I have a friend who believes that one is saved through baptism, and she uses such passages as 1 Peter 3:21 and Acts 2:38 to “prove” her position. These verses seem convincing, and I need to know what they really mean if she is wrong.
The idea of baptismal regeneration is more of a problem than we realize; in fact, the majority of so-called Christendom holds to it. But that doesn’t make it right. The teaching goes back to Roman Catholicism and its origins, so it has been around a long time. Nevertheless, we believe it is unscriptural, and we say this on the basis of the multitude of Scripture verses that plainly show that salvation is totally pf grace; there is no act that one must do or be involved in, in order to be saved. John 3:16, Acts 16:30 and 31, Romans 10:9 and 10, Ephesians 2:8 and 9, and 1 John 5:1 are just a few of many, many verses in the Bible that show us salvation is by faith plus nothing else. Therefore baptismal regeneration is an attempt to add to Christ’s finished work on the cross. We dare not use a few passages of Scripture out of context to form a doctrine that is refuted by countless other passages.
Indeed there are a number of passages that are used to argue for baptismal regeneration. Many of us have studied these and have found that none of these verses actually teach this doctrine. Rather, they are lifted out of their proper context by proponents of this teaching. We believe these passages instead can be understood by a study of the true original meaning of some word in the passage that otherwise confuses people. Let us take your two passages this month. Perhaps we will cover other confusing passages at another time.
Concerning 1 Peter 3:21, I have often heard advocates of baptismal regeneration use this verse, and not once have I heard them quote the verse correctly. They will say the verse reads, “Baptism doth now save us.” But that is not what the verse says. It says, “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.” When we quote the whole verse and also see the context in which the verse rests, we get a completely different—and the true—meaning. Looking at the context, we find that the apostle Peter, in dealing with the matter of suffering for Jesus’ sake, was encouraging the readers of his letter with the fact that a correct attitude toward undeserved suffering would result in blessing. This principle was shown in verses 13–17; and then in verses 18–22, he gave some illustrations of this.
Persecution was not to be looked down upon. One of the illustrations was that of Noah. Verse 20 tells of God patiently waiting for Noah to finish building the ark. God was not going to tolerate the people’s wickedness much longer. When the ark was finished, God’s grace would be over for them. It also shows us that Noah committed himself to the building of the ark even though it is obvious that he endured much ridicule and persecution for doing so. But there was a reward for Noah and his family in the end—the saving of himself and his family. It says that they were saved from the water (flood). What saved them? The ark. The ark is a type of Jesus Christ. He is the One Who saves, not the water. If those who say that baptism saves are to be consistent, they must say that the Flood, not the ark, saved Noah and his family. But the water was a destroyer of all who were not in the ark. No, baptism (see the words “the like figure”) points back to Jesus Christ, our Ark, Who went through the awful judgment of the sin of all mankind at the cross and was then resurrected by God from death. When we obey the Scriptures and are baptized as believers in Jesus Christ, we are pointing to the work of the Lord Jesus Christ at the cross and, having experienced the new birth, are identifying with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism, the meaning of which signifies being completely submerged in the water, illustrates death (lowered into the water), burial (under the water), and resurrection (raised out of the water).
Thus Peter is teaching that baptism does not save from sin but from a bad conscience. He is saying that one’s baptism demonstrates that person’s break from his old life as an unbeliever and entrance to new life in Christ. Therefore this public stand for Christ would save believers from the temptation to sacrifice their good consciences in order to avoid persecution. In those early days of the New Testament church, baptism had perhaps greater significance in the unbelieving world than today as far as a believer’s taking a stand before others was concerned. The candidate for baptism was saying that he was going to follow Christ regardless of the consequences—and consequences there often were. Certain cultures today look upon baptism with greater significance than others. In the eyes of some cultures and religions, one’s baptism is the point at which a person becomes a permanent outcast to his heathen loved ones.
Notice the final words of verse 21: “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” This passage thus concludes with an underscoring of the fact that it is Jesus Who saves, not baptism.
Now we go to your second passage, which reads: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38).
Proponents of baptismal regeneration say this verse teaches we are saved through baptism. However, if we look at Peter’s words in such passages as Acts 5:31, 10:43, 13:38 and 26:18, we see he taught that the forgiveness of sins was the result of faith alone. There was no mention of baptism.
The misunderstanding of many concerning this passage is because of the word “for,” or eis in the original. Greek scholar A. T. Robertson pointed out that the grammatical construction of this passage is exactly the same as in Matthew 12:41—“at the preaching of Jonah.” The word eis can be translated “at” as well as “for.” Thus the verse would read, “Repent, and be baptized at [or because of] the remission of sins,” showing that baptism is for believers and follows believing. It is an act of obedience upon confession of faith in Christ. Some Bible scholars go further in pointing out that the clause “be baptized” must be set off from the rest of the sentence. And, again, we must never forget the principle that we must not take these isolated passages to form our theology when countless other passages teach otherwise, with no mention of baptism whatsoever.
Many people down through the years have had a false hope of salvation by regarding these ordinances (they call them sacraments) as having saving merit. We must proclaim the truth of salvation by grace alone.
Let me say a word to pastors, Christian education workers, and teachers: We must be sure that we are not using materials that teach falsehood. It came to my attention recently that a major publisher of Vacation Bible School materials is propagating error. This particular publisher has a Church of Christ–Christian background, but it has taken on an interdenominational color. In its 1989 VBS curriculum, the Middler Pupil Book states concerning Lydia that she “was baptized and became a Christian.” In other words, they have their theology backward. Individuals have told me there have been other examples. I mention this because there are fundamental churches, even in our Fellowship perhaps, that unwittingly use these unsound materials unaware of the effect these things might have, especially on pliable children. The material I have just cited is currently being advertised in leading evangelical, fundamental magazines. Let’s be careful and consistent! Let’s know what we believe. Baptismal regeneration is spelled “Do”; grace is spelled “Done!”
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