Those who teach the doctrine of baptismal regeneration by christening say that by the sprinkling of holy water on an infant, he or she is made a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. This is a bold claim, which, if wrong, has deluded many into thinking that they are sure of heaven when they are not. This idea supposes that the one who officiates at such a ceremony has a right to do so, and that which he does is valid before God.
To decide these two questions, a further one is necessary, namely, what the authority is for the ceremony in the first place? Who is to say it is any different to bathing in the Ganges? This is an important matter, for what is involved is the eternal destiny of the soul. We ask then, where does the authority for this doctrine come from? Men, or God? If from men, we may safely discard it, but if from God, we shall find it taught in His word, the Holy Scriptures.
We live in a day when relativism reigns, and the thoughts and opinions of the individual are paramount, and the views of others, however relevant and important to them, are not necessarily relevant and important to anyone else. This is not a theory that works in practice, and is just an excuse for not accepting higher authorities than ourselves. We are prepared to accept the higher authority of the bus timetable when we wish to travel by bus, but are not prepared to accept the higher authority of the Bible when it is a question of travelling to heaven.
In any case, the opposite of relativism is absolutism, the idea that there is authority other than our own, and which is unchanging, being rooted in the truth. Those who deny this in effect say, “There is nothing absolute”; but this statement is an absolute one, and therefore contradicts their argument. Any idea which involves a self-contradiction is not valid. Since there are only two options, relativism and absolutism, and relativism is not valid, then absolutism is. The only possible source of absolute authority is God Himself.
There are those who, realising that we need to have an authority higher than ourselves and outside of ourselves, feel that we may safely trust the teaching of the church. But it is not envisaged that the church should teach, but rather should be taught. It is the apostles and prophets who were charged with the responsibility of teaching, at the beginning. The promise of the Lord Jesus to them was that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth, John 16:13. This happened long ago, and they penned the New Testament under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that the Scriptures might be available for our guidance and instruction.
It may be objected, however, that this leaves us at the mercy of every supposed explainer of the Bible. Of course, if we were to accept without thinking everything that anyone said about the Bible, we would indeed be confused. If, however, we were to pray that God would guide us to the truth, and be sincerely ready to respond to that truth when it is revealed to us, then we shall not be disappointed. The Lord Jesus said that “If any man will to do His (God’s) will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of Myself, John 7:17. Another safeguard is the principle that no truth of Scripture contradicts another. If it seems to do so, then our understanding of one or other, or both, of the verses in question is at fault. The Lord Jesus said that “The Scripture cannot be broken”, John 10:35. This means that the Word of God is one cohesive whole- distort one part, and all others are affected; rightly understand one part, and all other parts will agree. Wrench a verse of Scripture out of its context, and it can easily become the support of teaching which is contrary to the rest. But consider every verse in the light of the whole, giving due regard to the setting in which it is found, then we shall be well on the way to a correct understanding of Scripture.
Proceeding, then, on the assumption (which is a very reasonable one), that the Holy Scriptures are sufficient to deal with the question before us at present, we proceed to look at John 3:1-17, which is the portion most often appealed to in connection with infant sprinkling.
THE WORDS OF THE BIBLE, THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES, AS FOUND IN THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN CHAPTER 3, VERSES 1 TO 17
1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou nearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so Is every one that is bom of the Spirit
9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
15 That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.
We notice, first of all, that the Lord Jesus is speaking to one who is well versed in the Old Testament Scriptures. We see this in verse 10, where the Lord expresses surprise that he, a master of Israel, (that is, a teacher in Israel), is ignorant as to what is being spoken about. We learn from this that Nicodemus should have recognised in what was said to him, connections with the Old Testament Scriptures with which he should have been familiar.
Nicodemus had come for an interview with Christ on the basis of His miracle-working, and declares in verse 2 that He must be a teacher come from God, for He combines teaching with miracles of remarkable power and indisputable genuineness. This belief is not enough, however, to ensure entrance into God’s kingdom. Only those who are born again shall enter there, verse 3. Nicodemus would have prided himself, as all in Israel would, on his descent from Abraham. He would have thought that to be born once, if that birth was into the nation of Israel, was enough to guarantee him a place in Messiah’s kingdom. The Lord is about to tell him that this is not enough, for he needs another birth, this time of water and of the Spirit, verse 5. It is not at all a matter of being bom naturally again, as Nicodemus thought in verse 4, (which in any case is not possible), but of being born spiritually.
Nicodemus should have been alerted to a reference to Old Testament Scripture by the Lord’s words linking water and Spirit. He should have immediately gone in thought to Ezekiel chapters 36 and 37, where these two things are mentioned. In Ezekiel 36, the prophet tells what needs to happen before Israelites can enter the kingdom of God after their wandering away from God, see verses 21-24. Then he speaks of God sprinkling clean water upon them, so that they may be cleansed from defilement. To what does the prophet refer? To answer this question we must go back to Numbers 19, where the sacrifice of a red heifer is detailed. This was God’s provision for the people of Israel when they contracted defilement. The red heifer sacrifice was a once-for-all event, but the ashes left after it had been burnt as a sacrifice were kept. When cleansing from defilement was needed, then clean water was taken, and some of the ashes were mixed with the water, and sprinkled over the defiled person to make him ceremonially clean. And all this despite the fact that the man was an Israelite!
By this ceremony God was teaching His people lessons. The main one was this, that if the value of a sin-offering was to be known, it was to be through the agency of the water. And this water must be applied to the individual in question, for it was not enough that the water was available, but must be applied personally.
