Foundations: No.62 Spring 2012

The Interpretation of John 3:5

Oliver Gross, Pastor of New Street Evangelical Church, Welshpool, Powys, UK

‘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). [1] This sentence of the Lord Jesus Christ is undoubtedly ‘a saying of much disputed interpretation.’ [2] Notwithstanding this fact, I believe there is evidence sufficiently strong to enable us to arrive at a definite conclusion; namely, that our Lord’s reference here is to water baptism and Spirit baptism respectively. To be as clear as possible, I take ‘born of water’ to mean firstly John’s baptism but ultimately Christian baptism; and ‘born of the Spirit’ as the one experience variously termed the baptism, gift and sealing of the Holy Spirit. Unanimity does not exist on either of these points, though there would seem to be more agreement on the latter, at least amongst Reformed believers. [3] I am as respectful of this difference of opinion as I am confident that the view I advance here will receive a fair hearing from my fellow Christians.

I will present evidence for this interpretation of John 3:5 from: i) the Gospels; ii) the Acts; iii) the Epistles; iv) the Old Testament, before returning to John 3 to evaluate two other common views of verse 5. Then, to prove that the position argued for here is not a historical novelty, the comments of various interpreters will be quoted. I will attempt to clear up several potential misunderstandings before, finally, outlining a few areas in which changes to (or at least further reflection on) our current evangelical practice are desirable in the light of this study.

1.  Evidence from the Gospels

The use of hydōr in John 1-3

The Greek word hydōr (gen. hydatos, ‘water’) is found twenty-one times in the NU Greek Text of the Gospel of John. [4] Not including the verse under review, in seven instances (4:10, 11, 14 [x3], 15; 7:38) ‘water’ is used metaphorically or ambiguously, and in thirteen cases literally; that is, almost twice as much. More significantly, in all its seven occurrences in chapters 1-3 (again, omitting 3:5) hydōr clearly refers to physical water, such as that in a river or drawn from a well to wash with or to drink. The three instances in chapter two (vv.7, 9 [x2]) concern the water that Jesus turned into wine, but the three in chapter one (vv.26, 31, 33), as well as 3:23, refer to the water used in John’s baptism. Of course, the meaning of a word in a disputed text is not to be decided simply by consulting its semantic range and going with the majority report. [5] But the fact that: a) all the occurrences of ’water’ before 3:5 refer to physical water; b) so does the one immediately after; c) the majority of these concern baptising in water; and d) one of them (1:33) has ‘water’ virtually alongside ‘Spirit’, is at least somewhat suggestive that the meaning in 3:5 is likely to be the same.

Indeed, John’s statement in 1:33 has been called ‘the key’ [6] to unlocking Jesus’ meaning in 3:5. The Baptist says, ‘I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit”.’ (cf. 1:31-32) I agree with William Hendriksen that 1:33 is the key to interpreting 3:5, so that there, too, water baptism and Spirit baptism are in view. Don Carson’s [7] cursory dismissal of this particular argument on the basis that in the former ‘water’ and ‘spirit’ are contrasted whereas in the latter they are co-ordinated, is too simplistic. In chapter 3 also ‘water’ is downplayed, occurring only in v.5, whereas ‘Spirit’ is repeated in both v.6 and v.8; here too the latter is being emphasised over the former. And although in 1:33 John somewhat unfavourably compares his baptism with that of God’s Son, he nevertheless affirms that it was God the Father himself who commissioned him. Without John’s ministry Christ would not have been revealed to Israel (1:31); his ‘was a baptism… which pointed people forward to the work that Jesus would do.’ [8] It is not surprising then that in 3:5 Jesus should acknowledge the importance, albeit secondary, of his cousin’s baptism (Matt 21:23-32), which he presently adopted (John 3:22, 4:1-2) and later expanded (Matt 28:19).

The baptism of John

‘Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist’ (Matt 11:11). In the light of this saying alone, it is remarkable that anyone would suggest that John’s baptism was insufficiently important to be the subject of Jesus’s phrase ‘born of water’. Andreas J. Köstenberger says that baptism ‘would not have been a meaningful subject for Jesus to discuss with Nicodemus.’ [9] I beg to differ. Nicodemus was a prominent Pharisee (John 3:1) and in 1:19-28 we are told that it was the Pharisees in particular who had sent priests and Levites to the Baptist to interrogate him concerning his identity and authority. Indeed, they themselves together with the Sadducees came out en masse to John’s baptism at the Jordan (Matt 3:7), presumably to undergo it and so maintain their reputation for piety before the crowds. After John’s stinging rebuke, demanding from them heartfelt repentance leading to moral reformation (Matt 3:7-10), the religious leaders turned against him, saying, ‘He has a demon’ (Luke 7:33). The terrible truth is that in despising John and his baptism, ‘the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him’ (Luke 7:30, NKJV). [10] This was in contrast to the common people and even the tax collectors, who ‘declared God just, having been baptised with the baptism of John’ (Luke 7:29).

When questioned about his authority by the chief priests and elders in the temple, Jesus responded with his own question: ‘The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?’ (Matt 21:25) Though his interlocutors are unwilling to answer, Jesus makes his own view very plain: ‘For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him’ (Matt 21:32). Crucially, notice what Christ says in verse 31: ‘Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.’ So in Matthew 21:31-32, to enter the kingdom of God is to submit to John’s baptism. In John 3:5, unless one is born of water… he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ It is likely, then, that to be born of water and to be baptised by John are the same thing.

