Richard Lloyd Anderson teaches in the Guide To The Life of Christ (FARMS Reprint, 1999):
The Protestant Problem
At the resurrection Jesus sent his apostles with the command to preach and baptize (Matt. 28:19-20), giving the double requirement. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Yet the Protestant reformers taught that grace alone and faith alone brought salvation. Because Christ was baptized and established the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Protestants generally emphasize these two ceremonies, though not firmly requiring any ceremony as necessary for salvation. Popularly, baptism is explained as “an outward sign of an inward grace,” advisable but not required by God. But Jesus said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Some claim that “born of water” refers to one’s physical birth, coming out of the amniotic fluid of the mother’s womb. According to this interpretation, Jesus only asked Nicodemus to be born of the Spirit after the fluid of physical birth. This is forced however, for it contradicts John’s context, the apostle’s interpretation, and Jewish terminology of the time.
The Baptismal Theme in John, Chapter 3
In Matthew and Mark, John the Baptist preaches repentance and baptism, and Jesus and his apostles preach repentance and the King of God or Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 3:2, 11; 4:17; Mark 1:4, 14-15). John’s Gospel clarifies that preaching the kingdom included baptism as the entrance ceremony to get into it. The outward ministries of John and Jesus were the same: After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized (John 3:22-23). The above verses immediately follow the dialogue with Nicodemus. John has obviously arranged the episodes to show that all had to be baptized, even a member of the elite governing body. John’s Gospel then gives the Baptist’s prophecy that Christ “must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), which is virtually a statistical statement on baptism, for we are next informed that “Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John” (John 4:1). Thus John’s Gospel clarifies that Jesus’ main preaching of repentance included baptism, and the Nicodemus conversation is there to show that one cannot enter God’s kingdom without it.
Birth “of Water and of the Spirit” in the Early Church
Assignment 3 indicated the close relationship of John’s Gospel and his first letter, both written about the same time and reflecting problems near the end of the first century. From memory and/or records, John’s Gospel reaches back decades to illuminate what Christ said about baptism, the sacrament, and even confirmation. In his first letter, John clearly expressed the triple basis of salvation. There being “born of God” is the combination of “the Spirit, and the water, and the blood” (I John 5:4, 8), meaning the coming of the Holy Ghost after baptism, made effective by Christ’s atonement. John reported the conversation with Nicodemus to show that this teaching came from Christ.
Some decades before John wrote, Paul reminded a fellow-missionary that salvation came through Christ and was made effective “by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). In Greek Paul is using the concept of “born again,” paliggenesia, which combines a term meaning “origin” or “birth” with palin, the simple term for “again.” Current translations of Titus 3:5 make the “born again” image clear, such as “the washing of rebirth” (NIV) or “the cleansing water of rebirth” (NJB). Bible believers should accept both Paul and John. These apostles knew Christ’s words on rebirth to Nicodemus and clearly explained their meaning (p. 36).
I agree with the very last two sentences that Anderson wrote on this full page in the FARMS reprint. But I wish we could discuss our differences on interpreting what John and Paul are communicating about what it means to be born again.
After reading Anderson’s account of Jesus baptizing, I had to check if Joseph Smith changed John 4:2. Sure enough. Is the KJV John 4:2 a contradiction to LDS?
But before I ask a pertinent question on John 3, let me list for you a sample spattering of evangelical interpretations on John 3:5.
The “water” in John 3:5 means . . .
(1) The amniotic fluid of a mother’s womb or the male semen of the father
Out of the 20+ scholarly evangelical commentaries that I posses on John’s Gospel, none of them propose this position as what they believe.
