“Born of Water and the Spirit”

By Larry Ray Hafley

This scriptural title was used recently “By Rev. Bruce Cummons, Pastor, Massillon Baptist Temple, Massillon, Ohio,” in an essay on John 3:5. “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The relevance and pertinence of this passage is clear. “The subject and doctrine of the new birth is all-important. Jesus said that except a man be born again, he cannot enter into God.” Thus, the significance and importance of this study is as great as entering into the kingdom of God.

Purpose of This Theme:

“The purpose of this sermon in to clarify the meaning of the words representing the two agents absolutely essential in the new birth, as set forth in John 3:5, namely water and the spirit. (Observe that Cummons considers these two agents “absolutely essential.” Fine, we shall hold to that:) “I especially want to deal with the fifth verse and its proper interpretation.” (Remember, now, whatever is “proper” is Aabsolutely essential.@)

“Water and The Spirit”

1. General Premises: Mr. Cummons rejects the theory that being born of water is a reference to physical birth. In this, he is correct. He arrives at his special and specific conclusion by these general means. First, he reads the text, context, and related passages. Second, he prays. Third, he turns to Greek texts. “Finally, I pull every book off my library shelf that might have a sermon, a paragraph, a sentence, or a word, concerning the text at hand … Following this plan I have put John 3:5 to the test. . . .”

2. Specific Conclusion: Mr. Cummons quotes his “old seminary professor. . .concerning John 3:5: `There is no need for confusion as to the meaning of water in verse 5… water is a symbol of the word of God. Ephesians 5:26 tells us distinctly, ‘The washing of water by the word.’ Titus 3:5 further emphasizes the same truth – ‘the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.’ He tells us it is with the Word, which is the instrument, and the Spirit who is the agent that one is regenerated. Water symbolizes the Word.” (Dr. Louis Entzminger, Studies In John’s Gospel). Cummons quotes A. C. Gaebelein, H. A. Ironside, and Dr. Lehman Straus to the same effect. Then, Cummons comes clean and postulates. “I state clearly that water in John 3:5 is representative of the Word of God.”

So, Cummons states it “clearly.” His authorities do likewise. Ephesians 5:26 and Titus 3:5 are cited to prove (1) that “the words of our Lord have nothing to do with baptism,” and (2) that “Water in this passage (Jn. 3:5) is the figure of the Word of God.”

My, my, that does make it rich! The Lord meant “Word,” but he said “water.” Paul did the same thing in Ephesians 5:26, according to Cummons. Paul said Christ cleansed the church “with the washing of water by the word.” (Eph. 5:26) But Paul meant “Word” when he said “water.” Was the Lord able to say “Word” if he meant “Word?” Why say “water,” if he meant “Word?” Was Paul unable to say “Word” in place of “water?” But if Cummons is correct, we have Paul saying Christ cleansed the church “with the washing of word by the word.” Now, if Paul said “water” but meant “word,” why can I not say in the last phrase when he said “word” he meant “water.” So, with the Hafley and Cummons amendments, Paul said, “with the washing of the word by the water,” and we are back where we started.

Further, if Jesus said “water” in John 3:5 but meant “Word,” how does Cummons know that he actually meant “Spirit” when he said “Spirit” in John 3:5? Just suppose I were to argue that Jesus meant water baptism when he said “Spirit?” If Cummons claims “water” means “Word,” how could he deny Hafley’s hunch that “Spirit” is water baptism?

“Of” Argument

“Rev.” Cummons makes an argument on the preposition “of” that I think little “of.” Says he, “Read John 3:5… Notice that in one instance the little preposition ‘of’ is in italics. This means it was not in the original language but was placed in the text by the translators. Now, if you will read the text, leaving out the italicized word ‘of,’ you will see what I mean by the words ‘water’ and ‘spirit’ being used together to mean one thing.

“‘Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.'” “There is only one preposition ‘of’ used with ‘water and spirit.’ Since there is just one preposition governing the entire phrase, this points to the fact that the words ‘water and spirit’ are to be regarded as one thing and not as two separate things. Both of these things joined together as one are absolutely essential to the new birth!” (“Absolutely essential,” eh? Well, we will mark that down.)

