Here is the third of four installments in which I offer a Catholic critique of a series of sermons on Baptism by Baptist minister John Piper. See the sidebar to the right for links to the first two.
Piper's words are in blue and mine are in black.
"WHAT IS BAPTISM AND DOES IT SAVE?"
1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21 And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.
Before examining what Piper has to say about these verses, let’s summarize a few points that Peter is making and comment on various translations of verse 20.
1. Notice the question that serves as the title for Piper’s sermon: What is baptism and does it save? Let’s look at the WHAT first. Baptism, I would suggest, is one of the most critical teaching that our Lord gave to His disciples. We see baptism at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, we see baptism as part of the great commission right before Jesus ascends to heaven, and we see baptism included on a list of some other really important things in Ephesians: “One faith, One Lord, One baptism.” Thus, it seems logical that our Lord would leave his apostles with a clear understanding of WHAT baptism is, and it seems reasonable to think that the apostles would have worked very hard to pass on this teaching in a clear and consistent manner. These expectations are apparently satisfied by the historical reality that no one in the early church questioned WHAT baptism is, and they all agreed with each other about WHAT baptism is.
So, we might expect then, that when Piper poses the question of WHAT baptism is, that he will faithfully pass on the knowledge of WHAT baptism is that Jesus left with the apostles.
2. The second question is: does baptism save? Many of us, today, would say “no, baptism doesn’t save; Jesus saves.” But not most of us. In fact, if we were to poll all Christians throughout history, the nearly unanimous response would be: “Jesus saves us through baptism.” But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s be satisfied to simply let the question stand so that we can see if and how St. Peter answers it.
After all, the question seems simple enough. Yes or No? Does baptism save us or doesn’t it?
3. Now for a look at the verses Piper quoted. Let’s cut to the chase—Piper quotes these verses because they make a direct statement about baptism: “Baptism now saves you.”
To avoid any ambiguity, we might clarify the meaning of each word:
BAPTISM: a ritual involving the immersion under [or, some would allow, sprinkling or pouring] water (I am here describing baptism in purely phenomenological terms. This is what the ritual looks like to our eyes, and is thus distinguished from other rituals such as a marriage ceremony or the Lord’s supper or a birthday party.)
NOW: This word provides a temporal qualification for what St. Peter is talking about. It refers to the present moment, as opposed to the past historical event of the flood in Noah’s time.
SAVES: All Christians agree that when one is “saved,” a tremendous deed has occurred, either in that person’s soul or in the heavenly courtroom of heaven. It is THE moment in one’s life, or at least the first moment of that person’s life as a Christian. When one is saved, one becomes a member of the mystical body of Christ, the church. One is regenerated, circumcised without hands, made a new creation, and enabled to partake of the divine nature and one day enter eternal paradise. It is truly the only thing that matters in life—being in this state of grace.
YOU: I guess he is talking about us—you, me, and everyone who would ever read St. Peter’s letter.
BAPTISM NOW SAVES YOU.
I’ve read ambiguous sentences before. This does not seem to be one of them.
Piper asks: Does baptism save? Peter’s answer is: “baptism now saves you.” The teaching of Jesus is that we must be born again of water and spirit. The witness of St. Paul is that we are baptized into Jesus’s death and resurrection. The witness of the early church was that baptism saves you. The consistent teaching of the Catholic and Orthodox churches is that baptism saves us. Even Martin Luther taught that baptism saves us, as do many Protestant Christians today and mainline denominations today.
However, Baptists teach that baptism does not save us. John Piper is a Baptist. So, two of the very interesting questions about Piper’s sermon: does Piper challenge his Baptist congregation to accept the historical teaching of the Church, and if not, how does Piper move from premise 1 (a Bible text that says “Baptism now saves you”) to his Baptist conclusion (Baptism does not now save you)?
How is Piper going to resolve what seems like a flat contradiction between his (received) tradition and St. Peter? I’d also like to pose the question that becomes so important in my critique of Piper’s last sermon: WHEN is Piper going to discuss in the layout and rhetoric of his sermon the teaching of 1 Peter 3:21 that baptism now saves you?
4. Finally, we should note as Piper does that the entire context of 1 Peter 3:21 is salvation, namely, what Christ accomplished for us through his death and resurrection. Just like baptism is situated in Ephesians along with some things that are pretty relevant to our salvation, so is Peter’s teaching on baptism situated squarely in the context of how Jesus’s death and resurrection won for us eternal life. If I were listening to St. Peter, I would be asking the crucial question: what must I do to be saved? How are the merits of Christ’s death and resurrection applied to my soul?
St. Peter teaches, in the context of a discourse on salvation, that “baptism now saves you.” How is Piper going to explain these verses?
Controversy is Essential and Deadly
Let me begin today with a brief introductory word about controversy.
The way a speaker frames his topic is critical to understanding the rhetorical effect that the speaker hopes to achieve.
Piper frames his discussion about baptism by invoking the word “controversy” in his first sentence. Where is the controversy? What is unclear about “baptism now saves you?”
It is important to note that almost NO SERMON on baptism for the first 1,500 years of Christianity would likely have started with this sentence. There was simply no controversy about baptism until certain Protestant denominations began denying the historical teaching about baptism.
One gets the sense that Piper’s congregation already feels the weight of St. Peter’s teaching and the tension between this teaching and one of their most pronounced teachings—that baptism does not save you.
