Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.John 3:5 ASV
Paraphrased, this statement means that unless one obeys the gospel of Jesus Christ by believing in him, repenting of sin, confessing his name, and being baptized into Jesus Christ (no genuine baptism is possible without the three antecedents mentioned here), and as a consequence of such obedience, receives the Holy Spirit, he can never enter God’s kingdom, he cannot be saved.
At the time Jesus revealed this teaching to Nicodemus, the great commission had not been given; and the immediate application of the teaching to Nicodemus regarded John’s baptism which was mandatory for all the followers of Jesus prior to the resurrection; but the glowing words of this passage anticipated the Great Commission and the baptism therein commanded, thus making the passage equally applicable to all of subsequent ages who would enter God’s kingdom. See under John 7:39.
The persistent and ingenious efforts of people to shout baptism out of this passage are in vain, for there is no way it can be made to disappear. “Born of water” refers to baptism; and there is absolutely nothing else connected with Christianity to which it could refer. For centuries after this Gospel was received, “born of water” was never otherwise construed than as a reference to baptism; and, as noted above, in its application to Nicodemus, it pointed to the Pharisaical refusal to submit to the baptism of John; but, by extension, it is even more emphatic in its application to that baptism which is greater than John’s, namely, that of the Great Commission.
In the study of this passage, it should be remembered that it is only quite recently in Christian times that interpretations of this verse have been devised to exclude its obvious reference to Christian baptism. John Boys, Dean of Canterbury, renowned preacher and scholar of the Church of England in the 17th century, wrote as follows:
Some few modern divines (Note: Although few THEN, they are many NOW) have conceded that these words are not to be construed of external baptism; because, say they, “Christ taketh water here by a borrowed speech for the Spirit of God, the effect whereof it shadoweth out; and so water and the Spirit are all one!” To this interpretation answer is made: first, that it is an old rule in expounding of Holy Scripture, that where a literal sense will stand, the farthest from the letter is commonly the worst … (Note: Boys wrote at great length concerning the efforts of men toward “changing the meaning of words,” calling such conduct “licentious and deluding,” and denouncing it as “perverting the text.”)
Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril, Beda, Theophylact, Euthymius, in the commentaries on this place (John 3:5), along with Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Ambrose, Hierome, Basil, Gregory, Nyssen, and many more, yea most of the Fathers – Hooker, a man of incomparable reading, openeth his mouth wider, avowing peremptorily that ALL THE ANCIENTS (capitals mine, J.B.C.) have construed this text, as our church doth, of outward baptism.
It cannot be denied, therefore, that all interpretations that would edit any reference to baptism out of this text are too late by centuries, to have any weight at all with people who wish to know what the word of the Lord teaches. The warping and distortion of the views of expositors since the Lutheran reformation, who have sought to conform this text to Luther’s erroneous theory of justification, were denounced by no less a giant of Biblical exegesis than Alford, who wrote:
There can be no doubt, on any honest interpretation of the words, that [@gennethenai] [@ek] [@hudatos] (born of water) refers to the token or outward sign of baptism, [@gennethenai] [@ek] [@pneumatos] (born of the Spirit) to the thing signified, or the inward grace of the Holy Spirit.
All attempts to get rid of these two plain facts have sprung from doctrinal prejudices, by which the views of expositors have been warped.
It is regrettable that Afford injected the jargon of “outward sign” and “inward grace” into his comment; because the relative meaning of these two things, “born of water” and “born of the Spirit” is not under discussion in this passage. It makes no difference what either one of these things is in its relationship to the other, both are absolutely necessary to salvation, that being the unqualified affirmation of this text. Thus, in order to be saved, one must be baptized (born of water) and receive the Holy Spirit (born of the Spirit).
