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John 3:5 - Part I

Everyone is quick to acknowledge the importance of the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19) and the responsibility to “baptize” disciples in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But it is unsettling to discover that “perhaps no command of Christ has occasioned so much controversy, division, bitterness and mistrust as this one. Indeed, . . . at times it has caused Christians to destroy each other with a ferocity, cruelty and hatred strangely at variance with him who constantly exhorted his disciples to ‘love one another’ (John 15:12,17).”[1]

Baptism is, sadly, a divisive issue. Debates rage over its mode (sprinkling or immersion), its meaning, and especially its recipients (paedo-baptism vs. believer-baptism). But the relationship of baptism to regeneration or the new birth (and to salvation as a whole) is especially troublesome. In this study I want to examine one passage in John’s gospel that has proved to be extraordinarily difficult to interpret. In John 3:5, Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (ESV). For many, this is an unequivocal declaration that apart from water baptism there is no salvation. My task will be to examine this statement to determine what Jesus meant and what it tells us about the experience of saving grace.

Preliminary Exegetical Factors

Bearing upon the Interpretation of John 3:5

(1) We must first determine the meaning of the word anothen, translated “again” in vv. 3 and 7 in the NASB and ESV. Some argue it is temporal (“again”) while others say it is local (“from above”) in force. In favor of the latter are the following. First, the word is used 13x in the NT (Mt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 1:3; John 3:3,7,31; 19:11,23; Acts 26:5; Gal. 4:9; James 1:17; 3;15,17) and only once, in Gal. 4:9, unambiguously means “again” (but even there it is found in conjunction with palin, “again”). The most frequent meaning, therefore, is “from above” (see especially the use in John 3:31). Second, John typically describes regeneration not in terms of repetition but as a divine birth, something that finds its source or origin in God. It is of God, being heavenly; not of man, who is earthly (cf. John 1:13; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4,18).

The major argument for the translation “again” is that Nicodemus apparently understood it this way. Note his response in v. 4 where he asks, “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” But much of this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus is devoted to correcting the latter’s misunderstanding. Note especially, in v. 10, his ignorance of matters that Jesus considered fundamental. [See the arguments in this regard by John Murray, Collected Writings, II:176-77, 1977].

(2) Verse 5 is an amplification of v. 3, insofar as “water and Spirit” have been substituted for “from above” (“again”) as something of an explanation or commentary. Although John the Baptist was sent from God (John 1:6), and although Christian baptism is a “divine” ordinance, the force of anothen involves more than mere source. It surely includes the idea of nature or character as well. I.e., it is heavenly or spiritual in nature, not earthly or physical or natural (note especially 3:6).

(3) Just as v. 5 is explanatory of v. 3, vv. 6-8 further develop the idea set forth in v. 5. But note: in vv. 6-8 “water” is conspicuously absent; there is mention only of the Spirit. Note again in v. 6 and v. 8b – why just “born of the Spirit” and not “born of water and the Spirit”? The answer is that “Spirit” is fundamental and “water”, whatever it means, must be subsumed under or defined as an elemental part of the operative work of the Spirit in regeneration. Had our Lord regarded “water” as an independent agency in regeneration and important in itself (i.e., as distinct from the agency of the Spirit), he surely would have mentioned it again and given it more prominence. Instead, he describes the birth “from above” as effected by the Spirit alone and wholly outside the sphere of the “flesh” (v. 6).

(4) The “begetting” or regeneration of which Jesus speaks is unitary, that is to say, there are not two births experienced, each with its respective agency, one by water and another by the Spirit, but one birth “by water and Spirit” in which the Spirit is the dominant factor. The text does not say “born of water and of Spirit” but “born of water and Spirit.” One preposition (ek) governs both nouns. It is a single “water and Spirit” birth.[2] Hence “water” is to be understood as coordinate with the “Spirit” rather than independent of or contrasted with it.

