Did Jesus Command Baptism in Order to be Saved? A commentary on John 3:5-7
by Rich Deem

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. (John 3:5)

Introduction

Many Christians have claimed that one cannot be saved without being baptized and cite the verse above as evidence. Although baptism is an ordinance of the Christian Church and a command given to those who convert non-believers, Jesus never commanded baptism in order to be saved. Let us look at this verse in context to try to figure out what "born of water" actually refers to.

John 3 in context

Let us start by checking out the entire verse in context:

Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" 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 be amazed that I said to you, "You must be born again.' (John 3:3-7)

There are two conditions to enter the kingdom of God. Which comes first? "Born of water," according to the verse. Does baptism precede being born of the Spirit in the believer? Jesus clarifies what He means in the next verse, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Being born of water is referring to being born physically (the water referring to the amniotic fluid that breaks as one is born). This is why He said "You must be born again." The first birth is the birth from water, or the flesh. The second is to be born of the Spirit, which is of God. I think it is pretty clear that the verse does not refer to baptism, but to the first birth. At this point, the "entering" is for anyone who is born again (i.e., born of the Spirit).

Let's go over the specific text in question. Verse 3 says that one must be born again to see the kingdom of God. Verse 5 says that one must be born of water AND the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. The text tells us that these requirements are one and the same.

In stating that one must be born again, Jesus referred to 2 births - the first the physical birth on Earth. Nicodemus recognized this as the first requirement, since he stated that a man cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb (John 3:4). In the very next statement he explains the two kinds of birth. "Born of water" refers to the physical birth, whereas "born of the Spirit" refers to being "born again" or the second birth. In the next verse, Jesus clarifies the statement explaining that "born of water" refers to being "born of flesh." Jesus was clear and direct. There is no mention of baptism anywhere. "Born of water" never refers to baptism in any other verse in the entire Bible. The Greek word used is "hudwr" (Strong's number G5204).1 The Greek word for baptism is "baptisma" (Strong's number G908).2 If Jesus had wanted to refer to baptism, He would have used this word. In fact, the word (or a variation of it) occurs 112 times in the New Testament.

Counter arguments

Why did Jesus use different verbs, "see" in verse 33 vs. "enter" in verse 5?4 It is a common practice in teaching to use different words to explain the same concept. By doing so, one keeps the attention of your student. And Jesus was an excellent teacher, who used this technique often. Take a look at another teaching about the kingdom of God:

But Jesus called for them, saying, "Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all." (Luke 18:16-17)

In the first verse, Jesus says that the kingdom of God "belongs" to children. In the second, He says that one must receive the kingdom as a child in order to "enter." Is belonging and entering different? Yes, these are different verbs, but the point is the same. Likewise, one cannot enter the kingdom of God without seeing it.

Jesus often used multiple parables to illustrate the same spiritual truths. You can confirm this yourself by reading virtually any chapter in any of the gospels.

Did Jesus baptize?

A general observation of the ministry of Jesus Christ reveals that He never told anyone to be baptized in any of the gospel accounts. His discussion with numerous people about how to have a relationship with God have been recorded in the gospels,5 but in none of those accounts does Jesus tell anyone that they must be baptized. If baptism were crucial to one's salvation, I would think that He would have mentioned it at least once! Was Jesus negligent in not explaining this to all the people He talked to in the gospels? I don't think so! In addition, Jesus never baptized anyone to our knowledge, although He had His disciples perform the ceremony.6 In fact, He routinely sent the people off after being healed without baptism. Obviously, He gave the command to His disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.7 Baptism is an outward expression of what has already occurred within an individual. Jesus didn't need to see that outward expression of an individual's conversion, since, being God, He already knew what was in their heart.

Salvation by faith

In contrast, Jesus talked very often about faith - at least 27 examples given in the gospels: Matthew 8:10, Matthew 8:26, Matthew 9:2, Matthew 9:22, Matthew 9:29, Matthew 14:31, Matthew 15:28, Matthew 16:8, Matthew 17:20, Matthew 21:21, Mark 2:5, Mark 4:40, Mark 5:34, Mark 10:52, Mark 11:22, Luke 5:20, Luke 7:9, Luke 7:50, Luke 8:25, Luke 8:48, Luke 12:28, Luke 17:5, Luke 17:6, Luke 17:19, Luke 18:8, Luke 18:42, Luke 22:32.8 Could it be that faith is the key to having a relationship with God and not baptism?

The idea that baptism is required for justification perpetuates the Jewish notion of salvation through works of the law, which were repudiated by the apostles (Acts 10:43-11:18,9 15:1-11,10 Romans 3:30,11 Galatians 2,12 and Philippians 313) and the early church fathers. Yes, I believe one should be baptized in obedience to Jesus' command. However, we should also love our neighbor for the same reason.14 I know that we do not keep this entire command, because only God can demonstrate this kind of unconditional love. Does this mean that we will lose our salvation? No!

