Q&A: John 3:5 and Baptism

John 3:5 and Baptism

Question

I thought we were born again by faith alone. Jesus says "no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit." Jesus says baptism is necessary for salvation. So, I don’t understand how we are born again by faith ALONE (Eph. 2:8).

Answer

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5).

Ephesians 2:8-10: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them Ephesians 2:8-10).

Thanks for your question which referred to the above Scripture.

Briefly note here that salvation (1) is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), (2) is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8), and (3) is not the result of anything we may or can do—which includes the work of baptism (Eph. 2:9). Paul is consistent with Jesus and makes it very clear that "he [God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit" (Tit. 3:5). Notice that instead of the phrase "born of water" (Gk. gennethe ex hydatos) in John 3:5, Paul uses the phrase, "by the washing of regeneration" (Gk. dia loutrou palingenesias). Also notice here that neither Greek text uses the word "baptism" (Gk. baptizo).

So, in context, what are "born of water" and "by the washing of regeneration" referring to? Logically it can’t refer to literal baptism. Why? The institution of Christian baptism hadn’t even been given yet. The Great Commission wasn’t until much later (i.e. Matt. 28:18-20). Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel (and not a Christian until sometime later, cf. John 19:39), certainly wouldn’t have been expected to think of Christian baptism if it had not yet been instituted.

What did Jesus expect Nicodemus to know as a teacher of the Jews? (John 3:10). Certainly he have expected him to know the Old Testament scriptures and specifically have expected him to think of such texts as Ezekiel 36:25-27:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Notice in these verses how closely water imagery ("sprinkle clean water on you," "you shall be clean" and "I will cleanse you") is connected with regeneration ("I will give you a new heart," "a new spirit I will put within you" and "I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh"). In Scripture, we often observe such a relationship (cf. Num. 19:17-19; Isa. 4:4; 32:15; 44:3; 55:1; Joel 2:28-29; Zech. 13:1). Even in the new covenant when referring to his invisible church, Ephesians 5:26 says of such a relationship, "that he might sanctify her, having cleansed [past tense] her by the washing of water with the word."

Since Scripture so closely associates regeneration and water, we should understand that the phrase "born of water" (John 3:5) points to the reality of spiritual renewal ("the washing of regeneration," Tit. 3:5) by the Spirit alone. And this is through faith alone.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).