Salvation and Regeneration:
The New Birth
By William Webster
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3)
Regeneration is the exclusive work of God by which he imparts new life to an individual. There is no sanctification or justification apart from regeneration. It is what scripture calls the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) or being born again (Jn. 3:3–6). The imperative nature of the new birth was taught by Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus when he said, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (Jn. 3:5). Jesus taught that it is not enough that we be religious, moral people. We must be born again, born from above, born of God. We must be recreated on the inside in our very natures or we cannot enter the kingdom of God. As D.A. Carson comments:
Here was Jesus telling Nicodemus, a respected and conscientious member not only of Israel but of the Sanhedrin, that he cannot enter the kingdom unless he is born again…The focus here is not on the potential convert’s humility, brokenness of faith, but on the need for transformation, for new life from another realm, for the intervention of the Spirit of God (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According To John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19910, pp. 189-190).
Regeneration is a sovereign work of God whereby he supernaturally intervenes in a life, creates a new heart, gives new life and enables one to come to Christ. Scripture teaches that it is the Lord who must enlighten the heart to understand truth (Eph. 1:17–18); no man can come to Christ unless the Father first draws him (Jn. 6:44); it is the Lord who opens hearts to understand and respond to the gospel (Acts 16:14); and who causes individuals to be born again (Jn. 3:6–8). Salvation is the exclusive work of God from beginning to end. No man can cause himself to be born again. We are shut up to the grace, power and mercy of God alone. And yet our God delights to do this. To be regenerated is to be supernaturally recreated in the image of Jesus Christ. We have defined the term ‘image of Christ’ to mean a doulos or bondslave of God—one whose entire life is devoted to God. In regeneration, man becomes like Jesus Christ, a doulos of God.
Regeneration is another part of the overall work of salvation. It is a transformation and renewal of the inner being where love for self is displaced by love for God. The Reformed view of regeneration is summed up by John Murray:
There is a change that God effects in man, radical and reconstructive in its nature, called new birth, new creation, regeneration, renewal—a change that cannot be accounted for by anything that is in lower terms than the interposition of the almighty power of God….It is the Holy Spirit working directly, efficaciously and irresistibly upon man’s heart and mind, making the man over again, and creating him anew after the image of Christ in holiness and righteousness of the truth. A revolution, a reconstruction takes place at the center of man’s moral and spiritual being: sin and pollution are dethroned in the citadel of man’s being, and righteousness takes its place.
In later Reformed theology the term regeneration has been chosen to designate the initial act, that act in which God alone is active, while conversion is frequently used to designate the logically subsequent phase in which the person is active as a result of the grace which the person’s consciousness is engaged in the exercise of faith and repentance. Regeneration in this restricted sense is logically antecedent to any saving response in the consciousness or understanding of the subject. Regeneration is a change wrought by the Spirit in order that the person may savingly respond to the summons, or demand of the call, embodied in the gospel call (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1977), Volume 2, pp. 171-172).
God does not leave those he saves in sin and bondage. He frees them through so radical a transformation of nature that it is described in scripture as a new creation: ‘If any man is in Christ he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold new things have come’ (2 Cor. 5:17). This is regeneration.
Much of the Reformation teaching on salvation is misrepresented by Roman Catholics who charge that the Reformers taught that men could be justified yet go on living in sin. This is not only a spurious charge with respect to sanctification but also for regeneration. The comments from the following Reformers demonstrate this fact:
John Calvin: To prove the first point—that God justifies not only by pardoning but by regenerating—he (Osiander) asks whether God leaves as they were by nature those whom he justifies, changing none of their vices. This is exceedingly easy to answer; as Christ cannot be torn into parts, so these two which we perceive in him together and conjointly are inseparable—namely, righteousness and sanctification. Whomever, therefore, God receives into grace, on them he at the same time bestows the spirit of adoption [Rom. 8:15], by whose power he remakes them to his own image…The grace of justification is not separated from regeneration, although they are things distinct (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III, Chp. XI.6,11; pp. 732, 739).
