Understanding Why Baptism is Necessary for Salvation: Responding to Objections of Catholic Dogma and John 3:5

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John the Baptist baptizing Christ by Francesco Trevisani, 1723. Image via Wikipedia

Here is the second part of an ongoing discussion between myself and a Protestant friend of mine. as previously mentioned, we often met on Saturdays to discuss our various theological differences in charity and over a delicious cheeseburger from any one of our local Five Guys (we call it Theology Over a Bun).

In this post, my friend continues to argue against the long-held understating of Christian baptism and the necessity thereof. The passage that my friend highlights below is surely one of the main verses used by the Church in affirming this element of Christian dogma. Let us examine my friend’s post and argument against the necessity of baptism and why:

Baptismal Regeneration – John 3:5

Catholics interpret “born of water” in John 3:5

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as baptism and therefore conclude baptism is necessary for salvation. Here’s the passage:

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Born of water has been taken as 1) the Spirit or cleansing work of the Spirit, 2) natural birth or 3) baptism. For now let’s assume it means baptism and see how it plays out.

Would first century Jews have instantly recognized ‘born of water’ as meaning baptism? Certainly Nicodemus was aware of baptism. John the Baptist baptized people for repentance. Some evidence suggests Jews baptized proselytes and even called it birth.

“Everyone agreed that a Gentile became a Jew through proselyte baptism. The big discussion in Nicodemus’ day was the degree of cleanliness. Was he immediately clean as “a little child just born” (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b*) and a “child of one day” (Mass. Ger. c. 2*)” (link)

Not only did John baptize, but Christ also baptized via His disciples, just as John the Baptist had predicted He would.

John 1:33

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I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’

John 4:1-2

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Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples)

So if Nicodemus understood ‘born of water’ as baptism, he would have been thinking of John’s baptism of repentance. And the Jewish leadership had personally rejected John and his baptism; though they were unwilling advertise their rejection.

Luke 7:30

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But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.

Matthew 21:24-26

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But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.”

But of course John’s baptism is one of repentance and Christian Baptism looks on Christ’s death burial and resurrection. So when Paul found those who were baptized into John’s baptism, he baptized them again in Christ’s name.

Acts 19:1-5

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And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Christian baptism had not been established at the time Christ and Nicodemus spoke. Did Christ forget this when berating Nicodemus for not knowing what He was talking about? (John 3:9-10

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) So clearly Nicodemus would have been thinking about John’s baptism; the baptism he probably personally rejected. Christian baptism simply didn’t exist yet.

So it’s anachronistic to view John 3:5

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as teaching Christian baptism is necessary for salvation, since Christ established it after the resurrection. (Matthew 28:19

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). And no one teaches John’s baptism is or was necessary for salvation, but of course repentance itself is necessary for salvation. So if we take ‘born of water’ as baptism, the most likely conclusion would be that baptism is used for what it represented – repentance.

via Arminian Chronicles: Baptismal Regeneration – John 3:5.


Many faithful Catholics will already see the erroneous understanding of John 3:5 and the Church’s teaching on the necessity of baptism. First, let us turn to Scripture and read John 3:5 in its immediate context:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can this be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John (RSV) 3:1-15)

When reading John 3:5 in the more immediate context of the passage it becomes clear that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to edify himself as he could be considered a “closet” Christian. Jesus proceeds to move the conversation towards the requirements of salvation by building on Nicodemus’ statement concerning Christ’s relationship to what the Jews understanding of Whom God is. In that response Christ lays out the base requirement for entry into heaven. Being “born anew” cannot be disputed as it comes straight off the lips of Our Blessed Lord.

Nicodemus’ reaction to that statement is even more telling; he is at a loss of understanding as to how a man can be reborn. This is a foreign, pagan concept to Jews (Christian’s and Muslims alike) because from the beginning God revealed that there is no such thing as reincarnation. But despite being an educated, respected Pharisee, Nicodemus still cannot fathom the spiritual implication of Jesus’ message – he remains caught up in the “things of the flesh” (Romans 8:5).

