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
I was not raised in a church that baptized infants, but I cannot remember a time that I did not believe in Jesus. In fact, although I didn’t question it at the time, when my first grade Sunday School teacher asked if I had “become a Christian”, I was puzzled. I didn’t understand what more I had to do than to believe in Jesus…which I already did. This was the teacher who had her Bible on her desk, opened to a picture of Jesus on the cross. She was a wonderful Christian lady. What she was really asking was whether or not I had been baptized. For her – in an odd sort of way – baptism sealed the deal. But it wasn’t about God’s activity in baptism. It was about my active confession of Jesus, and “submission to the ordinance of baptism.”
When our youngest son was born circumstances dictated that he be taken to a children’s hospital 40 miles away. I remember baptizing him in the NICU. A styrofoam cup of water, Stephen, Diane and me (no nurses as witnesses, or elders or friends from the church). What was I thinking?!? I was thinking that upon baptism there were certain promises in the Bible that applied to this little (3#, 12-1/2 oz.) guy. I recall the sense of peace I had as soon as he was baptized. God had put his name on him. He belonged to Jesus. He was marked with the grace and the promises of God connected with that little bit of water.
This passage could be taken out of context of the whole of Scripture to the point that we might open up a fire hose on every unsuspecting passerby and announce that they had been baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. But the Bible is clear about the essential element of faith to our eternal salvation. Without faith it is impossible to please God. We have been saved by grace through faith. We are justified by faith apart from works of the law. (cf. Hebrews 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:28)
Some have said this makes too much of baptism, turning it into a mechanistic operation tantamount to lever-pulling or spiritual engineering. But that is to make too little of baptism! Baptism is an instrument of God’s favor by which he pours grace upon grace. Baptism saves because it connects us to the promises of God in Jesus Christ, by whom we have been saved. It seals the deal that God made with himself when he sent Jesus to die for the sins of the world so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.