Huldrych Zwingli: When, therefore, Divine Majesty formed the plan of redeeming man, it did not intend that the world should persist and become inveterate in its wickedness. For if this had been the plan, it would have been better never to have sent a redeemer than to have sent one under such conditions that after redemption there should be no change from our former diseased state. It would have been laughable if He to whom everything that is ever to be is seen as present had determined to deliver man at so great a cost, and yet had intended to allow him to immediately after his deliverance to wallow in his old sins. He proclaims, therefore, at the start, that our lives and characters must be changed. For to be a Christian is nothing less than to be a new man and a new creature (II Cor. 5:17) (Huldrych Zwingli, Commentary On True and False Religion (Durham: Labyrinth, 1981), p. 120).
Philip Melanchthon: Christianity is freedom because those who do not have the Spirit of Christ cannot in any way perform the law; they are rather subject to the curse of the law. Those who have been renewed by the Spirit of Christ now conform voluntarily even without the law to what the law used to command. The law is the will of God; the Holy Spirit is nothing else than the living will of God and its being in action (agitatio). Therefore, when we have been regenerated by the Spirit of God, who is the living will of God, we now will spontaneously that very thing which the law used to demand…Those who are in Christ are led by the Spirit to do the law and they really act by the Spirit. They love and fear God, devote themselves to the needs of their neighbor, and desire to do those very things which the law demanded. They would do them even if no law had been given. Their will is nothing else than the Spirit, the living law (Philip Melanchthon, Loci Communes Theologici. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), Volume XIX, p. 123).
These comments are representative of the overall teaching of the Reformers demonstrating they did, in fact, insist on the necessity for regeneration and holiness of life in the salvation experience. There is no justification apart from regeneration according to scripture and the Reformers. As R.C. Sproul observes:
Technically the term justification does refer to the declarative judicial act of God and not to the person who receives the benefit of this declarative act and is said to be justified. The declaration changes the status of the believer and not his or her nature. However, as John Gerstner relentlessly points out, it is not a declaration about or directed toward people who are not changed in their constituent nature. God never declares a change in the status of people who are unchanged in nature…The antinomian error (assumes) that God justifies people who are and remain unchanged. All who are justified possess faith. Faith abides as a necessary condition for justification. All who have faith are regenerate. Reformed theology sees regeneration as a necessary condition for faith. All who are regenerated are changed in their natures. It is not change in our nature wrought by regeneration or our faith that flows from it that is the ground of our justification. That remains solely the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. But that righteousness is not imputed to unbelieving or unregenerate persons. (Justification by Faith Alone, Don Kistler, Ed. (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), The Forensic Nature of Justification, pp. 43-45).
When Nicodemus was confronted with the teaching of Jesus on the necessity of the new birth he said: ‘How can these things be’ (Jn. 3:9)? But as D.A. Carson points out, a better translation of what Nicodemus actually said would be: ‘How can this happen?’:
Nicodemus’ incredulous question is not How can this be? (NIV), but ‘How can this happen?’ Doubtless he himself had for years taught others the conditions of entrance to the kingdom of God, conditions cast in terms of obedience to God’s commands, devotion to God, happy submission to his will; but here he is facing a condition he has never heard expressed, the absolute requirement of birth from above. Even after Jesus’ explanation, he is frankly skeptical that such a birth can take place (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According To John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 198).
While his question is one of incredulity and skepticism, it is a legitimate one. If regeneration is an absolute requirement for entrance into the kingdom of God then How can this happen?, is the obvious question to ask. To answer the question, how, we must first address the controversy centered around water baptism.
