There are some that believe that water baptism is a “miraculous means of grace through which God creates and/or strengthens the gift of faith in a person’s heart.” They cite a number of verses from Scripture as evidence of baptism being used by God to create faith. They continue saying, “Although we do not claim to understand fully how this happens, we believe that when an infant is baptized God creates faith in the heart of that infant. We believe this because the Bible says that infants can believe (Matt 18:6) and that new birth (regeneration) happens in Baptism (John 3:5-7; Titus 3:5-6).” So, it’s very clear that they understand that both Jesus’ reference to the word “water” in John 3:5-7, and Paul’s reference to “washing” in Titus 3:5-7 are in reference to water baptism. But is that what either of these words are referring to? Does the Bible give a clear witness that people are born again (regenerated) through water baptism? I’d like to focus on John 3:5-7 to discover why Jesus uses the term “water” with Nicodemus, and to show that Jesus is not pointing to water baptism as a means of grace for salvation, as if God needed water to regenerate anyone.
Some Foundational Interpretation Principles
Because this is an ancient historical text, it is unfortunately very easy for someone to simply glance at a verse, and come to the wrong conclusion about what the author is saying to his audience. People do this all the time. Time doesn’t permit to give examples of how often people take verses out of context and insert their own meaning, but in all fairness, it is rampant. People do the same thing with regard to baptism, whereby people cite a number of passages from Scripture that would seem to suggest that baptism is necessary for our salvation, or that God uses water baptism to regenerate people. They then use those verses that they have misinterpreted to make claims like “Unless we are baptized we cannot be saved,” or, “Baptism is absolutely necessary for our salvation.” Such misinterpretations may seem harmless, but they do great damage to the gospel of grace. As David Platt says, “You undercut the grace of God” when you point to any work that we can do, rather than the grace of God through the “work of faith” (John 6:28-29) alone in Christ alone.
When interpreting Scripture, it is important to understand that there is only one correct interpretation of any passage because there is only one meaning that the speaker/author is trying to get across. And even though in some cases, we may not be able to discern exactly the right interpretation for whatever reason, we can always dismiss faulty interpretations based on the whole teaching of Scripture. Since there are no contradictions within the Bible, if there is one verse that seems to contradict another verse, we can always rule out wrongful interpretations based on what Scripture says elsewhere.
Another often overlooked tool to interpreting a passage in Scripture is to remember that what is said will have it’s primary interpretation located at the point in time in which it was said to the people to whom it was said. It’s important that you reconstruct that situation so that you can get the true understanding of the passage. If you fail to do this, you end up trying to insert your own meaning and interpretation into the passage instead of drawing out the meaning from the passage.
Another essential tool of interpreting verses to is to read the passage within the context of which it is written. John 3:5-7 is one of those passages that people jump to conclusions with just because Jesus uses the word “water”. And so, they reason, He must be referring to literal water, and therefore, baptism as a means of grace for salvation. But once you start to see the verse within the context, and with a little Greek, you can come to a better understanding of why Jesus uses the word “water” with Nicodemus. And so, let’s begin to find out what Jesus is really talking about, so that we don’t make the mistake in saying that baptism is a means of grace for salvation, which goes against the clear teaching of Scripture on how God saves people.
Diving into John 3…
So, we start off at the beginning of the book of John 3…
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Not sure about this, but when I read that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, it makes me think that maybe Nicodemus didn’t want anyone else to know (other Pharisees, or other rulers of the Jews) about this little mission to go talk to Jesus. Clearly, Nicodemus recognizes that there’s something about this Jesus dude that ain’t ordinary, but it may be that Nicodemus, being a ruler of the Jews, was trying to protect his reputation, while still trying to get a better explanation from Jesus himself on who we was, and why He’s here. Just a thought…
And so Jesus responds with his usual, heart-piercing truth, and says…
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The Greek word for “again” is anothen. Like most Greek words translated into English, there are various meanings of the word depending upon the context of the verse. In the case of the phrase “born again,” there are 2 possible translations for this phrase in the Greek. One of them is “born again”, and the second one is “born from above.” Clearly, Nicodemus was confused and heard physical birth when Jesus said “born again”, and thought that Jesus was referring to literal, physical birth. We see that clearly in Nicodemus’ response to Jesus…
“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
So, Nicodemus is definitely hearing physical birth here. But in the next 2 verses in 5 and 6, we find out that Jesus was not referring to literal, physical birth, but spiritual birth from above. And so Jesus restates what He had just told Nicodemus in v.3, but in a different way, so that it would be clearer that He was referring to being “born from above” (spiritual birth), and not “born again,” as in literal, physical birth. Jesus says to Nicodemus in verses 5 and 6…
“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Water Baptism, or Something Else?
