Born of Water and of Spirit



Dr. W. A. Criswell

John 3:1-12

5-17-64    7:30 p.m.



On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  And we are going to read out loud our text.  And if you have a Bible, seated by the radio, or here in this great auditorium almost filled to capacity, turn in your Bible to the Gospel of John, chapter 3, and we shall read out loud the first twelve verses.  The title of the sermon tonight is Born of Water and of Spirit.  “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” [John 3:5].  That is the text; and you will find its context in the passage that we read now together, the Gospel of John, the Fourth Gospel, chapter 3, the first twelve verses.  Now all of us sharing our Bibles and reading it out loud together, may we begin:


There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God:  for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with him.

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

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?

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.

That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth:  so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be?

Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things?

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that We do know, and testify that We have seen; and ye receive not Our witness.

If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

[John 3:1-12]


This is one of the most remarkable interviews that ever in the providence of God was recorded for us to share.  As though we sat next door, as though we sat in an adjoining room we listen to the Lord Jesus talk to this illustrious member of the high court of Israel, the Supreme Court of the whole Jewish world; Nicodemus, a ruler, a member of the Sanhedrin.

One of the unusual and unique things about our Lord is this:  always when He speaks with somebody, or with a group, He will turn the conversation in keeping with the experience and the background of that one to whom He speaks.  For example, the rich young ruler:  He said something to him that He never said to anybody else.  He was very affluent, and he was very acceptable, and he knew it, and he was proud of it.  He loved his place, and he loved his fame, and he loved his fortune.  He loved his wealth and the things that wealth meant for him:  its prestige, its luxury, its sumptuousness, everything that money meant.  It meant that to the rich young ruler, and he loved it [Mark 10:17-23]. 

Now Jesus had spoken to many rich men.  He used many of them in His parables.  He said, for example, to Zaccheus, who is described in the Bible as being a rich man, He said to him, “Come down; I am going to stay in your house” [Luke 19:5].  And then after Zaccheus had been won to the Lord by the gracious appeal of our Savior, the Lord said, “Salvation is come to this house” [Luke 19:9], never said anything to Zaccheus about money or about riches, only that salvation had come because of the dedicated faith of Zaccheus in the Lord.  But to this rich young ruler, there was something in his heart that intervened—that came between his soul and God.  He did love God, and he loved the law of God, he loved the Bible of God, he loved the people of God; but he loved his money more.  And Jesus said the way is too narrow, the gate is too strait, the door is too constricted for a man to enter in with the world in his heart.  You cannot carry love for this tinsel, and tinfoil, and cheap rewards of this earthly life, you cannot carry it in your heart and enter that door:  it’s too narrow, it’s too strait.  So He said to that rich young ruler, “Now you get rid of what you have.  Sell it, give it away, do anything with it; get rid of it.  Take up a cross and come follow Me and you will have eternal life,” to the rich young ruler [Mark 10:21].  Never said that to anybody else.

Take again in the life of our Lord, those who followed Him for the loaves and the fishes.  In the Orient we call them “rice Christians”:  they were Christians because they get something out of it, there’s a reward for them.  Now the Lord had fed these five thousand, fed it with just a few loaves and just a few little fish [Mark 6:37-44], so they followed the Lord all the way around Galilee—clear around that big circumference there to the other side.  And when the Lord saw them, He spake to them about the true Bread:  “Labor not,” our Lord said, “for the meat,” it’s in the King James Version, “for the food that perisheth.  I am the manna that comes down from heaven, which if a man eat thereof he shall live forever” [John 6:27, 52, 58].  And He suited His message to the people who listened to His appeal.

Another one, as you know in the next chapter here, the woman of Sychar, she came with a waterpot on her shoulder, to draw water out of the deep well of Jacob.  And as the Lord spoke to her, He spake of the water of life, which if a man drink thereof he shall live forever [John 4:5-23].

