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Infant Baptism
-a reflection on 1 Peter 3:21


"s=ô abt=o ats=kai ts=êmas a=umas antitupon1 nun b=kai b=êmas sôzei baptisma ou sarkos apothesis rupou alla suneidêseôs agathês eperôtêma2 eis theon di anastaseôs iêsou christou"
1 Peter 3:21 Greek

1antitupon (antitupon): corresponding ["antitype"], i.e. a representative, counterpart: like figure (whereunto); Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. "antitype": the person or thing represented or foreshadowed by an earlier type or symbol; Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, 2nd edition.

2eperotema (eperotema): an inquiry:-answer. From erperotao: to ask for, inquire, seek, demand, desire, question.

"quod et vos nunc similis formae salvos facit baptisma non carnis depositio sordium sed conscientiae bonae interrogatio in Deum per resurrectionem Iesu Christi"
1 Peter 3:21 Vulgate
"in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ"
1 Peter 3:19-21 Revised Standard Version
"In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison: Which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the ark was a building: wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. Whereunto baptism being of the like form, now saveth you also: not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the examination of a good conscience towards God by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
1 Peter 3:19-21 Douay-Rheims
"and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also -not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
1 Peter 3:21 New International Version
"You are now saved by a baptismal bath which corresponds to this exactly. This baptism is not removal of physical stain, but the pledge to God of an irreproachable conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
1 Peter 3:21 New American Bible
"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:"
1 Peter 3:21 King James Version
"which also after a true likeness doth now save you, [even] baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ;"
1 Peter 3:21 American Standard Version


"…saved through water" (1 Peter 3:20)

Noah with his family, "saved through water", is an "antitupon", or antitype, of baptism. That is, the earlier is a type or symbol that prefigures and foreshadows the latter. Baptism is the thing foreshadowed by God's saving of Noah and all humanity through the ark. Those who did not enter the ark and pass through the water suffered the destruction that God brought upon the sinful world. Those who passed through the water were spared, not by their own power, but because of God's mercy. An antitype is greater than its type, which points to it. Therefore, the epic account of Noah and the ark should be regarded as indicating something of Scripture's view of the profound meaning of Baptism.

All six of the above English translations of 1 Peter 3:21 explicitly claim that baptism saves us. Peter claims that baptism is not merely a washing away of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for cleansing of the conscience, which can be accomplished only through the forgiveness of sin. Just as the flood swept away the sins of Noah's world and carried Noah to freedom and a new relationship with God, so too does Baptism wash away our sins and carry us to freedom and a new relationship with God.

Baptism is primarily an act of God, not of man. This truth is highlighted by the ancient tradition that a person does not baptize oneself. But why not? For the simple reason that one can not forgive one's own sins! Baptism is received from outside of oneself, not produced solely from an act of one's will. One may be baptized only by another baptized person. This ancient practice highlights the deep reality that we Christians are God's ministers of grace to each other. Salvation is not something I achieve myself; I receive it from God, through the ministry of the members of Christ's Church.

Covenant initiation rites: the New perfects the Old

In the Old Testament, God made circumcision the necessary and sufficient rite through which males were brought into God's covenant with Abraham. Scripture is emphatic that this divinely-ordained ritual actually initiated one into the covenant (Genesis 17:10-14). Circumcision was an outward sign with an inward reality. Receiving the outward sign accomplished one's initiation into the covenant. Man performed the outward sign, but the reality of the change in the recipient's standing before God was guaranteed by God's word. (The fact that any one receiving circumcision was subsequently required by God to live a life of faith, according to the measure of faith God provided, will not be examined in this reflection.)

This ritual was applied to adults who wished to enter the covenant (and who obviously would need to consent to the receiving the sign), as well as to infants (whose consent was neither sought nor considered).

If a ritual ordained by God in the Old Testament actually accomplished one's entry into the Old Covenant, then why might not God ordain an even greater ritual through which all nations could gain entry into the New Covenant? This greater ritual, Baptism, is foreshadowed repeatedly throughout the Old Testament and proclaimed repeatedly in the New as a necessary means to obtain forgiveness of sins and enter the New Covenant. "He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior…" Titus 3:5 RSV.

