I saved this passage for late in the discussion because I wanted to share this story near the end. You see, when I was law school (and woolly mammoths ruled the earth), the leaders of my church asked for volunteers to sit in the hospital with a former elder. He was dying from a lung condition, could barely breathe, had little time left to live, and needed to be watched 24/7. I was young and could stay up late in those days, and so I volunteered.
Now, I’d just graduated from Lipscomb and my head was filled all sorts of contradictory things. I’d learned a few elements of grace from Harvey Floyd in his class on Romans, but I’d also taken courses that made it clear that grace is limited to the nearly perfect. I was trying to sort it all out while also learning about torts, contracts, and easements.
So one evening, I sat with a dying man who’d been an elder decades earlier — a man I figured would be filled with legalism and terrified of the death that was sure to come soon. After all, the doctrine we’d all been taught was something like: “We aren’t sure anyone is going to have doctrine perfect enough to be saved, but we’re certain we’ll be first in line to find out!” Yes, my North Alabama theology was of very little comfort at all. I was there out of duty and dreading the experience.
When I arrived, the retired elder was struggling to breathe and couldn’t talk. He seemed on the verge of delirium. But the nurses brought him some oxygen, and once he’d been able to breathe for awhile, we made our introductions and he began to talk about dying — a subject I was very, very uncomfortable with. I mean, I wanted to run out the door!
But then he told me he was ready to die and entirely certain of his place with Jesus. With a remarkable calmness, he recited from memory —
(Tit 3:4-7 ESV) 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
He said, “I know that I’ve not lived well enough to earn heaven, but I know I’ll be saved by the mercy of God. And I’m so looking forward to meeting Jesus!”
I was astonished, amazed, and envious of the man in the hospital bed, gasping for every breath, because I realized then and there that he really was going to be with Jesus. And I understood that this is a good way to die — secure in God’s grace and not fearful of whether you’ve begged for forgiveness enough or done enough or know enough. I knew at that moment that the lessons on grace were right!
He died the next day, smiling in anticipation of joining Jesus in the next age.
The other thing I realized is that this man had not learned that from the Church of Christ periodicals or lesson books. He’d learned it from the Bible — and had the courage to believe it. And I decided I wanted to die that way — not quite yet, but whenever God decides to take me.
So that’s my story. This is a really important passage and well worth a leisurely study. So let’s do a little exegesis.
There are two commonly argued interpretations of the passage grammatically. They go like this —
by the ((washing of regeneration) and (renewal)) of the Holy Spirit
by (the washing of regeneration) and (renewal of the Holy Spirit)
Did that make sense? Some take “of the Holy Spirit” to refer to both the washing of regeneration and the renewal. Thus, the “washing” is the Spirit’s work in us, and not a reference to water baptism.
Others take “of the Holy Spirit” to refer only to “renewal” and take “washing” to be water baptism.
If you’re a Calvinist or if you just think regeneration is independent of water baptism, you’re inclined to adopt the first position. If you believe salvation ordinarily occurs at water baptism, you’re inclined to take the second. And the commentaries very often do their “exegeting” from Calvin and Arminius rather than Paul. Let’s stick with Paul. And Paul wrote in Greek —
??? [DIA = through] ??????? [LOUTROU = bath (noun genitive)] ????????????? [PALIGGENESIAS = regeneration (noun genitive)] ??? [KAI = and] ???????????? [ANAKAINOSEOS = renewal (noun genitive)] ????????? ????? [PNEUMATOS HAGIOU = Holy Spirit (noun genitive)]
Each genitive can be thought of as being preceded with an “of,” which is implied in the Greek by the genitive form of the word. It’s really “of the washing of regeneration and of renewal of the Holy Spirit.” It’s a bit awkward in English to be so literal, but the of’s give a sense of the ambiguity in Paul’s construction.
And so, Paul’s grammar isn’t as helpful as we’d like. A long string of genitives is not easy to dissect. Maybe his vocabulary will be of more help.
Loutron is normally translated “washing” but is a noun and not a participle. The literal meaning is “bath,” but it can refer to the act of bathing. The Greeks and Romans were big on bathing — in magnificent public baths. Here’s a link to a fascinating article on the subject. To mention a “bath” to the Gentile Titus was to evoke a luxurious cleansing performed in community.
Paliggenesias, translated “regeneration,” is an unusual word, found only in Matthew 19:28 and here in the New Testament. Outside the Bible, the Stoics used the term to refer to the rebirth of the world after the end of an age, which is Jesus’ use of the word. But Paul has something else in mind, and so we have to refer to the roots of the word.
It’s palin + genesis. Palin means both a former candidate for vice president of the U.S. and new. We could translate “re-genesis” — a new beginning. The first meaning of genesis is “birth” or “life.” It could also mean “new origin” or “new race.”
But we can’t escape the Stoic flavor. The idea of new life or new birth includes an implication of “following a death.” The Stoics believed in a cyclical world with ages of destruction, rebirth, followed again by destruction, etc. Paul used a Stoic word that means “new birth/life following death.” “Regeneration” is a fair translation, but misses some of the flavor of the word.
Thus, we have “bath of new birth/life following death.” Sounds a lot like Romans 6 to me —
(Rom 6:1 ESV) 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
“Renewal” translates anakainosis. Ana– is a prefix meaning “again” like our “re-“. Kainosis means “make renewed/fresh.” Like our “reiterate,” the etymology is a little redundant to emphasize the newness taking place. (“Newness” in Rom 6:4 has the same root.)
You know, it’s hard to see regeneration and renewal as radically different thoughts. The first emphasizes what happens (we’re reborn, given new life, given a fresh start) and the second emphasizes the result (we’re made new again). Obviously, both are tied to the work of the Spirit. Therefore, we should bracket the two —
by the washing (of regeneration and [of] renewal) of the Holy Spirit
Thus, “of the Holy Spirit” applies to both actions, but if “regeneration and renewal” are tied together as a pair, then “washing of” or “bath of” also applies to both. Water and Spirit. It’s hard to escape the parallel —
(John 3:5 ESV) Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
So does loutrou refer to water baptism? Or is this a washing effected by the Spirit independent of the water? The only other use of the word in the New Testament is —
(Eph 5:25-27 ESV) 5 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish
And I take this as plainly a reference to water baptism. The only other uses of the Greek word are found in the Song of Solomon —
(Sol 4:2 ESV) 2 Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost its young.
(Sol 6:6 ESV) 6 Your teeth are like a flock of ewes that have come up from the washing; all of them bear twins; not one among them has lost its young.
(I think Solomon was telling his lover that she wasn’t missing any teeth at all! Quite the charmer that Solomon.)
The the verb louo, which has the same root as the noun loutron (loutrou means “of loutron,” making it genitive), is found in such verses as —
(2Sa 11:2 ESV) It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful.
(John 13:10 ESV) 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.”
(Heb 10:22 ESV) 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
So I figure Paul is referencing water baptism, but he’s also mentioning the Spirit. In fact, I doubt seriously that Paul would have thought in terms of one or the other but rather would have considered the two as going hand in hand. And while Paul was likely quite aware of Cornelius and other cases where the Spirit was received separate from water baptism, the ordinary case — the case he preached — was the Spirit poured out concurrently with the immersion, of which Jesus’ own baptism is a type.
You see, Paul’s string of genitives is ambiguous because I think he’d have been good with any of the interpretations. It all happens in water baptism by the power of the Spirit.