John 3:5 and Titus 3:5: Proofs for Baptismal Regeneration?

John 3:5 and Titus 3:5: Proofs for Baptismal Regeneration? December 1, 2015


Baptismal font from the 6th century (Tunisia); photo by Ad Meskens, 1 August 2012 [Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]

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This is a reply to a portion (section V) of the article, Nowhere Does the Bible Teach that Water Baptism Saves, by Reformed (Calvinist) Steve C. Halbrook. It’s a 2009 article, but I was made aware of its existence by a hearty recommendation from the folks at the notorious Reformed Protestant anti-Catholic site, Boors All. The author seems willing to entertain opposing views, since he starts out with the sub-title: “Questions for those who believe water baptism saves.” So here I am! Steve’s words will be in blue.

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

he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5)

1. Right off the bat, we most note that neither of these passages mention baptism in connection with “water” (in John 3:5) or “washing” (in Titus 3:5). Thus right away we must question the insistence of baptismal regenerationists that these texts are even about water baptism.

Scripture obviously uses a lot of metaphorical language (as all agree). Jesus’ parables are a clear example of that. Thus, one must consult context, the original Greek, and related cross-references in order to make a determination in any given instance. Christians come down in different camps on the question of baptismal regeneration: even among those (Protestants) who claim that Scripture is 1) always clear in matters of salvation (“perspicuous”) and that 2) it is the only infallible and final authority in theological matters (sola Scriptura). Thus, Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism and Lutheranism, believed in baptismal regeneration, and followed Catholic tradition in that regard. John Calvin, equally or even more influential as an early Protestant leader, did not.

As I have noted many times, among Protestants there are five camps regarding baptism. They just can’t figure out the truth of this matter. Luther (as well as some “high” Anglicans and Methodists) held to (infant) baptismal regeneration, Calvin to symbolic infant baptism. Then there is the position of Baptists and some others: adult “believers” symbolic baptism. Yet others believe in adult baptismal regeneration (e.g., Disciples of Christ and Church[es] of Christ). A fifth position is denying the necessity of baptism altogether (even though it is clearly a command in the New Testament). This is held by Quakers and The Salvation Army.

I wanted to note this diversity in practice, since Steve seems to think that the matter is so crystal-clear, solely by consulting Scripture. Catholics also think Christian tradition going all the way back to Jesus is relevant. Tradition is the “democracy of the dead,” as Chesterton so wonderfully described it. We find, of course, that baptismal regeneration was a unanimous position among the Church fathers [link one / two / three / four]. It’s illuminating to also consult the Church fathers to see how they interpreted particular passages. In the first link we can see that several interpreted John 3:5 precisely as Catholics today do (baptismal regeneration): Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, Basil the Great, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and John Damascene.

Surely, this is noteworthy. How could so many great teachers of Christianity in the early Church get it totally wrong? Protestants go ultimately by Scripture alone, yet both Luther and Calvin claimed that their views were closely aligned with that of the fathers, and more so than Catholicism. They were particularly fond of Augustine, and claimed him as their “own.”

But back to the exegesis: I agree that water is used in lots of ways in Scripture. Steve goes on to provide five examples of metaphorical use of “water” or “washing” or similar (Acts 15:9; 1 Cor 3:6; Jas 4:8; 2 Pet 2:17; 1 Jn 1:7). He sees those as counter-examples to an interpretation of John 3:5 and Titus 3:5 as referring to baptismal regeneration. But that “sword” cuts both ways. If we want to look around Scripture for non-baptismal “washing” or “water” references, we can also just as easily find passages that connect baptism and “washing” or baptism and salvation. All thoughtful, educated Christians agree that a key part of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics is comparing Scripture with Scripture: especially the relatively less clear by the relatively more clear passages. Thus, we can also find the following passages (RSV, as throughout):

Acts 22:16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

Here, “wash away” is still metaphorical in a sense, yet the removal of sins is quite real indeed, and the baptism is literally one of water. This backs up the Catholic / Orthodox / Lutheran / high Anglican view and runs counter to the Reformed position.

Another passage (that Steve didn’t deal with; but he said his paper was a “work in progress”) again utilizes prototypes of th Old Testament that are literally fulfilled in the New testament (a common motif) and connects literal water to baptism and baptism in turn to salvation:

1 Peter 3:18-21 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through waterBaptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

I think that when other relevant passages are brought to bear, that the overall evidence fits most plausibly with a baptismal regeneration view. This is why, I submit, that the Church fathers en masse interpreted John 3:5 as they did. It makes the most sense of the biblical data. John Calvin, in his Commentaries, on John 3:5, concedes that it is the patristic interpretation:

Chrysostom, with whom the greater part of expounders agree, makes the word Water refer to baptism. The meaning would then be, that by baptism we enter into the kingdom of God, because in baptism we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. Hence arose the belief of the absolute necessity of baptism, in order to the hope of eternal life.

