I had good-natured conversation about a month ago with a good friend of mine who is LDS. He asked me an open-ended and honest question: “How do you interpret John 3:5?” I gave him a short answer then, but I thought the subject deserved further scrutiny, so here’s my long answer.
A Framework to Start From
One important principle when trying to interpret scripture is to let the whole of scripture speak for itself. If there are 20 clear passages that support one idea, and a few relatively obscure passages that seem to support an opposing idea, we can safely assume that the first idea is the correct one, and use that as a framework for interpreting the obscure passages. Evangelical Christians rarely base their beliefs on singular verses of scripture, and will usually only take up a particular view if it can be shown clearly from several passages. Evangelical Christians see the LDS basis of baptism for the dead on a single NT verse, 1 Corinthians 15:29, as a serious mistake.
Mark 16:16 states that, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” This passage speaks of the eternal destinations of two groups: those who believe and are baptized and those who don’t believe and are presumably not baptized (note, Mark doesn’t mention a hypothetical group who believes but is not baptized). To me, it’s clear that the determining factor between the two groups is belief. Baptism is simply not a focal theme here. In my opinion, if someone claimed they believed in the gospel, but refused to be baptized, they are probably lying. Nonetheless, it’s not baptism that saves, but faith in a sacrifice that put away sin once-and-for-all.
One thing I think LDS people get hung up on is the false notion that the gift of the Holy Ghost can only be received after baptism, and that it is always given by laying-on-of-hands. To the contrary, there are really only one or two verses that mention the gift being given by laying-on-of-hands. The first disciples received the gift as little tongues of fire came out of heaven and rested on each of them (Acts 2:1-4). Jesus received the gift as a dove coming out of heaven immediately after his baptism (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 3:9-11; and Luke 3:21-22). There is at least one other interesting example given in Acts 10:
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.
The LDS concept is that one can experience the Holy Ghost without actually having the gift of the Holy Ghost. If I were still Mormon, that’s probably how I would interpret this passage. However, verse 45 specifically states that these people had received the “gift of the Holy Spirit,” and all they had done up to this point was believe. Peter commanded them to be baptized after they had already received the gift of the Holy Ghost. Clearly, the Holy Spirit can come into someone’s heart and sanctify them apart from the physical act of baptism.
I could keep going. I haven’t even mentioned the thief on the cross or the Samaritan woman at the well. I haven’t mentioned Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:11-13; or 1 Peter 3:21-22. All three of these passages speak of baptism as a symbol of death and burial with Christ—death to our former sinful life—and rebirth to a new life. Baptism itself is not the rebirth. It is merely a figure for the actual rebirth that takes place when the Holy Spirit takes up residency in a person’s heart.
Now that I’ve gone around the world to scratch my elbow, here’s my point: There are many key passages that serve as a framework from which we can interpret John 3:5. The several Biblical writers seem to be in agreement that Salvation can and does take place apart from the symbolic ordinance of baptism.
A Contextual Interpretation
In Jesus’ statement, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” it seems intuitive that “water” and “Spirit” are linked. It’s hard to divide them into two births, as some interpreters attempt to do by equating “water” with the amniotic fluid present at the physical birth. That interpretation always seemed a little forced to me, since the idiom of “water breaking” at birth probably doesn’t translate directly from English into Greek or vice versa. Splitting “water” and “Spirit” into two births is a valid way to explain the passage, but I’m not convinced that it’s correct one. So, let’s assume for a moment that “water” and “Spirit” are both elements of the new birth.
An important thing to realize is that Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, and would have been completely unfamiliar with the Christian ordinance of baptism. If Jesus truly meant baptism when he said “water,” he would’ve needed to explain in more detail if he expected Nicodemus to track with him. There is, however, an OT passage that Jesus might’ve had in mind as he conversed with Nicodemus: Ezekiel 36:25-27.
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.
God doesn’t say “one of my representatives” or “one of my priests” will sprinkle clean water on you. He says “I” will sprinkle clean water on you. If God does the sprinkling himself, this water is obviously symbolic, but what does it symbolize? The sprinkling with clean water is a spiritual cleansing caused by God putting his Spirit within a person’s heart. Note also the order of things. God puts his Spirit within you, and he causes you to walk in his statutes. The works are the final product of this change of heart, not a prerequisite.
The Spirit is likened to water elsewhere in scripture, as in 1 Corinthians 12:13. But perhaps there is no better place to look for a correct interpretation of the word “water” than Jesus’ own words in the remainder of John’s gospel.
In John 4, Jesus approaches a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and asks her for a drink of water. At her surprise that a Jew would ask a Samaritan for a drink, Jesus replies in verse 10, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” He goes on to explain in verse 14 that the water he gives to a man “shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” Jesus is talking about a water that would spring up from within a person (which I think rules out baptismal water), and that it will affect eternal life in a person, but he doesn’t go so far as to explain quite what it is. Notice, however, that he does refer to it as the “gift of God” in verse 4.
In John 7, Jesus again speaks on the subject of living water. He stands up in the middle of a crowd of people gathered for the feast of tabernacles, and cries out, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Jesus again stops short of explaining what he means by “living water,” but here we are privileged with a parenthetical interpretation by John: “But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.”
So we see that all these phrases are synonymous:
- being “born again”
- being “born of water”
- being “born of the Spirit”
- having “living water” flow from one’s belly
- being sprinkled with “clean water”
Baptism is but a symbolic representation of the true cleansing with spiritual water that happens when the Holy Spirit enters a believer’s heart. This can happen with or without actual water baptism, and most often occurs the moment a person fully accepts Jesus’ sacrifice for sin and commits to live the rest of their life for him.
Being born again is a life-changing experience, brought about by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, not by an ordinance performed by man’s hands. The ordinance is an important part of witnessing to the world that you’ve accepted Christ, but it is merely an outward showing of the inward commitment a Christian has already made in the heart.