There is no need, however, to restrict the meaning of ‘born of water’ to John’s baptism; the reference is to water baptism per se, whether John’s or that of Jesus and his disciples, for both have the authority of heaven behind them. So John 3:22-23: ‘Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized.’ It is frequently asserted that for Jesus to refer to Christian baptism as ‘born of water’ would be understandably baffling to Nicodemus, but any confusion on this point would have been short-lived. Before long, the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples)’ (John 4:1-2). These same disciples would in due time be baptising not only Jews but ‘all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt 28:20). This full-orbed Trinitarian baptism would be the richest fulfilment of that experience termed by the Lord, ‘born of water’.

Christian baptism, then, was an advance on John’s baptism, being not so much contrasted as connected with Spirit baptism. [11]  Yet for both, the essential element of water was the same. Jesus’ saying ‘born of water’ in John 3:5 is both a rebuke to Nicodemus’ likely refusal to submit to John’s baptism, and an affirmation that sacramental cleansing in water, being a token of repentance, was something God would still require of those who would enter his kingdom, even to the end of the age.

The baptism of Jesus

Before moving on to the ‘end of the age’ (1 Cor 10:11), that is, the post-Pentecost period, there is one particular baptism recorded in the gospels that merits special attention. Remarkably, it is the only case where the baptisand is identified:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:9-11)

Here at the beginning of the gospel we see that ‘water’ and ‘the Spirit’ are once again in intimate connection in the context of baptism. Just as at the original creation ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters’ (Gen 1:3), so he is again present at the commencement of the new, for the baptism of Jesus signals the arrival of the world to come.

‘Therein He commenced His messianic ministry with a view to the bringing in of the new creation; therein He was acknowledged by the Father as the Christ; therein the Spirit came to Him, to manifest through Him the Kingdom in grace and power.’ [12]

Christ’s experience is to some extent repeated for Christians, for where the Lord leads we must follow. Alec Motyer notes that ‘at the baptism of the Lord Jesus water-baptism and Spirit-baptism are united, and therein is the pattern of New Testament baptismal blessings.’ [13] There are some important differences, however, between his baptism and ours. Whereas we enter and become subjects of the kingdom of heaven at our baptism, Jesus is already the king when he comes to his (Matt 2:2). We become sons of God when through believer’s baptism we put on Christ (Gal 3:26-27); but Christ himself is already God’s Son (Matt 2:15), being eternally begotten of the Father. We come to ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4; cf. Acts 2:38); Jesus committed no sin and needed no repentance (1 Pet 2:22). The Holy Spirit is given to us to regenerate and renew our sinful natures (Titus 3:5); the Lord always possessed a perfect human nature (Heb 7:26). His Spirit-baptism was only to empower him for service (Acts 10:38; Isa 42:1).

These qualifications do not alter the fact that the conjunction of ‘water’ and ‘the Spirit’ at Jesus’ own baptism is another indication that ‘born of water and the Spirit’ in John 3:5 is a reference to water baptism and Spirit baptism.

2. Evidence from the Acts

The frequent connection between water baptism and Spirit baptism we have observed throughout the Gospels continues into the Acts. Luke’s second volume begins with the Lord Jesus ordering his disciples to remain in Jerusalem, ‘for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’ (1:5; cf. 11:16). If one was only familiar with Luke’s gospel up to this point, one might expect to see him record the demise of the old practice of water baptism and the new phenomenon of Spirit baptism taking its place. Certainly the Lord Jesus is drawing a contrast here, as John himself did (Luke 3:16), between John’s baptism and his. However, we are not far into Acts before it becomes apparent that Christian water baptism (‘in the name of Jesus’) takes over from John’s water baptism, being intimately connected with the baptism of the Spirit.

The 120 disciples

When the day of Pentecost arived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:1-4).

The 120 or so disciples who were assembled together on the day of Pentecost were clearly believers in Jesus, justified by God through faith and experiencing something of the work of the Holy Spirit (1:12-26; John 13:10; 14:17). Nevertheless, according to Christ himself, not until that day would they be baptised with the Holy Spirit and receive power to be his witnesses (1:8). It cannot seriously be doubted that these first Christians had previously been baptised in water, either by John or by the apostles or both. They had been ‘born of water’ some time ago; now at last they were also ‘born of the Spirit’ (cf. John 1:12-13; 7:39).

The 3,000 converts

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for (Gk: eis) the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:37-41).

Concerning 2:38, Ardel Caneday notes that there has been ‘a proliferation of novel attempts to avoid accepting the text’s association of repentance and baptism’ [14] leading to forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Some have suggested that eis should not be rendered ‘for’ or ‘unto’ as in major translations, but rather ‘because of’. Others maintain that it is grammatically possible to understand Peter’s words as follows: ‘Repent (and be baptized each of you on the name of Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of sins’, thus dissociating baptism from forgiveness. The NIV does not add brackets here but does insert an extra full stop, thus making ‘And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ a separate sentence, loosening the connection with baptism. There are other unusual renderings but as Caneday rightly says, ‘each of these interpretations looks like an attempt to avoid the obvious sense of the verse.’ [15] Which is? ‘The penitent believer baptized in the name of Jesus Christ may expect to receive at once the Holy Spirit, even as he is assured of the immediate forgiveness of his sins.’ [16]

The experience of the 3,000 converts on the day of Pentecost was thus as follows: they heard, believed, repented, were baptized in water, then baptized in the Holy Spirit. They were born of ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’!

The Samaritans

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ… When they believed Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women… Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:5, 12, 14-17).

The experience of the Samaritan converts was unusual even by New Testament standards. However, what is untypical is not the order in which they experienced conversion (faith/repentance – water baptism – Spirit baptism) but the postponement of their reception of the Spirit. What was the reason for this delay? Although implicit rather than explicit, it must have something to do with the authority of the apostles (v.14ff). They were the ones to whom Christ had said, ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’ (1:8). They, and Peter in particular, were entrusted with ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’, to admit and refuse entry in unison with God (Matt 16:19; 18:18f). This is not at all to say that Philip was out of line when he took the initiative to go to Samaria. It was necessary however that those who were the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20) should play a vital role in this momentous advance, not only because it was pragmatic to do so (avoiding a rift with the Jerusalem church) but moreover because it was proper.

