As with any single verse or passage, we discern what it teaches by first  filtering it through what we know the Bible teaches on the subject at hand. In  the case of baptism and salvation, the Bible is clear that salvation is by grace  through faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of any kind, including baptism (Ephesians 2:8-9). So,  any interpretation which comes to the conclusion that baptism, or any other act,  is necessary for salvation, is a faulty interpretation. For more information,  please visit our webpage on “Is salvation  by faith alone, or by faith plus works?

John 3:3-7,  “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born  again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus 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?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is  born of water and 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.'”

When first considering this passage, it is important to note that nowhere in  the context of the passage is baptism even mentioned. While baptism is mentioned  later in this chapter (John  3:22-30), that is in a totally different setting (Judea instead of  Jerusalem) and at a different time from the discussion with Nicodemus. This is  not to say Nicodemus was unfamiliar with baptism, either from the Jewish  practice of baptizing Gentile converts to Judaism, or from John the Baptist’s  ministry. However, simply reading these verses in context would give one no  reason to assume Jesus was speaking of baptism, unless one was looking to read  into the passage a preconceived idea or theology. To automatically read baptism  into this verse simply because it mentions “water” is unwarranted.

Those  who hold baptism to be required for salvation point to “born of water” as  evidence. As one person has put it, “Jesus describes it and tells him plainly  how—by being born of water and the Spirit. This is a perfect description of  baptism! Jesus could not have given a more detailed and accurate explanation of  baptism.” However, had Jesus actually wanted to say that one must be baptized to  be saved, He clearly could have simply stated, “Truly, truly, I say to you,  unless one is baptized and born of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom  of God.” Further, if Jesus had made such a statement, He would have contradicted  numerous other Bible passages that make it clear that salvation is by faith (John 3:16; John 3:36; Ephesians  2:8-9; Titus  3:5).

We should also not lose sight of the fact that when Jesus was  speaking to Nicodemus, the ordinance of Christian baptism was not yet in effect.  This important inconsistency in interpreting Scripture is seen when one asks  those who believe baptism is required for salvation why the thief on the cross  did not need to be baptized to be saved. A common reply to that question is:  “The thief on the cross was still under the Old Covenant and therefore not  subject to this baptism. He was saved just like anyone else under the Old  Covenant.” So, in essence, the same people who say the thief did not need to be  baptized because he was “under the Old Covenant” will use John 3:5 as “proof” that baptism is necessary for  salvation. They insist that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must be baptized  to be saved, even though he too was under the Old Covenant. If the thief on the  cross was saved without being baptized (because he was under the Old Covenant),  why would Jesus tell Nicodemus (who was also under the Old Covenant) that he  needed to be baptized?

If “being born of water and the Spirit” is not  referring to baptism, then what does it mean? Traditionally, there have been two  interpretations of this phrase. The first is that being “born of water” is being  used by Jesus to refer to natural birth (with water referring to the amniotic  fluid that surrounds the baby in the womb) and that being born of the “Spirit”  indicates spiritual birth. While that is certainly a possible interpretation of  the term “born of water” and would seem to fit the context of Nicodemus’  question about how a man could be born “when he is old,” it is not the best  interpretation given the context of this passage. After all, Jesus was not  talking about the difference between natural birth and spiritual birth. What He  was doing was explaining to Nicodemus his need to be “born from above” or “born  again.”

The second common interpretation of this passage and the one  that best fits the overall context, not only of this passage but of the Bible as  a whole, is the one that sees the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” as both  describing different aspects of the same spiritual birth, or of what it means to  be “born again” or “born from above.” So, when Jesus told Nicodemus that he must  “be born of water and the Spirit,” He was not referring to literal water (i.e.  baptism or the amniotic fluid in the womb), but was referring to the need for  spiritual cleansing or renewal. Throughout the Old Testament (Psalm 51:2,7; Ezekiel 36:25) and the New  Testament (John 13:1015:3; 1 Corinthians 6:11Hebrews  10:22), water is often used figuratively of spiritual cleansing or  regeneration that is brought forth by the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God,  at the moment of salvation (Ephesians  5:26; Titus  3:5).

The Barclay Daily Study Bible describes this concept in this  way: “There are two thoughts here. Water is the symbol of cleansing. When Jesus  takes possession of our lives, when we love Him with all our heart, the sins of  the past are forgiven and forgotten. The Spirit is the symbol of power. When  Jesus takes possession of our lives it is not only that the past is forgotten  and forgiven; if that were all, we might well proceed to make the same mess of  life all over again; but into life there enters a new power which enables us to  be what by ourselves we could never be and to do what by ourselves we could  never do. Water and the Spirit stand for the cleansing and the strengthening  power of Christ, which wipes out the past and gives victory in the  future.”

Therefore, the “water” mentioned in this verse is not literal  physical water but rather the “living water” Jesus promised the woman at the  well in John 4:10 and  the people in Jerusalem in John  7:37-39. It is the inward purification and renewal produced by the Holy  Spirit that brings forth spiritual life to a dead sinner (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Titus 3:5). Jesus reinforces  this truth in John 3:7 when  He restates that one must be born again and that this newness of life can only  be produced by the Holy Spirit (John  3:8).

There are several reasons why this is the correct  interpretation of the phrase “born of water and the Spirit.” First of all, we  should note that the Greek word translated “again” has two possible meanings.  The first one is “again,” and the second one is “from above.” Nicodemus  apparently assumed the first meaning “again” and found that idea  incomprehensible. That is why he could not understand how as a grown man he  could re-enter his mother’s womb and be “born again” physically. Therefore,  Jesus restates what He had just told Nicodemus in a different way so that it  would be clear He was referring to being “born from above.” In other words, both  “born from above” and “born of water and Spirit” are two ways of saying the same  thing.

Second, it is important to note the Greek grammar in this verse  would seem to indicate “being born of water” and “being born of the Spirit” are  thought of as one item, not two. Therefore, it is not speaking of two separate  births, as Nicodemus incorrectly thought, but of one birth, that of being “born  from above” or the spiritual birth that is necessary for anyone to “see the  kingdom of God.” This need for one to be “born again,” or to experience  spiritual birth, is so important that Jesus tells Nicodemus of its necessity  three different times in this passage of Scripture (John 3:3, 3:5, 3:7).

Third, water is often used symbolically in  the Bible to refer to the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying a believer,  whereby God cleanses and purifies the believer’s heart or soul. In many places  in both the Old and New Testaments, the work of the Holy Spirit is compared to  water (Isaiah 44:3John 7:38-39).

Jesus rebukes Nicodemus in John 3:10 by  asking him: “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?”  This implies that what Jesus had just told him was something Nicodemus should  have known and understood from the Old Testament. What is it that Nicodemus, as  a teacher of the Old Testament, should have known and understood? It is that God  had promised in the Old Testament a time was coming in which He would: “sprinkle  clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your  filthiness and from all your idols. 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. I will put My Spirit within you and cause  you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”  (Ezekiel  36:25-27). Jesus rebuked Nicodemus because he failed to recall and  understand one of the key Old Testament passages pertaining to the New Covenant  (Jeremiah  31:33). Nicodemus should have been expecting this. Why would Jesus have  rebuked Nicodemus for not understanding baptism considering the fact that  baptism is nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament?

While this verse does  not teach baptism is required for salvation, we should be careful not to neglect  baptism’s importance. Baptism is the sign or the symbol for what takes place  when one is born again. Baptism’s importance should not be downplayed or  minimized. However, baptism does not save us. What saves us is the cleansing  work of the Holy Spirit, when we are born again and regenerated by the Holy  Spirit (Titus  3:5).