(2) The Word of God
Arno C. Gaebelein in The Gospel of John (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1965) writes, “Water here is figurative of the Word of God as it is also in the thirteenth chapter, in connection with the feet washing of the disciples, and in Ephesians 5:26: ‘The washing of water by the Word.’ Then there are three passages which show conclusively that the Word of God is meant: I Corinthians 4:15, ‘for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel,’ James 1:18, ‘Of His own will begat He us with the Word of Truth,’ and I Peter 1:23. In the last named passage Peter writes: ‘Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.’ This Petrine statement is sufficient to silence the view that water baptism is an agent in the new birth. . . . The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to bring about the new birth. Faith cometh by hearing and hearing cometh by the Word of God. The Word believed and accepted, the Holy Spirit accomplishes by His power the new birth, and the new nature, the eternal life is received” (62).
Arthur W. Pink in the Exposition of the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) writes, “If then the Lord Jesus used the word “water” emblematically in John 3:5, to what was He referring? We answer, The Word of God. This is ever the instrument used by God in regeneration” (110).
James Montgomery Boice in The Gospel of John, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005, paperback edition) writes, “Water is also a metaphor for the written Word of God, the Bible. Thus, Ephesians 5:26 says that Christ gave himself for the church “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.” In I John the same author who composed the fourth Gospel distinguishes between the witnesses to Christ on earth of “the Spirit, the water and the blood” (I John 5:8). Since he then goes on to speak of God’s written witness to the fact that salvation is in Christ, in this context the Spirit must refer to God’s witness within the individual, the blood to the historical witness of Christ’s death, and the water to the Scriptures. Psalm 119:9 declares, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.” Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3) (201).
(3) Spiritual seed
Leon Morris in The Gospel According to John: The New International Commentary On The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) writes, “. . . we may take ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ closely together to give a meaning like ‘spiritual seed’ [This is rendered the more likely in that neither noun has the article and the one preposition governs both (216n29)]. . . . Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He was used to this way of speaking. The allusion would be natural for him. We should accordingly take the passage to mean being born of ‘spiritual water’, and see this as another way of referring to being born ‘of the Spirit’. Jesus is referring to the miracle which takes place when the divine activity re-makes a man” (216-218).
(4) John’s baptism
B.F. Westcott in The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint, 1981, originally 1881) writes, “It can then, scarcely be questioned that as Nicodemus heard the words, water carried with it a reference to John’s baptism, which was a divinely appointed rite (i. 33), gathering up into itself and investing with a new importance all the lustral baptisms of the Jews: the spirit, on the other hand, marked that inward power which John placed in contrast with his own baptism. Thus the words, taken in their immediate meaning as intelligible to Nicodemus, set forth, as required before entrance into the kingdom of God, the acceptance of the preliminary rite divinely sanctioned, which was the seal of repentance and so of forgiveness, and following on this the communication of the a new life, resulting from the direct action of the Holy Spirit through Christ. The Pharisees rejected the rite, and by so doing cut themselves off from the grace which was attached to it. They would not become as little children, and so they could not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (50).
G. Campbell Morgan in The Gospel According to John writes, “Then Jesus went on, very beautifully answering him in the realm of interpretation. Listen to Him. He said, “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” Mark the continuity. You have been attending the ministry of one who baptized you in water, and told you Another would baptize you in the Spirit. Except you are born of all that the water baptism signified, repentance: and that which the Spirit baptism accomplishes, regeneration, you cannot enter into the Kingdom of God”(58)
The Bible Knowledge Commentary (SP Publications, 1983) edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, states, “(5) The “water” refers to the repentance ministry of John the Baptist, and the “Spirit” refers to the application by the Holy Spirit of Christ to an individual. The fifth view has the merit of historical propriety as well as theological acceptability. John the Baptist had stirred the nation by his ministry and stress on repentance (Matt. 3:1-6). “Water” would remind Nicodemus of the Baptist’s emphasis. So Jesus was saying that Nicodemus, in order to enter the kingdom, needed to turn to Him (repent) in order to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit” (281).
