Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Born of water and the Spirit

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
(John 3:5)

What could Jesus be referring to when he mentions new birth by "water"? Some have suggested that natural birth is in view, but this seems unlikely given that this was not a normal way of referring to childbirth at the time. "Born of woman and the Spirit" would have done a much better job if that was all that Jesus had in mind!

Few scholars have missed the link between this passage and Ezekiel 36:24-26. Notice the progression of thought in the Ezekiel passage: in order to enter the kingdom/land (v24), you must be cleansed with water (v25) and be given a new heart/spirit (v26). However, Ezekiel seems to have in mind the people of Israel during the restoration era, so the link between the two passages must be typological, with the restoration Covenant foreshadowing the New Covenant.

"Born of water" is almost certainly a reference to baptism. Not only did all of the earliest commentators understand the passage this way, the context itself seems to suggest that baptism is in view. This is clear from the fact that after Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, His own baptising ministry is alluded to. Also, John has previously linked the descending of the Spirit upon Jesus with baptism.

If we put this all together, being "born again" means being sprinkled with water for cleansing (birth of water) and being filled with the Spirit of the New Covenant (birth of the Spirit). The Spirit unites us to Christ through baptism and makes us members of the kingdom of God.


  1. What's your view on the efficacy of the sacramental rite of baptism? Does the ceremonial act effect the inward grace of cleansing and new life in Christ?

  2. Welcome to the blog, Jobrigs!

    I think you have to consider what Grace is. It's not an impersonal zap of magical power, it's God's favour shown towards us.

    I think that in baptism God promises to be our God (the covenant promise accompanies the covenant sign) and this means that He forms a special and personal relationship with us. I think that the Spirit comes to dwell within us and unites us with Christ in His sin-bearing death and victorious resurrection. If that's what you mean by "inward grace", "cleansing" and "new life", then I do believe in it. I hope that clarifies matters!

  3. Hi Dove,

    I like how you describe the covenant promise as accompanying the covenant sign. But, I'm still wondering if you would say that the indwelling of the Spirit and union with Christ is effected by the sacramental rite of baptism.

  4. Yes, I would say that God uses water baptism for engrafting us into Christ by the Spirit.

    "For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." (1 Cor 12:12-13)

    It's not too unreasonable. After all, in marriage God unites a man with a woman. So too in Baptism God unites a sinner with Christ by the Spirit.

  5. Thanks for the further clarification. For me, your view seems to identify the inward grace too strictly with the outward sign. The promise of God's presence is there in the sign, to be sure, but the sign itself isn't the presence. Marriage is a great example. The wedding rite signifies the inward union. But rites and rings aren't magical; they only signify and point toward the inner reality that God has wrought. The rites are meaningful, but, sadly and all too often, it becomes painfully evident that it's not the rite that unites. The same is true with the sacramental rite of baptism.

  6. Oh, don't worry, I am not suggesting that the rite has any power 'in itself'. However, God is a God who keeps his promises and his promise to the baptised is that they will receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39) and be united with Christ (Col 2:9-12).

    Would it be possible to say to two people who got married that they were not actually one flesh, that God had not actually joined them together? Similarly, I don't think it proper to say that someone who has been baptised has not received these Graces, for in baptism God gives Himself to us in the person of the Spirit who unites us to the Son.

    To add a second disclaimer, I am not suggesting that a member of the body of Christ cannot fall away (Heb 10:26-31). Neither am I suggesting that the faith of the elect is the same as the faith of the nonelect, for God does not relate in exactly the same way to each person within the body (Rom 12:3-8).

  7. So would you say that the non-elect have a non-justifying faith; and that by baptism they receive the Holy Spirit and are united with Christ, though not salvifically?

    Are you on board with Federal Vision theology?

  8. I'm going to say yes and yes. I was especially influenced by Peter Leithart, but reading Calvin himself also inclined me strongly in this direction. What's your take on the whole thing?

  9. Leithart is a brilliant man. I'm always glad to learn from him, as he's such a gifted biblical theologian. But I wouldn't remain under the pastoral direction of any of the FVers. I think that they've succumbed to our natural instinct to elevate externals over the gospel; and to insert the visible church between the believer and his personal relationship and experience of Christ.

    The baptism of the Holy Spirit alone unites us to Christ. Water baptism is an icon, or window, upon that true spiritual baptism.

  10. I'm just going with what I think seems to make most sense of the scriptures. I've never quite understood how having a high ecclesiology/view of the sacraments necessarily does damage to individual salvation or to the individual's personal relationship with Christ. Can you please explain?

    Disclaimer: I don't mean that critically, I'm genuinely curious!

  11. I don't think that high church or low church forms of worship matter at all. The church's mission is the faithful proclamation of the gospel until Christ returns. Local pastors make judgments about how to best carry out this mission in the service of the gospel to their congregations and within their communities. High church or low church are both fine when the gospel is central. But too often, whether high or low, the church displaces Christ, and religious rites stand in for the gospel. When this happens, tribalism rather than catholicity marks the church.

    I differ with FV in some of its understandings of Scripture. But most of all I think that its proclamation of the gospel is lacking because it attaches an exaggerated importance to the visible church and its sacraments. whose significance are derivative of the gospel, not independent of it.

    The Holy Spirit gathers the church, whose great privilege is to "taste and see that the LORD is good"; and whose mission is to proclaim and magnify the LORD's goodness to a rebellious world. The church and it's sacraments are holy, because they are the LORD's.