So, here’s the big question. Is Jesus now saying to Nicodemus that he must be water baptized to enter the kingdom of God, that to enter to the kingdom of God, he must be born of water and be born of the Spirit? Or does Jesus mean something else? Well, we know that Nicodemus just totally missed the spiritual truth behind Jesus’ statement that he must be “born again” because Nicodemus thought he was referring to literal, physical birth. Nicodemus’ heritage and personal piety blinded him from understanding what Jesus was talking about. Therefore, Jesus restates what He had just told Nicodemus in a different way so that it would be clear He was referring to being “born from above.” This statement is in agreement with John 1:12-13, in spiritual birth, or regeneration, being accomplished entirely by God. So, how do we determine exactly what Jesus means when he says, “born of water and the Spirit” in this verse?
Well, we’ve already ruled out literal, physical birth from the context of the passage. But is Jesus now saying that there are 2 births that must take place for someone to enter the kingdom of God? To find out what Jesus was really saying, we again need to go to the Greek, because a closer look at the Greek will reveal the real meaning of his words, whereas a simple look at the English can’t.
“Born of Water and the Spirit” in the Greek
So, what is Jesus saying when he says to Nicodemus, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Whatever the meaning of this is, it must be in agreement with Jesus’ claim that we must be “born from above”. Jesus is not referring to 2 different births here, but to one birth, being “born from above.” The best interpretation that fits the overall context, not only of this passage but of the Bible as a whole, is the one that sees the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” as both describing different aspects of the same spiritual birth, or of what it means to be “born again” or “born from above.” How do we know this?
In the Greek, ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος (“born of water and the Spirit”) is literally “[out] of water and spirit,” indicating both nouns are governed by one preposition, favoring the idea of one concept. Harris writes…
“ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος” (Jn. 3:5) shows that for the writer (or speaker) “water” and “Spirit” together form a single means of that regeneration which is a prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom of God ( = birth “ἄνωθεν”, Jn. 3:3, 7). No contrast is intended between an external element of “water” and an inward renewal achieved by the Spirit. Conceptually the two are one.”
M. J. Harris, “Appendix: Prepositions and Theology in the Greek NT,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3, p. 1178.
When Jesus told Nicodemus that he must “be born of water and the Spirit,” He was not referring to literal water (i.e. baptism or the amniotic fluid in the womb), but was referring to the need for spiritual cleansing or renewal by the Holy Spirit. We know this because throughout the Old Testament (Psalm 51:2,7; Ezekiel 36:25) and the New Testament (John 13:10; 15:3; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Hebrews 10:22), water is often used figuratively of spiritual cleansing or regeneration that is brought forth by the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, at the moment of salvation (Titus 3:5).
The “water” mentioned in this verse is not literal physical water but rather the “living water” Jesus promised the woman at the well in John 4:10 and the people in Jerusalem in John 7:37-39. It is the inward purification and renewal produced by the Holy Spirit that brings forth spiritual life to a dead sinner (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Titus 3:5). Jesus reinforces this truth in John 3:7 when He restates that one must be born again and that this newness of life can only be produced by the Holy Spirit (John 3:8).
What is the Implication Behind Jesus’ Rebuke of Nicodemus
Nicodemus knew absolutely nothing of this new birth as it related to his Jewish heritage… the idea of a Jew being reborn to enter God’s kingdom was inconceivable as Nicodemus was certain that his bloodline alone was sufficient.
And yet Jesus rebukes Nicodemus in John 3:10 by saying…
“Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?”
This implies that what Jesus had just told him was something Nicodemus should have known and understood from the Old Testament. What is it that Nicodemus, as a teacher of the Old Testament, should have known and understood? It is that God had promised in the Old Testament a time was coming in which He would:
“sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
Jesus rebuked Nicodemus because he failed to recall and understand one of the key Old Testament passages pertaining to the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:33). Nicodemus should have been expecting this. Why would Jesus have rebuked Nicodemus for not understanding baptism considering the fact that baptism is nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament?
In conclusion, what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, and is saying to us, is that we must be born again (born from above) through the regeneration by the Holy Spirit, who cleanses us spiritually, and brings us into the kingdom of God. Regeneration is the work of God and performed inside of us, and not the result of water baptism, which is outside of us. Regeneration does not happen as a result of a parents’ decision to sprinkle their infant with water, or to baptize their child. Regeneration does not happen as a result of an adults decision to be water baptized. Baptism can’t do this. Only God can do it, and He does it through the Holy Spirit.
From this passage, we can walk away with some important points…
1. No Christian should ever point to water baptism as a means of grace for salvation.
2. No Christian should ever prohibit a fellow believer from ever saying to someone either inside the church or outside the church that they are not saved through their baptism, or saved as a result of their baptism. As Jesus said, being born again of the Spirit is like the wind… “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Since rebirth is like the wind, no one should ever point to water baptism, or any other external ordinance, as the point at which they were born again, or as a means through which God gives us grace for salvation.
3. No Christian should ever say that God gives the Holy Spirit through water baptism, but through faith which comes before baptism.
Lord willing, more explanation on wrongly interpreted baptism verses to come…