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Baptism: Born of Water

Question: Evangelical Christians often speak about being "born again." Jesus teaches that we are born again by baptism. He said, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God!"

Answer: How do you know that water means the rite of baptism? And if it is baptism, how do you know that it is the cause, rather than the sign, of regeneration? You are simply assuming that it refers to baptism. However, there are no compelling reasons why it must have that meaning and there are strong arguments against such an interpretation. As we shall prove, water is often used in Scripture to signify spiritual cleansing by the Word and the Spirit. So "water" could be referring to the inward work of the Holy Spirit by His Word, cleansing the soul, rather than the rite of baptism.

Is regeneration absolutely necessary?

During a conversation with a Jewish ruler, whose name was Nicodemus, Jesus underlined the absolute necessity of regeneration: "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). This statement is shocking. Nicodemus was no ordinary person. He was a Jew and had received the sign of the covenant, circumcision, in his infancy. Being a Pharisee, he was strictly religious, endeavoring to obey the Law of God, praying, teaching the Scriptures and regularly visiting the synagogues to worship God. Despite all that, Nicodemus would never see heaven unless he was born again!

Nicodemus could not take it in. "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" He would rather utter absurdities than admit that the human condition is miserable and hopeless. Pure spiritual life cannot be obtained by physical means. Jesus points out the source of the rebirth: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit" (John 3:5, 6). Being spiritually dead because of our sinful pollution, we cannot give life to ourselves. Only God the Holy Spirit cleanses the heart and gives new life.

Does "water" mean baptism?

Like the Church Fathers, modern Catholic authors presuppose that water means baptism. They rarely attempt to provide supporting evidence. One Catholic author writes, "The context of Jesus' statements in John 3 makes it clear that he was referring to water baptism. Shortly before Jesus teaches Nicodemus about the necessity and regenerating effect of baptism, he, himself, was baptized by John the Baptist."

It does not follow that "water" must mean "baptism" or that this baptism has a regenerating effect simply because Jesus was baptized some time before he spoke those words to Nicodemus. As a matter of fact, Jesus was not regenerated by baptism - for He is the immaculate Son of God and He had no need to be born again!

John's baptism did not cause regeneration. He baptized with water "unto repentance" in preparation for the coming Messiah (Matthew 3:11). He made a clear distinction between his baptism and the better work that Christ would perform. "I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, "Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (John 1:33). That is not to say that water baptism is obsolete, for Christ himself commanded the apostles to baptize new disciples (John 3:22-30; 4:1,2; Matthew 28:19). Yet we should always keep in mind this important distinction made here by John the Baptist, and later on by the apostle Peter (see Acts 10:47; 11:16) -- the rite of baptism administered by a human minister is distinct from the baptism with the Holy Spirit. It is altogether possible for a person to be immersed and washed with baptismal water and yet know nothing of work of the Holy Spirit in the heart - as the ungodly lives of so many baptized people testify. Soon after Simon the magician was baptized, it became evident that he was still "poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity" rather than born again! (Acts 8:23).

Not baptismal regeneration

Catholics practically read the text like this: "Except a man is born by baptism he cannot enter into the Kingdom." If that is true, it follows that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, and that all those who have died unbaptized have been lost. Of course, we know that this is not so.

Let us take Abraham as an example. First, we note that Jesus makes the new birth absolutely necessary for salvation (John 3:3, 5). There is no room for exceptions. Therefore Abraham must have been born again because he is included in the Kingdom of God ("There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out" -- Luke 13:28). Moreover, he was born again "by water and the Spirit" since Jesus insists that this is the way people are regenerated - "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God." So Abraham was born by water and the Spirit. Now since Abraham was never baptized (Christian baptism was introduced many centuries after his death) water cannot refer to the rite of baptism.

Also, if water means baptism, it is difficult to understand why our Lord rebuked Nicodemus for his ignorance. Christian baptism was not yet instituted, nor had the facts that it signifies occurred yet, namely the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. So Nicodemus could not understand "water" to mean baptism. Yet Christ expected this teacher of Israel to know about being born of water, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?" Evidently, Christ meant something other than baptism, which Nicodemus could have known from the Old Testament Scriptures.

Christ teaches that the new birth is the sovereign work of God the Holy Spirit. "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8); "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12, 13). Man cannot determine when and who will be born again; God regenerates whenever and whoever He wishes. The new birth is not "according to the will of man." Now if water baptism automatically causes regeneration, we must say that the wind blows where man wishes, who can tell exactly where it goes because the administration of baptism is very much a matter of the human will.

Water is cleaning and life

What then is the meaning of "water?" In John's Gospel, water is symbolic of the Holy Spirit and the spiritual life He gives (John 4:14; 7:38, 39). Jesus speaks "of water and Spirit" not because there are two sources of regeneration but to describe the Holy Spirit working like water. The two are taken together to describe different aspects of the same reality. The Holy Spirit alone regenerates (John 3:6, 8), and in so doing, He acts like water cleansing and renewing the soul (John 3:5). The Scriptures elsewhere explain that it was "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). The cleaning and renewing of the heart is performed by the Spirit. There is no mention of the rite of baptism, much less that it causes regeneration.

Similarly, God speaks by the prophet Ezekiel: "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of 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 keep My judgments and do them." (Ezekiel 36:25-27). The clean water is applied by God - "I will sprinkle clean water on you" - and not by the priest, midwife or pastor, and by so doing, He cleanses and renews the heart.

We may also add that the Holy Spirit employs the Word of God, the Gospel message, to implant new life in the heart. Given that water is also symbolic of the Word (Ephesians 5:26), it is consistent with the rest of Scripture to say that "born of water" may also refer to God's Word. "Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth" (James 1:18); "Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spiritů having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the Word of God which lives and abides forever" (1 Peter 1:22, 23).


It has been shown that it is unlikely that "water" refers to baptism, and since John 3:5 is the principal Catholic proof text for the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, this crucial Catholic doctrine is rooted in an unproved assumption rather than the manifest meaning of the Word of God.

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A