This article first appeared in the Ask Hank column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 45, number 2/3 (2022). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
In John 3:5, Jesus told Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”1 Thus, the question: what does it mean to be “born of water and the Spirit”?
First, let me point out that from its very inception, the church has clearly communicated that by “water” Jesus spoke of baptism and by “Spirit” He directly referenced the Holy Spirit. As such, being “born of water and the Spirit” entails being united to Christ in the waters of baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit through chrismation (the sacred act of anointing with myrrh by the hands of the apostles). For, said Saint Ephraim, “By the seal of the Holy Spirit are sealed all the entrances into your soul; by the seal of the anointing all your members are sealed.”2
Furthermore, I should note that in the book of Acts we are alerted to the need for both — for both water baptism and anointing by the Spirit. For example, when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaritans “had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus,” they sent Saint Peter and Saint John to lay hands on them so that they might receive “the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14–17). Moreover, in Ephesus Saint Paul told twelve disciples of John the Baptist that they should “believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus. On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 19:4–6). Though the twelve had received the “baptism of repentance,” they nonetheless needed to be joined to Christ in baptism and receive the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, it is imperative to recognize that baptism and chrismation are singularly sacramental. Loosed from the restraining fetters of apostolic tradition, the creeds, and the councils, the Swiss Reformer Huldreich Zwingli did the unthinkable. He altered baptism and chrismation from a sacrament to a mere welcoming ceremony. Thus, the significance of the sacraments shifted from what the Savior does for the saved to what the saved do for the Savior.
This, of course, is no small matter. In the new birth a true mystery takes place. For by baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are mystically joined to new life in Christ, and by chrismation (confirmation) we are energized by the Spirit to dwell in resurrection power.
Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation? For most of my public ministry I have answered this question in the negative. And for that I am genuinely sorry because Christ, the church, and the creeds unanimously answer in the affirmative.
First, as noted above, Christ told Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Indeed, Paul overtly calls baptism “the circumcision of Christ” (see Col. 2:11–12 ESV). A circumcision by which we are buried with Christ in baptism and raised with Him in newness of life (see Rom. 6:4).
Furthermore, through baptism we enter into the communion of the church — the sacred sphere within which union with Christ is consummated. In the words of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, “No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.”3 This ought to be a self-evident truth. Why? Because it is through the church that God’s saving power is mediated to the whole of humanity. Church is thus the reincarnation of Eden. The place in which you and I may have access to the Tree of Life replete with its eucharistic bounty. A bounty by which our nature is unified with Christ and with other Christians. Moreover, as clearly communicated by our Lord, “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).
Finally, the councils, the creeds, and the church fathers unambiguously communicate “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” (Nicene Creed). Saint John Chrysostom understood this baptism to extend even to those who, like the thief on the cross, confess Christ in their dying breath. “Do not be surprised that I call martyrdom a Baptism, for here too the Spirit comes in great haste and there is a taking away of sins and a wonderful and marvelous cleansing of the soul; and just as those being baptized are washed in water, so too those being martyred are washed in their own blood”4 — a verity that applies to aborted babies as well, for they likewise partake in a baptism of blood.—Hank Hanegraaff
Hank Hanegraaff is president of the Christian Research Institute, host of the Bible Answer Man broadcast and the Hank Unplugged podcast, and author of more than twenty books, including Truth Matters, Life Matters More: The Unexpected Beauty of an Authentic Christian Life (W Publishing Group, 2019).
- Bible quotations are from NIV1984, unless otherwise noted.
- Quoted in Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: A Concise Exposition, 3rd ed., trans. and ed. Hieromonk Seraphim Rose and the St. Herman Alaska Brotherhood (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2015), 275.
- Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, 6, quoted in “Cyprian on Church Unity,” ed. Dan Graves, Christian History Institute, www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/Cyprian. On the Unity of the Church is accessible in a slightly different translation at New Advent, www.newadvent.org/fathers/050701.htm.
- John Chrysostom, Panegyric on St. Lucian 2, quoted in The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 2, trans. William A. Jurgens (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1979), 98, Google Books, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Faith_of_the_Early_Fathers_Post_Nice/KPbi_nBITycC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=Do%20not%20be%20surprised%20that%20.