Published: 30 August 2021

Baptism: “You Must Be Born Again”

Born again

What does the Holy Spirit do in our conversion? Perhaps the best place to begin answering this question is in John 3:5 when Jesus said, “You must be born again.” If we are to understand any New Testament text, we must know how a first century Jew would have understood it. In this passage, Jesus (who was a Jew) was talking with Nicodemus (a Jewish rabbi). 

Knowing that “born again” referred to a conversion to Judaism gives insight into the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus wondered, “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?” (John 3:4).  From his Jewish perspective, Nicodemus essentially asked, “How can I convert to Judaism if I am already a Jew?” Jesus answered, “A man must be born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). He was explaining to Nicodemus that he could not rely on his family tree to enter the kingdom of heaven. 

Water and Spirit

“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 ESV)

What exactly is meant by the words “water” and “Spirit”? The meaning of being born of the Spirit seems obvious enough. The Holy Spirit regenerates us and we are reborn when we become a disciple of Jesus. What does it mean to be born of water? Modern church consensus has made this a complicated question.

Many have argued against the idea that water, in this passage, has something to do with water baptism. However, from the earliest days of the church Christians understood water in this passage to be referring to baptism. It wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century AD that this sentiment began to change. 

The Protestant reformers rebelled against the idea of a works based salvation (rightly so). However, in their zeal to distance themselves from anything that might resemble “earned” salvation, they lumped baptism into the “works” category. This idea took root and today most Protestant groups reject the idea that immersion has anything to do with salvation. In a future blog post, we’ll dig into the question of whether baptism is a work or not.

The argument about what being “born of water” means has been worn out by people on both sides of the debate. Rather than rehashing the arguments, let’s look at other passages that have bearing on the subject and allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Titus 3:5-7

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, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Tit. 3:5-7 ESV)

Washing of regeneration

Paul says we are saved by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. Let’s examine these phrases to determine their meaning.

The word “regeneration” comes from the Greek paliggenesia (παλιγγενεσία). This is a compound word – pali, meaning “new” and genesia, meaning “beginning.” Taken together, a “new beginning,” or as a few Bible translations render it, a “new birth” or a “rebirth.” This not only calls to mind the conversation with Nicodemus about being born again, but also Romans 6.  

The word “washing” translates the Greek word loutron (λουτρόν). The word appears twice in the New Testament and twice in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint). It is always translated “washing” and has reference to real water (as opposed to a symbolic or purely spiritual act). The two references below from the Song of Solomon clearly show that loutron is speaking of actual water.

Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost its young. (Song of Sol. 4:2 ESV)

Your teeth are like a flock of ewes that have come up from the washing; all of them bear twins; not one among them has lost its young. (Song of Sol. 6:6 ESV)

Solomon is complimenting his lady friend whose teeth are not only very white, but she apparently still has them all. I guess we take healthy teeth for granted nowadays. In addition, note how the following Greek dictionaries all consistently define the word.

  • Friberg, Analytical Greek Lexicon: bath; figuratively in the NT, as a baptismal term (ceremonial) washing 
  • Bauer-Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT (BDAG): bath, washing of baptism
  • Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT: a bathing, bath, i. e. as well the act of bathing, as the place; used in the N.T. and in ecclesiastical writings of baptism 
  • Gingrich, Greek NT Lexicon: bath, washing of baptism

Renewal of the Holy Spirit

The phrase “renewal of the Holy Spirit” seems to differ little from the idea of regeneration. Renewal translates the Greek word anakainosis (ἀνακαίνωσις). Ana is a prefix meaning “again”, kainosis means “make renewed/fresh.” I suggest that regeneration (born again) describes what happens and renewal emphasizes the result (made new again). 

Ephesians 5:25-27

The other New Testament passage which uses the word loutron is in Ephesians.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25-27 ESV)

This passage is almost parallel to Titus 3:5-7. Considering how loutron is defined, and how it is used in context, we are left with no doubt as to how the washing is done – it is in actual water.

Conclusion

Several things come together from the above passages to make it difficult to reasonably disassociate washing from the waters of baptism. 

  • The Greek definitions of loutron (washing) all point to immersion in real water.
  • Loutron is clearly used in the Song of Solomon to reference a washing in real water.
  • This washing in water results in a new birth (regeneration) which is exactly the same concept that Jesus and Nicodemus discussed.
  • Those who have experienced rebirth/renewal have been cleansed (purified) of sin and are “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”.
  • The idea of a death to our old ways and being born again into a new life not only mirrors proselyte immersion, but also dovetails with Romans 6.

There is much more to consider, but the examination of the above passages shows a strong and undeniable connection to Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus when they spoke of being “born of water and the Spirit.” In the next post, we’ll see how Romans 6 fits into this discussion.