The apostle John writes, quoting Jesus:
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:5-6, ESV)
I grew up believing that being born of water was a reference to being born from the mother’s womb. The idea here is that Spirit = Spirit and water = flesh. Nicodemus has just questioned Jesus how someone can be born again. He had in mind re-entering his mother’s womb, which he rightly saw as an impossibility. The argument, as I was told, is that Jesus says one must be born from the womb first and then again of or by the Spirit. It’s like saying, “Well, first one must exist, that is, be born, then one must be spiritually born.” But why would Jesus need to say one has to be physically born from the womb? That seems a bit strange. And if Nicodemus says womb, why would Jesus say water instead of womb? Maybe it refers to amniotic fluid, but that seems a stretch to me (though that was the teaching I grew up with).
Now, as I take a step back, I wonder if water is actually a reference to baptism (as so many others have argued). If given the choice between being born from the womb and being born via baptism, it seems to make the most obvious (on the surface) sense that Jesus had (water) baptism in mind. The idea here is that repentance and baptism are required to enter the kingdom of God, not merely born of the flesh, that is, not merely being a physical descendant of Abraham. Remember that entering the kingdom of God for Christians is akin to being a member of the nation of Israel for a Jew; to be counted among the saved is everything. If one wants to truly gain the inheritance of the Jew, one has to be physically circumcised as well as circumcised of the heart. It is both an internal and external reality. Could it be that to be a true Christian, to be a citizen of the kingdom of God, one also has an internal and external reality, that is, repentance and baptism? Of course repentance is outward as well. It is a turning of one’s life from one direction to another, from darkness to light. So repentance may not be internal as much as an outward sign, like baptism, that one’s heart has changed. In other words, if one truly has turned to God for salvation, and has embraced the gospel, then one should repent, that is, live differently. If that formula is true then one should get baptized too. Right? Is it not commanded?
The apostle Paul writes:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 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, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, ESV)
What does “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” mean? For some the washing of regeneration is the act of water baptism. I think this is the view most common among the “church fathers” and has remained so in many Christian quarters. That the act is also spiritual is because it is combined with the renewal of the Holy Spirit. Is this the right way to understand Paul? Is he saying that water baptism and renewal by the Spirit make us heirs? If so, is the logic then that baptism is a part of the process of “being justified by his grace?” My sense is that the washing of regeneration may be referring to water baptism, but the washing and the renewal may be the same thing, that is the work of the Holy Spirit is in changing us because of God’s mercy and grace. Still, there are enough verses in the Bible linking baptism to the process of salvation to warrant consideration that baptism is in view here.
It is important to know that a sacramental version of Christianity will tend to see “washing of regeneration” as clearly indicating water baptism of some kind, and that a non-sacramental version of Christianity will tend to see it as clearly not indicating baptism. Each will view these words through their own worldview, their own theo-logic. I was raised non-sacramental. Baptism and communion, along with all the sacraments are, in my training, only outward symbols of an internal reality. Though powerful, these symbols are not required of the Christian. In these meditations on baptism I find my non-sacramentalist positions to no longer be air tight as I once thought, but I am not yet, not fully at least, a sacramentalist. (By sacramentalist I mean someone who believes the sacraments are commanded, are necessary to our salvation and are, in some way, causal in our growth in sanctification.)
The apostle Peter wrote:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22, ESV)
It seems that baptism, according to Peter, corresponds in some way to Noah and his family being brought safely through the flood, which may correspond to Christ’s death in some way. I find this a bit confusing. And then, in language surprising to the sola fide crowd, Peter claims that baptism saves us because it is an appeal to God for a good conscience. How can baptism save anyone? We see that Noah was saved by God and by the ark, that is, by divine providence and by the natural laws that make boats float on water. How, then, does baptism correspond to this, if it does? Or is the corresponding only to Christ’s suffering and his preaching to those in prison (which I take to be Hell or some kind of purgatorial limbo)? Or could the correspondence be that through baptism we make the appeal to God in the same way those in prison must have after meeting Christ face to face and hearing his proclamation? The fact is Peter says baptism saves us. How? If baptism is “only” symbolic, how can one be saved by a symbol? If (water) baptism comes only after turning to God, then how does it save us?
I am convinced that salvation is a gift from God. I am convinced that I came into this world with a deadly allergy to the truth of God, His gospel, and all things eternal. And I am convinced that were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit—against my very will—I would never have seen my need for salvation and never have turned to God for mercy and never have believed the foolishness of the cross as the great wisdom that it is. And yet, though I have always considered the classic Reformation creed of salvation through faith alone, I cannot help but notice that the apostles also included baptism as part of the process. Have I misunderstood the process of salvation? James says faith without works is a dead faith. I believe that too. Could faith without baptism be an incomplete faith? If so, would it be incomplete only if there is a community of faith within which the believer participates, and in which baptism plays a similar role to what a wedding ceremony plays? Is faith without baptism like a common law marriage, it’s real at one level but un-confessed or un-established at another?
Tentative conclusion: Though there can be no faith apart from God bringing it about, that is, causing faith in the individual as a gift, baptism is proclaimed by the apostles as important to the process of salvation. The correlation of baptism with salvation beyond mere symbolism is not clear to me. Could baptism be like Christ on the cross in that what I do with it, how I understanding it and it’s relationship to my faith, says a great deal about my faith. Christ on the cross is a touchstone of faith. If I look at Christ and do not see that he got what I deserve then my faith is nothing. Can we say anything similar about baptism? If I say I have faith but refuse baptism is my faith suspect? Is baptism a kind of touchstone? If so, is that it’s primary purpose?