Baptism Now Saves

 While we await Wilson’s response to my two posts on Sacerdotalism (here and here), we will move on to his chapter on baptism.

In this chapter, Wilson is trying to thread a middle course between ex opere operato on the one hand, and bare sign on the other. His words:

Of course this baptism does not automatically save the one baptized; there is no magical cleansing power in the water. We reject the Roman Catholic notion that saving grace goes in when the water goes on. We deny any ex opere operato efficacy to the waters of baptism. We also deny the modern Protestant reductionism that says that when the water goes on, somebody gets wet.

So far, so good. I am with Wilson here. There is a lot of space, however, between these two views of baptism.

Wilson then immediately talks about what happens to a baptized unrepentant pagan. Wilson wants to call him a covenant-breaker. Saying this, however, makes us back up a couple of steps to ask these two questions: 1. Aren’t unbelievers already covenant-breakers in Adam? Why do they need baptism in order to be called covenant breakers? Are we going to say that they become breakers of both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace? To me this is a fascinating question that definitely deserves exploration. 2. Wilson’s statement here presupposes a particular view of the covenant of grace that involves not the saving benefits, but the status of believers and unbelievers within the covenant. The status in one way is the same, meaning that the sanctions and promises apply equally to the believing and the unbelieving. This gets at two different explanations of the covenant of grace. We can phrase it in the form of a question: with whom is the covenant of grace made? The LC answers this question by affirming that the covenant of grace is made with Jesus Christ, and in Him all His elect seed (LC 31). And here I must confess to having moved in my position. No doubt Wes White will rejoice with many trumpets. I affirm now that the substance of the covenant of grace is made with the elect only, in accordance with the LC. I believe that the external signs of the CoG belong to the believers and to their children. But having the external signs does not necessarily mean that one has the substance of the CoG (which is salvation itself). Apostasy is falling away from these external signs (which are not meaningless, but do apply the sanctions: the point here is that the sanctions are not part of the essence of the covenant itself. Rather the sanctions tell us to go the direction of faith in order to receive the promise, which is the substance). Turretin is right: we should talk about the covenant properly conceived (the narrow sense in which the substance or core of the covenant is salvation itself), and the covenant improperly conceived (or maybe a better distinction would be formal and informal, or narrow and broad).

So, back to Wilson. I affirm that baptism applies the covenant sanctions upon the person, such that he is required to come to faith and repentance. And I affirm with Wilson that we can therefore speak of a person “breaking” the covenant by not living a life of repentance. I would add that the covenant-breaker is only breaking the covenant in a broad sense. The covenant of grace in a narrow sense is unbreakable, just as it is unconditional. Even the “conditions” are fulfilled by God (He gives us the faith, and He gives us perseverance). So, ultimately speaking, the covenant of grace is unconditional, unbreakable.

It looks as if I am not going to get all the way through this chapter with one post. Baptism, after all, deserves more than one post. But we will move on to consider 1 peter 3:18-22. I affirm with Wilson that we can say that baptism saves. That is, we can say that what baptism signifies saves us. Wilson seems to make this qualification when he says that it isn’t the water, but rather the resurrection of Christ that saves us (p. 100). However, what is lacking here is the understanding of the context of 1 Peter 3: 18-22. This is almost certainly the most difficult passage in the entire New Testament to interpret. I have had a go at it here. The question becomes this: baptism saves us from what? Well, what was Noah saved from? He was saved from the rest of the corruption of the world, the demons (πνεύμασιν) that ruled through the people. It is therefore more than possible that what Peter is trying to tell us is that we are saved from demons by the power of what baptism signifies. It would be interesting at least to see what Wilson thinks of this passage in more depth. There are thousands upon thousands of pages written on the passage, including at least three major books (Bo Reicke’s thesis, Dalton’s thesis, and Traver’s thesis at WTS, not including all the commentaries). Does Wilson agree with Dalton’s thesis on the passage? We will pick up with the next passage in the next post.


  1. Keith LaMothe said,

    July 12, 2007 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for your continuing review, I’m paying rapt attention to this exchange.

    You bring up a number of fascinating questions (“Are we going to say that they become breakers of both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace?”,”baptism saves us from what? Well, what was Noah saved from?”, etc), and I’m heartened that you treat them, or at least some of them, as questions to investigate, discuss, sharpen iron with iron, and (Lord willing) find good and better answers.

