A gracEmail subscriber writes, “Jesus says that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5). I have heard for many years that this means that unless you are baptized, you cannot be saved. Is this a reference to baptism in water?”
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Every human is born “of water” or “of flesh” into this world, and has a nature that “is flesh.” Only those “born from above” are born “of Spirit” and have a regenerated nature that “is spirit.” Every one of us needs spiritual regeneration by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Receiving Christ by faith is a sure sign that one has been born, not only “of water” in physical birth but also of “the Spirit” from above (John 1:12-13). Christian baptism had not yet been instituted when Nicodemus had this conversation with the Savior. Gospel baptism is nowhere in this context. Everything Jesus says here makes clear sense without it. I do not think that Jesus is speaking directly about water baptism when he talks of being “born of water” or “born again.”
That does not mean there is no connection between baptism and the new birth by the Holy Spirit. Newborn babies are customarily cleaned by washing (Ezek. 16:4). Ezekiel foretold a time when God would “sprinkle clean water” and “cleanse” his people, would give them “a new heart” and give them his Spirit (Ezek. 36:24-28). Jesus himself was anointed with God’s Spirit when he was baptized in water (John 1:29-36). Immediately after this conversation with Nicodemus, John reports an incident involving pre-Christian water baptism (John 3:22-30).
Christian baptism and the Holy Spirit go together as the inner and outer aspects of conversion (Titus 3:5; Heb. 10:22; Eph. 5:25-26). Jesus himself commanded water baptism as the initiatory act of discipleship for those who believe the gospel (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16). Baptism rests on solid authority without inserting it into John 3:3-5.