CLAIM: This is the only passage in the NT that states the salvific value of baptism (“baptism now saves you”). Does this mean that water baptism is necessary for salvation?
RESPONSE: The Bible nowhere teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation. Instead, it universally teaches that salvation is by faith alone (Jn. 1:12; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9). If baptism was necessary for salvation, then the thief on the cross would not really be saved, because he was never baptized. And yet, Jesus affirmed that he would be in heaven (Lk. 23:43). Luke tells us that Cornelius received the Holy Spirit and was saved before he ever was baptized. He writes, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (Acts 10:47) Moreover, when the Philippian jailor asked Paul what he should do to be saved, he simply said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). That is, Paul didn’t add the condition of baptism.
Water baptism is simply an outward sign of an inward heart change. While the NT does command us to be baptized as a sign of our conversion and commitment to Christ (Mt. 28:19), nowhere does it teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. In this very passage, Peter emphasizes that water does not have some magical power to heal sins. Peter writes, “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” (1 Pet. 3:21). Therefore, if Peter really believed that water baptism was necessary for salvation, he never would have included this extra clause.
This passage is saying that water baptism is a type of an earlier act of God (“Corresponding to that” Greek antitupos). Here, he says that Noah and the ark are a type of Christian baptism. However, the Flood waters are not the type; the ark is the type. Elsewhere, Peter speaks of the Flood being for the “ungodly” (2 Pet. 2:5), rather than believers. In other words, unbelievers were “baptized” in the Flood—not believers. Noah and his family were saved by being “baptized” into the ark—not the water. Similarly, Paul compares baptism with faith and identification with Christ (Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12).