This is a very interesting topic, and with so many controversies. But wait, the controversies give no excuse for its compromise.
This is a non-negotiable element of basic Christianity. No other means to attain salvation but Christ Alone. He is the Truth, the Light, the Door, the Way, the End and All we Need.
Well, let’s dig into it by looking at the story of Nicodemus..
When Nicodemus heard Christ talking about a new birth, his mind must have been a bog. He had always believed that salvation was to be earned by good works. He probably even expected Christ to commend him for his strict legalism!
Instead, Jesus confronted him with the futility of his religion. What a letdown! Unlike religious works, being born again was something Nicodemus could not do himself!
Nicodemus’s reply has often been misunderstood: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4).
Nicodemus was not speaking in literal terms. We must give him credit for a little common sense. Surely he was not so feebleminded as to think Jesus was really talking about re-entering the womb and literally being born again.
A teacher himself, Nicodemus understood the Rabbinical method of using figurative language to teach spiritual truth, and he was merely picking up Jesus’ symbolism. He was really saying, “I can’t start all over. It’s too late. I’ve gone too far in my religious system to start over. There’s no hope for me if I must begin from the beginning.”
Jesus was demanding that Nicodemus forsake everything he stood for, and Nicodemus knew it. Far from offering this man an easy conversion, Christ was challenging him with the most difficult demand he could make.
Nicodemus would gladly have given money, fasted, or performed any ritual Jesus could have prescribed. But to call him to a spiritual rebirth was asking him to acknowledge his own insufficiency and turn away from everything he was committed to.
Jesus merely reiterated, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
Some people say that means literal water — H2O. Okay! This has nothing to do with water or baptism. Salvation cannot be accomplished by a bath. John 4:2 says Jesus baptized no one. If baptism were a condition of salvation, He would have been baptizing people; after all, He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). The water Jesus is speaking of is merely symbolic — as it was in the Old Testament — of purification.
Nicodemus would have understood this reference to the Old Testament water of purification, which was sprinkled on the altar and sacrifices in most of the rituals. Being a scholar, Nicodemus no doubt remembered Ezekiel 36:25 and the promise of the new covenant: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you.” Two verses later is the promise, “I will put My Spirit within you” (v. 27).
Those statements, bringing the ideas of water and the Spirit together, sandwich another promise: “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (v. 26).
That is the Old Testament promise of regeneration by water and the Spirit. The only baptism implied here is the baptism in the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist said, “He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit’ ” (John 1:33).
Spirit baptism takes place at salvation, when the Lord places the believer into the body of Christ by means of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), and purifies the believer by the water of the Word (Eph. 5:26; cf. John 15:3). Paul refers to this as “the washing of regeneration, and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5), almost perfectly echoing Jesus’ words in John 3:5: “Unless one is born of water [the washing of regeneration] and the Spirit [and renewing by the Holy Spirit], he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Thus Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, “You need to be spiritually purified and spiritually reborn.” The whole point was that law and religious rituals — including baptism — cannot give eternal life. We can assume Nicodemus got the message, because it apparently jarred him fiercely.
In a nutshell, we are are not saved by good works but unto good works. Salvation is by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone in Christ Alone for the Glory of God Alone.
Writing for the edification of the body of Christ.