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How can you take Jesus’ words about being “born of water and the Spirit” literally?

Full Question

Jesus says in John 3:3–5 that only those “born of water and Spirit” can enter the kingdom. How can you claim this refers to literal water baptism when not even you believe that all people who die without baptism are consigned to hell? You pretend to read it literally, but then you water it down (pun intended). Why not admit that he really means coming to faith, and take his exclusive language at face value?

Answer

Later in this chapter Jesus says, “He who does not believe is condemned already” (Jn 3:18). Almost no one thinks that all people (including infants and the severely retarded) who die without personal faith are consigned to hell, yet we do not conclude that Jesus was not really talking about faith. There are two issues here: whether a statement is meant literally and whether it is meant absolutely.

Virtually everyone allows that some who have not been “born of water and Spirit” (however that is understood) may still be saved. You probably allow for “exceptions” yourself. You have not escaped this difficulty, only compounded it by concluding that Jesus is talking about something other than literal water. (Notice the context, by the way: Immediately after Jesus’ speech, the disciples go about baptizing [Jn 3:22].)

The same reasoning applies to Jesus’ statements in John 6 about those who do not eat his flesh and drink his blood having no life in them. The question whether the requirement is absolute is distinct from the question whether it is meant literally. In short, both baptism and the Eucharist are normatively necessary for salvation, but not absolutelynecessary.










11 comments

  1. Leroy L. Reply

    When Jesus describes the new birth to Nicodemus, he is referring to a spiritual birth.

    From John 3:

    3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]"

    4 “How can someone be born when they are old?" Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!"

    5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’

    Jesus refers to a second (a spiritual) birth after a physical birth. We know this because when Jesus describes being born again in verse 3, Nicodemus immediately understands him to mean that the initial birth was physical. Jesus then reiterates his point describing how one enters heaven as a result of being physically born by water (this is not referring to baptism, but rather natural birth, as when a woman’s water breaks before giving birth) and spiritually born (by the Spirit coming into our heart to transform us into a new creation; see also 2 Corinthians 5:17). Once more in verse 6 Jesus describes both the physical (by the flesh) and spiritual birth (by the Spirit).

    Jesus is emphasizing a spiritual transformation (not our work, but His; Titus 3:5-7 explains here: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour.”), not a physical effort. Because baptism is a human act, and only the work of God (through Christ) can bring salvation to mankind. Remember also that baptism was not commonplace in Jesus’ day. John the Baptist was one of the first to preach repentance and encourage believers to be baptized as a public demonstration of their faith.

    Again in John 6, Jesus is not referring to the Eucharist, but rather believing in Him for salvation (see the following article for a better understanding of that passage: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/what-jesus-meant-when-he-said-you-must-eat-my-flesh). Remember also that Jesus had not yet instituted the Lord’s supper, so we can be certain that He was not referring to the Eucharist there.

    Aside from losing the original meaning of the text, one of the greatest dangers of interpreting these two issues in a literal sense (“being born of water” to mean baptism and “eating my flesh” and “drinking my blood” to mean the Eucharist) is that they both are human efforts, and no human effort can ever bring salvation, because it is the work of God alone (Ephesians 2:8-9 says “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.”).

    Grace and peace!

  2. Steve Reply

    Leroy, first, any act of faith is, in your words, a “human effort”. We do not automatically have faith when we are born or for much of our lives, so how do we get it? Osmosis? No, a human acknowledgement is needed – a human effort. We are all saved by grace, but it takes “human effort” to accept that grace. Thus your argument that baptism is “human effort” and thus not needed for salvation is all “washed up” (pun intended :)). It also goes against scripture which says “He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned” – Mk 16:16 (not faith alone, not baptism alone – but both); “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” Acts 2:38; “For by grace you have been saved through faith;” Eph 2:8 (there’s that human effort of having faith again); Baptism which corresponds to this, now saves you…” 1 Pet 3:21 – (again, not faith alone or baptism alone but both); “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” – James 2:24 – the only place in the New Testament where the words “faith alone” are used is to tell us we are not saved by faith alone. Also – in every verse I quoted that mentions “saved” the Greek word “sozo: is used. Thus if it means “saved” in Eph 2:8, are you going to argue that it somehow doesn’t mean it in Mk 16:16 and 1 Pet 3:21?

    Finally, you are separating the phrase “born of water and the spirit” into two distinct entities occurring at two different times. If it said “born of water and born of the spirit” you might be correct. However, John 3:5 doesn’t say that. It is one phrase. Mark Brumley explained it this way –

    In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The Greek expression translated “born again” (gennathei anothen) also means “born from above.” Jesus equates “born again” or “born from above” with “born of water and the Spirit.” The context implies that born of “water and the Spirit” refers to baptism. The Evangelist tells us that immediately after talking with Nicodemus, Jesus took his disciples into the wilderness where they baptized people (John 3:22).

