Baptism And Identification

Paedobaptists following Augustine of Hippo traditionally believe that the primary reason for embracing infant baptism is original sin. Briefly put, since a baby is born sinful, it must be born again or it cannot be saved. To be born again it must be baptized. Augustine claimed that all unbaptized babies go to hell. Why? Because they inherited Adam’s sin by procreation and ‘carnal concupiscence’, and as sinners ‘in Adam’ they merit (!) the wages of death (Rom. 5:12). By contrast, Jesus who was born of the Virgin Mary avoided the entail of transmitted sin. The basic position is somewhat oddly expressed by a professing Protestant dealing with the Virgin Birth as follows: “You are the child of an earthly father, so you were ‘born in sin’. But Jesus was the child of a heavenly Father, so He broke the genetic cycle of sin before He was born … .Since Jesus had neither inherited sin nor practised sin, He qualifies as ‘…the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29 NAS)” (UCB Bible Study Notes, The Word for Today, 25 Dec. 2011).

Many Protestants are not happy with this scenario and point out that the Bible fails to relate Jesus’ sinlessness to his Virgin birth. With good reason they are less than sure that sin is transmitted sexually like a disease and argue for the imputation of Adam’s sin. (1* See e.g. John Murray’s ‘The Imputation of Adam’s Sin’.) Like Catholics they nonetheless insist that babies are born sinners and appeal, wrongly in my view, to verses like Psalm 51:5 and Romans 5:12. (2* On this see espec. Alec Motyer’s ‘Look To The Rock’, pp.130-135. For a contrary view see my various articles on original sin.)

The Baptism of Jesus

Given these presuppositions, paedobaptists are confronted with a big problem. They recognize correctly that Jesus was not a sinner but that he was baptized and what is more by John whose baptism clearly related to sinners (Mark 1:4). (3* Astonishingly, it has been held by some that Jesus inherited ‘fallen’ human nature, e.g. Irving, Barth, Barrett, etc. See e.g. D.Macleod, Jesus is Lord, p.107ff. This demonstrates how radically the false Augustinian worldview has been embraced by the church. See my The Biblical Worldview, Worldview.) This does not appear to make sense, so they are forced to try and find a reason. The answer they usually give is that by being baptized Jesus identified with sinners. (4* Even baptists make the same assertion. See, for example, Carson, p.108, H.D.McDonald, p.62. The latter pointedly adds that the voice from heaven confirms Jesus’ identification with very God.) But is this a reasonable answer? Passages like Matthew 3:13-17 appear to point in a different direction. They suggest that far from identifying with sinners in John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus is actually bent on separating or differentiating himself from them. Even John repudiates the suggestion that Jesus should identify himself with him. After all, he had earlier referred to Jesus as the one who takes away the sin of the world and would baptize with the Spirit (John 1:29-34). Not unreasonably then he suggests that he should be baptized by Jesus rather than vice versa. Jesus does not deny this. But the question we have to answer is: Why does Jesus overrule his objection and ask him to go ahead and baptize him? The answer that Jesus gives is that it is fitting or right to fulfil all righteousness. (5* Cf. Heb. 2:10. The expression ‘it is fitting’ though superficially anaemic seems to imply necessity like the Greek ‘dei’ in John 3:7 and 1 Cor. 15:53. In fact, in Heb. 7:26f., cf. NIV, there is a virtual antithesis between our need and Jesus’ lack of need. In light of this I believe, contrary to France, p.120, that the need to fulfil all righteousness like the need to be born again as such refers to the general purpose of God and is not confined to Jesus and John. Cf. my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.) What does he mean? The answer surely lies in the recognition that a legal righteousness gained under the law in the flesh, though meeting the condition of eternal life, is inadequate (Heb. 7:11,18f.; 8:7f., cf. 2 Cor. 3:6; John 6:63). It falls short of the perfection for which Jesus is aiming (Mt. 5:48; 19:21; Luke 13:32, cf. Heb. 6:1; 7:11, etc.). If he is to become the righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30) of his disciples, he needs to be sanctified in truth for their sake (John 17:17,19). In other words, Jesus is not asking John to baptize him in relation to repentance and forgiveness (Mark 1:4) but to play an instrumental role in an action about to be performed by God himself.