For our purposes, note in particular v.16: ‘For he [the Holy Spirit] had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ The Samaritans, too, were born of ‘water’ and ‘the Spirit’ – in that order. Nevertheless, the account of Simon the Sorcerer (vv.9-24) warns us against construing the relationship between water and Spirit baptism in an automatic, ex opere operato, fashion.

Saul of Tarsus

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized (Acts 9:17-18).

Saul’s experience is routinely cited as an example of someone receiving the Holy Spirit before being baptised in water. This may have been so, but not necessarily; and, in my opinion, not likely! When the text is read carefully it will be seen that although Saul’s receiving the Spirit was to be achieved by Ananias’ visit, it is not clear how exactly that goal was attained. Certainly Saul’s physical sight was restored through the laying on of Ananias’ hands: ‘immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight’ (v.18a; cf. v.12). Luke however does not add at this point, ‘and he was filled with the Holy Spirit’; but rather, ‘Then he rose and was baptized’ (v.18b). This is not something that Ananias had previously mentioned – but had he implied it? Could it be that he understood the way in which Saul would receive the gift of the Spirit was through the now penitent persecutor (v.11) being baptised in water? This would tie in with the order observed so far in Acts, and also with the tenor of his comments recounted by Paul in 22:13-16. There again, only the restoration of Paul’s sight is specified to be the result of the laying on of hands: ‘[Ananias] came to me, and standing by me said to me, “Brother Saul, receive your sight.” And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him’ (v.13). Then he utters words not recorded in chapter 9: ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard’ (vv.14-15). Significantly, Ananias concludes with this: ‘And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name’ (16). There is no mention of the impartation of the Spirit in this account of Saul’s conversion, but the implication seems to be that this happened as soon as, rather than before, Saul was cleansed from his past in baptism. This may have been through a subsequent laying on of hands by Ananias, as with the Samaritans; or as the direct act of God himself, as with the 120 disciples.

All of this notwithstanding, it is just possible that the standard evangelical line may be correct and that Saul received the Holy Spirit at the same time as his sight. We have already noted that the Spirit could be given in this way and we shall soon see another clear example of this. However, if this view is correct then we have a precedent for the gift of the Holy Spirit being given through the hands of one who, though an exceptional Christian, was not an apostle (9:10; 22:12). This suggests that the bestowal of the Spirit in this way might not be a phenomenon that died with the apostolic band!

Whatever the precise order, in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus there were two familiar features: baptism in water and baptism with the Spirit. Even an arch-persecutor could be ‘born of water and the Spirit’ and so enter the kingdom of God!

Cornelius and his household

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, ‘Can anyone withold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:44-48a).

This was a remarkable incident in more ways than one. First of all, the recipients of the Holy Spirit were Gentiles; although Cornelius was a God-fearer – and I would suggest a genuine OT believer (10:1-4, 34-35) – he was not a Jew, nor even a convert to Judaism, being uncircumcised (10:28; 11:2-3). Secondly, and only a little less noteworthy, they were unwashed Gentiles, literally! In all likelihood these are the only people of whom the NT bears witness that they received the Holy Spirit before baptism. The oft-repeated claim that the early church only baptised people on the basis that they had already received the Spirit is, as we have seen, seriously mistaken. No, as a general rule they baptised them in order that they might receive the Holy Spirit! Yet clearly, in this one case, the aforementioned assertion is true. The Apostle Peter, no less, commanded baptism because he and everyone else present had seen and heard abundant evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. ‘Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ (v.47, NKJV) ‘If they had received the reality, how could they be denied the sign?’ [17]

Two very important applications are to be noted here. Firstly, and reverently, we must never put God in a box! The triune God is absolutely sovereign in the matter of salvation; he can circumcise the hearts of uncircumcised Gentiles; he can pour out his Spirit on those with unbaptised bodies. Here we see a notable realisation of Christ’s figure of speech: ‘The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (Jn 3:8). Cornelius and his household were not the last of whom it could be said that God had ‘cleansed their hearts through faith’ (Acts 15:9) though their bodies were not ‘washed with pure water’ (Hebrews 10:22). ‘What God hath cleansed, call not thou common’ (10:15, AV).

Secondly, this passage uniquely reinforces the case for the view of John 3:5 being argued here. Peter’s reaction to the Spirit baptism of Cornelius was not, ‘Oh well, we can forget about water baptism now.’ Rather: ‘Can anyone withold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ (v.47) Even those who have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit are still obliged to submit to the ordinance of baptism. In whatever order, we must be ‘born of water and the Spirit.’

The Ephesian disciples

And [Paul] said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying (Acts 19:2-6).

The last of the ‘mini-Pentecosts’ in Acts concerns not an ethnic group but a religious one. These ‘disciples’ (v.2) that Paul encountered in Ephesus actually turned out to be followers of John not Jesus. They seem to have been unaware of the identity of the Christ or even of the existence of the Holy Spirit. [18] The latter is especially surprising given that John clearly taught on the subject (Matt 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16). Perhaps they were particularly ill-informed followers of the Baptist, living so far away from Judea? If so, it might just be the case that not every convert of John’s was also required to undergo Christian baptism (this is the only explicit instance of such in the NT; cf. 18:24-28). [19] Whatever the case may have been with their fellows, these disciples of John first submitted to water baptism in Christ’s name before receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit, mediated through the hands of Paul (vv.5-6). Their experience, recorded towards the end of Acts, confirms yet again the pattern outlined by Peter at the beginning (2:38), and indeed envisaged by the Lord Jesus long ago in that nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:5).