I simply ask: why the controversy?
On a higher level: why talk about controversy rather than simply talk about what St. Peter wrote?
The main thing I want to say is that doctrinal controversy is essential and deadly.
First off, I thought the “main point” of Piper’s sermon was about baptism. Yet Piper will spend roughly two-thirds of his sermon talking about controversy. (I know it is difficulty to perceive the proportions of Piper’s sermon in this context. Here’d I ask you simply to read the original to verify this claim.)
Piper begins his sermon by stating that doctrinal controversy is both essential and that it is deadly.
There is an ambiguity in this bold proclamation that may itself be deadly: controversy BETWEEN WHOM? Between Christians? Between orthodox and unorthodox Christians? Between Christians and non-Christians?
Unfortunately, without clarification, and given the context of baptism about which Christians disagree, it seems most likely that Piper is talking about controversy between Christians.
I agree with Piper 110% that controversy between Christians is deadly. Jesus offered his passion and death that Christians would be one as he and the Father are one. Thus, doctrinal controversy is essentially anti-Christ. If something that is diametrically opposed to what Christ hoped to accomplish through his death and resurrection is not anti-Christ, I do not know what is. For five centuries, doctrinal controversy has divided Christians into 40,000+ denominations, with only a few signs that this process of fragmentation can be reversed. (I agree with Peter Kreeft that things may be more hopeful than we might think.) Members of the bride of Christ—his body—are being ripped apart from its integrated unity; they are becoming partially separated from her.
Yet, if this is so, how can controversy between Christians (about an essential teaching) be ESSENTIAL? Of WHAT essence is controversy essential? The body of Christ? Jesus prayed that his body would be gloriously unified. Piper (we presume, perhaps incorrectly) is proclaiming that controversy is ESSENTIAL to the body of Christ—that is, that something about the essential nature or being of the body of Christ requires doctrinal controversy.
Is this really what Piper is saying? Is this what Jesus, Paul, or John taught? If Piper is going to propose something so sweeping and central about the nature of Christ’s body, I have but one question: where is THAT in the Bible?? Where does the Bible say that controversy is essential to Christians?
We can hope that Piper clarifies and limits this opening gambit.
And the attitude toward controversy in various groups of Christians depends largely on which of these two they feel most strongly. Is it essential or is it deadly? My plea is that at Bethlehem we believe and feel both of these.
I’m sorry, but I simply can’t imagine any New Testament writer expressing the sentiment that we should “believe” in and “feel” controversy between Christians.
Controversy is essential where precious truth is rejected or distorted. And controversy is deadly where disputation about truth dominates exultation in truth.
Here we get the first clarifying statement. But I think that Piper’s argument is already showing signs of trouble. I agree that controversy is essential where precious truth is rejected or distorted. But BETWEEN WHOM is controversy essential? Can “precious truth” be distorted within the body of Christ, yet the unity of that body be maintained? Perhaps Piper isn’t saying after all that controversy is essential between Christians. But controversy DOES EXIST between Christians about many doctrines. Is this controversy essentially a good or a bad thing?
If Piper says that controversy between Christians is essential, yet locates this controversy where precious truth is rejected or distorted, then Piper’s argument logically leads to the conclusion that the rejection and distortion of precious truths is essential to the Body of Christ.
I find it almost impossible to believe that this is what Piper is trying to say, so I’m hoping for more clarification.
Sadly, there are many Christians out there who are so confused about how to evaluate doctrinal controversy. Deep down, most of us know that SOMETHING isn’t right as things currently stand. Those of us (all of us, we pray) who believe the law of non-contradiction—that white isn’t black, that up is down, that right isn’t wrong, that objective truth is true and not false—know that baptism doesn’t simultaneously “save” and “not save” you.
Piper’s second sentence (about disputation verses exultation) is also a bit confusing. While I agree with Piper that controversy is deadly, I don’t define its deadliness in the same terms as he does. I believe (doctrinal) controversy is deadly in so far as (at least) one side of the controversy has rejected Christ who is the Truth. Piper seems to accept that controversy is essential, and that what really matters is that we simply don’t let it get in the way of our exultation in truth.
I think Piper is getting twisted up in his own position. After all, what if the controversy is about precious truths? If Christians focus mainly on the truths they can exult in common, then we are left with a pretty short list of truths to exult. But are these truths the only precious truths? Isn’t controversy the symptom of our inability to commonly exult certain truths such as baptismal regeneration, not the cause of it?
While I do not want to believe that Piper is saying that controversy is essential between Christians, the logic underpinning his last statement seems at least to express a reluctant acceptance that controversy between Christians is unavoidable. (It is not even true that such controversy is unavoidable. I can easily think of ways in which all Christians could be so unified such that no doctrinal controversies regarding foundational teachings would arise.)
Rather than dive into an exegesis of 1 Peter 3, Piper has once again rather to put his listeners in a certain mindset, one in which there exists a tension between two unnamed sides. We tend to associate controversy with human parties, and so Piper seems to be drawing attention away from where the true controversy lies: between Peter and Piper.
Piper picked Peter for Piper’s proclamation; perhaps Peter’s pithy preaching puts Piper’s pronouncement in a pickle!
