A Christological Inclusio

There is a fascinating inclusio in 1 Peter 3:18-22 where Peter develops his doctrine of baptism and salvation. The text begins with a reference to the death and resurrection of Christ and ends with a reference to the resurrection and ascension of Christ.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.

This leads to a sound conclusion that what comes between has a direct correlation to the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. As he moves from the death to the resurrection in verse 18 and 19 Peter takes, what seems to many to be, a strange hiatus in order to discuss the preaching ministry of Jesus by the Spirit. While many varied and sometimes strange interpretations have been attached to these verses, it seems fairly straightforward to understand Peter to be referring back to a doctrine of ministers speaking by the Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:10-11; 12). Introducing the time element certainly helps understand when it was that the risen Christ went and preached by the Spirit; it was in the days of Noah. Why Peter alludes to Noah is not entirely clear but it, in turn, introduces the section on baptism and salvation. Peter clearly states that the waters of the flood were typical baptism. One might easily come to these passages to prove covenantal, household baptism (because Noah and his family were all baptized on account of his faith), but the purpose of the text is to show that there is a reality, to which the antitype (i.e. New Testament baptism) points–the baptism of the heart by the Spirit. Peter is clearly drawing a comparison and a contrast between what water does outwardly and what the Spirit does inwardly. There is comparison because water baptism, that represents the washing of the filth of the flesh, represents the washing of the filth of the heart or conscience. Elsewhere in the Scriptures we are told that it is through the “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5),” and through “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God,” that our consciences cleansed and we are rarsed from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:14).

The point of this post is to show the connection between Peter’s excursus on baptism and the references to the work of Christ. It is Christ’s saving work, in His death, resurrection and ascension, by which we are saved. Baptism represents the saving work of Christ. The reference to the Spirit in verse 18 is not insignificant either. It is the “eternal Spirit,” who was present at the cross and in the resurrection and by whom Christ preaches the good news through his servants, who comes to cleanse our consciences. It is certainly Spirit baptism that is in view in Peter’s statement. He makes this clear when he explains that the antitype, of the typical water-baptism of the flood, saves; only to quickly qualify that the antitype represents a spiritual reality. Peter says that baptism saves us but he qualifies what sort of baptism saves. It is “not the removal of the filth of the flesh (i.e. water baptism by itself) but the answer of a good conscience toward God (i.e. Spirit baptism).” Paul tells us that we are “baptized into Christ’s death.” Water baptism represents our union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. Peter’s excursus on baptism is really tied to the Person and work of Christ. Note that “the answer of a good conscience before God” is followed by the qualifying phrase, “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” Peter begins and ends with Jesus, not water baptism.

Editors Note: For further consideration of the theme of this passage see Richard D. Phillips’ article “‘Baptism’ in 1 Peter 3:21:  A Study in Sacramental Theology”  in Robert L. Penny edited The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson.

1 Response

  1. Jason Hinson

    Just wondering what version the text was taken from and if you chose it due to the translation “answer of a good conscience toward God,” instead of “an appeal to God for a good conscience”? Because it seems to me that if “an appeal,” is the correct translation then it defines baptism in such a way that it wouldn’t make sense to give it to infants. Baptism would then be an appeal to God for salvation (similar to Rom. 10:10 – confesses and is saved), which would need to be done by the one being saved not the parents.
    I am baptist (and reformed), but I am disposed to think that there must be some better argument/reason for the practice of infant baptism than what I’ve come across, because it seems I hold more things in common with presbyterians than I do baptists. Granted I haven’t read much on the arguments from both sides, but just from my reading of Scripture I haven’t been convinced of infant baptism like I have been with all the other reformed doctrines I hold to. I hold what I hold because I see it clearly from Scripture, so where is the clearest biblical teaching on infant baptism of which you are aware? If it was clearer to me than the baptist position then I would switch, but I can’t unless I’m convinced by Scripture. Thanks.

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