In the on-going debate over the specific divine intention for commanding people to be baptized in water, there is, perhaps, no more necessary context than that of I Peter 3:21 where the phrase "baptism is now saving you" [literal translation of the Greek "humas...nun sodzei baptisma"] is found. There is no other text in the New Testament that so specifically declares that "baptism is now saving you", though there are several others that have at least something of baptism's relationship to salvation in view.
The point of this article is to examine Peter's statement to find out what he was teaching. Whatever explanation we accept, there are a couple of things we need to note at the outset. First, he uses a continuous present tense verb, in combination with "now" so that his words are to be translated "baptism is now saving you." Second, he uses the direct object "you" in direct reference to his readers, whom he has already identified as those who have been elect according to the foreknowledge of God. These observations lend themselves to the conclusion that Peter was addressing people whom he considered to already be God's people (saved) and he was looking at their on-going need to "be saved" -- thus, the present tense verb. This is not an unusual notion in the New Testament where "salvation" is variously used to refer to the past, the present, and the future, depending upon what is in the author's mind at the time of his writing. Paul, for example, wrote of people "having been saved" (a past tense concept) from the condemnation sin brings; he wrote of 'already saved' people who "are being saved" (a present tense concept) from the power of sin in their on-going daily living; and he wrote of 'already saved' people who "will be saved" (a future tense concept) when Jesus comes to deliver His people from the presence of sin in this world. That Peter had a present tense sense of an on-going need would not, then, be either unusual, or remarkable. However, for any who see his meaning to be tied into a "one time immersion in water in the name of Christ event", there is a necessity to explain how that "one time" event could have an "on-going" impact. So, these are some observations that we need to keep in mind from the beginning.
Now, was Peter, with his words, saying that water baptism is somehow a condition of justification for God's elect? If he was saying that, was he being "absolutist" so that anyone who dies unbaptized, no matter what the reason, is going to perish? If he wasn't saying that, why do some persist in insisting that God rejects all who have not gone into the waters of baptism?
There are a couple of things that need to be very clear. First, there are very few people within the pale of "Christendom" who actively teach people to refuse to be baptized. Almost every stripe of denomination, sect, or group who claim to be "Christian" have incorporated water baptism into their doctrinal system in some way. Thus, the issue regarding men who might teach others to refuse to be baptized is of very limited scope in terms of really addressing the nature and function of water baptism. Second, the real issue behind the vast majority of this debate is two-fold: 1) first, there is the capital "T" "Theology" that drives the various positions [the view people have of God [their "T"heology] always impacts their thinking about His words [their "t"heology]]; and 2) second, there is the question of the true nature and function of water baptism. That Jesus commanded His disciples to water baptize folks in the process of making disciples is without debate except for a very small fringe element who are mainly of a certain kind of dispensationalism that is rejected by most of the other various brands of dispensationalism. That one who believes that Jesus commanded water baptism, and wants to "walk in the light" with Him, will teach and practice water baptism is a foregone conclusion. That anyone who believes that Jesus commanded water baptism and refuses to teach it correctly or practice it as He commanded is sinning against Him is also without question. The real issue is this debate is not whether Jesus wants/commands people to be baptized in water; the real issue is why He has given that command. What is it that is inherent in His nature that makes Him command folks to be baptized with water, and what is so special about people going down into water and coming up again "in the name of" someone? This is the real question. What does the nature of Jesus attach to water baptism?
With those things in mind, let us consider some of the issues involved. There are those who foolishly claim that there "is no good reason for not being baptized", so that, in their minds, there is no sense in asking if someone can be saved if water baptism hasn't been accomplished.
The truth is, however, that there are several acceptable reasons for not being baptized with water. One is lack of opportunity. This is not a false issue. There are countless scenarios of the lack of opportunity. The thief who hung on his own cross and observed the way his fellow thief verbally abused the Christ and was, by those observations, shown the truth and grace of Jesus, certainly did not have any opportunity to stop the show and get baptized once he believed that Jesus was the Christ. The testimony of slaves and prisoners have countless records of men and women whose dire straights were used of God to open their eyes to His great mercy and grace in His gracious call to them to trust in Him for the forgiveness of sins. Just because those who dominated their bondage and actions were not inclined to permit "believer's baptism" does not mean that God refused to forgive those who turned to him in faith in His great mercy and grace.
