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John 3:5, Salvation, Water, and the Holy Spirit

Posted by Matt Postiff October 4, 2019 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Theology  Evangelism  Bible Texts 

Today's question has to do with John 3:5.

Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."

The question has to do with how did Nicodemus understood the references to water and the Spirit. Does water have to do with the physical birthing process? Is the water referring to baptism? Is the Spirit referring to tongues? The question arose in discussions with one who holds charismatic doctrine.

If you read the verse, you will see no mention of baptism and tongues. The verse talks about water and Spirit, not baptism and tongues. Yet, I can imagine where the errant ideas come from:

1. water => supposedly equals baptism

2. Spirit => supposedly equals tongues, to some charismatics, a necessary sign of salvation

I can see how water could be equated with baptism, based on the (then) recent history of John the Baptist doing his baptizing ministry. But neither Jesus nor the New Testament suggests that we must be water-baptized in order to be saved. Consider all Old Testament saints, and the "good" thief on the cross next to Jesus. We are water baptized because we are saved, but not the reverse. That is, the statement "we are saved because of water baptism" is false. The Pentecostal believer will make a lengthy case against us from the text in Acts 2:38, but such has been adequately answered in such places as this article by Professor R. Bruce Compton at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.

The second point (Spirit => tongues) is fabricated out of thin air because no place up to this point in Bible history is the Holy Spirit gift of tongues mentioned. The first occurrences is Acts 2, many months after Jesus spoke. There is no way that Nicodemus could have guessed that tongues was the referent of Jesus' words. Tongues were the farthest thing from his mind, and from the mind of our Lord, when He spoke these words.

The truth is that both water and Spirit have Old Testament referents that should have been familiar to Nicodemus. The fact that they were not leads the Lord Jesus to rebuke him for his ignorance (John 3:10). Here it is, with key words bolded:

Ezekiel 36:25-27—"Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.

Water refers to spiritual cleansing from sin. The water of baptism does not wash away sin in any shape, manner, or form. It is merely a symbol of Spirit baptism and of union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.

The Spirit refers to a ministry that begins at regeneration and continues throughout the life of the believer. The believer's spiritual life is generated and sustained by the Holy Spirit who dwells in him/her.

Jesus is saying "unless one is born of water [=cleansed from sin and thus forgiven] and the Spirit [regeneration, new life and indwelling], he cannot enter the kingdom of God." This is what Christians call the new birth, or "being born again."

Speaking illustratively now, suppose that you come to the door of the kingdom of Christ in the future (Revelation 20). Jesus will not let you inside unless you have been born of water and the Spirit. If you have not been forgiven and regenerated, you will be turned away to an eternity of condemnation in Hell. That is what He is saying to Nicodemus. You must be born again!

John 3:3—Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

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