What Does the Water and the Spirit Mean in John 3:5? It Might Surprise You (Norm Fields)

Key West, Florida, Hurricane, Dennis

“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5, ESV)


It has been an exciting ride trying to understand and share the gospel with baptismal regenerationist Norm Fields on Apologetics Live.[1] In the last four weeks, it has been like pulling teeth to show Norm Fields he has preconceived ideas he is inserting into Scripture from the Church of Christ traditions. Andrew Rappaport was finally able to get some answers from him on where he believed baptismal regeneration was found in the New Testament (as can be seen in the last thirty minutes of the show). The first reference was John 3: 3 – 5. This will be the beginning of our study on verses baptismal regenerationists use to defend their view that baptism saves people.

Hermeneutical/Interpretive Process

In order to understand what a passage is saying, one must put the verse through the hermeneutical, interpretive, grid. The interpreter needs to first find out what the passage says. He or she needs to keep in mind the genre of the passage while doing this. Then he or she needs to look at the immediate context before looking at the wider surrounding context. After one looks at the surrounding context, one needs to look at the context of the book and look at major themes the author presents in the book. Then one can look at other works the author has done before correlating the passage with other passages on the subject. One should also see if the text is referencing or quoting previous revelation and examine the context of that revelation before coming up with and interpretation. Historical context of the book should also be examined before making an interpretation. The goal is to get the author’s intended meaning.

The reason for mentioning this is that many baptismal regenerationists in the Church of Christ tradition, like Norm Fields, like to proof text passages to prove their point. They will take passages like this and immediately correlate them with passages like Acts 2:38 and 1 Peter 3:21 to prove their point without looking at the context of those passages.[2]

What The Passage Says

The first step is to examine the passage and see what it says. As can be seen above, it says it is true that one must be born “of water and the Spirit” or one cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3: 5, generalized). It is generally accepted that entering the kingdom of God refers to being saved. The disputed part is what “water and the Spirit” mean. The Greek word for “water” is “ὕδατος.” It literally means “water.” While it is sometimes associated with “baptism,” it does not ever mean “baptism”, βαπτιζω. When it refers to baptism, the word baptism is always mentioned in the context. The word “Spirit” is generally understood to be the Holy Spirit, but it will be determined by the context to see if this is so.

Immediate Context

The immediate context is the surrounding verses of the passage. Norm Fields gives them in his answer to Andrew Rappaport, 3-5. It says,

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again 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 (ESV).

The context reveals Jesus is in a conversation with a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is confused about a statement Jesus just said about not being able to enter God’s kingdom unless a person is born again (v. 3 – 4). The actual statement in the Greek is “born from above,” “γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν.” This implies a second birth different from a physical birth, so “born again” would be a correct application from Nicodemus. Yet, he is unsure how this could be since he is “old” and established in his ways. The surrounding context, or pericope, will reveal why this is the case. Yet, from this information alone, it is obvious that the water Jesus is referring to is not water baptism, but something to do with a spiritual birth from above that only God can do.

A common interpretation, the one that Andrew takes, is that water refers to a physical birth, water in the womb, and spiritual birth, regeneration from the Holy Spirit. This makes the most sense in the immediate context of the passage. The interpretation from the immediate context is almost always preferred unless there is compelling evidence in the surrounding context to prove otherwise. The only thing which hurts this view is that some commentators say water was not associated with birth among first century Jews.[3] Yet, it is impossible to know this because no one is alive today from the first century, except Jesus who ascended into heaven, and we don’t have any documents which prove otherwise.

The following verse really makes the case for the physical versus Spiritual birth view. It says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). It seems from this case that Jesus is pointing out metaphorically that either people need to be born physically first and spiritually second, or people living physically can only produce physical nature and only the Holy Spirit can produce a spiritual birth. Either makes sense in the context. Yet, the two views do not have to be mutually exclusive, since both are true. Jesus is explaining one cannot save themselves, only God can save people and make them born again.

