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Is Water Baptism Necessary For Salvation?

Part Two: The Arguments From The Primary Bible Passages

by Pastor Tony Butler

John 3:5

Jesus answered, 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.

A little background – Read Jn. 3:1-9

After His baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness and afterwards travelled throughout Galilee performing all kinds of miracles. People from all over Israel came out to see Him because His popularity and fame had become so great that it reached into the nation of Syria beyond Israel's borders. Upon leaving the Galilee region, Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Passover. It was During this time that a Pharisee (a Jewish priest) by the name of Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night to talk to Him privately. He had heard about Jesus’ miracles and fame and believed that Jesus had to be connected with God somehow.

John 3:2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

Immediately after Nicodemus stated his opinion about God being with Jesus, Jesus told him that he had to be “born again”.

John 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus, after hearing the words of Jesus asked Him how an old man could be born again? He asked if it was possible for a man to enter his mothers’s womb and be born a second time.

John 3:4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?

Now that you have the background and context we will take a look at the various views concerning what it means for one to be “born of water”. Of all the views, I believe those that believe that the water is “water baptism” and that water baptism is essential for salvation is the most deceitful and soul damaging interpretaion of Jn. 3:5. As you will see, my paper isn’t a complete scholarly treatise on the subject. It is only intended to help people see the different points of view and the arguments that accompanies them.

Those That Believe Jn. 3:5 Refers To Water Baptism

Many professing Christians believe that when Jesus spoke of being “born of water” that He was referring to “water baptism”. There are many denominations that believe water baptism is necessary for salvation and that water baptism is the “New Birth”. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian group in the world that adheres to such a view.

The necessity of water baptism for salvation is the majority view within “Christendom”. When I use the word “Christendom”, I am referring to all professing Christians in the world as a whole regardless of their doctrinal persuasions or affiliations.

Groups like the Church Of Christ, the Apostolic Church, The Roman Catholic Church, and other Holiness denominations use John 3:5 as a proof text that water baptism is necessary for salvation and is the new birth. Most Church of Christ Churches accuse those that disagree with them of draining the water out of the biblical pool of salvation. They interpret the words “born of water" and "the Spirit” to mean the same thing. They see the word “Spirit” in apposition with the water. They teach that one’s sins aren’t remitted or that one isn’t born of the Spirit until he/she is water baptized for the express purpose of having his/her sins remitted/forgiven.

Don’t Be Fooled

I want to reiterate that every group that teaches water baptism as a necessity for salvation never stop with merely being baptized for salvation. To them, water baptism is only the initial part of salvation/forgiveness and must be maintained by obedience to the commands of Christ. The majority of these groups often teach that being baptized by any other group other than their own is invalid and can’t save. A Roman Catholic baptism has no value in a Church of Christ Church. A person baptized in the Baptist Church isn’t seen by the Church of Christ as being properly baptized and stands in danger of hell until he is properly baptized. These groups declare the person doing the baptism, the mode of baptism, and the teaching behind the baptism is just as important as the baptism itself.

As I stated in Part One, the groups that believe water baptism is necessary for salvation all continue to add rules/commandments, sacraments, and human traditions that must be obeyed in order to be saved or stay saved. Water of baptism for salvation is just the beginning of their deceptive and destructive legalisms. Their teachings contradict and pervert true salvation by grace through faith which is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9). Any teaching that requires water baptism for salvation is a false gospel and a damnable heresy which will bring destruction to the soul. (Gal. 1:6-9)

Other Views That Teach Jn. 3:5 Refers To Water Baptism But Not For Salvation

Among fundamentalists, evangelicals and reformed groups, water baptism isn’t taught or believed to be necessary for salvation. Within these groups Jn. 3:5 is interpreted various ways. They recognize baptism is a command that should be obeyed but also teach that water baptism has no saving power within the act itself nor is it the initial remission of sins.

Groups like the Roman Catholic Church and The Church Of Christ love to quote New Testament scholars that do not believe that water baptism is necessary for salvation yet they do confess that Jn. 3:5 refers to the water baptism. False teachers will mix their quotes on Jn. 3:5 with their own false teachings as an attempt to show that Jn. 3:5 is water baptism. Below I am listing two views that adhere to the belief that Jn. 3:5 is water baptism, but doesn't believe water baptism brings salvation or remission of sins:

The water refers to John the Baptist’s water baptism view

In this view, some scholars interpret the baptism of which Jesus spoke was the water baptism of John the Baptist. They teach that multitudes of Jews in Christ's day recognized John the baptist as a true prophet and participated in His water baptism. John the Baptist, though He baptized with water, declared there would be one coming after him ( Jesus) Who would baptize with them the Holy Spirit (Mk. 1:8). Scholars of this persuasion believe Jesus was telling Nicodemus that John’s baptism alone wasn’t enough to get him or the Jews in God’s kingdom and that they also needed to be born again by the Spirit.

