How do I interpret 1 Peter 3:21?

My view of I Peter 3:21 is very simply…Baptistic.
The confusion comes when taking the verse by itself apart from the immediate context as well as the context of the rest of Scripture. When taken like this the verse seems to say that we are saved by the act of immersing ourselves in water.

In looking at this passage of Scripture it is best, as always, to look at context. What is the context? Peter has just told us that it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing bad. His proof is grounded in his view of the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ has already suffered for our sins, therefore, why should we suffer for them? Or put another way, since there is no more penalty from the Father for our sins, why subject ourselves to the penalty of man for sins by continuing to commit them?

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1Pe 3:18-22)

Since we have already set the immediate context, we must also set the Scriptural context. Since Scripture will never contradict itself, it is useful for explaining itself. John the Baptist said,

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Mat 3:11-12)

John the Baptist in these words draws a distinction between the external act of baptism as a sign and the internal reality of baptism as being sealed by the Spirit for the believer and the judgment of God on the unbeliever. This seems to fit the illustration of the flood that Peter describes in his passage. Everyone who got wet in the flood died. And yet the flood was a means of deliverance for Noah and his family. The floodwaters that destroyed the earth were the same waters that lifted the Ark above the earth for the salvation of Noah.
Peter then says as much in his short explanation,

“not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.”

In other words, NOT the external action of Baptism, but the internal action of faith and repentance towards God (conversion) which is prompted by the Holy Spirit. He further tells us that this is rooted not in our actions but Christ’s actions performed in His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.

We can also see the cross as a source of salvation for those who believe, but the same cross is a source of condemnation for those who reject Christ’s work there. This is Peter’s focus when he says that Christ is the Lord over all angels, authorities, and powers. Our comfort is that when we suffer for doing good, we have a just Lord in Heaven who will avenge us. This is also a cause for terror for unbelievers, because Christ has once suffered for sins, and without the appropriation of that work on their behalf, they will be punished all the more because of it.

Finally, in I Peter 4:1-2 Peter says this,

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.
(1Pe 4:1-2)

Since Christ has suffered in the flesh, we also have suffered in His flesh. Baptism is an identification of ourselves with Christ’s sufferings. We are made one with Christ through the baptism in the Spirit (not water baptism). We are baptized into Christ. Immersed in Him. When Christ suffered, Peter says that I am to think of myself as suffering. Since we suffered with Christ we should stop sinning.
On the other hand, every person who has ever lived will be baptized. Unbelievers will be baptized in the Lake of Fire for eternity, while believers are baptized by the Spirit into Christ who was baptized in the wrath of God on the Cross. Only those who are baptized into the Ark (Christ) are saved from God’s wrath.

That’s my position in a nutshell. There’s also some exegetical stuff that no one wants to read through, if they’re anything like me.

You may continue to send me your questions through the week and I will attempt to answer them.



Filed under Baptism, baptist, biblical interpretation, Gospel

12 responses to “How do I interpret 1 Peter 3:21?

  1. Well said, Jeremy, but I am not persuaded.

    I can see your position on baptism, in Noah’s case, being because of the water, yet in spite of it. However, if we focus on the fact that the Ark was what saved Noah from the water (the water being of destructive symbology here), Peter says Noah and his family “were brought safely through water”, so the word “through” is the sense I get. I believe he is saying simply that water was involved in both destruction and salvation. Christ was the Ark, but without the water there was no reason for salvation. Hence, the two were intractably connected. That’s how I see baptism.

    You can say it has no purpose besides symbolism of the inward working of God’s Spirit, but would you dare to say it’s not a necessary ordinance? Why can no true believer find it possible to say that baptism is optional unless it is the Spirit that keeps them from going that far? I spoke to a Presbyterian today who agrees that baptism is necessary, even though his church practices Paedobaptism. He said he was baptized as a child, but felt he needed to be baptized again after he made a decision to be a Christian. Why? Maybe to “be on the safe side”?

    Peter says baptism is not about the washing of the outside of the body, and rightly so. It’s about asking God for a clean conscience, which is why it’s an APPEAL for one. If one already has a pure conscience before God prior to or without baptism, why ask for it in association with baptism as Peter infers?

    Thanks for your time Jeremy. I am not trying to be contentious, but I don’t believe you’ve been able to resolve the issue completely.

  2. Prodigal,

    I agree with you on this. And I have never to my knowledge said that baptism ‘has no purpose besides the inward working of the Holy Spirit.’ Although I wouldn’t dismiss that aspect of Baptism.

  3. Jeremy, interesting interpretation. Are you familiar with Dalton’s treatise on this passage (entitled “The Spirits in Prison,” I believe). I was convinced by it. You can read a summary of his interpretation here:

  4. Lane,
    I’m not sure who Dalton is…is that his first name or last? I’ll need time to think about the points made in that post.

  5. the part where Peter says, “Baptism, … now saves you” is immediately qualified with, “not as a removal of dirt from the body” – that is, whatever he -is- saying, is qualified by the understanding that he is definitely NOT saying that the plunging of a body into water (the cleansing of the flesh) saves you. He goes on to say what -does- save you – an appeal to God for a good conscience. It is the appeal to God that saves you, not the water.

  6. not that I am suggesting that you are suggesting that – just thumping the pulpit a little…

  7. Daniel,

    I see this as Peter saying specifically that baptism does nothing for the outside of the body, but only the inward part, the conscience. Concentrate on what Peter says it does do, not what he says it doesn’t, which is something anyone can agree with. Water can clean dirt from our bodies, but that’s not it’s purpose in baptism.

