What or how in 1 Peter 3:21?

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.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

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2 thoughts on “What or how in 1 Peter 3:21?

  1. Hello, Barry,

    Appreciate your article. I certainly agree that to remove immersion in water for to receive forgiveness of sins is a gross mishandling of the text. However, have you considered that it is possible to have a “clean conscience” without being right with God/conversion? Consider the example of Paul’s pre-conversion life and conscience (Acts 23:1). To say that, at least to a certain extent, one can posses a pure conscience prior to salvation, and removing immersion from 1 Peter 3:21 are not synonymous. Just some food for thought…:)

    The Greek text in 1 Peter 3:21 can go at two ways: (1) Immersion is described as the actions one takes obtain a clean conscience in an ultimate sense, or after one has come into contact with the truth. (2) Immersion is set forth as the action a person with a good conscience will make toward Deity, to be right with Deity.
    The Greek term for “answer” can refer to both the answer to a question and also to the inquiry or questioning itself. One presents our good conscience answering God’s call, and the other as requesting a clean conscience from God.

    Have a great day in the Messiah! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the feedback Gantt. I heartily agree with your insight that people might have a clear conscience, but yet be, as the saying goes, guilty as sin. Your observation could be further strengthened with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 4:4. Although this context deals with the evaluation of one’s ministry and not salvation per se, yet the principle is the same. Being genuine and having a clear conscience is neither the standard nor sufficient. What matters is God’s evaluation of one’s ministry.

    Although I had intended to address this by writing “legitimately obtain a clean conscience,” perhaps I could have been more clear by having written something like – While merely possessing a good conscience proves nothing about our true status before God, with the obedient act of baptism our sins are forgiven thus enabling us to genuinely obtain a good conscience.

    Your point that “answer” can carry different meanings is true. Ardnt & Gingrich’s Greek Lexicon lists both 1) “question” and 2) “request,appeal” as the two ways to translate the underlying Greek word into English.

    It is also true that context limits what a word or phrase can mean in any given instance. Thus the range of valid meaning for “answer of a good conscience” in 1 Peter 3:21 is limited by context.

    In addition to the three factors I noted in my article which I would suggest limit what can be meant by “question/appeal”, we might also consider Leonhard Goppelt’s contextually based reasoning. I’ve translated his Greek expressions for the English reader. “A good conscience can only be objective genitive, not subjective genitive, since the ‘good conscience’ that is an expression of being a Christian is mediated … through baptism; on this all NT documents are agreed. The answer does not, therefore, proceed from a good conscience, but seeks it.” Commentary on 1 Peter, pp. 268-269.

    Bottom line in everyday language: Baptism saves in being a request/appeal to God, that is, baptism involves seeking to receive a good conscience. Acts 22:16 would seem to illustrate well this principle that baptism involves an appeal to God for forgiveness, an appeal made in baptism and which baptism thus produces. “…Get up and be baptized, and wash your sins away calling on his name.”

    Thank you for your thoughts and for pointing out the range of meanings for “answer” that can be possible in different contexts.

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