Did Jesus Say We Must Be Baptized in Order to Be Saved?
In all of life and especially in Christianity, there exist “hills to die on.” What does this mean? It means unwavering obedience to and proclamation of a command.
God’s commandments (Exodus 20:2-17; Deuteronomy 6:2, 4-7; 11:1) are to be obeyed, and Jesus reiterated them to His disciples in Matthew 19:19 22:38-39 and Luke 10:27. The Lord Jesus also gave His disciples two ordinances to follow as evidence we are His: baptism and communion (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; 1 Corinthians 11:23-27).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Was Jesus saying we must be baptized to be saved? The answer to this, as we will see, is “a hill to die on.”
What Does This Verse Mean?
A solid student of the Bible will use excellent hermeneutics (the study of biblical interpretation) to discover the meaning of this verse. We must look at what the verse means in relation to its surrounding verses, chapter, book, and in the whole context of the biblical narrative. The whole Bible is God’s Word, and from start to conclusion, it’s about Jesus Christ (An excellent resource which gives further explanation and study principles is “Christ From Beginning to End,” by Trent Hunter and Peter Wellum).
Immediate context: As we discovered, John 3:5 is part of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. But why did Jesus say, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”?
Surrounding verses: John 3:1 tells us Nicodemus is a Pharisee and he came to Jesus at night. Nicodemus affirmed Jesus as a teacher who did signs, and that He came from God (John 3:2). In Jesus’ answer, He directs Nicodemus to the kingdom, as was normal for the Lord (Matthew 4:17; 9:35; Mark 10:14, 24: 12:34).
In John 3:3, Jesus answers Nicodemus’ statement with a kingdom proclamation, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Surely confused, Nicodemus asks Jesus how a person can be born again when he is old or re-enter his mother’s womb (John 3:4). Jesus answers Nicodemus with a pointed truth about a being born of water and the Spirit before being able to enter the kingdom of God.
Chapter Context: Jesus then expounds on His kingdom message to the Pharisee, one of the Jewish rulers who attempted to live by the letter of the Law. Their kingdom was one which proscribed lifestyles, and they judged Jews by Old Testament rules and traditions. Jesus contrasted a life in the flesh and one in the Spirit ,and Nicodemus wondered, “how can these things be?” (John 3:9). In a compassionate rebuke, Jesus asks Nicodemus how a teacher of the law could not understand Him. Jesus spoke of who He is and that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life [in the kingdom of God].
Knowing Nicodemus had a bit of faith because of his previous assertion, Jesus tells him about His relationship to the Father in verses 16-21. He speaks of heavenly things to a man of the flesh. Only Jesus, fully God and fully man, could explain both.
Book Context: John gives us the reason for his Gospel in John 20:31, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have eternal life.” All of this book point to that goal, and we assess each portion based on that pronouncement.
What Does Jesus Mean When He Says, "Born Again"?
The Greek word used here (γεννημένος ξανά) is ambiguous and can mean “again” or “from above,” and either rendition works in the passage. Jesus knew the man needed to experience new birth, as does everyone. This passage is our introduction to that truth.
The Apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 2:13, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” Again, in Ephesians 2:1, Paul says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins.” One more verse cements this truth, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Without Christ, we are dead—we are darkness (Ephesians 5:8).
Jesus, in order to save us, had to come as a man to atone for our sins. He never gave up His deity, however, because no man can live a sinless life (Romans 3:23). When God commanded Adam to not eat from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, He said, “For on the day you eat of it. You will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Adam and Eve did not physically die, as we see, but they suffered a spiritual death, and every human since that time has been spiritually dead – except for Christ.
Within the context of John 3 is the verse known worldwide, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). To perish means to be utterly destroyed, with no hope of eternal life with Christ. A person who refuses Christ may know the passage, but has not accepted its message. He will perish.
To be born again, therefore, is to accept God’s kind invitation (Romans 2:4) to acknowledge and confess our sins, repent in faith in the name of Jesus Christ, and experience a spiritual re-birth. In a spiritual sense it is a new birth for us because Adam’s sin has been imputed on all of humanity. Being born again means we are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). We were born of our mother’s womb into a spiritually dead state. The verse says, “the old has passed away.” That’s like saying the dead is now dead.