The reason controversy is essential in the face of rejection and distortion is that God has ordained that the truth be maintained in the world partly by human defense. For example, Paul says in Philippians 1:7 that he is in prison for the "defense and confirmation of the gospel." And Jude 3 says that we should "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." And Acts 17:2-3 says that Paul's custom in the synagogue was to "reason" from the Scriptures and "explain and give evidence" that Jesus was the Christ.
“The faith once delivered to the saints.” If this is a true statement, then it would seem like one place to begin looking for correct teachings is the writings of the early church fathers. I challenge any and every Christian to read all the writings of the first 250 years of Christendom and see if the consensus about baptism (or anything else) is anything but Catholic.
Piper is also walking a fine line here. Notice what goes unstated: if the defense of the truth is partly by human defense, then who else defends the truth? Protestants and Catholics would agree that it would be God himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus himself said would lead Christians into all truth.
If defending the truth was entirely up to humans, we would see countless divisions. (Oh wait, we already do!). But if the defense of truth is partly up to the Holy Spirit, then it seems right to ask, given all the divisions: has the Holy Spirit failed in His responsibilities? Has the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God the Holy Spirit been unable to accomplish in Christians the very thing Christ gave to give us, the fullness of the truth?
I pray that Christians answer those questions negatively. And I think that Piper does, too. I think he avoids talking about the Holy Spirit here primarily because it raises difficult questions about authority. After all, are humans primarily responsible for the defense or is the Holy Spirit? Is it by human power that the truth is defended or is by God’s power?
Obviously, we can quickly come to understand that the only way for the truth to be defended is for the Holy Spirit to defend the truth through humans, just like he wrote Scripture through human authors. And this is exactly what Catholics believe the Holy Spirit does through His divinely selected leaders, most particularly the successor of Peter in Rome.
Take a look once more at what Piper says: “partly by human defense.” I think this distracts us from the more important question: what and how does the Holy Spirit teach us about the meaning of baptism?
If the Holy Spirit teaches Christians individually, then He has been unsuccessful at reaching everyone who, including people who genuinely desire to know the truth and pray to be taught the truth.
But if the Holy Spirit teaches the truth primarily to the Body of Christ as a single whole, then this is much different from the “private interpretation of Scripture” model that St. Peter specifically warns us against.
The underlying question behind all of this is: is Piper’s interpretation of Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit (and therefore infallible) or is it a fallible, uninspired interpretation of Scripture, a tradition of men?
So the preservation and transmission of precious truth from person to person and generation and generation may require controversy where truth is rejected or distorted.
I suppose that goes without saying. But is controversy a symptom of the rejection? Or, as Piper seems to imply, is it a means to an end? Why is it “required?” Doesn’t it naturally happen as a result of some group believing one thing and another group believing something else? (Also, who defines what counts as precious truths? Is it somehow a greater controversy when people disagree over what truths are to be considered precious?)
If controversy is a means to an end, the only conceivable end I can think of that I find in the Bible is the elimination of the controversy. And this means the proclomation and obedient acceptance by all of the Truth.
How does Piper propose that controversy get us to this end?
I would reword Piper’s sentence as follows:
“So the preservation and transmission of precious truth from person to person and generation and generation may require a visible, authoritative, infallible Magisterium where truth is rejected or distorted. This magisterium exists and has an office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This office has an address and a door you can knock on and a website that deals with all the latest theological fads so that Christians today can know the truth once given to the saints.”
But controversy is also deadly because it feels threatening and so it tends to stir up defensiveness and anger.
I agree that controversy feels threatening. This is one reason controversy has NO PLACE in Christ’s mystical body.
I agree that controversy tends to stir up defensiveness. That is plain and simple human nature.
I agree that controversy tends to stir up anger. Anger, properly channeled, can be a very productive emotion. I think Christians today should feel anger that our Christian forefathers, both Protestant and Catholic, sinned to such an extent that the left as their legacy a divided body of Christ. But the anger must ultimately be directed at sin. If we can do this, then we can realize that to reverse the divisions means giving up the results of the sins of our forefathers. We must pray earnestly for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to guide us all back into full communion.
But I do not think that controversy is deadly because it makes us feel any of these things. Some of those things (like anger) are actually good things, not deadly things.
Jesus says not to fear those that can kill the body but those that can kill the soul. When members of Christ’s mystical body become partially separated from the integrated unity she enjoys, the result is spiritual sickness and even death. Controversy is deadly not in and of itself, just like AIDS is not deadly in and of itself. AIDS weakens the body so that sickness can kill it. Controversy weakens members of the mystical body by partially separating them, thus making it easier for them to die spiritually.
The fact that Christians (including myself) can’t even begin to imagine a united Christianity (and the strong message this would give to our dying world) is a sign of how far from Christ’s vision for the Church we all (Catholics included) have fallen.
It's deadly also because it focuses on the reasons for truth rather than the reality behind truth, and so tends to replace exultation in the truth with disputation about the truth.
Piper’s language is becoming a bit difficult to follow. Reasons are inextricably bound up with the truth, and the truth is inextricably bound up with reality. When we talk about truth, we are making statements about reality. How, I would ask, does reality exist “behind” the truth. Can one speak about reality without making truth claims? Does Piper live up to the implications of this sentence by teaching us about Baptism without offering reasons or making truth claims? Of course not. This sentence is a pure red herring.