The Meaning and Place of Baptism
There are those who teach that men are regenerated when they are baptized, a belief commonly referred to as baptismal regeneration. There are others who teach that baptism, while necessary as an act of obedience to Christ and as a public testimony to the reality of one’s salvation, is not the means of regeneration. It is rather meant to be the outward testimony of an inward work of grace. The controversy centers around John 3:5 that a man must be ‘born of water and the Spirit’. Before looking at this passage it would be helpful to look at the overall teaching of the scriptures on baptism to give context to the words of Jesus.
When the Bible refers to baptism, it does not always mean water baptism. Many scriptures also refer to Spirit baptism. In the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a person separated from Christ is united to him becoming one with Christ, their lives joined in an indissoluble union. Paul speaks of this when he says that ‘by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’ (1 Cor. 12:13). This is a spiritual union effected by a spiritual baptism as part of the overall work of salvation. It has nothing to do with water baptism. Paul makes this point when speaking of the conversion of the Ephesians: ‘In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise’ (Eph. 1:13).
Spirit baptism as a distinct reality from water baptism can be seen in the analogy of circumcision. The Word of God tells us that circumcision was instituted by God as a sign and seal of his covenant with Abraham: ‘and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised’ (Rom. 4:11). Martyn Lloyd–Jones gives this explanation of the meaning of circumcision:
What, then, are the reasons why circumcision was ever given? First, circumcision was an outward sign given to Abraham as a seal of the righteousness which he had received fourteen years before. Now to ‘seal’ means to authenticate. This is illustrated elsewhere in the Scriptures. You remember that we are told in John 6, verse 27 ‘for him hath God the Father sealed’. All commentators are agreed that statement refers to our Lord’s baptism, and it means that at His baptism He was publicly sealed with the sign of the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove upon Him. The word ‘seal’ is used in exactly the same way in referring to the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 1: 13, 14, ‘In whom also after that ye believed (or having believed), ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of His glory.’ The Holy Spirit seals to us God’s promise of our ultimate redemption and of our receiving our great inheritance in glory. Having the Holy Spirit I know that all that God promises to me is already mine in a very real sense. It is sealed to me. What the Apostle is saying here is that in the same way circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign to authenticate the imputation of righteousness to him fourteen years before.
In other words the teaching is, that circumcision of itself did not do anything to Abraham. The real reason for it was that Abraham should have the promise made sure to him; it was to seal it to him. And so we are right in saying that circumcision played no part in Abraham’s justification. Indeed it is exactly the other way round. Justification is the basis upon which circumcision is given (D. Martyn Lloyd–Jones, Romans: Atonement and Justification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), pp. 184-85).
Circumcision was meant to be a sign and a seal. It was the outward sign of an inward reality of faith in Abraham’s heart, and a seal to him of the promise of God. Romans 4:9–12 makes it clear that circumcision was not the cause of Abraham’s regeneration and justification. He had been justified by faith before he was circumcised. The argument of Paul in Romans 4 is that forgiveness and acceptance with God come solely by faith independent of circumcision. At the time of Christ the Jews had perverted the meaning of circumcision, teaching that it was the effectual cause of salvation. Paul shows the fallacy of this, not only in the example of Abraham, but by drawing a distinction between outward physical circumcision and the inner spiritual circumcision accomplished by the Spirit:
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God (Rom. 2:28–29).
It was not physical circumcision that made a person a true Jew, but a spiritual circumcision of the heart. As Paul points out, it is possible to be physically yet not spiritually circumcised. In Jeremiah, the prophet records an unusual observation from the Lord regarding the spiritual condition of many of the Israelites:
‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised—Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the sons of Ammon, and Moab, and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart’ (Jer. 9:25–26).
What a poignant description—circumcised in the flesh and yet uncircumcised of heart. The Lord is putting Judah in the same category as the uncircumcised heathen nations around her. Israel had a profession but no reality. The Old Testament exhorted the Jews to circumcise their hearts (demonstrating that the physical rite of circumcision was symbolic) and pointed them to the need for an inward, spiritual circumcision:
Circumcise then your heart, and stiffen your neck no more…The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live…Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4).
