by Al Maxey

Issue #497 ------- August 10, 2011
We should not think of conversion as the acceptance
of a particular creed, but as a change of heart.

Helen Keller {1880-1968}

Critical Question on 1 Peter 3:21
Pondering the True Meaning of the "Pledge"
of a Good Conscience as it Relates to Baptism

One of the passages that has continually caused consternation among Christians, and it has done so for many centuries, is 1 Peter 3:19-21. I find it somewhat ironic that Peter should exclaim about his contemporary, the apostle Paul, "His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort" (2 Pet. 3:16), when in his own writings we find a number of statements equally difficult to comprehend, and which have also been twisted and abused by those with less than noble motivations. For example, in what possible sense did Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, preach unto the "spirits in prison" during the days of Noah while the ark was being built (vs. 19-20)? I have offered an in-depth study of this passage in Reflections #83 --- Preaching to Spirits in Prison: A Critical Analysis of 1 Peter 3:18-20. I believe that you will find this analysis challenging and thought-provoking.

Further, in what sense does baptism "save" us (vs. 21a)? Is this eternal salvation? Is this some form of temporal salvation? Scholars and devoted disciples have struggled with this for centuries. Some are convinced that the act of baptism itself is what saves us, and that a godly, devoted, loving, faith-filled, Spirit-led, penitent believer is damned to hell until the moment his nose breaks the surface of the waters of the baptistery. Baptism, for such persons, becomes a sacrament through which God confers grace and blessings. "Baptism saves, yea, that the water of baptism saves, certainly not as mere water, but as the water of baptism ... the sacrament saves" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, p. 171]. Lenski declares rather strongly that he's convinced this is not an actual immersion -- "Immersionists find little support for their view here. The only persons who were immersed were those who were drowned by the flood waters" [ibid]. Adam Clarke agrees with this view -- "The ark was not immersed in the water; had it been so they must all have perished; but it was borne up on the water, and sprinkled with the rain that fell from heaven. This text, as far as I can see, says absolutely nothing in behalf of immersion in baptism; but is rather, from the circumstance mentioned above, in favor of sprinkling" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 862]. Either way, the teaching is that it's the baptismal waters that save us; that possess some special power or property through which God proffers His grace!! "It is water that saves us, that transmits to us the salvation of Christ" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, The NT: vol. 2, p. 534]. "The spiritual gifts and blessings which are the result of the resurrection of Christ ... are transmitted to the believer in Baptism" [ibid]. "The certain hope of eternal life through the grace of God in Christ Jesus" is "received in the water of Baptism" [ibid]. Thus, according to this view, baptism is "the holy sacrament ordained for our salvation" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22, p. 145]. "Baptism becomes a means of grace. ... He gives grace through the sacrament" [ibid].

Sadly, many within the Churches of Christ preach this same sacramental view of baptism, thus perceiving it as the point in time in which one receives salvation. I have dealt with this misunderstanding in the following two studies: Reflections #348 -- The Split-Second of Salvation: Is it Imperative for Us to Perceive the Precise Moment of God's Acceptance? .. and .. Reflections #470 -- Is Baptism A Sacrament? Reflecting on a Doctrinal Devolution from Visible Sign to Vital Sacrament. Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, one of the most renowned NT Greek scholars, has noted, "Peter is careful to inform his readers that he is not teaching baptismal regeneration" [Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 2, p. 109]. Dr. A. T. Robertson strongly agrees: "Peter here expressly denies baptismal remission of sin" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, via e-Sword]. Dr. Albert Barnes, in his classic Notes on the Bible, says that this passage is often liable to abuse, and specifically: "the supposition that baptism has of itself a purifying and saving power" [via e-Sword]. Nevertheless, many continue to proclaim baptism as THE preeminent sacrament of eternal salvation, and that to die one split-second short of the water is to guarantee an eternity in the fires of hell. I completely reject this view as an abominable and deadly dogma of fallible men. "How is it, then, that baptism 'saves'? Probably in much the same sense in which Jesus says on several occasions in the Gospels, 'Your faith has saved you'" [Dr. J. Ramsey Michaels, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49, p. 217]. We all need to be very careful lest we assign the concept of "eternal" to every instance where the word "save" occurs in Scripture, an error that will quickly lead to some seriously flawed theology.