Now it’s that kind of a situation that you find here with this proud ruler of the Jews.  He’s a member of the Sanhedrin.  He belongs to that highest and most elite of all of the people of God in the earth.  I can just see Nicodemus walk down the streets of the capital city in Jerusalem.  The borders of his garments are enlarged, the phylacteries on his forehead and on his wrists are in great evidence, and the bells and the pomegranates and all of the tassels and their knots tied just so, he was a regal looking character.  His person was majestic, and his mien was fulsome and attractive.  Everything about Nicodemus spake, declared the noble heritage into which he was born.  He was a son of Abraham, he was a child of Israel, he belonged to the chosen family of God, and he was born into that high station and that unusual and glorious inheritance.  And when the Lord Jesus began talking to Nicodemus, He said something to him like this:  “Except a man be born up above—different, anothen—again; except a man be born again he cannot see, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” [John 3:3].

“But I’m a child of Abraham.  I belong to the family of Israel.  I am one of the inheritors of the covenant blessings of God.”

“Nay,” said our Lord to this proud justice of the supreme court of Israel, “to be born a child of Abraham, of the flesh, is not enough.   A man must be born from above; he must be born again; he must be regenerated in his soul.”

Then the Lord expatiated on that, and as He spake of it, He said this:  “Except a man be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” [John 3:5].  First our Lord said, “Except a man be born again he cannot be saved” [John 3:3].  And then as He delineates what He meant, He says, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit,” that’s the only place in the Bible you’ll find anything like that; the only reference you’ll find to it in the Word of God, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit.”  Now to me, if I were a philosopher, if I were a professor, if I were a student, if I were a metaphysician, if I were a theologian, and came across a phrase like that I would be astonished!  Immediately, it rivets attention:  “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Now I know there is no such thing as a man being born of water, as such; there’s just no such thing in the earth.  Therefore, it refers to something else.  Like when Jesus says, “I am the door” [John 10:9], I know He is referring to a great spiritual reality.  “I am the vine, ye are the branches” [John 15:5]; Jesus is including in that image a great spiritual truth.  Now I know that John, when he uses this word “born of water and of the Spirit,” that he is referring to some great spiritual reality.  Now John was a mystic, and several times—I’m going to point out twice—John turns to this thing of water.  Now look at one:


And 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 pierced His side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true:  and he knoweth that he saith true, that you might believe.

[John 19:33-35]


When John saw the heart of Jesus ruptured, and there flowed a stream of blood and of water, it had in it a marvelous spiritual significance to that mystic apostle, who saw in things—things that Jesus did, things that God did, things that Jesus said—great spiritual overtones.  It was so here.

Now I point out one other.  In the first epistle of John, chapter 5, “This is He, our Lord, who came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ:  not by water only, but by blood and by water” [1 John 5:6].  Now what does He mean?  What is that great spiritual reference that John makes when he says that we—whoever hope to be saved, to see the face of God, to enter heaven when we die—we must be born of water and of the Spirit? [John 3:5].  Now I’m going to give you four interpretations, and then I’m going to take a fifth one, which is one that I believe; four of them.

First: there are many, and I would say practically all of the preachers of our faith and of our communion—practically every Baptist preacher I know will say this—to be born of water refers to the fleshly birth.  To be born of this life, of this flesh, is not enough; a man must also be born from above, of the Spirit.  And then they illustrate that with the next verse:  for the Lord says in the next verse, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” [John 3:6]. Now they say that that water birth refers to how a child comes into this world.  In order for the child to be protected as it grows in the mother’s womb, nature cushions it on every side with a cushion of water.  And when the child is born, of course, the water breaks, and they refer to that as being this symbol the Lord uses in this passage.  “Born of water” to them refers to a physical fleshly birth, which Jesus says is not enough, “For that which is born of the flesh is flesh”; but it’s not enough, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  So they say this means that we are to be born of the flesh, but not enough, we must also be born of the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God.

