Question: Please discuss the “new birth” and what the term “water” refers to in John 3:5. Is this water baptism?
Answer: John 3:5 says, “…Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
The whole topic of Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the first several verses of the third chapter of St. John’s gospel is the new birth, or being born again. His speech is concerning the heavenly birth. Now, if we can find out from the Word of God just how this experience is reached and the agents that are cooperative in its being reached, we will know what is meant by the water and Spirit, for they are the two agents spoken of by which we are born again. By referring to the marginal reading in John 3:3 and 7, we note that this second birth is “from above.” In John 1:13 the writer speaks of those receiving Jesus as being “born of God.” In John 3:6 Jesus draws the distinction between two kinds of births. One was of the flesh or a natural birth. The other was of the Spirit or a spiritual birth. Since the spiritual birth is “from above” then the agents that bring it about must necessarily be from above. Since the birth is of God the agents must necessarily be of God and emanate from God. Since the birth is spiritual the agents and elements involved in it must necessarily be spiritual. Hence, the term water in the text could not possibly refer to literal water, for the elements and agents involved in the new birth must meet all these requirements. They must be from above, of God and spiritual. While it is true that literal water is given us by God for “…He…sendeth the rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45), yet it could not be said to emanate from God, for God is a Spirit and that which emanates from a spirit is not literal but spiritual. This, at least, answers one part of the question: “water” in the text under consideration could not refer to literal water and could have no reference to water baptism being a part of our spiritual birth. It has its place all right, but not here.
Again, it is not the outer man, or the flesh, that is born again. This was the big question with Nicodemus, “…How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:4.) Jesus’ response to this question was, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6.) But it is the inner man or soul that is affected by this birth. David said, “He restoreth my soul:…” (Psalm 23:3.) It was the soul that was dead because of trespasses and sins. Ezekiel 18:4 and 20 says, “…The soul that sinneth, it shall die….” Therefore it was the soul that needed to be restored to life or born again. Now it must be evident unto all that “Spiritual things must be compared with spiritual and natural things with natural.” (I Corinthians 2:13-14.) They do not intermingle and one does not affect the other. Literal things do not affect or react on the spiritual, neither the spiritual on the literal. Therefore literal water could not react upon the spiritual part of man; hence could not be employed as an agent in the heavenly, spiritual birth of a person’s soul.
When we look into the Word of God, which is the only place we can find the plan and operation of salvation and the new or heavenly birth clearly set forth, and begin to search for agents that will meet all three requirements for employment in this operation of being born again (from above, of God and spiritual) we find only two that qualify the Word of God and the Spirit of God. But let us see if we are born of the Word. Let us look first at I Peter 1:23. “Being born again, not of corruptible seed (now it must be evident unto all that literal water is corruptible and we have seen some of it that was so corrupted that it could hardly be used for anything), but of incorruptible, by the Word of God which liveth and abideth for ever.” James 1:18 says, “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth,…” I Corinthians 4:15 says, “…For in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” We see clearly in these three texts that the Word of God is one of the agents in the spiritual begetting and new birth of the soul. To be born implies a coming into a state of life. But life naturally can be produced only where there is the seed of life. This is also true in a spiritual sense. Spiritual life can only be produced from a spiritual seed of life. In the text above, I Peter 1:23, we discover that the incorruptible seed is the Word of God and that it liveth. Jesus said in John 6:63, “…The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” Hence, the Word of God is the seed of spiritual life. A seed planted in the earth, under the proper conditions of moisture, heat, light, etc., will germinate and spring into life. So the spiritual seed, the Word of God, when planted in the heart and acted upon by the germinating power and influence of the Holy Spirit will spring up and produce life in the soul. In the eighth chapter of Luke, Jesus gave the parable of the sower who went forth to sow and mentioned a number of places and conditions into which the seed fell. Then in reiterating the parable to His disciples He said in Luke 8:11, “…The seed is the word of God.” Then He continues in verse 15 by saying, “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit…” Again Jesus says in John 5:25, “…The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead (spiritually dead) shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear (receive the Word of God, the seed of spiritual life) shall live.” This is how a man is born again, by the operation of the Word and Spirit of God in his heart.
Now it is surely evident unto all that the term “born again” describes the same experience and operation that is described elsewhere in the Word of God by “salvation” and “being saved.” But let us see how the Word is connected with salvation or being saved. I Corinthians 1:21 says, “…It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” But preach what? “Preach the Word.” (II Timothy 4:2.) “Preach the gospel.” (Mark 16:15.) “Teach all things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20.) “They went everywhere preaching the Word.” (Acts 8:4.) And God said He was pleased to save men by the preaching of His word which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21.) “…I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation…” (Romans 1:16). “The Word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” (Ephesians 1:13.) It is an indisputable fact, from this collection of Holy Scriptures, that the Word of God is one of the agents employed in our being saved. Now just a test or two to prove by the Word of God itself that the Word is represented by water in some instances in the Bible and the proof will be as complete as the Word of God can make it that the term “water” in John 3:5 means the Word of God.
Ephesians 5:26 says, “That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” Here the sanctification of the Church is spoken of as being accomplished with washing of water by the Word. But Jesus says in John 17:17, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” So we see here that the Word and water are used interchangeably and are put to the same use to accomplish the same result. Again, it speaks in this same place of being cleansed with the washing of water. But Jesus said in John 15:3, “Now ye are clean through the word…” and Peter tells us in I Peter 1:22, “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth…” Jesus said, “…Thy word is truth.” (John 17:17.) There are perhaps other similar texts, but Jesus said every word was established by two or three witnesses so this is deemed sufficient at this point.
Now if literal water could possibly fill the three requirements for this spiritual birth that is, if it could be spiritual, of God or emanating from God and from above, then there might be some room for argument about this text, but it is impossible and therefore that consideration is out. However, the term “water” is not only used interchangeably with the Word in certain instances in the spiritual sense, but it is also used in certain instances as interchangeable with the Holy Spirit. But since the text is so worded “water” and (conjunction implying another separate person or thing) “Spirit,” and the Spirit is introduced in the text under His own name and since the Word and Spirit are the only two agents which can meet the necessary requirements for employment in the operation of the spiritual birth, then the matter just narrows down to one unalterable conclusion “water” in the text means the “Word of God.” The Holy Spirit works in connection with the Word in effecting the new birth by convincing people of its truth and of their need of its benefits, by inspiring faith in the heart causing it to act in harmony with the Word’s precepts and furnishing the germinating power and influence which causes it to spring up and produce life in the soul.