3.   Evidence from the Epistles

There are number of interesting passages in the Epistles where water baptism seems to have an instrumental function rather than a symbolic or ‘sealing’ one (Rom 6:3-4; Eph 5:25-27; Col 2:11-13; 1 Pet 3:21). [20] Here I will only highlight those that are most striking in their likeness to John 3:5.

1 Corinthians 6:11

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Paul in this passage reminds the Corinthians of who will and who will not enter the kingdom of heaven when it comes in its fullness at the end of the age (cf. vv.2-3). Various kinds of sinners are marked out and excluded from any hope of attaining eternal life (vv.9-10). In fact, there were those now in the church of Corinth who had once pursued these very lifestyles – and some who were in danger of turning back to them. In a glorious contrast the apostle recalls how the God who is Trinity had wondrously transformed them at the time of their conversion. The three verbs in verse 11 refer to different aspects of the same decisive event: these scandalous sinners had been washed clean from their moral filthiness and pollution; they had been definitively sanctified, set apart as holy to the Lord; and he himself had pronounced them to be just, forgiving their sins. All this was done ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God,’ i.e. when they were baptised in water and baptised in the Spirit (cf. Acts 8:16). Bishop Lightfoot points out that: ‘”In the name” is the external essential, as “in the Spirit” is the internal essential of Christian baptism.’ [21] As ever, Paul agrees with his Lord: ‘Unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’!

Galatians 3:26-27; 4:6

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ… And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ (Galatians 3:26-27; 4:6).

These verses, though located in different chapters of Galatians, occur in the context of the same argument. The apostle is contrasting the slavery and immaturity of God’s people under the OT with the liberty and maturity that is now theirs in the NT. Two tremendous events have secured this happy transition: the sending forth of God’s Son (4:4), and the sending forth of God’s Spirit (4:6). Notice the reason why the Holy Spirit was given: ‘Because you are sons…’ (4:6). How did the Galatians become sons of God? Through believer’s baptism (3:26-27). Geoffrey Wilson captures Paul’s argument here: ‘Why should the Galatians now submit to circumcision when they have already clothed themselves with Christ in baptism? “You have all put on” (middle voice) denotes responsible action, for in their obedience to the command of Christ they had given conscious expression to their faith in him [Matt. 28:19].’ [22]

‘Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labour! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband’ (4:27). Yes – children ‘born of water and the Spirit’!

Titus 3:5

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he 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, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).

In this theologically luxurious and quite beautiful passage the key phrase for our purpose is ‘by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.’ [23] The similarity of this verse to John 3:5 is well known, but what is there to support the view that both verses are speaking of water baptism and Spirit baptism? Several points:

  1. The verbal form of the noun translated ‘bath’ or ‘washing’ (loutron) is elsewhere used of the physical act of baptism (Acts 22:16; Heb 10:22; 1 Cor 6:11). The noun itself is used in Eph 5:26 – ‘by the washing of water with the word’; in all likelihood another reference to baptism.
  2. Paul says it was by this washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit that we were saved. That baptism, in some sense, saves us is taught in 1 Peter 3:21 – ‘Baptism… now saves you.’
  3. The renewing of the Holy Spirit refers to the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit (v.6 – ‘whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour’; cf. Acts 2:33 – ‘having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you are seeing and hearing’). [24] As we have seen, the gift of the Spirit is something that always follows faith and usually baptism also.
  4. Paul also links justification with this washing and renewal (v.7, ‘that having been justified by his grace…). Baptism is connected with the forgiveness of sins in Acts 2:38; 22:16; Col 2:11-13; perhaps Rom 6:3-7, ‘He who has died [in baptism] has been freed [literally, ‘justified’] from sin’).

Tom Schreiner remarks on these verses: ‘We see once again the initiatory character of baptism, in that it designates the boundary between the old life and the new. The newness of life is also traced to the work of the Holy Spirit… so that he is the one who grants new life to believers. The new life of believers is fittingly described in terms of washing, which recalls baptism where sins are washed away. Baptism in Titus, then, is closely associated with the work of the Spirit…’ [25]

Hebrews 6:1-2

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith towards God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement (Hebrews 6:1-2).

The sixth chapter of Hebrews features far more often in debates over perseverance and eternal security than of baptism. Yet, remarkably, this is the only passage in the NT that explicitly includes all four of the crucial components of conversion – repentance, faith, water baptism and Spirit baptism. [26] The first two are in verse 1 and are plain to see; the other two are in verse 2 but may not be immediately apparent.

When we recollect all that we have seen so far however, especially in the Acts, it will be seen that ‘instruction about washings’ (baptismōn) and ‘the laying on of hands’ refer to water baptism and Spirit baptism respectively. Christian baptism needed to be distinguished from other ablutions performed by Jewish sects, e.g. the Essenes, and also from John’s baptism (Acts 19:3-5). Although the Spirit could be given immediately by God (Acts 2:1-4; 11:15-17), the customary way for this to happen, so it would seem, was through the imposition of hands (Acts 8:17; 19:6). Reference here to ordination ceremonies (Acts 6:6; 9:17; 13:3) would seem out of place alongside such weighty subjects as ‘the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.’ By contrast, being ‘born of water and of the Spirit’ is essential for entrance into the kingdom of God, which will arrive in its fullness when Christ returns to raise and judge the dead (2 Tim 4:1). It is likely then that in both Hebrews 6:2 and John 3:5 water baptism and Spirit baptism are in view.

4. Evidence from the Old Testament

Ezekiel 36:24-28

For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. 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. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God (Ezekiel 36:24-28, NKJV).

