Common in Reformed circles, in my experience, is a strange phenomenon. If you ask a group of Reformed believers: “Does baptism save a person?” The answer will almost always be a resounding, and at times unnecessarily aggressive “No!”
If placed in the form of a true/false question we see something like this: “True or False: ‘Baptism now saves you’?”
The results do not change.
The problem with this is that the phrase “Baptism now saves you” is virtually a quotation from the oft-misunderstood 1 Peter 3:21.
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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:21-22, ESV)
Now, this passage can be a little bit confusing because of the presence of multiple subordinate and parenthetical clauses. I find it helpful to rearrange the clauses in order to make the line of argumentation clearer. Here is how I would render it:
Corresponding to [the Flood], baptism now saves you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.
When ordered this way it becomes clear that this is actually the same theology that Paul is presenting in Romans 6
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5, ESV)
Although Paul is applying this reality to sanctification, and Peter to justification, we see that the contours are the same. Because baptism is the initiatory sign of our covenant membership and union with Christ, it signifies all that entails. John Calvin obliquely notes the same connection in his commentary on the passage:
It has already been said that the design of this clause is to shew that we ought not to be led away by wicked examples from the fear of God, and the right way of salvation, and to mix with the world. This is made evident in baptism, in which we are buried together with Christ, so that, being dead to the world, and to the flesh, we may live to God. On this account, he says that our baptism is an antitype (ἀντίτυπον) to the baptism of Noah…
Meredith Kline has also been immensely helpful for me in this.
The salvation figured forth in baptism is that accomplished in the judgment of Christ, which issued in his resurrection. The motif of ordeal by combat is introduced by the allusion to Christ’s subjugation of angels, authorities, and powers. Thus the total context of Peter’s thought concerning baptism supports the conclusion we have drawn from his comparison of baptism to the deluge, namely, that he conceived of this sacrament as a sign of judicial ordeal. 1
What Kline brings to the forefront here is the missing piece of the puzzle for most people. The appeal to a clean conscience is not OUR appeal. It is Christ’s appeal. Christ underwent our judgment, was punished for it, and then vindicated (justified) by God, as demonstrated in the resurrection. Because of his perfect obedience to the Covenant of Works, he was able to pass under the flaming sword (Genesis 3:24) on our behalf and regain access to the Tree of Life, not only for himself but also for all his posterity. Noah was not saved by the waters of the flood but safely passed through them. In a sense, Baptism signifies that Christ was judged on our behalf, buried, and raised to new life. When we receive that sign and join it with faith, we receive the reality which is signified by it. Namely, we receive the right to pass through judgment and be vindicated on the other side. That is what justification is. Justification is not some future event where we stand before the throne of God and are declared to be innocent, but the future judgment brought forward in time to the present and applied to us now. Baptism signifies this passing through judgment, safely to the other side.
Jesus Christ, who has gone before us into heaven, makes continual intercession on of his covenant people (Hebrews 7:25). This intercession is the appeal for a good conscience. Thus, we are saved by Baptism… which is just to say that we are saved by the death and resurrection of Christ, and his ongoing appeal to God on our behalf, which Baptism signifies sacramentally… and the Flood signified typologically.
Calvin explains it this way
But we must notice what follows, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ By these words he teaches us that we are not to cleave to the element of water, and that what is thereby typified flows from Christ alone, and is to be sought from him. Moreover, by referring to the resurrection, he has regard to the doctrine which he had taught before, that Christ was vivified by the Spirit; for the resurrection was victory over death and the completion of our salvation. We hence learn that the death of Christ is not excluded, but is included in his resurrection. We then cannot otherwise derive benefit from baptism, than by having all our thoughts fixed on the death and the resurrection of Christ. (Bold emphasis mine)
The Reformed can thus answer the question “Does baptism save you?” with a resounding “Yes!” as long as we understand what that means. Baptism saves us not because it regenerates us (contra Roman Catholicism, pace Lutheranism), not because through it we appeal to God (contra Anabaptist theology), and not because it represents that we already have a clean conscience (contra Arminian Evangelicalism, pace some Particular Baptist theology), but because
Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s. (Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer 94)
- Meredith Kline, By Oath Consigned (Logos Edition), 67 ↩