John Phillips in Exploring The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publication, 1989) writes, “In seeking to ascertain the Lord’s meaning we must observe the law of historical propriety. We must ask ourselves, ‘What would Nicodemus understand by these words?’ Obviously he would not read Christian baptism into them because the Lord had not instituted the ordinance nor would he do so for several years. Water and the Spirit. Who had been hammering at the conscience of Israel, seeking to prepare the people for the coming of king and kingdom, using those two very words? John the Baptist, of course. Nicodemus would think at once of John’s words, ‘I indeed baptize with water, but there comes one who will baptize you with the Spirit.’ That is the key to this otherwise cryptic statement” (66-67).
George R. Beasley-Murray in John: Word Biblical Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1999) writes, “It would seem that the text relates birth from above to baptism and the Holy Spirit. . . . Such a view assumes that entry into the kingdom of God requires baptism of water and of the Spirit. . . . The Evangelist’s setting of the dialogue with Nicodemus alongside a second section concerned with the relation of John’s baptism to that promoted by Jesus (vv 25-30 indicates how he wished the first to be understood: Pharisees like Nicodemus should not stand aloof from the call to repentance for the kingdom of God issued by John the Baptist and by Jesus, for all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and the recreating work of the Holy Spirit, which is as imminent as the kingdom itself” (48-49).
(5) Christian baptism
R.C.H. Lenski in The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943) writes, “In the Baptist’s sacrament, as in that of Jesus afterward, water is joined with the Spirit, the former being the divinely chosen earthly medium (necessary on that account), the latter being the regenerating agent who uses that medium. When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, the latter could understand only that the Baptist’s sacrament was being referred to. This was entirely enough. For this sacrament admitted to the kingdom as completely as the later instituted sacrament of Jesus. Therefore Jesus also continued to require the Baptist’s sacrament, 3:22 and 4:2, and after his resurrection extended it to all nations by means of his great commission. No need, then, to raise the question as to which Baptism Jesus here had in mind, or whether he also referred to his own future sacrament. It was but one sacrament which was first commanded by God for the use of the Baptist, then was used by Jesus, and finally instituted for all people. Tit. 3:5 thus applies to this sacrament in all its stages. Jesus tells Nicodemus just what he asks, namely the “how” of regeneration. How is it possible? By baptism! but Jesus cuts off a second how: How by Baptism? by using the description of Baptism, “water and Spirit.” Because not merely water but God’s Spirit is effective in the sacrament, therefore it works the new birth” (237-238).
William Hendriksen in John vol. 1: New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953) writes, “The key to the interpretation of these words is found in 1:22 [misprint – should be 3:22]. (See also 1:26, 31; cf. Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16) where water and Spirit are also found side by side, in connection with baptism. The evident meaning, therefore is this: being baptized with water is not sufficient. The sign is valuable, indeed. It is of great importance both as a pictorial representation and as a seal. But the sign should be accompanied by the thing signified: the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit” (134).
R.V.G. Tasker in John: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960) writes, “But in the light of the reference to the practice by Jesus of water baptism in verse 22, it is difficult to avoid construing the words of water and of the Spirit conjunctively, and regarding them as a description of Christian baptism, in which cleansing and endowment are both essential elements” (71).
Gerald L. Borchert in John 1-11: The New American Commentary (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996) writes, “In such contexts baptism and salvation were clearly linked within the thinking of early Christians. Was the same true for John, who later in the first century was writing reflectively on the significance of the Nicodemus story for his community of believers? In trying to answer this question, we are trying to make silence speak. Yet when we remember that the purpose of the Gospel is not simply to provide a newspaper report of the life of Jesus but to direct the reader’s attention to life in Christ, such a deeper level of application may not be impossible. That the early Christian readers at least would have seen in the Nicodemus story a symbolic reference to the whole process of salvation is quite probable” (175).
Here is my concluding question. “Jesus answered and said unto him [Nicodemus], Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (John 3:10).
Where was Nicodemus to read and know about being “born of water and of the Spirit” in the Old Testament?