Nothing but the Water

“I tried my hand at the Bible
Tried my hand at prayer
But now nothing but the water
Is gonna bring my soul to bare”

These are rather startling lyrics, aren’t they? Especially for me as a Bible translator! This is from the song Nothing but the Water by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. It’s a searching song, and raises a question many people ask – will baptism save me? In this song, the singer has tried everything, but “every time I sit down to pray/the devil’s charm pulls me away.” She says, “Only the water can help me now.”

I think there is a lot of mysticism and misconception that surrounds baptism exactly because of the sentiments expressed in this song. Many people are looking for something they can do – a decisive action which guarantees salvation. I have been thinking and studying about baptism lately because a few people have asked me to explain Pioneer Bible’s statement on baptism, so I wanted to share the results of my study with you. Baptism is a very large subject so I won’t be able to give you a comprehensive view, but here are a few thoughts!

Here is Pioneer Bible’s basic statement of faith on baptism: “Baptism is the pledge of a good conscience to God that clothes us in Christ.” (You can view the expanded statement here). This statement is based on 1 Peter 3:21 and Galatians 3:27. In this post, I want to look at 1 Peter 3:21, which says, “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,” Pioneer Bible gets the phrase “Baptism is the pledge of a good conscience to God” from this verse. But, many people ask, what is a pledge of a good conscience, and how does baptism do that? These questions are compounded by the fact that Peter says “baptism…now saves you.”

In order to understand this verse, we should look at the context first. The whole chapter of 1 Peter 3 is talking about how Christians should live in face of suffering for their beliefs. In 3:16 Peter says to keep a clear conscience so that no one can slander them for their faith. In verse 20, he brings up Noah, who faced great antagonism and derision while he was building the ark. However, Noah was ultimately saved through the flood. This is where verse 21 picks up: “this water” (meaning the flood waters) “symbolizes baptism which now saves you.”

So as we look at this passage, it is important to remember that there is some symbolism here. Interestingly, the word translated “symbolize” is also where we get the word “antitype”, which means a foreshadowing of something. In other words, it is a symbol of something that will come in the future, but when it comes it will be better and clearer. So, the salvation of Noah and his family was symbolic of a better salvation. Peter says it symbolizes the baptism that now saves us; however, he quickly goes on to clarify that he doesn’t mean the act of baptism itself. He says “not the removal of dirt from the body”. In other words, the physical washing that happens in water baptism is not what saves you. Instead, it is “the pledge of a good conscience to God” through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The word translated “pledge” in the NIV causes great consternation among theologians. It is only used once in the New Testament, so the meaning has to be gathered from outside sources, and usually is taken to mean something like a request or an appeal. Several versions, such as the ESV, translate this as “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” This means our salvation comes through an inward act, rather than the outward act of baptism. We are asking God for the clean conscience mentioned in verse 16. The way it is translated in the NIV, as a pledge, also makes it an inward act, though it carries the idea of a contract with God to follow and obey Him.

Whether it is a pledge or an appeal for a good conscience, it comes not from our own power, but from God, which the final phrase clarifies: “It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Our salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation does not come through the outward physical act of baptism, or an inward promise to “be good”, but through Christ’s resurrection. It is only based upon his resurrection that we are able to both ask for and receive a clear conscience before God. We then symbolize the inner commitment through an outward action—baptism. The physical immersion of baptism represents the death and resurrection of Christ, just as also the flood was a foreshadowing of the redemption that Christ’s death would bring. So this verse is saying to us that when we face hostility because of our faith, we can remember that Christ’s death and resurrection saved us and made us clean before God, and we symbolize this salvation through baptism.

There is so much more to say about baptism! My next blog post will look at Galatians 3:27 and the second phrase of Pioneer Bible’s statement, that baptism “clothes us in Christ”. In the meantime, feel free to contact me if you want to know more about baptism, or about how to be saved.