Another valid reason for not being baptized in water is the refusal to submit to an erroneous dogma of men who do not know the God of Salvation. God gave Abraham the command to circumcise the male members of his household as an enduring aspect of His covenant. When Moses faltered in obedience to this command, the text reads that God sought to kill him for his disobedience (Exodus 4:24). Refusal to obey His command almost got Moses killed before he could ever fulfill God's program of deliverance for Israel. But, the apostle Paul, when confronted with the mean-spirited distortion of God's grace by those who were absolutely sure that they understood God's command of circumcision, flatly refused to permit Titus to be circumcised. Why? Did Paul despise the commandment of God? No, he despised the mean-spirited man-made applications of doctrines that turned God from being a Reluctant Judge/Gracious Redeemer into an Enthusiastic Judge/ Grudging Savior. I am a blood-bought, believer in the amazing grace of Jesus, and have, because of the expression of His desire in the matter, been baptized in water in view of His remission of my sins. But, in the face of the man-made dogma that says that the true God is such a literalist that He will not forgive what has not been immersed in water no matter what the cause, I would deliberately refuse to yield to this mean-spirited, man-perverted picture of the Gracious God and would deliberately refuse to be baptized by such men. That is not to say that I wouldn't seek out a different group of men so that I could be rightfully baptized in loving obedience to a loving Redeemer, but I would steadfastly refuse to be baptized by those who insist on the letter of the law (that kills) and so pervert the Spirit of Jesus (Who makes alive).
The issue here is not whether a person ought to obey Jesus; the issue here is which "Jesus" is the one to obey? The fact is that no matter whose "name" is attached to a presentation of a certain character, it is the character of that one that identifies him, not the name. All of the various groups within the pale of "Christendom" name their "God/god" with the name "Jesus". However, if the "Jesus" that is named is given the character of Belial, the "Jesus" name doesn't make the "god" the true "Jesus". There is only salvation in the true Jesus of Nazareth Who was identified as the Son of God by resurrection from the dead. Any serious distortion of that Jesus in terms of character, and, by extension, dogma, is no longer that Jesus -- no matter what "name" men assign to their distorted characterization. The clearest example is that group who call themselves "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" who teach that Jesus was not the unique Son of God. Calling themselves by the "name" doesn't make them, or the one they represent, "Christian". Men can as easily use words to deceive as they can to illumine. So refusal to be baptized by a certain group because one rejects their heresies is a legitimate basis for, at least, postponement of baptism until a legitimate group can be identified.
Another valid reason for not being baptized in water is the reality of serious illness. One of the amazing expressions of the grace of God is that He often takes a person down into the deep valley of serious illness unto death in order to open the person's eyes to the reality of the death of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice of love for the person who refused to see it until death was knocking on the door. To say that God would not forgive such a one just because the extenuating circumstances of illness-unto-death were not conducive to immersion in water for the sake of loving obedience to the divine command, is to twist the truth about God from the Truth of the Reluctant Judge/Gracious Redeemer into the Lie of the Enthusiastic Judge/Grudging Savior.
Thus, what we have is this reality: either we have a "T"heology in which God is a stickler for absolute obedience to His commands with no forgiveness where there has not been obedience to the letter, or we have a "T"heology where God is a Gracious Reader of the Heart Who knows faith when He sees it, grants forgiveness to those who desire it, and gives free pardon to all who come to Him by faith in the loving sacrifice of Calvary. He is not both. This is an either/or issue that is rooted in "T"heology.
I Peter 3:21 was written by a man whose view of God is that He is the Gracious Reader of the Heart Who freely forgives the one who, in humility, pleads "God be propitious to me, the sinner". So, what are the chances that Peter, who saw God in this light, wrote words that "must" be interpreted as teaching that God will not forgive what has not been immersed in water?
How shall we understand Peter's words?
