by Al Maxey

Issue #613 ------- April 10, 2014
Wisdom and goodness to the vile
seem vile; filths savor but themselves.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
King Lear

The Filth of the Flesh
Pondering a Petrine Phrase

One of the more frequently quoted passages within the New Covenant writings with respect to the purpose of baptism is 1 Peter 3:21. Typically, one particular phrase in this passage is lifted out of its context as a pretext for the dogma that one is eternally saved by the act of being immersed in water. That phrase is: "baptism doth now save us" (KJV). That certainly seems, at first glance, to be a clear statement of obvious soteriological intent. As any serious student of the Scriptures realizes, however, there is much more stated in this passage that must be considered if one is to grasp the true intent of Peter's teaching. I have dealt with many of these vital issues pertaining to this passage, and the sacramental theology and practice many have sought to formulate from it, in the following in-depth biblical studies: Reflections #217 -- "Salvation by Immersion" and Reflections #497 -- "Critical Question on 1 Peter 3:21," which I would encourage the reader to carefully examine in conjunction with this present reflective analysis.

These two studies, however, hardly exhaust the long list of questions and concerns raised by this passage in Peter's first epistle. For example, last month, just prior to leaving for the 2014 Tulsa Workshop at which I was again honored to be one of the speakers, a dear brother, who serves as a minister in Tennessee, wrote: "Al, not being a Greek scholar, would you please do me a favor, if you have the time. In 1 Peter 3:21, the phrase 'the filth of the flesh,' in this context, is usually thought to mean that baptism in water isn't for the purpose of cleansing the physical body of dirt. However, it seems to me, based on the lexicons I have consulted, that Peter is saying that water baptism does not cleanse one of sins. What are your thoughts?" This Tennessee preacher has "struck a nerve" that will throw some of our more conservative brethren into "foaming fits." If indeed the phrase "filth of the flesh" has reference to one's sin, rather than dirt on the skin, then the problem with which they must deal is: Peter says the purpose of baptism is NOT to remove it. Therefore, to preserve their baptismal theology, they MUST interpret this phrase as a reference to physical dirt on a physical body. In other words, Peter is saying, according to the conservative interpretation, baptism in water is not a bath; it is not intended to wash away all the dirt and grime that has accumulated on the skin or in the hair during the course of a day (or a week, depending on how often one bathes -- which was generally not daily in that ancient time and place).

Is the apostle Peter, however, decades after the day of Pentecost, during which time the church had grown tremendously throughout the empire, and during which time countless thousands had been baptized, really taking time in this passage to discount the view that baptism was not a bath?! Such an interpretation seems almost absurd. Dr. J. Ramsey Michaels, in his commentary on this passage, writes: "It is unlikely that the present passage intends to say anything so banal as that baptism's purpose is not to wash dirt off the body. What early Christian would have thought that it was?!" [Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49, p. 216]. Such an interpretation MUST be adopted, though, by those who insist that baptism in water DOES remove sin. Since Peter declares emphatically that baptism does NOT remove the "filth of the flesh," it therefore becomes imperative that "filth of the flesh" NOT have any reference to sin. It MUST be interpreted as referring to dirt on the body, no matter how absurd such an interpretation may appear to other biblical scholars in view of the overall context of the passage under consideration.

It is interesting to observe how various translations have rendered the Greek words in this brief phrase in 1 Peter 3:21. The Message, for example, has: "dirt from your skin." The New American Bible, the St. Joseph edition (a Catholic version), reads: "physical stain." Young's Literal Translation renders it: "the filth of flesh," and the old Wycliffe Bible has: "the filths of flesh" -- both versions opting for inner, rather than outward, "filth(s)." The two most common translations, however, are: (1) "dirt from the body" -- ESV, RSV, NIV, NLT, NCV, to name a few, and (2) "the filth of the flesh" -- ASV, KJV, NKJV, HCSB, NWT, the 1599 Geneva Bible, the Douay-Rheims 1899 American edition, and others. Thus, even among translators there is some debate as to whether the phrase refers to inner or outer defilement (spiritual or physical).

