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“Of Water and the Spirit”

Christianity stands divided as to what this term means

Alex Jones

Today much has been made of being “born again.” This phrase has been lifted from the pages of the Bible and become so hackneyed that people transformed in areas unrelated to religion are said to be born again. But even Christianity stands divided as to what the term means. Most Christians today understand it to mean that one has come to trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and begun to lead a Christian life.

This understanding has its roots in the teachings of the Reformation. Martin Luther taught man is saved by faith alone (sola fide). Though Luther himself still believed in the efficacy of baptism, most Protestants today take sole fide literally: One has only to believe in Jesus or confess Christ, and he is saved. After all, didn’t our Lord say, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)? And did not Paul and Silas tell the Philippian jailer to “believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31)?

Protestant church traditions have defined for us how men are born again. Preachers, including myself, have called men, women, and children to the front of the church and asked them if they believe in the Lord Jesus or if they believe in their hearts that God raised Christ from the dead (“Because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” [Rom. 10:9–10]).

Of course, they answer in the affirmative—why else would they be standing up in front of the church? We then dutifully lead them through the Sinner’s Prayer and happily pronounce that, since they have expressed “faith in Jesus” or “trust in Jesus,” they are now children of God. They have received the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit. They have become born again!

But have they? Have they truly been led into the family of God?

The Bible teaches again and again that Christians are indeed saved by God’s grace through faith:

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21–22).

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). Paul explains here the precondition for sonship—faith, as opposed to the old law. But in the next verse he explains the instrumental means of its application: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (emphasis added).

The hearer assents to and accepts the gospel message. But this acceptance of the gospel message is the beginning and foundation of being born again, but it is not the birth itself. It is only the foundation for the regenerative work of God in the life of the believing sinner: “And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6).

But does confessing faith in Christ or instant conversion to the Christian faith qualify a person as being born again? Was Paul really saying in Romans 10:9–10 that confessing faith in Christ is the new birth (i.e., salvation)?

If we say that the faith of Romans 10:9–10 is enough for salvation, then what do we do with Jesus’ declaration, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5)? What about “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16)? And what about Peter’s response to the Jews query about being saved: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38)?

Paul uses the word faith in his writings as a synecdoche, a single word that sums up a process. Believing and trusting in Jesus is not in itself the new birth, only the first step in the process of being born again. Faith alone does not save—unless, of course, there is no opportunity for the believer to finish the entire process of faith: faith, repentance, baptism.


Many Protestants point out that the Bible does not attach anything to faith that leads to salvation—it is faith alone. But they ignore Jesus’ addition to faith: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”

Some maintain that Christ’s gratuitous receiving of the thief on the cross is a scriptural example of salvation by faith alone. But we have no way of knowing if the good thief was one of the many hundreds, even thousands, in the region who during Christ’s ministry had answered the call to water baptism. Even assuming he was saved by his faith alone, we must remember he had no opportunity to be baptized. He demonstrated dramatically his faith by his plea to the Lord to remember him in his kingdom, but he was an exception, a demonstration of the sovereignty and mercy of God. The normative biblical process of the new birth is begun in faith, demonstrated in repentance, and completed in the waters of baptism.

Another biblical experience that is used to prove that the born-again experience is an instantaneous act of faith is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9). He is said to have been born again through his “saving faith” confession of the glorified Jesus as “Lord” (“And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’” [Acts 9:4–5]). The word Lord is used here, as it is often in the New Testament, as a title of respect, very much like today’s use of the title of sir. Saul was at a loss as to who was speaking to him.

Saul did come to faith on the road to Damascus but received his right of sonship through entrance into the kingdom of God when Ananias baptized him. The Bible is silent about Saul’s repentance, but we can be reasonably sure it occurred during his three days of blindness, fasting, and prayer.


After the step of faith, the next step in the process of being born again is repentance. The recipient of the gospel message must repent of his sins and turn from darkness to God:

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17).

“Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Peter preaching in Acts 3:19).

“The times of ignorance [idolatry] God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent” (Paul preaching in Acts 17:30).

