John 3:5-8
Does John 3:5-8 teach that baptism is necessary for salvation?

Edited from the ministry of Used by permission.

“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”

As with any single verse or passage, we interpret it in light of what the Bible already teaches.

In the case of “water” baptism for salvation, the Bible is very clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by works of any kind. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Therefore any interpretation which comes to the conclusion that water baptism or any other work of the believer is necessary for salvation is a faulty interpretation.

First, when first considering this passage, it is important to note that nowhere in the context is baptism even mentioned.

And while baptism is mentioned later in John 3:22-30, it is in a totally different location (Judea instead of Jerusalem) and time from Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus.

This is not to say Nicodemus would be unfamiliar with baptism, either from the Jewish practice of baptizing Gentile converts into Judaism, or from the ministry of John the Baptist.

However, reading these verses in context should not automatically give anyone any reason to assume Jesus was speaking of water baptism, unless someone was reading into the passage a preconceived doctrine or theology.

Of course, those who hold that water baptism is required for salvation understandably point to “born of water” as evidence. And as one person has put it, “Jesus describes it and tells him plainly how—by being born of water and the Spirit. This is a perfect description of water baptism!”

However, if Jesus had made such a statement, He would have contradicted numerous other Bible passages that make it clear that salvation is by faith and trust in Jesus Christ. (John 3:16; John 3:36; Ephesians 2:8-9: Titus 3:5)

We should also not lose sight of the fact that when Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, the practice of Christian baptism was not yet even in effect.

This is an important consideration when one asks those who believe water baptism is required for salvation why the thief on the cross did not need to be water baptized to be saved.

A common reply to that question is, “Well, the thief on the cross was still under the Old Covenant and therefore not subject to baptism. Thus, he was saved just like anyone else under the Old Covenant.”

Yet the very same people who say the thief did not need to be baptized because he was “under the Old Covenant” will use John 3:5 as “proof” that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must be water baptized to be saved, even though he too was still under the Old Covenant.

Born of water and the Spirit

So if “being born of water and the Spirit” is not referring to baptism in h2o, then what does it point to?

Traditionally, there have been two interpretations of this phrase. The first is that being “born of water” refers to natural birth (with water referring to the amniotic fluid that surrounds the baby in the womb) and that being born of the Spirit, indicating spiritual new birth.

While that is certainly a possible interpretation of the term “born of water” and would seem to fit the context of Nicodemus’ question about how a man could be born “when he is old,” we would argue that it is not the best interpretation of this passage.

After all, Jesus was not talking about the difference between natural birth and spiritual birth, but rather Nicodemus’ need to be “born from above” or spiritually “born again.”

The second common interpretation of this passage and the one that best fits the overall context views the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” describes the same spiritual birth through the Holy Spirit, or as can be read in the Greek text, "born of water and (kai) even the Spirit."

So when Jesus told Nicodemus that he must “be born of water and the Spirit,” He was not referring to two different births. Rather, he is referring to the same spiritual birth in two different ways.

In other words, Jesus’ reply was that being born again by the Holy Spirit is a prerequisite to entering the kingdom of God.

Therefore, the “water” mentioned in this verse is not literal h2o, but rather a reference to the Holy Spirit or the “living water” Jesus promised the woman at the well in John 4 and the people in Jerusalem in John 7:38-39.

It is the inward purification and renewal produced by the Holy Spirit that brings forth the dead sinner to new spiritual life. (See also Ezekiel 36:25-27; Titus 3:5)

Here, Paul used the same baptismal figure in Titus 3:5 and called it “the washing of regeneration” by the Holy Spirit, not water or h2o.

Water is often used symbolically in the Bible to refer to the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying a believer, whereby God cleanses and purifies the believer in heart and soul. (see Isaiah 44:3; John 7:38-39).

Jesus also rebukes Nicodemus in John 3:10 by asking him: “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?”

This implies that what Jesus had told Nicodemus something that as a teacher he should have known and understood from the Old Testament.

So what is it that Nicodemus should have known, but did not understand?

It is what God had promised in the Old Testament that a time was coming when, ”I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Jesus rebuked Nicodemus because he failed to recall one of the key Old Testament passages pertaining to God’s New Covenant with His people.(See also Jeremiah 31:33)

And Nicodemus should have been expecting this.

In other words, why would Jesus have rebuked Nicodemus for not understanding the need to be ”born again” by water baptism considering the fact that this baptism had not been foretold in the Old Testament?

While we maintain that this verse does not teach water baptism is required for salvation, we should be careful not to neglect baptism’s importance. Water baptism is the believer’s outward sign or symbol of the Holy Spirit's baptism, which takes place when one places faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.