(Jn. 3:5) Does this passage refer to water baptism?

CLAIM: Jesus says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). Moreover, later in the same chapter, Jesus spent time baptizing (3:22). The Catholic Catechism points to this passage to support the necessity of baptism.[1] Many Protestant denominations hold the same view. Does this passage imply that we need water baptism in order to have a relationship with God?

RESPONSE: The Bible nowhere teaches that we need water baptism in order to be forgiven (see comments on Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:21). Furthermore, the concept of baptismal regeneration would make no sense to Nicodemus. Yet Jesus expects Nicodemus to understand these things—being a teacher of the Law (v.10). However, where is water baptism taught as a requirement for salvation in the OT? Carson writes, “Those who adopt this position, of course, are forced to admit that John’s words could have had no relevance to the historical Nicodemus.”[2]

In contrast to this view, there are two alternate options:

OPTION #1: This refers to the water of natural birth

When Jesus says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (v.5), he is referring to the amniotic fluid released just prior to physical birth. In the very next verse, Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v.6). Therefore, the context implies natural birth as parallel to spiritual birth. Moreover, in context, Jesus refers to “earthly things” contrasted by “heavenly things” (v.12), which is only further support of the same argument. There is nothing inherently sinful or evil about being born of flesh in John’s writing. In fact, even Jesus was “made flesh” (Jn. 1:14).

Carson disagrees with this view, arguing, “There are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as ‘from water.’”[3] However, this argument from silence can be explained (as Keener has observed)[4] by the fact that female midwives helped with births—not males. Since women typically didn’t write about pregnancy in the ancient world, this may explain why no ancient sources mention this.

OPTION #2: This refers to the water mentioned in Ezekiel’s millennial predictions

Remember, Jesus berated Nicodemus for not knowing these spiritual principles (v.10), which implies that Jesus built his case from the OT scriptures. Some interpreters argue that Jesus is harkening back to the prophet Ezekiel. After all, Ezekiel writes, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, 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” (Ezek. 36:25-26).

This view is not without difficulties. For one, the Holy Spirit hadn’t been given yet (Jn. 7:37-38), so Nicodemus still would have no idea what Jesus was talking about. Secondly, Ezekiel’s prophecy is in the context of the Millennial Kingdom—not the Church Age. However, Jesus could be pointing to a partial fulfillment in the Church Age.


While option #2 has some merits, in our estimation, option #1 is the most plausible view.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1257.

[2] Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 192.

[3] Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 191.

[4] In addition, Keener challenges this statement from Carson, claiming that this term was used—albeit very rare. Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003. 541-545.