Regeneration and Bible Salvation
by Dennis Costella
BAPTISMAL REGENERATION teaches that ritual, water baptism secures the forgiveness of sins and marks the moment at which the one being baptized is "born again," or incorporated into the "Body of Christ." It is generally understood to be the person's "spiritual birthday," the rite by which he becomes a "Christian." Is this belief consistent with what the Bible says is true regarding God's salvation?
There is only one Gospel that must be proclaimed to a lost and dying world! (Galatians 1:6-12) Yet, a realistic look at the "Christian" scene today attests to the fact that there are many "gospels" preached. Each gives its own particular formula for what people must do to be saved. While each of these "gospels" claim that faith in Jesus Christ is important, some add baptism or other "commandments" as prerequisites to "the new birth."
There is also the widespread practice of "easy believeism" whereby simple mental assent to the "Lordship of Christ" is deemed sufficient to obtain God's salvation (without even specifying what one must believe about Jesus Christ in order to claim Him as "Lord!"). The convicting and enlightening ministry of the Holy Spirit through the clear, Biblical presentation of what God says one must believe in order to be saved is totally disregarded by this "numbers-oriented" form of evangelism.
A careful consideration of the Gospel as presented in the Bible is of tremendous importance. The salvation of lost souls is at stake! If the message we preach varies in the slightest from the revealed truth of God's Word, then it is of Satan -- not of God. There is a sad tendency today among many professing Bible believers to accommodate those who embrace a false gospel, supposedly for the sake of "unity" and "the spirit of love." It is necessary, however, to stand firm on the Gospel of the Bible which teaches that there is only one way of salvation -- and that by grace, through faith, alone!
Proponents of Baptismal Regeneration
The Roman Catholic Church was one of the earliest and most influential perpetrators of this error. Roman Catholic teaching most certainly has not changed in recent years either, nor has the "Charismatic Catholic" departed one iota from the belief that salvation is secured by ritual baptism into the Roman Catholic Church: Vatican Council II says, "The saving act of Jesus was applied to Mary in the moment of her conception; to us in our baptism ..." (Lumen Gentium 1, 53); "... I have washed you clean and given you new life, my life in baptism [these were supposedly the words of Christ Himself]" (Prophecy from the 1988 Roman Catholic Charismatic Conference at Notre Dame). Rome teaches baptismal regeneration.
The Orthodox Churches also teach baptismal regeneration: "Baptism is a new birth. It is being born to the life made new by our Lord Jesus Christ. It means to be alive in Christ... Through Holy Baptism all become Christ's. We become Christians and have the opportunity to inherit God's Kingdom... Why in the world would any parents who claim to be Christians want to put off making their offspring Christians as soon as possible? Don't they want their infants to share in the Kingdom of God? The baptized one becomes a member of Christ's body -- His Church" (Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church, ONE CHURCH, 1981).
Mormonism says you must be baptized in order to be saved: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, they who believe not on your words, and are not baptized in water in my name, for the remission of their sins, that they may receive the Holy Ghost, shall be damned, and shall not come into my Father's kingdom where my Father and I am" (Mormon Doctrine and Covenants, nos. 84:74).
Seventh Day Adventism teaches baptism is the vehicle in procuring the forgiveness of sins: "Is it necessary for a person to be baptized to be saved? Answer: Yes, indeed! ... A Christian is a newborn 'babe' in Christ. This is why the experience or conversion is called 'the new birth.' No past exists in God's sight. It was buried in the watery grave of baptism...." ("Buried and Forgotten by God!"; a Seventh-day Adventist publication).
The Church of Christ, Episcopalians, an many Lutherans hold the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration in one form or another. The Jehovah's Witnesses and many others could be added to this number, many within Protestantism included.
These groups invariably equate membership in their particular church with salvation itself. With notable consistency, religious bodies which profess to be "the one true church" incorporate ritual baptism as an essential step in their "What must I do to be saved" formula. It is claimed that by means of this ceremony one is introduced into the membership of the "church which alone can save."
Every believer who has shared the Gospel of God's saving grace with a Catholic knows the common reaction: "Of course I believe in Christ as my Savior!" However, after further questioning, it becomes obvious that "belief" in Christ is not their sole confidence, for they believe that their continuance in faithfulness to "the church" and the sacraments of the church are also essential if there is to be any hope of obtaining everlasting life. That kind of "believing in Christ" is not the unconditional, absolute faith that produces Bible salvation.