What was true for the Jew is also true for the Christian. Simply substitute the word ‘Christian’ for ‘Jew’ and the word ‘baptism’ for ‘circumcision’ in Romans 2:28–29:
For he is not a Christian who is one outwardly; neither is baptism that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Christian who is one inwardly; and baptism is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
John Calvin offers the following explanation of the relationship of circumcision to baptism:
When the Lord commands Abraham to observe circumcision, he previously states that he will be a God to him and his descendants (Gen. 17:7, 10)…The promise of eternal life is contained in these words as Christ interprets them…But the first access to God, the first entry into immortal life, is the forgiveness of sins. Accordingly, this corresponds to the promise of baptism that we shall be cleansed. Afterward, the Lord covenants with Abraham that he should walk before him in uprightness and innocence of heart (Gen. 17:1). This applies to mortification, or regeneration…Moses more clearly explains elsewhere, when exhorting the Israelite people to circumcise the foreskin of their heart to the Lord (Deut. 10:16), that circumcision is the sign of mortification…As God, when he adopts the posterity of Abraham as his people, commands them to be circumcised, so Moses declares that they ought to be circumcised in heart, explaining the true meaning of this carnal circumcision (Deut 30:6)…We have, therefore, a spiritual promise given to the patriarchs in circumcision such as is given us in baptism, since it represented for them forgiveness of sins and mortification of flesh. Moreover, as we have been taught that Christ is the foundation of baptism, in whom both these reside, so it is also evident that he is the foundation of circumcision (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XXI, pp. 1304–1305).
The Jews believed that physical circumcision made one a child of God, but Paul insists that there must be a spiritual circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit. Physical baptism will not bring about the new birth. That can only be accomplished as we are recreated within by the Holy Spirit. Charles Hodge makes this comment:
God is a Spirit, and He requires those who worship Him, to worship Him in spirit and in truth. External rites are declared to be nothing. ‘He is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.’ (Rom. ii. 28, 29). This is not merely a fact, but a principle. What St. Paul here says of circumcision and of Jews, may be said, and is substantially said by St. Peter in reference to baptism and Christianity. A man who is a Christian outwardly only, is not a Christian; and the baptism which saves, is not the washing of the body with water, but the conversion of the soul (I Peter iii. 21). The idea that a man’s state before God depends on anything external, on birth, on membership in any visible organization, or on any outward rite or ceremony, is utterly abhorrent to the religion of the Bible (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume III, p. 521).
Baptism in our New Testament dispensation is to be a sign and seal of the spiritual transformation that has taken place in the heart of the convert. It is a public testimony of the washing from sin and new life given. Spiritual circumcision and its relationship to baptism is explained by Paul in Colossians:
In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Col. 2:11–14).
True circumcision is what Paul calls the removal of the body of flesh. Baptism is a picture of the identification of the believer with Christ in his burial. The old man dies and the individual is raised to newness of life, made ‘alive together with Him.’ This all speaks of regeneration. Baptism and circumcision here are not physical rites but the spiritual work of the Holy Spirit. The new Christian then submits to water baptism as a public testimony to his identification with Christ and spiritual transformation. As Charles Hodge points out:
It is plain that baptism cannot be the ordinary means of regeneration, or the channel of conveying in the first instance the benefits of redemption to the souls of men, because, in the case of adults, faith and repentance are the conditions of baptism. But faith and repentance, according to the Scriptures, are the fruits of regeneration. He who exercises repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is in a state of salvation before baptism and therefore in a state of regeneration. Regeneration consequently precedes baptism, and cannot be its effect, according to the ordinance of God. That the Apostles did require the profession of faith and repentance before baptism, cannot be denied. This is plain, not only from their recorded practice but also from the nature of the ordinance. Baptism is a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; not of a faith to be obtained through the ordinance, but of a faith already entertained. When the Eunuch applied to Philip for baptism, he said: ‘If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest.’ Of those who heard Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost it is said, ‘they that gladly received his word were baptized’ (Acts ii. 41) (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume III, p. 601).