The Work of God

Given that John’s baptism of repentance did not apply to Jesus who had no sins to repent of, it is vital for us to be aware of and appreciate the significance of this divine action. First, God does something then, second, he says something. He begins by pouring out his Spirit on Jesus (v.16), then goes on to say (explain?), first, that Jesus is his beloved Son. What does he mean? Is he simply saying that he, God, loves him because Jesus is his Son by (the Virgin) birth? Perhaps. Certainly this cannot be dismissed as irrelevant (cf. Hos. 11:1). At the very least he is acknowledging Jesus as his Son. But there seems to be more involved because, second, he goes on to say that he is well pleased with him. Why? In view of the plan of salvation there can only be one reasonable answer. As man, Jesus has kept the law which was the precondition of life (Lev. 18:5, etc.). Prior to his coming all men and women from the time of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:17, cf. Rom. 7:9f.) had signally failed to do this (1 Sam. 8:8; 1 K. 8:46; Eccles. 7:20; Rom. 3:9f., etc.). So though a true man born of woman and through her a son of Adam (Luke 3:38), Jesus was unique. Having perfectly kept the law which was the test of life (Ex. 15:25; 16:4; 20:20, etc.) and inherited the promise, he was not merely God’s Son by natural or physical birth, that is, by creation (cf. Heb. 10:5) but also by spiritual rebirth. In other words, his baptism confirmed his sonship. If Jesus had demonstrated his pedigree (who he was) by his performance (what he did), his Father acknowledged it and blessed him accordingly. In common parlance, we might say that God confirmed him as a chip off the old block. He was the genuine article, a true-born and not a bastard son. The same can hardly be said of us, though even we have been legitimized or naturalized (cf. Heb. 12:8f.)!

The Real Baptizer

If it is again pointed out that it was John the Baptist who baptized Jesus, we have to agree. But as we have seen, even John himself realized that there was something odd about this (v.14). This was no ordinary baptism. So, how do we explain it? The truth is that at Jesus’ behest John was simply playing the role of a human agent performing an external rite using water which signified a divine action (cf. Ezek. 36:26f.), that is, God’s baptism of his obedient Son with the Spirit. In plain language this means regeneration. The latter is something that John admitted he himself was incapable of on the one hand (Mark 1:7f.) and needed Jesus to accomplish for him on the other (Mt. 3:14). The same holds for all who administer baptism throughout subsequent history. In fact, John’s role in the baptism of Jesus is a prime illustration of the fact that man cannot baptize with the Spirit (though compare Acts 8:14-24). So the idea that a priest can achieve baptismal regeneration is undermined precisely by John’s baptism of Jesus. All man can do is perform the outward ceremony; only God can regenerate (cf. John 1:13; 3:5-8). So, whereas John performed the visible external rite for Jesus, God performed the normally invisible spiritual baptism (cf. Col. 2:11-14). We thus infer that as the last of the OT prophets John provided a vital link between old and new covenants in the progressive and varied history of salvation. He was privileged to perform the first Christian baptism marking the end of Jesus’ stint under the law of his minority and his initiation into the new creation of his majority, his career under the leading of the Spirit (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15, cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Almost needless to say, this inevitably involved the enhancement or radicalization of the law in the Sermon on the Mount, in what became for his disciples after Pentecost the new covenant code of conduct (cf. Jer. 31:31-34).

So Jesus, far from identifying with John and sinners in general, was in fact distancing himself from him and initiating a new era or dispensation, the prelude to a new covenant.