“[Paul] declared first to those at Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance” (Acts 26:20).


Once a hearer has repented of his sins and turned to God, he has become a disciple of our Lord. The next step is water baptism, which completes his journey into the kingdom of God. Up to this point he has come out of the kingdom of darkness, but now he must be born into the Kingdom of God.

Water baptism is the sacrament that admits the forgiven sinner into a covenant relationship with God. The word sacramentcomes from the Latin sacramentum, which can meanoath. One might say a sacrament carries the oath of God to impart a specific grace through a physical means.

The Old Testament witnesses to the power of water when used as a type, or foreshadowing, of baptism. We have only to look at the first creation to see the Spirit bringing life and order out of the waters that covered the earth (Genesis 1:1–2, 20). The Bible also speaks of Noah being saved through water as a symbol of us being saved through the waters of baptism (Gen. 6:9–18; 1 Pet. 3:20–21).

The Bible uses baptismal imagery when Moses delivers Israel from the tyranny of Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea (Ex. 14; 1 Cor. 10:2). The Levitical priests were cleansed by the washing of baptismal waters held in a laver before they entered the Tabernacle (Ex. 30:17–21). The Syrian general Naaman was healed through baptism (dipping seven times) in the waters of the Jordan river (2 Kgs. 5). God’s promise through Ezekiel pointed to the cleansing work of water baptism (Ezek. 36:25–27).

Hence, the Scriptures give clear testimony that God’s promise of healing, delivering, cleansing, saving, and giving life, would be accomplished through the medium of water in the sacrament of baptism.

Nicodemus, a great teacher of the Jewish Law and a member of the high council called the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus under the cloak of night to question him (John 3:1–15). Jesus surprised him with the statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3). Nicodemus, taking him literally, asked, “How can a man be born when he is old?” (3:4). Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (3:5).

Christians are divided over the meaning of water in this passage. Some believe Jesus meant the amniotic fluid associated with natural childbirth. Others believe water is the word of God. But from the earliest times the Church has always understood that the water was the water of baptism.

In every instance of the Holy Spirit being given in the New Testament, water baptism is associated with it. In all but one case, the Holy Spirit was given after water baptism (cf. Acts 2:38, 8:9–17). When Paul questioned the Ephesian disciples about their relationship with the Holy Spirit, he asked, “Into what then were you baptized?” When they answered, “Into John’s baptism,” Paul knew they had not received Christian baptism. So he preached the gospel first and then baptized them with Christian baptism (in the name of Christ), laid his hands upon them, and they immediately received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1–6). He could not come until they had been baptized “into Christ.”

The only time the Holy Spirit was given before baptism is recorded in Acts 10:44–48, where the Gentiles were added to the Christian Church. In chapter eleven we soon discover why: Had not the Holy Spirit fallen upon the Gentiles, the Jews would have never allowed them entrance into the Church (11:1–3, 15–18).

Jesus’ baptism (recorded in Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:9, Luke 3:21, and John 1:32) gives testimony to the truth that the Holy Spirit is associated with water baptism. In every account, the Holy Spirit is recorded descending upon him as he emerged from the waters of baptism.

In Paul’s letter to Titus he reminds him that “he saved us . . . by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5). In other words, through the graciousness of God and Christ, the Holy Spirit was generously given—poured out—to believers through the waters of baptism. This corresponds to what Jesus told Nicodemus: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The earliest Church Fathers who were either disciples of the Apostles or writers of the second century preached without exception that the water in John 3:3, 5 is the water of regeneration.

Every child who is born is born into a family. Spiritual birth through baptism bestows upon the believer sonship in the family of God. In Romans 8:15–16, Paul wrote, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

And again in Galatians 3:26–27: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Or once more: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6).

Faith in Christ is the first and necessary step in being born again, but without water baptism it is incomplete and does not bestow New Testament sonship. Faith, as used by Paul in all of his writings, is a synecdoche to summarize the entire salvation process. As such, all of the scriptural references pertaining to salvation and the new birth make perfect sense.

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