Does 1 Peter 3:21 Teach Baptismal Regeneration?

Many denominations use 1 Peter 3:21 “Baptism…now saves you” as a proof text for Baptismal Regeneration (the belief that baptism is necessary for regeneration). My intent is not to spur debate, nor win an argument – much has already and will undoubtedly continue to be written on this topic. My purpose is to provide a plausible explanation of the text in order for readers to draw their own conclusion.

Context of 1 Peter 3

The prevailing theme of 1 Peter is perseverance amidst persecution. This theme confronts the reader in the opening lines of the book when the Apostle Peter addresses the recipients of the letter as “the elect exiles of the dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). The theme is then reiterated when the dispersed covenant community is told to be “sober-minded” and to live “sensible lives” in this present evil age (1 Peter 1:13). After a brief respite, the theme of perseverance amidst persecution re-emerges in 1 Peter 3 and is woven throughout the book until the final benediction.

In 1 Peter 3:13-17, Peter encourages believers living in the Diaspora to stand firm in the face of persecution while always being ready to defend their faith in a godly manner. As in a previous section (1 Peter 2:18-25), Peter evokes another Christological example to encourage believers who are facing persecution (1 Peter 3:18-22).

And sandwiched in the midst of these Christological examples is a curious statement about baptism.

But How Does Baptism Save?

According to 1 Peter 3:18-22, Christ (upon his resurrection) proclaimed victory over the spirits that existed in Noah’s day (v. 19). God saved Noah and his family from hostile spirits (v. 20). Therefore, like Noah, God will save those in the Diaspora from hostile spirits if they stand firm in their pledge to maintain a life committed to God’s service based on Christ’s atoning work (vv. 21-22).

This is further supported by the conclusion made in 1 Peter 4. Here Peter encourages believers to continue suffering for the sake of the gospel as Christ did – for this is in accordance with God’s will. Indeed he will provide strength and provision for all who suffer for Christ.

Another key aspect of this text is the latent concept of covenant. The dispersed “covenant” community of Christ is related to the covenant community in the ark. This is seen specifically by the covenant made with Noah before (Gen. 6:18) and after (Gen. 8:8-17) the flood through the “covenant” sign of baptism (covenant and believer’s baptism in Peter’s day; the flood waters in Noah’s day that was a covenantal sign of fidelity to Noah’s family and eschatological judgment on all others).

Hence, for those in Peter’s day (and in ours) the waters of baptism “save” in that it marks the end of an old life and the commencement of a new life in covenant with Christ. Similarly, the floodwaters in Noah’s day serve to illustrate the end of an old life and the commencement of a new life in covenant with God.

Even more significant, Peter uses Christ as the new paradigm of God’s deliverance from an old life and commencement into a new life by proclaiming Christ’s victory from death – death being the old life (1 Peter 3:18-19) and his subsequent exaltation – exaltation being the new life (vv. 20-22). Peter traces the salvific work done in Noah’s day and connects it to the salvific work done in Christ to encourage believers amidst persecution to persevere. For just as Christ was victorious in persecution (the cross) they too will be victorious amidst persecution.

To put in another way, baptism “saves” in that it is a covenantal sign to us that God will continue to be faithful to his covenantal promises provided that we continue to remain true to our profession.

So What?

The practical application of 1 Peter 3:20-22 should not be lost on the modern reader. Peter’s overall exhortation to the church is to persevere amidst persecution. And while western Christians struggle to identify with severe persecution, we can identify with being an ever shrinking minority amidst an ever increasing secular society.

More than ever in the West, Christians are being called upon to stand firm against the encroachment of evangelical liberalism, militant atheism, and the trappings of a materialistic society. Like those in Peter’s day, we find comfort in knowing that the same God who delivered Noah and his family from the wickedness that surrounded them (baptism is the link which portrays salvation through judgment), is the same God that can deliver us from the ever expanding tide of wickedness in our society. Moreover, we take even greater comfort in knowing that Christ through his death and resurrection has secured victory over all manner of wickedness.