Covenant Theology
The truth of this is evident from Matthew 11:11 where Jesus, though freely acknowledging John as the greatest among those born of (fleshly) women (6* This assertion in itself indicates that Jesus, whom even John had earlier recognized as being greater than himself, was separating himself from those merely born of women and implying his own spiritual rebirth.) explicitly denies that he is in the kingdom of heaven. And John himself apparently recognized this (Mt. 3:14). By contrast, Jesus, having met the condition of life by keeping old covenant law (Dt. 30:20; 32:46f., Ezek. 20:11,13,21, etc.), is now no longer captive to the law (cf. Gal. 3:23-29) but is led by the Spirit which has remained on him (John 1:32; 6:27). Bluntly, he is born again in accordance with the promise made to all who keep the law (Lev. 18:5). Now his task is to go beyond the law, fulfil all righteousness (v.15), inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth, live out the Sermon on the Mount, make atonement for his people and attain to the perfection of God (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 1:3). To put the issue yet another way, by being baptized with the Spirit Jesus becomes the first ‘Christian’ (cf. Heb. 2:11-13), the prototypical model or paradigm of all future Christians who are also born of God (John 1:13) and are baptized with the Spirit (John 3:3-8; Rom. 8:9). The basic identity or unity of Jesus’ spiritual or regenerational baptism with that of believers at Pentecost is there for all to see. And it is underlined from a somewhat different perspective by the author of Hebrews who considers all the spiritually reborn including Jesus as constituting one family (2:11-13, cf. Rom. 8:29). Jesus is not simply our Saviour; he is our elder brother and we are joint-heirs with him (Rom. 8:17,32).


Paedobaptists rightly argue that when Jesus was baptized, he was being prepared and empowered for his ministry as the Messiah. But this prompts the question as to what was involved. In John 1:32 in highly significant words John had said that he saw the Spirit descending on Jesus from heaven and remaining on him. This surely indicates that from this point on Jesus is no longer under the law but is spiritually born from above and led by the Spirit. He has received the fullness of God’s empowering presence (cf. Gordon Fee’s fine book under this title) and is now qualified to see to the salvation of others (cf. Acts 10:38). Is not this precisely what is said about believers in Christ who are no longer under law but are born again and led by the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 6:14; 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; Gal. 5:18; 6:15)? It is generally acknowledged that regeneration means being born again or, alternatively, being born from above. When we truly believe and are justified by faith, we receive eternal life as Jesus himself indicated in John 3:16. Following or recapitulating the pattern established by Jesus, in the words of Paul we receive the Spirit as he did (Gal. 3:1-5). As sinners justified by faith we are baptized and so publicly identify with Jesus (cf. Rom. 10:10), our elder brother and pioneer (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11-13). When Jesus was baptized, he did not identify with either John or us since he was not a sinner; rather he identified with (the purpose of) God who was his real baptizer. (7* Carson, p.108, is surely right to say, “By his baptism Jesus affirms his determination to do his assigned work”.) As Paul expresses the issue in Romans 6:3-7 we are baptized (identified or united with him) into his death (as the Israelites were baptized into Moses at the Exodus, 1 Cor. 10:2) so as to be identified or united with him in his resurrection (2 Cor. 4:14). In Galatians 3:26-29, the stress is again on our identification with Christ, not his identification with us. Just as Christ having achieved righteousness under the law received the ‘remaining’ Spirit at his baptism (John 1:32), so we who are declared righteous through faith in him (justification by faith) receive the Spirit at our baptism. In this way we are identified with him, not he with us. This would appear to be virtually proved when we consider that to receive Christ who is a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45, cf. John 5:26) is to receive the Spirit (Gal. 4:3-7) as he did from his Father. And if we lack the Spirit we do not belong to him (Rom. 8:9). (The pattern is somewhat similar to that of the word in Revelation 1:1f. where there are five movements: from God to Jesus to angel to writer to readers. In baptism the Spirit moves from God to Jesus, to apostles to believers to God’s sons or children).


Jesus was the first and only man in the entire history of the race to keep the law to his Father’s satisfaction (Mark 1:11; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.). By doing so, he uniquely met the precondition of (eternal) life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). Therefore he was baptized with the Spirit (=born again) in accordance with God’s promise, not by John the Baptist who merely performed an external rite with water as usual, but by God himself. The baptism of Jesus showed two things: first, God acknowledged and confirmed him as his own Son, and, second, Jesus identified with the purpose of God in the salvation of all those associated with him or regarded as being in him. So when we are baptized as Christians we identify with Jesus and like him are born again. How can we as sinners do this? By repentance and being justified (accounted righteous) by faith. Just as Jesus’ natural sonship, that is, his incarnation was confirmed when he was baptized (cf. Rom. 1:4), so our physical creation is confirmed by adoption when we are baptized. (It is perhaps helpful to remember at this point that whereas John (the apostle) tends to stress our new birth and refer to believers as the children of God, Paul tends to underline our sonship and refer to us as sons.) The whole point is that just as Jesus was born again, so are we; just as Jesus was a Son, the Son, so are we adopted sons in him. He is our elder brother, the author of our life, our pioneer, trail-blazer, leader, perfecter and Saviour (Luke 1:47; 2:11; Acts 3:14f.; 4:12; 5:31; 13:23; Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Heb. 2:9-13; 6:20; 12:2, etc.). We identify with him, not he with us. He was the prototype, we like Adam are types (cf. Rom. 5:14). That is why we are called ‘Christians’.

