Baptism Now Saves Us: An Assured Conscience

So what is the status of a baptized person in the Roman Catholic Church? His sins have been removed, but “concupiscence” remains. In Roman Catholicism, concupiscence is a moral weakness, a tendency toward sin, which is itself not sin and which can be resisted by grace (grace that God gives to everyone through the sacraments and through the good works of piety of a faithful church member). But the Bible teaches that all sinners (even believers) have a sinful flesh, a totally depraved and corrupted nature, which is not only inclined to all evil, but is itself evil, and which can do nothing good. This sinful nature exists in all sinners, although in believers it has been dethroned. Nevertheless, even in believers the flesh is still very active and produces in us all kinds of evil. Without a biblical understanding of sin, the Roman Catholic will lack a proper understanding of salvation: neither water baptism nor the power of free will (even when coupled with God’s grace) can deliver us from the “filth of the flesh.”

Why then does the Bible speak this way, linking the reality of salvation to the sign of baptism? Reformed theologians speak of the sacramental union, for in the Bible there is a close connection between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (the washing away of sin in the blood of Christ). The Heidelberg Catechism asks about this sacramental union, “Why then doth the Holy Ghost call baptism ‘the washing of regeneration,’ and the ‘washing away of sins’? God speaks thus not without great cause, to wit, not only thereby to teach us that, as the filth of the body is purged away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ; but especially that by this divine pledge and sign he may assure us that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (Q&A 73).

The relationship between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (salvation) is not one of identity. They are not the same, nor does the sign become the reality. A sign cannot be the reality; otherwise, it is not a sign. A sign cannot become the reality, otherwise it ceases to be a sign. Nevertheless, sometimes the Bible gives the name of the thing signified to the sign itself, because God would have us associate the reality with the sign.

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Baptism Now Saves Us: A Spiritual Cleansing

There are therefore, two figures in 1 Peter 3:21: the flood, which is an Old Testament type of baptism; and water baptism, which is the New Testament picture (or the sign and seal) of salvation in the blood and Holy Spirit of Christ. The reality is salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism elucidates: “Is then the external baptism with water the washing away of sin itself? Not at all; for the blood of Jesus Christ only, and the Holy Ghost, cleanse us from all sin” (Q&A 72). Water baptism, and its type, the flood, point to one great reality: the washing away of our sins by the blood and in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Peter teaches this when he writes: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us…by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (v. 21). Peter connects salvation not to water baptism, but to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and therefore also to the cross. There is no resurrection without the cross, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is his bodily resurrection from the grave three days after his death.

Peter has already explained the death of Christ in verse 18: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” Christ’s death was a substitutionary death, an atoning sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice. We are unjust or unrighteous, and Christ, the just one, paid for our sins. Thus Christ died both for our benefit and in our place, and by his resurrection God proves that he is perfectly satisfied with his Son’s work of atonement.

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Baptism Now Saves Us

The apostle Peter writes certain words about baptism that are strange to our ears and that we might be reluctant to say. Some quote these words in defense of their doctrine of baptism, for they believe that baptism saves. The Reformed must not be shy about this text, for, it too, is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable—when properly understood, of course! Peter writes, “Baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter 3:21). Salvation in baptism! By carefully studying the text, we ward off wrong notions, but we also derive the meaning that the Holy Spirit would give.

And in so doing we shall have a better understanding of baptism and appreciation for baptism.

In 1 Peter 3 the apostle makes a comparison between the flood of Noah and baptism: “the like figure whereunto baptism doth also now save us” (v. 21). The antecedent of “whereunto” is the water of the flood in verse 20. The flood, therefore, was a type for the word “figure” in verse 21 is the Greek word “antitype.” Since the flood was the type, there is also an antitype or corresponding reality, for an antitype is the New Testament fulfillment of an Old Testament type. Already we should see that a bald reading of the text, “Baptism saves us,” will lead us astray. To understand the Spirit’s meaning here, we need to examine the relationship between the type and the antitype.

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