1 Peter 3:20‑21: "Saved by Water" Is Not Salvation by Water
KJV…when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
NASV…when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the const- ruction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you ‑ not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience ‑ through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
NIV…when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water. and this water sym- bolizes 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…
It’s said the KJV teaches water-baptismal salvation here, but wording in context has Noah and family saved or spared by water, an agent of God’s wrath. Water threatened, but spared them, as they were beyond its reach in the ark of safety.* Those in the ark, with water threatening but sparing them from God's wrath, present a figure, one that has a like counterpart in a baptism said to bring cleansing not of the flesh, so baptism here isn’t that of water. The cleansing imparts a good conscience toward God by Jesus’ Resurrection, so it’s a spiritual cleansing. The baptism is that of the Holy Ghost, who is the salvation power placing us in Christ the ark of safety, and mandating that the agent of God's wrath must spare us. This baptism is represented by a like figure, the saving of Noah and family by God’s Spirit placing them in the old ark, and the agent of God’s wrath sparing them, so the Noah/ark account is salvation typology. Physical salvation from God’s wrath symbolizes the spiritual, and the typology is why the Greek for saved is used, which is why saved is rendered in English.**
*The word save has this alternate sense in English, as in the case of the common saying, God save the king (spare him). That sense appears in the KJV in 1 Cor.3:15 that says, saved…by fire, an agent of God’s wrath that spares some, but only through fiery trials. Gal.6:14 says, But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of of our Lord Jesus Christ...Here save has the sense of an exception or exemption that relates to sparing, in the sense of exempting or sparing from forbidding to glory when this involves Christ's sacrifice.
**Thus save includes the concept of sparing in the sense of physical salvation symbolic of soul salvation.
The NASV syntactical/lexical variance here allows poor interpretation. Its brought safely through the water is a fairly good sense of the Greek, but it misses the complete sense, for here in this context Greek dia (through) signifies moving through the flood event, not just sailing safely through the water. And the NASV omits saved and like figure, omitting salvation typology central to passage meaning.
Another problem arises due to replacing of like figure with the indefinite that. The phrase through the water is directly followed by, corresponding to that, baptism now saves you. That has no clear meaning, being so vague that we can’t see what in the preceding verse baptism corresponds to. With no mention of a figure to picture, what is baptism being likened to? Is it God's patience, building of the ark, people in the ark, the water or a combination of some passage elements? Baptism is being discussed, so the indefinite that will likely be taken to refer to the element most recently mentioned, water, and the only one that fits logically in the absence of a like figure. A result of the vague wording is association of water with safety, associating it with baptism that now saves you.
A water‑salvation interpretation is favored by calling water baptism, an appeal to God for a good conscience, a spiritual cleansing received in Spirit baptism. Use of appeal indicates people being water-baptized are not yet saved; water baptism is now seen as that which brings Spirit baptism in salvation. This supports popular water-baptismal regeneration dogma on water baptism as a sacrament conferring salvation grace.
The NIV renders Greek literally, but distorts English sense with saved through water, or saved by means of water (spared by means of water can’t apply). In this context the Greek doesn’t mean by means of, but that’s the plausible English sense (the NASV brought…through the water avoids this, yet misses the sense); water was death in Noah’s world, and he was saved by means of the Holy Ghost and the ark. The Greek for through water differs from the English sense due to a word-meaning nuance here that stipulates by in English. Through is valid only if words are added to clarify the sense [i.e. saved/preserved through the midst of the storm of the water of God’s wrath (through the flood event)], but adding unnecessary words to the text is always to be avoided.
The NIV identifies Noah's salvation as by means of water, and says water that saved Noah symbolizes baptism that saves us now; now the reader can picture soul-salvation by means of water baptism, and can view not the removal of dirt from the body as saying cleansing by water baptism is not that of the flesh, but of the spirit. Spirit baptism is made the salvation mechanism, but water baptism is made necessary as the means for cleansing by Spirit baptism. Indeed water baptism as the pledge of a good conscience toward God, makes Spirit baptism future tense, meaning those being water-baptized aren’t yet saved, solidifying the notion of water baptism bringing Spirit baptism and promoting water-salvation.
Appeal and pledge are possible renderings of the Greek, but don’t fit the context, distorting doctrine. The KJV applies true word-choice and syntax to preserve true doctrine, despite complications of typology and a lack of Greek/English terminology correspondence.