“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ ”- John 3:9–10
Like the wind that blows, the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration cannot finally be resisted or controlled. And like the wind that blows, you cannot see the Spirit as He regenerates a dead sinner; rather, you can see only the effects of regeneration—profession of faith, repentance, and evidence of a changed life (John 3:8). These ideas are particularly important when we consider the doctrine of baptismal regeneration taught by some churches. Essentially, baptismal regeneration says that God regenerates at baptism everyone to whom baptism is applied. But if the Spirit’s work in regeneration is invisible and uncontrollable, then we cannot make that one-to-one correlation between baptism and regeneration. Such a correlation takes away from the mystery of how the Spirit operates and assumes that we know where He is going. If we cannot do this with the wind, we certainly cannot do it with the sovereign Holy Spirit. As John Calvin comments, “By the Spirit of God we are formed again and made new men, though his manner of doing this be concealed from us.”
Speaking of baptism, we must also note that some believe Jesus is speaking of Christian baptism in John 3:5 when He says being born of water and the Spirit is necessary for salvation. If that were true, then today’s passage could be marshaled in support of baptismal regeneration. However, while Christian baptism is certainly a picture of the cleansing and renewal that occur in regeneration, today’s passage makes it impossible that the water of John 3:5 refers to the water of baptism. In John 3:9–10, we read that Jesus expected Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel who knew the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—to know it is necessary to be reborn by water and the Spirit. But as Christian baptism had not yet been instituted when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, how could Jesus have expected him to know about it? The answer is that Jesus could not have expected it and did not expect it. He was referring to something else.
Ezekiel 36:22–38 is the likeliest background for Jesus’ teaching on the need to be born of water and the Spirit. In this text, Ezekiel refers to the cleansing that Israel would receive after going through the Babylonian exile. The people would be purified and receive new hearts that would obey the Lord. In fact, the exile from the Promised Land proved that such a renewal would be necessary. In like manner, our exile from paradise in Adam proves our need for purification and renewal. Water is an image that represents this cleansing.
Baptism gives us a visible picture of cleansing and thus a visible picture of purification. However, baptism itself does not effect regeneration. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, who changes the hearts of those whom He has chosen, and He does this when He chooses to do so. Let us pray for the Spirit to do this work in our unsaved friends and family members, knowing that in His sovereignty He often responds to our prayers that He regenerate others.
Passages for Further Study