Among those who proclaim baptismal regeneration (i.e., some form of sacramental element to baptism in/with water), this phrase in 1 Peter 3:21 is taught to have reference only to the cleansing of the physical body. Guy N. Woods, a noted figure in our faith-heritage, opined: "Baptism does not wash sin from the skin, and is not to be confused with a bath for the body" [A Commentary on the NT Epistles of Peter, John, Jude, p. 104]. Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann was far more expressive of this theology than Guy N. Woods: "Water is to us Christians a means of salvation. It is water that saves us, that transmits to us the salvation of Christ. ... This salvation, of course, does not consist in washing off the dirt which may have gathered on the skin of the body, but it cleanses the heart of sins" [Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 2, p. 534]. Yes, this author declares, it is WATER that saves us!! Thus, Peter could only be referring to a BATH that washes off DIRT from the physical body. Peter went out of his way in this passage, therefore, to make sure that people didn't regard baptism as a BATH. Really?!! This would be about as absurd theologically as Moses lecturing the people of Israel on the fact that circumcision wasn't to be perceived by them as a sex change operation! Who in their right mind would have thought it was?!!

It seems to me that too many have imposed an absurd interpretation upon this phrase in order to preserve their position on water baptism. Is it just possible that the phrase in question may have a different meaning and application than a reference to a mere bath? The phrase, in Greek, literally reads: "not of flesh a removal of filth." The Greek word for "removal" in this phrase is "apothesis," which signifies "a putting off, a laying aside, a removal." Baptism, says Peter, is NOT a removal "of flesh of filth" (both words appear in the genitive case, and neither has a definite article). The second of these words is "rhupos," which is translated "filth, pollution." The first word is "sarx," which is translated "flesh" (it is not the normal word used in the NT for the physical body, which is the Greek word "soma"). A closer look at these last two words reveals some interesting facts. In the writings of the apostle Paul, his use of the word "flesh" (sarx) is generally with reference to the "fleshly nature." In other words, he is speaking about the tendency of our human nature (the "flesh") to gravitate toward sinful attitudes and actions. "In Paul's thought especially, the 'flesh' is the willing instrument of sin, and is subject to sin to such a degree that wherever 'flesh' is, all forms of sin are likewise present, and no good thing can live in the 'sarx'" [Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 744]. Time and again, Paul speaks of the "sinful nature" of man, and he uses this particular Greek word (sarx) to speak of that "sinful" or "fleshly" nature. For example, Paul wrote, "live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (sarx). For the sinful nature (sarx) desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature (sarx)" (Gal. 5:16-17). It is certainly within the realm of possibility that Peter, who was quite familiar with the writings of Paul, would have been aware of this common usage of this Greek term, and may well have employed it in that same sense here in 1 Peter 3:21. Indeed, Peter used this very word just a chapter earlier when he wrote to his readers, "abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul" (1 Peter 2:11). Thus, like Paul, Peter used "sarx" with reference to the human nature and its tendency to sinful pursuits.

It is also important to note that the word translated "dirt" or "filth" (depending on the version or translation) is a word rarely used in the NT writings (you can count them on the fingers of one hand, with fingers to spare), and the sense is generally of moral, ethical or spiritual foulness. James, using this word, writes, "Therefore, put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (James 1:21). James obviously wasn't thinking of "dirt on the skin" which needed to be washed off with a good "bath." The word is used again in Rev. 22:11 -- "Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy." So, why, in the Petrine passage, does its meaning switch to dirt on a physical body (when Peter doesn't even use the common word for the physical body)? "More probably Peter, like James, has moral defilement in view. ... The 'removal of the filth of the flesh' is not a physical but a spiritual cleansing, and Peter's point is not that such cleansing is an unimportant or unnecessary thing, only that baptism is not it" [Dr. J. Ramsey Michaels, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49, p. 216]. The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT declares this word signifies "moral filthiness, uncleanness, pollution; to be morally polluted" [p. 361], and Arndt & Gingrich define it as "uncleanness in an ethical sense" [p. 738]. In other words, Peter is talking about the sins (filth) of the fleshly nature, and his primary point is: the purpose of baptism is NOT to remove this! Baptism, Peter says, is NOT the removal or taking away of this filth of flesh; that is NOT what it was designed to do. Peter then, in the passage, informs us what the true purpose of baptism is (for discussion of this purpose I would refer you again to my studies listed at the beginning of this present issue of my weekly Reflections). Or, to put it in the words of Dr. A. T. Robertson, one of the foremost Greek scholars in Christendom over the past several hundred years, "Peter here expressly denies baptismal remission of sin" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword].

