“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 clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” – 1 Peter 3:21
“Baptism […] now saves you”. Pope Peter and Scripture seem clear here that baptism is not a symbol, or rather even though there is symbolism it is not JUST a symbol. This sacrament, however, causes much debate within the world of Christians, but why? As Catholics we see it as the first step on the road to salvation, in that it initiates the receiver of the sacrament into the Body of Christ as the Church on earth and allows the Holy Spirit into their being, opening them to more grace, and thus they are saved, though not securely. It is something needing to be received, in one way or another, in order for salvation to be achieved after this life, according to Christ. A first step in Faith if you will.
Christ Himself explicitly speaks to the necessity of baptism in Mark 16:16 saying:
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
“He who believes AND is baptized […]”. If you believe, then you are to be baptized; and if you don’t believe and are not baptized then you are condemned. Seems simple enough. I could phrase a question saying: if salvation is by Faith Alone then why would Christ require a WORK of symbolism be performed in order that you aren’t condemned? But that will be for another post.
Faith (also translated “allegiance”) requires obedience, and true belief entails submission, and if Christ requires something for the salvation He offers through His sacrifice then who are we to say no? I say this because with the belief that baptism is just a symbol many Protestant Christians treat it as unnecessary, and I fear the dangers of this belief held by some of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
So let’s return to 1 Peter for a bit and let’s zoom out to look at surrounding verses. In particular 1 Peter 3:18-22:
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 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 clear 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 subject to him.”
Peter speaks of Noah as being saved by water, insofar as the world was quite literally washed away of sin for a time. Peter immediately draws comparison from the Flood to baptism, saying how now baptism is what saves us, but not in the physical washing, but something spiritual that occurs during the submerging. You are baptized and physically washed by the water, and you are baptized and washed by the Holy Spirit simultaneously. So Protestants are correct, the water and the submerging itself is not what saves. Catholics believe the same.
In Scripture, there is clear contrast drawn between the symbolic baptism of John, and the fulfilling spiritual baptism that Christ institutes. The Gospel writers are all in unison by pointing out that John the Baptist understands that his baptisms are merely symbolic and offer no salvation, and that he tells his followers as such in each Gospel account, but for sake of example in Matthew 3:11 he says:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
An objection could be made that John is saying “I submerge you with water but he will submerge you in the Holy Spirit” and that the two are different, and that the baptism under Christ is not one that is seen nor one of water. Perhaps, if you were to look at just that verse I could see that. The Apostles and their disciples, however, baptize in like manner to John, with water, although using the Trinitarian form, and under direction and blessing of Christ. Christ fulfilled the symbolic baptism of John by conferring the Spirit into the act. He does so by being baptized himself and then commissioning His Apostles to baptize the nations in this new Trinitarian form. He doesn’t look to the Holy Spirit and say “Holy Spirit the Paraclete, baptize the nations [...]”. No, he looks to the Apostles in Matthew 28:19 saying “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. The only form by which the Apostles knew to baptize was by water.
Christ also makes a point of saying “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” in John 3:5. Here He is speaking of the fulfilled baptism that He instituted. We are not to receive the symbolic baptism of John as Christians now that the Lord is with us, for all baptisms are now through Jesus Christ, and anyone who had received the baptism of repentance by John was “re-baptized”, or rather they were then truly baptized in Christ, by the Apostles, and received the Holy Spirit. For instance, in Acts 19: 1-7:
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John's baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all.
Ah, they have now been born of water AND the Sprit and thus salvation is offered them. So, there is a clear difference between a symbolic baptism of outward repentance that John offered, and one received by a minister of the Church who acts in the name of Christ and baptizes as Christ commissioned. So, now when one is baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one is saved as Peter said because they are born of water and of the Sprit as Christ said they are to be.
All things through Christ are fulfilling and meaningful. He frees us from all insignificant and unfulfilling legislative acts of the Law of Moses which could offer no steps to salvation, and we were adopted into the Law of Christ, which is of infinite merit, which lacks in nothing, and requires of us only that which is necessary, and that which bestows grace to us that we might grow closer to Him than any High Priest in the Holy of Holies could. To call one of Christ’s commands as having no importance is a great injustice, not to Christ, but to yourself for not openly accepting the gifts He wishes to bestow. So, with that, God bless you.