Peter says “baptism saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). Does the New Testament teach that “baptism justifies you”? I think the answer is Yes. That’s a controversial answer, and demands some defense and explanation, but first some critical qualifications.
No New Testament text states “baptism justifies you,” so my argument will be that some passages imply it. It’s not as straightforward as quoting 1 Peter 3. Further, I assume that the New Testament texts about baptism have in view a normative situation. Paul is not dealing with exceptional cases – conscious hypocrites who seek baptism dishonestly, say – about which I think he would say something like what Peter said to Simon Magus. He is talking about sincere converts who believe the gospel, and I believe he is also talking about the children of those converts (and other members of their household). What does he say about baptism in that context? Finally, when Peter says, “baptism saves you,” he doesn’t mean that “those who are baptized are guaranteed a place in the new heavens and new earth.” By the same token, saying “baptism justifies you” doesn’t imply that baptism is a guarantee that one will pass inspection at the final judgment. My affirmative answer to the question is an exegetical conclusion.
In Romans 6, Paul assumes that the Romans know that those who have been baptized are “baptized into [Christ’s] death” (v. 3). This means that the “old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (v. 6). In the context of Romans 5, the baptized die to all that Adam brought into the world (death, sin, slavery to sin) by giving the baptized a share in the death of Christ that puts sin and death to death. Baptism effectively transfers the baptized from the first to the Last Adam. In Romans 6:7, Paul supports the statement of verse 6 by saying “for he who has died is justified (dikaioo) from sin.” The death he refers to in verse 7 is clearly death to sin and death by virtue of co-crucifixion with Christ, and Paul began the passage saying that this death occurs at baptism. We can capture Paul’s logic in this way: “Don’t you know that you died in baptism by co-crucifixion with Christ? Don’t you know that since you died in baptism you are justified from sin?” That’s a straightfoward statement to the effect that, by granting the baptized a share in Christ’s death, baptism justifies the baptized.
We can tell baptized converts: “You are forgiven; you are justified from sin.” We can tell baptized children “You are right with God; baptism is God’s word to you that you are justified from sin.” One might avoid this conclusion by saying that “baptize” here doesn’t refer to the rite of water baptism but to some extra-ritual experience in the life of the believer. In that case, Paul would be saying that “through the experience of coming to faith, you died to sin by union with the death of Christ, and so are justified from sin.” Water baptism may enter the passage as a sign pointing to that experience, or a ritual confirmation of that experience, but not as the act by which the justification takes place. Interpretations that expunge baptism from the whole passage are driven more by system than exegesis. I agree with F.F. Bruce: “baptism in the New Testament is always baptism in water unless the context shows it to be something else; that is to say, the word is always to be understood literally unless the context indicates a figurative meaning” (Answers To Questions, 106).
If we see water baptism in the passage at all, and I think we must, it is more than a pointer to an experience that takes place extra-baptismally. “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death” (v. 4) states that baptism is an instrument by which we are buried into death, not a mere sign of burial to death that takes place otherwise. The other crucial passage in this regard is 1 Corinthians 6:11: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” That Paul writes about baptism here is less certain than in Romans 6. N. T. Wright has defended a baptismal reading: In a discussion of baptism as a “Jesus-shaped Exodus,” he states, “The close analogies with the other passages noted above make it highly likely that this is indeed a reference to baptism, drawing out its implications, as one might expect from an Exodus-concept, in terms of holiness on the one hand and ‘justification’ on the other” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1337). The key evidence is the way Paul connects “washing” with “the name of Jesus,” echoing baptismal formulae in Acts (2:38, which includes the promise of the Spirit; 10:48; cf. the connection of baptism, washing, and the name in 22:16). Paul informs the formerly unrighteous Corinthians that they are no longer what they were because they have been washed in the name of Jesus. That washing entails sanctification and justification, Paul says. The links between washing, sanctification, and justification are not clarified here; there is no instrumental clause (e.g., “through the washing”). Yet the fact that sanctification and justification are embedded within the baptismal “wash . . . in the name” suggests that they are given in the gift of cleansing. We almost sense an extended baptismal formula: “I now declare you washed, sanctified, justified in the name of Jesus.” “Sanctification” doesn’t mean that by washing in the name the washed instantly become morally perfected. It means that the baptized becomes a saint, a holy one in God’s holy house, called to live a holy life. On the basis of this passage, I believe we can say to our baptized children, “You are holy; live like it. You are saints; live as a saint.” And we can also say, at table, “Holy things for you, holy ones.” And we can say, as we did on the basis of Romans 6, “You have been washed; you are acceptable to God; you are right with Him, justified in the name of Jesus.”