It is very likely that Christ was alluding to this Scripture in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. When the Pharisee expresses his frustration and inability to understand (v.9), the Lord replies: ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’ (v.10) Nicodemus ought to know what Jesus is talking about because it was foretold in the Old Testament. As a prominent instructor of the Jews, he of all people should be familiar with Ezekiel’s prophecy! The New Covenant announced by the prophets is about to be inaugurated by the Messiah, and the only way to benefit from it is to experience a rebirth: ‘born again… of water and Spirit.’
It is frequently asserted that the ‘clean water’ of Ezekiel 36:25 is a purely spiritual cleansing, performed by God himself, and therefore cannot be identified with water baptism, which is a physical act. [27] In response, it is very important to understand that both John’s baptism and Christian baptism, though outward and physical rites, are intimately associated with spiritual blessings (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:11-13 etc). Without faith baptism is indeed unprofitable, but a believer’s baptism is something different. According to Louis Berkhof: ‘A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in which, by sensible signs, the grace of God in Christ is represented, sealed, and applied to believers, and they, in turn, express their faith and obedience to God… Where the sacrament is received in faith, the grace of God accompanies it.’ [28] Although administered by men it is a baptism ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 8:16; 19:5; 1 Cor 6:11); and indeed, ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 28:19). Jesus’ baptism no less than John’s is ‘from heaven’ (Mark 11:30-31). God owns and acts in the event, only where penitent faith is present.

There is also another NT text that is reminiscent of Ezekiel 36 and may be a deliberate allusion to it. Hebrews 10:22 says: ‘Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’. Whereas Christians are cleansed inwardly (‘our hearts’) by the blood of Christ (cf. 9:14; 12:24), their outer selves (‘our bodies’) are washed with ‘pure’ (i.e. ‘clean’, see Ps 24:4a) water. Although not admitted by all commentators, this washing is most likely a reference to baptism. [29]  Its similarity to Ezekiel 36:25, almost certainly in the background in John 3:5, suggests that baptism is also being referred to in these verses.

The NT does not support a Platonic cleavage between the physical and the spiritual. There are no valid grounds, therefore, for refusing to see Ezekiel 36:25 as being fulfilled in the baptism of John and ultimately Christian baptism. As this OT passage is almost certainly alluded to by Jesus in John 3:5, we have a strong indication that Jesus’ phrase ‘born of water and the Spirit’ refers to water baptism and Spirit baptism.

5. Alternative interpretations

Besides the understanding of John 3:5 advanced above, there are two other quite common interpretations of our text. Neither of them, in my opinion, is more compelling.

The first alternative approach is to understand Jesus as contrasting physical birth (‘born of water’, i.e. amniotic fluid, ‘the breaking of the waters’ in childbirth] with spiritual birth (‘born of the Spirit’). Support for this view is found in the verses immediately preceding and following v.5. Nicodemus incredulously raises the subject of a second physical birth (v.4), and in v.6 Jesus plainly does contrast physical and spiritual birth: ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’.
At first sight this may seem persuasive, even conclusive. However, the following considerations weigh heavily against this view:

  1. There is no evidence that ‘born of water’ was ever used of physical birth in the ancient world. There is an occasional reference to semen as ‘water’ (and as ‘dew’ or ‘rain’), but this would refer to insemination rather than birth; the father’s role, not the mother’s.
  2. There was a common way of referring to physical birth: not ‘born of water’ but ‘born of woman’ (see Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4). Jesus himself used this expression (Mt 11:11; Lk 7:28) and he could have done so here if that is what he meant. Or, indeed, why did he not say, ‘born of flesh and the Spirit’ in v.5, as he does in v.6? Why confuse Nicodemus further by using different words for the same thing?
  3. Even in response to Nicodemus’ question in v.4, would it really be a point worth making that ‘A man cannot enter the kingdom unless he is first born physically’? ‘A man’, by definition, is already someone who has been so born. Jesus stresses, ‘Unless a man is born of water…’ (AV), implying that it is possible not to be so born. One cannot refuse to be born but men can, and do, decline to submit to baptism (Luke 7:30).
  4. The grammar indicates one birth rather than two. Jesus does not say ‘born of water and born of the Spirit’, nor even ‘born of water and of the Spirit’; but ‘born of water and Spirit’. One preposition (ek, ‘out of’) governs both words, the implication being that what is contemplated is one birth with two aspects.
  5. This interpretation does not take into account the points observed above: the use of ‘water’ in John 1-3 to refer to normal, physical, drinking or washing water (especially that used in baptism); the occurrence of ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ in a baptismal context throughout the NT; and the very likely allusion to Ezekiel 36:25-26 by Jesus. In fact, if this view of John 3:5 is correct, Christ cannot be reminding Nicodemus of that OT passage, for ‘water’ there is clearly not the ‘water’ of childbirth! But why, then, the admonition in v. 10-12?

Whereas this first alternative interpretation regards ‘water’ and ‘flesh’ as synonyms, the second, and more credible, is that ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are synonyms: ‘Unless one is born of water, that is, the Spirit’. So this view holds that in John 3:5 Jesus is identifying ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’, e.g. ‘the Spirit working like water’, ‘the water of the Spirit’.
There is much more to be said for this second alternative than the first. The Spirit of God is probably likened to water in Isaiah 44:3, an example of poetic parallelism. It is alleged that this literary device is also being used in Ezekiel 36:25, which provides the OT background to Jesus’ saying. Luke 3:16 is cited as a NT example of parallelism or epexegesis, in this case the Spirit being likened to fire. Moreover, Christ speaks of ‘living water’ in John 4:10-14, contrasting this with physical water. Then in 7:37-39, he identifies the Spirit as this living water, ‘whom those who believed in him were to receive’ (v.39).