Jesus Identified With His People

It may be complained that in denying the paedobaptist position I am not taking the identification of Jesus with his people seriously. This is hardly true. First, Jesus clearly identified with humanity in his incarnation; he was the second Adam, not the first. He conformed to or recapitulated an already established pattern and, like all Eve’s children (Gen. 3:20), he was born of woman (Gal. 4:4). By nature then he had to be made like us in every respect (Heb. 2:14a,17a). As Peter says, it was only in his avoidance of sin that he differed from us (1 Pet. 2:22, cf. Heb. 4:15). Secondly, as Paul indicates he was not only born of woman but also under the law (Gal. 4:4). (We should not forget that like his forebears he was under Noah in Egypt, Mt. 2:15) Since God’s promise of eternal life was originally made to Adam as man on condition of keeping the commandment (Gen. 2:17, cf. Rom. 7:9f.), so it was made to Jesus on the same basis. To serve as the second Adam Jesus initially had to be identified with the first Adam and all the rest of his fleshly offspring. In plain language, despite his natural equality with God, he had to be made incarnate (cf. Phil. 2:6-8) and as such live under the law of Moses. If he had not been incarnate, he could not have made atonement for us (Heb. 2:17b, cf. 1 John 2:2; 4:10). It was as one of us that he defeated sin in the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:3). In fact, Paul goes even further and asserts that in atoning for our sin, he was actually made sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Having said this, however, we must recognize that in his baptism where sin, despite John’s initial reaction, is not the issue, he separated himself from us and indeed from John himself as the latter apparently came to realize. While he was on earth Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God and raided the devil’s domain (cf. Mt. 12:28). John, however, even though he was the appointed forerunner or herald of Jesus, doubted and had to be told on one occasion to open his eyes to the evidence (Luke 7:22f., cf. John 3:3). On another occasion Jesus tells us in memorable words that even though John was a burning and shining light (John 5:35) he was not in this heavenly kingdom (Mt. 11:11). How come? Though he was the greatest of the old covenant prophets, the new covenant was not established until after he had finished his course (Acts 13:25). In fact, it could not be so until Jesus had been crucified, raised and the Spirit poured out at Pentecost to apply his atoning work to believers. The plain truth is that if Jesus had not been born again and led by the Spirit, he could not have achieved what he did (Luke 4:18; Acts 10:38, cf. Eph. 2:10). So long as he was under the imperfect law, he could not have perfected anything (Heb. 7:11,18f.). He could fulfil all righteousness only under the Spirit (Mt. 3:15; 19:21) and we only in him.

Righteousness and Exclusion from John’s Baptism

It is interesting to observe that whereas the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the baptism of John, that is, refused to be identified with him because they mistakenly believed in their own righteousness (Luke 7:30, cf. 20:1-8), John himself initially repudiates the suggestion that Jesus should be baptized by and identified with him precisely because he is all too well aware that Jesus is not a sinner in need of repentance but that he really is righteous. It is he, John himself, who needs to be baptized by Jesus. However, he allows himself to be overruled when he realizes that something else is afoot. Before he baptizes others, Jesus himself as man needs to be baptized by God. After all, he confesses freely that apart from his Father he can do nothing (John 5:19; 8:28).

Summary of Identification

1. When Jesus was made flesh at his incarnation, he identified with man (Heb. 2:14a,17a).

2. When Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and at the age of thirteen became a Son of the Commandment, he identified with all Jewish men who were in bondage to the law (cf. Gal. 3:23).

