You’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 —
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?