Now what do I think about that interpretation?  I think it is fine.  I think it is fine.  I have no quarrel with it whatsoever. I think it is excellent.  And for those who would preach that, I would say, “Amen, that’s fine.”  I just have this one objection to it:  it just seems strange to me that Jesus would say that a man had to be born, because I take that for granted.  How in the world is the following to come to pass, to be born of the Spirit, if you’re not born in the first place, if you’re not in existence, it just, well, I got something else to say beside talking about that.  It’s just kind of beside the point to me.  Of course, we are born.  You got to be here, you got to exist for the Lord to say anything to you, or to say anything about us, or for us to give, receive any directions from heaven.  And just to say that you had to be here is kind of beside the point.  But that’s all right.  I have no objection to people who interpret this passage like that, and it’s just fine, it’s just fine.  I just don’t happen to be one of those that think it is pertinent; it’s just kind of foolishness to me.

Well, let’s go to a second interpretation.  The second interpretation is that our Lord was referring here to an open avowal, an open confession of our Savior.  That a man has to believe in Jesus, he has to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God, and by water he refers to that open confession that a man makes when he’s baptized, “born of water.”  For a man to believe in Jesus in his heart secretly is not enough.  For a man to come to Jesus by night, as Nicodemus here, is not enough.  But a man must be open and public in his avowal.

Now what do I think about that?  I think that’s fine, too.  I think that’s fine, too.  The reason I think that, for one, is this:  in the early days of the Christian faith, there were many, many people who embraced the moral teaching of the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7:29] and who accepted Jesus as one of the great religious leaders of the world, but they refused to be baptized.  And every once in a while, I come across people like that today, “Yes sir, preacher, we’re for you.  Yes sir, we’re for the church.  Yes sir, I believe the Bible.  Yes indeed, I believe Jesus is all that He said He was.  But I’m not going to be baptized, and I’m not going to follow the Lord through the waters of the Jordan.”  Now baptism is a way of openly confessing our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ:


If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead

—that He lives in heaven—

thou shalt be saved.  For with the heart one believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

[Romans 10:9-10]


In this spurious ending in the Gospel of Mark, the sixteenth chapter of Mark, whoever tried to finish Mark—the end of Mark, lost from the time that he wrote it—whoever wrote this spurious ending wrote it like this, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.  And he that believeth not shall be damned” [Mark 16:16].  Of course the main idea there concerns belief; but baptism there was a way of confession.  “If thou shalt confess Me before men, I will confess thee before My Father in heaven.  If you deny Me before men, I will deny you before My Father which is in heaven” [Matthew 10:32-33].  So the Lord was saying to Nicodemus here, according to this interpretation, the Lord was saying, “He that trusts Me as his Savior and confesses Me openly and publicly, being baptized, that man can enter the kingdom of heaven.  But if you do not openly and publicly avow Me, as the confession you make when you are baptized, you can never be saved.”  So it refers, they say, to an open confession of Christ, being born of water.

Well, that’s fine, that’s fine, I have no quarrel with that; nothing at all, that’s just good.  And if a man were to stand up and preach that, I’d say, “Amen, that’s the truth, that’s the truth.”  But I don’t think it’s the truth here.  I don’t think it’s here.  That’s truth in some other place, that’s the truth in the tenth chapter of Romans, that’s the truth of the tenth chapter of Matthew, that’s the truth in other places; but that’s not the truth here.

Well, here is a third interpretation.  There are those who say being born of water refers to repentance.  A man must repent and must be regenerated, born of water, repentance, born of the Spirit, regeneration, before he can ever be saved.  Now they use that because the opening of the Gospel of Mark is like this:  “John preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.  He preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” [Mark 1:4].  So they say “born of water” would be “born of repentance”; and for a man to be saved he must repent, and the Holy Spirit must regenerate his heart, then he can enter the kingdom of heaven.  That’s fine.  That’s fine.  And if a man were to stand up and preach that, I’d say, “Amen, God bless you, brother, that’s the gospel.”  But it’s not the gospel here.  It’s the gospel over there in Mark, and it’s the gospel in some other place, but it’s not here, not here.  I don’t think it refers to that.