Christ joined these entities in this passage; and what God hath joined, let no man put asunder! The opinions of great scholars might be multiplied in support of this interpretation of the text; and, for those who might be influenced by such opinions, reference is made to the Handbook on Baptism, in which fifty of the most notable scholars of the last 200 years are quoted. Only one other will be cited here, namely, Phillip Schaff (1819-1893), Professor of Church History, Union Theological Seminary, New York, President of the American Company of the New Testament Revisers, and one of the greatest Christian scholars of all time. He said:
In view of the facts that John baptized, that Christ himself was baptized, that his disciples baptized in his name (John 4:2), it seems impossible to disconnect water in John 3:5, from baptism. Calvin’s interpretation arose from doctrinal opposition to the Roman Catholic over-valuation of the sacrament, which must be guarded against in another way.
Most of the bitterest denunciations against what Jesus taught here are actually directed against a straw man called “baptismal regeneration,” in which it is continually affirmed that water cannot save anyone; but, of course, no one supposes that it can. No efficacy was ever attributed to the water, even by the staunchest defenders of what Jesus here clearly made a precondition of salvation.
Fulminations against baptismal regeneration might have been relevant in Calvin’s day, when that scholar attacked the Medieval superstition that a few drops of water sprinkled religiously upon a dead infant could save a soul; but those arguments by Calvin are not relevant arguments against Christ’s promise that “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).
The importance of the questions raised around the sacred words of Jesus in this place requires that further attention be directed to their study. See “Regarding the New Birth” below.
REGARDING THE NEW BIRTH
The new birth “of water and of the Spirit” is one birth, not two, despite there being two elements in it. One of these elements “born of water,” is water baptism, that being the element of the new birth for which man himself is responsible for the doing of it. Thus, Saul of Tarsus was commanded, “Get thyself baptized” (Acts 22:16). The other element of the new birth, “born of the Spirit,” is the reception of the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13,14). Contrasting with what is done by man, this endowing with the Holy Spirit is what is done by God.
The great heresy regarding this one birth is the doctrine that people may omit their part, not being baptized, but that God will go ahead, despite that, and endow the believer with the Holy Spirit anyway! John 3:5 teaches that both elements are absolutely necessary in the new birth.
Born of water is a reference to the ceremony of baptism; but there is no magic in water, nor does the ceremony itself contribute anything to sanctification, as often alleged. Millions of faithful Christians can testify that submission to the commandment of baptism did not automatically give them a new nature, the new nature coming through a growth process in consequence of the endowment of the Spirit. Care should be taken to distinguish between “baptism” as a reference to the immersion ceremony, and “baptism” meaning the new birth of which the ceremony is an element. Jesus himself used the word in this latter sense in Mark 16:16.
But if the actual ceremony does not change the nature of the convert, what does it do?
(1) It is the last of the preconditions of salvation to be fulfilled by the sinner, the others being: believing, repenting, and confessing Christ; and upon compliance with all of them by the sinner, God forgives all previous sin of the sinner and confers upon him a state of absolute innocence. The fulfilling of the preconditions by the sinner does not merit or earn God’s forgiveness, nor provide any class of works that could place God under any obligation other than his own gracious and merciful promise.
However, such is the importance of this ceremonial element in the new birth, that it may be dogmatically affirmed that in the history of Christianity there has never been an exception to the proposition that every true believer who repented and was baptized was then and there forgiven of all past sin and endowed with a status of absolute innocence in God’s sight. This is accomplished not by the ceremony but by God WHEN the ceremony is obeyed, and not otherwise. This is clear from “Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling upon the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).
(2) In the second instance, there is achieved in the penitent a clear conscience upon the event of his submission to the ceremony, as affirmed by the apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:1). See my Commentary on Hebrews, Hebrews 9:13,14.
There is no way that any man on earth can have a clear conscience without submitting to baptism. That is why even the churches that deny the necessity of baptism have not dispensed with it altogether. Their consciences will not allow it, despite the fact that their doctrine, if heeded, would demand it. The universal rejoicing that attends submission to the ordinance was in New Testament times (Acts 8:39; 16:34, etc.), as now, the certain evidence of a clear conscience.
(3) The ceremony of immersion called baptism is the God-ordained rite of initiation into Jesus Christ; and that status of being the appointed device by which God inducts the penitent into corporate union with the Son of God, that is, into his kingdom, church, or spiritual body – that status uniquely belongs to the baptismal ceremony.
