By Eric Johnson
John 3:5–6 says, “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. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
We must ask what being “born of water” would have meant to Nicodemus. In his commentary on John, Leon Morris writes:
Nicodemus could not possibly have perceived an allusion to an as yet non-existent sacrament. It is difficult to think that Jesus would have spoken in such a way that His meaning could not possibly be grasped. His purpose was not to mystify but to enlighten. In any case the whole thrust of the passage is to put the emphasis on the activity of the Spirit, not on any rite of the church. (The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995): 215–16)
Pastor and theologian John MacArthur provides specific reasons why this passage does not reference water baptism as a means for salvation:
First, Jesus does not mention baptism anywhere in this interaction with Nicodemas. While it is tenuous to automatically assume that “water” refers to baptism in the first place, that teaching is only undermined when one considers that the rest of the chapter makes no mention of baptism. Jesus speaks continually of the necessity of faith for salvation (John 3:15, 16 18, 36) but says nothing about baptism. If baptism were the necessary instrument of being born again, it is difficult to explain why Jesus says nothing more about it as he discusses salvation. Second, such a sacramental understanding of baptism is out of accord with Jesus’s statement in John 3:8 that, with respect to the new birth, the Spirit is like the wind that blows where it wishes. Such language pictures the sovereign freedom of the Spirit, an image that is incongruous with tying regeneration to a ritual, physical act of human will. (John) Piper aptly observes that in that case “the wind would be confined by the sacrament.” Third, Jesus expects Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, to understand his teaching on the new birth (John 3:10). However, Christian baptism did not yet exist at that time. It makes little sense to admonish Nicodemus for failing to understand a practice that had not yet been instituted. Instead, one would expect Jesus to admonish Nicodemus for failing to understand Old Testament teaching on the subject, and in fact, that is the most likely explanation for his words. The Old Testament often employs the imagery of water and Spirit to symbolize spiritual cleansing and renewal, never baptism (cf. Num. 19:17-19; Isa. 4:4; 32:15; 44:3; 55:1; Joel 2:28-29; Zech 13:1).
He goes on and cites Ezekiel 36:25-27:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Surely this was the truth Jesus had in mind when he spoke of being born of water and the Spirit. He was declaring that regeneration was a truth revealed throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 11:18-20) and thus a truth with which Nicodemus should have been familiar. Against this Old Testament backdrop, Christ’s point was unmistakable: without the spiritual washing of the soul, a cleansing accomplished by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) and solely by means of the word of the gospel (Eph. 5:26; 1 Peter 1:23-25) no one can enter God’s kingdom. Given the proper understanding of John 3:5, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is shown to be without biblical basis. The gospel itself is the sole instrument in the new birth. (Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth, pp. 583-84).
Another possibility is that verse 6 shows that, as each of us has had a physical birth, so we must have a spiritual birth to enter the kingdom of God. Is is possible Jesus was referring to a physical birth (water from the womb)? Whichever way you go, this verse is not a good support that faith plus something else is a requirement for justification of sins.