by James E. Cooper
in Biblical Insights, Vol. 5, No. 2, Feb. 2005
Question: "Does 'born of water' in John 3:3,5 refer to baptism?
Answer: Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God," and "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:3,5).
From the statements of our Lord, we can readily see that the new birth, if essential to entering the kingdom, and entering the kingdom, is tantamount to being saved. When one is "delivered from the power of darkness," he is "translated into the kingdom" of God's Son (Colossians 1:13). When he becomes "such as should be saved," he is added to the Lord's church (Acts 2:47).
Preachers (Baptists, in particular) have such a prejudice against the idea that baptism is essential to salvation that they will go to great lengths to "explain away" the simple language of Jesus. Taking their stand on the doctrine of "salvation by faith alone," they must argue that baptism has nothing to do with salvation.
Historically, New Testament scholars have taught that "water" in John 3:5 refers to baptism. Only within the last couple of centuries have men tried to argue that it surely must mean something else. The reason for such is simple. For, if "born of water" refers to baptism, then baptism is essential to salvation and to entering heaven at last.
But in trying to defend their doctrine of salvation by faith alone, they are inconsistent with the Word of God. Further, they are inconsistent with the denominational scholarship of the past. Let us review a few comments on this passage from the past.
In an article on "Baptism and Remission" in Baptist Quarterly (July 1877, pg. 309), Wilmarth said:
"Christ Himself, in His early Judean ministry 'made and baptized disciples.' His preaching at the outset was of similar purport with that of John. It is natural to suppose that His baptism (in connection with repentance and faith) was, like John's, in order to remission. We are confirmed in this by our Savior's words to Nicodemus, who came to Him during that early period to learn more fully, no doubt, of the kingdom which Christ and John were preaching. Christ said to him, "except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God;" i.e. Baptism and Renewal by the Spirit are the conditions of true citizenship in the kingdom of God on earth. Unquestionably, Remission was one of the blessings of that kingdom."
In Wall's History of Infant Baptism (Vol. I, pg. 443) we find:
"All the ancient Christians (without the exception of one man) do understand that rule of the Savior, John 3:5, 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God'; of baptism.
"I had occasion in the First Part to bring a great many instances of their sayings: where all that mention that text, from Justin Martyr down to St. Austin (Augustine) do so apply it. Neither did I ever see it otherwise applied in any ancient writer. I believe Calvin was the first that ever denied this place to mean baptism. He gives another interpretation, which he confesses to be new."
"In view of the facts that John baptized, that Christ Himself was baptized, that His disciples (4:2) baptized in His name, it seems impossible to disconnect water from baptism. Calvin's interpretation arose from doctrinal opposition to the Roman Catholic over-evaluation of the sacrament, which must be guarded against in another way" (footnote on John 3;5, Lange's Commentary, Vol. III, 127).
In his Notes on John 3:5, Albert Barnes said:
"Be born of water. By water, here, is evidently signified baptism. Thus the word is used in Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5)."
Adam Clarke said:
"Baptism in water, into the Christian faith, was necessary to every Jew and Gentile that entered into the kingdom of the Messiah" (Commentary on John 3:5).
A little over 50 years ago, I heard a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary say to a large class: "If you have not been tampered with, you will admit that the water in John 3:5 refers to baptism." No doubt, many of the students in his class had been "tampered with."
The same professor said to a second-year Greek class studying the book of Galatians, that Paul's statement in Galatians 3:26,27 shows that "in New Testament days it was understood that a person was not in fellowship with Christ until after he was baptized." After some discussion on the statement, he said, "I don't make it (baptism) essential to salvation." I believe in the first statement he spoke as a Greek scholar, but in the latter statement he spoke as a Baptist preacher!
Scholarship admits that "water" in John 3:5 refers to baptism. Of course, it has been true all along; it doesn't take "scholarship" to make it so. But it is obvious that anybody who tries to argue that it means something else is inconsistent with both the "scholars" and the word of Christ. "Let God be true, but every man a liar" (Romans 3:4).