As Vine noted, “Baptizing into the Name (Matthew 28:19) would indicate that the baptized person was closely bound to, or became the property of, the one into whose Name he was baptized.” Three times the New Testament declares that people are baptized “into Christ,” or into his “body” (Galatians 3:26,27; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:13).
It is encouraging to note that present-day scholarship is taking a further look at the importance of the baptismal ceremony. Thus, Beasley-Murray recently assented to the key thesis maintained here, namely, that “Baptism is the occasion when the Spirit brings to new life him that believes in the Son of Man!” This is true; and if, through failure to obey the Lord in baptism the OCCASION never comes, then neither will the new life.
(4) Thus it is clear that the baptismal ceremony is retrospective as regards the past sins of the believer, being the pivot in which he is forever separated from them all and endowed with a new status of innocence. Earned? A million times, No! The new status is a gracious gift of God to the unworthy sinner who penitently took God at his word and obeyed the gospel, the baptized believer being added, not by men, but by God, to the kingdom or church of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:47).
(5) But that is not all. The new baptized convert, having a clear conscience, and being forgiven of all past sins, and having been added to the spiritual body of Christ, RECEIVES THE HOLY SPIRIT, not to make him a member of Christ (his baptism did that), but because he is a member (Galatians 4:6). This is the second element in the new birth. But, is not this latter thing all that matters? In a sense, perhaps, it is; but this all-important thing is connected with the ceremonial element (baptism) and made a contingent of it, a consequence FOLLOWING Christian baptism. That is why both are required, both are essential and that they are not separate births but one new birth. The apostles honored this requirement of both elements before there can be a new birth. On Pentecost, Peter said:
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Thus, in that passage, the baptism of penitent believers is made to be a prior condition of receiving the remission of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; and in this also appears why the Holy Spirit is called the “Holy Spirit of promise” (Ephesians 1:13).
What does the ceremony do? It demonstrates and proves that the faith of the believer is of a sufficient degree to save him; it is the sinner’s acceptance of Jesus’ promise of Mark 16:16; it is therefore his “accepting Christ” by accepting his promise. Those who speak of accepting Christ as if it were some kind of a subjective response are absolutely wrong.
Baptism is a renunciation of self in permitting the whole person to be buried under water as a pledge that self shall no longer rule in the life of the convert; it is the successful passing of God’s ordained test of faith to determine if faith is sufficient to save; and, as such, it corresponds exactly with Abraham’s offering of Isaac upon the altar, whereupon God said, “For now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son” (Genesis 22:12). In that God said, “Now I know,” it is equivalent to saying that until that time he did not know (such language is accommodative and anthropomorphic, of course). God did not justify Abraham until he offered Isaac (James 2:21); and, if God did not justify Abraham until he had passed such a test as offering Isaac, how could it ever be imagined that God will justify just any stinking sinner who believes, and purely upon the sinner’s assertion of it?
That is why Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16), and, in regard to the quibble which says, “Well, Jesus did not say, `He that is not baptized shall be condemned,'” the answer that thunders from the New Testament is that the meaning is exactly the same as if he had said that!
Now, whereas the operation of the ceremony of baptism itself is retrospective regarding past sins, the second element of the new birth, the reception of the Holy Spirit, is prospective and looks to the perfection of the believer in Christ. It is this progressive work of the Holy Spirit that leads to a greater and greater degree of sanctification in the heart of the saved. For more on sanctification see my Commentary on Romans, Romans 6:22.
When a person is truly baptized (and only believing, penitent, confessing persons can be TRULY baptized), as Christ commanded, God sends the Holy Spirit into his heart (the second element of the new birth); and, when viewed in connection with this divine fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, baptism is the new birth; but it is not a birth of water only, but a birth of “water and of the Spirit” as Jesus said.
On the other hand, when baptism is thought of as the water ceremony only, it is only part of the new birth, nevertheless a vital and necessary part of it. It is proper to use baptism as a synecdoche for the new birth in its entirety; and thus Jesus himself used it in Mark 16:16.