Thus, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus on the issue of physical rebirth clarifies the matter and form of this salvific rebirth we call baptism. Thus it is not that Catholics believe that being “born (or reborn) of water” is baptism but rather it is the grace bestowed upon us by God through the matter of water in which the spirit (soul) is reborn that makes up Christian baptism. It is by the grace of God that baptism performed in the proper manner and with the proper intent imbues the recipient with salvific grace that remains with the person until they choose to reject said grace by the commission/omission of personal sin. When a person is validly baptised in Christ, they are reborn a new creature putting on “the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians (RSV) 3:10).

The disappointment that Christ expressing in Nicodemus for not understanding this as a “teacher of Israel” is rooted in the fact that this concept is not new. It was prefigured in the Old Testament and even natural law:

  • “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Genesis (RSV) 1:2)
  • “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…” (1 Corinthians (RSV) 10:1-2)
  • “…when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…” (1 Peter (RSV) 3:20-21)
  • If water springing up from the earth symbolizes life, the water of the sea is a symbol of death and so can represent the mystery of the cross. By this symbolism Baptism signifies communion with Christ’s death.” (CCC 1220)

Again, what is evidenced by my Protestant friend is a misunderstanding of Catholic teaching. The focus of his passage and the his interpretation thereof is on the wrong subject. Water is the matter used to baptize a person; doing so “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew (RSV) 28:19) is form; and the rebirth/recreation of the person’s soul – now in Christ – is the result.

Concerning the when of Christian baptism, again, my friend is showing a misunderstanding. While it is obvious to note that the “form” used for baptism is not explicitly provided in Scripture other than Matthew 28:19, we must take note that in order to be baptized into “His death” (Romans 6:3), we must seek when that death occurred. It is Jesus’ death on the Cross that is the saving sacrificial act for mankind. It is His resurrection that restores our place in Heaven. On this subject I turn to St. Augustine who, in reference to John 19:34,[1] wrote:

“Then came the soldiers, and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who was, crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that He was dead already, they brake not His legs: but one of the soldiers with a spear laid open His side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.” A suggestive word was made use of by the evangelist, in not saying pierced, or wounded His side, or anything else, but “opened;” that thereby, in a sense, the gate of life might be thrown open, from whence have flowed forth the sacraments of the Church, without which there is no entrance to the life which is the true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins; that water it is that makes up the health-giving cup, and supplies at once the layer of baptism and water for drinking. This was announced beforehand, when Noah was commanded to make a door in the side of the ark (Genesis 6:16), whereby the animals might enter which were not destined to perish in the flood, and by which the Church was prefigured. Because of this, the first woman was formed from the side of the man when asleep (Genesis 2:22), and was called Life, and the mother of all living (Genesis 3:20). Truly it pointed to a great good, prior to the great evil of the transgression (in the guise of one thus lying asleep). This second Adam bowed His head and fell asleep on the cross, that a spouse might be formed for Him from that which flowed from the sleeper’s side. O death, whereby the dead are raised anew to life! What can be purer than such blood? What more health-giving than such a wound? (Augustin on John 120:2)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following:

In his Passover Christ opened to all men the fountain of Baptism. He had already spoken of his Passion, which he was about to suffer in Jerusalem, as a “Baptism” with which he had to be baptized (Mark 10:38, Luke 12:50). The blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus are types of Baptism and the Eucharist, the sacraments of new life (John 19:34, 1 John 5:6-8). From then on, it is possible “to be born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) in order to enter the Kingdom of God. See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved.[2] (1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1225)

This is the proper understanding of baptism and why it is necessary and salvific.

If interested, please take the time to listen to Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s lesson on Baptism as linked from my Box.net share (—–> look at the right-hand column).


[1] “…sed unus militum lancea latus eius aperuit, et continuo exivit sanguis et aqua.” (John (NV) 19:34)

[2] St. Ambrose, De sacr. 2, 2, 6: PL 16, 444; Jn 3,5

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