Nevertheless, in spite of these weighty points, this second interpretation is not without its problems:

  1. The Holy Spirit is likened to a physical element in John 3: the wind! ‘The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (v.8). Both ‘wind’ and ‘Spirit’ translate the same Greek word (pneuma). Given that Jesus is clearly illustrating the work of the Spirit by comparison with the wind (cf. Ezek 37), would it not be confusing if he was doing likewise with water?

2.   In John’s gospel, where hydōr (‘water’) does refer to spiritual ‘water’ it is qualified by an additional adjective (e.g. ‘living’, 4:10) or phrase (e.g. ‘the water that I shall give him’, 4:14) or even by a noun (e.g. ‘streams/rivers’, 7:38). Otherwise it has its normal sense of physical water.

 3.   Although in chapters 4 & 7 the Spirit is in view, chapter 1 speaks of baptismal water with v.33 referring to both water baptism and Spirit baptism. Significantly, in 3:22-23, immediately after the incident with Nicodemus ends, John records that both Jesus and John were baptising people in water. So, notwithstanding the spiritual water of chapters 4 & 7, the nearest relevant ‘water’ references to 3:5 are speaking of physical, baptismal water.

4.   This interpretation, like the previous one, ignores the fact that ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are found frequently throughout the NT in the context of baptism. What is more, they normally happen in that order, i.e. water baptism followed by Spirit baptism (Acts 2:38), which is also the sequence suggested by John 3:5.

5.   The alleged parallel with Luke 3:16 is questionable. First of all, it reads ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’, whereas John 3:5 says ‘born of water and [the] Spirit’, i.e. in one the Spirit is mentioned first and in the other last. More significantly, it is not at all clear that in its context Luke 3:16 means ‘the baptism of the Spirit, which will be like fire’. This is possible, given the tongues of fire that appeared when the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). However Luke 3:17 refers to the chaff (i.e. unbelievers) being burnt ‘with unquenchable fire’. It is likely that ‘fire’ in v.16 is the same as in v.17, that is, not a metaphor for baptism in the Spirit but a baptism of judgement (12:50; cf. Mark 10:38).

My conclusion, then, is that in John 3:5 the relationship between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ is not one of adversity on the one hand (view 1), nor identity on the other hand (view 2), but of unity. One preposition governs both nouns because water baptism and Spirit baptism belong together, for there is only ‘one baptism’ (Eph 4:5). They are to be distinguished, but not separated. Jesus does allude to the prophecy of Ezekiel 36 because the water baptism that his disciples and John were administering was part and parcel of its fulfilment. Yet the close association between the physical rite and the spiritual reality is not mechanical or magical, for God the Holy Spirit is sovereign and is free to work in unexpected ways, e.g. in the experience of the Samaritans and Cornelius’ household. [30]

6. The testimony of tradition

Although only Scripture is infallible (2 Tim 3:16), the exegetical insights of those who have gone before us are invaluable. Indeed, if someone were to come along with an interpretation that no one had ever thought of before, it is all but certain that the novelty is wrong!

Does the understanding of ‘born of water and the Spirit’ advocated here have any historical precedent? The reality is that this has been by far the majority view of biblical scholars from the earliest times [31] through to the present day [32] , including some notable evangelical worthies. Here is a selection of quotes extending from the patristic era, through the Reformation, to the modern age:

Justin Martyr: ‘As many as are persuaded and believe that the things are true which are taught by us [Christian teachers]… are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, and we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and are born again in like manner in which we ourselves were born again. For in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water.’ [33]

Irenaeus: ‘For our bodies have received the unity which brings us to immortality, by means of the washing [of Baptism]; our souls receive it by means of [the gift of] the Spirit. Thus both of these are needed, for together they advance man’s progress towards the life of God.’ [34]

Basil the Great: ‘This then is what it is to be born again of water and of the Spirit, the being made dead being effected in the water, while our life is wrought in us through the Spirit. In three immersions [35] , then, and with three invocations, the great mystery of baptism is performed… It follows that if there is any grace in the water, it is not of the nature of the water, but of the presence of the Spirit.’ [36]

John Chrysostom: ‘The cleansing is called the bath of regeneration. God saves us, says St Paul, through the bath of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. It is also called enlightenment, and again it is St Paul who calls it this… It is also called baptism. For all you [who] have been baptised into Christ, have put on Christ.’ [37]

Martin Luther: ‘Water doesn’t make these things happen, of course. It is God’s Word, which is with and in the water. Because, without God’s Word, the water is plain water and not baptism. But with God’s Word it is a Baptism, a grace-filled water of life, a bath of new birth in the Holy Spirit, as Saint Paul said to Titus in the third chapter: Through this bath of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit…’ [38]

George Whitefield: ‘It is plain beyond all contradiction, that comparatively but few of those that are ‘born of water’ are ‘born of the Spirit’… many are baptized with water which were never baptized with the Holy Ghost.’ [39]

Josiah Pratt: ‘Titus iii. 5 – Saved us by the WASHING OF REGENERATION, and RENEWING OF THE HOLY GHOST. John iii. 5 – Born of WATER and of the SPIRIT. There are means, both EXTERNAL and INTERNAL, by which we are brought into a way of salvation. Baptism is the EXTERNAL SIGN and SEAL of the new covenant, and whereby we are admitted into the Church of Christ, and entitled to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, which is represented and sealed to us by baptism.’ [40]

R. H. Lightfoot: ‘When Nicodemus understands the Lord’s words in their most literal sense… the Lord defines the rebirth as one by means of water and spirit… the instructed reader cannot fail to think of the rite of initiation into the Christian Church, a rite issuing in the endowment of its members with the Holy Spirit.’ [41]

B. F. Westcott: ‘Christian baptism, the outward act of faith welcoming the promise of God, is incorporation into the body of Christ, and so the birth of the Spirit is potentially united with the birth of water. The general inseparability of these two is indicated by the form of the expression, born of water and spirit… as distinguished from the double phrase, born of water and of spirit. [42]