    One of the most disheartening aspects of the whole fracas has been the tremendous difficulty now imposed on most discussions of a number of similarly fascinating questions. Partly I wish the shouting and artillery bombardment would stop so the profitable conversations could continue without the distraction and pressure.

    Of course, if heresy really is afoot it would be sinful to diminish confrontation for the sake of conversation, so I understand why conscience (though I may think it misinformed) would prevent many of the participants from granting my desire.

    Thank you for keeping the interaction going on some level, even in the midst of the war.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    July 12, 2007 at 11:10 am

    Well, I think that the conversation of which you are talking is quite doable with Wilson, whom I do not regard as a heretic. We have pointed out some differences, some of them rather important (law-gospel distinction, for one). However, that should not blind us to our similarities.

  3. Stewart said,

    July 12, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    “I affirm with Wilson that we can say that baptism saves. That is, we can say that what baptism signifies saves us.”

    Lane, what makes your view different form those how hold that baptism is just a bare sign?

    Also, could you provide some scriptural support for your use of a broad and narrow distinction about the covenant?


  4. Stewart said,

    July 12, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    “It is therefore more than possible that what Peter is trying to tell us is that we are saved from demons by the power of what baptism signifies.”

    “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,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” 1PE 3:21

    So, an “answer of a good conscience toward God” saves us from demons? I don’t get it…

  5. Stewart said,

    July 12, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    Also, this interpretation seems to leave out 1 Corinthians 10. Aren’t Paul and Peter making similar points about baptism in these passages? Being delivered through water in the new covenant saves your life just like it saved Noah’s family, Moses and the Fathers.

  6. greenbaggins said,

    July 13, 2007 at 10:53 am

    Stewart, I hold that when a person comes to faith, he receives the thing signified by baptism. Faith can happen at any point: before, during, or after baptism. Baptism is a means of grace that has the same kind of efficacy that the Word of God does. Since the Word of God is not a mere sign, then neither is baptism. That’s why I am not a Zwinglian (although see Zwingli’s later theology for a position remarkably close to Calvin’s). We can say that baptism saves in the same sense that we can say that the Word of God saves. That is, it is the Holy Spirit working through the Word and Sacrament to bring a person to faith. But baptism is condemnation without faith. And baptism can most certainly happen without faith. But just because I say that doesn’t mean I think that baptism is a bare sign.

    The scriptural support for broad and narrow in the covenant is the same evidence as is used for the visible/invisible church distinction (1 John 2:19, Romans 9:6, and all the other passages Wes talks about here:

    Isn’t the answer of a good conscience a clean conscience? Surely Peter is pointing to that which baptism signifies. Does not justification give us a clean conscience?

    Yes, but what was Noah saved from? Noah was already a believer at the time of the Flood. See Genesis 6:8. Moses was already justified at the time of the Red Sea crossing. What they were saved from is their enemies.

  7. Stewart said,

    July 13, 2007 at 11:28 am

    “Yes, but what was Noah saved from?”

    Wasn’t he saved form death? I think that’s the main point. I’m not exactly sure what good it does to say that baptism saves us from demons. But just so I’m understanding you, you think that “save” this passage is only referring to salvation from demons, not actual salvation from hell, death, and sin?

  8. greenbaggins said,

    July 13, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    Well, I think that Christ’s proclamation of victory (at least, that’s what I think it was) did include ultimate victory over death, and that Noah was saved from death. But the reason death might have come to him was the extreme wickedness that was on the earth at that time. Of course, since Satan is elsewhere described as the one who has the power of death, he is our great enemy, and the one whom Christ defeated by His death and resurrection.

  9. M Burke said,

    July 14, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    What about the idea that baptism, like the preaching of the word, works by the Spirit to do what God intended it to do for the individual in question? I’ve been thinking this thing over lately and have heard that comment made. ie: that just as God uses the preached Word, by the power of the Spirit, to cause faith… God uses baptism to do… “something”.

    I think we’d all agree that God uses the preaching of the Word in this manner, the question is, does he work similarly with baptism?

  10. jasonvanb said,

    September 17, 2007 at 8:54 am

    I’d like to invite people to visit my new site and to post answers to two key theological questions I have asked on my site:

  11. May 3, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    Why “baptize” an infant in the first place if the child has not yet “believed?”, and where amongst the Apostle’s teachings is this to be done?

    I know Gentile believers are not constrained by Jewish laws except the forbidden partaking of blood/strangled meat and abstaining from idols… but, nowhere are they instructed to maintain covenant law by taking on those given the Jewish peoples.


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