“Baptism is an essential principle,” President Lorenzo Snow said. “Some deem it wrong to number baptism among the essential principles ordained of God, to be attended to in obtaining remission of sins. In reply, we say that the Savior and Apostles have done so before us, therefore we feel obligated to follow their example.” (Williams, The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, 20).
As with many who believe in baptismal regeneration, Snow refers to 1 Peter 3:21, which reads, “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God).”
Adam Clarke, a Methodist theologian from two centuries ago and often cited by LDS leaders and apologists, rejects the baptismal regeneration (baptism is necessary for salvation) interpretation Mormons have adopted. He wrote,
1 Peter 3:21 makes the ark a figure of baptism, and intimates that we are saved by this, as the eight souls were saved by the ark. But let us not mistake the apostle by supposing that the mere ceremony itself saves any person; he tells us that the salvation conveyed through this sacred rite is not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God; i.e. remission of sins and regeneration by the Holy Spirit, which are signified by this baptism. A good conscience never existed where remission of sins had not taken place; and every person knows that it is God’s prerogative to forgive sins, and that no ordinance can confer it, though ordinances may be the means to convey it when piously and believingly used. (Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, notes on chapter 8).
Like Clarke, Christian scholar Peter H. Davids also rejects the notion that Peter is implying that water baptism saves an individual. He writes,
“The point in 1 Peter is that the outward washing is not the important part. That is simply ‘the removal of dirt from the body.’ Without something more one would go into the water a dirty sinner and come out a clean sinner. The water has no magic properties, nor does the ritual itself save. If it did, baptism would be like circumcision was for the Jew, and Christians would indeed be saved by works . . .”
Davids interprets Peter’s statement as it
“parallels with Jewish rites and the use of the term ‘pledge’ in other literature. This sees the candidate for baptism being asked a series of questions, such as ‘Do you pledge yourself to follow Jesus as Lord?’ (perhaps reflected in Acts 8:37 and 1 Timothy 6:12). The response of commitment to God and identification with Christ is what saves, if it comes from a good conscience.” (Kaiser et al. Hard Sayings of the Bible, 717)
Davids notes that
“baptism in the name of Jesus was the first thing done to all converts in the New Testament period. The idea that a person would confess Christ and yet would not be baptized would be absurd to Peter . . .He would surely have admitted that the thief on the cross had been saved without being baptized (Luke 23:43), but why should that be the norm for people who are not on crosses or otherwise inhibited from baptism?” (Ibid., 717-18)
Systematic theologian Wayne Gruden writes,
“We could paraphrase Peter’s statement by saying, ‘Baptism now saves you–not the outward physical ceremony of baptism but the inward spiritual reality which baptism represents.’ In this way, Peter guards against any view of baptism that would attribute automatic saving power to the physical ceremony itself” (Systematic Theology, 974).
He goes to write that this verse
“does not teach that baptism saves people automatically or confers grace ex opre operato. It does not even teach that the act of baptism itself has saving power, but rather that salvation comes along through the inward exercise of faith that is represented by baptism (cf. Col. 2:12). In fact, Protestants who advocate believers’ baptism might well see in 1 Peter 3:21 some support for their position: baptism, it might be argued, is appropriately administered to anyone who is old enough personally to make ‘an appeal to God for a clear conscience'” (Ibid., 975).
As these scholars have noted, baptism—while a very important ordinance in the life of the Christian believer—was never assumed to precede faith. Rather, candidates came to the waters of baptism already possessing the faith that purifies.
For other passages discussing common passages used by Latter-day Saints, click here.
For a look at Acts 2:38, click here.