I would suppose that one of the most controversial verses in all the Bible is John 3:5, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (KJV).” That verse has become a major source of division among several different Christian denominations. There are those that believe the word, ‘water’ as used in that Scripture verse is a direct reference to baptism. Thus they believe that baptism is essential to salvation. They believe that no one cannot enter the kingdom of God unless he has been baptized in ‘water’. They are saying that God’s amazing grace alone is not sufficient for our salvation. They are saying that our salvation can only be completed after our submission to baptism. In adhering to that belief, they are saying that we must earn God’s grace .
Don’t get me wrong. I am certainly in agreement that baptism is an important ordinance of God—so important that Jesus Himself was baptized. He would have never asked John to baptize Him if He didn’t see the importance of it. But I find it very difficult to consider water baptism as an absolutely vital step in obtaining our salvation. To believe that our salvation experience is null and void unless we are baptized smacks in the face of countless promises of God. To declare that any Scriptures that don’t include baptism as a requirement for salvation contain only half truths and are thus irrelevant. I find that to be a dangerous assumption.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s rehearse a few well known Scriptures which would be found to be null and void by those who feel baptism is essential to salvation. These are all simple and beautiful ‘How to be saved’ Scriptures that even a child can understand. In Romans 10:13 we read, “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved (NKJV).” Wow! How plain is that! When the Philippian Jailer asked Paul and Silas how to be saved, they told him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household (Acts 16:31 NASB).” In Paul’s instruction to the Romans concerning the pathway to salvation, he told them, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9 NASB).” And then he ended that wonderful paragraph by saying, ““WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED (verse 13).” And then I would imagine that the most familiar—the most memorized verse in the entire Bible is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (NASB).” You will notice that none of the preceding promises of God include baptism as a necessary pathway to salvation..
In other verses we are told of God’s role in our salvation. “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus… (Acts 15:11 NASB)”. No mention of baptism there. And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9 NASB).” You will notice that God let it be known therein that our salvation is strictly a product of His grace and we can do nothing to ‘earn’ it.
So, back to the the subject verse. There is no doubt there are two elements leading us to be born again—‘the water and the Spirit’—no getting around that! But, if we are to surmise that ‘water’ (as used in that verse) does not refer to water baptism, then what on earth is it referring to? In searching the Scriptures we find several verses indicating that ‘water’ might very well be referring to the Word of God. When the Apostle Paul was describing the finished bride of Christ, he said, “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25-27 NKJV)”. In Peter’s exhortation to fellow Christians, he noted, “for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:23 NASB).” In Psalm 119:9 We receive this instruction, “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word (NKJV).”
Let’s look at two Scriptural illustrations showing how it takes both the word of God and the Spirit of God in leading us into the new birth. The first illustration is found in Acts 16:30-32. There we find the importance of the ‘Word of God’ in leading to salvation. In that account a Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house (NKJV).” In that illustration it is plain to see that the jailer clearly wanted to be saved, but he didn’t know how. It is apparent that in his case, unless Paul and Silas had shared the word of God with him, he would still be lost. In Romans 10:13 we read, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher (NKJV)?”
The second illustration shows how the Word of God is of no effect without the Spirit of God. In the eighth chapter of Acts beginning at the 26th verse, we find the story of Philip’s experience with an Ethiopian eunuch. “Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip arose and went. And a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning on his chariot, reading Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. The place in the Scripture where he read was Isaiah 53:7, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, So He opened not His mouth.” So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man? Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
In this illustration we find that the Word of God would have apparently been to no avail if the Spirit of God had not led Philip to the exact time and place where he could meet that eunuch and explain the Word of God to him. Upon hearing and understanding the Word of God, the eunuch could hardly wait to be baptized. Philip told him, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” I can identify with that. As soon as I received Christ into my heart I too could hardly wait to be baptized, showing the world that I was now a child of the King.
In some ways that reminds me of another wonderful event in my life—the day I was wedded to the wonderful lady of my dreams. The moment we said, ”I do”, we became one together in wedded bliss. After we had pledged our vows to each other, I could hardly wait to put that wedding band on my finger, showing the world that I was now married to the most beautiful lady in the world. Obviously the ring was not an essential element in order for us to become officially married; It was merely an outward symbol of the sacred vows which we had taken to each other at the marriage altar.