Baptism Is a Sign of a Good Conscience Toward God
“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. 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: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.” (1 Peter 3:18-22)
Perhaps, no passage of Scripture is more misunderstood and misinterpreted by those teaching the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration than 1 Peter 3:18-22. This passage is often proffered as a proof-text by those preaching the necessity of baptism for salvation, despite the fact that the passage itself forbids such usage.
It has been rightly observed that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. The Bible never contradicts in one place what it clearly teaches in another. The existence of any contradictions is to be found in our wrong interpretations, never on the pages of Holy Writ.
From the Pauline epistles’ explicit teaching that salvation is by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9) to Jesus’ promise of paradise to the unbaptized thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), the Bible clearly refutes the erroneous doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Why, then, would something be taught in a singular passage that is denied throughout the rest of Scripture? Obviously, it neither is nor would be.
A careful reading of this passage will prove that Peter doesn’t tie salvation to the rite of baptism, but to what baptism represents. Notice, after writing “baptism doth also save us,” Peter adds the clarifying statement, “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God.” Peter is most careful, under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to explain that it is not the ceremonial cleansing of baptism that saves us, but what baptism represents; namely, the cleansing of our conscience by Christ.
It is neither the “figure” of baptism nor the “answer” (pledge) that it represents that saves us. Instead, it is the actuality in our lives of that symbolized and the truthfulness in our hearts of that pledged. The rite of baptism, being but a symbol and pledge, cannot produce a good conscience toward God. On the other hand, if what is symbolically typified by baptism is experientially true of us, then, and only then, should we publicly pledge our good conscience toward God by being baptized.
According to Peter, water baptism is the newborn saint’s pledge of a good conscience toward God. It is the evidence new converts offer to prove they’ve entered into a right relationship with the resurrected Christ.
How can we be so sure of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work for our salvation that we can publicly pledge our possession of a good conscience toward God? According to Peter, such certainty can be ours thanks to “the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” If God the Father had not been satisfied with His Son’s work for our salvation He would have never raised Christ from the dead. The fact that He did, and that Christ has now ascended “into heaven, and is on the right hand of God,” serves as God the Father’s stamp of approval on the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world.
As the Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 4:25, Christ’s resurrection proves the possibility of our “justification.” We can be made right with God by placing our faith in the resurrected Christ. Once we do, Christ becomes “our righteousness” (1 Corinthians 1:30) and we become acceptable to God in Christ (Ephesians 1:6). Therefore, all who trust Christ to justify them before God can be assured of “a good conscience toward God” by the fact that “Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1) is now seated “on the right hand of God.”
How is Christ righteousness appropriated in our lives? Is it not by our identification with the resurrected and ascended Christ? It is our identification with Christ by faith that makes us right with God; not to mention the fact that it is our identification with Christ that is pictured in our baptism as proof of our “good conscience toward God.” Thus, our justification is not a product of us being baptized in obedience to Christ, but of us identifying with the resurrected and ascended Christ. Baptism simply serves as “photo” evidence that this conscience cleansing identification has taken place.
How were Noah and his family “saved by water”? How do we explain Peter’s seemingly strange twist on this famous biblical story?
According to the Scripture, the pre-diluvian world’s refusal to believe and enter into God’s ark resulted in its condemnation. It was subsequently destroyed outside the ark by the floodwaters of the world. On the other hand, Noah’s willingness to believe and enter into God’s ark resulted in the salvation of him and his family. They were subsequently delivered inside the ark by the floodwaters of the world. It was, after all, the rising waters that made Noah’s boat float; and the receding waters that resulted in a new beginning for him and his family. Whereas the floodwaters destroyed everyone outside the ark, they actually delivered and saved the “eight souls” within the ark.
The ark was an Old Testament type-of-Christ. For instance, today it is those who refuse to believe and come to Christ who are condemned. Being found outside of Christ—God’s present-day “ark” of safety—they will be judged and destroyed.
On the other hand, all who believe and come to Christ today are saved. Being found in Christ—God’s present-day “ark” of safety—they will be delivered from judgment and destruction. Whereas everyone outside of Christ is destined for destruction, everyone in Christ is eternally safe and secure.
Just as Noah came to a brand new life through the floodwaters of the world, the Christian comes to a brand new life through the waters of baptism. Yet, the Christian no more owes his new life to the waters of baptism than Noah owed his new life to the floodwaters of the world. Both owe their salvation to God’s ark of safety. In Noah’s case, a literal ark and type-of-Christ, but in the Christian’s case, what Noah’s ark typified; namely, Christ Himself.