“There is also an antitype which now saves us, baptism not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 3:21)
Immediately upon reading the text we notice that there are some questions for us to answer:
1. What is the context?
2. What is an “antitype?”
3. Why is baptism qualified as “not the removal of the filth of the flesh?”
4. What exactly was Peter speaking about?
First, let’s consider the immediate context. Peter had just described the floodwaters as a picture of something that Noah and his family were delivered through (vs.20b). The Genesis account recalls how the flood brought a cleansing to the earth (Gen. 6-8), removing the incredibly rampant, universal commitment to wickedness (Gen. 6:5). But while the floodwaters were the means through which God destroyed the pre-flood world, they were also the conduits through which eight souls were brought to the new, post-flood world.
Second, we need to answer the question, “What does Peter mean by using the word ‘antitype?'” The Greek word used in verse 21 and translated as “antitype” is antitypon and it means “typical of”, “corresponding to”, or “something that represents a type of pattern.” You might even say – it’s something that fulfills a type. So, when Peter comes to verse 21, after having spoke of how Noah and seven other souls were saved through the floodwaters, he likened that to something that saves the Christian.
Third, why does Peter immediately qualify the baptism he was writing of by saying, “not the removal of the filth of the flesh?” It’s as though Peter wanted to make it abundantly clear that the external act of water baptism, though a great picture of the hope that saves a Christian, was not the means of salvation. Don’t forget, he was writing this letter to a people who would have been very familiar with various ceremonial washings and he wanted to make sure that they didn’t think that an external rite like water baptism procured internal righteousness and eternal access to the kingdom of God. All the external sign (i.e. water baptism) did, was – remove some filth from the flesh.
Fourth (and finally), what kind of baptism, then, was Peter speaking of? The answer clearly appears to be – the baptism of the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, which happens at conversion (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13). Let me explain. After Peter described what baptism he was not speaking about (the one where filth is removed from the flesh), he described the baptism he was talking about. In the NKJV translation (quoted above) we read:
“…but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
That translation, however, doesn’t quite capture the idea of what Peter wrote like the ESV and the NASB do. In those translations we read:
“…but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (vs. 21b ESV)
“… but an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (vs. 21b NASB)
So then it is not the washing of water baptism that saves; rather, it is the “appeal to God for a good conscience.” In other words, it is the internal, spiritual response to God whereby a sinner, tired of bearing the weight of all his sins on his conscience, and fearful of divine wrath against him, repents and looks to God for cleansing and a good conscience via the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And to further augment the spiritual nature of this, Peter wrote that this appeal happens “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (vs. 21c). How well this fits with the expression he used at the beginning of his epistle when he wrote:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” ( 1 Pet. 1:3 emphasis added)
Peter had already connected the Christian’s new birth via the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and that appears to be the same thing that’s happening at the end of verse 21. The appeal to God for a good conscience, the kind that happens when a sinner repents and comes to Christ for the forgiveness of sins, happens through the spiritual power procured for all of God’s elect (1 Pet. 1:2) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His physical resurrection was the conduit for the believer’s regeneration, and thus, the believer’s initial appeal to God for a good conscience.