First, we shall understand them if we understand what he was saying before he wrote 3:21. In the prior context, he wrote of "having a good conscience" in the on-going practice of living as a needful thing for those who already have been saved (3:16). This is the same issue that he is addressing in 3:21, for he wrote there of "an appeal to God for a good conscience". Then, second, he wrote of "Christ ...[Who]...died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God..." (3:18). By writing these two things, Peter told his readers plainly that Christ's death for the unjust was a death for their sins, and that death makes it possible for believers to maintain a good conscience. This death covered all of their sins. Thus, Peter told his readers plainly that their "sins" were no longer a barrier between God and themselves: their major problem wasn't going to be whether Christ's death was sufficient for their sins; their major problem was going to be accepting that Christ's death was sufficient so that they could have a clear conscience. From that, he went on to tell us that this Christ Who died for our sins, did so "in the flesh". Then, He was made alive "in the spirit" and, in that condition, He went to make proclamation to certain spirits who were disobedient in the days of Noah. These spirits who were disobedient in the days of Noah were such while Noah was building the Ark. This Ark was the means by which eight people were brought safely through the water. These comments are those which lead us up to 3:21.
Let's consider what they mean. They speak of a world gone wrong. They speak of a waiting period in which a man, by faith in divine instruction, built a boat. They speak of eight people who got into that boat and were brought safely through the waters of the flood that killed everyone else on the earth.
It is this historical reality that brought Peter's thoughts to "baptism". He says that "baptism" is like the Noah event. The rain that covered the earth and snuffed out the life of every air-breathing creature under heaven was, in Peter's mind, analogous to the trespasses and sins of men which snuffed out their lives before God. Peter knew that if believers were not rigorous in maintaining a good conscience, their sins would build up in their lives until their experience of the life of God was snuffed out just like the rain drops fell until there was no way to live any longer. Every drop that fell was likened unto each individual act of sin that men had accomplished. The evil of men had grown and waxed great just as the rain drops accumulated until the whole earth was covered with an environment that would kill every creature that depended upon being able to breathe air to live. In this environment, there was only one way to live. One had to maintain contact with the life-giving air. This was God's purpose for the Ark: to provide a way for air-breathing people to maintain contact with the life-giving air. And, for people to be able to take advantage of the provision of God, they had to exercise the faith that was required to get into the Ark, which only existed because of the faith of a man who was willing to build it. The act of getting into the Ark by faith was, in Peter's mind, much like baptism. In what respect? In the respect that being baptized into Jesus as the One Who, as the Just for the unjust, removed the killing impact of sin was like getting into the Ark. Jesus was, in Peter's mind, just like the Ark: He was God's provision for those who were in danger of having their lives snuffed out by the magnitude of their sins. Just as the eight were baptized into the Ark; Peter's readers had been baptized into Jesus.
What does this mean? It means that those who think the waters of the flood were what caused Peter to think of the Noah event and link it to baptism have almost completely missed the point! Peter wasn't fundamentally thinking of the "waters of baptism" as analogous to the "waters of the flood" (though there is a real link here). Rather, he was primarily thinking about how being immersed into the safety of the Ark was an illustration of being immersed into Jesus, the one who died for our sins. One such confused man actually wrote "the water in ...[Noah's]... case ...[was]... a means or instrument of the salvation." (Baptism in the Scheme of Redemption by L.A.Mott, Jr. p. 54). What a tragic statement of complete misunderstanding! The water in Noah's case was the means of destruction, not salvation; the Ark was the means of salvation. Why would anyone say such a completely contrary-to-Peter's-thought statement? There is only one reason: Mott has an agenda to prove that a person has to be baptized in water in order to be saved and his agenda has blinded him so badly that he confuses the "instrument of salvation". He turns from the Ark [as the instrument of salvation] to the water, and in so doing turns from Jesus as the Savior to water baptism as the Savior. He is highly likely to discover in the Great Day that his turn from Jesus to the water has alienated him from the saving grace of God because, behind his "t"heology is his "T"heology -- his writings are simply as expression of his theology [the details of his explanations of God's words] and his theology is simply an expression of his Theology [the way he views God].!