This is deadly because thinking rightly about truth is not an end in itself; it's a means toward the goal of love and worship.
This sentence is also very problematic. I would simply say that Jesus is the end. It is all about Jesus. Jesus says “I am the Truth.” If the truth is not an end in itself, then Jesus is not an end but a means to an end.
Piper is simply inserting false dichotomies all over the place. We are to worship the Lord in Spirit and Truth. Truth is the very stuff of our worship. The truth of who God is and the truth of who we are.
Piper is a very intelligent man and I know he loves the Lord. But so far, the only thing controversy seems to be killing is his ability to form a logical argument. This is not his fault at all; it is the fault of the theological position he is trying to defend. Even Einstein could never have succeeded in math or science had he dogmatically and unquestioningly assumed that 2+2=5. Start from an incorrect premise, and things quickly go downhill.
At this point, we are STILL WAITING to hear a single word about Baptism and 1 Peter 3.
Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:5 that "the goal of our instruction is love." And he prayed in Philippians 1:9-11 that our "love . . . abound in knowledge . . . unto the glory and praise of God." Controversy tends to threaten both love and praise. It's hard to revel in a love poem while arguing with someone about whether or not your sweetheart wrote it.
Here Piper is correct, though notice how he now understates the truth. Controversy doesn’t just threaten both love and praise. It downright injures it! Which is why St. Paul specifically commanded Christians to avoid controversy by being obedient to the traditions he passed on. The Catholic Church remains faithful to these traditions to this day.
John Owen on Controversy
So controversy is essential in this fallen world, and controversy is deadly in a fallen world.
Yes, but so far, Piper has been speaking about controversy not in the context of the fallen world but within the “saved” Body of Christ.
We must do it and we must tremble to do it. A wise counselor for us in this is John Owen, the Puritan pastor from 340 years ago. He was involved in many controversies in his day - theological and denominational and political. But he never ceased to be a deep lover of God and a faithful pastor of a flock.
I praise Jesus constantly that although some Christians remain partially separated from Jesus’s Church, He still continues to mercifully pour out His love and grace into their lives. I simply hope to reach out to these brothers and sisters in the Lord to share that the fullness of truth and Christian life (such as the sacraments) are found in the Catholic Church alone.
He counsels us like this concerning doctrinal controversy:
When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth - when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us - when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts - when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for - then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.*
This is true, but notice that Owens doesn’t define here what the truth is. Thus, this statement would be equally moving to Mormons, JW’s, Methodist, Catholics, Baptists, and others alike. We would all nod our heads thinking we are the ones that have communion, and not the others.
I think that was the key to Owen's life and ministry: he didn't just contend for doctrine; he loved and fellowshipped with the God behind the doctrine.
God is not behind the doctrine. The doctrines are simply statements (spoken with profound love, I would add) about this God who loves us so much. The deeper question here is the relationship between language, which is symbolic and culturally situated, and the truths about God, which surpass language and culture.
Yet, our words and the realities to which they point have deep, abiding relationship that strives to achieve the same unity that we find between the Logos and the Word-made-flesh. When God speaks a word, that word literally brings into being or existence the Word itself. Our own use of language participates in this divine speech of God, though because of sin, our words tend to loose touch with the realities they signify.
While this is a reality that we must live with, we do have to be careful not to assume a division between language and objective reality. To do so is to fall into the same trap into which post-modern culture has slid, a trap that ultimately renders Christianity unintelligible since the means God gave us to proclaim the truth—language—can not be depended on to relate objective, divine realities.
The Christian position has always been to assume—against pagan culture—that words do convey, even if in a limited sense, objective realities about God. Thus, doctrines are statements intimately bound to reality, and the very fact that they are bound is a result of God’s grace healing us from the consequences of original sin, when the great deceiver drove the first wedge between language and reality…and we bought it.
If true doctrine is connected with both reality and true love and fellowship, the doctrinal division stands in the way of true fellowship and even our ability to discern reality itself.
The key phrase is this one: "When we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for - then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men."
This is true only when the doctrines are not false doctrines. Or does the grace of God serve to protect false doctrines.
Since the doctrine in question here regards baptismal regeneration, I’m getting more and more interested to here Piper address St. Peter’s (doctrinal) teaching that “baptism now saves you.” I’m concerned that perhaps these side tracks are designed to put a wedge between a worship (here loosely defined as communion, fellowship, contemplation, and exultation) and truth.
Truth is not opposed to worship. The Truth is who we worship, and we worship Him in Spirit and Truth.
In other words, we must not let disputation replace contemplation and exultation.
“Replace” doesn’t seem like the right word. Disputation (of the truth) necessarily detracts from the contemplation (of truth) and exultation (in the truth). We don’t “let” it happen; rather, contemplation and exultation have already been lost when disputes about the truth rise up. Loss of truth is always a result of sin.
I am keenly aware that this series of messages on baptism is more controversial than usual.
Between what groups and/or texts does the controversy lie? What caused the controversy to begin with? When did the controversy first begin? The lack of definition here, especially when discussing a contentious subject such as doctrinal controversy between Christians, can only lead to muddled thinking and further disunity.
Unfortunately, unless Piper can provide a convincing case, the controversy seems to be squarely between Piper and Peter. Piper believes that baptism does not now save you. Peter states that “baptism now saves you.”
