Perhaps the most common refrain among Baptists concerning baptism is the argument that it does not save you. "There's nothing magical about the water. It's an act of obedience that symbolizes your profession of faith." It can be a bit jarring for a Baptist who has heard that refrain for years to confront Peter's point blank statement in 1 Peter 3:21: "Baptism now saves you." Lutherans and Anglicans are often eager to recite this verse in conversation with Baptists, who may be left hemming and hawing about their commitment to all that Scripture teaches in the face of what seems to be a direct contradiction of their baptismal theology. But as with many things in Scripture and theology, this one is more complicated than it first appears.
The first complication arises from what is meant by those who affirm a sacramental understanding of baptism's saving efficacy, since different Christian traditions hold different views on this question. Two important questions are as follows:
(1) Does baptism save ex opere operato (by virtue of the act itself)? Or does baptism's efficacy depend on faith in the on the one who receives it? Anglicans and Catholics affirm the former, but Lutherans have long held that faith is required for sacramental efficacy. It remains something of a mystery to me, then, why Lutherans have held on to infant baptism. Luther posited that infants might have faith after all, but many Lutherans seem to argue today that the causal relationship runs from baptism to faith, i.e., that baptism (or, rather, the Word working through baptism) creates faith in the infant who receives it. I find this view to be indistinguishable from the ex opere operato doctrine that Lutherans have been eager to avoid. It seems impossible to make coherent sense of a doctrine of justification by faith alone held together with a doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and yet Lutherans have attempted to walk this self-contradictory path for hundreds of years. Other traditions that embrace ex opere operato are more coherent, but less consistent with a biblical doctrine of salvation, which comes by faith alone.
(2) Closely related to the above is the question of the duration of salvation effected by baptism. Are all those baptized fully and finally saved, or will many of them be lost again? Empirically, we know that millions of baptized people throughout history have shown little or no evidence of following Christ. A good number of them have denied the Christian faith altogether. Are these people infallibly saved by the efficacy of baptism promised in 1 Peter 3:21, or did Christ somehow lose his grip on them? And if it is the latter, is it really correct to say, "Baptism saves"? Wouldn't it be more proper to say, "Baptism initiates a process of salvation that must be completed apart from baptism"? Again, as with the question of ex opere operato, the matter isn't a simple one.
This debate highlights the importance of quoting Scripture in context. In its entirety, 1 Peter 3:21 reads, "Baptism, which corresponds to this [water of Noah's flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Peter argues for a correspondence between the ark of Noah's day and the resurrection of Christ. Just as Noah was delivered from the waters of judgment and death by the ark that saved him and his family, so are we delivered from the judgment and death that are upon this world by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Noah emerged from that watery world into the inheritance of a new world, so do we emerge from the waters of baptism, which unites us with Christ, into the world that is to come. But Peter is very clear to specify that baptism saves, not by virtue of the act itself ("not as a removal of dirt from the body") but as an appeal to God for a good conscience. In other words, baptism saves as an act of faith. The one category of person incapable of professing faith (infants) is the one category of person who should not receive baptism. Infant baptism is a practice that has corrupted the very meaning of the ordinance as a profession of faith.
Baptists are right to say that the water itself does not save us. But we need not hesitate to say, with Peter, that baptism saves as an act of faith. Let us refine our language about baptism by Scripture.