Now, there is this question: if Peter was thinking about how being baptized into Jesus [as the theological foundation for maintaining a good conscience] was like being safely ensconced in the Ark, does this not mean that, after all is said and done, one must still be baptized in order to get to safety? Obviously. No one outside of the Ark was safe. No one outside of Jesus is safe. One must be baptized into Jesus in order to be saved.
But, is being baptized into water the same thing as being baptized into Jesus? How can it be? Water is not Jesus and Jesus is not water. Paul plainly told the Corinthians that the Spirit of God baptizes believers into Jesus (I Corinthians 12:12-13). This is how one gets "baptized into Jesus". God's Spirit does this baptizing. By the same token, men are baptized in water when some man baptizes them in water. The man who does the baptizing is not the Spirit of God, nor is the water of baptism, Jesus. Thus, no man can put anyone into Jesus (that's the Spirit's task) and no water can be Jesus.
The next question is this: does the Spirit of God baptize believers into Jesus at the same time they are being baptized in water by some man in the name of Jesus? If the Scriptures taught that one was baptized into Jesus at the time when that one was submitting to the waters of baptism, then we could conclude that the actions were simultaneous. But the Scriptures never teach this simultaneity. The Scriptures teach that the Spirit baptizes people into Christ when they put their faith in Him for deliverance from their sins, and they teach that water baptizes people when they submit to the ministrations of men "in the name of Jesus". In other words, the Scriptures recognize that the God of Salvation saves people when they hear the Gospel with faith and His Spirit baptizes them into His Son at that point. Then, as they realize what He has done for them, they line up to be baptized in water so that they may submit in love to His discipleship command. That minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or even years may transpire between the two events has no direct bearing upon what transpires. When the Spirit of God baptizes a person into Christ, he is baptized into Christ and the analogy of the baptism into the Ark and the baptism into Christ is fulfilled. Then, when divinely given opportunity arrives and a person is baptized in water "in the name of Christ", he is moved into the reality of what water baptism was designed for in the first place.
That leads, automatically, to this: why does God want people to be baptized in water? None of the instructions of God are arbitrary, none are meaningless, and none can be ignored without the loss of that life which is attached to them. God speaks unto "life"; ignoring His words automatically means that the "life" that His words would impart if believed, will not be imparted if not believed.
Some think that water baptism is a follow-through on "faith" so that God wants people to "follow up on their faith". But this goes without saying. No one does anything that is not motivated by some kind of "faith". All actions are driven by "faith" in something. There is not one thing that people do that is not linked to what they believe. That is why the Bible is so strenuous in its argument that men ought to believe what God has declared as truth and not believe what those claim who deny God's words. Some, to be sure, have been baptized in water by men because they have believed those men in their declaration that "God won't forgive you if you do not submit to water baptism". In this respect, their submission was an act of "faith". The question is whether their faith is according to Truth or if it is simply an act of "faith in the dogma of men".
Others think that God has commanded water baptism as a "testimony to men that the one being baptized has faith in Christ". Certainly water baptism is a "testimony" to those who are observers of the act. All men intuitively recognize that the actions of others "testify" of the presence of their faith. The problem is that water baptism, like so many other actions, doesn't clearly testify of the nature of the faith really held in the heart of the one being baptized. For example, if a person really believes that "God will only forgive me if I submit to this man's immersion of me into water", he/she will submit to the immersion by the man if he/she wants to be forgiven. But, those observing may not know that the person is being baptized in order to obtain God's forgiveness. They may think that the person is being baptized because they "got religion". Others may think that the person is being baptized because "its the thing to do if you want to get ahead in the church". Others may think that the person is being baptized because "they are very sincere in religious stuff". And, most folks will not argue that a water baptism isn't valid unless it has a certain number of witnesses. My point? Being baptized in water isn't a particularly good "testimony to men" since it can have all kinds of connotations to those who are observing and there is no biblical requirement for any particular number of "witnesses". It's pretty unlikely that God would call for water immersion to simply "testify".
