“…because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely 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 good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” —1 Peter 3:20–21 (ESV)
The salvation of Noah and his family through the waters of judgment corresponds to baptism. The phrase “corresponds to this” is a single word in the original language which, though rarely used, can come straight into English—antitype. We speak of David being a type of Jesus. This means Jesus is the antitype. When you hear this kind of language think of those ancient and obsolete machines known as typewriters or the printing press. Picture the metal die with a letter etched into it, say the letter “B.” The metal die is the antitype. When it strikes the paper, you see the type, the letter “B”. When we say David is a type of Christ, we mean that Christ actually came first and that David is a copy, an impression of Christ. David being patterned after Christ anticipates Him.
Noah’s salvation through the waters of judgment is a type of paptism. Baptism is the antitype of Noah’s salvation. We could say that the flood was a sign of baptism. Baptism is itself a sign. The salvation of Noah through the waters of judgment then is a sign of a sign. When Peter goes onto say that baptism saves us, he makes it clear that he is speaking not of the sign, but of the thing signified.
Rome has a sacerdotal view of baptism. The term sacerdotal comes from the Latin word for priest. Rome believes that the priest is able to convey saving regenerating grace through the sacrament of baptism. This happens ex opere operato, which amounts to “by the working of the work.” By this Rome means that the efficacy of the sacrament isn’t dependent on the goodness of the priest but on the validity of the act. Thus when Rome baptizes you, you’re made new and infused with real righteousness. Contra the Reformers, Rome doesn’t say this righteousness is imputed to you but imparted to you. You are not counted, but made righteous.
Additionally, the Church of Christ believes that baptism is necessary for the remission of sins. Across all denominational lines, professing Christians need to hear this: the physical act of water baptism does not save you. How can I say this? Peter just wrote, “baptism…now saves you,” right? Isn’t this a clear contradiction of the text? No, I am saying precisely what Peter said. The kind of baptism that saves is “not the removal of dirt from the body.” In other words, it isn’t the sign, but the thing signified that saves. So what is signified in baptism? Union with Christ in His death and resurrection.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” —Romans 3:3–5 (ESV)
Being put into Christ, baptized into Jesus, is a work of the Spirit. Here Paul speaks not of the sign, but the thing signified.
But how does this jive with Peter’s definition of the kind of baptism that saves, namely, “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” or, as I believe it can be better translated, “as an appeal to God from/of a good conscience?” When the Spirit regenerates you and makes you new, this is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As soon as you are born again, you believe. Faith is “an appeal to God from/of a good conscience.” Faith is the cry of the new heart in response to the gospel by which we were born again (1 Peter 1:23–25). This salvation, signified in water baptism, is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). Because of this new birth, through Jesus, we believe. “Through [Jesus we] are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1:21).