Efforts on the part of mainline Protestants and even "evangelicals" who have historically subscribed to "salvation by faith alone" to seek common ground with groups such as those listed above have resulted in a haziness with respect to the definition of the Gospel message itself. They will seemingly go to any length, even disregarding the essentials of the Gospel message itself in order to avoid offence and make the baptismal regenerationist feel comfortable in Protestant/evangelical circles.
For example, notice the following representative statements from a few prominent religious leaders of our day who supposedly represent churches where "salvation by faith alone" is the standard. Note how they lend credence to religious groups such as those just mentioned which espouse the false gospel of baptismal regeneration:
"In two short decades, we have moved from the living room dialogue in which Protestants and Catholics were just discovering one another to be Christian, to widespread recognition of one another's baptism" (Dr. Arie Brouwer, former General Secretary, National Council of Churches, spoken at the 1988 Arlington, Texas "Gathering of Christians").
TIME magazine for 10/27/61 printed the following quote by Dr. Billy Graham: "I still have some personal problems in the matter of infant baptism, but all of my children with the exception of the youngest were baptized as infants. I do believe that something happens at the baptism of an infant, particularly if the parents are Christians . . . I believe that a miracle can happen in these children so that they are regenerated, that is, made Christian through infant baptism."
Again, at Amsterdam '86, Graham revealed the same strange thinking when asked by this writer how churches from such a broad spectrum of belief -- those holding to a "works salvation" included -- could be brought together for joint evangelistic outreach. Here is Graham's answer: "Evangelism is about the only word we can unite on ... Our methods would be different and there would be debates over even the message sometimes, but there is no debate over the fact that we need to evangelize ...I think there is an ecumenicity here that cannot [be gotten] under any other umbrella."
Bill Bright, president of Campus Crusade for Christ, gave a similar answer when we questioned him about Roman Catholic and Orthodox involvement at the Amsterdam '86 conference: "The Holy Spirit of God is doing something unique in most major denominations -- Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic ... In all denominations I think there is a return to New Testament faith."
The basic difference between the gospel preached by churches which advocate baptismal regeneration and those which do not is being rubbed out by today's evangelical leaders. This is a very serious matter.
What is Essential for Salvation?
What is essential for salvation? Faith alone or faith plus water baptism, church membership, "good works" or whatever? This is a tremendously important consideration, for the "faith" of the former cannot possibly be the same "faith" as the latter. The sinner in need of salvation cannot be saved by a faith which stands alone as the sole requisite to the new birth, and also be saved by a faith to which another step or steps must be added in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins and the gift of everlasting life. To err at this point is to be eternally lost regardless of how sincere a person might be.
A principle regarding what God has done, and what man must believe, is found in the sixth chapter of John. The question asked of the Lord Jesus Christ is one which many have asked through the centuries: "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?" (John 6:28). Man naturally seeks to do just that -- do something! The natural assumption is that good works, religious ceremony, church membership or holy resolve will pave the way for acceptance with God.
But notice the response of the Lord to the question as to what is necessary to stand approved before Almighty God: "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. " (John 6:29). The answer is simple, yet full of deep and far-reaching truth. It reveals the glorious fact that if a sinner is to be translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, then the operation will be accomplished solely as a work of God's grace, apart from any meritorious effort on the part of the lost. God has done the work, the sinner is to receive by faith ("believe on him whom he hath sent) what has been provided freely in Christ!
But those who add additional steps to salvation claim that it is too easy to "just believe." They say, "Don't you know 'the devils also believe, and tremble'?" (James 2:19). That is exactly the point! There are two kinds of "believing." One is merely intellectual, mental assent; the other is heartfelt trust placed in Christ as the only Lord and Savior. Certainly the devils do not believe in the essential way a sinner must trust the Lord Jesus Christ as his only hope and confidence. The former is merely recognition; the latter is absolute resignation. This is precisely why a careful, Biblical distinction must be made between the believing which saves and the believing which requires the addition of works and rituals to reach the desired end -- salvation!
The Galatian believers were justified by faith, not works (Galatians 2:16, 3:22). It was the "false brethren" (Gal. 2:4), the Judaizers, who introduced the additional requirements of keeping certain tenets of the law in order to be saved. These false teachers troubling the Galatians were errant in two areas. First, they were trying to bring the believers in the Church Age back under bondage to the Law of Moses and, second, they were adding another step to "faith alone" in order to partake of God's salvation.