As one can quickly see, few passages have troubled the disciples of Christ as much as this one from the first epistle of the apostle Peter. However, there is another phrase in this same passage that has proven equally troubling to disciples. It's found in 1 Peter 3:21b where Peter, in commenting on his statement that "baptism now saves you" (some manuscripts read "us"), seeking to provide some additional explanation to his readers, states that this is "not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God" [NIV]. The concern that I seek to address in this current issue of my weekly Reflections is that final phrase by Peter, which "presents great difficulty" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22, p. 137]. It is "a difficult expression in Greek" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 243], for there is a very serious question as to whether the genitive in this phrase should be understood as a subjective genitive or an objective genitive. Either are grammatically possible, but which of the two one chooses will greatly affect the meaning. Also, there is considerable debate over the meaning of the word translated by the NIV as "pledge" -- which is the Greek word eperotema (and which appears only here in all the NT writings). Dr. Charles J. Ellicott observes that this is "an expression which has caused almost as much difficulty as any in the New Testament" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 422]. The respected NT Greek scholar Dr. Marvin Vincent, in his "Word Studies," states, "The meaning here is much disputed, and can hardly be settled satisfactorily" [via e-Sword]. I imagine this might be, at least in part, why Dr. Thayer, in his Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, simply refers to the text as "that vexed passage" [p. 230].

The Greek word eperotema, in classical Greek, simply meant: "a question." The KJV (also the NKJV), however, opts for the English word "answer," which misses the significance of this passage by Peter completely! "The rendering 'answer' has no warrant" [Vincent's Word Studies, e-Sword]. "In ancient Greek it never means 'answer,' but only 'inquiry'" [Dr. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. A few other popular renderings of this phrase are:

  1. Holman Christian Standard Bible --- the pledge of a good conscience toward God
  2. New American Bible, St. Joseph edition --- the pledge to God of an irreproachable conscience
  3. Contemporary English Version --- It means turning to God with a clear conscience
  4. American Standard Version --- the interrogation of a good conscience toward God
  5. Revised Standard Version --- an appeal to God for a clear conscience
  6. English Standard Version --- an appeal to God for a good conscience
  7. New American Standard Bible --- an appeal to God for a good conscience
  8. New Living Translation --- a response to God from a clean conscience

Although this Greek word originally had the meaning of "a question," it came to signify in the NT "a profession, pledge" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 152]. "Eperotema is explained by Oecumenius (a 6th century Greek 'Church Father;' Bishop of Trikka) as meaning 'earnest' or 'pledge,' as in Byzantine Greek law" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 5, p. 69]. In other words, baptism is a pledge or profession made unto God by a person who is a penitent believer -- it is the profession of faith, or the response of faith, or the pledge of faith to God's freely offered salvation, which comes by virtue of His grace through the atoning sacrifice and glorious resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ!! But, is it a visible act performed FOR a good conscience (which would be the objective genitive), or is it a visible act made FROM a good conscience (which would be the subjective genitive)?! Those who believe in the sacramental view of baptism, insist that our baptism is an appeal unto God FOR a good conscience (for cleansing, salvation). The other position, which I embrace, is that our baptism is a profession of faith FROM a good conscience (a good heart with pure motives); a pledge of faith to live our lives in daily love for God and others, and to "remain faithful unto death." Very clearly, I believe, the phrase should be understood as a subjective genitive. Dr. Kenneth Wuest agrees -- "Water baptism is the outward testimony of the believer's inward faith ... his visible testimony to his faith and to the salvation he was given" [Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 2, p. 109]. Dr. Kenneth Wuest translates the Greek of this phrase this way: "...the witness of a good conscience toward God" [ibid]. Therefore, baptism is the personal, visible testimony (profession; even pledge) of a pure heart and mind in response to God's grace. Therefore, "the genitive is subjective, not objective. Baptism is not asking God for a good conscience; rather, it is out of a good conscience, or a pure heart, that a person submits to baptism. ... Peter, having presupposed from the very start an inward cleansing among his readers, now turns explicitly to its outward expression" [Dr. J. Ramsey Michaels, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49, p. 216].

