Saturday, January 2, 2016

Does First Peter Teach Baptismal Regeneration?

There are various forms of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. The Churches of Christ, the United Pentecostal Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Mormons, all teach that water baptism is necessary for salvation, or even is itself saving. I intend here to address just one verse that they use, so my comments here are in no way intended as a complete discussion of the topic.

In I Peter 3:21, the Apostle wrote, "Baptism 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." You will often see the sectarians I list above quoting the first clause of that verse: "Baptism now saves you." By itself, it would appear to be a slamdunk case, proving that the sacrament, in and of itself, is salvific.

However, even with the slightest care in reading Peter, he says nothing of the sort. 

In hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation), this is described as "putting the sign for the thing signified." In this case, the sign of baptism is mentioned in lieu of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Beyond general hermeneutical principles, how can we know this? In two ways. First, even if the verse stopped with that clause, we would know that a literal reading would conflict with everything else that the Bible says about justification. Not just certain proof texts, but the whole message of the Bible, in the other sixty-five books, and the rest of I Peter (e. g., I Peter 2:24).

But, in particular, look at the rest of the verse: "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." Peter goes on to refer to what is represented by the baptism, the application of the atonement we have in Christ through faith. Thus, it is only through the misrepresentation of what the verse actually says, one of the hallmarks of a cult, that they can twist the words of Peter to support their error of doctrine.

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