Water baptism is a "good work," Biblically defined. A "good work" seen in Scripture is simply the saint's act of obedience to the revealed will of God -- it is doing something God has commanded those who are already His children. The additional requirements imposed by false teachers upon the sinner who is invited by God to receive Christ Jesus by faith is "another gospel " -- a salvation by works -- and God's curse is unequivocally pronounced upon it (Galatians 1:6-10)! The same is true for any supposed gospel preached today which adds any step to salvation by faith alone.
Paul wrote concerning those who espoused a false gospel, "I would they were even cut off which trouble you" (Galatians 5:12). That is a strong statement to say the least, and it serves as a stem reminder to us of the importance of the issue at hand, and how consistently tenacious we must be in opposing those who pervert the purity of the Gospel of Christ.
Grieved by this devilish pollution of the Gospel, the Galatians were asked point blank when it was that they had been saved, at what moment in time they had in fact received the Holy Spirit and had been born again by the power of God: "This only would l learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" (Galatians 3:2). The answer was obvious. God's gift of salvation was received the moment they heard the word of the Gospel and accepted its invitation. It was certainly not as a result of doing any work.
Faith and Works
Faith and works are mutually exclusive with respect to the work of God in the regeneration of the lost. "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (Romans 4:4-5). "Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace ..." (Romans 4:16). But never lose sight of the fact that the faith which saves (as illustrated by Abraham in Romans chapter four) is a living, vital faith which always produces works in the life of the believer after the fact of salvation.
This is illustrated by Abraham in the second chapter of James. He had been declared a "Friend of God" by faith alone years before his justification was demonstrated by his works in obediently offering Isaac upon the altar (James 2:14-26 cf. Romans 4:1-21). The supposed faith some "say "they have, but which produces no fruit, is "dead, being alone" (James 2:17). That kind of "faith" will not save anyone!
But, dear reader, the confident, unconditional faith that resulted in the justification of Abraham before God is the same kind of faith which the sinner must possess in order to have the righteousness of Christ "imputed to him" the moment he believes (Romans 4:22-25; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). Upon "believing" the reconciled sinner stands approved before God -- not because of good works or supposed merit, but because of the perfect righteousness of Christ credited to his account.
The faith which results in Bible salvation is an unconditional, absolute reliance upon the Lord as the only Savior with no confidence in anything or anyone else. To the extent that salvation depends upon believing on Christ plus any good work or religious ceremony, it is no longer salvation by grace alone apart from human effort. Anyone who cannot distinguish between these two types of "faith" undoubtedly is one who trusts something in addition to Christ to perform the salvation that He has promised to "whosoever believeth. " The entire Biblical exegesis of "saving faith" stresses absolute reliance upon the finished work of Christ apart from the works or supposed merit of man. The faith that saves always produces fruit or good works in the life, but this is always after the initial miracle of the new birth effected by the power of God. Those who insist on "believing and... in order to be saved" do not have the "saving faith" of which the Bible speaks.
Remember too that salvation by faith alone in the shed blood of Christ apart from "works" does not result in carelessness in the life lived as a Christian. The same grace which saves also enables the believer to walk in obedience to the Word, and disciplines the disobedient child (Titus 2: 15). Believing carries with it tremendous responsibility and accountability before God. Most Biblical texts which are twisted to infer that salvation from start to finish is dependent on the "good works" of the redeemed actually refer to God's faithful chastisement of the rebellious child.
The careless Christian will experience loss of blessing in this life and future reward which would have accrued to him had his "works" stood the test of fire (1 Corinthians 3:13-15). At the "Judgment Seat of Christ," before which every Christian must stand, the issue is not salvation, but rather the reward or loss of reward with respect to the Christian's life and service. Some will be saved "so as by fire"; saved, yes, but lacking the reward for faithful service consequent to experiencing saving faith.
The Proper Place of Water Baptism
Satan is masterful in his efforts to confuse the issue and obscure the clear demarcation between salvation by grace alone and a salvation where "works" are a necessary prerequisite. For example, those who subscribe to baptismal regeneration are quick to point out that the existence of so many different denominations and independents must imply a belief that there are a number of ways to be saved. But such is simply not the case. Historically, the major Protestant denominations have a rich heritage of fidelity to the Bible with respect to their understanding of justification by faith alone. The distinctions from one group to another stem primarily from differences in church polity, i.e., the governmental administration of the local assembly or assemblies of believers and not differences in foundational doctrines, such as what constitutes the work of God in the regeneration of the sinner.
