Rethinking the Scriptures

Rethinking Baptism: An Exposition of 1 Peter 3:21

Introduction: For years I have noticed that most Christians understand the first part of this verse, “There is an antitype which now saves us, namely baptism.” However, few Christians seem to go past that statement and try to understand the rest of the text. In other words, we like this first part because it is a good proof text for salvation taking place at the point of baptism. Therefore, the rest of the verse has not held the same significance or importance to us. This is what I want to concentrate on in this lesson.

I. Comparing Translations

  1. “There is also an antitype which now saves, us, namely 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).  Notice that the NKJV says that baptism is “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” Compare this with the next version:
  2. “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (NASU). The New American Standard says something very different. Rather than state that baptism is an answer from a good conscience, the New American Standard says baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience.  Compare this with the NIV:
  3. “And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (NIV).  So what is the purpose of baptism? According to most scholars and denominational teachers, baptism is done as a response from a heart already purified from sins. Some newer versions have attempted to communicate that baptism is something for the saved, not to be saved.
  4. “And that water is like baptism that now saves you—not the washing of dirt from the body, but the promise made to God from a good conscience” (NCV). “And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience” (NLT).
  5. Is this what Peter means when he speaks of the need for baptism? Is baptism simply a response from an already clean conscience? Have we missed something in our understanding of baptism as a necessary condition for salvation?
  6. The American Standard Version (ASV) has a rather unusual translation, which leads us in the direction of our study. “Which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation (margin: “inquiry, appeal”) of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (ASV). Notice the word “interrogation.” Even scholars who wrote commentaries based on the ASV reverted back to the KJV “answer” because it fits better with the commonly taught doctrine that baptism is a response or answer of an already purified conscience. John Calvin, in his commentary though obviously using another version than the ASV since the ASV was not published until 1901, says, “The word question, or questioning, is to be taken here for “answer,” or testimony.”
  7. Before we look at the definition of the word, I think it important to stop here and make a couple observations.
  8. For a person to understand the purpose for baptism to be a “pledge” of a conscience that is already “good or clean,” is to contradict the first part of the sentence. If baptism “saves us,” then the conscience is not clean prior to baptism and baptism cannot be a response to God from an already clean conscience. Simply examining the text requires us to look for another meaning.
  9. It is important to also make a disclaimer. When the text says, “baptism saves us,” Peter is certainly not saying that the act of baptism itself has some saving power. As the text says, the salvation comes “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Read the verse without the parenthesis.

II. Defining the Word

  1. What does this word that is translated as “answer,” “appeal,” “pledge,” and “promise” mean? The Greek word eperotema means 1) an enquiry,  a question 2) a demand 3) earnestly seeking 3a) craving,  an intense desire  according to Strong’s. Thayer also says the word means, “an inquiry; a question.” A.T. Robertson says of the word, “In ancient Greek it never means answer, but only inquiry” (Word Pictures). Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament says, “In classical Greek the word means a question and nothing else. The meaning here is much disputed, and can hardly be settled satisfactorily. The rendering answer has no warrant.” It is interesting that the meaning is much disputed by commentators even though the word always means “a question and nothing else.”
  2. This word is used in another form elsewhere in the N.T. “But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:32; NASU). The word “ask” is the Greek word eperotao. “The Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Jesus, they asked Him to show them a sign from heaven” (Matthew 16:1; NASU). “I was found by those who were not looking for Me; I revealed Myself to those who were not asking for me” (Rom.10:20). Zondervan Analytical Greek Lexicon gives the meaning in this last verse as, “to seek after, desire an acquaintance with God.” As Robertson and Vincent said, this word always means a question or an inquiry, and does not mean anything else.

III. Making Application

  1. As you can see, the words “ask, question, inquiry, or desire” seem to best represent the meaning of the word. Now let’s go back to the NASU translation: “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience.” “Appeal” actually comes as close as any of the modern translations to the meaning of the word. We could also translate “an inquiry” or “intense desire” for a good conscience.
  2. I should note also that there are differences in translations as to whether it should be “of” or “for” a good conscience. NASU, ESV, NRSV, RSV, and others have “for.” ASV, KJ, NIV, HCSV, have “of.” Therefore, if we stick strictly with our definitions & the way it is translated in the ASV & NASU, it would seem that “for” makes more sense. Here would be our alternatives:
  3. If “for,” then baptism is our appeal, desire, or request to God for a good conscience. Just to back this up, compare Heb. 9:13-14; 10:1-2. Whereas the blood of animals only purified the flesh, the blood of Christ purges our conscience from dead works. Baptism is our appeal to God for that purging
  4. If “of,” then we would necessarily have to understand “good conscience” not as seeking a cleansed conscience, but simply an appeal of a good and honest heart that desires the salvation of the Lord. Both are possible, the previous seems more likely in the context.
  5. This understanding matches what the apostolic writers repeatedly declared to receive salvation. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13; Acts 2:21). Vincent says that to call on the name of the Lord is “a technical phrase for lodging an appeal.” Thayer says, “as a judge, i.e. to appeal to one, make appeal unto.” This word is translated “appeal” in regards to Paul appealing to Caesar (Acts 25:11,12,21,25; 26:32; 28:19).
  6. Notice how this is used in connection to baptism. In Acts 2, Peter began his sermon by saying, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” When the crowds asked what they needed to do (i.e. to call on the name of the Lord), Peter said, “Repent & be baptized for the remission of sins.” In Acts 22:16, we have the same: “…be baptized & wash away your sins calling on the name of the Lord.” Therefore, baptism is the means by which we call on the name of the Lord in order to be saved through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Lesson adapted from sermon by Brent Kercheville

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