Albert Barnes (1798-1870) concurs: "This important clause is thrown in to guard the statement from the abuse to which it would otherwise be liable, the supposition that baptism has of itself a purifying and saving power" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. No, baptism is not a mere washing of dirt from a physical body. Although some suggest this is what Peter intends to convey in the phrase before us, such an interpretation is patently absurd. Peter, in the phrase "filth of flesh" is speaking of man's sinful nature, which is too easily and quickly given to sinful behavior. Further, in the context of the passage, Peter's point is that although baptism has an important purpose, it is NOT for the removal of this "filth of flesh." That is accomplished by a washing (figuratively speaking) in the blood of the Lamb: a power to cleanse that is offered by grace and received by faith (please review Reflections #608 -- "Contacting the Blood of Christ"). Isaiah 4:4 speaks of "the Lord washing away the filth of the daughters of Zion," which is certainly a reference to their spiritual impurity, which "filth" only HE can cleanse, and which cleansing is not truly effected by religious rituals, no matter how well performed. This spiritual cleansing from above of the "filth of flesh" is again spoken of in the OT writings in Ezekiel 36:25-26 -- "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you." Again, this is a divine act of grace, and it speaks of the purifying of the inner man, not of the physical body. It is also NOT done by baptism (although, if you want to take the "water" in this passage as a reference to this ritual, then please note it is done by sprinkling, not by immersion, and I doubt many within my heritage would want to practice their wresting skills on that one).

The human nature (the fleshly nature) is prone to embracing and evidencing the "filth" of the flesh. Peter points out in 2 Peter 2:22 that "a sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire." Why? Because that is its nature! Pigs prefer the filth of the mud pit; they enjoy it. Humans, sadly, tend to prefer the filth of the world, and even when "washed," many return to the mire. The flesh and the Spirit war continually, as Paul notes, and too often the flesh prevails. However, for those of us who are willing to place our faith in the Lord, and in the guiding and transforming power of His indwelling Spirit, we have the promise that a "fountain shall be opened" for the cleansing of our sinfulness and filthiness (Zechariah 13:1). That fountain, in which we are washed clean, is the blood of the Lamb. It is an inner removal of the "filth of flesh" that only HE can accomplish, and which Peter hastens to impress upon his readers is NOT accomplished by baptism. The latter is an extremely important symbol of the greater reality of which he speaks, and an evidentiary act of our faith in receiving that gift of grace, but it is NOT a rite by which the "filth of flesh" is taken away. So states Peter in the passage before us in this study ... and upon this rock I take my stand.

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Readers' Reflections

From Ray Downen in Missouri:
[From emails mailed to his readers on Friday, April 4th]

Al Maxey thinks what apostles teach is optional rather than really necessary. ... Obedience is not necessary, according to the Baptist view. So, an alternate method of entering the kingdom is proposed: seekers only really need to pray to Jesus for salvation and then He will save them and send His Spirit to them. That is not what any apostle ever said. It is what Al Maxey is now teaching and claiming to be God's truth. ... Al Maxey is determined to continue to misrepresent God's grace. ... Al is 100% wrong in his understanding of God's grace. What is taught by apostles about grace is that nothing we do could force God to save us. What is taught by Al, and all other Calvinists (Baptists, plus), is that God simply saves everyone, regardless of what they do about the gospel (other than to believe it). That this is not Christian doctrine should be understood by every Bible student. Peter and Paul call for OBEDIENCE to the gospel invitation. ... Al Maxey, and all Calvinists, want to rewrite what the apostles taught and omit repentance and baptism. What grace means is that no one can force God to save them by performing rituals of any kind. ... Those who teach salvation by faith alone will surely be introduced to what happens to all false teachers. ... False teachers have the Spirit coming prior to baptism into Christ. False teachers should not be applauded, even when their words sound like honey, for the end of those who believe false doctrines is eternal death. ... The Spirit is God's gift to those who have been baptized. ... Those who do not choose to do what the apostles call for seekers to do will go to hell.

