Posted by: mattcolvin | January 3, 2010

Twelve Theses on 1 Peter 3:21

I’m nailing these to the virtual church door. They’re some theses about 1 Peter 3:20-21, which says,

“…when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, into which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21 Which also you an antitype, baptism, now saves, not the putting off of the filth of the flesh, but the response of a good conscience to God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”

I’ve translated the beginning of 21 in an overly literal way to make the grammar clear. Now, here are theses:

1. The “answer of a good conscience” is a grammatical appositive of “baptism.” The two are thus identified: Water baptism is the answer of a good conscience toward God.

2. “Baptism” is nominative, an appositive of “antitype.” Water baptism, not something else, is the antitype of the salvation through water that Noah and his family experienced.

3. This antitype, baptism, is the grammatical subject of “saves” (swzei). The passage therefore says outright that “baptism now saves you.”

4. We may say that baptism saves by being “the answer of a good conscience toward God.”

5. Anyone who says “baptism does not save you” is contradicting the express words of the apostle Peter. (#3 above).

6. Anyone who says that “water baptism” is to be identified with “the putting off of the filth of the flesh” makes Peter say this: “baptism now saves you, not baptism, but the answer of a good conscience toward God.” Which really amounts to “baptism now saves you, not baptism, but baptism.” (#1, 2, 3 above)

7. Anyone who says that water baptism is not “the answer of a good conscience toward God” is importing theology into the text, not exegeting it. The text identifies the two (#1 above).

8. By the same procedure as #7, we may make all kinds of gnostic arguments: “When the Bible says that Jesus was raised for our justification, it really means that we can have faith for our justification, since we know that faith, and not physical events, is what saves us.”

9. Thus, the hermeneutic that baptists use on 1 Peter 3:21 can be used to empty anything of power and efficacy. We should therefore reject this hermeneutic as a pernicious “universal solvent” that will destroy the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith.

10. No one — not I, not Peter Leithart, not John Calvin — ever taught that baptism saves us by washing dirt off our physical bodies. We are all thus in agreement with the apostle Peter’s qualification of the meaning of “baptism” in 3:21.

11. Baptists like John Piper very commonly say things like “sacraments don’t save us” or “baptism doesn’t save you.” When they talk this way, they are contradicting Scripture. (#3 above)

12. The passage in 1 Peter 3 says nothing about “Spirit baptism”. To gloss “baptism” in 1 Peter 3 with anything other than water baptism is an imposition on the text. It can be motivated by nothing in the context, but only by theological parti pris.


  1. To point #4…In my interactions with Baptist friends, they’ve pointed to this passage as a defense of credo-baptism in that the phrase “answer of a good conscience” is evidence that one must have cognitive belief of which baptism is the badge, i.e. I have a good conscience because I believe Christ died for my sins therefore I accept the sign of baptism.

    How do you understand “the answer of a good conscience” for a baby?

  2. It’s the faithful covenant-response. Just like the OT: “Anyone who is not circumcised in his flesh has broken my covenant; he must be cut off from his people.”

    Sure, suneidesis is a grownup word. Paul is writing a letter, which of course will be read by grownups. This is no more troubling than “repent and be baptized” or the verbs that babies can’t do in 1 Cor. 11.

  3. Can’t it also be translated “pledge”? Some translations seem to opt for it, and that would give it a more objective meaning…

  4. Ahah. Thank you for that question, Andrew!

    A brief consultation of the LSJ reveals that “pledge” is a meaning instanced only by the 1 Peter passage in question.

    Which means that there is some lexicography to do, which will likely bear fruit. Meanings evidenced only by the passage in question are almost always wrong. I’ll see what the TLG can turn up sometime later this week.

  5. I think the best response to the baptist on this count would be a parallel to your argument about Ephesians 2: the letter was written to first generation converts.

  6. Sorry to flood your combox, but while you’re doing research, ESV translates it yet another way:

    “as an appeal to God for a good conscience”… you translate it “of”… could “for” be an option?

  7. Matt (sorry again for more comments),

    You probably don’t need the help, but I found a good article by Andrew Das that addresses this text, and he mentions vaguely where the “pledge” language came from:


    “Second, what does “appeal” (eperotema) mean? The word occurs only here in the New Testament. [Elsewhere it means “QUESTION” or “INQUIRY.” Some inscriptions used the same word for a “decree” or “decision” by an august body.