Water baptism has been viewed by true believers as an outward testimony of the inward reality of having already been "born again" by the power of God. The moment the sinner trusts Christ as his Savior, he is baptized by the Spirit of God into the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). There is no salvation for anyone who is not "in Christ," and this spiritual regeneration takes place the moment the lost sinner receives Christ by faith (John 1:12, 5:24). All who are saved have received this baptism which God administers, not man.
Water baptism, on the other hand, is properly understood to be an ordinance of the Church administered only to those who have already been saved. Baptism by immersion symbolizes what has already been accomplished by God. The ordinances (Baptism and the Lord's Supper) and "good works" (obedience to the will of God as found in the Word of God) are after the fact of regeneration and the result of saving faith, not a means of saving grace. Salvation cannot be conferred by any church, for the church is but a fellowship of born again believers who have already availed themselves of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Someone who has been genuinely born again by the Spirit of God will want to honor His Lord now that he has new life in Christ. He should seek out and be identified with a fundamental, Bible-believing local church where he can grow and be nurtured by the pastoral care and teaching provided there, and receive encouragement and edification by others of like precious faith (Ephesians 4:11-16). Within that context of the local church, there will be the opportunity to receive Biblical believer's baptism (1 Corinthians 1:13-16). In this text, Paul did not baptize all in the Corinthian church, but others certainly must have; the Corinthian's shortcomings did not negate the fact that they were, indeed, baptized.
Also, the memorial service of the Lord's Supper will be a continual reminder of the meaning of Christ's broken body and shed blood, and that this service is to be conducted "till he come" (1 Corinthians 11:23-32). Yes, water baptism has it's proper, and important, place, but for the one who is already saved, not for the one who has not yet been born again; the latter needs to believe the Gospel and receive God's salvation as a free gift. Baptism, in any shape or form, cannot save anyone!
We Have an Obligation
Always remember, whenever there is an opportunity to share the one true Gospel with those who are trusting in their baptism, do so! They need to be saved, and that does not come to pass by arguing or debating extraneous doctrines or oddities of practice. They need to be told of the perfect salvation that is offered through the Infinite Person and completed work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit of God is able to take the pure Gospel of God's grace and cause the needy hearer to understand what it really means to believe only on the Lord Jesus Christ to the saving of the soul.
Only the Spirit of God can take the Word and enable the baptismal regenerationist to see how utterly worthless is ritual baptism whereby the communicant is supposedly introduced into the "one true church," as contrasted with the glorious operation of God in effecting the new birth from on high the moment the sinner believes. The mediatory function of a minister baptizing someone into "the kingdom" is a sad counterfeit to say the least! Argument will never convince one of a dissenting opinion as to the blessed reality and certainty which accompanies saving faith; God must reveal this to them as the Gospel is faithfully spoken and the Word of God is correctly taught.
Not only must the Gospel be faithfully proclaimed to those who oppose the essential doctrine of justification by faith alone, but a stern word of exhortation and warning must be given to those who supposedly know the way of truth but who compromise that truth. The liberal ecumenical movement has brought about incredibly dangerous theological compromises along this line and we have an obligation to withstand such apostasy!
For example, a significant World Council of Churches [WCC] document entitled "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" has sadly capitulated to the baptismal regenerationist's position even though most of the WCC member churches have historically stressed salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.
A representative quote from this doctrinal study paper is as follows: "Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other, and with the Church of every time and place. Our common baptism, which unites us to Christ in faith, is thus a basic bond of unity." The driving desire to bring the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical sphere of organizational fellowship is an obvious incentive for preparing such a document. Also, it should be noted that in addition to WCC members such as the Eastern Orthodox Churches which already subscribe to baptismal regeneration, the "Faith and Order Commission" that composed this study had representatives from the Seventh-day Adventists and the Roman Catholic Church -- no wonder the outcome!
But there were also Southern Baptists and American Baptists on the WCC Faith and Order Commission and they should have known better, or should it be said, done better. The historic baptistic position was totally discounted by those who should have sounded a warning about the serious theological ramifications of joining with those who preach "another gospel." The ecumenical movement is a leavening blight to Biblical truth and no Bible believer should have anything to do with it whatsoever! This is the sad consequence of compromised fellowship. Spirit-wrought convictions become nonexistent.
