Did Jesus teach us in John 3:5 that baptism is required for Salvation? Let’s consider the Scripture, “Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”. People who believe in regeneration baptism (salvation comes by baptism) tend to see any references in the New Testament to water, washing or baptism to mean immersion (is some cases sprinkling) in water. Is this the case? Was Jesus saying that one must be born again of two sources, the Spirit and also the water of baptism?
If we begin by looking at the immediate context, we get some clues as to our answer, notice verse 6, “”That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” furthermore verse 7 continues, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.” This makes it clear that Jesus sees being “born again” (see also v3) as being “born of the Spirit”. There is an antithetical nature in this verse, being born again, cannot be from being born of the flesh (v6), it must be being born of the Spirit.
If ‘born of water’ (v5) means water baptism, then verse 5 would contradict verse 6, since verse 6 clearly says that the only requirement for Salvation is to be “born of the Spirit”, while verse 5 would require baptism in water and being born of the Spirit. Thus we are left with a possible contradiction in these few words of Christ.
Using a standard tool of interpreting the Bible, we should seek to compare Scripture with Scripture (the analogy of faith) and see if we find any other time we find teaching in God’s Word about water and the Spirit. Better yet to find something written by the same author (in our case John). In John 7:37-38 we read, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” and in case there was any doubt John mentions for us in the next verse, “But this He spoke concerning the Holy Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive…. (39a).” Here we find a strong identification of the idea of water with the Holy Spirit.
With this possibility in mind, it would do us well to consider some other passages and see what relationship best fits an understand of the ‘Spirit’ and ‘water’.
Isaiah 12:3: Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation
Ezekiel 36:25-26: And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you art heart of flesh.
Jeremiah 2:13: For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.
( See also Isaiah 35:6; 55:1; Zechariah 14:6 cf, Ezekiel 47:1-5; John 4:10; Revelation 21:6, 22:17).
All of these Scriptures make sense if we see ‘water’ in them as symbolic of the Holy Spirit, indeed it is pressed upon us by these verses. So we have good reason to see ‘water’ in John 3:5 as referring to the Spirit.
In John 3:5, when Jesus said, “You must be born of water and the Spirit” he was using water in a figurative way (as we see Him do in John 7) to say ‘Born of the Spirit’; Jesus then makes Himself perfectly clear by repeating the thought in plain language. This way of speaking was very normal in the Jewish culture and even in Christ’ own teaching. Nicodemus being a Pharisee would have readily understood the Old Testament symbolic use of water to refer to God’s Spirit, while the idea of Christian baptism would have been alien to him.
In addition, it is helpful to know that the word ‘and’ in John 3:5 is ‘kai’, which though meaning ‘and’ also often means ‘indeed’, ‘or ‘even’. Making John 3:5 have the following meaning, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water indeed/even the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”.
In conclusion, there is one other theological problem with reading into this verse water baptism, 1 Corinthians 2:14 teaches us that the natural man accepts nothing from the Spirit of God, he cannot understand or grasp things which are spiritually discerned, how then can someone who is a natural man, who is not yet born of the Spirit, see the need to be baptised? Why would a natural man ever consent to being baptised till he is born of the Spirit, since indeed baptism would be foolishness to him, since even the cross is (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Simple answer, John 3:5 does not teach baptism is required for Salvation.