Others think that God has commanded water baptism as the "instrument of salvation". For these, salvation is not extended to anyone who has not been baptized in water. But, God can, and does, save people in spite of their sins or inabilities, so simply putting the demand for immersion into water out there as "the" instrument of salvation makes no sense whatsoever. He could have as easily commanded "refraining from adultery" as the "instrument of salvation", or "attending the 'right' church" as the "instrument of salvation", or "standing on your head in the corner for ten minutes weekly" as the "instrument of salvation". No, there has to be a workable reason in God's mind and heart for commanding immersion in water.
What might be God's reason for commanding water baptism? Well, it might be driven by the reality of the impact actions have upon us. The first time someone hits his thumb with a hammer, he may not be sure he wants to do any more carpentry work. Such is the impact of actions. Once I was in an automobile that got hit from behind and the collision flipped the vehicle I was in. For a long time afterwards, every time I heard the screech of tires sliding on pavement, the hair on the back of my neck would immediately stand up and I would brace for a collision. The impact of the action was real. When I was a child, putting certain foods in my mouth would almost make me gag. After the first time, it was almost an automatic gag-session if those foods came anywhere near my mouth.
What has this to do with water baptism? What lingering impact would God wish to create in me that is linked to being immersed in water and then lifted out of it again? Well, obviously, whatever it is, it has to have something to do with me in water. What would that be? Could it have something to do with "cleansing"? After all, water is regularly used by people to wash dirt off of them. Could it have something to do with "satisfying thirst"? After all, water is used regularly to slake thirst. Could it have something to do with the fear of death? Many people go "into water" and never get to come up until they have died. Could it have something to do with having a good time? Many go to water parks all over our country because going into the water is a blast. What is God's reason? And how do we know?
Interestingly at least part of the answer is to be found in the ancient word "baptize". It did not start off being an English word. We get our word "baptize" from the Greek word "baptidzo". As you can see, only the "d" and the "o" in the transliteration of the Greek is different from our English spelling. This means that we have to go to the language of the ancient Greeks if we want to find out what "baptidzo" means. When we do that, we find out immediately that it didn't have anything particularly to do with "water". Rather, it had to do with the idea of putting something into another something so that the two were identified together. For example, a sword that was put into its sheath up to the hilt was said to have been "baptized". Likewise, if a person took up a submissive relationship with a teacher and his doctrines, he was said to have been baptized into that teacher. We speak of this reality today if we say something like "he is immersed in his studies". The key issue is this: the one "baptized" is "totally identified" with his new environment. This is the significance of the Spirit's baptism of us into Christ: we become so identified with Him that the Father no longer sees us without the characteristics of Christ. When Christ was "baptized" on the cross, He was totally identified with our sins. Thus, He, Who knew no sin was made sin for us.
What, then, would be the point of my being involved in a "baptism with water"? Well, if the baptism had only to do with immersion, it would mean my death. As an environment, water is deadly to all air-breathers. This is the aforementioned link to the lesson of the flood. But, "baptism with water", as commanded by God, is not just about my being immersed into a deadly environment; it is also about my being released from that environment back into the air that I have to breathe to live. That is why water baptism is enjoined upon new disciples by God. He wishes to initially involve them in an experience that pictures the reality of Christ's work on their behalf. He wants them to identify the water with death; He wants them to identify the release from water as the permission to live again. This is a very old biblical truth, but it is not one that people easily get into their souls. That we were dead in our trespasses and sins is not seriously believed because we could still function and have some level of fun while in our death. Being immersed into water is an indisputably dangerous act because it can kill. There is neither fun nor function if that environment is enforced for very long. By the same token, we are free in Christ to live once we have been freed from our trespasses and sins. Most people never do get this truth under their belts either. Rather than living free, we find ourselves all balled up in sin again. Part of the reason is that we don't "get it". Being released from the water of baptism is designed by God as a teaching tool to help us "get it". If proper teaching precedes baptism, there will be a lingering realization of two things: sins will snuff out my experience of life; and, the death of the Just for the unjust is always sufficient unto the forgiveness that enables a return to a good conscience.
This was actually Peter's meaning in likening Christ to the Ark. By being in Christ, believers are free to live without being impacted by the judgment of God that is all around them outside of their "boat". But, some, not grasping these things at all, have turned Peter's text on its head and insisted that he was making the "water" the "instrument of salvation" instead of the Ark. Incredible.