We are justified on the basis of faith alone (true faith - not an uncommitted confession of some belief). If anyone is trusting in any work of the flesh, then they put themselves under the entire law of God and will be held accountable to keep it all! (James 2:10,15 Galatians 3:10,16 5:2-4,17 Romans 2:12,18 3:2019)

Conclusion Top of page

A careful examination of John 3:5-7 reveals that when Jesus' referred to being "born of water" He was talking about the physical birth ("born of the flesh"), in contrast to being "born of the Spirit" or "born again." Jesus Himself never baptized anyone to our knowledge, although the disciples did baptize under His command. In all of His interactions with people, Jesus was never recorded as commanding anyone to be baptized, although He often commended people for their faith. It would seem that if baptism were required for salvation that Jesus would have made some mention of it. We conclude that faith, rather than baptism, is required for salvation, although the dutiful Christian will be baptized in obedience to Jesus command in Matthew 28:19.



References Top of page

  1. Thayer's Greek Definitions:
    hudōr / hudatos ὕδωρ / ὕδατος (Strong's G5204)
    1. water
      1. of water in rivers, in fountains, in pools
      2. of the water of the deluge
      3. of water in any of the earth’s repositories
      4. of water as the primary element, out of and through which the world that was before the deluge, arose and was compacted
      5. of the waves of the sea
      6. fig. used of many peoples
    Part of Speech: noun neuter
    A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: genitive case, hudatos, etc., from the base of G5205
    Citing in TDNT: 8:314, 1203
  2. Thayer's Greek Definitions:
    baptisma βάπτισμα (Strong's G908)
    1. immersion, submersion
      1. of calamities and afflictions with which one is quite overwhelmed
      2. of John’s baptism, that purification rite by which men on confessing their sins were bound to spiritual reformation, obtained the pardon of their past sins and became qualified for the benefits of the Messiah’s kingdom soon to be set up. This was valid Christian baptism, as this was the only baptism the apostles received and it is not recorded anywhere that they were ever rebaptised after Pentecost.
      3. of Christian baptism; a rite of immersion in water as commanded by Christ, by which one after confessing his sins and professing his faith in Christ, having been born again by the Holy Spirit unto a new life, identifies publicly with the fellowship of Christ and the church.
    Part of Speech: noun neuter
    A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: from G907
    Citing in TDNT: 1:545, 92
  3. Thayer's Greek Definitions:
    horaō ὁράω (Strong's G3708)
    1. to see with the eyes
    2.  to see with the mind, to perceive, know
    3.  to see, i.e. become acquainted with by experience, to experience
    4.  to see, to look to
      1. to take heed, beware
      2. to care for, pay heed to
    5. I was seen, showed myself, appeared
    Part of Speech: verb
    A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: properly, to stare at [compare G3700]
    Citing in TDNT: 5:315, 706
  4. Thayer's Greek Definitions:
    eiserchomai εἰσέρχομαι (Strong's G1525)
    1. to go out or come in: to enter
      1.  of men or animals, as into a house or a city
      2.  of Satan taking possession of the body of a person
      3. of things: as food, that enters into the eater’s mouth
    2. 2) metaphorically
      1. of entrance into any condition, state of things, society, employment
        1.  to arise, come into existence, begin to be
        2.  of men, to come before the public
        3.  to come into life
      2. of thoughts that come into the mind
    3. Part of Speech: verb
      A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: from G1519 and G2064
      Citing in TDNT: 2:676, 257
  5. And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, "Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven." (Matthew 9:2)
  6. Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), (John 4:1-2)
  7. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19)
  8. But Jesus turning and seeing her said, "Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well." At once the woman was made well. (Matthew 9:22)
    Then He touched their eyes, saying, "It shall be done to you according to your faith." (Matthew 9:29)
    Then Jesus said to her, "O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed at once. (Matthew 15:28)
    And Jesus seeing their faith *said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." (Mark 2:5)
    And He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction." (Mark 5:34)
    And Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him on the road. (Mark 10:52)
    And Jesus *answered saying to them, "Have faith in God. (Mark 11:22)
    Seeing their faith, He said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." (Luke 5:20)
    And He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luke 7:50)
    And He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace." (Luke 8:48)
    And He said to him, "Stand up and go; your faith has made you well." (Luke 17:19)
    "I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8)
    And Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well." (Luke 18:42)
  9. "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." (Acts 10:43)
  10. Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue... The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. "And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? "But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are." (Acts 15:1-11)
  11. since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. (Romans 3:30)
  12. nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
  13. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, (Philippians 3:2-3)
  14. "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35)
  15. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (James 2:10)
  16. For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM." (Galatians 3:10)
  17. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:2-4)
  18. For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; (Romans 2:12)
  19. because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)

Reflections
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Last Modified June 28, 2008

 

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