G. Campbell Morgan: ‘Then Jesus went on, very beautifully answering him in the realm of interpretation. Listen to him. He said, ‘Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.’ Mark the continuity. You have been attending the ministry of one who baptised you in water, and told you Another would baptise you in the Spirit. Except you are born of all that the water signified, repentance; and that which the Spirit baptism accomplishes, regeneration, you cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.’ [43]

D. M. Lloyd-Jones: ‘“Born of water” is baptism, if you like, repentance. It is a man or woman saying, “I see now that I am blind; I am vile and foul; I need to be cleansed, I cannot stand before God, I need to be washed, I need to be renewed.” That is repentance!’ [44]

William Hendriksen: ‘The key to the interpretation of these words is found in 1:33 (see also 1:26, 31; cf. Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16) where water and Spirit are also found side by side, in connection with baptism.’ [45]

R. V. G. Tasker: ‘In the light of the reference to the practice by Jesus of water baptism in verse 22, it is difficult to avoid construing the words of water and of the Spirit conjunctively, and regarding them as a description of Christian baptism, in which cleansing and endowment are both essential elements… The outward and visible sign in the Christian Church of the new birth is baptism.’ [46]

G. R. Beasley-Murray: ‘The reference to new birth by water and Spirit inevitably directs attention to Christian baptism.’ [47]

Alec Motyer: ‘The Holy Spirit is linked with baptism in Jn. iii. 5; Acts ii. 38, ix. 17, 18, x. 47; 1 Cor. xii. 13; 2 Cor. i. 22; Eph. i. 13; Tit. iii. 5… The Spirit is present at baptism, and it is He who accomplishes the spiritual operations of which the water is the sign and seal (e.g. 1 Cor. xii. 13; Tit. iii. 5).’ [48]

Gordon J. Keddie: ‘In connecting water baptism with the Holy Spirit, Jesus relentlessly pressed the need of inward, Spirit-driven change upon the hapless Pharisee (cf. Ezek. 36:25-27; Luke 3:16).’ [49]

Bruce Milne: ‘If our interpretation of ‘water and the Spirit’ (v.5) is correct (viz. an allusion to Ezk. 36:25-27) then baptism in water was an obvious vehicle to convey entry to the new life of the promised kingdom.’ [50]

Brian Russell: ‘The language the rabbis used of the newly baptised proselyte is most instructive. They said he is “like a new-born child”, “a new creation”, that he has been “raised for the Lord”. Accordingly, Gentiles who became Israelites in this way were described as “born of water” and not of blood. Hence our Lord’s use of the term in John 3:5, “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” According to Jesus, it’s not enough to be baptised in water to enter the kingdom of God; one must also be baptised in the Spirit and be born anew spiritually.’ [51]

7.  Points of clarification [52]

One senses at times that what drives the alternative interpretations of John 3:5 is the fear of ‘baptismal regeneration’. Some reading this may be wondering whether the position adopted in this article is not a species of this error, or at least opens the door to it. It is necessary to define what we mean by this term. To affirm that everyone who receives Christian baptism is thereby regenerated, regardless of their spiritual state, is indeed a significant error that flies in the face of the Scriptures. But the truth of the claim that the NT’s doctrine of conversion comprises both repentance and faith, water baptism and Spirit baptism – normally, though not invariably, in that order – is surely plain for all to see. One may not wish to equate the last two components with the birth ‘of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5) and ‘the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5) as I have done, but that this is a biblically defensible position and an acceptable one for an evangelical to take should not, I think, be doubted.

Another mistake would be to assume that this view entails the belief that anyone who has not been baptised is lost. Stanley Fowler makes a very important point when he says: ‘The sacramental character of baptism functions only positively (‘be baptised in order to be saved by Christ’), not negatively (‘if you are not baptised, then you cannot be saved’).’ [53] Repentance (Ps 51:17) and faith (Acts 16:31) are the essence of conversion, so that whoever truly has these will surely not be disqualified for lacking baptism (e.g. the thief on the cross, Luke 23:39-43). God can, and does, save whom he will, even without baptism (in the case of infants and others, even without repentance and faith!). Therefore we should not be greatly alarmed if our experience of conversion differs somewhat from the NT pattern. God is sovereign in salvation and is free to work outside the normal channels of his grace (John 3:8). We see somewhat varying experiences even in the apostolic age, so should not be surprised if it is so in our day.

Finally, some may still be anxious about giving water baptism too much prominence, for wouldn’t this lay the foundation for a legalistic religion of works? What about sola gratia and sola fide? These slogans do capture the heart of the gospel but the Reformers would be shocked at the way in which some of their spiritual descendants have enlisted them in the cause of severing baptism from salvation. Luther especially put much emphasis on the two genuine sacraments – too much in my opinion! Still, we must reckon with the fact that ‘Lutheran theology has taught both the strongest form of justification by faith alone and the highest view of baptismal efficacy,’ so that, ‘the idea that salvation by faith alone is incompatible with sacramentalism is at least historical nonsense.’ [54] There is a necessity about baptism, but it is a relative, not absolute, necessity, something that Calvin saw clearly. [55] The Reformation as a whole did involve a break with exalted Roman Catholic notions of the sacraments, but managed to avoid swinging to the opposite extreme on this issue. It was the Radicals who took up an anti-sacramental position that has somehow managed to become the dominant evangelical positon today, even among the Reformed. [56] In my opinion, the Anabaptists were right on the issues of the proper mode and subjects of baptism, but it was the magisterial Reformers who retained a more biblical view of its efficacy. They did so because some of the strongest NT affirmations of a wholly gratuitous salvation are found cheek-by-jowl with a robust doctrine of baptism (e.g. Titus 3:3-7; Eph 2:1-10, cf. Col 2:11-15).