"Normally a pledge made 'in good conscience' (or 'in good faith') is a pledge made by someone who already claims these qualities (i.e., 'out of a good conscience'), not someone who merely aspires to them" [ibid, p. 217]. Interestingly, this same term is employed by Jewish historian Josephus (who lived during the first century; the same time period as the apostle Peter) to convey the same concept. "The explanation recalls Josephus' description of the call of John the Baptist to the Jews 'to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism.' In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already cleansed by right behavior" [ibid, p. 214]. That passage in Josephus is found in Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 5, section 2. So, what is the message of Peter in this passage in his first epistle? I believe he is informing the disciples of Christ that their baptism was not some empty ritual of washing, but rather a solemn pledge/profession of faith, coming from a pure heart and a good conscience, in response to God's marvelous gift of saving grace! May God help us to instill this same conviction within those around us, so that when they act upon their faith in baptism in response to God's gift of salvation, they may do so with the same purity of heart and mind.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Bro. Maxey, I would like to subscribe to your weekly Reflections. I appreciate your work very much, and was introduced to your writings by Dr. Barry Perryman. Thanks also for your latest book on the Communion (One Bread, One Body). It was great!!

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Dear Bro. Al, I value the insight and the time it must take to study for the work that you do. I was introduced to your Reflections some time back and have enjoyed them very much. They have truly helped me to learn to expand on my own home studies. I have also read your debates, and I will say that it was in part due to your Maxey-Thrasher Debate (I had believed much differently for a long time) that I now see that I could never go back to what I had been taught previously on this issue. I am now looking at doing other studies to re-evaluate what the truth really is on some of the other doctrines I had been taught. With that in mind, I would like to order an autographed copy of each of your books -- Down, But Not Out and One Bread, One Body -- and have enclosed a check to cover the cost. I really look forward to meeting you some day! Thank you, brother!!

From a Reader in Washington:

Dear Brother Al, Today I am 79 years old. For over 50 years I attended very conservative Churches of Christ, yet in my youth I started noticing that what came from the pulpit seemed strange to me. What I heard did not ring true, and it seemed to violate some basic principles of Christianity. The emphasis was on baptism, rather than on Christ Jesus. "Grace" and the "Holy Spirit" were not heard very much in sermons and classes, and I couldn't understand why. This caused me no little concern for many years. However, I was so indoctrinated that I could not bring myself to believe that something might not be quite right with "the only true church." My family went back five generations in the Churches of Christ in Tennessee, so I could not really talk to my parents about my feelings. This really was a problem for me in junior high and high school. During my undergraduate years in college, and even during graduate school, I picked up some religion courses, but whenever I asked questions in the various congregations I attended all I got in response was "proof-texts." Fearing that I would lose my family, I simply determined not to leave the Churches of Christ. So I stayed, although I still had many questions!! Then one day somebody at church, who had been listening to me ask questions, handed me a copy of one of your Reflections, and I started reading your writings. Brother Al, your work has changed my life!! You have given me strength to grow in my relationship with God, and to enjoy it. Thank you!! Would you please send me your Special CD Offer (all 8 of your Reflections CDs, plus the two audio CDs of your Sermons for 2010). My check is enclosed.

From an Elder in Florida:

Dear Brother Al, I personally believe that your most recent Reflections ("Sheep in Wolves' Clothing") is one of your very best!! It has given me strength to continue in my present arena as a teacher and advisor. I had been using the same qualities you referenced, but felt I was somehow being dishonest with my brethren, when, in fact, over the years I had just been preparing the soil. I love you, brother! Keep up the great work that you're doing for the Lord, and also the wonderful instruction you give to us!

From a Reader in Pennsylvania:

Bro. Al, Thanks for your article "Sheep in Wolves' Clothing." As I read the concerns of the two brethren you mentioned, and your comments to them, two passages came to my mind: (1) Eccl. 8:5 -- "a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure," and (2) Eccl. 9:17 -- "the words of the wise are heard in quietness." We are obligated to be true to our own understandings and convictions, while at the same time acknowledging God's providence in bringing us to our current understanding! If God was gracious to us in advancing our understandings, we ought also to be gracious in allowing others to progress in their understanding of the faith once for all delivered.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Dear Bro. Al, No one could have said it any more eloquently than you did in your article "Sheep in Wolves' Clothing." The feelings of isolation and ostracism can be overwhelming to disciples who find themselves transformed among the flock. For some, it is like the loss of innocence -- a rude awakening. For others, it becomes a new Spring morning when the scales fall from their eyes. The feelings of joy and discovery and wanting to share the true meaning of Grace and our Father's Love with our family and friends is uncontainable. With God's help and your Reflections, my family has learned that it is a growing process. If I truly love my brothers and sisters, I will also learn the value of patience. I am reminded of that old hymn -- "Let the Beauty of Jesus be Seen in Me." Your following wise words of counsel also bear heeding -- "They are just as precious in God's sight as you are, and you may well be among them by divine design to bring about their liberation."

