As a teenager reading 1 Peter 3:21, the natural sense of the text, or whatever else you may prefer to call it, seemed clear enough to me even though it was the King James Version. “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” (1 Peter 3:21).
His basic thrust appeared obvious. Having first described how eight people were saved during Noah’s day through the watery flood, Peter then claimed this event prefigured baptism. People who pass through baptismal water are likewise saved.
One final thought was clear to this young fellow. In mid-sentence Peter had clarified how baptism saves. Salvation is not a matter of gaining a clean body, rather with baptism people legitimately obtain a clean conscience. They can know God has forgiven them.
Fast forward a number of years. Sitting in a library I read a book proposing that the function of Peter’s mid-sentence interruption involves defining what is significant in baptism. This interpretation, which has become common place among some Protestants, attempts to eviscerate every drop of importance from the act of a water burial.
According to this line of thinking Peter is claiming that what matters is whether a person possesses a good conscience when committing oneself to God. In other words, as long as a person avoids being hypocritical when responding to the gospel, it is that good conscience which saves a person. Thus water is not even required for such a “baptism.” What? Crash!
Interpretations that appear to me to be counter-intuitive and contrived for ulterior motives cause me to have a mental train wreck. Even though I reversed engines and tried to be open-minded in re-approaching the evidence, this interpretation just did not add up.
While it may be true that people need to be genuine when responding to the gospel, this is not Peter’s point about baptism. Multiple lines of evidence reveal, Peter would have understood that obeying the gospel by being baptized purifies our souls.
First, to deny that the act of water baptism holds any significance destroys the possibility of Noah’s family being “saved by water” prefiguring baptism. The literary tie between the two depends upon the water.
Second, Peter had proclaimed, “Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins” (Acts 2:38) as he pleaded with the crowd to save themselves (Acts 2:40). In 1 Peter he alluded to baptism with, “seeing you have purified your souls by obeying the truth” (1 Peter 1:22). The truth in God’s word can lead someone to become born again.
Third, the larger context of scripture provides a parallel to 1 Peter 3:21. In Hebrews 10:22 the cleansing of our defiled consciences by Christ’s blood is tied together with our bodies being washed with water thereby enabling us to come before God. Baptism results in possessing a good conscience.
As a teenager, the natural sense of 1 Peter 3:21 jumped forth. It still does.