He goes on to make his (flawed) argument that the baptism is only indicative or symbolic of the deeper meaning, which is not necessarily tied to it, stating: “By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit.”

Steve proceeds to argue:

Regarding John 3:5 in particular, when one insists “water” self-evidently must refer to physical water, one faces a serious problem in the very next chapter:

“but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

Also consider another nearby chapter:

“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’” (John 7:37-38)

Now, to consistently maintain his argument that the word “water” self-evidently refers to physical water, will one who holds to baptismal regeneration really argue that Jesus is saying salvation depends on drinking physical water, which will literally become a physical spring within one’s insides “welling up to eternal life,” or will literally become physical rivers flowing from one’s heart?

No, to avoid appearing foolish a baptismal regenerationist must equivocate and say, “well, the meaning of water must depend on the context.” Once he does this, he surrenders any hope that the context of John 3:5 demands a baptismal regeneration reading.

Our view of the “water” in John 3:5 is not “self-evident,” but it is highly plausible, when comparing Scripture to related Scripture. It requires no equivocation (thank you Steve!). It also makes more sense, I think, of the passage considered in and of itself. Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit.” Calvin wants us to believe that “water” stands for “inward purification” produced by the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t it seem more likely, then (if this is true), that Jesus would have said,  “born of water by the Spirit” or “born of water through the Spirit”?

If water stands for the thing that comes from the Holy Spirit, why express it as “water and the spirit”? To me this implies that “water” is a separate element; in other words, that Jesus is saying, simultaneously, “water saves” and “the Spirit saves”: both things true and not in conflict with each other. Thus, those of us who believe in baptismal regeneration say that God the Holy Spirit saves through the water of baptism.”

John 4 is a different context altogether. He was talking to the Samaritan woman at the well and contrasting the real water of the well to the metaphorical “living water” (4:10) of salvation. Because it is a typical Hebraic compare and contrast use of language and example, we know that “water” in the second sense is figurative for salvation itself; whereas in John 3:5 this is not evident as the meaning, in context, at all. It stands alone, not as part of a plain metaphorical / parabolic application.

John 7:38 is also clearly metaphorical, hearkening back to the Old Testament theme of water as indicative of salvation itself, rather than a means of salvation (e.g., Jer 17:13: “the LORD, the fountain of living water”). But again, both things can be true. We need not pit them against each other. We don’t have to “consistently” maintain that Jesus is not becoming metaphorical in these other two passages. He clearly is. I’m saying that it it not so clear that the “water” of John 3:5 is metaphorical, like these other instances. The meaning depends on context. It’s silly to think that we have to interpret Scripture the same way for every passage, as if there are no different uses of words.

Moreover, if we are to search out “nearby” chapters, there is also John 1, which is mostly about John the Baptist, whose primary ritualistic behavior was to baptize people. Jesus, then, may have been partially or totally referring back to John’s baptism in his comment to Nicodemus. 17 verses later we read:

John 3:22-23 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized. [23] John also was baptizing at Ae’non near Salim, because there was much water there; and people came and were baptized. 

So we have John baptizing in the very same chapter, and two chapters back the text is mostly about John the Baptist. At first it looks like Jesus Himself was baptizing, too. But here the beauty of comparing Scripture with Scripture is again apparent: 

John 4:1-3 Now when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John [2] (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), [3] he left Judea and departed again to Galilee. 

It looks like John 3:22 refers to Jesus’ followers baptizing, and not He Himself. In any event, baptism is all over the place: in John 1, 3, and 4. Thus, we can say that contextual similarities highly suggest that “water” in John 3:5 most likely refers to baptism.

Yet Steve wants to go to plainly metaphorical uses of “water” in John 4 and John 7, while ignoring this data? As I’ve always said, Catholics can consult all of Holy Scripture without any reluctance at all, because it supports us wherever we go in the Bible. We have a better explanation of single passages, and a better counter-explanation of texts used to try to overthrow Catholic doctrines and beliefs. I’ve been specializing in “Bible and Catholicism” now for over 25 years, and I know this to be the case from countless personal experiences, in interacting with opposing arguments and the biblical text. The present case is another example of it. Our view simply makes more sense; has more plausibility. I’m learning tons of stuff, as I always do when I study the Bible and defend Catholic doctrines. 