The water refers to water baptism but it is merely an outward sign

In this view, some scholars interpret the water in Jn. 3:5 to be “water baptism” but also interpret the “water” figuratively as an outward sign/picture. Their emphasis is on the “Spirit” which brings the grace of salvation to the heart. They teach the water in Jn. 3:5 is baptism water ,but isn’t a necessary means for salvation.

I disagree with this view because it is purely subjective with no context or basis to support it.

Views That Don't See “the water” In Jn. 3:5 As Water Baptism

There are many scholars that do not see the “water” of Jn. 3:5 as water baptism at all. As a pastor I fall in this category. I am no scholar but I have a bit of common sense when it comes to context. I have studied the various interpretations for years and I totally disagree with people that see the water in Jn. 3:5 as water baptism. I am listing three more views of Jn. 3:5 below that do not see "born of the water" to mean water baptism:

The water doesn't refer to baptism, it refers to the Word of God.

Many scholars interpret the water in Jn. 3:5 to be “the water of God’s Word”. In Eph. 5:26 the Word of God is associated with water metaphorically. In this sense alone the “water of God’s Word” is a necessity for salvation. This view has validity because the bible specifically states that Christians are born again by the Word of God (I Pet.1:23). Those that adhere to this view see the “water” of Jn. 3:5 (God’s Word) and the “Spirit” as a necessary combination for new birth. Since the bible states that faith comes by hearing and hearing comes by the word of God (Rom. 10:17) and since the bible says that the Spirit of God convicts the world of sin by that Word (Jn. 16:8-13), they conclude that when one believes in Christ the believer is born again/washed by the Word and the Spirit.

Eph. 5:26 that He (Jesus) might sanctify her (the church), having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word."

1 Peter 1:23 having been born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the living Word of God, and abiding forever.

I personally disagree with this view because Jesus told Nicodemus His words were something that Nicodemus should have understood as a teacher of Israel. There would be no way for Nicodemus to understand anything about a washing of God’s Word to sanctify His church. The church had not yet come into existance.

John 3:9-10 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? (10) Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?

The water refers to the Holy Spirit

Some scholars interpret that the water of Jn. 3:5 refers to the Holy Spirit of God. They state that Nicodemus knew about God’s promises of putting a new spirit within His people of Israel (Ezek. 36:25-27). Jesus declared to the Jews that whoever would believe in Him, that out of their innermost being rivers of living water would flow. After making this declaration the apostle John explained that Jesus was speaking about the Spirit of God that would be given to them that believe on Jesus (Jn. 7:37-39).

Personally, I think this view holds little weight because Jesus’ words above were revelations about Himself that Nicodemus at the time knew nothing about. How could He possibly connect something Jesus would say later about Himself to Ezekial. Remember, Jesus was faulting him for not understanding His words in the present.

The water refers to the natural birthing process

This is the view to which I adhere. Admittedly it is a minority view but is gaining much acceptance among evangelicals and fundamentalists. I invite you go to the bible and use some common sense and context.

First of all it is totally presumptuous to think that the water of Jn. 3:5 is speaking of John’s baptism or any kind of water baptism. Jesus was in Jerusalem. He was no where near John the Baptist or the subject of water baptism. Jesus had departed from John the Baptist and had been tempted in the wilderness for forty days after he was baptized. After His temptaion He stayed in Galilee for a good amount of time performing all kinds of miracles and becoming famous. Only then did He travel to Jerusalem for Passover. Nicodemus, having heard of His fame came in the night to speak with Jesus. There is no context of water anywhere to be found in their conversation except in one place.

Nicodemus had made no mention of John the Baptist or water baptism at all nor did Jesus. The discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus was about birth. Nicodemus was puzzled by the statement of Jesus that he had to be born again. The context lets us know 100% that Nicodemus was thinking in terms of physical birth. He wanted to know how an old guy could climb back up into his mother’s womb and be reborn.