    If he meant to say, baptism does nothing for the soul, don’t you think he’d have been clearer as to what it doesn’t do spiritually rather than addressing the obvious physical aspect? If nothing else, I believe he is elevating the result of baptism with this statement. In effect he raises it above a ritual washing meant to cleanse the skin, and one that allows us to ask, petition, and appeal to God for a pure conscience through the symbology of being ressurrected through Christ. This appears more Peter’s affirmation of baptism’s efficacy than a denial of such.

  8. I tend to lean toward NWProdigal’s thinking, even as I prepare my own baptism sermon for Sunday. I think we have to be careful here with the language of the text. It’s true that it’s not the water that saves, but the appeal. Surely that is the qualification.

    BUT…. Peter does not say “it is the appeal to God for a clean conscience that saves you”. I think we baptists almost always opt for THAT interpretation of 1 Peter 3:21 when that is not what the text says. The text says “Baptism saves you”. What does *that* mean? The flow (ha!) of Peter’s argument is that Baptism itself *is* the appeal.

    IMHO, “baptism saves you” dies the death of a thousand qualifications in our baptistic apologetic. We haven’t done a very good job of explaining how baptism “saves us”… and in fact, by heavily qualifying the statement, pretty much interpret it as “baptism doesn’t save you”.

  9. NWProdigal


    I’m not looking to convert anyone to my way of thinking, unless it’s correct of course! I share what I perceive because it is how I honestly understand it.

    I am happy to see that you understand my point and explain it much more succintly than I have. You correctly see the error of over- emphasizing what Peter says Baptism is NOT vs what it IS.

    Thanks for your input.

  10. Peter says “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,”

    “In other words, NOT the external action of Baptism, but the internal action of faith and repentance towards God”

    When Peter says “baptism now saves you” he doesn’t mean “faith, and repentance apart from baptism saves you” but that “faith and repentance save you in baptism.” In other words, if you take from this verse that baptism is not necessary for salvation, you have 100% rejected what the verse is saying. Peter is saying that baptism saves, but only when faith and repentance exist in the one being baptized. He’s saying that the external act without faith and repentance is worthless. But he’s also saying that when a penitent believer gets baptized as an appeal for cleansing, that God will cleanse them while they are in the water of baptism. If you compare this passage with Acts 2:38-39, it becomes even more clear, since he says there “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, because the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Peter clearly sets forth a promise that every penitent believer who gets baptized into Christ as an appeal for the forgiveness of sins, will receive exactly that, along with the Holy Spirit as a gift.

  11. gary

    Can you really trust your English Bible to be God’s true Word?

    Have you ever had an evangelical or Reformed Christian say this to you:

    “THAT passage of the Bible, in the original Greek, does NOT mean what the simple, plain reading of the passage seems to say in English.”

    It happens to me all the time in my conversations with Baptists, evangelicals, and fundamentalists on my blog. They state: “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins” was mistranslated. “This is my body…this is my blood” is a metaphorical expression, “Baptism does now save us” is figurative speech for what happens to us spiritually when we ask Christ into our hearts.

    What they are basically saying is that unless you speak ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek…you can’t read and really understand the Bible without the help of an educated Churchman!

    This morning I came across an excellent article on this subject, written by Jordan Cooper, a Lutheran pastor. I am going to give the link to his article below. I have copied a couple of his statements here:

    “So here is a question that we all need to ask ourselves when doing this (refusing to accept the simple, plain, English translation of a passage of Scripture): If a verse seems to disprove your theological beliefs, and you translate it in some way that doesn’t fit with any of the dozens of major English translations of the Bible, and that unique translation just happens to fit your own theological biases, could it be that it is in fact you who are in the wrong? Could you be reading your own preconceived theological convictions back into the text?”

    “I know it can be frustrating when you are constantly told that Scripture can’t be understood unless you learn (an ancient) language or read ancient documents that you don’t have either the time or the energy to study. Honestly, if you have a few good English translations at your side, and you take the time to compare them to one another, you have all the tools you need to understand the meaning of the Bible.”

    Link to Pastor Cooper’s original article:

  12. gary

    I Peter 3:21…Let’s take another look at this controversial Bible verse

    1 Peter 3:21 (ESV)

    1 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

    Ask an orthodox Christian what this Bible passage says and this will be his response, “Baptism saves you.” Pretty simple interpretation of the passage, right?

    Ask a Baptist or evangelical what this passage says, and he will say something like this: “Water baptism is a picture of our appeal to God for a clean conscience which occurs in our spiritual baptism: our decision for Christ/our born again experience. This passage is not talking about water baptism, it is talking about spiritual baptism.”

    Ok. Let’s take a look at another passage of Scripture:

    Hebrews 10:22 ESV

    let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

    What is it that gives us the full assurance of faith according to this Bible passage? Our decision to accept Jesus into our hearts? Our decision to be born again? Our decision to make a decision for Christ? No. The simple, plain rendering of this passage of Holy Scripture tells us that our assurance of faith is based on God sprinkling our hearts, cleansing us of our evil conscience, AND washing our bodies with pure water!

    There can be only one explanation for the “when” of full assurance of salvation: WATER BAPTISM!

    Both of these passages talk about having our consciences cleansed, and the verse in Hebrews clarifies that this cleansing does not take place in our mind or as a public profession; it takes place in our heart, our soul; and this cleansing occurs at the same time as “pure” water is applied to our body! This is water baptism, Baptist and evangelical brothers and sisters! Stop twisting and contorting the plain, simple words of God to conform to your sixteenth century false teachings!

    Believe God’s plain, simple Word.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    an orthodox Lutheran blog

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