In a blog I posted a while back on Circumcision and Baptismal Regeneration, an interesting discussion ensued with an “Anonymous” Protestant. He tried to argue that the Catholic teaching of baptismal regeneration was damnable heresy. He tried to use 1 Pet 3:21 in an attempt to argue that it is not baptism which saves...but “spiritual baptism”:
“And baptism, which this prefigured [i.e. the Great Flood and Noah’s ark], 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” – 1 Pet 3:21His argument was basically that St. Peter’s reference to baptism saving us – but not as a removal of dirt from the body – was a reference to spiritual baptism, not physical baptism i.e. the body is physical; conscience is spiritual; therefore, St. Peter was talking about spiritual baptism.
I dealt with the Anonymous comments at the time, but recently as I was reading the book of Hebrews, I was reminded of the discussion as I read a passage which sheds some light on 1 Pet 3:21.
Before I explain further, I need to digress slightly...
Protestants who hold to the tradition of Sola Scriptura hold as a fundamental principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. This is good insofar as it goes, but it fails to see an underlying circular argument which always comes back to private interpretation. In other words, Sola Scriptura is REALLY Sola Mea i.e. it’s not so much about Scripture interpreting Scripture, but more about how “I interpret Scripture interpreting Scripture”. The logical conclusion of “Sola Scriptura” is that Scripture is ultimately interpreted according to the individual interpreter’s own preconceived theology. For example, a Baptist using the principle of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” will formulate a very different “Biblical” framework for baptism than a Presbyterian using the exact same principle. Both appeal to Sola Scriptura...and Scripture interpreting Scripture...yet they come to completely opposing views.
The Catholic position embraces the principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture, but also goes further. The Catholic Church teaches that “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written” (CCC # 111). The Spirit was given by Christ to His Church for the purpose that He would always lead the Church in all truth (Jn 16:13); ensuring that throughout all ages, the Church would ALWAYS remain the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15).
So, for the Catholic, Scripture certainly does interpret Scripture, but always within the guidance of Apostolic Tradition and the interpretive authority of the Holy Catholic Church.
OK...back to the topic at hand...
The passage in Hebrews which sheds light on 1 Pet 3:21 is Heb 9:13-14. For ease of reference and comparison, here are the two passages:
“And baptism, which this prefigured, 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” – 1 Pet 3:21
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” – Heb 9:13-14
To put Heb 9:13-14 in context, the author has been dealing with the various Old Testament ceremonies which were unable to perfect the consciences of the Old Testament worshipper (v9). This included the various baptisms in the Old Testament (v10). [Which, by the way, is an interesting point for Baptists to consider – given that they mistakenly hold that baptism always means immersion; whereas these Old Testament baptisms were carried out by sprinkling.]
The reason the Old Testament ceremonies could not perfect the conscience was because they were symbols that pointed forward to fulfilment in the Passion of Christ. As symbols of the reality to come, they were incomplete. But now Christ has come; He has died on the Cross for the sins of the world, and He has risen again for our justification. And so the Old Testament symbols now give way to the New Testament realities (vv11-12).
Now this doesn’t mean that the Old Testament symbols were completely empty. No – the author of Hebrews tells us that although they were not able to perfect the conscience (v9), they were able to purify the flesh (v13). But now in the New Covenant, the Blood of Christ has been shed and so the conscience of the worshipper is able to be purified. And this is the same point that St. Peter was making in 1 Pet 3:21 – that baptism in Christ is not like the Old Testament symbols which only purified the body – NO! Baptism in the New Covenant purifies our very conscience – not by virtue of the water, but by virtue of the Blood of Christ shed for the one being baptised.
To confirm that this has always been the understanding of the Church, handed down from the Apostles, consider the following sample of quotes from the Church Fathers which show that they unanimously agreed that baptism regenerates us and washes away our sins:
St. Justin Martyr (AD 155)
In speaking of converts to Christianity, St. Justin states that after a time of fasting and remission of former sins:
“they are led by us to a place where there is water; and there they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: in the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they receive the washing with water. For Christ said, ‘Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”...The reason for doing this, we have learned from the Apostles.” – First Apology; Chapter 61
St. Theophilus of Antioch (AD 181)
“Those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God [referring to Creation], so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration” – To Autolycus; Book 2, Chapter 16
St. Clement of Alexandria (AD 202)
“When we are baptised, we are enlightened...It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins; a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted...” – The Instructor; Book 1, Chapter 6
Tertullian (AD 206)
“...Baptism is itself a corporal act by which we are plunged in water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from sins.” – On Baptism; Chapter 7
St. Jerome (AD 397)
“All sins are forgiven in baptism” – Epistle 69, To Oceanus; Chapter 4
How is it possible that water is able to wash away sins? St. Augustine explains:
“From the moment that Christ is immersed in water, from that moment water washes away all sins.”
“The Lord is baptised, not having occasion to be cleansed, but that, purifying the waters by the contact of His pure flesh, they may have the power of cleansing.” – Sermon de Tempore; 29, 36, 37
And St. John Chrysostom concurs:
“The water of baptism, had it not been sanctified by contact with the body of our Lord, could not purge the sins of believers.”
What is the point of all this? The point is to remind us that our baptism is not just an empty symbol. It is something far greater than that. By our baptism, we are crucified and risen with the Lord Jesus Christ; we are born again; and as the author of Hebrews reminds us – through our baptism we are purified from dead works to worship the living God (Heb 9:14). Through baptism we have been made alive (regenerated) by a sharing in the Life of the Living God – and our only reasonable response should be to worship and adore God forever for giving us such an amazing and unmerited gift. In the words of the Catechism of the Council of Trent:
“...it is especially required of every Christian man to strive to spend each day of his life as holily and religiously as if it were that very day on which he had received the sacrament and grace of baptism.” – Question XL