We are still waiting for Piper to clear up this controversy.
I am also eager that this pulpit avoid two great errors: losing truth in the quest for exultation;
How can that possibly happen when the truth is always gained in exultation? Why does Piper imply that exultation could ever cause truth to be lost?
…and losing worship in the noise of disputation.
Piper can’t help this, even if he tried. You can’t have sunlight without the sun. If the noise of disputation is occurring, then fellowship and worship have already been lost. Maybe the congregants at Piper’s church don’t see it, but God is concerned with the fellowship and worship of the entire mystical body of Christ which expands far beyond the boundaries of Piper’s local community. And the mystical body of Christ is deeply divided not only in regard to her doctrines but also her worship.
So let us all pray that in our lives and in our church we walk the tightrope balanced by the necessity of controversy on the one side and the dangers of it on the other.
Do you see the fundamental contradiction contained in this suggestion?
It is like saying that we must walk the tightrope balanced between the necessity of drinking poison on the one side and the dangers of it on the other.
Controversy between Christians is poison, and it can never be considered necessary. Christians are explicitly commanded by St. Paul himself to avoid controversy by holding fast to the traditions of the Church.
The Bible itself is a great help in this because it teaches about baptism, for example, in contexts that are so rich with good news that it makes it relatively easy to exult as we deal with this practice of baptism.
Why do I get the sense that Piper is uncomfortable about the Biblical passages pertaining to baptism? It is almost as if he is having a hard time exulting in the Biblical teaching that “baptism now saves you.” Do you see how this sentence seems to imply that only some verses are “rich with good news” while others simply have to be “dealt with”?
As Catholics, we exult in every single verse of Scripture. Every verse of Scripture is good news. One of the main reasons to be Catholic is because of the Bible, which points so clearly to the Catholic Church, at least when its message is not put in a Piper-defined box about what constitutes “good news” and what does not.
In fact, baptism itself is meant, like the Lord's Supper, to point to realities that are so great and so wonderful that, over all the controversy, we must hear the music of God's glorious goodness and grace.
Baptism and the Lord’s supper (among other things) **ARE** the music of God’s glorious goodness and grace!
Also, do you see how this sentence assumes the conclusion that Piper himself still has not argued? If baptism is merely a sign, then all it does is “point to realities,” which is what signs do. But if baptism saves, as Peter says it does, then it is far more than a sign but a significant moment of grace.
So, we are still waiting to hear what Piper has to say about “Baptism now saves you.”
Exulting in Christ's Substitution for us
So it is here in 1 Peter 3:18-22. Sandwiching the teaching on baptism in verses 19-21 there are the same great truths about Christ and his death and resurrection that we saw last week in Colossians 2. Let's get these before us for the sake of exultation before we look between for the necessary disputation.
What? Rather than exegete the passage, Piper now imports the structure of his (false) suggestion that disputation and controversy is both necessary to and compatible with the exultation of worship as a framework for interpreting these verses.
Along with this is the “sandwich” metaphor, although I would not want to buy a sandwich at Piper’s Pitas. I think this sandwich chef would prefer bread with no filling.
At every turn, Piper is trying to pit “Baptism now saves you” against its context. The context is “good news;” the filling is, well, bologna.
No God-breathed verse of the Bible deserves to be treated this way.
Verse 18: "Christ also died [literally: suffered] for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit." Now here is something worth exulting over. Put it in five parts.
Yes, but for Catholics, EVERY verse of Scripture is worth exulting over. Also, every verse of Scripture—including verse 21—deserves to be unpacked as much as verse 18. Somehow, I don’t think verse 21 is going to receive the extended treatment that verse 18 does, even though this is a sermon about baptism.
Unfortunately, the more he has to say about verse 18, the MORE SIGNIFICANT and unavoidable the clear meaning verse 21 becomes. Baptism is clearly connected with our salvation in verse 21, and the entire context, and even the Old Testament imagery Peter employs, is also about salvation. Thus, rather than abrogating the clear linguistic meaning of verse 21, the context reinforces it.
Only someone who holds a dogma against baptismal regeneration and who refuses to allow that God the Holy Spirit could/would hover over the waters through which one is buried with Christ and raised in the newness of life is forced to pit 1 Peter 3:18 against 1 Peter 3:21.
Since Piper’s study of verse 18 is both true (though at times incomplete and at other times slanted toward uniquely Protestant doctrines) and supports the historical teaching of baptismal regeneration, I’ll let it stand. Again, take note of the effort Piper expends to unpack these verses, thereby placing great emphasis on them and detracting from the emphasis due v. 21. I’ll add only a few comments in line with Piper’s text.
1. We are cut off from God.
First, the greatest problem in the world, the greatest problem in your life and mine, is that we are cut off from God. We have no right to approach him. We are alienated from him. You see this behind the words of Peter when he says that the aim of Christ's suffering was "that he might bring us to God." Now if Christ had to die that we might be brought to God, it is clear that we are alienated from God without Christ. This is the big issue. Not floods, and not cancer, and not crime, and not war, and not our job or marriage or kids. The big issue is that we are cut off from God, our Maker. And if that problem does not get solved, then the anger of God will rest on us and our eternity will be miserable.