(5) Verses 6-8 tell us a great deal about how regeneration occurs. First, in v. 6 Jesus indicates there are two kinds of birth and that “each birth completely conditions the character of its product. The natural cannot produce anything but the natural, and by an invariable law does produce the natural. The supernatural alone produces the supernatural, and it infallibly secures the supernatural character of its issue. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit, and it is only that which is born of the Spirit that is spirit.”[3] Again, “human nature propagates human nature and does not produce anything that transcends the conditions under which human nature finds itself. Like propagates like.”[4] The point is that when it comes to regeneration, human nature is wholly impotent and hopelessly sterile. In sum, you can’t get a spiritual (i.e., saving) effect from a physical (i.e., human) cause.

Second, in v. 8 Jesus characteristically draws an analogy between the phenomenon of nature and spiritual truth. Note several factors:

a) the invisible and mysterious nature of the Spirit’s operation in the new birth: “you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes”;

b) the irresistible and efficacious nature of the new birth: “the wind blows,” and we neither resist it nor change its course;

c) the sovereignty of the Spirit’s operation – “where it wishes”; it cannot be pinned down by human contrivance or ordinance;

d) the necessary observable fruit of its activity – “you hear its sound.” Says Murray, “while the wind is invisible, irresistible and not subject in any way to our will, it does manifest its presence where it is: we hear its effects. So is it with the new birth. It manifests itself in the fruit of the Spirit – ‘that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’. By a secret, incomprehensible operation when, where, and how the Spirit pleases, he begets, or gives birth to, men, and this is a birth that becomes manifest in the fruits that are appropriate to its nature and purpose.”[5]

We now turn our attention to the several interpretations of “water” to see which, if any, best accounts for the evidence just noted. There are four general categories of interpretation and nine specific possibilities to be considered.[6]

Interpretive Options

A. Baptismal Views

1. Water = Christian baptism. Beasley-Murray argues that “as in Jn. 6:51ff. the exposition on eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking His blood cannot fail to bring to mind the Lord’s Supper, so the reference to new birth by water and Spirit inevitably directs attention to Christian baptism.”[7] This view takes one of three forms: a) baptismal regeneration ex opere operato (lit., by the working of the thing worked), that is to say, the water of baptism is the indispensable and always effectual means by which regeneration is accomplished (this is the view of Roman Catholicism); b) a mediating view which says that the Spirit alone regenerates, but only in and through the waters of baptism as the divinely ordained occasion on which or God-appointed means by which the Spirit works; and c) water baptism is the outward sign and confirmation of an inward regeneration produced by the Spirit (cf. Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, I:714).

There are several things to say in response to the idea that water baptism is in view.

First, the NT nowhere indicates that regeneration and water baptism are inseparable (see especially the study by James Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit [Westminster Press, 1970]). The point of v. 8, once again, is that the Spirit operates as freely and sovereignly as the blowing of the wind, a highly inappropriate analogy if regeneration is inextricably tied to water baptism.

Second, if water = baptism, either as the indispensable means of regeneration or the occasion on which the Spirit operates, why is it omitted in vv. 6-8? Dunn notes: “Had John regarded the water as important in itself and essential to the thought of re-birth, he would surely have mentioned it again and given it more prominence. The fact that he does not, the fact that he only mentions water as part of a single concept with Spirit, and the fact that he goes on to stress that the birth ex hydatos kai pneumatos [‘of water and spirit’] is a birth effected by the Spirit and belongs wholly within the sphere of pneuma [‘spirit’], and wholly outside the sphere of sarx [‘flesh’], implies that he is saying something like this to his readers, whether disciples of the Baptist who still over-valued John’s baptism, or Christians who over-valued the Christian sacrament: The water which you value is only a symbol of the quickening power of the Spirit; water-baptism is of  no avail, it is the Spirit who gives life.”[8]

Third, it would be anachronistic to see Christian baptism here, for it had as yet not been instituted. Would Jesus have rebuked Nicodemus for ignorance of an ordinance about which nothing had yet been said?

Fourth, if Jesus were speaking of the necessity of Christian baptism for salvation, it is odd that he never incorporated it into his proclamation of the good news, and even more strange that he himself never performed the ritual (cf. John 4:2). If baptism were indispensable for salvation, our Lord would have set the example by administering it (cf. also 1 Cor. 1:10-17).

