Please explain 1 Peter 3:21, especially the phrase which says that “baptism” is the “answer of a good conscience.” Would not this teach that a person has a good conscience before he is baptized? Would not this indicate then that salvation precedes baptism?
1 Peter 3:21 says:
. . . which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (ASV).
The short answer to your excellent question is, “No, that is not the meaning of the passage”; and there are several reasons for this. Note the following, please:
(1) Even if one could establish that having a good conscience was preliminary to the reception of baptism in this verse, such would not negate the essentiality of immersion.
In the first place, a good conscience is not necessarily a proof of salvation. Saul of Tarsus enjoyed a good conscience the whole time he was persecuting Christians, and yet he was as lost as he could be (see Acts 23:1).
Second, the expression “good conscience” could be employed as the equivalent of a sincere heart, and thus denote the disposition of one earnestly seeking to obey the Lord.
(2) Such an interpretation, though, as reflected in the question above, would make the verse self-contradictory, since the apostle had already affirmed that baptism “now saves you.”
He does not mean, of course, that there is some intrinsic efficacy in the water itself. One is saved ultimately by the blood of Jesus (Matthew 26:28; Ephesians 1:7, etc.), but that blood is spiritually accessed when the penitent believer obeys God’s command to be immersed in water, in the likeness of Christ’s burial and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12), unto newness of life.
(3) The view suggested in the question under consideration also would contradict various other passages of Scripture which connect baptism with salvation (e.g., Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5, etc.).
(4) The Greek term that is translated “answer” in 1 Peter 3:21 is eperotema. It basically means a request, or an appeal (see ASV footnote). It is found only in this passage in the New Testament, but it is employed in other sources in Greek literature.
J. H. Thayer gives the term this sense: “which (baptism) now saves us [you] not because in receiving it we [ye] have put away the filth of the flesh, but because we [ye] have earnestly sought a conscience reconciled to God” (1958, 230).
Or note the preferred rendition of Arndt and Gingrich: baptism is “an appeal to God for a clear conscience” (1967, 285).
In Kittel’s Theological Dictionary, the rendition is this: “Baptism does not confer physical cleansing but saves as a request for forgiveness” (1972, 262).
Even Charles B. Williams, a respected Baptist scholar, in his translation of the New Testament, yielded this phrase in this fashion: baptism is “the craving for a clear conscience toward God” (1966, 520).
These renditions indicate, of course, that the good conscience follows the immersion.
It is clear, therefore, when one examines 1 Peter 3:21 in an honest and careful fashion, that this inspired declaration does not negate the idea that immersion in water is necessary as a condition for the forgiveness of sins; rather, it strongly confirms it.
Surely the sincere soul who is concerned about his eternal welfare will want to give this topic some devout study.