8.  Practical Applications

Preaching. ‘Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel’ (1 Cor 1:17). The primary task of the Christian minister is not to administer the sacraments but to announce the Saviour. ‘Paul does not denigrate the practice of baptism per se, but baptism must be subordinated to the gospel so that it does not sabotage the gospel, that is, Christ crucified for sinners.’ [57] Just getting people wet is not going to get them into the kingdom; getting them to put their trust in Christ is – which faith will then be expressed in baptism (1 Pet 3:21). This statement of Paul’s must however be balanced by the Great Commission, where Christ does direct his apostles to baptise new disciples (Mt 28:18-19; cf. Jn 4:1-2). Indeed, the call to submit to baptism is an explicit feature of two of the NT’s own evangelistic messages (Acts 2:38; 22:16), the latter of which was addressed to Paul himself.

Yet it is very rare today to hear a gospel preacher impress the need to be baptised on the consciences of his unconverted hearers, for many evangelicals would consider this to be at best confusing the issue and at worst heresy. At the same time the popularity of altar calls, decision cards, raised hands, etc, have in some circles taken the place of baptism as the physical expression of the spiritual act of coming to Christ. These ‘new measures’, as crass as they sometimes can be, do bear witness to the very human need for a tangible step of commitment and seal of assurance. God did, after all, give us a body as well as a soul (Gen 2:7); that he remembers we are dust is the reason he has given us sacraments at all (Heb 10:22).

My point is simply that we should not go beyond what is written’ (1 Cor 4:6). If those who turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6) did not hesitate to call on their fellows to be baptised, neither should we.

Baptising. As with our preaching of baptism, why have we similarly departed from the apostolic practice of baptism? I do not refer to the mode but to the timing. ‘In apostolic times it is plain that baptism followed immediately upon confession of faith in Christ. The repeated accounts of baptism in Acts give ample proof of this. [58] It is remarkable that there has been so much zeal in some quarters to imitate the primitive practice of immersion, but no corresponding desire to baptise immediately upon profession of faith, or at least as soon as possible afterwards. The postponement of baptism does indeed have a long history, going back to the catechumenate of the late 2nd century. [59] These days we run baptismal classes, sometimes extending over months. This is all a far cry from the NT pattern, so why do we not return to it? Various justifications for delaying baptism today are given, including: the superior discernment of the apostles; the likelihood of persecution in the 1stcentury; the majority of converts being already well-informed Jews. But the apostles and evangelists could and did make mistakes (Simon Magus; Demas) and Gentile converts were baptised as quickly as Jewish ones (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8). An awareness on the part of those seeking baptism that they are likely to face persecution might well make us more confident of their motives. Still, the fact that we live in a less (though increasingly) hostile climate than the early church did surely cannot by itself justify such a radical departure from apostolic practice. Perhaps it is unfair, but I suspect that a more likely reason for the prevailing practice is simply a reluctance to go to the trouble of filling the baptistry too often, having to ask the congregation to sit through a longer service than usual, and not least the fact that friends and family members always need plenty of notice if they are going to be there. Reforming cherished traditions can be quite a daunting prospect!

Water baptism and Spirit baptism both properly belong at the outset of the Christian life, not several months or years down the line once the professing disciple has proved himself. I am not suggesting we throw caution to the wind and baptise all and sundry. Every baptisand should be made fully aware of what they are getting themselves into and ‘count the cost’ (Luke 14:28) of following Christ. Just as John the Baptist left the Jews in no doubt as to what repentance must look like (Luke 3:7-14), so must the Christian minister with those who come to his baptism. ‘No cross; no crown’; and until this is grasped, no baptism! But if the apostles could fulfil this responsibility in a few hours (Acts 16:32-33), cannot we?

Laying on of hands. All I want to say on this is to ask the question: Why is this notable apostolic practice, this ‘elementary doctrine of Christ’ (Hebrews 6:1-2), now notable by its total absence from our churches? It is, of course, still common in ordination and commissioning services but this only serves to make its absence from Christian initiation all the more curious. I am conscious that I may be speaking out of ignorance here: perhaps there are congregations in Affinity that do practice the imposition of hands in this context? Or maybe there are sound theological reasons why this should no longer take place? In any case it seems to me that some careful thinking needs to be done in this area. Perhaps this could be the subject of a future article?


The interpretation of John 3:5 advanced above is neither the most common nor comfortable for us as evangelicals, but I am persuaded it is correct. In my opinion it is the only one that takes into account all of the relevant biblical data from the Gospels, the Acts, the Epistles and the Old Testament. It is therefore more persuasive than the two other major views of the passage. The concurrence of the greater part of the universal church, from the earliest times to the present, confirms this. Therefore I sincerely commend it to the church of today for serious and prayerful consideration – and appropriate remedial action.


‘The servants of God are baptized’

The servants of God are baptized,
With Jesus made visibly one;
Come, Spirit, and clothe them with power,
The world and its pleasures to shun.

The servants of God are baptized,
Salvation revealed and displayed;
Come, Spirit, and seal on their minds
The sacrifice Jesus has made.

The servants of God are baptized,
United with Christ in His death;
Come, Spirit, descend on their souls
And fill with Your life-giving breath.

The servants of God are baptized,
Immersed in the tomb with their Lord;
Come, Spirit, and open their eyes
To walk in the light of God’s word.

The servants of God are baptized,
They rise up with Christ to new life;
Come, Spirit, abide in their hearts
For days of temptation and strife.

The servants of God are baptized
With Christians made visibly one;
Come, Spirit, and rest on us now
To worship God’s glorious Son.

Nick Needham, b. 1959 © Author [60]