Now the fourth one:  practically all of liturgical Christianity, and practically all of the Christian faith outside of this evangelical group to which we belong, they say that refers to the regeneration to be wrought in baptism.  “Born of water” refers to being baptized and that in baptism our sins are washed away; and without baptism no man is ever saved.  A man must be born of baptism, born of water, and born of the Spirit of God, before he can enter the kingdom.  And so many people have that idea about Baptist people.  One of the strangest, one of the strangest misapprehensions that I have ever come across in my life:  all through the centuries, people have thought that Baptists believe that you have to be baptized in order to be saved.  There is nothing further from the truth, whatsoever.  We are not a coetaneous religious sect; we don’t believe in “epidermic religion,” religion that’s just skin deep, you know, you wash—well, it wouldn’t work if you used lye soap!  Baptists just don’t believe that.  There is no syllable of that that is true to us, and it is certainly not true according to the Word of God.  According to the Word of God, there is no such a thing as our sins being washed away being baptized, never!  What is the truth of God in this thing of being forgiven our sins?  It is very plain and never any deviation from it: 1 John 1:7, “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth us from all sin.” 

There’s no thing a man could ever do for me that would save me, nothing.  I could be baptized every day of my life, I could be baptized on the hour of every day of my life, and all the waters of Neptune’s ocean would not suffice to wash the stain of sin and the judgment of God that I inevitably face away from my soul.  There is no such a teaching in the Word of God as that baptism suffices to save us from our sins, or to wash away our iniquities.  Baptism is but a picture of the burial and the resurrection of our Lord; our death to sin and our resurrection to walk in newness of life in Jesus.  And it has no other meaning, and it has no other efficacy, and it has no other ableness or power; there is nothing that a man could do for me to wash the stain of sin out of my soul!

“Well then, preacher, what does this mean?  ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’ [John 3:5]?”  All right, I have a very simple little key and when I use it, it will fit the Scriptures exactly.  “Water” in the Bible, from one beginning of it to the other, water is cleansing—cleansing, water, cleansing—the laver to wash him, water to cleanse, cleansing.  So taking that little key, I fit it into these locks in the Bible, in the Word of God, and it just opens to my heart, to me, so beautifully, so richly, so spiritually meaningfully, so satisfactorily, I just rest in this interpretation.  Now may I use that little key?

“Christ loved the church,” Ephesians 5:25—it’s 26 I’m coming to, “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it.”  Now my verse, “That He might sanctify and cleanse it,” how?  How?  How does God sanctify and wash and cleanse His people?  How does He wash us?  “That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by, with, through the Word” [Ephesians 5:26].

Now let me take that little key, and let’s just take it through the Bible: 1 Peter 1:23, 25, “We are born again,” wasn’t that what we are talking about here in the third chapter of the Gospel of John?  “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” [John 3:3], isn’t that what we’re talking about?  Now listen, we’re taking this little key through the Holy Word: 1 Peter 1:23, 25, we are born again by the word of God, “We are born again by the word of God.  And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.”  Let’s take our little key again: James 1:[18], “Of His own will begat He us by the word.”  Wasn’t he talking about being born again?  “Of His own will begat He us by the word.”  Let’s take it again, in this Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 3, “And Jesus said unto them, Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.”

The washing, the cleansing of the Word, the power of the gospel, the preached ministry:  “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” [Romans 10:17]. Now I’m going to expatiate on that.  That great Scriptural truth that I have just now referred to is enwoven in the very complex of the Christian faith and life itself.  Now you follow me. 

On the road to Damascus, our great apostle Paul fell before the Lord, and blinded by the glory of that light said, “Lord, what shall I do?”  And the Lord said to him, “Arise, go into Damascus, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do” [Acts 9:6].  Why didn’t Jesus tell him what to do?  Why didn’t the Lord tell him what to do?  There the Lord is standing in the way, in all His glory, speaking to the apostle Paul—who later became the apostle Paul—speaking to him face to face; why didn’t He tell him what to do?  You see, the truth of God, to any man’s life and any man’s soul, is mediated through the delivered message, the Word of God.

