There are a wide variety of translations for 1 Peter 3:21, the differences of which truly change the meaning of the text. Notice the following differences:
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, (ESV)
And baptism, which this prefigured, 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, (NRSV)
Baptism, which is like that water, now saves you. Baptism doesn’t save by removing dirt from the body. Rather, baptism is a request to God for a clear conscience. It saves you through Jesus Christ, who came back from death to life. (God’s Word)
Notice that the previous three translations picture baptism as asking God for a good, clear, or pure conscience. An appeal pictures a legal procedure, formally asking (or appealing) to the judge. Therefore, baptism saves because we are appealing to God to cleanse our conscience based upon the resurrection of Christ. Now consider some other translations.
There is also an antitype which now saves us–baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (NKJV)
And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (NLT)
The above two translations picture baptism as a response or answer to God from an already cleansed conscience. Consider the final two translations.
And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (TNIV)
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (HCSB)
The HCSB and TNIV (also NIV) depict baptism as a statement or a commitment to God from an already cleansed conscience.
So which of these is correct? In my opinion, these three concepts are entirely different. The first group of translations shows baptism as asking God for a clean conscience. The second group pictures baptism as a response of an already cleansed conscience. The third group of translations show baptism as a statement to God from an already cleansed conscience. Or put another way: Does baptism ask God for a clean conscience? Is baptism an act responding from a cleansed conscience? Or does baptism declare to God and others that we have a cleansed conscience?
The Greek word that is translated “appeal” by the ESV, “response” by the NLT, and “pledge” by the TNIV is eperotema. Below is what the scholars say:
NAS Greek: an inquiry, a demand:
Thayer: “1. an inquiry, a question. 2. a demand.”
Mounce: “an interrogation, question; in NT profession, pledge.”Â
Vine: “eperotema, 1 Pet. 3:21, is not, as in the KJV, an “answer.” It was used by the Greeks in a legal sense, as a “demand or appeal.” Baptism is therefore the ground of an “appeal” by a good conscience against wrong doing.”
In looking closely at the text, doesn’t the first group of translations make more sense? Baptism saves you, not by washing the body, but by appealing to God (asking God) for a clean conscience. How could Peter say essentially “baptism saves you because it is a response of an already clean conscience?” Or how could Peter say essentially “baptism saves you because it is a statement or pledge to God/others from a clean conscience?” The sentence does not work from a logical standpoint the way the NKJV, NLT, TNIV, and HCSB read. Baptism saves because baptism is your already clean conscience responding to God??? This does not make sense. Then baptism actually does not save because the conscience is already clean. Therefore, Peter was wrong to say that baptism saves and was being nonsensical.
I know that this may fly in the face of some belief patterns and what not, but I think we have to take this text in the way that makes the most sense. The scholars argue that eperotema means “an inquiry, an interrogation, and an appeal.” Therefore, the most logical reading is that baptism is asking God for a clean conscience, as the ESV, NRSV, and NASB translate.