    Furthermore, the Greek of the text suggests that “born of water and the Spirit” (literally “born of water and spirit”) refers to a single, supernatural birth over against natural birth (“born of the flesh”). The phrase “of water and the Spirit” (Greek, ek hudatos kai pneumatos) is a single linguistical unit. It refers to being “born of water and the Spirit,” not “born of water” on the one hand and “born of the Spirit” on the other. Thus being “born of water and the Spirit” happens in the same event and not at two different times.

    There is much to say on the Eucharist, but perhaps you don’t realize that the symbolic eating flesh and drinking of blood would be well know by Jesus audience of Jews. In the Old Testament and Jewish culture, “The phrase ‘to eat the flesh and drink the blood,’ when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense” (O’Brien, The Faith of Millions, 215). Refer to Micah 3:2-4; Ps 27:2; Is 9:20. Before you argue for the symbolic meaning of the Eucharist, you have to explain why symbolic eating flesh and drinking blood wouldn’t mean something negative to this Jewish audience. You also said “Remember also that Jesus had not yet instituted the Lord’s supper, so we can be certain that He was not referring to the Eucharist there,” which makes no sense whatsoever. That’s like saying Jesus could not have been talking about His death and resurrection to his apostles (which is documented in scripture) since he hadn’t died on the cross yet – and do you believe that? He was a priest, PROPHET, and king after all.

    1. hermi Reply

      thanks a lot

  3. Mario Simonelly Reply

    How are we borne again? In order to explain a number of important points on this subject we will read various scriptures from John 3:1-21: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night, and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him.’"
    Without realising it, Nicodemus had made a very important confession of faith to Jesus, by saying, they knew that Jesus had come from God as a teacher. By saying that, he demonstrated that he and others were believing and able to see the Kingdom of God in Jesus, for they recognised that God was performing miracles through Him. Jesus in turn confirmed that Nicodemus and others where able to see the Kingdom, for He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God." (Jesus’ words can also be understood to say; only a believer can see what you said.)
    Unfortunately, Nicodemus did not recognise Jesus’ answer as a confirmation of his ability to see the Kingdom, for he was thrown completely out of balance because he could only think of having to be born again from his mother’s womb. Jesus however, in correcting Nicodemus’s misunderstanding, moved to the next spiritual transition by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God." (Jesus’ words can also be understood to say; unless one is converted and repents he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.)
    It is obvious that Nicodemus had no trouble seeing the Kingdom of God in Jesus because he was a God-fearing man, honestly believing in the existence of God, trusting his spirit, which was born again as a believer through his Jewish religion.
    Therefore we can be certain that all who earnestly believe and have a fear of God, regardless from which doctrine their faith was born, has the capability of seeing the Kingdom of God. (Remember the Roman centurion, Matthew 8:10 and the Canaanite woman, Matthew 15:27 – 28.)
    Now to understand the transitional meaning of being “born of water and the spirit", one has to consider that the Lord is telling us that a conversion of our beliefs and attitude has to take place through our immersion in the water of the word, and to live our lives according to our new understanding of godliness which comes from that word. That is to say, this conversion has to move us from a faith based on religions doctrines to a lifestyle of godliness so that we might eventually share His Divine character. The above is an excerpt from the book “The Way God Told It”

    1. chele Reply

      Thank u!!!

