Summary: What can a few dribbles of water do? Not much it would seem...unless that water is connected with God's promise.
What can a few dribbles of water do? If guests arrive unexpectedly at suppertime, you can stretch the soup with a few dribbles of water. A few dribbles of water will moisten the lips of someone dying of thirst, but probably wouldn’t be enough to save the individual. A few dribbles of water certainly wouldn’t be sufficient to put out a house fire. What can a few dribbles of water do? Not much it seems (James Huebner). Yet King Louis IX of France once said: “The three handfuls of water with which I was once baptized are more precious to me than the crown of royalty which I now wear upon my head.” The 16th Century reformer, Martin Luther, explained how King Louis was right to feel this way. He wrote in the second part of his explanation of baptism: “Baptism works forgiveness of sin, delivers from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” Yes, the few dribbles of water in baptism are special. Why? Because, explains the Apostle Peter in our text, baptism is a divine vow of allegiance.
Baptism is one of the most hotly contestanted teachings among Christians. There are those who say that baptism is nothing more than a ceremony in which we declare our allegiance to God. A vow of allegiance is made at one’s baptism, the one making the vow, however, first and formost is God. Our text will help us make sense of this. The Apostle Peter wrote: “In [the ark] only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 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, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Peter 3:20b-22).
The first thing we need to understand about baptism is that it is not play-acting. When political hopefuls in Japan campaign for office, they wear white gloves. They do this to show that their politics are pure and above reproach. Of course the wearing of white gloves doesn’t actually make these politicians pure or above reproach; it’s just a symbol, a picture these politicians want to project. Baptism is not like that. The application of water is not just a picture of what Jesus’ blood has done to cleanse our hearts from all sin. Something really happens when the water of baptism is applied, more than the removal of dirt or breakfast crumbs that might still cling to the one being baptized, says Peter. The waters of baptism literally save us just as the waters of the flood literally saved Noah and his family when it lifted the ark high above ground that was being ripped apart as the waters from the deep erupted from beneath the earth’s surface.
While the waters of the flood saved Noah from a world gone bad, from what exactly do the waters of baptism save us? Well, Peter says that baptism gives us the “pledge of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). In other words, baptism saves us from a guilty conscience. King David was glad to be rescued from a guilty conscience. For a year he failed to confess his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and for the murder of her husband, Uriah. Although he had kept quiet about these sins his conscience did not. David described the agony his guilty conscience caused like this: “3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3, 4).
Ever feel what David did? Think back to the first time you took something that wasn’t yours. Maybe it was a friend’s toy. Maybe it was a few coins from your mother’s purse. Did you have a hard time sleeping that night? Did you feel like eating breakfast the next morning? Probably not. Didn’t it seem as if an invisible weight hung from your heart?
How does one get rid of a guilty conscience? David tells us. “5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”— and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). The only way to get rid of a guilty conscience is by confessing the sin and receiving forgiveness. Oh it’s true. Many have tried to bury their guilty conscience by denying that what they did was wrong, or saying that they had no choice in the matter. But that’s about as successful as hiding a corpse under the bed. The body might be out of sight but the odor of rotting flesh will continue to barrage your nostrils reminding you that something’s terribly wrong in your life.