The New Birth – Is “Water” Baptism?

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Having written on the subject of the new birth before I was surprised, although I doubt I should have been, to have gotten some comments back to the effect that the water mentioned in John 3:5 where Jesus says, "most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (NKJV) had reference not to baptism but to the water of childbirth. 

Probably shows what a sheltered live I have led to be surprised that people could come up with such a wild explanation.  I was aware that others explain it away in other ways as not being baptism but this childbirth explanation came as a little bit of a surprise.

In any case I thought it good to write yet another article on the subject dealing this time not so much on biblical arguments, for that I have already done in other articles, but upon the historical record in order to show that today's interpretations of water in John 3:5 as being something other than baptism are modern day explanations.  While it may seem about everyone supports those views today it was not that way in the past, in fact, just the opposite.

In the book entitled, "The Gospel Plan of Salvation," first published in 1874, by T. W. Brents, I quote as follows:  "The religious world, with one voice, from the days of Christ until quite recently, has ascribed this language to water baptism." (Page 490)  He goes on to quote a Dr. Wall as follows:  "There is not any one Christian writer of any antiquity in any language, but what understands it of baptism." (Page 490, a quote from "Wall's History of Infant Baptism, Vol. l", page 147)

Burton Coffman in his "Commentary on John," page 81, says, "it is only quite recently in Christian times that interpretations of this verse have been devised to exclude its obvious reference to Christian baptism."  He goes on to quote John Boys, the Dean of Canterbury, a famous preacher and scholar of the Church of England in the seventeenth century who said of his time (1600's) that some few (he says "few" - not "many") were saying that the water of the passage we are speaking of, John 3:5, "are not to be construed of external baptism."

Boys is further quoted as saying, "Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril, Beda, Theophylact, Euthymius, in the commentaries on this place (3:5), along with Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Ambrose, Hierome, Basil, Gregory, Nyssen, and many more, yea most of the Fathers-Hooker, a man of incomparable reading, openeth his mouth wider, avowing peremptorily that all the ancients...have construed this text, as our church doth, of outward baptism." (as quoted in Burton Coffman, "Commentary on John," page 81).

One last quote from Coffman's commentary is from the famous church historian Phillip Schaff, of the nineteenth century, Professor of Church History, Union Theological Seminary, who said, "It seems impossible to disconnect water in John 3:5, from baptism.  Calvin's interpretation arose from doctrinal opposition to the R. Catholic over-valuation of the sacrament, which must be guarded against in another way." (quoted in Burton Coffman, "Commentary on John," page 82)

Online there is an article entitled, "Born Again:  Baptism in the Early Fathers," from whence I quote this:  "Every Christian, all the Church Fathers, bishops, and saints who lived after the apostles (and some while the apostles were still alive) interpreted our Lord's words in John chapter 3 that to be ‘born again' and ‘born of water and the Spirit' refers to the Sacrament of Baptism.

There are no exceptions. And Protestant scholars frankly admit this fact (note the relevent sections on Baptism in Reformed/Presbyterian scholar Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, Anglican scholar J.N.D. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines, and Lutheran scholar Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition)."  No author is listed for this article but the home page suggests it is by Phil Porvaznik. 

In any case there are extensive quotations from what the author says is all the church fathers through the fifth century to back up his statement of what the thinking was in the early years of the church.  I do not list the article link here lest I run afoul of the article directories rules.

Because an interpretation is old does not make it right but conversely because an interpretation is new does not make it right either.  Christianity is now about 2,000 years old.  For about 1500 years of that most who considered themselves to be Christians understood the passage in John 3:5 pertaining to being born of water as being a clear reference to baptism.  The modern day interpretations being given to that passage should not be considered infallible or as being the traditional understanding.

I will go beyond that and say that what has come to be the generally accepted understandings of the passage today are in error.  They have come to be the new traditional for they now go back a few generations but when looked at from a historical perspective the traditional today is only recent history. 

I understand I have not discussed John 3:5 with regards to making scriptural arguments.  I said in the beginning that the purpose of this article was to throw some light on the historical record and not do what I have already done before in several different articles where I have discussed the passage in depth from a scriptural perspective.  Those articles will not be hard to find should the reader so desire to read them.

Denny Smith's articles are all listed on his web site - <a href="http://www.dennysmith.net/">dennysmith.net</a> - along with many audio sermons by Waymon Swain.  There are also links that will take you to hundreds of other articles and audio sermons found on other recommended sites.

Visit Denny Smith's web site to read more of his articles and also listen to over 110 audio sermons on many different subjects from "Where Are the Dead?" to "The Weaver's Shuttle," to "What Must I Do To Be Saved?"  The audio sermons are by a good friend.  Why not visit his site now www.dennysmith.net?  You are sure to find a sermon topic or article of interest.

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