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Does baptism now save us?

Jan 09, 2013

There are many who believe that one must be baptized in order to be saved. One of the verses quoted to support this view is from 1 Peter 3:20, 21, speaking of Noah’s flood:

20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21 And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is plain from these verses that Noah’s flood was a baptism by immersion of the earth itself, whether we understand it as a local flood or as a universal flood. Noah was sprinkled by the rain from above, and that was his baptism. The rest of the people were immersed and died accordingly. The lesson in this is that when one is baptized apart from faith--as in the days of Noah--it leads only to death.

The same occurred years later in the days of Moses, when they were all baptized under the cloud and in the sea. 1 Cor. 10:2 says,

2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

In that story, the Egyptians were baptized by immersion in the sea, while the Israelites were baptized in the cloud. Each had differing results, of course, because in biblical symbolism, immersion (practiced by the Egyptians) is a baptism into dead water, while water that is poured from above is moving and is called “living water.” The Egyptians died when baptized in the sea, because they did not justifying faith prior to their baptism.

So how it is that “baptism now saves you,” as Peter tells us? First, he was speaking of believers who correspond to Noah and his family—not to those who died in the water. A related question is this: Why was Noah saved? Was it the water that actually saved him, or was it his faith and obedience to God that saved him from the effects of the water?

That distinction is important, because so many think Peter said, “the water now saves you.” No, it is not the water, but the faith of Noah that preserved him safely during the time of the flood. Peter assumes we understand this, for I don’t believe he had any intention of bypassing faith.

In fact, in the previous verses Peter was making the point that Christ had died for sin and had risen again. He links Christ’s death to making a proclamation to the spirits now in prison in verse 19, but he links baptism to Christ’s resurrection in verse 21.

That is also what we see in the story of Israel under Moses. Israel identified with the death of Christ at Passover while they were yet in Egypt, but the Red Sea was their baptism, and it served as the prophetic type of the wave-sheaf offering a few days after Passover. This was the day that Christ was raised from the dead and presented to the Father.

The point is that there is a two-step process here. Passover signifies justification by faith; the wave-sheaf offering signifies resurrection and presentation as the sons of God. Hence, the faith portion of this precedes baptism. Neither Israel nor Noah would have been “saved” by baptism apart from their prior faith.

Yet here we have to distinguish between being “saved” and being “justified.” The two terms are not the same thing. Salvation is a more general term and indicates being saved from an enemy—in this case, the enemy of death. In Noah’s day the water was the enemy (death). In Moses’ day, the enemy was also the water, which formed a barrier to life on the other side of the Gulf.

True baptism is the rite, not the water. The water is the main instrument of baptism, but only those who have genuine faith are actually brought through the water of death into resurrection and newness of life. Those without faith can only die in the water. Without faith they do not receive newness of life. Without resurrection, they are not “saved.”

Hence, it is the complete baptism (death and resurrection) that “saves” a person—like Noah, who came through the flood, passing from death to life.

When men overfocus upon the water itself, they miss the point. Read the story of Noah. Did WATER actually save him? No. The water threatened to kill him. Did WATER save the Israelites? No, the water threatened to kill them, too. The Israelites were saved by baptism, not by water, if you can see the difference. The Bible stories themselves make this clear.

We see the same pattern when the law prescribes baptism to cleanse lepers in Leviticus 14. It took two birds to cleanse a leper. One was killed, while the other was released alive in the field (Lev. 14:7).

7 He shall then sprinkle seven times the one who is to be cleansed from the leprosy, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the live bird go free over the open field.

It took two birds to complete this ceremony, in order to show us the two-step process involved in baptism. But perhaps more important is the fact that the priest was not to baptize the leper unless he had already been healed of his leprosy. Leviticus 14 says,

2 This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing. Now he shall be brought to the priest, 3 and the priest shall go out to the outside of the camp. Thus the priest shall look, and if the infection of leprosy has been healed in the leper, 4 then the priest shall give orders to take two live clean birds….

The baptismal ceremony took place only if the leper had already been healed by God. The priest was not to baptize any lepers. Leprosy was a biblical type of death or mortality. The law of cleansing lepers pictured the purpose of baptism as seen in the New Testament. It shows how we may be saved from mortality to immortality.

Yet it also shows that the baptizer must discern whether a person has already been healed of his mortality or not. In other words, do not baptize anyone who lacks justifying faith. The baptism was the priestly witness to that which God has already done in the “leper.” He was not to bear witness to an untruth. When Jesus healed a leper in Matthew 8:4, he told him,

4 … See that you tell no one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and present the offering that Moses commanded, for a testimony [witness] to them.

The “offering” was two birds. Jesus told him to follow the lawful procedure and allow the priest to inspect him for healing. If the priest found him to be healed, then he would accept the offering as a witness to the man’s healing, and the priest himself would bear witness to the leper’s healing as well.

The point is that one must already have faith and be justified by the blood of the Lamb before one is eligible for baptism, where an earthly representative of the church bears witness to the man’s inner faith and inner healing.

One might then ask this: When the priest sprinkled the ex-leper seven times with water, did the water heal the leper? Was the leper “saved” by this ceremony? Well, it depends on what you mean by “saved.” If you mean justification, then NO, because the man is already justified by his faith. But if you mean that the priest has now officially confirmed the man’s healing so that he may join the community of believers, then YES.

But even then, there are more steps toward full salvation. When Israel left Egypt, they were “saved” from slavery. When they crossed the Red Sea they were saved again. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, they were supposed to be saved again at Pentecost. If they had been willing to hear the voice of God at Sinai, they might have had opportunity to be fully saved again by entering the Promised Land at the feast of Tabernacles.

One is not fully “saved” until that salvation is complete. Salvation can be broken down into more than one step. Justification is the first step toward salvation. Sanctification is the second major step toward salvation. Glorification is the third and final step that saves us fully.

We run into problems when we do not distinguish between these steps toward salvation.

I am reminded of the story of Dr. Goodspeed, who translated Scripture more than a century ago. He was sitting on a London park bench one evening when a young, enthusiastic girl approached him and said, “Sir, are you saved?” He looked at her and gently asked, “Do you mean was I saved, am I being saved, or will I be saved?”

She was, of course, totally confused, and so he explained to her the difference. Most people are like her, in that they equate justification with full salvation, when in fact it is only the first of many salvations.

So is a person saved by baptism? Yes, of course—once we understand what that means. But it is not our first salvation. Our first salvation occurs prior to baptism when we are justified by faith and are “saved” from death at Passover. Justification saves us in our spirit, that is, in the Most Holy Place of our temple.

Our souls are then saved by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, comparable to the presence of God in our Holy Place (soul). Our bodies are then saved when Christ the hope of glory is manifested in our body, and we are changed fully into His likeness.

This is the big picture that provides proper context for understanding baptism. Seeing baptism as one part of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land shows its importance, but also its limitation. Israel had to go through the Red Sea in order to get to Sinai and ultimately to the Promised Land. So also should we be baptized in or through water. But to say that water baptism saves us requires more understanding from the Word. And to say that the water saves us is to overstate the case. Peter was technically correct, but many have misunderstood him by not understanding the meaning of biblical terms and by not understanding the law of cleansing lepers in Leviticus 14.


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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