These conclusions are virtually paraphrases of Paul’s own language: By baptism you share in the death of Christ, and so are justified from sin; by baptismal washing in Jesus’ name, you are saints and just ones. That’s just what Paul says. But how do we explain what Paul says, especially in the light of my earlier concession that not all the baptized are among the sheep? We can say first that baptismal justification must be understood in a corporate, ecclesial context. This is not a piece of systematic theology intruding on the discussion. It’s also an exegetical conclusion. As I noted above, Romans 6’s statements concerning baptism should be seen in the light of Romans 5’s discussion of the two Adams. Each Adam inaugurates a kingdom: The first Adam brought the reign of sin that leads to death, Christ brings the reign of those who receive grace (5:17). Those alternative kingdoms are corporate realities, social worlds, competing patterns of human life. Baptism extracts the baptized from the former and implants Him in the latter.
1 Corinthians 6’s statements about washing in the name of Jesus are set in a similar context. Many in the Corinthian church once lived by the practices of the world – idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, covetousness. We can link this with Romans 6 and say that these Corinthians formerly lived under the reign of sin and death inaugurated by Adam. That’s not where they live anymore; it is not what they are, because they were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus and in the Spirit. Acknowledging this corporate context means that “justification” is not just a declaration. It is that. When the minister pronounces a child baptized, he is authorized to announce, based on these passages and others, God’s own acceptance of the child as saint, son of God, righteous one. Unlike the preached word, unlike even the absolution, this declaration is specific, particular to the child. The minister, as a servant of Christ acting in Christ’s name, names the child baptized as a child of God. By that very declaration, the minister also calls the child to give himself wholly to Jesus, trusting Jesus to preserve him and obeying Jesus’ commands. So, baptism is a declaration “this child is forgiven, righteous in the sight of God for Jesus’ sake.”
In Paul, though, baptism also marks and effects a transfer of the person baptized from one life-condition to another, from one world to another, from Adam to Christ, from the company of idolaters to the assembly of God, from the table of demons to the table of the Lord. Paul uses the word “justify” to describe that transfer. I have argued elsewhere that dikaioo in Romans 6 is a “deliverdict,” a verdict that liberates from sin and death, a deliverdict that occurs when one is crucified with Christ in baptism. In 1 Corinthians 6 baptismal washing has a similar effect. Washing in the name of Jesus justifies in the sense that in it God judge and overthrows the slavemasters, sin and death, rescues the baptized from idols and unrighteousness, and implants him in the community of the righteous. In baptism, Jesus rescues the baptized. They are members of His body, called to continue trusting and obeying Him. Those who believe the promise given in baptism, who live out their standing as righteous ones, have nothing to fear. Some won’t. Some cross these waters and return to the world of Adam. That means that God regards them with favor, counts them as just, for a time. When Paul contemplates how apostasy can happen, he turns to the sovereign authority and inscrutable purposes of the God who shows mercy to whom He will and hardens whom He will (Romans 9-11). This will be taken as a “Catholic” understanding of baptism, but that’s inaccurate. As I recently pointed out, Catholics don’t teach that baptism justifies. According to Catholics, the baptized come to a state of justification by cooperating with baptismal grace. That’s perfectly consistent with the Catholic understanding of justification, which is not a declaration about the person justified but a making-just. For Protestant theology, justification is declarative; while it is received in faith, it is not the product of a process that involves cooperation between God and man. My argument about baptism assumes not a Catholic but a Protestant definition of justification, though adjusted to incorporate Paul’s use of “justify” in Romans 6:7.
I admit that my argument creates difficulties elsewhere in our understanding of both Paul and Protestant orthodoxy, but I am inclined to make the case that my argument is the only view consistent with a Protestant interpretation of Paul. One might say that baptism has nothing whatever to do with justification; but then one would find himself at odds with Paul himself. One might say that baptism is a sign of justification that takes place more ineffably and mysteriously in the personal encounters between God and human beings; but then we still have to explain why Paul talks of baptism not as a “sign” but as an instrument of the death that justifies from sin. One might say that baptism offers justification as a promise contingent on future faith, but doesn’t declare it; but that not only stands at odds with Paul’s instrumental language and also verges toward cooperation. That view, it seems, it more Catholic than my position, insofar as the truth of the declaration awaits the response of the baptized person.
Paedobaptists who reject my position are faced with the odd entity of a baptized “covenant child” whose sins are not forgiven, a member of God’s household who is not counted as just before God. But if a) Protestants are right that justification is a declaration and if b) we take seriously Paul’s instrumental linkage between baptism and justification, then it seems to follow that baptism is a ritual enactment of that declaration, made specifically to the baptized. As N. T. Wright puts it in an explanation of Paul’s argument in Romans 6, “If you have been baptized, you belong to the people thus defined, and you must therefore draw the proper conclusions: you, too, have died and been raised. ’You, too, must calculate yourselves to be dead to sin, and alive to God in the Messiah, Jesus’ (6.11). You must work out the fact that you have been brought out of slavery, and stand now as free people on the way to your inheritance.”
Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. For more on these issues, see his The Baptized Body.