Amazing Grace: Baptism, Part 3 (the traditional view)

grace2.jpgYou’ll be surprised to see me say it, I’m sure. But I actually think that the traditional Church of Christ interpretation of the various baptism verses is correct. It’s not complete, but it’s correct. They really do say what we’ve always said they say. They do.

In fact, if anything, they say it more strongly that we’ve sometimes contended. I could write several posts on arguments in favor of the traditional view. In fact, I have. Here they are —

The New Perspective on Baptism

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Faith Only, and Baptism

And I have many more already written but not yet posted.

To find God’s truth about baptism, we have to be ruthlessly honest. We must acknowledge what the scriptures say and not pretend otherwise and hope no one notices. Thus, we must cover the hardest of all the passages — John 3:5:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” “How can a man be born when he is old?”

Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

If “born of water” in verse 5 refers to baptism in water, Jesus has said that baptism is not only a path to heaven, it is the only path to heaven.

While many, including myself, have argued that “born of water” refers to physical birth, the stronger case is that it refers to water baptism. The argument for a reference to physical birth is that Jesus refers to being “born again” and that “flesh gives birth to flesh” in the immediate context, so that physical birth is very much a part of the discussion. Indeed, Nicodemus is moved to ask ironically whether Jesus is calling on him to return to his mother’s womb. And in English, we often refer to the “waters of birth” or to a mother’s “waters” being broken.

However, I’ve been persuaded by more careful study that “born of water” refers to baptism, for the following reasons:

a. This is the position taken by the Christian church for centuries, by many different denominations and expositors.

b. Baptism is very much in the context. John 1:19 ff. discusses the baptism of John. Indeed, in 1:26, John the Baptist says “I baptize with water” and in 1:33, John says that Jesus “will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” This is, of course, parallel with “born of water and Spirit.”

Immediately after the account of Jesus with Nicodemus, we read in 3:22 that Jesus and his disciples went to the countryside and baptized with water.

c. There is no evidence that the Jews thought of water as an element of or symbol for physical birth. Indeed, John’s earlier references to natural physical birth speak of being “born of blood,” paraphrased in the NIV as “born of human descent.” John 1:12-13. In both cases, “of” is the same preposition, ‘ek. The KJV has “born … of blood.” It is literally “of bloods.”

One commentator who sought evidence that the Jews used “water” to refer to physical birth came up with considerable evidence of water being a Jewish metaphor for conception, but nothing for associating water with physical birth. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 216-217. “In due course I turned away from the view that the water is simply the amniotic fluid that flows away during the process of birth, because I could find no ancient text that spoke of birth as ‘out of water.’”; and D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Boston: Baker Book House, Inc., 1996), 41.

d. The Greek tends to support that only one birth is in mind — The unity of the two elements is shown by the use of the single preposition ‘ek: ‘by water and Spirit’. It’s not “by water and by Spirit.”

Another interpretation sometimes offered is that “water” refers to the Spirit, referring to Isa. 44:3 and John 7:37. However, John 7:37 uses “living water” to refer to the Spirit. Isa. 44:3 might use “water” to refer to the Spirit but could equally well be interpreted to refer to blessings in general.

Ultimately, this interpretation fails because Jesus surely intended to be understood by Nicodemus. Nicodemus was likely familiar with the baptism of John, but was not likely to have understood “water” as meaning the Holy Spirit — it was hardly a conventional metaphor at the time. Anyway, why would Jesus refer to be being born of “Spirit and Spirit”?

In conclusion, the baptism interpretation has the stronger weight. Many commentators from a great many denominations agree. The Greek supports this view. And there is simply no evidence that a First Century Jew might have understood “water” as a reference to physical birth.

Does this mean that those believers who have been wrongly baptized — as infants or by sprinkling — are lost? After all, Jesus plainly says that one cannot be saved “unless” he is baptized of the water and the Spirit.

The question must now be re-defined — if a devout, penitent believer believes himself to have been baptized, will God accept that baptism even though the baptism is either not by immersion or before the believer came to believe? Is it enough that the believer thinks he has fulfilled the command to be baptized?

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Amazing Grace: Baptism, Part 3 (the traditional view)

  1. josh keele says:

    When you say at the start of the last paragraph, "The question must now be re-defined" you hit the nail squarely on the head, but your redefinition is faulty. Faulty I say, because any answer that anyone can give to your question will rest entirely on man's opinion, and not at all on God's word–which, of course, is dangerous.

    The question must rather be re-defined to this: Do you beleive Romans 8:28? "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." If a person is called according to God's purpose, has God not arranged everything to work to their good as he says he has? And if God has arranged everything to the good of those who are called according to his purpose, how can they die in ignorance of the one baptism of Ephesians 4:5? To assert that they can is to assert that God does not arrange all things to work for their good, and thus to contradict Romans 8:28.

    "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren." If God has predestined a person to be conformed to the image of his son, if he has done that much, and has arranged for them (just like Cornelius) to hear the gospel and beleive it (truly) then will he allow them to be ignorant of baptism? The very notion is a slap in the face of God!

  2. Pingback: Which Gospel? The Gospel of Baptism (The Gospels and Acts), Part 2 « One In

  3. Bradley Josephs says:


    I disagree with connecting the letter of Romans and Ephesians as evidence to your point. The letters were written at different times, to different audiences, and in different contexts.

  4. Prodigal Knot says:

    So Josh…'re a Calvinist???

    That's essentially the argument that Hyper-Calvinists use to discourage evangelism! If they were meant to be saved, nothing can prevent them from being saved so believers need do nothing but sit and wait for them to come.

    You are very much in danger of becoming a legalist brother!

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