  12. I don't disagree with anything you've just said. I do think we should keep the gospel centre and I do think that the sacraments are only meaningful because they relate to the gospel. I particularly agree with this: "The church's mission is the faithful proclamation of the gospel until Christ returns." Amen to that, brother!

    I just question (along with the rest of the FV crowd) the whole notion of an "invisible" church. When the bible talks about the church, it talks about a gathered people, not a people within a gathered people! The Spirit-filled body and bride of Christ IS the visible church (sacraments and all!) - just read 1 Corinthians chapter 12. Yes, one day the church will be perfected, but not until Christ returns.

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  14. What do you find in First Corinthians Twelve that rules out the distinction between the invisible and visible church? Scripture speaks of the church in both senses. The visible church is temporal and the invisible church is eternal. The new creation is now breaking in upon and transforming the old creation in the church. Paul speaks of this "more excellent way" of living in the church in the next chapter. "...but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away."

    I admire the FV's desire to be faithful to Scripture. But the church understands Scripture through a shared hermeneutic. I believe that this core understanding about the essence of the church as both invisible and visible, is a fundamental Protestant distinctive, as important as the Reformation solas (even though it's an "and", and not an "alone"). The invisible and visible distinction is shared in both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. I have to take close notice when both of them are in agreement! Does the FV have concerns about adopting a view closer to that of Rome than to the Reformation about the essence of the church? What do you think are the implications of this view for Reformation churches?

    (Please excuse my removal of my prior comment. Saw some typos and couldn't edit, so I'm just resubmitting.)

  15. Oh, I don't take issue with the use of nonbiblical terminology like "invisible church" or "trinity" or whatever. I mean, referring to all of the decretally elect as "the invisible church" is fine, it's just a definition after all. I'm just suggesting that, from a biblical perspective, I don't think that "church" (ekklesia) ever refers to some invisible entity that is a subset of the congregation of God's people.

    I think that 1 Corinthians 12 proves this point, by showing that the 'invisible Church' consisting of those who share in Christ by the Spirit (v1-7) is one and the same as the 'visible Church' of those who have been baptised (v12-13) and who exercise a variety of gifts (v8-11) and who serve in a variety of offices (v27-31).

  16. Thanks for the breakdown of Chapter 12. That helps to clarify your view for me. I think where I differ is on the understanding of baptism. Is it an external rite performed by the church, or does the rite signify and seal the promise of the hidden spiritual reality? Is it about the church's act of sprinkling, dipping, or dunking, or about being united to Christ in his death and filled with the Holy Spirit to be joined to Christ in his resurrection?

    I find much in Scripture that testifies to the reality of the invisible (hidden, spiritual) church that is found within the visible church, the "light of the world" and "a city set on a hill" that can't be hidden. Rather than a temporary union with the non-elect through water baptism, Jesus says to the workers of lawlessness that he *never* knew them. (Matthew vii. 23)

  17. Regarding your first paragraph, I would reply by simply saying 'both'! The scriptures seem pretty clear on this to me: Romans 6 et al do appear to teach that water Baptism is a means through which God brings us into Spiritual union with Christ. Burden of proof is on you to explain why these passages do not mean what they so clearly appear to say.

    To the second paragraph, I would reply that Jesus does not say this of all of the reprobate. I am not just asserting this, I think the context makes it pretty clear, namely, verse 15. But this is a secondary issue regardless!

  18. I think that you're importing your understanding of baptism as a church rite into Scripture, rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself. Romans vi begins by saying that baptism is into Christ's death. It's not into a pool of water. You've replaced the reality with the sign. But you're hedging by saying that it's "both". You've said, contrary to Romans vi, that baptism is a non-salvific union with Christ for the non-elect. In Galatians iii Paul describes baptism as the putting on of Christ by faith, thereby becoming sons of God. As with Romans, there's no reference to water at all anywhere. In the third chapter of his first epistle Peter explains the symbolic imagery of water in baptism.

    Jesus says much about the spiritual church hidden within the visible church. His parables of The Wheat and the Tares, The Sheep and the Goats, and The Dragnet are all notable instances. You would narrow Jesus' meaning in Matthew vii 23 by referring it back to verse 15, but a more natural reference is to verse 21. I don't see this as at all "secondary", as it speaks to the classical Protestant distinction between the invisible and visible church, which the FV rejects.

    The FV is a small movement within evangelicalism, but it's important because they address ecclesiology directly at a time when support for the Reformation view about the essence of the church, seems to be waning.

  19. Well, there is a short book by Leithart that you should read on the subject of baptism which is available online for free! It may not convince you, but it should at least demonstrate that there are good arguments for greater baptismal efficacy. I have provided the link below. Enjoy!


    With regard to the parables you mentioned, I offer this older blog post of mine: http://doveofcreation.blogspot.com/2011/05/parable-of-wheat-and-tares.html. If there are any books or resources you want to recommend to me on baptism, don't hesistate!

  20. Thanks for the links! Leithart is always a great read, and "The Baptized Body" is right on topic, and the price is free. A perfect hat-trick!

    A very good short article that I recommend to you is "The Evangelical Doctrine of Baptism" by John Stott.


    Also, highly recommended is John Piper's "Finally Alive". This book is available as a free download at:


    (Piper deals with the topic of spiritual rebirth, more than with the rite of baptism.)

    I always enjoy reading your commentary and insights, Chris.