But all this was in the Old Testament. Where are we to find water that has the ashes of a sin-offering mixed in it? The answer of course, is that we shall not find literal water now which fulfils the requirements. Yet unless we are born of water we cannot enter God’s kingdom! Does the Lord Jesus hold out a hope to Nicodemus which cannot in fact be realised? This He surely would not do. So what is the answer? It is found in the fact that whilst literal water is not available, its spiritual counterpart is, for it is the Word of God. Even in Old Testament times the psalmist could ask the question, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? And the answer he gave to his own question was, “By taking heed thereto, according to Thy word”, Psalm 119:9. The apostle Paul agrees, for he speaks of Christ sanctifying and cleansing His people by “the washing of water by the word”, Ephesians 5:26. The word of God, applied to the heart and mind, makes available the truth as to the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus for sin, and thus the defilement which prevents us from entering the kingdom of God is removed.
In close connection with the water, the Lord Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the Spirit, just as Ezekiel chapter 37, with its emphasis on the Spirit’s work, follows chapter 36, where the water of sprinkling is mentioned. Ezekiel saw a valley of dry bones, an illustration of the condition of the people, dead in trespasses and sins. The cure for the deadness was the blowing of the wind over them, Ezekiel 37:9,10. When the wind, or breathe, breathed into them, they lived. Now this is explained in verse 14 as the putting of God’s Spirit into them, so that they might live. It is important to know that the Hebrew word for wind, breath, and spirit, is the same. So in chapter 36 the water is figurative, and in chapter 37 the wind is figurative, and the Lord Jesus takes up both these figures in His conversation with Nicodemus. He is giving Nicodemus the clue to the understanding of His words by deliberately likening the action of the wind to the action of the Spirit of God. This is why the Lord speaks of the wind blowing where it listeth, or willeth, verse 8. Just as the wind seems to have a will of its own, blowing where it likes, so the Spirit of God, a Divine person, acts according to His own will.
When a person is born again, it is not a question of natural birth, for “That which is born of the flesh is flesh”. We may educate and refine the flesh, (which is another term for our natural selves), and we may even make it religious, but it is still flesh nonetheless. In contrast, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit”, verse 6. When the Spirit of God does His unique work in a person, then that person is raised to a higher level than the natural as far as God is concerned, a level which makes it possible for the Spirit of God to indwell and govern him. So it is that Romans 8:9 describes believers as not being in the flesh, but in the Spirit. That which is produced in each case takes character from the agency which produced it. Those born naturally are natural, and as such are not fit for God’s kingdom, but those who are born again, born of the Spirit, are fit for that kingdom.
Nicodemus has now learnt that if he is to enter the kingdom, he must have cleansing from his defilement, and be given life from God. If he has these two things he will be a completely changed person, born again by the power of the Spirit of God, and possessing the life of God in his soul. These things are very desirable, but “How shall these things be?” says Nicodemus. How can they become real to me personally? The answer he is given is simple, and is based on an Old Testament incident he must have known well. As they neared the end of their wilderness journey, and were very close to the borders of the Promised Land, Israel sinned badly against the Lord, Numbers 21:4-9. As a punishment, God sent fiery serpents among the people, and many of them died. At last those who remained admitted they had sinned, and cried to God for mercy. The God-given remedy for their distress was not one that the natural mind would have thought to be of any use. Moses was to make a brass replica of the serpents that were plaguing them, put it on a pole, and those who looked in faith to this remedy of God’s providing, were sure to live. Those who ignored it would die, and not cross over into the land of Canaan- they would not enter the kingdom of God. Those, however, who believed God, and took advantage of His remedy, did enter into the kingdom.
Now the words of the Lord Jesus to Nicodemus are critical. He has asked how the new birth can be his experience, and now the answer is given. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man (a title of Himself), be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, (as many Israelites did when they ignored the brazen serpent), but have everlasting life.
This will be a new step for Niocodemus. He has already stated that he knew that Christ was a teacher come from God, and that He did outstanding miracles, but now he learns that he should believe in Christ not just as a miracle-worker and a teacher, but as one who would be lifted up on a cross, just as the serpent was lifted up on a pole for all to see. In other words, faith in a crucified Christ is needed if a person is to be born again. Only in this way can the defilement and deadness that we have naturally be dealt with.
Notice the two titles the Lord Jesus gives to Himself in these verses. First, He is Son of Man. This does not mean He is the son of a man, for Joseph, the husband of Mary, was not His father in the physical sense. The Lord Jesus was begotten of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, His mother, who was a virgin at the time. This ensures He has no sinful nature, which would disqualify Him from being a sacrifice for sin. The title Son of Man tells us that He has a relationship with mankind in that He became a man.
He is more than just a man, however, for He is the Son of God, which is a title which tells us He has a relationship with God. That relationship is unique, for He is God’s only begotten Son- there are no other sons like Him. In John 10:30,36, the Lord Jesus uses the title Son of God as equivalent to saying He and the Father are one. The title declares His Deity, that He is equal with the Father and the Spirit in the Tri-une Godhead. So as Son of God He is truly God, as Son of Man He is truly man. Because He is both these. He is the one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 1 Timothy 2:5.
Returning to the matter of baptismal regeneration, we can see now that being born of water has nothing to do with christening, but has everything to do with the application to our souls of the truth of the sacrifice of Christ. Those who realise their sins offend God, and will keep them out of heaven, and who, repenting of those sins, look in faith to a crucified Saviour, are born again, and their defiling sins are cleansed away.