2. It is sin that alienates us from God.
Second, we see what the problem is that alienates us from God, namely, sin. Peter says, "Christ suffered for our sins . . . that he might bring us to God." It's our sins that cut us off from God. This is true legally and it's true emotionally - as we all know. [It is also true ontologically. We are born in a state of disgrace called original sin. Most Baptist reject this historical doctrine, passed down from the beginning of the Church. Hence, their denial of infant baptism.] Legally, God is a just judge and does not simply pronounce the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent. He is holy and does not relax in the living room with rebels. Every sin is serious and pushes him farther away. And emotionally, we know that as our consciences are defiled by sins we feel so dirty in the presence of God that we can't lift our faces.
3. God substituted his Son for us.
Third, God has taken the initiative to overcome this alienation from him by offering Christ to suffer in our place. You see this great reality of substitution in the words, "Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the just for the unjust." Here is the great ground of our hope, that we really can and will come home to God. O let us exult in this above all the works of God - that he has substituted his just Son in our place. This is the great gospel. This is what holds us late at night and early in the morning when sin and Satan assail us with their accusations and say, you can't pray to God, much less go to heaven. Look at you! You're a sinner! To this we say, "Yes, but my hope does not lie in not being a sinner. It lies in a substitution of the Just for the unjust."
4. The substitution was once for all.
And to add to the glory of it, in the fourth place, Peter, just like the book of Hebrews (7:27; 9:12; 10:10), says that this substitution of the Just for the unjust was "once for all" - once for all time. It need not be and cannot be repeated, because it was perfect and complete the first and only time it was done. The [eternal] debt for all my sins - past, present and future - was paid in a single sacrifice for all time. O the glory of an objective, finished, once-for-all gospel performed by God in his Son outside of me apart from my psychological fickleness.
5. God was satisfied with Christ's substitution.
And fifth, after he had offered himself once for all the Just for the unjust, God gave him life. "Having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit." This means, at least, that God was satisfied with Christ's substitution. Which means that if you will cherish it as the foundation of your life, God will be satisfied with you, in Christ. God gave Christ life in at least two senses: one is that God gave him life in the spirit during the three days while his body was in the grave. We know this because Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Today, not in three days, but today. [There are other approaches to this apparent dilemma that are equally feasible.] The other way that God gave Christ life is that he raised his body from the dead, and transformed it into a "spiritual body" - a new kind of body without the limitation of the old "flesh" - a body suited for the spiritual realm that "flesh and blood" cannot inherit (1 Corinthians 15:50). So God gave a mighty YES to Christ's substitution by raising him from the dead.
That's the top of the sandwich around the teaching of baptism: "Christ has suffered for sins once for all the Just for the unjust that he might bring us to God." Welcome home, are the sweetest words in the world, when God speaks them to our soul.
Guess what comes next: the bottom of the sandwich. Mental note: could there be something lost be “reordering” the presentation of the materials by removing v. 21 from the flow of Peter’s thought? If you just read straight through, the textual connection between Peter’s discussion of salvation from v. 18 through v. 21 is easily apparent. Jesus saves us by his once-for-all sacrifice through baptism. After all, the once-for-all sacrifice didn’t mean that everyone just goes to heaven now. If that were true, nothing at all would be needed. Not accepting Christ as savior. Not even being born again. Nothing.
But no one believes this. Something must occur for a person to be born again. Christ must perform the circumcision made without hands. We must be born anothen. Jesus teaches us in John 3 that we are born again in baptism, or so says the entire history of Christianity until relatively recent interpreters began using novel interpretations as the grounds for dividing the Body of Christ. As Peter puts it, “Baptism now saves you.”
Okay, having taken a stand for the v. 21 material that Piper skips, let’s move on to see what he has to say about v. 22.
Exulting in the Subjection of Christ's (and our) Enemies
The bottom part of the sandwich is verse 22: "Christ is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him." Here we see the other effect of the death and resurrection of Christ. First was a substitution for our sins, now we see a subjection of his enemies. First substitution, then subjection. (Kids, ask mom and dad at lunch today, "What were the two words that started with "s" to describe the work of Christ?)
Do you see the hole that Piper leaves in Peter by removing v. 21 from the narrative? As we said, the substitution isn’t all that is required, or else every human being would automatically go to heaven. Somehow, the substitution has to be applied to individual’s souls. Peter tells us how this is done (as do many other verses of Scripture): through baptism.
Now don't miss this: we saw the very same thing last week in Colossians 2:15. When Christ died and rose again, all the evil angels, and authorities and powers were subjected to him in a new way. From the beginning of creation he was sovereign over them. That's not new. But now he has nullified the one thing that they could use to destroy us, our sin. It's as if the demonic world had many weapons to harm us, but only one great tank of poison that could destroy the children of God. And when Christ went to the cross, he drank the entire tank.
O there is much to contend for here, but for now, this morning, let us simply exult in this. Let us commune with our God in this. Let us revel in this reality. That the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ subjected angels and authorities and powers to him, meaning that in him the elect of God cannot be destroyed by these enemies. Our great enemies are subjected to the will of the one who died to save us, and he will save us. He will not let his work of substitution or subjection be done in vain.
Yes, do revel in verses 18 and 22, but please don’t do it at the expense of v. 21. Better yet would be to revel in all the verses, to commune with God through all the verses. Yes, Christ’s work is not in vain because he applies it to our souls through baptism. Baptism is the proof God gives us—the physical, sacramental, visible proof—that he has applied the work of his substitution to our souls. We trust in this sacramental oath that Christ has sworn on our behalf, and we trust the sure work of creation that he produces in our souls through the power of the Holy Spirit when we are baptized.
