In 1 Peter 3:18-22 there is an interesting string of thoughts:
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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. 21 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, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.1 Peter 3:18-22
This paragraph is organized by word association and in its flow takes us to interesting places. The previous paragraph speaks of being ready to suffer for the Christian faith. Why? Because Christ suffered for our salvation unto death. In which, he proclaimed while only spiritually alive to spirits in prison. Who, it just so happens, included those who disobeyed in the days of Noah. Who, as we know, built an ark. Which, floated on the flood waters. And speaking of water, corresponds to baptism. Which, now saves you by the through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is quite an aside. I personally am more distracted by the brief reference to preaching to spirits in prison. See more about this in my other blog here https://wordpress.com/post/afterdeathsite.com/300. But the last verse is more distracting to others. How can baptism save you? Isn’t that a dangerous idea which encourages insincere, cultural Christianity?
God’s grace is often abused, but not to fear, God knows those who are genuinely His. Baptism is a critical part of the process, however. It doesn’t save you merely by the act of baptism itself. It saves you because it connects you to what actually saves anyone: the resurrection of Jesus.
It is often easy to confuse what causes our salvation, versus what delivers our salvation, versus what is the results or effects of being saved. It is important to correctly do so, however.
Human beings can only be saved as a generous gift of God. The honor of having our sins forgiven and having a place in God’s love and to be with Him for an eternity is so high that nothing we could do could earn it or even add to our being given it. It is gift or it isn’t happening. The cost of this gift was high. It took the Son of God to become a human being. He then had to keep God’s Law flawlessly despite plenty of temptation. He then had to shoulder the sins of the entire species and suffer the full consequences of the Law, which included not only physical death but also being forsaken by His Father. Nothing adds to this. Nothing less is acceptable in lieu of this.
This action didn’t automatically save every human. While you could say that we are all reconciled by the event, being granted the potential benefit of this event takes some more actions of God. For an adult, God has to create a belief in the promise. This is more complex than simply explaining the benefits. The Holy Spirit must somehow open a mind. Then both enlightened adults and their children can be connected to Jesus by Jesus through baptism. The Holy Spirit will create an intellectual faith in the children, if physically possible, afterwards as they mature.
Thus it can be said that baptism saves us, because it is a necessary part of the chain of events. This was true also in Acts 10:44-48, where it would appear that God had done all the work before baptism even happened.
44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.Acts 10:44-48
What did baptism add in this case? Baptism is the thing that connects us to Jesus’ death (Romans 6:3), it also can give us the gift of the Holy Spirit indwelling us. But the latter God can do by other means. The original disciples were breathed on by Jesus to accomplish this. It may have already happened for those in the text above as well.
What if somebody can’t or just doesn’t get baptized? This can happen because some churches diminish the role of baptism to an optional form of personal testimony. A person may believe, isn’t that enough? The Bible doesn’t address such a situation. I personally wouldn’t test it. Baptism, not prayer, should follow a person coming to faith. A “Sinner’s Prayer” is never presented in the Bible as the means of connecting with Jesus. Sorry Franklin Graham. God is capable of doing many things without us. I would assume that God would take care of the necessities even if we are unfaithful. But again, don’t do that.
Is everybody who has every been baptized saved? This is really the question of whether somebody can fall from faith or are eternally secure. I would love the answer to be “yes”. I expect the answer to be “no”.
Baptism does what is promised. It connects a person to the death of Jesus and provides the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to preserve this connection. It is a gift to not be diminished to a perfunctory command or meaningless church rite. It is the action and gift of God.