A born-again person is alive in Christ — alive in God’s kingdom (Romans 6:11; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Ephesians 2:5). As born-again believers in Jesus, nothing and no one can snatch us out of His hands; we are eternally secure (John 10:28-29).
What Does It Mean to Be Born of "Water and the Spirit"?
To understand this phrase, we need to consider a passage in Ezekiel. “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
This is the LORD God speaking to the rebellious nation of Israel, instilling hope in them that despite their current sins and hard hearts against Him, one day He would restore them via a New Covenant (which we know is found in Jesus Christ). They will be regenerated from dead souls to new.
The other passage which correlates to John 3:5 is Isaiah 44:3, which states, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring. And My blessing on your descendants.” Gentiles are included in the descendants, and one day the whole earth will unite in worship to the Lord (Revelation 7:9-10).
Within the context of any passage we study, we must take the audience into account. In John 3, we know Jesus is speaking to a prominent teacher of the Pharisees — one who would know the Old Testament. He would have known the passages in Ezekiel and Isaiah. And he would have known (as do we) the Bible is full of God declaring, “I will.” Nothing man can do will save him, for salvation is wholly an act of our God who says, “I will.”
Nicodemus had spent his whole life endeavoring to do something to gain God’s favor, and there he finally sat in His presence, seeking answers. Nicodemus needed spiritual birth, and Jesus pointed him to that prophecy spoken in the two texts from the Old Testament.
The Kingdom of God of which Jesus speaks is a spiritual kingdom. Flesh has no part in or of it, and neither does human will nor works.
Do We Have to Be Baptized to Be Saved?
Let’s look at some passages that speak to this:
Mark 16:16 – “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Belief (faith in Jesus Christ) comes before baptism. The second part of the verse affirms this when it equates unbelief (and not lack of baptism) with condemnation.
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 will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”
Notice the very important order of verbs Peter uses, repentance first, and then baptism. Follow that up with:
Acts 2:41 – “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Belief (faith) comes first in concert with repentance.
Perhaps the most popular passage people use to claim Jesus mandates baptism for salvation is Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Once again, the order of the verbs is vital. One is not baptized until he (or she) is a disciple. A disciple is already a believer.
What Is the Purpose of Baptism?
Baptism, as we saw earlier, is an ordinance commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ for believers as a witness to our identification with Jesus in death, burial, and resurrection. Therefore, we partake in baptism as a result of our salvation and as witness to Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. The Holy Spirit works through it to help us remember what Christ did to save us.
How Then Are We Saved?
God created Adam as a perfect and sinless man, until Adam and Eve sinned and brought death to the human race. Jesus came to earth — fully God and fully man — to atone for the sin (and death) imputed to use by our federal head — Adam. We sin because we are born sinners. We deserve death and we need God to save us, for we can’t save ourselves. God sent Jesus Christ — fully God and fully man — to do for us what we cannot. Only those who recognize this, confess, and repent in faith will be saved. And it is God who draws people to Himself through Jesus (John 3:27; 6:44). Christ takes on our sins and we are declared righteous before God because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
If you have yet to surrender your life to Jesus Christ, don’t wait another moment, for today is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2). Re-read the previous paragraph and look up the passages noted. I pray you understand, repent, believe, and surrender to our sovereign Lord Jesus.
I pray for all who are reading this who do not know You as Lord and Savior. Speak to them and, as the Father draws them to You, save them and place them in Your kingdom where they will enjoy Your presence forever.
In Your name I pray,
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Design Pics/Don Hammond
Lisa Loraine Baker is the multiple award-winning author of Someplace to be Somebody. She writes fiction and nonfiction. In addition to writing for the Salem Web Network, Lisa serves as a Word Weavers’ mentor and is part of a critique group. She also is a member of BRRC. Lisa and her husband, Stephen, a pastor, live in a small Ohio village with their crazy cat, Lewis.