Does Baptism Save?
Now sandwiched between these two great truths about Christ (substitution for sinners and subjection of enemies) are the words about baptism.
As a Catholic, I would say, “sandwiched between these two great truths about Christ…is the great truth about baptism, which itself is another great truth about Christ.”
I preached on this text September 25, 1994. So I send you to the file cabinet if you want more, but I only have time here to go straight to the point at issue, namely, the meaning of baptism.
Piper had the time, but you may recall that he spent it talking about the necessity of controversy.
Does this mean we are not going to hear that much about v. 21?
In verse 19, Peter reminds the readers that, in the spirit, Jesus had gone to preach to the people in Noah's day, whose spirits are now in prison awaiting judgment. (I don't take the position that verse 19 refers to Jesus' preaching in hell between Good Friday and Easter.) But there was tremendous evil and hardness in Noah's day and only eight people enter the ark for salvation from the judgment through water.
I know this is a small point, but one thing I learned in college about writing is that active verbs are always more pointed than the noun cognates we form from them. Notice: Peter says Noah was saved through water. This is stronger than Piper’s paraphrase, which says eight people entered the ark for salvation. Peter’s language here is far more dramatic, and this is significant, since Peter is using the story of Noah in the flood to dramatize what baptism now does to us.
Also, Noah wasn’t saved by entering the ark, so to speak. He was saved by being in the ark when the flood waters rose. He was saved through water, which washed away the sinners outside the ark. And while in the ark as he was being saved through waters, a dove came and landed on the ark itself.
So, for the record, Piper has weakened the active sense of the text and displaced some of the connections that Peter explicitly makes.
Now Peter sees a comparison between the waters of the flood and the waters of baptism.
Peter doesn’t call it a comparison. In Peter’s text, the story of Noah is treated as an analogy or a parallel to baptism. In other words, the Noah story prefigures baptism as an Old Testament “type.” Just like Noah was saved by being in the ark, we are saved by being in the new ark, the Church. Just like Noah was saved through water which washed away sin, we are saved through a sacrament involving water that washes away spiritual sin. Just like a dove came to rest on Noah as he was being saved through water, the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters of baptism comes to rest in our souls when we are baptized.
The connection that Peter (and the entire early church fathers after him) saw between Noah and baptism is far more than a “comparison.”
So, for the record, this sentence represents the second attempt to weaken what Peter tells us in his first epistle.
Verse 21 is the key verse: "And corresponding to that [the water of the flood], baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Now there are some denominations that love this verse because it seems at first to support the view called "baptismal regeneration."
Seems to? Are you saying you do not love this verse?
Notice how Piper throws in the technical term. Technical terms are easy ways to turn off about a quarter of your average listeners. (As a college-level teacher of another very abstract field of knowledge, I know this quite well.) Like Piper was saying earlier, we want to rejoice in the God behind the doctrine. Technical terms seem to add a layer of remove between God and the person, and so a very good definition is needed. After all, it is disingenuous to turn people off from baptism just by shrouding it in unfamiliar language.
That is, baptism does something to the candidate: it saves by bringing about new birth.
This is a fairly good definition as far as it goes. But notice how much it leaves out. It says nothing about the belief of those who hold to baptismal regeneration about the Holy Spirit being the active agent doing the saving. Piper should know that the common misconception is that baptism is only water, but those who hold to baptismal regeneration believe that baptism is both water and the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t make any type of reference to John 3 where Jesus specifically connects “new birth” with baptism.
Basically, what we have is a scant definition that doesn’t really represent the strength of the opposing side. As such, it doesn’t really help the congregation form a complete understanding of why people come to a different understanding from the Bible alone of Baptism.
So, for example, one of the baptismal liturgies for infants says, "Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ's Church, let us give thanks."
This is a good illustration. Whose liturgy is this? Can you be more specific so that the nebulous “other” is more clearly defined?
Now the problem with this is that Peter seems very aware that his words are open to dangerous misuse. This is why, as soon as they are out of his mouth, as it were, he qualifies them lest we take them the wrong way.
The danger, if any, is that someone will think baptism saves apart from God’s grace, as if the action of being baptized (immersed or dipped) in water is what saves. Of course, the Catholic Church has never taught that. But Piper seems to think the danger Peter had in mind was that someone might interpret his words “baptism now saves you” to mean that “baptism now saves you.”
In verse 21 he does say, "Baptism now saves you" - that sounds like the water has a saving effect in and of itself apart from faith.
Hold on a minute! If we are taking Peter at his word, where does Piper get the idea that Peter defines baptism as “water [alone]” (“in and of itself”)? Also, we know that faith must be present during baptism, but the role of faith is not part of Peter’s text. Are we really interpreting Peter here, or is Piper suddenly hoisting his own theological presuppositions onto Peter’s text? He is not wrong to do so, but the critical reader must be able to clarify where careful exegesis ends and theological presuppositions begin. This can be tricky business for many, especially in the context of your average Sunday-morning sermon.
He knows that is what it sounds like…
Piper is basically constructing a “cause” for why Peter adds the clarification that he adds. The cause Piper constructs is premised on the assumption that Peter couldn’t have really meant what he just said.