Surrounding Context and Other Helpful Information

The pericope of the passage is the entire scene when Jesus and Nicodemus are conversing. Let it be noted that baptism is mentioned nowhere in the passage. Nicodemus gets Jesus wrong when he calls Jesus a teacher (v. 2). Jesus has to correct him on his understanding which means he has to be born from above (v.3). After Jesus corrects Nicodemus on his understanding of him and salvation, and the fact no one knows how being born again works by illustrating wind (vv. 4 – 8). John MacArthur puts it best,

This is another analogy—listen to me—that takes spiritual birth completely out of the hands of the sinner. What do you do to control the wind? Nothing. It comes from above; you can’t summon the wind; you can’t send it away. You can’t write a book on how to increase the wind in your community. You can’t do that. How to increase the wind in your yard. You can’t do that. You can’t do that. It is completely and totally the sovereign work of God. The wind is invisible, it is uncontrollable, it is irresistible, it is unpredictable, it cannot be summoned, it doesn’t show up because you want it, it doesn’t go away because you’d like to get rid of it. This is the second analogy that our Lord uses with this smart, sharp, clear thinking, logical rabbi—to tell him that this is a work in which he doesn’t participate.[4]

 After further misunderstanding, he uses and Old Testament illustration of the serpent being lifted on the pole to save the Israelites (John 3: 9 – 14; Numbers 21: 4 – 9). The Israelites didn’t do anything to be saved they just looked and believed in God’s promise. Jesus says this was God’s mission of love to save those who believe in Jesus; however, those who do not believe will perish (John 3: 16 – 18). Then Jesus judges that the world loves their sin and darkness rather than truth and life, but those who love the truth and do it will live in the light (vv. 19 – 21). Note also that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (v. 1). Jesus was inviting him to come out of spiritual darkness and believe in the truth, something only God can accomplish.

Others like to also note that Nicodemus was a religious leader and would have recognized Jesus’s reference to water and Spirit as an allusion to the Old Testament. John MacArthur explains,

Go back to Ezekiel 36, Ezekiel 36. Here is a principle bound up in one of the most marvelous passages in the entire Old Testament which describes God’s saving work in application to Israel, of course. But it’s the same saving work in application to Gentiles as well throughout history, as well as Jews who come to faith in Christ. Here’s how salvation works. Ezekiel 36:25, notice the “I wills.” Why? Because this is a work of God. This is that monergestic work of God from heaven, and you will notice five times, “I will.” God speaking: “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.” There, dear friends, is the water and the Spirit. The water and the Spirit is simply a reference to the creation, the new creation, the regenerating work of God that He does by His own will in the heart of a sinner, and here He’s promising one day to do it not only in individual Jews and Gentiles, but one day for the whole of the nation Israel. I will put a new heart in you, a new Spirit in you, remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I’ll put My Spirit within you. I will cause you to walk in My statutes. I will, I will, I will, I will, I will, and then “you will be careful to observe My ordinances and you will,” verse 28, “be My people and I will be your God.” That’s the water and the Spirit.[5]

Whatever the case, it is clear that Spiritual by grace through faith is the theme in this passage. Whether John MacArthur is right, or Andrew Rappaport is right, doesn’t change the conclusion significantly. The water does not refer to baptism, but either physical birth, as the immediate context suggests, or as an illustration of the Holy Spirit by referencing Ezekiel 36:25.


The water in John 3:5 does not refer to baptism. Baptism is mentioned nowhere in the passage. Church of Christ ministers and other baptismal regenerationists are wrong. The immediate context, nor the surrounding context supports this idea. This is obviously grasping at straws. The passage makes clear that salvation is done by the Holy Spirit, God’s grace, and saving faith. It is not through good works. We are praying that God will open preacher Norm Field’s eyes to the gospel.

I wrote a booklet called What Does It Mean To Me: A Pocketbook Guide to Biblical Interpretation. It is available though Striving for Eternity with the purchase of any book including my first book When My Ox Gores My Neighbor: Using Hermeneutics to Travel from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion. These books will teach how to interpret the Bible in an easy-to-understand way anyone can read. The booklet actually covers John 3: 16 and provides the necessary tools and principles to interpret the Bible for oneself. Also check out Andrew Rappaport’s class on hermeneutics available at https://strivingforeternity.org/academy/.

If you want to dive deeper in your understanding in biblical interpretation, check out the resources section at strivingforeternity.org/store. There are tons of biblical resources to help you grow in your faith. Lord bless you.

[1] Andrew Rappaport, Justin Pierce and Josiah Nichols, “Does Baptism Save?”, Apologetics Live, February 17, 2022, Accessed February 21, 2022, https://strivingforeternity.org/apologeticslive/

[2] These passages have been dealt with in my other articles on Striving for Eternity at https://strivingforeternity.org/what-to-do-with-acts-238-or-eis-eis-baptism/ and https://strivingforeternity.org/does-baptism-save-us-not-the-water-norm-fields/

[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 191.

[4] John MacArthur, “God’s Role in Regeneration”, January 27, 2013, Accessed February 22, 2022, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/43-13/gods-role-in-regeneration

[5] Ibid.

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