  4. Mario Simonelli Reply

    Many books have been written but ambiguity, I believe, still surrounds this subject. Nothing in what I have read or in what I have heard from preachers has explained the fundamental differences between seeing the Kingdom of God, and entering the Kingdom of God.
    For we read in John 3:3: “Jesus answered and said to him, truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God."
    And in verse 5 we read: “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."
    From the above verses we learn that there are two stages of transition if you like: one is to enable men to see the Kingdom of God and the other is to enable men to enter the Kingdom of God. Like everything else in our lives, the spiritual journey also begins at birth. We must realise therefore that when we are born our spirit is agnostic. In other words, we do not know if there is a God or not. However as we grow up, at some point in time of our life (mostly before or in our early teens), we will make that decision based on our own observation of the awe of creation.
    I personally remember when I made that decision. It was based on my reason and discernment which came about from an ordinary lesson of religious education that I had attended months before in Rome, which taught that the world was so beautiful that it could not have evolved by itself. Hence I thought while I was observing my surroundings during the summer holiday at my grandfather’s farm, that there must be a Creator. All of the natural things and animals that surrounded me could not have happened by themselves, it was all too perfect.
    At that time, unbeknown to me, my innocent fleshly spirit was born again as a believer and willing to accept the religion of my ancestors. That religion in turn taught me to have faith in its doctrines and led me through the journey described in Galatians 3:23 to chapter 4:6, but now we will read only Galatians 4:1-6: “Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything. But he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental religious doctrines of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order that He might redeem those who are under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!"’
    With that uncomplicated history I can understand, where Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, was coming from when he spoke to Jesus. So in order to explain a number of important points on this subject we will read various scriptures from John 3:1-21: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night, and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him.’"
    Without realising it, Nicodemus had made a very important confession of faith to Jesus, by saying, they knew that Jesus had come from God as a teacher. By saying that, he demonstrated that he and others were believing and able to see the Kingdom of God in Jesus, for they recognised that God was performing miracles through Him. Jesus in turn confirmed that Nicodemus and others where able to see the King-dom, for He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God." (Jesus’ words can also be understood to say; only a believer can see what you said.)
    Unfortunately, Nicodemus did not recognise Jesus’ answer as a confirmation of his ability to see the Kingdom, for he was thrown completely out of balance because he could only think of having to be born again from his mother’s womb. Jesus however, in correcting Nicodemus’s misunderstanding, moved to the next spiritual transition by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God." (Jesus’ words can also be understood to say; unless one is converted and repents he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.)
    It is obvious that Nicodemus had no trouble seeing the Kingdom of God in Jesus because he was a God-fearing man, honestly believing in the existence of God, trusting his spirit, which was born again as a believer through his Jewish religion.
    Therefore we can be certain that all who earnestly believe and have a fear of God, regardless from which doctrine their faith was born, has the capabil-ity of seeing the Kingdom of God. (Remember the Roman centurion, Matthew 8:10 and the Canaanite woman, Matthew 15:27 – 28.)
    Now to understand the transitional meaning of being “born of water and the spirit", one has to consider that the Lord is telling us that a conversion of our beliefs and attitude has to take place through our immersion in the water of the word, and to live our lives according to our new understanding of godliness which comes from that word. That is to say, this conversion has to move us from a faith based on religions doctrines to a lifestyle of godliness so that we might eventually share His Divine character.
    However we should recognise also, that the faith based on religious doctrines has the capability of developing into two vastly different kinds of faiths, for Jesus said in John 3:6, “That faith which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that faith which is born of the Spirit is spirit." We can see the difference between these two faiths if we are able to compare the faiths of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. (Or see the different attitude in the faith of the apostle Paul before and after his conversion to Christianity.)
    Those who have a religious worldly faith but do not have godliness, do not see or understand the divine nature of the Kingdom, nor do they see the need to be converted to the truth of the grace of God, for those believers do not practice goodness. As it is written in John 3:20-21: “For everyone who is a hypocrite hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who practises the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God."
    In Matthew 18:3 there is a confirmation of the necessary action to be taken by sincere religious people who seek to enter the grace of the Kingdom, for Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
    So we now know also that the expressions “born again, renewal, converted, become like children, repentance," are all saying the same thing, and that we are meant to mature in His life, which is clearly confirmed in Ephesians 4:23-24, for it says: “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind and put on the New Self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth."
    This conversion, or entrance into the kingdom can be dramatic as it was in Paul’s case; keeping in mind that Paul’s zealous Jewish faith was extremely honest. That zealous and honest faith is the reason for which the Lord converted him from being a faithful violent person to a faithful loving person in such a dramatic way. Or the conversion can take some time, as we read in 2Corinthians 3:18: “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as the Lord allows the spirit."
    Therefore, if we see the kingdom of Christ and earnestly desire to enter into the freedom and blessings of that kingdom, we should follow the advice of 2Peter 1:5-11, because these scriptures are very specific about how we should progress from faith to love, for we read: “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, you will acquire knowledge; and in your knowledge, supply self-control, and in your self-control, you will acquire perseverance, and in your perseverance, you will also acquire godliness; and in your godliness, supply brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, you will acquire love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practise these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you."
    So we should all examine and ask ourselves, who are we like? Are we like Nicodemus, the Roman centurion, or the Canaanite woman, whose religious faith was praised by Jesus. Or are we on a holy journey by following 2Peter 1:5-11? As a consequence of that, we are doing Cornelius’s love deeds (Acts 10:1-2), not because we want to be saved, but because we are living in the spirit and true character of the children of God.
    I believe and hope that the above article clarifies for you the myths and ambiguities about being born again. But even if you have only now learned of the existing differences between seeing and entering the Kingdom of God, take courage, you are already half way there.
    Glory to God

  5. Ryan A Corrigan Reply

    It’s so adorable when people try to explain and make sense of insanity!

  6. Mario Simonelli Reply

    Yes Ryan, the gospel is seen as foolishness by those who are perishing.

  7. doctoropie Reply

    How about if the verse just means one has to be born of water, physical birth, and of the spirit, spiritual birth and salvation. Maybe its just that simple.

    1. Mario Simonelli Reply

      @doctoropie, your premises have nothing to stand on.

  8. sibusiso Reply

    I’m amazed how you can conclude that it is not absolutely necessary.that is your opinion.it’s better to take the text as it is.spiritual birth.i refer you to john piper’s book “finally alive.”

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