Piper seems to be projecting onto Peter his feelings about Peter’s statement. Piper would likely not get up and preach the gospel that Peter preached, and Piper knows it. If during a sermon Piper ever said the words “baptism now saves you” and he wasn’t reading 1 Peter, he would likely loose his job. Thus, it is natural for him to read Peter saying it and to imagine that Peter’s next thought would be “oops! I better qualify that statement in a hurry.”
But ask yourself: does Peter’s “qualification” really reject the clear meaning of those previous four words (“Baptism now saves you”) or does it rather explain the meaning of those words?
…and so he adds immediately, "Not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." (Or your version might have: "the pledge of a good conscience toward God").
This qualification is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches about baptism: that it saves us by the interior work of the Holy Spirit in our souls, which becomes the appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But the point seems to be this:
Notice how many “seems” have crept into Piper’s argument. A Biblical interpretation based on a chain of seems does not fill me with much certitude.
There is something surprisingly non-committal when the word “seem” is added. And this non-committal tone is ironic given that the denominational identity Piper professes hinges on a particular understanding of baptism that is exactly contrary from 1 Peter 3:21.
When I speak of baptism saving, Peter says,
Once again, Piper is projecting onto Peter, now even assuming the first person “I” through which Piper can preach his Baptist beliefs.
I don't mean that the water, immersing the body and cleansing the flesh, is of any saving effect; what I mean is that, insofar as baptism is "an appeal to God for a good conscience," (or is "a pledge of a good conscience toward God"), it saves.
This is a perfect summary of Peter, with the exception of one imprecise word that fundamentally changes the entire meaning: “insofar.”
Peter says that baptism saves us. From this, we can assume that baptism is always an appeal to God for a good conscience. That’s how Peter explains baptism. He gives us an image of baptism in the Noah story, which involves all the key components: sin, ark, water, and spirit.
To say “insofar” is to separate baptism from the work of the Spirit by opening up the possibility that maybe baptism sometimes isn’t the work of the Spirit.
But if the Spirit is not present, it is not Baptism!
Paul said in Romans 10:13, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord - everyone who appeals to the Lord - will be saved."
Exactly! In baptism, the name of the Lord is called and the Lord comes to save.
Notice how Piper can not explain away what Peter said, so he suddenly turns to another Scripture, as if one Scripture can contradict another.
Paul does not mean that faith alone fails to save.
And next, the doctrine of faith alone creeps in, which instantly calls to mind a faith vs. works mentality that keeps people from understanding how Jesus works through the sacraments. The sacraments are not our works, they are Jesus’s.
He means that faith calls on God. That's what faith does.
Yes, and baptism has long been called the sacrament of faith, or the sacrament of our justification. Faith and the sacraments go hand-in-hand.
Now Peter is saying, "Baptism is the God-ordained, symbolic expression of that call to God. It is an appeal to God - either in the form of repentance or in the form of commitment.
Hmm. Where exactly did Peter say anything about baptism being a symbol? Does a symbol now save us? Were Noah and his family only symbolically saved? Were sinners only symbolically washed away during the flood? Was the dove that appeared above Jesus at His baptism only a symbol of the Holy Spirit? Is baptism only a symbolic appeal to God for a good conscience?
Turns out, Catholics and Protestants agree that baptism has a symbolic component to it. After all, the water is a symbol of an interior reality that occurs during the sacrament: washing away sin and being buried with Christ.
The question is: is baptism ONLY a symbol, and one that is disconnected temporally from what it symbolizes?
Just like Noah was saved temporally by being in the ark when the flood waters rose, Christians have always understood since the beginning that we are saved the moment we are baptized. Baptism now saves us.
What is Baptism?
Now this is fundamentally important in our understanding of what baptism is in the New Testament. James Dunn is right I think when he says that "1 Peter 3:21 is the nearest approach to a definition of baptism that the New Testament affords" (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, p. 219). What is baptism? Baptism is a symbolic expression of the heart's "appeal to God." Baptism is a calling on God. It is a way of saying to God with our whole body, "I trust you to take me into Christ like Noah was taken into the ark, and to make Jesus the substitute for my sins and to bring me through these waters of death and judgment into new and everlasting life through the resurrection of Jesus my Lord."
This is what God is calling you to do. You do not save yourself. God saves you through the work of Christ. But you receive that salvation through calling on the name of the Lord, by trusting him. And it is God's will all over the world and in every culture - no matter how simple or how sophisticated - that this appeal to God be expressed in baptism. "Lord, I am entering the ark of Christ! Save me as I pass through the waters of death!" Amen.
If Piper simply acknowledged that we call on the name of the Lord when we are baptized and that this symbol communicates an inward reality—an action of God on the soul (which is precisely what a sacrament is)—then the above two paragraphs are entirely correct, quite Biblical, and thoroughly Catholic.
I am encouraged that Piper backs away his earlier insistence of “salvation first, then baptism,” as if salvation occurs before baptism, which is not what Peter says. Of course, baptism is not only a symbolic expression of the heart’s appeal to God but the moment where the Holy Spirit enters the heart, thereby allowing it to make that appeal to begin with.
This is the historic teaching of Christianity, and if we all are obedient to this Biblical teaching, all controversy will vanish.