18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because 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. 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, 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 3:18–22
Those who oppose the idea of salvation occurring at the occasion of water baptism tend to define inaccurately the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. They claim that it is the false belief that one must be immersed in water to be saved1, 2, 3:
However, baptismal regeneration is accurately defined as the teaching that water baptism in and of itself saves a person. This doctrine—along with the false teaching of original sin—has led certain denominations to practice infant baptism. Along with affirming the essentiality of baptism, Cyprian of Carthage, a Catholic bishop, taught that infants should be baptized as soon as they were born because he believed that they were all born guilty of Adam’s sin4, 5:
Many people use 1 Peter 3:21 to negate baptismal regeneration. However, in their attempt to refute this false doctrine, they end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater (no pun intended).
When Peter mentions baptism in verse 21, he discusses it in relation to the events that occurred during the days of Noah (v. 20). Peter says, “because 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. 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.” That is, baptism corresponds to the salvation of Noah and his family through water. When we want to better understand the Scriptures, we can use an interpretative tool called biblical typology, which involves the study of New Testament examples foreshadowed by significant events and characters in the Old Testament. For example, Paul in his letter to the Romans speaks of the fall of Adam being typical of, or pointing to, the redemptive work of Christ (Rom. 5:14–15)6:
14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.
Notice in verse 14, Paul uses the word “type”, which is translated from the Greek word túpos. The type that appears in the Old Testament—in this case, Adam—corresponds to Christ, who is the “antitype”. Peter uses this same terminology in speaking of baptism. The word “correspond” in 1 Peter 3:21 is derived from antítupos (antitype), which is sometimes translated as “like figure”:
21 There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (NKJV).
21 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 (KJV).
Peter is revealing a correspondence between the flood and baptism, the former being the type, and the latter, the antitype. His discussion therefore teaches us that baptism saves us in the same way that the diluvial waters saved Noah and his family while they were in the ark (See Genesis 6).
Peter however makes a very important caveat, which appears to indicate a common thought that was probably held at the time of his writing his letter. Notice what he says in verse 21: “not as a removal of dirt from the body.” Many people use this phrase in particular to contest baptismal regeneration—and the phrase does indeed speak against it (when defined accurately). However, the phrase does not in any way refute the essentiality of baptism for salvation. What Peter expresses here is that baptism is not a simple bath—it does not save you in and of itself. It should not be taken as a simple ritual without any thought behind it, which is why infants have no need to be baptized, as they do not have the ability to reason about such matters. Baptism requires first that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, and additionally, that we repent of past sins. We have to recognize that we need a savior. Peter speaks to this idea in the rest of verse 21: “[it is] an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism saves in that we are calling out to God to remove our sins and give us a clear conscience (cf. Acts 22:16). Submitting to baptism shows that we trust that God will perform his powerful work of salvation on us through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Col. 2:12; cf. Acts 2:38).
16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
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.
How can we make an appeal to God for a good conscience without baptism if the Scriptures teach us that the appeal is made in this way? How can we be saved without baptism if Peter clearly states that baptism saves? Many claim to have faith, but when they are called by the Scriptures to do something, they resist by claiming that we do not have to work for our salvation. Faith, however, comes by hearing the word of God (Rom. 10:17), and the word of God has told us to be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins (Acts 2:38); therefore, we must heed his word if forgiveness is what we truly want.
1. The ‘Baptismal Regeneration’ Heresy Refuted, by David J. Stewart
2. Baptism and 1 Pet. 3:21, by Matt Slick
3. Does Baptism Save You?, by Jeremiah Johnson
4. Epistle 58, by Cyprian of Carthage
5. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform, by Roger E. Olson
6. Entry for ‘Type’. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1915. General Editor James Orr, M.A., D.D