The interpretation of John 3:5 is controversial. Even those who take a strong stand on its meaning admit that various other views are or have been current. For instance, J.I.Packer, in a helpful sermon on the Trinity (p.5), claims that alternative views are much fought over but goes on to declare categorically that explanations that posit a contrast between the water of John’s baptism, Christian baptism or the waters of physical birth are on the wrong track. He goes on to assert that ‘water’ and ‘the Spirit’ are two aspects of the one reality, that is, the fallen and unresponsive human heart. In order to justify this assertion he appeals to Ezekiel 36:25-27 which promises the renewal of Israelite hearts.
Don Carson, in a far more detailed analysis of this verse befitting a major commentary, also opts for essentially the same view and like Packer appeals to Ezekiel 36:25-27 which he regards as being of basic importance. His point is that in this passage water and spirit come together so forcefully as to signify first cleansing from impurity and secondly transformation of heart enabling people to follow God wholly (p.195).
John 3 and Original Sin
However, Carson’s reference to impurity like that of Packer to the fallen human heart raises questions. While throughout chapter 36 Ezekiel is certainly concerned with sin, where is the evidence in the discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus that it is even vaguely on the horizon? Traditionally, of course, following Augustine and his belief that Adam lost his original righteousness when he sinned, it has been assumed that the new birth occurs to counteract sin, original sin in particular. But as I have argued extensively in various articles (1* See my Some Arguments Against Original Sin, Does Romans Teach Original Sin?, Thoughts On ‘Adam, The Fall And Original Sin’, The Redundancy Of Original Sin.), original sin is contrary to what the Bible teaches and this can be demonstrated in part by a correct exegesis of John 3:1-8 to go no further.
Flesh and Spirit
After all, the focus in this passage is on flesh and spirit, and sin is gratuitously read into it not out of it. This point is underlined especially by verse 6 which differentiates between physical and spiritual birth and more particularly by verse 7 where Jesus says it is necessary (Gk dei), not imperative, for all who are flesh to be born again. If the imperative had been used as it is, for example, in Mark 1:15 (cf. Luke 13:3) with regard to repentance, the picture would change. The truth is, however, that man as flesh and blood is excluded by birth nature from entering the spiritual kingdom of God. This being so, he needs, first, to be born from above, that is, receive God’s own nature (cf. Carson referring to John 4:24) as Jesus strongly insists and John implies in 1:13, and, second, to undergo corporeal transformation as Paul avers in 1 Corinthians 15:50. In other words, these things are necessary irrespective of sin. (2* See my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.)
This point is underlined by John 3:3 where Jesus says that unless ‘one’ or ‘anyone’ (Gk tis) is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Commenting on this Berkhof, categorically and surely correctly, says that this statement leaves no room for exceptions (p.472). But if this is so, then Jesus himself as the Word incarnate, that is, flesh, must be included. To appreciate the truth of this we have only to look at passages like Matthew 3:13-17 which, if we are prepared to let the text speak for itself without allowing traditional ideas regarding original sin to intrude, we can safely assume that incarnate Jesus himself, who has kept to perfection the law which promises life (Lev. 18:5) and thereby pleased his Father, is as a man of flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14,17) given eternal life.
Commenting on John 3:7 Carson (p.197) agrees that the challenge of the ‘you must be born again’ here is of universal application. Unfortunately, however, noting that the ‘you’ is plural, he immediately contradicts his own assertion and argues that this sets Jesus himself not merely over against Nicodemus but the entire human race. In a way he is right, but what he apparently fails to realise is that, as I have suggested above, Jesus is already uniquely born again and will remain so until Pentecost when he sends the Spirit to regenerate those who believe in him. If this is not so, then Jesus cannot possibly be classified as the second Adam, the leader (Heb. 6:20) of the new regenerate or third race (cf. 1 Cor. 10:32). Again, if it were not true, Paul could hardly have written as he did in 1 Corinthians 15:45-55. For on the assumption that Jesus was a genuine man, the unavoidable inference we must draw is that Jesus was by necessity born from above at his baptism and transformed at his ascension. In no other way could he have become the Saviour of man.
So then, what conclusions do we draw from this? Surely John 3:5-6 are to be understood as yet another instance of synonymous parallelism which is quite common in the Bible. At this point, Gordon Fee’s comment on 1 Corinthians 15:50 is a propos. He says there that the second line makes the same point as the first and adds that together the two terms declare most decisively that the body as it is at present cannot inherit the heavenly existence (p.798). My contention is then that Jesus is saying essentially the same thing in John 3:5-6. To attain to our heavenly goal it is indispensably necessary that we are born again and that, since our mortal and corruptible flesh (2 Cor. 4:11) cannot possibly be our eternal dwelling (2 Cor. 5:1), we are corporeally transformed. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that we learn first from Jesus that we must be born from above (John 3:7) and from Paul that our perishable and mortal body must put on both imperishability and immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). (See note.) Needless to say, as if to clinch the issue, Paul teaches us in 2 Timothy 1:10 that Jesus brought both to light.
I conclude then that in referring to water and spirit in John 3:5 Jesus is pinpointing the two births made explicit in John 3:6 that are experienced irrespective of sin by all believers who are finally saved.
See further my Was Jesus Born Again?
There has been an unfortunate historical failure to differentiate between immortality and corruption with the result that in some translations (e.g. NIV, NRSV) 2 Timothy 1:10 refers to “life and immortality”, which is tautologous, instead of to life and “imperishability” or “incorruption”. See also Romans 1:23, 2:7 and 1 Tim. 1:17 as referred to by Vine, pp.131,320. This has serious repercussions when this naturally aging earth (Heb. 1:11, etc.) is assumed to have fallen prey to Adam’s sin and is subject to redemption. On this see, for example, my Romans 8:18-25 In Brief, John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus.
L.Berkhof, Systematic Theology, London 1959.
D.A.Carson, The Gospel According to John, Leicester, 1991.
G.D.Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, 1987.
J.I.Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God, Shorter Writings, Vol. 1, Carlisle, 1998.
Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, Nashville 1985.