Nicholas LeoneI was a Baptist, but after a study of the Scriptures, I became a Lutheran. The Lutheran position on Holy Baptism is the only Biblical one. Most people are offended at the idea that Baptism can save! . . . Baptism in the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from water Baptism. They happen simultaneously."1 Peter 3:21-2221 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, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
I don’t usually criticize Lutheran theology. Since, however, a Lutheran commenter has thrown down the gauntlet, I’ll respond. Lutherans are, of course, welcome to criticize my Calvinism. I’m just pointing out that I didn’t initiate this debate.
Before discussing specific prooftexts, let’s make a few general observations:
i) This appeal reflects a naïve understanding of symbolism. I realize some Christians instinctively flinch at the word “symbolism,” as if that’s a weasel word. But this is a principled distinction.
For instance, Paul talks about how we are saved by the cross. Needless to say, he doesn’t mean we’re literally saved by a piece of wood. Rather, he’s using the cross as a symbol for Christ’s redemptive death at Calvary. It’s not the wooden cross that actually saves anyone, but what that stands for.
You can quote NT passages about the gracious efficacy of baptism, but that’s perfectly consistent with a purely symbolic understanding of baptism.
ii) In Acts, you can’t assume that the gift of the Spirit is equivalent to regeneration. Rather, it’s generally used in connection with the charismata. It’s a mistake to filter Acts through the lens of John’s Gospel or Paul’s epistles.
iii) Lutherans subscribe to infant baptism. But in Acts, the specific baptismal candidates are believers or converts. Promises are made to them if they repent of their sins and believe in Jesus. And they submit to baptism in obedience to the apostolic kerygma. You can’t simply rip that out of its missionary setting and transfer it to babies, as if these are interchangeable parties.
Keep in mind that I don’t object to infant baptism. But you can’t wrest these passages out of their embedded context and make them refer to something they don’t.
iv) In Scripture, water has three symbolic meanings: (a) a cleansing agent; (b) a destructive agent (e.g. flood waters), and (c) a source of life (e.g. drinking water).
Baptism trades on the natural, varied symbolism of water.
v) What Scripture sometimes attributes to the effect of water baptism, it elsewhere attributes to the effect of faith in Christ. Therefore, it’s logical to view the rhetorical effect of baptism as a picturesque metaphor for the actual effect of faith.
vi) Although it’s customary for Lutherans to prooftext baptism regeneration by citing Jn 3:5 and Tit 3:5, the baptismal referent isn’t a given. Mere aqueous imagery doesn’t single out baptism, for aqueous imagery is commonplace in Scripture.
vii) In Acts, there’s no normative sequence for water baptism and the gift of the Spirit.
viii) They are inherently separable. The Holy Spirit isn’t chained to a ritual. The Holy Spirit is a sovereign agent, free to act at his own discretion (Jn 3:8; 1 Cor 12:11).
To insist that the Holy Spirit must regenerate the baptismal candidate reflects a classically magical outlook. In pagan witchcraft, you can manipulate supernatural forces to do your bidding by saying the right words in the right order, or by doing the right things in the right order.
ix) To use 1 Pet 3:21 as a Lutheran prooftext for baptismal regeneration proves too much. For that would mean whoever is baptized is guaranteed salvation. Yet Lutheranism deems it possible for a born-again Christian to lose his salvation.
x) It’s important not to overload the word “save” in 1 Pet 3:21. This is not a technical term for salvation in the soteriological sense. Peter is punning. There’s wordplay between “salvation” from drowning (v20) and “salvation” by baptism. But “salvation” from drowning means physical deliverance. God rescued Noah and his family from watery death by means of the ark. The word itself doesn’t mean spiritual salvation. That turns on the larger context.
xi) Peter explicitly plays on the symbolic imagery of baptism. Where dirt represents sin, and washing represents forgiveness. In analogy with the flood, he also trades on the destructive symbolism of water. So the rite is emblematic.
xii) As his further qualifications indicate, baptism is a token (“pledge, appeal”) of faith in Christ, and the resultant effects of saving faith.
xiii) Apropos (xii), Peter is clearly referring to believers or converts who submit to baptism, as an expression of their newfound allegiance in Christ. It doesn’t refer to babies.
BTW, I don’t object to infant baptism. But you must respect the context of your prooftexts.
xiv) Like Jews who put their faith in the efficacy of circumcision or their physical lineage (e.g. Mt 3), there’s a constant temptation to substitute external rites for faith in Christ. That’s false assurance. There’s no substitute for trusting in Christ from start to finish.