As with any single verse or passage, we discern what it teaches by first  filtering it through what we know the Bible teaches on the subject at hand. In  the case of baptism and salvation, the Bible is clear that salvation is by grace  through faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of any kind, including baptism (Ephesians 2:8-9). So,  any interpretation which comes to the conclusion that baptism, or any other act,  is necessary for salvation, is a faulty interpretation. For more information,  please visit our webpage on “Is salvation  by faith alone, or by faith plus works?

Those who believe that  baptism is required for salvation are quick to use 1 Peter  3:21 as a “proof text,” because it states “baptism now saves you.” Was Peter  really saying that the act of being baptized is what saves us? If he were, he  would be contradicting many other passages of Scripture that clearly show people  being saved (as evidenced by their receiving the Holy Spirit) prior to being  baptized or without being baptized at all (like the thief on the cross in Luke 23:39-43). A good  example of someone who was saved before being baptized is Cornelius and his  household in Acts 10. We know that they were saved before being baptized because  they had received the Holy Spirit, which is the evidence of salvation (Romans 8:9; Ephesians  1:13; 1 John  3:24). The evidence of their salvation was the reason Peter allowed them to  be baptized. Countless passages of Scripture clearly teach that salvation comes  when one believes in the gospel, at which time he or she is sealed “in Christ  with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Ephesians  1:13).

Thankfully, though, we don’t have to guess at what Peter  means in this verse because he clarifies that for us with the phrase “not the  removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience.”  While Peter is connecting baptism with salvation, it is not the act of being  baptized that he is referring to (not the removal of dirt from the flesh). Being  immersed in water does nothing but wash away dirt. What Peter is referring to is  what baptism represents, which is what saves us (an appeal to God for a good  conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ). In other words, Peter is  simply connecting baptism with belief. It is not the getting-wet part that saves  but is the “appeal to God for a clean conscience” which is signified by baptism,  that saves us. The appeal to God always comes first. First belief and  repentance, then we are baptized to publicly identify ourselves with  Christ.

An excellent explanation of this passage is given by Dr. Kenneth  Wuest, author of Word Studies in the Greek New Testament. “Water baptism is  clearly in the apostle’s mind, not the baptism by the Holy Spirit, for he speaks  of the waters of the flood as saving the inmates of the ark, and in this verse,  of baptism saving believers. But he says that it saves them only as a  counterpart. That is, water baptism is the counterpart of the reality,  salvation. It can only save as a counterpart, not actually. The Old Testament  sacrifices were counterparts of the reality, the Lord Jesus. They did not  actually save the believer, only in type. It is not argued here that these  sacrifices are analogous to Christian water baptism. The author is merely using  them as an illustration of the use of the word ‘counterpart.’

“So water  baptism only saves the believer in type. The Old Testament Jew was saved before  he brought the offering. That offering was only his outward testimony that he  was placing faith in the Lamb of God of whom these sacrifices were a  type….Water baptism is the outward testimony of the believer’s inward faith.  The person is saved the moment he places his faith in the Lord Jesus. Water  baptism is the visible testimony to his faith and the salvation he was given in  answer to that faith. Peter is careful to inform his readers that he is not  teaching baptismal regeneration, namely, that a person who submits to baptism is  thereby regenerated, for he says, ‘not the putting away of the filth of the  flesh.’ Baptism, Peter explains, does not wash away the filth of the flesh,  either in a literal sense as a bath for the body, nor in a metaphorical sense as  a cleansing for the soul. No ceremonies really affect the conscience. But he  defines what he means by salvation, in the words ‘the answer of a good  conscience toward God,” and he explains how this is accomplished, namely, ‘by  the resurrection of Jesus Christ,’ in that the believing sinner is identified  with Him in that resurrection.”

Part of the confusion on this passage  comes from the fact that in many ways the purpose of baptism as a public  declaration of one’s faith in Christ and identification with Him has been  replaced by “making a decision for Christ” or “praying a sinner’s prayer.”  Baptism has been relegated to something that is done later. Yet to Peter or any  of the first-century Christians, the idea that a person would confess Christ as  his Savior and not be baptized as soon as possible would have been unheard of.  Therefore, it is not surprising that Peter would see baptism as almost  synonymous with salvation. Yet Peter makes it clear in this verse that it is not  the ritual itself that saves, but the fact that we are united with Christ in His  resurrection through faith, “the pledge of a good conscience toward God through  the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter  3:21).

Therefore, the baptism that Peter says saves us is the one  that is preceded by faith in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ that justifies  the unrighteous sinner (Romans  3:25-26; 4:5). Baptism  is the outward sign of what God has done “by the washing of regeneration and  renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus  3:5).