Biblical Example of the New Birth
A brief look at the texts in the Bible where water baptism is mentioned will reveal that faith alone, without the added step of baptism, assures the forgiveness of sin, the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the gift of everlasting life. A key text is found in the tenth chapter of Acts where a straightforward example of the operation of God in the regeneration of the sinner is recorded.
This is the account of the conversion of the house of Cornelius as the apostle Peter preached unto them the one pure Gospel of God's saving grace through Christ. There is no possible way they were already believers, since they had not yet heard the Word of the Gospel which alone can save (Acts 10:6, 33, 11:14-18, 15:7). Cornelius was religious but lost; he was a devout proselyte to Judaism, but in need of hearing the Good News that the righteous demands of the Law had been met in Christ and that salvation through Him was now available to Jew and Gentile alike. Cornelius had to hear about Christ!
In Acts 10:34-43 God gives the details these needy Gentiles had to hear and believe in order to be saved. Peter preached Christ crucified and risen again Who would be either Judge or Savior to sinful man. It was then that Peter gave the one condition to receiving the free gift of salvation: "To him [the Lord Jesus Christ] give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins" (vs. 43).
It was, "While Peter yet spake these words, [the Gospel concerning the Perfect Person and finished Work of Christ] the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word" (vs. 44). They all believed and were saved at that very moment! How do we know? Turn to Acts 15 and read carefully verses six through eleven. Here we have the same event viewed from God's perspective and we have the Divine commentary on what took place in the hearts of those who believed the Gospel and in so doing, received the forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Spirit. "And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost ,.. purifying their hearts by faith. " (Acts 15:8,9). Peter did the preaching; the Gentiles heard and believed (see John 5:24; Galatians 3:2); and God did the saving!
Now look back at Acts 10:45-48. It was after they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit that they were baptized. There is no possible way it could be said that their sins were washed away in baptismal waters since they were already in Christ. (see Rom. 8:9). The speaking in other languages was a sign to the believing Jews present that these Gentiles had now received what they had at Pentecost and were now in God's New Creation, the Church. Water baptism was the outward witness to their identification with Christ and with others of like precious faith. Is water baptism a step in gaining salvation? Absolutely not! This text which so clearly gives the one basis of regeneration would have to be torn out of the Bible if baptism was essential for salvation. But praise the Lord such is not the case, and all who have believed to the saving of their souls can rejoice along with Peter, ... we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they" (Acts 15:11).
Texts Often Used to Advance this Error
In Matthew 28:19-20, the commission is to first "teach all nations." The term rendered "teach " in its root meaning is clearly distinguished to simply mean "to make disciples." And how does one become a disciple? By having the Gospel of Christ preached unto him and having that message received by faith (note John 1:12). These new disciples are then baptized after salvation, and taught in the way of truth. The same holds true for the parallel portion in Mark 16:15-16. Once again, believing makes a disciple and the disciple is baptized afterward. It is he who does not believe (and is, therefore, not a disciple) who shall be damned. He that believeth and is baptized is the normal sequence. Studying the doctrine of regeneration in its Biblical context makes it plain that baptism is "after the fact" of believing unto salvation.
Acts 2:38 is another text which is often twisted to refute the Biblical teaching of salvation by faith alone. But once again we notice that "repentance" precedes baptism. "Repentance" as used with respect to salvation is a wonderfully descriptive complement to the kind of saving faith that is essential for the salvation of the sinner. Here, repentance is that change of mind whereby the individual is no longer trusting in anything other than the full and free salvation provided in Christ alone.
This belief is not just "head belief," but a heartfelt faith which results in a turning from confidence in self, religion, or anything else to Jesus Christ Who alone can save to the uttermost. It is the inward work of the Holy Spirit (John 6:44, 16:7-11) whereby the sinner is convicted of his own inability to do anything to save himself, and convinced of the Savior's perfect provision. He turns from faith in all else, to unconditional trust and wholehearted reliance upon the finished work of Christ.
It needs to be noted here also that being baptized "for the remission of sins" is not in order to obtain forgiveness of sins, but rather being baptized "unto" or "in respect to" the remission of sins. Baptism is always intended for the regenerated, forgiven believer. The Ethiopian eunuch was permitted water baptism only after the proper response to the evangelist's inquiry, "If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. "Don't get the "cart before the horse" for the cart alone doesn't have the power to get us anywhere.
