Is John 3:5 All Wet?

By David A. Padfield

Many passages in the New Testament plainly demonstrate the necessity of water baptism for the remission of sins. We use verses like Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38 frequently in our preaching because they are so simple to understand. Yet, there are other verses which teach the same thing and we sometimes shy away from using them. I am afraid John 3:5 falls into this last Category.

In John 3:5 Jesus told Nicodemus, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” There is one birth under discussion in this passage and it consists of two parts: water and Spirit. Maybe it is the word “Spirit” that scares some people off.

Several years ago I had a debate with a Baptist preacher and used this passage as one of my affirmative arguments. My opponent tried to “drain” the water out of this verse by claiming “water” and “Spirit” referred to the same element. He said, “I think the simplest and most accurate rendering would be ‘Except a man be born of water’ and take the word kai (and) to mean ‘even,’ so it would read, ‘Except a man be born of water, even the Spirit.’ And that puts the Spirit in apposition with water, meaning the same thing.”

“And” or “Even”?

My opponent’s argument was not entirely new. John Calvin taught the same thing. The Greek word kai (and) is a conjunction and is sometimes translated “even.” For example, in Luke 10:17 we read, “Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name.”‘ But is this the way it should be translated in John 3:5? I checked 18 different translations of John 3:5 and could not find anyone who rendered this verse as “water even Spirit.” Many of these translations were produced by Baptists and used in their colleges.

The Analytical Greek New Testament was published in 1981 by Baker Book House, It was compiled by Timothy and Barbara Friberg. To explain it simply, they put the Greek text of our New Testament into a computer and asked it to do a grammatical analysis. The entire Greek text was then printed out and a “grammatical tag” was placed under each word to show what part of speech it was. Not only were nouns, verbs and prepositions indicated, but also case, gender, person and number. The tag under the word kai in John 3:5 shows it to be a connective conjunction,, not an adverb, and should therefore be translated as “and.”

Voice of Scholarship

While not everyone will find use for the following quotations, I believe it is profitable to note the comments of several prominent Greek scholars regarding the proper translation of John 3:5. Many of these men served on the translation committees of the Bibles we use today. Though I do not like the way some of these men expressed themselves, they all point out the two elements of the new birth: water and Spirit.

Henry Alford: “There can be no doubt, on any honest interpretation of the words, that ‘born of water’ refers to the token or outward sign of baptism – ‘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. Such we have in Calvin” (Alford’s Greek Testament, Vol. 1, p. 714).

W. Robertson Nicoll: “To remove as far as possible the difficulty of Nicodemas as to the poz (how, dp) of the new birth our Lord declares that the two great factors in it are ‘water’ and ‘spirit'” (Expositors Greek Testament, Vol. I, p. 713).

Marvin R. Vincent: “The exposition of this much controverted passage does not fall within the scope of this work. We may observe, 1. That Jesus here lays down the preliminary conditions of entrance into His kingdom, expanding and explaining His statement in ver. 3. 2. That this condition is here stated as complete, including two distinct factors, water and the Spirit. 3. That the former of these two factors is not to be merged in the latter; that the spiritual element is not to exclude or obliterate the external and ritual element. We are not to understand with Calvin, the Holy Spirit as the purifying water in the spiritual sense: ‘water which is the Spirit.’ 4. That water points definitely to the rite of baptism, and with a twofold reference – to the past and to the future” (Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 91).

B.F. Westcott: “It can, then, scarcely be questioned that as Nicodemus heard the words, water carried with it a reference to John’s baptism, which was a divinely appointed rite (i,33), gathering up into itself and investing with a new importance all the lustural baptisms of the Jews.”

A.T. Robertson: “We are puzzled by the placing of ‘water’ here before ‘Spirit’ as a necessity to entering the Kingdom of God. But Nicodemas was troubled about ‘Spirit.’ He was thinking only of the physical birth. On the whole it is profitable that by ‘water’ Jesus refers to baptism. John the Baptist preached repentance and practiced the baptism of those who confessed their sins” (Minor Characters in the New Testament, p. 6).

John R. Graves (Noted Baptist Preacher): “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, and we would have owed it to him and to our readers. 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 0 scholars of all denominations in all ages” (The Tennessee Baptist, p. 5, October 30, 1886).

What Is the “Spirit”?

What role does the Spirit have in the new birth? God used the agency of the Holy Spirit to reveal his word unto man. “Prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). Paul goes into great detail in 1 Corinthians 2:7-13 explaining how the Spirit revealed the message of God unto the apostles.

When Jesus commands us to be “born of water and of the Spirit,” he has reference to the waters of baptism joined with our obedience to the Spirit revealed word. This passage is much easier to understand in the light of a few other passages. Please note the chart below titled “Some Parallels.” I do not know who drew this chart originally, but I have used it in two debates with Baptist preachers.

Some Parallels

John 3:5 1 Cor. 12:13 Eph. 5:26 Titus 3:5
born of water baptized washing of water washing of regeneration
born of Spirit by one Spirit by the word renewing of Holy Ghost
enter into the

kingdom of God

into one body sanctify and cleanse it saved

Ephesians 5:26 says Christ died for the church “that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” Here the “washing of water” has reference to baptism. The phrase “by the word” has to refer to the word revealed by the Spirit.

In Titus 3:5 we find that salvation is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”

Another parallel is found in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “for by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body.” Both water (baptism) and Spirit are found here. In John 3:5 they are said to be necessary to “enter the kingdom of God.” Paul told the Corinthians these same elements would put us into the “one body.” This body is the church (Col. 1:18).

James sums up the whole discussion in James 1: 18, “of His own will begat he us with the word of truth.”

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 14, pp. 419-420
July 20, 1989