Where, oh where, is Cummon’s scholarship? Why did he fail to cite a scholar who says the absence of a second “of” means the two things are actually only one and the same thing. However, 1 John 5:6 says Christ came “by water and blood.” Does the absence of a second “by” mean that water and blood “are to be regarded as one thing?” No, therefore, we wave “by(e), by (e)” to that argument. Compare also Rev. 5:9; 7:9, 11:9 – “of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” “Since there is just one preposition governing the entire phrase,” does this point “to the fact that the words… are to be regarded as one thing and not as two separate things?”

Cummon’s Confusions or Scholars’ Conclusions

Cummons quotes Eph. 5:26 and Titus 3:5 and concludes, “The foregoing texts of Scripture have no reference to baptism! They speak of the word of God… used by the Holy Spirit as one and the same power. . . .” It was Cummons who said “with the help… many. . able scholars” he was given “an insight into the original Greek.” Let us see some “able scholars” Cummons would do well to envy. And lest we forget, the elements of the new birth are ‘absolutely essential.”

John 3:5

“There is not one Christian writer of any antiquity in any language but what understands it of baptism. And if` it be not so understood it is difficult to give an account how a person is born of water, anymore than of wood…. All the ancient Christians (without the exception of one man) do understand that rule of our Savior (John 3:5) ‘Verily,’ verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God, ” of baptism…. I believe Calvin was the first that ever denied ,this place to mean baptism. He gave another interpretation, which he confesses to be new” (Wall. History of Infant Baptism, Vol. I, pp. 92, 443).

“There can be no doubt, on any honest interpretation of the words, that gennethenai ek hudatos (born of water) refers to the token or outward sign of baptism – gennethenai ek pneumatos (born of Spirit) to the thing signified, or inward grace of the Holy Spirit. All attempts to get rid of these two plain facts have sprung from doctrinal prejudices, by which the views of expositors have been warped” (Dean Alford, Greek Testament, Vol. I, p. 714).

“The convert is immersed in the material and spiritual elements, rises newborn out of them, and enters into the kingdom. . . .Of the two elements, water signifies the purifying power, spirit the life-giving power: the one removes hindrances, making the baptized ready to receive the other (Acts 2:38; Tit. 3:5). Note that ek is not repeated before pneumatos, so that the two factors are treated as inseparable” (Plummer, Cambridge Greek Testament, The Gospel of John, p. 102).

“. . the necessity of baptism in order to participation in the messianic kingdom (a doctrine against which Calvin in particular, and other expositors of the Reformed Church contend) has certainly its basis in this passage” (H.A.W. Meyer, Commentary on the New Testament, Vol. III, p. 124).

” If brother Vaughn convinced us that born of water refers to anything but the baptism of one previously born of the Spirit, we never knew it,. . It means nothing else, and no Baptist that we ever heard or read of ever believed otherwise until A. Campbell frightened them away from an interpretation that is sustained by the consensus of all scholars of all denominations in all ages” (J. R. Graves, Tennessee Baptist, May 17, 1884.)

“By water, here is evidently signified baptism. Thus the word is used in Eph. 5:26; Tit. 3:5” (Albert Barnes, Barnes On The New Testament, Luke John, p. 210).


Other authorities could be cited, but the above will suffice. Let it be observed that the Lord’s statement in John 3:5 can be interpreted in light of other things He said concerning entrance into the kingdom of God. In Matthew 7:21, He said that only those who do the will of the Father shall enter into the kingdom. In Matthew 18:3, he said the disciples must be converted before they could enter the kingdom. These are all different wordings of the same fact, i.e., how one obtains entrance to the kingdom of God. One must be converted, do the will of the Father, be born again.

Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mk. 16:16). An apostle of Christ, speaking as the Holy Spirit gave him utterance said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). Ananias, a man sent of God, told Saul of Tarsus, “arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). So, even if we could exclude baptism in water from John 3:5, we could not wring and wrest it out of these plain statements of Scripture.

In view of this, how can one read either the scholars or the Scriptures and conclude that baptism is anything less than “ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL?”

Truth Magazine, XVIII:43, p. 10-11
September 5, 1974