As noted, Abraham was justified long before he was circumcised. In the same way, a Christian receives an inner Spirit baptism before the actual rite of water baptism is applied. This is further illustrated in the first chapter of John:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn. 1: 12–13).
John is speaking about the new birth. He says that it is directly related to receiving and believing on Jesus. The new birth is not dependent on water baptism but on a work of the Spirit which results in the receiving of Jesus Christ into one’s life. Regeneration can never be disassociated from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ himself.
One of the passages of scripture often used in support of baptismal regeneration is Romans 6:3–5. It reads as follows:
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection.
These verses do speak of baptism. But when scripture uses the term ‘baptism’ it always assumes Spirit baptism to be the underlying reality. The apostle Peter makes this clear when he says, ‘And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ’ (I Pet. 3:2 I). Peter is careful to warn his readers against the mistaken notion that salvation is derived simply from the application of water to physical flesh. He specifically says ‘not the removal of dirt from the flesh’. He associates baptism with ‘an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ’. There is obviously more to be understood by the term ‘baptism’ here than the administering of water. Matthew Henry brings this out in these comments on this passage:
Noah’s salvation in the ark upon the water prefigured the salvation of all good Christians in the church by baptism; that temporal salvation by the ark was a type, the antitype whereunto is the eternal salvation of believers by baptism, to prevent mistakes about which the apostle declares what he means by saving baptism; not the outward ceremony of washing with water, which, in itself, does no more than put away the filth of the flesh, but it is that baptism wherein there is a faithful answer or restipulation of a resolved good conscience, engaging to believe in, and be entirely devoted to, God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, renouncing at the same time the flesh, the world, and the devil. The baptismal covenant, made and kept, will certainly save us. Washing is the visible sign; this is the thing signified.
The apostle shows that the efficacy of baptism to salvation depends not upon the work done, but upon the resurrection of Christ, which supposes his death, and is the foundation of our faith and hope, to which we are rendered conformable by dying to sin, and rising again to holiness and newness of life….. The external participation of baptism will save no man without an answerable good conscience and conversation. There must be the answer of a good conscience towards God (Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Old Tappan: Revell) , Volume 6, pp. I026–27).
The point of this Romans 6 is to establish that those who are baptized into Christ are freed from sin to walk in newness of life as slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:4, 17–18). Again, this is not something effected through water baptism but by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a man or woman. When Spirit baptism takes place, an individual is joined to and identified with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. The result of this union is a completely changed life. It is impossible for one who is a true Christian to continue to live under the domination of sin as a way of life. Rom. 6:1–2 says: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?
1 John 3:9 says, ‘No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.’
Romans 6:4 tells us that the person who has been united to Jesus Christ will walk in ‘newness of life’. This person will not live or abide in sin. However a person can be baptized with water and still continue to live in sin, but the person who is baptized by the Holy Spirit into Christ will not practice sin. This is not to deny the importance of water baptism. But it must be preceeded by the cleansing and regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism is an outward picture of an inward work of grace. It does not bring about the new birth but is a testimony to it. The Reformers, Huldrych Zwingli and John Hooper make clear the place of baptism with these comments:
Huldrych Zwingli: Water–baptism is a ceremonial sign with which salvation is not indissolubly connected…The inward baptism of the Spirit is the work of teaching which God does in our hearts and the calling with which he comforts and assures our hearts in Christ. And this baptism none can give save God alone. Without it, none can be saved–though it is quite possible to be saved without the baptism of external…immersion. The proof of this is that the murderer on the cross was externally neither taught nor baptized, and yet he was saved. It follows that the one necessary thing which saves those of us who hear the Gospel is faith, or trust, and this faith none can implant within us save God alone…External baptism of water cannot effect spiritual cleansing. Hence water–baptism is nothing but an external ceremony, that is, an outward sign that we are incorporated and engrafted into the Lord Jesus Christ and pledged to live to him and to follow him. And in Jesus Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creature, the living of a new life (Gal. 6), so it is not baptism that saves us but a new life (Huldrych Zwingli, Of Baptism. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), Volume XXIV, pp. 136–137, 156).
