Baptism and a Good Conscience

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.”

1 Peter 3:21

The apostle Peter was writing about how Jesus “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (3:18).  As an illustration, he wrote about the global flood of Noah’s day and how Noah and his family “were brought safely through water” (3:20).  This brought him to the subject of baptism.

Baptism (baptisma in Greek) literally means “immersion, submersion” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).  While the New Testament speaks of several symbolic or spiritual baptisms which are special studies themselves (cf. Acts 1:5), literal, physical baptism – which was most commonly spoken of in the New Testament – was when one was literally submerged in water (cf. John 3:23; Matthew 3:16; Acts 8:35-39; 10:47). 

God inspired Peter to write that baptism “now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21), corresponding or equivocating it (“which corresponds to this” – 3:21) to how Noah and his family “were brought safely through water” by the ark (3:20).  Thus, literal submersion in water is what Peter is talking about when he mentions baptism in this passage.  It is noteworthy that by saying, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you,” Peter directly links baptism to salvation as Jesus had also done (Mark 16:16). 

In explaining how “baptism…now saves you,” Peter elaborates that it is “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.”  Even though both Peter and Jesus clearly require baptism for one to be saved just as other passages in the New Testament likewise require faith and repentance for salvation (cf. John 3:16; Acts 3:19), some believe that one is saved before being baptized.  Thus, this verse is sometimes viewed as teaching a person has a good conscience BEFORE baptism.  This is not what the passage is saying, for several reasons.

A good conscience, while in most cases a good thing, is not necessarily inherent proof that one is saved and in a right relationship with God.  Saul of Tarsus, later known as the apostle Paul, said he lived in good conscience all his life (Acts 23:1), which would include the time when he was not a Christian and was persecuting the church.  Therefore, even if it could be proved from 1 Peter 3:21 that a good conscience comes before baptism (which it can’t), that still would not necessarily prove that baptism is not necessary for salvation.

A good conscience describes a heart which is sincere, a person who earnestly seeks to obey God.  Anyone who earnestly and sincerely seeks to follow God’s will, after reading in the Bible the commands to be baptized and the benefits promised from doing so (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:36-41; 22:16; Romans 6:1-5; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:11-13; 1 Peter 3:21), would obey the command to be baptized rather than question it as some unfortunately do.

Thus, “baptism…now saves you.”  How?  It’s not the water.  It’s “not as a removal of dirt from the body.”  When you’re submerged in water, the water might cleanse the dirt from your body, but the water won’t cleanse your soul from sin.  Only the blood of Jesus does that.  Jesus said that his blood was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).  Christians “have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7).  With that in mind, remember that Paul was told that by being baptized he would “wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16).  Thus, it is in baptism that one spiritually comes into contact with the blood of Christ which cleanses us from our sins.  We are commanded to be baptized in water (Acts 10:47-48; cf. John 3:5), but the water itself doesn’t spiritually cleanse us.  Rather, it brings us into contact with the blood of Christ which does cleanse us.

Peter gives another way baptism “now saves you.”  He calls it “an appeal,” literally in the Greek a request or craving.  An appeal, request or craving “for a good conscience,” a clear conscience, the kind of conscience you get when your sins are forgiven.  Baptism is an appeal for forgiveness and the clear conscience forgiveness brings.  Scripture teaches that God always and immediately grants that forgiveness to any penitent believer the moment he is baptized into Christ (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; cf. Galatians 3:26-27; Romans 6:1-5).

Therefore, that good conscience tells one that they are now saved and forgiven.  It comes only after baptism, because baptism is how we appeal to God for the forgiveness which results in that good conscience.  Are you ready to appeal to God for a good conscience?