A further argument can be made, too. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and some in that party had rejected John’s baptism:

Luke 7:29-30  (When they heard this all the people and the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John; [30] but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.) 

The Jews were well familiar with the notion of ritual cleansing. Again, in the book of John, we see reference made to that as well: the pools of Bethesda (John 5:2-7) and Siloam (John 9:7). I visited both in Israel last year, and also saw other ritual bath sites near where the temple used to be. I think that Jesus is hearkening back to the tradition of ritual bathing and also to John’s baptism. Jesus’ own baptism is thought by most commentators to be a matter of such ritual cleansing and also an example for later Christians. He needed no regeneration, being sinless and God in the flesh, so the ritual interpretation is the only one that makes sense. John 1:28-32 (more context!) refers indirectly to Jesus’ baptism, as we know from comparisons to the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22).

We have already demonstrated the absurdity of insisting this passage must speak of water baptism simply because it mentions “water.” We only need to go to the very next chapter (John 4:14) to show this.

I have shown several contextual passages that appear to suggest a baptism interpretation. Steve absurdly over-argues this point. If he wanted to find similarities in context, I did the same, and I think mine are much more compelling and directly relevant than his are.

There are several proposed interpretations of this text, and since the Bible uses the word “water” with more than one meaning, we have already cast in doubt the interpretation that says water baptism saves.

And I think I have cast doubt on the contrary. Let the reader judge, having seen both sides. This is the beauty of dialogue. You, the reader (yes, you!) doesn’t get just one biased, partisan  interpretation (which is true of both of us: Reformed and Catholic), but two arguments side-by-side (one being directly answered), thus allowing you to see strengths and weaknesses of each, and to make up your mind (if undecided) in a much more informed manner.

Moreover, it should be enough that from front to back the Bible teaches salvation by grace through faith and not by works (cf. Romans 4:1-12 and Ephesians 2:8, 9), so unless we want to say the Bible contradicts itself, we must rule out immediately any salvation by water baptism interpretation.

I deal with this claim below. It’s a false dichotomy.

Steve does manage to make some rather fanciful further contextual arguments, but they are quite speculative, and therefore, weak and insubstantial. He argues in various ways that regeneration is an act of God, not man. We agree, of course. We never dreamt that it was anything else. All we do is submit to it. It’s no more our work, than a prisoner’s acceptance of a pardon is his work. He simply has to sign on the dotted line and walk out a free man. He didn’t earn it; it’s a free gift. We have to have water poured on us and emerge a regenerated soul.

Is that our work? No; it’s ultimately God’s grace, given through the sacrament. He willed that baptism would be the normal means of regeneration. But this silliness of making out that absolutely anything we do is a dreaded work, which then invariably reduces to the infamous “works salvation” (Pelagian and semi-Pelagian heresies, which the Catholic Church condemned 1400 years ago) is not biblical at all. The Bible teaches that we cooperate with God and that an act can be simultaneously His as well as ours:

Mark 16:20 And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.

Romans 8:28 We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.

1 Corinthians 3:9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.

1 Corinthians 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.

Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

2 Peter 1:10 Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall;

One would think that if water baptism is necessary for salvation, then Jesus would have baptized those He saved during His earthly ministry.

This doesn’t follow at all. His followers can do that, as delegated authorities, as indeed, the sacraments have been ever since Jesus walked the earth. We know from John 4:2 that this was precisely the case. They were His representatives in the first place (“He who hears you hears me,” “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” and many other similar instances). This is merely another fallacious “either/or” argument that is massively contradicted by Scripture.

Baptism is tied to salvation in several passages. For example:

Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 

This was right after the first Christian sermon: delivered on the day of Pentecost. St. Peter certainly thought that baptism was crucial. He didn’t think that preaching and proclamation was enough by itself. The order in which he expresses things is very important. Peter didn’t say, “Repent, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then be baptized as a purely symbolic act of thankfulness.”

Nope. In this case of mostly adults, they 1) repented, 2) got baptized, and then received 3) forgiveness of sins (“for the forgiveness . . .”) and 4) the Holy Spirit. It’s impossible to remove baptism from the equation. It’s like trying to unscramble an egg. But Steve mightily tried . . . 

2. Let us focus specifically on Titus 3:5. Again, it reads:

he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5)

Again, the only hope for a baptismal regenerationist reading is that “washing” refers to physical water—but nothing in the context demands this to be the case. Now here are two reasons within the text itself why a baptismal regeneration reading is impossible:

A. It says, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness ….”

The Bible considers water baptism a work, since:

(1) Romans 4:1-12 considers circumcision a work. If circumcision is a work, so is water baptism, since both are external marks of the church, with water baptism replacing circumcision in the New Covenant era.