    It can also refer in the Greek papyri to stipulations of a contractual nature. The verb refers in biblical Greek to a REQUEST (e.g. Matt. 16:1). In non-biblical Greek, the verb is used for “having been asked” or the verbal noun (“what has been asked”). Since the verb “ask a question, make a request” is more frequent in the NT, one can derive the meaning of the less clear noun from the clearer verb and thus “request” or “plea” and since it is directed toward God, as “PRAYER,” perhaps also with the further idea that this request will also shape one’s behavior on light of that which one requested.] This word is also used in CONTRACTUAL LANGUAGE in secular Greek [the papyri]. It was the PLEDGE ONE TOOK TO UPHOLD THE AGREEMENT. The early church’s baptismal liturgy included a confession of faith in response to a corresponding question. At Qumran, one had to make a pledge along with the ritual. Thus, we’re talking about a PLEDGE here, the PLEDGE of a good conscience. …

    BUT: eperotema does NOT bear that meaning in the inscriptions or the papyri where it means “EDICT,” often as a response to a formal plea, or “PLEDGE” as part of a contractual obligation. More likely, then, the word is “PLEDGE” and refers to the response of the baptisand to God (eis theon) IN LIGHT OF THE BAPTISMAL ACT, which is made salvific by its relationship to Christ’s resurrection.]”

    Das is a Lutheran who supports infant baptism.

    Meredith Kline alludes to the same texts, I think:


    ” The περώτημα seems best understood as a pledge (a meaning well attested in judicial texts), the solemn vow of consecration given in answer to the introductory questions put to the candidate for baptism. In ancient covenant procedure, as has been observed above, such an oath of allegiance was accompanied by rites symbolizing the ordeal sanctions of the covenant.”

    Das also mentions the possibility of objective vs. subjective genitive thing, the “of” vs “for”, and opts for objective.

    If Das is right, that Peter means baptism is a pledge to live an obedient life, then Peter would be paralleling Paul’s use of “seal” in Romans 4:11 (a covenant ratifying act), and even Genesis 17 itself, which equates the covenant with circumcision (calling the oath-sign simply “my covenant”). So, if it works lexically, it would be a nice fit, and would easily allow for paedobaptism.

  8. Thanks for this, Andrew. I think you’ve saved me a lot of work and come up with an answer that’s better than what I would have found for myself.

  9. “that Peter means baptism is a pledge to live an obedient life”… Subtle perhaps for those of us who are already paedobaptists, but the linkage to obedience is very interesting.

  10. I think Das’ comments are a bit confusing, since Peter’s language doesn’t seem to be saying the pledge is made in light of the saving-baptism, but that the baptism IS the pledge. It is a communicative act itself. And surely, if nothing else, circumcision included this same aspect: it was an oath-sign which bound one in fealty to the Lord. In the case of infants, it was probably understood along the lines of, say, Hannah committing Samuel to temple service; he was pledged/oath-ed to God.

    Also, in the OT (as most of the readers of this blog probably know) “oath” and “covenant” are often used synonymously, and as Genesis 17 evidences, so are the signs by which covenants were ratified (since in the ancient world the oath-signs were *more* binding than the verbal promises that they accompanied). So Peter could easily be taken to be saying: baptism saves by being a pledge-sign which brings one under the dominion of the resurrected Christ, who has overcome all evil powers.

    I’m rambling, but I think it helps to make the logic clear.

  11. Yes, I agree with you. We don’t need the rest of Das, just his conclusion that there’s evidence in legal papyri for “eperotema” meaning “pledge” rather than “answer”, so that “suneidesews” becomes an objective genitive rather than a subjective genitive. Once that’s seen, the passage doesn’t support baptist theology at all.

  12. Comment #1:
    Baptists will continue to rebuff us per their presupps but to address the “appeal to a clean conscience,” it is baptism that produces the good conscience. What baptism accomplishes as a sacrament is the means of one having a clean conscience when one understands what God has done by his word and sign.

  13. I’ve always taken it to mean “a REQUEST for a good conscience.” What’s the argument against taking it that way?

  14. It seems to me that people often take “putting off the uncleanness of the flesh” to refer to washing a bit of dirt off your physical body. Then, they conclude that Peter is saying that he isn’t talking about water baptism, because all that does is just wash off your body.

    But isn’t there a close parallel with Hebrews 9-10? Notice that Hebrews 9 and 10 also deal with having a good conscience and with the washing of the flesh.

    But there, the washing of the flesh — the cleansing of the uncleanness of the flesh — has to do with the Old Covenant “various baptisms.” They sufficed to cleanse the flesh (Old Covenant Israel) so that Israel could be the holy nation and so that Israel’s priests could draw near to God. But they could not take away sins.