John Hooper: Although baptism be a sacrament to be received and honourably used of all men, yet it sanctifieth no man. And such as attribute the remission of sin unto the external sign, doth offend…This new life cometh not, until such a time as Christ be known and received. Now, to put on Christ is to live a new life. Such as be baptized must remember, that penance (repentance) and faith preceded this external sign, and in Christ the purgation was inwardly obtained, before the external sign was given. So that there is two kinds of baptism, and both necessary: the one interior, which is the cleansing of the heart, the drawing of the Father, the operation of the Holy Ghost: and this baptism is in man, when he believeth and trusteth that Christ is the only author of his salvation…Then is the exterior sign added, not to purge the heart, but to confirm, manifest, and open unto the world that this child is God’s…Likewise no man should condemn nor neglect this exterior sign, for the commandment’s sake: though it have no power to purge from sin, yet it confirmeth the purgation of sin, and the act of itself pleaseth God, for because the receivers thereof obey the will of his commandment (John Hooper, A Declaration of Christe and His Offyce. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), Volume XXVI, pp. 210–211).
With this in mind let us look at the teaching of Jesus in his dialogue with Nicodemus.
Jesus answered and said to him [Nicodemus], ‘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.’
Jesus says we must be born again or we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. He tells Nicodemus that a man must be ‘born of water and the Spirit’. What did he mean? Did Jesus mean water baptism here? Three reasons suggest that he did not. Firstly, the Bible teaches that water baptism does not save. Secondly, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, who is a Jew. Christian baptism had not yet been instituted. And thirdly, because Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, the term must be interpreted in context. The term ‘water’ had a certain significance to Nicodemus, who was a learned Jew, a leading, if not the leading teacher in Israel (Jn. 3:10). Jesus upbraids Nicodemus for not understanding his teaching. In so doing he is suggesting that the meaning of his teaching is clear in the Old Testament. What significance would the term ‘water’ have had for Nicodemus? John Murray’s comments on John 3:5 are very helpful at this point:
Now what religious idea would we expect to be conveyed to the mind of Nicodemus by the use of the word water? Of course, the idea associated with the religious use of water in the Old Testament and in that religious tradition and practice which provided the very context of Nicodemus’ life and profession! And that simply means the religious import of water in the Old Testament, in the rites of Judaism, and in contemporary practice. When we say this, there is one answer. The religious use of water, that is to say, the religiously symbolic meaning of water, pointed in one direction, and that direction is purification. All the relevant considerations would conspire to convey to Nicodemus that message. And that message would be focused in his mind in one central thought, the indispensable necessity of purification for entrance into the kingdom of God.
In the Old Testament water often signified washing and purifying from the pollution of sin (cf. Psalm 5 I: 2,3; Isa. 1:16; Jer. 33:8; Ezek. 36:25; Zech. 13: 1)….John 3:5 sets forth the two aspects from which the new birth must be viewed—it purges away the defilement of our hearts and it recreates in newness of life. The two elements of this text—‘born of water’ and ‘born of the Spirit’ correspond to the two elements of the Old Testament counterpart: ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh’ (Ezek. 36:25,26). This passage we may properly regard as the Old Testament parallel to John 3:5, and there is neither reason nor warrant for placing any other interpretation upon ‘born of water’ than that of Ezek. 36:25: ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean’ (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1977), Volume 2, pp. 182–84).