From an Author/Publisher in Nevada:

It was so good to see you and visit with you at the 2014 Tulsa Workshop, and also to meet your nice wife. I stayed to the very end of your speech on Saturday, even though that only left me 90 minutes to tear down my booth and catch my flight back to Nevada. Your latest article (Reflections #612 -- "Opportunity for Obedience: Legalistic Redefining of God's Grace") truly shows the proper role of obedience. Yet, it seems some will just never "get it."

From a Reader in Michigan:

I really, really enjoy your articles! Like you, I think it is the working of God that moves us from one "fish bowl" to the other (Col. 2:12 speaks of our "faith in the powerful working of God," who raises us up to new life). We also need forgiveness, the indwelling, and the pledge. All happen when God operates on us (turning us into a sanctuary for the Holy Spirit).

From a Minister in Missouri:

Thanks for your Reflections this week ("Opportunity for Obedience"). I know all too well about the cheapening of grace in the One Cup segment of the Churches of Christ. This is the prevailing mindset of that group of folks. I am surprised that the One Cup minister from Ohio (whose comments you discussed in your article) didn't also mention the "opportunity for obedience" in not dividing into Sunday School classes ... or any of the other things this group has divided over! As a person who was raised in this environment, I know how hard it is for any of them to even think about grace! We just have to keep on trying to show them a better way! God bless you, brother. By the way, I am sure that my comments will absolutely infuriate many of the One Cuppers, but maybe it just might make some of them THINK.

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, I want to Thank You for helping me evolve over the last ten years. You have been a very large part of my spiritual evolution, and I just wanted to take this opportunity to say, "Thank You!!"

From a Reader in Missouri:

As one person puts it here at our congregation: "Baptism is not a work, but our submission to Christ our Lord." I think this is a great way of saying it. Obedience can certainly come across as a "work" by which we "save ourselves." But, no matter what, some will always focus on baptism over faith ... or separate from faith ... or above faith.

From a Reader in Texas:

After reading your article "Did Jesus Snort Like A Horse?" (Reflections #611), I have a quick question: do you think the two blind men and the leper sinned when they went out and told everyone about their healing/cleansing? After all, Jesus commanded them to keep silent. I don't know why, but I can't help but laugh when I read these two accounts (Matt. 9:27-31; Mark 1:40-45). I can just picture Jesus commanding silence, and these people promising to obey, and then as soon as Jesus turns the corner out of sight, they tell everyone who will listen about His healing of them. I don't know -- it just strikes me as funny. Nevertheless, it appears that they clearly disobeyed a direct command of the Lord. So, did they SIN? Just wanted your thoughts. Thanks in advance.

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Our legalistic brethren should recognize that the ability to save is a unique capability of God alone. No one else possesses the ability to save. Logically, only God could possibly offer those created in His image an opportunity to accept salvation ... so, it must be a gift. Certainly, God (only God) has the power to require an acceptable response. Hebrews 11:6 cites two logical criteria: belief in His existence and in His willingness to reward those who earnestly seek Him. I have to conclude we must seek God: seek to please the only One who possesses the power and ability to reward our seeking. If I understand the concept of atonement, the Son of God did everything necessary to save any and all who earnestly seek God. What manner of seeking is acceptable to God? That's not up to us; it's God's choice. Thank God we have a "schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24). But, as we sing: "Jesus Paid It ALL."

From a Reader in Texas:

I don't want to waste your time, so I'll get right to the point. A young lady came in today and asked me to help her with her saxophone part that she will be playing in church on Easter. I have always helped these kids, and before they leave I always ask them which church they are playing for. Today I got a big surprise -- she said, "I play for the orchestra at ----- ------ Church of Christ." She went on to tell me about how they have both a cappella and instrumental services. I told her to tell her director that I would be happy to come play there with them, as that is probably the only church I haven't played my horn for in my playing career. Al, I think there is hope for those of us staying within our heritage, that we are becoming more and more like the words of this young girl to me: "We are not about condemning people, but rather showing Christ to other people."

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