3. When Jesus went to Egypt (Mt. 2:15), he identified with his forebears in heathen bondage (cf. Gal. 4:1f.).

4. When Jesus was made sin in the atonement (2 Cor. 5:21), he identified with all believers. He died for his sheep (John 10).

As Irenaeus indicated long ago, Jesus became what we are so that we might become what he is. Alternatively expressed, Jesus had to be identified with us so that we might be identified with him.

5. At his baptism, however, far from identifying himself with unregenerate sinners*, Jesus separated himself from them as John apparently realized when he said he needed to be baptized by Jesus. At this point Jesus became the leader or pioneer, not a follower, in the new order or dispensation. By our own baptism as Gentiles, we sinners identify both with the repentance of John the Baptist and the reception of the Spirit (eternal life) of Jesus. In our case, conversion (repentance and faith) symbolized by John’s water baptism precedes regeneration symbolized by Jesus’ Spirit baptism as old covenant precedes new covenant. As Paul says, in baptism we clothe ourselves with Christ (Gal. 3:27). Just as the regenerate Son called God his Father, so do we as his regenerate children (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:5-7).

* The notion sometimes touted that Jesus’ baptism indicated a proxy or vicarious repentance is fundamentally unbiblical. First, there is no evidence for it. Secondly, repentance and faith like sin are always personal and cannot be transferred (e.g. Ex. 32:33; Dt. 24:16; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18). If this were not so, all irrespective of their sin would be saved. The Bible does not teach universalism.

6. Just as we identify with Jesus’ in baptism and new life, so we identify with his death in the Lord’s Supper. In vivid metaphorical language, we eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6) and are baptized into his death (Rom. 6:4f.). If his death was ours, ours was his (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24). There was undeniable interchange (2 Cor. 5:21).

7. Just as Jesus identified with us in a physical or natural body of dust (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14,17), so we identify with him in a spiritual body of glory (1 Cor. 15:45-49; Phil. 3:21).

The New Birth a ‘Natural’ and Universal Necessity

In contrast with the sin-obsessed Augustine, in John 3:3-7 Jesus deals exclusively with our fleshly unregenerate nature. Sin is not mentioned, but flesh emphatically is. To intrude sin into this passage is to indulge in an exegetical fallacy. (8* This is not to deny that regeneration is the first step and plays a defining role in the sanctification of sinners as Ephesians 2:1-5 and Titus 3:3-7 demonstrate. Tragically, Augustine never got over his days as a Manichee. The Manichees believed that the flesh along with all matter was evil as such.) What does Jesus mean by flesh? Clearly he means our natural unregenerate condition as human beings born of woman (cf. v.4; Mt. 11:11) and normally by the will of man (cf. John 1:12f.). What Jesus is saying in language that can hardly be mistaken is that all who are flesh or born of woman cannot see and enter the kingdom of God or go to heaven unless they are born again from above. Since he also was flesh and born of woman the same necessarily applied to him. (9* See again my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.) Denial of this is docetism. (10* It might be objected at this point that Jesus makes an exception of himself because he says in verse 7 that “you (plur.) must be born from above,” NRSV. In reply two basic points must be made. First, in verses 3 and 5 Jesus says no one (lit. except anyone) can either see or enter. This clearly includes himself, or, as Berkhof says, “leaves no room for exceptions”, p.472. Secondly, if what has been argued above is true, even if Jesus is by implication making an exception of himself in verse 7, he is doing so for the simple reason that he is already born from above and has been plainly acknowledged and confirmed as the Son of God. It is now incumbent on his hearers to recognize the necessity of their own regeneration as John had done, Mt. 3:14.) If there is earth or this present age, there is also heaven or what for us is the age to come. If there is a natural birth, there is also a second or spiritual or supernatural birth (John 3:6). This is confirmed by Paul who states in 1 Corinthians 15:44 that there are two sorts of body, the first physical or natural adapted to life on earth, the second spiritual adapted to life in heaven. Our problem in this provisional, temporal world is how to escape and get to heaven (cf. Rom. 2:7,10, etc.). If we cannot keep the law (cf. Rom. 3:19f.), Jesus is the only answer (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Gal. 2:16, etc.).

