Saved Through Water (June 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Keith Brenton

This edition of New Wineskins explores baptism from many different facets. The theme for the month, “Immersed in His Life” is inspired by Romans 6, where Paul reminds that “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” Yet his larger point is that we are also baptized into a life that honors Christ.

Much more could be said about that — and hopefully will be said in later articles — but to begin with, I’d like to look into a passage that talks about baptism, water and salvation … and what that resulting salvation can mean.

In a discourse about suffering for the right reason, written to people who were about to do so, the apostle Peter points to Jesus:

<blockquote>For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand —with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. ~ 1 Peter 3:17-22</blockquote>

Ink and blood have been spilt over centuries because of differences of opinion and interpretation about baptism: who may be a candidate; what they must first understand about it; how it is performed; the necessity of it in salvation — and much of the disagreement about this last item is over whether the enigmatic passage above is meant literally or figuratively.<br><br>Does baptism actually save, or metaphorically save?

I believe the answer is yes.

Both, in other words.

The metaphor in Peter’s discourse is the waters of the flood in Noah’s era — even though it precedes the practice of baptism — representing the washing away of sin.

The actuality is salvation through water.

A dogmatic view of that reality has yielded doctrine that teaches baptism as necessity, command, work of man — but at the neglect of baptism as rebirth, washing away of sin, gift of Christ, invitation to His Holy Spirit, work of God.

Teaching it only as necessity cheats the new believer out of the opportunity to study and reach her/his own conclusion.

Teaching it only as command reduces it merely to transaction: do this, get that.

Teaching it only as work of man simply tells a tiny fraction of the story: baptism is the beginning of a partnership of God and man, in which God has moved heaven and earth (closer together) through the death, burial and resurrection of His Son Jesus and by that sacrifice man has the opportunity to take a few small steps into water in grateful response. In that water, the believer re-enacts that death, burial and resurrection as a living testimony and a conscientious pledge to continue living and sharing that testimony with others — a proclamation to the disobedient.

In that baptismal water, sins are washed away (Ephesians 5:25-32; Acts 22:16) and a rebirth takes place (Titus 3:5); a new, obedient, grateful life begins. There is no guarantee that this life will be easy; in fact, since it follows the suffering Christ, suffering may characterize it. But what follows that temporal life is an eternal one where God reigns unchallenged.

That life together is made possible in the here and now through the giving of the Holy Spirit — and we do a great disservice to scripture if we ignore or explain away the fact that He is recorded as given in close proximity to baptism five out of the nine times that Acts speaks of believers being baptized (2:38; 8:15-17; 9:17-19; 10:46-47; 19:4-7) as well as in all three gospel accounts of the baptism of our example, Jesus (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22). Jesus came to give abundant life (John 10:10), and He gives it through His Spirit within the believer (Romans 8:2-12; Galatians 6:8, et al).

This makes us co-workers — partners — with God in His work in this world (2 Corinthians 6:1; Ephesians 2:10; Phillippians 2:13).

It’s hard to read scripture as a unified whole and still escape the conclusion that baptism is the gift through which God wants to give us His life-giving Spirit. You can get there; you just have to ignore or explain away the obstacles to your desired conclusion that are before you in scripture.

Criticism of what has been called baptismal regeneration, I think, derives from the old Greco-philosophical view that anything material must be bad; water is a created thing and therefore cannot be a part of anything good. Scripture refutes this; when God created, he pronounced creation “good” and then “very good” (Genesis 1). His Spirit hovered over the waters; Noah was saved through water (see above); Israel was rescued and preserved through water from pursuing Egypt (Hebrews 11:29); her priests were to be washed with water (Exodus 29:4, 30:19-21, 40:12); the Jordan River separated Israel from their old life of wandering and new life in a land of promise (Joshua 3); in its waters Naaman was cleansed of leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-13) and there John baptized many penitents as well as Jesus (Matthew 3, et al). Baptism and the giving of the Spirit are in close proximity in passages like 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Acts 1:5. Whether you regard Jesus’ words to Nicodemus as prophetic of baptism or not, He does mention “water and the Spirit” in the same phrase — and in connection with being born again (John 3:5). And at the beginning and close of scripture (Genesis 1-2, Revelation 22), river waters bring life to a land free of curse.

Two-thirds of a human body is water. Seven-tenths of the earth’s surface is water. Life as we know it on this world is impossible without water.

Peter is clear that the water doesn’t save; but through it, the resurrection of Jesus saves. Without that, water is just water.

Nor does baptism alone save. There are all kinds of other things God asks us to do in faith — and wants us to be blessed by doing — that serve Him (Romans 12), glorify His name 1 Peter 2:12), increase His Kingdom (Matthew 28:18-20) and transform us into the very image of His Son (2 Corinthians 3:18). Salvation begins here and now (Philippians 2:12-13), and continues hereafter and forever (Mark 10:29-30).

So, asking a question like, “Can someone who believes but is not baptized still be saved?” is like asking “Can someone do the things God wants and has asked them to do, yet refuse to do one and still be saved?”

And asking “Can someone who is killed in a car wreck on the way to being baptized still be saved?” is like asking “Will God not reward those who diligently seek Him?”

Is the Lord’s arm to short to hold off the death angel who answers to Him? Is His mercy too small to include the penitent? Can He not be trusted to do right? Does God decide who is saved, or do we by our clever conundrums?

Too often, we’re asking the wrong kinds of questions based on the wrong kinds of assumptions and perceptions about who God is and what scripture says and is — as if it is a kind of “all law, all the time”-format radio station and if we just tune in 24 hours a day and do what it says, we’re saved in the end. End of transaction. But salvation is not a mere transaction.

It’s a partnership. It’s a relationship with God by His Son through His Spirit. It’s family with His family; His church. It grows and develops as we do.

There are aspects to our ongoing salvation that are fluid and changing, sparkling yet deep, vital and refreshing, comforting yet dangerous.

Not unlike water.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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