This is the third and final article in this series on baptism and whether or not it saves a person. We mentioned that there are several groups who claim to be Christian and who believe that baptism is required for salvation. This view is called baptismal regeneration. In Part 1, we discussed some basics about baptism, and then in Part 2 we addressed a number of Bible verses that these groups use to try and support their view. We will continue in this article to look into their claims.
Jesus answered, verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.
This is a common verse used by those who believe in baptismal regeneration. They will say that Jesus’ words, “born of water” is speaking of water baptism. But notice that they often use the verse by itself, apart from its context. So, let’s observe the actual context and the flow of the discussion. In verses 1 and 2, Nicodemus, the Pharisee, comes secretly to Jesus and tells Him that the Pharisees recognize that He is from God. But Jesus informs him that there is more to being right with God than just recognizing that He is “from God.” There must be a changed heart. Therefore, in verse 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he is born AGAIN, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. Jesus, by saying “again,” is acknowledging a man’s first birth, but tells Nicodemus that there is another birth that must take place if he wants to be saved.
But Nicodemus, being stuck in a “natural” or “physical” mindset, asks, “…How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (Verse 4)
Jesus responds (verse 5) by saying that he must be born not only of water (i.e., the amniotic fluid in the womb during a person’s natural, first birth), but he must also be born of the Spirit (a spiritual birth), as well. In context, the subject of physical birth seems to be the only reason that the phrase “born of water” is even brought up. Jesus was simply redirecting Nicodemus’ line of thought from the physical to the spiritual, like He did with the woman at the well (John 4:7-14).
Jesus continues in verse 6 by telling Nicodemus that whatever is born of the flesh is flesh (natural), but that which is born of the Spirit (producing a change of heart) is spiritual (or supernatural). Nicodemus is still thinking of the “physical,” while Jesus is emphasizing the spiritual. In fact, Jesus rebukes Nicodemus (a spiritual teacher in Israel) for not understanding the spiritual aspect of what He is saying (John 3:9-12).
So, it is obvious here that Jesus is contrasting physical or natural things with spiritual things (3:12). So, it would make perfect sense that “born of water” in verse 5 refers to natural birth, not water baptism. It is interesting that there is no mention of baptism at all in this context, only believing (3:15, 16, 18). Further, if Jesus really meant “be baptized” when He said that one must be “born of water,” then 1) why didn’t He just say that? And 2) Jesus’ “physical birth versus spiritual birth” analogy would do little to clarify anything for Nicodemus. We just can’t imagine Nicodemus responding, “Oh, ok Jesus, I understand now! You’re emphasizing spiritual things, and praising the virtues of an inward spiritual change, so therefore, I must focus on this external, physical ritual of water baptism!” No, not likely. Again, if Jesus was speaking of baptism, His analogy didn’t make much sense. As we said above, there must be a changed heart, but water baptism doesn’t change the heart. So, just because “water” is mentioned does not prove that it was about baptism.
One of their arguments is, “Nowhere else in the Bible is natural birth referred to as ‘born of water’.” That may be true, but neither is baptism ever referred to as “born of water” anywhere else in the Bible, although the word “baptism” and its variations occur dozens and dozens of times in the New Testament. So, to find out the meaning of this phrase, we must look to the context, which is, once again, “physical birth” versus “spiritual birth.”
Another argument they use is, “But they went baptize disciples after this in verse 22, so it must have been about water baptism.” But this is another time, another city, and another context. There is no reason to believe that the two contexts are directly connected.
A third argument is, “If Jesus meant natural birth when He said ‘born of water,’ then that’s just stating the obvious. It’s redundant to say that you first have to be born once in order to be born twice. Jesus didn’t have to tell Nicodemus to meet the condition of being born physically.” True, but the first birth is an understood requirement, which is obviously already done. It was implied. But notice that Jesus didn’t even mention water in His first statement (Verse 3). He only mentioned water afterward because Nicodemus focused on physical birth.
Although we believe that natural, physical birth is the most likely interpretation of the phrase “born of water,” we will not be dogmatic about it, since there are other possible interpretations. For example, it could be referring to the concept of spiritual washing as in Ephesians 5:26, which mentions “the washing of water by the Word.” Also, Jesus told His disciples (John 15:3) that they were “clean through the Word which I have spoken unto you.” These references still seem much more likely to be the case in John 3:5 than water baptism does.
And finally, as stated in Part 2, we know that baptism is not a requirement for salvation because there are clear biblical examples of people getting saved BEFORE their baptism. That, and the fact that Scripture plainly tells us that we are saved by grace, through faith (believing), apart from any works of merit (like baptism).
1 Peter 3:19-21:
By which also He [Jesus] went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, 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 does 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.
The usual response from the groups in question is, “There it is! Baptism does now save! Case closed!” Apparently, that’s all they seem to see in this passage. But a close look will show that it is not water baptism that saves at all.
First of all, the verse says, “The like figure…” meaning that baptism is simply a symbol of something else. It represents what happens to us at the moment of salvation.
Secondly, it’s telling us that it’s not the baptismal water that cleanses us… it’s “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God” (verse 21), symbolized by baptism. It is a change in the heart, not the ritual, itself.
And third, it says that eight souls were saved “by” water, but the Greek actually says they were saved “through” water. Yes, Noah and his family were “baptized” / “immersed in” / “placed into” the floodwaters, but 1) So was the unrepentant multitude, but the multitude was not saved in any sense. 2) Noah and his family were directly “immersed” / “placed into” the ark to escape God’s wrath. The same happens today; a person is saved (escapes judgment) when he places himself in the “Ark of our Salvation,” Jesus Christ. This is the “baptism” that “now saves you”: being “placed into,” or “incorporated into” the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). But this is done by faith, not water baptism.
What is it that saves a person? According to Romans 1:16, it is the gospel message, because “…it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes…”
The great apostle Paul certainly had a yearning to see people saved. He no doubt was concerned for all people. But in 1 Corinthians 1:17 he says, “…for Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel...” Again, that’s because it is faith in the gospel message that saves, not baptism. If water baptism saves, then he would never have said the above.
One more time… baptism is a work, a good and meaningful work, but nevertheless, it’s still a work. Works are certainly important in the Christian’s life, but they do not save you. Scripture is clear… we are only saved by faith (trusting) in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. When it comes to sanctification (living out the Christian life), faith without works is dead; but when it comes to justification (having a right standing with God), faith without works IS salvation!
Just a final note: In this series, we purposely avoided using the classic example of someone being saved without water baptism… the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43). Although we believe that this is an excellent example, we held back from using it because some might object and say that the thief may have already been baptized (though we don’t know that), so he didn’t need to do it again. There is a slight possibility of this, so we did not use that particular example.
However, we would like to point out that many of the same people who say the thief on the cross did not need to be baptized “because he was under the Old Covenant,” would also try to say that Nicodemus (John 3:5) did need to be baptized, although he, too, was under the same Old Covenant. Sorry guys, but you can’t have it both ways.
At any rate, water baptism is an important ordinance of the Christian church and it should not be neglected, but the teaching of baptismal regeneration does not pass the biblical test.