Matthew 3:13-17: Exegesis and Exposition

Assuming that a text without a context is often no more than a pretext, it is important to establish that the context of this particular passage is the rest of the Bible. So the question we must ask is what the rest of the Bible is saying. What, in other words, is the plan of salvation?

The Plan of Salvation

To cut a long story short, man, in contrast with the rest of the animal creation, is not merely dust, and therefore by nature ephemeral, but is also made in the image of God. As such he is promised eternal life if he keeps the commandment (Gen. 2:17). Adam, the first man, fails and sins, likewise all his posterity (1 K. 8:46; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:23, etc.). All to the very last man and woman sin and earn wages in death (Rom. 6:23, etc.). No one under the old covenant kept the law and gained life (cf. Rom. 1-3). It is into this world of universal sin and death that Jesus comes. Though he is like all other men and women in every respect, he alone keeps the law, does not sin (1 Pet. 2:22) and so inherits the promise of eternal life (Lev. 18:5, etc.). However, he did not come into this world simply to demonstrate that he could keep the law; he came to save the world, or more specifically, all who put their trust in him (John 3:16, etc.).

As long as he himself was under the law, his purpose was to ‘save’ or justify himself, and he was in no position to help other people. To do the latter, he had to have eternal life himself. You can’t give to others what you don’t have yourself. So when he came to John for baptism, he certainly did not come to confess his sins. Even John realized that, for he himself had already declared, first, that his baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), second, that there was one who mightier than he coming after him who would baptize not with water but with the Spirit (Mark 1:7f.), and, third, that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Given these facts, Jesus’ request seems wrong-headed as John himself realizes (3:14). On the one hand John recognizes Jesus does not need to repent and on the other that he himself needs to be baptized with the Spirit. What he apparently does not realize, however, is that even Jesus as man needs to be baptized with the Spirit of God before he is in a position to baptize anyone else. But there is more to it than that.

Jesus The Saviour

To qualify as Saviour, Jesus had not only to earn the approbation of his Father under the law (Mt. 3:17), but also under the Spirit (Mt. 17:5). His baptism by John then was but the beginning of his odyssey preparing him for service as the Saviour of others (cf. Mark 10:45; Acts 10:38). He had in his own words to fulfil all righteousness as he was led by the Spirit. Otherwise expressed, he had to attain to the perfection of the God who loved the world (Mt. 5:48; 19:21). But this was impossible under the law (Heb. 7:18f.; 8:7). It was not until Jesus had completed the work that his Father had given him to do (John 17:4; 19:30, cf. Luke 13:32), ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of his Father (cf. Heb. 1:3) that he was able to apply his work of salvation to those who put their faith in him. He did this by pouring out his Spirit on his people (pace the Orthodox) who were justified by faith just as God had poured out his Spirit on himself at his own baptism.

Jesus’ Baptism

Having overcome what in the circumstances were his natural objections, John is now prepared to baptize Jesus. But as the events that follow clearly indicate his baptism has nothing directly to do with sin or sinners. For God first pours out his Spirit on Jesus (=gives him the eternal life originally promised to Adam, Gen. 2:17, and all his posterity, Lev. 18:5; Mt. 19:16, on condition of keeping the commandment), second, designates Jesus as his Son, and third, declares that he is well pleased with him. (This is arguably a misleading way of expressing the issue. It is perhaps better to regard points two and three as one. Having pleased God by keeping the law Jesus was confirmed as God’s Son, that is, by spiritual re-birth or birth from above, cf. Ps. 2:7; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; Rom. 1:4. This is not adoptionism and a denial of the Virgin birth but recognition of the intrinsic difference between physical and spiritual birth which pervades the Scriptures.) Had he not been born again, acknowledged and confirmed as God’s Son, Jesus would have proved a fraud. What in the OT was never more than a promise (Dt. 29:4; 30:6; Jer. 31:31-34) is in the NT realized and epitomized in Jesus. Only in Jesus can we have eternal life (John 3:16; 10:28; 14:6; 1 John 4:9) and so be saved (Acts 4:12).