    Now, however, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can draw near to God with boldness. Now, we all have the privilege of the high priest and then some. We can draw near with clean consciences, having our bodies washed with clean water (baptism).

    In Hebrews 9-10, then, the contrast between removing the uncleanness of the flesh and the washing that allows to draw near with a clean conscience is the contrast between Old Covenant and New.

    I submit that Peter is making the same contrast. The baptism that saves us is not one of the Old Covenant washings that cleansed the flesh but left people as “flesh.” It’s a better baptism, a request for a clean conscience, and an entrance into the realm of Spirit.


  15. John: Andrew Das gives his argument for “pledge” over “appeal” in the article I linked to above. I think part of it was that “appeal” comes from the verbal form, while the word in Peter is in a noun, and that the noun is used in secular Greek with the meaning of “edict” or “pledge”.

    Das takes the pledge to be one that pledges to keep a clear conscience before God for life (i.e., a pledge of life-long obedience).

  16. John: out of curiosity, on your view, who is the one doing the appealing though baptism? (this is not a rhetorical question)

  17. So, I posted this link into Greenbaggins and this is what Reed had to say…

    “Matt (Ken), #60: your point 12 denies the principle of sacramental union. That may be o.k. in non-reformed denominations, but this is central to the reformed understanding of the sacraments.

    A fatal error.”

    How say you?

  18. Reed misunderstands me. Baptists like to take this verse and say, “See! ‘Not the washing away of the filth of the flesh!’ So it’s not water baptism at all. It’s Spirit baptism, which doesn’t involve water.” This is just special pleading, not exegesis at all.

    That’s what I was saying in point 12. I wasn’t saying “The Holy Spirit doesn’t accompany water baptism.” I was saying that 1 Peter 3:21 doesn’t mention any other event than water baptism.

  19. […] for him, but a real possibility to be assiduously avoided. And the Apostle Peter says — parse it with me — that baptism now saves you. How anyone could read the New Testament and miss these two […]

  20. I Peter 3:21…Let’s take another look at this controversial Bible verse

    1 Peter 3:21 (ESV)

    1 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,

    Ask an orthodox Christian what this Bible passage says and this will be his response, “Baptism saves you.” Pretty simple interpretation of the passage, right?

    Ask a Baptist or evangelical what this passage says, and he will say something like this: “Water baptism is a picture of our appeal to God for a clean conscience which occurs in our spiritual baptism: our decision for Christ/our born again experience. This passage is not talking about water baptism, it is talking about spiritual baptism.”

    Ok. Let’s take a look at another passage of Scripture:

    Hebrews 10:22 ESV

    let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

    What is it that gives us the full assurance of faith according to this Bible passage? Our decision to accept Jesus into our hearts? Our decision to be born again? Our decision to make a decision for Christ? No. The simple, plain rendering of this passage of Holy Scripture tells us that our assurance of faith is based on God sprinkling our hearts, cleansing us of our evil conscience, AND washing our bodies with pure water!

    There can be only one explanation for the “when” of full assurance of salvation: WATER BAPTISM!

    Both of these passages talk about having our consciences cleansed, and the verse in Hebrews clarifies that this cleansing does not take place in our mind or as a public profession; it takes place in our heart, our soul; and this cleansing occurs at the same time as “pure” water is applied to our body! This is water baptism, Baptist and evangelical brothers and sisters! Stop twisting and contorting the plain, simple words of God to conform to your sixteenth century false teachings!

    Believe God’s plain, simple Word.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    an orthodox Lutheran blog

  21. Matt, I know it’s been a long time since you posted this, but here’s an additional thought. It seems to me that most interpretations miss the parallel construction between what Peter says about the flesh and about the conscience.

    ou sarkos apothesis rupou
    alla suneideseos agathes eperotema eis theon

    Note the parallel between “sarkos” and “suneideseos” (both in the gen.). Baptism is not “from the flesh a washing of uncleanness” but rather is “from a good conscience an appeal to God.”

    The parallel suggests that it’s not an appeal *for* a good conscience but *from* one, just as the washing is *from* the flesh or *of* the flesh. Again, as I posted above, Heb 9-10 also makes the same “flesh / good conscience” contrast.

    Baptism saves — continues to save in the present — because it is an appeal to God from (or: of) a good conscience (the result of a better washing than the old covenant washings: Heb 9-10), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    • Yes. Or, in other words, it washes away sins, so that you don’t have them on your record. (“Your record” is, after all, what suneidesis means in the NT — not an interior voice warning you about what’s right and wrong.)

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