Did Ananias supply Saul (later known as the apostle Paul) with essential information concerning the Gospel which was in addition to that which he had received previously on the road to Damascus? Was Ananias' instruction for Paul to be baptized, "...and wash away thy sins" (Acts 22:12-16) to be a part of the Gospel he was to preach from there on? No! As mentioned above, Christian baptism was administered to those who had already received the Good News of salvation through faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. The subsequent rite of baptism, therefore, bore testimony to that fact. This is what Paul did.
Read carefully what the apostle actually had revealed to him when he met the glorified Christ in the way, when he received by direct revelation the Gospel message itself (Galatians 1:11-12 cf. Acts 26:13-18). He most certainly did not receive any part of the message from man (this rules out what Ananias had to add), and he states the Gospel in a nutshell when he testified before king Agrippa. The message Christ Jesus gave him on the road that day was the whole Gospel of saving grace. It was the Good News which would enable the one who hears and believes it to "...receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. " (Acts 26: 18) . The Gospel does not require water baptism as a condition for the New Birth.
1 Peter 3:21 is another verse often used by the baptismal regenerationist. But notice carefully the actual wording and the context. Noah and his family were not saved by the water, but from the water of judgment. Their salvation came by being inside the ark, the ark being a figure or a type of the believer's salvation from judgment by being in Christ. In the 21st verse it says: "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us." Baptism is here used to illustrate by way of a figure of speech the operation of God which takes place inwardly upon believing. The "figure" (baptism) speaks of our identification with Christ who does saved us -- He was the "ark" of Noah's salvation. The salvation the sinner is afforded comes through His saving grace. The rest of the verse bears this truth out; it's not the putting away of the filth of the flesh (through ceremonial washings -- a reference to Old Testament ritual), but the answer of a good conscience toward God. It is always heartfelt faith in the shed blood of the Lamb and in His glorious, bodily resurrection that renders the sinner justified before an all Holy God! (Romans 10:9; Hebrews 9:14)
Another text which is consistently twisted to infer baptismal regeneration is John 3:1-8. But rather than teaching the need for baptism, it actually affirms the operation of God whereby the Holy Spirit works in concert with the Word of the Gospel to bring to pass the regeneration of the sinner from on high. The two essentials for being born again are "water" and the "Spirit" (John 3:5). The operation of the Spirit is obviously essential in the spiritual new birth of the believing sinner. But what about the "water"? Is this baptism? Definitely not! "Water" is typical of the cleansing agent of the Word (Eph. 5:26). The Gospel as presented in the Word of God is integrally linked to the Holy Spirit's work of regeneration within the heart of the one who believes. Also, the "new birth" assumes the fact that there was an initial human, natural birth, and many believe the "water" in this particular text refers to the natural birth. "That which is born of the flesh ..."; "... Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?" The "Spirit," on the other hand, refers to the spiritual new birth. In either case, "water" cannot be interpreted as baptism and, therefore, required in God's miraculous work of regeneration. God administers the new birth, not man.
The "washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost" in Titus 3:5 speaks of the twofold function of the Holy Spirit of God using the Gospel message contained in the Word to bring a lost sinner to the place where he understands his desperate need as a sinner, and then accepts by faith God's glorious salvation in Christ to meet that need. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my WORD, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life" (John 5:24). Here, again, we see God doing the "washing" at the moment of regeneration, in exactly the same way as detailed in Acts 15:7-9 as mentioned previously, where God saved the first Gentile converts, " ... purifying their hearts by faith." Faith, not baptism, is God's means of cleansing all sin.
By no stretch of the imagination can ritual baptism be equated to the term "water" used by itself in texts in the Bible relating to the new birth; nowhere is there found a direct connection which brings these two terms -- "water" and "baptism" -- together. For instance, in Ephesians 5:26 and in 1 Peter 1:23 the obvious connection is made between water and the sanctifying -- or cleansing -- property of the Word of God. Again in James 1:18 we have direct identification with the function of the Word in the miracle of the new birth: "Of his own will begat He us with the word of truth." The power of God is manifest when a lost sinner trusts Jesus Christ as his Savior, a miraculous regeneration which God accomplishes apart from any ceremony (John 1:12).
What should be the response of believers today when "baptismal regeneration" is taught or tolerated by so many different religious groups? The only response to those who hold to this dangerous error must be to present them with the pure Gospel of God's saving grace. Then pray that the Holy Spirit will so work in their hearts and minds that they will indeed understand what it means to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ alone and be saved. (Acts 16:31; Hebrews 7:25) Preach that Gospel! Separate from all those who proclaim any other! "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8).