"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." 4Nicodemus *said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" 5Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6"That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7"Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' 8"The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit," (John 3:3-8).
There are five basic interpretations to this section of scripture in reference to water.
- The water refers to the natural birth.
- The water refers to the Word of God.
- The water refers to the Holy Spirit.
- The water refers to the ministry of John the Baptist.
- The water refers to the water of baptism as a requirement for salvation.
The first option looks to the context of Jesus' words dealing with being born "again" (3:3). Nicodemus responds by mentioning the experience of being born from the womb (v. 4). Jesus then speaks of water and the Spirit and then says, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit," (3:6). The implication is that the first birth is the natural birth and the second birth is the spiritual birth. In other words, the water refers to the water of the womb -- the first birth. This seems to have support in the understanding of Nicodemus about entering into the womb to be born a second time. However, this view is not the most commonly held view.
The second option holds that the water is referring to the Word of God. Eph. 5:26 says, "that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word." Some believe that the washing of water is done by means of the Word of God.
The third view says that the water refers to the Holy Spirit. Perhaps Nicodemus was reminded of Ezek. 36:25-27, "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26"Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27"And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances." Certainly, Jesus' own words are applicable here when He says in John 7:37-39, "Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, "If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. 38"He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, 'From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.'" 39But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified."
The fourth view holds that the water is in reference to the water baptism of repentance taught by John the Baptist. Matt. 3:1-6 describes John's ministry in the desert, his teaching about repentance, and baptizing people into that repentance. Contextually, the first chapter of John mentions John the Baptist in verses 6-8 and 19-36. Certainly, John and his ministry is in view here. If this is the case, then Jesus would have been speaking of the "baptism" (the initiatory ordinance) of repentance preached by John the Baptist.
The fifth view is the one held by the International Church of Christ and other churches that require baptism in order to be saved. They state that the water is referring to baptism and that it is essential to salvation.
Does John 3:5 teach that baptism is essential to salvation?
As you can see, there are different interpretations to John 3:5. But, to simply say that John 3:5 does not teach the necessity of baptism isn't enough. Some sort of proof must be offered. The proof is found in God's word, the word that has no contradictions. Clearly, salvation is by faith. For example, Rom. 5:1 states that we are justified (declared righteous) by faith. It does not say faith and baptism. If baptism were part of salvation, then it would say we were justified by faith and baptism. But it does not. If justification is by faith, then it is by faith. Baptism is not faith. It is a ceremony. It is something we do as a ritual. Furthermore, please consider the following verses when declare how we are saved.
- Rom. 3:22, "even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction."
- Rom. 3:26, "for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."
- Rom. 3:28, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."
- Rom. 4:5, "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness."
- Rom. 5:1, "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,"
- Gal. 3:8, "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham."
- Gal. 3:24, "Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith."
- Eph. 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God."
Additionally, Paul tells us that the gospel is what saves us and that the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Baptism is not included in the description of the gospel. This explains why he said he came to preach the gospel, not to baptize: "I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel..." (1 Cor. 1:14-17). If baptism is necessary for salvation then why did Paul downplay it and even exclude it from the description of what is required for salvation? It is because baptism isn't necessary for salvation. Therefore, John 3:5 must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the rest of scripture.
Another way of making this clear is to use an illustration. Let's suppose that a person, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), believed in Jesus as his savior (Rom. 10:9-10; Titus 2:13), and has received Christ (John 1:12) as Savior. Is that person saved? Of course he is. Let's further suppose that this person who confesses his sinfulness, cries out in repentance to the Lord, and receives Jesus as Savior, then walks across the street to get baptized at a local church. In the middle of the road he gets hit by a car and is killed. Does he go to heaven or hell? If he goes to heaven then baptism isn't necessary for salvation. If He goes to hell, then trusting in Jesus, by faith, isn't enough for salvation. Doesn't that go against the Scriptures that say that salvation is a free gift (Rom. 6:23) received by faith (Eph. 2:8-9)? Yes it does. Baptism is not necessary for salvation and John 3:5 cannot teach that it is.