From a Reader in Georgia:

Dear Brother Al, What a tough position for those young men to be in. Ultimately, they will leave. Legalism stagnates spiritual growth. In fact, it generally won't allow for growth, just rote memorization of the rules. It starves the soul. It will not quench one's thirst for a relationship with Jesus. I know that you are probably correct in suggesting that they should move as the Lord directs them, and that His timing is perfect, but still -- they should be prepared to leave ... and sooner rather than later. The Christian walk should be one that's filled with joy and celebration for what He has done for us, not shame and condemnation for our own failure to abide by the "rules." I have seen the harm done by the legalists, and it is a deep wound that is difficult to heal (although the Great Physician has the remedy). Blessings, my friend. You always encourage me!

From a Reader in Alaska:

Brother Al, Thanks for your ministry! I can only imagine how servants like you accomplish so much in service to God -- my own output pales in comparison. Two thoughts: I'm convinced that God blesses the efforts of those who serve Him with all they have (heart, soul, strength and mind), and that your wife completes you by helping you to realize, when the time is right, that you still put your pants on "one leg at a time" and that your proverbial pencils still have erasers! The older I get, the more I recognize that God, who sees into our hearts, sees our motivation, not our earthly results!! Much like that oft-quoted Grantland Rice quote: "For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game."

From an Elder in California:

Dear Bro. Al, Your latest Reflections hit home with me in several ways. I preached for many years in Churches of Christ and could not teach what I was learning because I knew it would create unnecessary controversy at that place in time. But, there were always brothers and sisters with whom I could "think aloud," and they encouraged me greatly ... and still do! That said, when we would go back to the deep South to visit family, we simply had to steer clear of religious conversations, or guard very carefully our comments, lest we alienate our family. So, I know what those two brothers you quoted are going through, and it is not a pleasant path ... however, it is a rewarding path, for it is the path to freedom! Thankfully, my last 15 years in preaching were at a congregation where I was given latitude and grace to teach what God was teaching me! The elders there encouraged me to tackle the difficult subjects and passages, and they always had my back, even if they didn't always agree with me on every point or application. They were men who truly blessed my life and ministry, and they remain very good friends (even though we have been away from there for several years). Al, I always appreciate your Reflections, and I love the work you are doing through this medium.

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Bro. Al, I have tremendous respect for those ministers/pastors who stay the course in congregations that must be patiently nurtured into Grace. My incredible personal experiences in missions and in faith-based initiatives have blessed me with the love, friendship and compassion of countless Christ-centered individuals and churches. I constantly thank God that mentors shared the reality that it is a spiritual tragedy to attempt to confine or restrict the power and influence of God. Thank you, Brother Al, for allowing me to share your influence with others.

From a New Reader in Alabama:

Dear Brother Al, I stumbled upon your Reflections. Fabulous and refreshing!! Please add me to your mailing list. I have long felt that too many of us are worried far too much about our own preconceptions and personal views, and, as a result, too often "miss the forest for the trees." I am a member of a rather "liberal" Church of Christ in Alabama, but work at what could easily be deemed a conservative -- and dare I say CENI-oriented -- college. Sometimes I sincerely wonder just what and how our students are being taught. I fear, personally, that we might really be missing The Point in our emphasis on our traditions and in our efforts to spotlight "outsider" mistakes and imperfections. And then some wonder why there is a massive deficit in the number of Bible majors at our university!!

From a Reader in Jakarta, Indonesia:

Dear Brother Maxey, My name is ----- ----- and I live in Jakarta (and Bandung), West Java, Indonesia. While I was preparing my sermon on "eternal life," I visited your web page and read your article -- How Long Is Forever? Analyzing the Attributes of Aionios (Reflections #74). I really thank God for your insights on this Greek word. You explained it very clearly and simply, which helped me to understand that this Greek word may be used either qualitatively or quantitatively. I just wanted you to know that I was so blessed by your article!

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