The pool of water the Church of Christ says is necessary to be saved needs to be drained permanently and filled in with grace. John the Baptist and water baptism is no where to be found in the context. The entire conversation is about natural birth versus spiritual birth.

Joh 3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

However, there is one source water to be found in this context ,but it isn’t found in a mikvah (Jewish purification vat), a Jordan river, a lake or a church baptismal pool. The water in this verse is found in the womb of a pregnant woman. A baby’s birth generally is preceded by the breaking of the water in the mothers womb. The following words make it so clear:

6) That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7) Marvel not that I said unto you, Ye must be born again.

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that anyone who is born from a womb of flesh is still flesh. They have experienced a birth, but it is only a natural human birth. Salvation requires two births; One of the flesh "born of the water" (water breaks and child is born) and one of the Spirit (Born again by the Spirit of God). The first birth is natural on the earth but the second birth is supernatural from heaven. Jesus makes it clear when He states in verse thirteen that His words are speaking of the heavenly. From that context Jesus goes on to state how a person can be saved/born again by speaking a verse with which we are all familiar; Jn. 3:16.

John 3:14-16 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: (15) That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (16) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 1:12-13 But as many as received Him, He gave to them authority to become the children of God, to those who believe on His name, (13) who were born, not of bloods, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but were born of God.

Jesus isn’t talking about water baptism for Nicodemus to be saved, Nicodemus is being told that he must believe in Jesus as his means of salvation alluding to His death on the cross which would happen a little over three years later. This understanding of the need to believe in order to be saved is consistent with the hundreds of verses in the New Testament that teach salvation comes through faith in Christ, not by being dunked under water.

Scholars who disagree with this last view declare it is absurd and state that no serious scholarship supports it and mocks it as rediculous. It is admitted that this view is in the minority within protestantism. However, among evangelicals it is very popular.

Scholars that critique this view do it for several reasons: First, they say no scholar taught this interpretation before or after the reformation until recent times. Secondly, some state it is totally presumptous to declare that the water is the amniotic fluid in the womb when Jesus didn't specifically say it. (He didn't say it was baptismal water either). They sacastically state that Jesus didn’t say, “unless you were born by the amniotic fluid and Spirit.” I admit that sounds cute and seems like a “Gottcha” statement but the reality is, the ancients had never heard of amniotic fluid. They merely referred to it as water. Even in our day we still say, “Her water broke” and not “She just released her amniotic fluid.”

When the spear was stuck into the side of Jesus after He had died on the cross, the bible says water and blood came forth (Jn. 19:34). By modern science standards it was’t pure water that came out with the blood, but it was mostly water, just as amniotic fluid is mostly water. Are opponents going to mock God now for saying water?

Other opponents like the Church of Christ believe it is unreasonable that Jesus would make physical birth a condition for salvation. They say that the whole expression "of water and the Spirit" defines the manner in which one is born from above. I totally disagree! Jesus isn’t making human birth a condition or means for salvation but he is making a contrast between flesh and the Spirit. It is common sense people have to be born once before they can be born again. All people have the first birth but all do not have the second birth.

Conclusion of the Jn. 3:5 views

As you consider the various views above, ask yourself, “In the context of John 3:1-10, “What source of water is closer to Jesus in His conversation with Nicodemus; the water of Jordon river or the water in the womb that would break and bring forth a child?” Do you not see a contrast between births and the absolute necessity of the second birth to be able to go to heaven?

Baptism is mentioned after the meeting with Nicodemus as part of the disciples ministry, but it has nothing to do with the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. (See Jn. 3:26) The emphasis of Jesus to Nicodemus was the absolute essentiality of believing in Him for salvation and the consequences of not believing. (Read Jn. 3:12-19) Salvation is about believing in Jesus Who died for us and not the rediculous notion that mere baptismal water is the means by which our sins are forgiven after we have believed. Remember, groups that believe you have to be baptized in order to be saved teach that you only receive the new birth, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit after you are baptized by water.

Well there you have it. Six different interpretations the same verse. Choose carefully. The first view that states baptism is essential for salvation will damn your soul in hell if you put your trust in water for the forgiveness of sins. That is a different gospel. How dare any man declare that mere water can have any efficacy or saving power when God Himself, became flesh and was crucified and shed His blood for all humanity. His blood alone can bring the forgiveness of sins. What mockery and deception to give any salvivic glory to H2O!

Go to Part Three: Acts 2:38

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