(2) Consider also Matt. 3:14, 15:

“John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.”

Jesus considered His water baptism as part of fulfilling all righteousness. Is not fulfilling all righteousness works? Compare “fulfill all righteousness” with “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness,” in
Titus 3:5.

Thus, Titus 3:5 denies water baptism’s role in salvation even before the verse gets to “the washing of regeneration.”

This is mere special pleading, based on false premises. It presupposes an absolute antithesis between faith and works, and/or grace and works which is simply not biblical (as I’ve already shown above with several biblical examples). This is the typically Protestant “either/or” or “dichotomous” reasoning. We do all kinds of things that help us “work out [our] salvation” (Phil. 2:12). They’re all preceded by grace, caused by them (any good thing): this is Catholic teaching, right in the canons and decrees of Trent.

If anyone doubts this, then I’d love to see them explain why in no less than 50 passages, works are always directly connected with salvation and the final judgment (i.e., eschatological, or final salvation), while it is never the case that faith alone is mentioned. I also elucidated the same principle of the relation between faith, works, grace, and salvation, in a commentary on the rich young ruler. These two papers (and several others of mine) refute the false premises that underly the groundless assertions above.

It’s true (very unlike John 3:5, where we saw many contextual indications above) that there are no immediate similar references to baptism or even water, but of course the Epistle to Titus is only three chapters long (46 total verses), and it’s not absolutely necessary to have a contextual argument for something in Scripture to have a particular meaning. In past treatments of baptism, I have noted the similarities between John 3:5 and Titus 3:5. That is an argument itself, from cross-referencing.

The two passages are almost exactly parallel: 

Titus: “saved” / John: “enter the kingdom of God”

Titus: “washing of rebirth” / John: “born of water”

Titus: “renewal by the Holy Spirit” / John: “born . . . of the Spirit”

What we can do is look up in language aids, the word for “washing” here. It’s loutron: Strong’s word #3067. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines it as “a bathing, bath, i.e. as well the act of bathing . . . as the place; used in the N. T. and in eccles. writ. of baptism . . . ” The only other occurrence of this exact word is in Ephesians 5:26, which refers to God’s sanctifying of the Church (hence would have no direct relation to baptism).

The root word is louo (Strong’s word #3068). It appears six times in the New Testament. Four of them are clearly literal washings; physical cleansing. One is in a different sense: “freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev 1:5). The sixth instance may very well refer to baptism, just as we argue that Titus 3:5 does:

Hebrews 10:22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

All said, I don’t think we can definitively rule out a baptism interpretation of Titus 3:5. And if indeed it is baptism being referred to, it will also be baptismal regeneration at the same time.

In conclusion, in this case as in all other internal doctrinal disputes among Protestants, they are never able to reach a final conclusion and unify; thus, they allow (indeed, encourage and completely tolerate) differing views, which mans that necessarily contradiction (and falsehood) exists in their ranks. When people contradict each other, someone has to be wrong. That’s not what God wanted for His Church.

The belief on baptism was unified for 1500 years until the 16th century.  We Catholics are happy to yield to the wisdom of the ages: the apostolic doctrine passed down in unbroken succession, and not broken 1500 years after Christ, with brand-new innovations introduced. That’s how we maintain unity on the question of baptism and all other (binding) doctrines. What was passed down and believed by all is good enough to show that something was true. God protected His people from error. But once folks decided to formally split off of the One True Church they no longer had that protection, and so we see the doctrinal chaos that has resulted.

 This dialogue would never have taken place in 300 or 700 or 1200 A.D., because everyone agreed on baptism. But all of a sudden, Calvin and the Anabaptists show up (upstarts, late in the game) and we’re all supposed to go running after their new doctrines? Why? They had no authority: just arbitrary assertions and lots of false doctrines that no one in the Christian, Catholic Church had ever believed before (along with several retained true doctrines).

In our view, the Bible, Tradition, and the Church all teach the same thing about baptism, leading to truth and unity. This is a self-consistent position, and the historical aspect is easily demonstrable as a matter of record. For Protestants, the Bible is their only final authority. This reduces to an inevitable state of affairs where there are competing interpretations of that Bible, and this is what we get: five major camps on baptism and no way to resolve the internal contradictions by means of the viciously circular Protestant rule of faith (sola Scriptura).

Catholics (and Orthodox, Lutherans and “high” Anglicans and Methodists) can solve this “problem”; many Protestants cannot. It’s always been that way and always will be, till our Lord returns.

[see also my related post, Dialogue with a Baptist Pastor on Whether Infant Baptism is Indicated in the New Testament]

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