Points To Ponder

Jesus’ Baptism and Our Salvation

If Jesus had identified himself with sinners at his baptism, he could not have saved them. It would have been like asking a blind man to save another blind man (cf. Mt. 15:14). Rather it was precisely because he was NOT identified with them that as the regenerate Son of God he was enabled to save them, that is, by atonement. We do not believe in autosoterism. Our salvation is all of grace.

Covenant Theology

If Jesus progressed from conception to birth of woman and lived, first, under the covenant with Noah like the heathen (nature, uncircumcision), then, second, under the law of Moses after his bar mitzvah (like the Jews, circumcision), he must logically have completed his human pilgrimage as a regenerate Son under the Spirit (Gal. 6:15). Surely this is the implication of Leviticus 18:5 and is spelt out by Paul in Galatians 4:1-7. If he had not followed this course to perfection (Luke 13:32 ESV, KJV), he could not have become our pioneer into heaven itself.

Traditional Docetism

The tragedy of traditional Christology is its inherent docetism. While the Bible goes out of its way to insist on Jesus’ genuine humanity even in his Virgin Birth (Gal. 4:4; Heb. 2:14a,17a; 4:15; 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7), our forebears tended to stress his deity and thus make him an exception. But exception implies exclusion. If Jesus was not a man, born of woman, under the law, in need of regeneration and transformation, he could not have been our Saviour. In the event, the only difference between him and us was that whereas he kept the law that promised life, we did not (cf. Rom. 9:31; 10:3). By God’s grace, however, we attain to righteousness and hence life by faith (Rom. 9:30).

It was in his incarnation and death that Jesus identified himself with sinners (2 Cor. 5:21), and paid their penalty! In his resurrection, sinners identify and rise with him (1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14).


1. According to Jesus, regeneration is intrinsically necessary, not imperative, to man as man (John 3:1-8). Therefore as a man he himself had to be born again. As incarnate, he could not possibly have been an exception.

2. Under the law Jesus was in no position to die for others. First, if he had attempted to do so he would have been identified as a sinner since under the law death was the wages of sin. Second, only by keeping the law could he gain eternal life for himself (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5). Third, it is only as the regenerate Son who already had eternal life that he was in a position to give his flesh for the life of his friends (John 10:17f.; Col. 1:22, etc.). Only sons have something to give freely (Mt. 17:24-27; Eph. 2:10).

3. The inter-change of 2 Corinthians 5:21 (cf. 1 Peter 3:18) would have been impossible under the law. However, because he already had eternal life, he was able to take his fleshly life (psyche) again and rise from the grave never to die again (Rom. 6:9; Rev. 1:18). In freely spilling his blood, he had paid the penalty and achieved forgiveness of sins for all time (Eph. 1:7; Heb. 9:12,26).



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D.A.Carson, EBC Matthew 1-12, Grand Rapids, 1995.

G.D.Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, Peabody, 1994.

R.T.France, The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, 2007.

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H.D.McDonald, The Atonement of the Death of Christ, Grand Rapids, 1985.

Alec Motyer, Look To The Rock, Leicester, 1996.

John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, Phillipsburg, 1979.


Our forebears including the Reformers assumed that John 3:1-7 required infant baptism (cf. e.g. Hodge, 2, pp.242,247). According to Augustine all babies that were not baptized were damned. If this was true, John the Baptist who clearly was not baptized by Jesus was damned. How do we overcome this conundrum?

The answer lies in the plan of salvation and especially the order of salvation (ordo salutis). First, original sin is not taught in the Bible, so regeneration is not its antidote. Second, conversion precedes regeneration. As we have seen above, righteousness gained by keeping the law is the precondition of life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). Since all OT believers failed to keep the law, they were justified by faith. The reason why John the Baptist was not born again was that for chronological or historical reasons he never received the Spirit poured out by Jesus. While it is true that John was not truly saved in the new covenant sense of that term, that by no means permits us to infer that he was therefore damned. The Bible tells us that repentance and faith take precedence as the prerequisites of salvation. In contrast with regeneration which is wholly a work of God, they establish a degree of human responsibility without ever becoming the cause of salvation. Furthermore, by the grace and purpose of God they are relative thus broadening the scope or range of salvation as Hebrews 11, for example, makes clear. (See further my Cart-Before-The-Horse Theology; The Order of Salvation; The Order of Salvation in Romans.)