us to.
It is also important to remember that baptism is the start of a new life as God’s children, not a free entry, ‘access all areas’ pass into heaven which we can ignore during our lives and then pull out when we die. If we think about baptism as an adoption, it gives us a new identity into which we grow as we learn more and more about who God has called us to be as Jesus’ disciples. We can also think about baptism in terms of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. God doesn’t want us to connect with him and leave it at that. Instead, he connects with us through baptism in order to grow us as his children, to equip us for the work he is calling us to do, and to send us into the world to work with him in his mission to restore, redeem and renew all of creation.
Ultimately, the question of whether baptism saves or not comes down to whether we see baptism as something we do for God, or something God does for us. I understand the reasons why people have difficulty with the idea of baptism saving us, but it seems to me that the problem is not so much with God’s work in baptism, but our own misuse and abuse of the grace God gives us. Noah and his family didn’t live perfect lives after God saved them through the flood, and one of them was cursed as the result (see Genesis 9:20-25). After the Israelites followed Moses into freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, all but two failed to enter into the Promised Land because of their lack of faith (Number 14:39,40). In a similar way, what we do with the new life God gives us through baptism doesn’t mean his saving work in baptism is invalid. Baptism saves us because it gives us clean consciences and incorporates us into the resurrected life of Jesus.
As people who have been saved through the waters of baptism, then, what are we doing with the new life Jesus has given us?
More to think about:
I know from first-hand experience that discussing baptism can be a very emotive & potentially divisive exercise. My hope in offering these questions for discussion is that we might be able to learn to listen to each other’s perspectives, understand the different points of view we have as sisters and brothers in Christ, and ultimately point to the God who saves lost & broken people in Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.
- Do you tend to understand baptism as something through which God saves people or more something people do as a response to being saved? Or is there another way you think of baptism? Can you explain why you view baptism that way?
- We can usually think of Noah’s ark saving his family from the flood more than the waters of the flood saving them. Why do you think Peter may have interpreted Noah’s story in this way?
- Peter has previously written that ‘Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (1 Peter 3:18 NIV). How might Jesus use baptism to bring us to God?
- Do you think it is possible for a baptised person to lose their salvation? If we think of baptism as adoption into God’s family, is there hope for sisters or brothers who have fallen away from the family? (maybe the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 can help us)
- Why is it important for us to be living as God’s adopted children in the world?