To Nicodemus the term ‘water’ would have meant cleansing from the guilt and pollution of sin. In John 3:5 therefore the term ‘water’ refers to this spiritual cleansing. Paul says, similarly, in Titus 3:5: ‘He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.’ This ‘washing’ takes place through the work of Christ on our behalf: ‘To Him who has loved us and washed (loosed)us from our sins by His blood’ (Rev. 1:5).
The passage in Ezekiel 36 is a prophecy of the New Covenant effected through our Mediator and High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. These verses are quoted in Hebrews 8, referring to the inauguration of the New Covenant through Christ. So regeneration, as it was prophesied in the Old Testament, has direct application to a relationship with Jesus Christ and his work of atonement on the cross. The basis for entering the kingdom of God is washing, cleansing, and purification from the guilt and defilement of our sin through the blood of Jesus Christ. The agent by which we are actually regenerated is the Spirit of God. He brings us into the kingdom of God cleansed and made new through the blood of Jesus and the sovereign power of regeneration. This is further amplified in John 3:14–16:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
In Moses’ day a bronze serpent was attached to a wooden pole and then lifted up so that those who looked at it would not die. In the same way, God’s Son was to be lifted up—nailed to a cross—to die for the sin of the world. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that those who believe in him and the sufficiency of his blood sacrifice would not perish eternally, but possess eternal life. Life, new and eternal, is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus said ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ (Jn. 14:6). Those who receive him are given the power to become the children of God, that is, they are regenerated (Jn. 1:12). As D.A. Carson puts it:
What spared the Israelites from the mortal threat of the desert snakes was God’s grace; the means was the bronze snake. But we must say more than that about Jesus. The Father has granted the Son to have life in himself (Jn. 5:26); he himself is the resurrection and the life (Jn. 11:25), and those who believe have life in him. Here then is the frankest answer to Nicodemus’ question, ‘How can this happen?’ (v. 9). The Kingdom of God is seen or entered, new birth is experienced, and eternal life begins, through the saving cross–work of Christ, received by faith (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According To John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 202)..
In the context of John 3 regeneration has nothing to do with water but with the Spirit baptism by which we are united to Christ, cleansed from sin and given a new heart. Calvin stresses this point when he says:
Paul did not mean to signify that our cleansing and salvation are accomplished by water, or that water contains in itself the power to cleanse, regenerate, and renew; nor that here is the cause of salvation, but only that in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts…Indeed, baptism promises us no other purification than through the sprinkling of Christ’s blood, which is represented by means of water from the resemblance to cleansing and washing. Who, therefore, may say that we are cleansed by this water which attests with certainty that Christ’s blood is our true and only laver? Thus, the surest argument to refute the self–deception of those who attribute everything to the power of the water can be sought in the meaning of baptism itself, which draws us away, not only from the visible element which meets our eyes, but from all other means, that it may fasten our minds upon Christ alone (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), pp. 1304–1305).
So, ‘How can I be born again?’ Scripture always places before us a relationship with Christ as the ultimate answer to every spiritual need we have. Regeneration is the exclusive work of God but cannot be separated from the preaching of the gospel or from union with Christ, repentance, faith or conversion. As Berkhof states: ‘The moment when we are united with Christ is also the moment of our regeneration and justification’ (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 450). And Dabney states that our union with Christ is accomplished by the Spirit of God through faith: ‘The instrumental bond of the union is evidently faith—i.e., when the believer exercises faith, the union begins’ (R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 615). Thus, regeneration, union with Christ, repentance, faith and conversion are inseparable. John Murray says:
Regeneration in its restricted sense…must never be abstracted from its context. The context of regeneration in the restricted sense is one that has no meaning apart from the truth of the gospel addressed to and engaging our consciousness. Regeneration takes place in connection with the effectual call; it pushes itself into consciousness in the responses of faith and repentance. It has no relevance except as it is concomitant with these other aspects of the ordo salutis…Regeneration must not be separated from calling on the one hand and faith and repentance on the other (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1977), Volume 2, p. 197).