Fifth, and finally, Dunn again speaks to the point: The new birth “is something impossible to man (v. 4) – something that man cannot engineer, or contrive, or achieve. It is wholly Spirit-given. And it is given mysteriously, so that the coming of the Spirit cannot be pinned down to a precise time and precise mode, and the effect of his coming cannot be measured; rather, one just becomes aware of his presence in the believer (v. 8). This hardly squares with the view that John thought of the Spirit as given through Christian baptism, let alone through the water of Christian baptism.”[9]

2. Water = John’s baptism. John’s baptism is mentioned often in the first three chapters of the fourth gospel (1:6-8,15,19-34; 3:22-36). The description of John’s baptism in water as a symbolic preparation for Christ’s baptism in the Holy Spirit is vivid, and thus the coordination of the two in 3:5 would not be surprising. John’s ministry was a call to the repentant individual to prepare himself for the coming Messiah, and his baptism in water was the concrete, external expression of that internal resolve. John’s baptism thus had two focal points: it inaugurated the new life of the converted individual, assuring him of forgiveness and cleansing from sin; and it anticipated the messianic baptism in Spirit.

Therefore, whoever submitted to the water thereby gave visible evidence of his confession of sin and his resolve to forsake the former manner of life. Luke tells us (7:30) that the Pharisees, to whom Nicodemus belonged, were not submitting to John’s baptism, “their reason being that to submit to the same rite as Gentiles and acknowledge the insufficiency of their Jewish birth was a humiliation they could not suffer. To receive the Spirit from the Messiah was no humiliation; on the contrary, it was a glorious privilege. But to go down into the Jordan before a wondering crowd and own their need of cleansing and new birth was too much.”[10] It is to just such a Pharisee, Nicodemus, that our Lord declares that if one is to enter the kingdom he must not only be born of the Spirit but must also die to the past by repenting from sin, all of which is symbolically portrayed by John’s water baptism. Thus to be born of water and Spirit is Jesus’ way of telling Nicodemus that he stands in need of a cleansing from sin, a cleansing symbolized by John’s water baptism and produced by regeneration from the Spirit.[11]

On this view, “water” is not to be understood as an instrument or agency by which one is regenerated, but rather refers to John’s baptism and the repentance from and forgiveness of sin which it symbolically portrayed. If correct, this would restrict the relevance of the text to the time during which John’s baptism was being administered.

Arguments two, four, and five above, cited against the view that Christian baptism is in view, would apply here as well. Furthermore, the text clearly coordinates water and Spirit whereas John uniformly contrasts his baptism, which is in water, with the baptism of the Messiah, which is in Spirit (cf. Mt. 3:11). It must be said, however, that a case might be made for this view were it not for the fact that a better alternative is yet available. See below.

3. Water = BOTH John’s baptism and Christian baptism. The Lutheran scholar R. C. H. Lenski argues that there is “no need . . . to raise the question as to which Baptism Jesus here had in mind, or whether he also referred to his own future sacrament. It was but one sacrament which was commanded by God for the use of the Baptist, then was used by Jesus, and finally instituted for all people.”[12]

To be continued in Part Two . . .

End Notes

[1] Donald Bridge and David Phypers, The Water that Divides (Downers Grove: IVP, 1977), p. 7.

[2] If the two substantives in question are to be taken as independent and distinct it is more natural for the preposition to be repeated before each. The one preposition governing both nouns seems to indicate that the latter are coordinate, of a common class, in a single category.

[3] Murray, II:185-86.

[4] Murray, II:184.

[5] Murray, II:187-88.

[6] There are other views not discussed here, but none worthy of note. One odd view was that of Herman Olhausen in his Biblical Commentary on the New Testament, translated by A. C. Kendrick (New York: Sheldon, Blakeman and Company, 1858), II:354, who argued that “water” is figurative or the penitent soul yielding itself up in love, while the “Spirit” is the masculine potency by whose cooperation the new birth is effected.

[7] Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), pp. 228-29.

[8] Baptism in the Holy Spirit, pp. 193-94.

[9] Ibid., p. 191.

[10] Marcus Dods, The Gospel of St. John in The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), I:713.

[11] For a carefully reasoned defense of this view, see John Reid, “Born of Water and Spirit – John iii.5,” The Expository Times III (October 1891 – September 1892):318-19.

[12] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), p. 238.