Regeneration By Water
Regeneration By Water.
In our Lord's discourse to Nicodemus (John 3) occurs this remarkable statement: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." This coupling of water-baptism with spiritual regeneration as an essential condition to Christian privilege has occasioned considerable difficulty to expositors, controversialists, and pious inquirers. A view of the entire context is important as a preliminary to the just interpretation of this passage.
Nicodemus sought a private interview with Jesus, evidently for the sincere purpose of information as to the Great Teacher's doctrine. Waiving all complimentary prefaces, Jesus at once propounds the one essential condition of discipleship — namely, the new birth. Nicodemus finds two difficulties in this — first, in his age, and, secondly; in the physical paradox itself. The latter perplexity evidently arose from his understanding the requirement in a literal sense. It is not so clear whether the former difficulty is but the same expressed in another form or an entirely different one — namely, the hardship of demanding a religious change in a person of such a confirmed standing as himself. In favor of the latter view are adduced the traditionary allusions to the baptism of proselytes to Judaism (which, however, do not very certainly establish that custom, or, at least, its special significance), and especially the baptism by John (which excited no surprise, showing that its significance was readily understood); but there is little or no evidence that these or any similar Judaic lustrations were currently designated by the peculiar terms here employed, γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν, born from above, or born again. SEE PROSELYTE. But, however this may have been, it is plain that Nicodemus was chiefly stumbled by the apparent necessity of understanding the words of Jesus in a strictly literal or physical sense. Hence our Lord explains that not a fleshly, but a spiritual, birth is meant, and he repeats this distinction in varied form (the "water" and "Spirit" of ver. 5 respectively corresponding to and being further interpreted by "flesh" and "Spirit" in ver. 6). This serves to show that the expression "born of water" (γεννηθῆναι ἐξ ὕδατος) has reference, not to a spiritual purification, but to a physical ablution; that is, to personal baptism, such as Nicodemus was already familiar with, and such as was to be instituted by Christ himself. (We discard as precarious and offensive an interpretation which we have heard propounded of this expression as referring to the semen virile, based upon the alleged use of מִיַם in that sense in Isa 48:1; for that signification is not well established anywhere, even in Hebrew, much less in the Aramaic, which it is assumed that Christ here spoke, and certainly not in the Greek by which the conversation is represented.) The only real difficulty to us in the passage arises from the conjunction of baptism and regeneration as being both requisite in the case; thus giving apparent countenance to the dogma of baptismal regeneration, or, at least, to the doctrine that baptism is essential to a Christian's acceptance with God. This difficulty is relieved by the following considerations drawn from the passage itself and from others parallel with it:
1. The principal stress is laid by Christ upon the second part of the requirement — namely, the spiritual birth. This is evident from the omission of all reference to baptism in vers. 6 and 8.
2. The language of ver. 5 can, at most, only mean that baptism and regeneration are both essential, but not necessarily in the same sense or to the same degree; certainly not that they are identical, nor that one implies the other. The phraseology positively forbids such a confusion of the two.
3. The association herb of baptism with a spiritual change is no more emphatic than in several other passages similarly laying down the conditions of Christianity — e.g. "Teach all nations, baptizing them" (Mt 28:19); "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mr 16:16; but note the omission in the clause following, "He that believeth not shall be damned"); "Repent and be baptized every one of you" (Ac 2:38); "Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins" (22:16).
4. Our Lord himself dispensed with baptism in the admission of at least one member into his kingdom, namely, the dying thief (Lu 23:42-43).
5. Christ certainly does mean to attach importance to water-baptism as an initiative rite into his Church or kingdom. The body of believers exists under two aspects, the visible and the invisible — the outward or nominal, and the inward or real. Baptism is as imperative a mark of admission to the former as spiritual new birth is to entrance into the latter. In order to full recognition as a member of both, the two acts are truly essential. This doctrine, which orthodox ecclesiastics have always maintained, is thus strictly in accordance with the tenor of the text in question.
On the dogma of baptismal regeneration, see the Bibliotheca Sacra, April; 1876; Prot. Episc. Quar. Rev. Oct. 1860; Meth. Quar. Rev. Oct. 1854.