"Let the little children come to me…" Luke 18:16

Now, if God desired infants, without their explicit consent but for their own good, to enter the Old Covenant through the old ritual of initiation, then why would God prohibit infants from entering the more powerful New Covenant through its more powerful ritual of initiation? And if He did in fact intend to bar infants from receiving Baptism, then why does Scripture nowhere state such a divine prohibition? None of the Apostles stated or even hinted that young children or any other person should be refused baptism on the grounds of inadequate mental development.

To the Jews Paul insisted that the New Covenant was greater than the Old and accomplished what the Old could not -namely, forgiveness of sins and incorporation into Christ's body, the Church. These same Jews were conditioned for centuries by the Abrahamic covenant to understand that God wanted their infants to be initiated into the covenant. Naturally, they presumed that the New Covenant included infants as much as the Old. If this assumption on their part was wrong, why is there no scriptural evidence of the major controversy that would have erupted on this key point? Peter on Pentecost commanded the Jewish crowd to be "repent and be baptized every one of you…for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38 RSV), and proclaimed to them that "the promise is to you and to your children…" (Acts 2:39 RSV). Do we suppose that the Jews present did not bring forward their children to be baptized with themselves? And if they did -and there is no logical reason to doubt it- why is there no controversy recorded? Because, "the promise is to you and to your children…"; because the New Covenant is not more exclusive than the Old, which included children, the New is more inclusive. (The fact that any one receiving Baptism is subsequently required by God to live a life of faith, according to the measure of faith God provides, will also not be examined in this reflection.)

The truth is that Scripture says much to teach that God forgives sins through Baptism, and teaches us that all are in need of grace and forgiveness -not just adults. Scripture teaches nowhere that such forgiveness is to be refused to children, who are neither more nor less dependent upon God's mercy than ourselves.

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me. Do not shut them off. The reign of God belongs to such as these." Luke 18:16 NAB. Who are we to refuse Baptism and its benefits to our children, whom God has placed in our care? Has He not given us a responsibility to share with them the blessings that He has showered upon us?

Forgiveness: under 18 not admitted?

To those who refuse Baptism to children (or mentally deficient individuals) on the grounds that they are not able to make a mature choice to accept Christ and thus are not worthy recipients of Baptism, I say that they fail to understand Baptism is God's work, not man's. Jesus said, "Trust me when I tell you that whoever does not accept the kingdom of God as a child will not enter into it." Luke 18:17 NAB. Is it right to judge ourselves more worthy or capable of receiving God's forgiveness than are our children? Does our adult intellect itself make us more pleasing or acceptable to God than our children? Or do we think children so completely incapable of responding to the grace of their Creator that He can not reach them through the Baptism He Himself has commanded for "all nations"? (Matthew 28:19). Yet John the Baptist "leapt for joy" at the voice of Mary, the mother of his Redeemer. Was John, an infant not yet born, incapable of responding to God's grace? Let us not confuse our inability to read souls, or our feeble view of the power of God's grace, with God's ability and desire to reach into every soul -through the means He chooses.

If Jesus has so clearly indicated that we are to participate as members of His Body -as ministers and instruments- in spreading His gift of grace, baptizing "all nations…in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19 NAB), who are we to refuse? Which of us, His servants, wishes to stand before God's throne to explain why we systematically refused to baptize the most helpless and innocent among us? Is not our very highest duty as parents, in regard to our children, to do everything in our power to promote their salvation? What spiritual advantage can we rightfully withhold from them?

Baptism is not merely an expression of faith or a new believer's testimony before the church. To think so is to see only the bottom side of the coin. The other face of that coin bears a far more glorious image: the imprint of God's grace precious beyond any human purchase, and totally beyond the grasp of children and adults alike, except for God's infinite condescension. At its heart, Baptism is God's gift of eternal life offered to a completely helpless sinner. God passionately desires to give this gift to all His children.

This is why to receive such a gift our attitude must be that of a child: dependent and implicitly trusting. And that is why in Baptism even the youngest of children receive God's grace abundantly and the gift of eternal life.


Relevant scripture passages

"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Galatians 3:27 RSV
"In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses" Colossians 2:11-13 RSV
"he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" Titus 3:5 RSV
"one Lord, one faith, one baptism" Ephesians 4:5 RSV
Hebrews 9 (contrasts rituals of old and new covenants)
"let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." Hebrews 10:22 RSV
"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" Romans 6:3 RSV
"We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." Romans 6:4 RSV


John Robin
7 June 2000