Well, let’s take another one.  My, my, where has that clock darted to?  Ah!  We’re just getting started.  Oh!  Listen to me just as fast as you can, just like that.  And the angel said to Cornelius, at Caesarea, he said, he says, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayers.  God has seen your alms.  God has answered.  Now you send down to Joppa for one Simon Peter, in the house of Simon the tanner, who will come and tell thee words whereby thou and thy house may be saved” [Acts 10:1-6].  Why didn’t the angel tell him the words whereby he and his house might be saved?  Why didn’t he?  For the angel is standing there, but instead the angel says to Cornelius, “You send down to Joppa, and you get Simon Peter, who is a preacher of Jesus, and he will come and tell thee words whereby thou and thy house may be saved.”  People sometime ask, “Are the heathen saved without the gospel?”  “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” [Romans 10:13]. 


But how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?

And how shall they believe in Him on whom they have not heard? 

And how shall they hear without a preacher? 

And how shall they preach except they be sent?

[Romans 10:14-15] 


There is no such a thing as a man being saved without the preached gospel of the Son of God.

“Now we are cleansed, we are sanctified with the washing of water by the word [Ephesians 5:26]…Now ye are clean through the Word which I have spoken unto you [John 15:3]…Of His own will begat He us by His word [James 1:18]…Born again by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” [1 Peter 1:23].  And when I stand in this pulpit, or when I go into a home, or when I sit in my office and I open this Book, and I speak to these who listen, the Word of God, I have in my hand the sword of the power of heaven, the instrument of the cleansing and the salvation of our souls.  So a man is saved by hearing the Word of God, the saving, cleansing power of the Word of God [Romans 10:17]; and by the regenerating Spirit of the Lord in his heart; by water and by blood [1 John 5:6].

Now I could not tell you how many times in the life of my brief ministry, I could not tell you how many times I’ve had men say to me, “Preacher, I had to do one of two things, I had to do one of two things:  I had to quit coming and listening, or I had to go down that aisle and give my heart to Jesus; one of those two things, one of those two things.”  And a man will always almost inevitably do one or two things when he comes and listens to the preaching of the Word of God.  One, he’ll either be down there at the front, taking Jesus as his Savior; or second, he’ll say, “I can’t bear it any longer! I’m never coming back.” 

But when we are saved, when we are saved, oh! what a regenerated, redeemed, new heart and spirit in our souls and in our lives, “Preacher, more and more about Jesus.  Got something from God?  Have you heard His voice?  Have you been with Him?  Have you seen His face?  Open the Book and tell us more and more about Jesus.”  Be here this Sunday and next Sunday; look forward to coming back again.  Be here this morning, and look forward to coming back again Sunday night.  Manna from heaven it is to us; water of life it is to us, “Preacher, more and more about Jesus.”  Born of the water and of the Spirit; born of the word of God, out of the regenerating presence of the Spirit of God in our souls.  And without it, the kingdom of God doesn’t exist. God does not speak apart from His Word.  God does not build His kingdom apart from His Word.  God does not save us apart from His Word.  “For faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God; we are cleansed through the word the Lord hath spoken unto us” [Romans 10:17].

When we gather ourselves in assembly and God’s man opens God’s Book and delivers God’s message, the power of the regenerating Spirit is moving among us.  And God writes our names in the Book of Life, as by faith and in commitment we come in yielded surrender unto Him; born of the water, the cleansing Word; born of the Spirit, the regenerating power of the Holy Ghost in our souls [John 3:5].

We’re still on the radio.  Somewhere driving down a highway, somewhere in a bedroom, or in the living room, if you’d bow your head and say, “Jesus, I open my heart.  I’ve heard the Word.  I open my heart, Lord, come in, and make me a child of the King.”  He will do it, if you ask Him [John 6:37].  In the great throng in this congregation tonight, in the balcony round, from side to side, somebody you, give his heart to Jesus tonight.  “Lord, here I am, and here I come.”  A family you, a couple you, one somebody you, as the Spirit of the precious Savior shall lead in the way, make it tonight, make it tonight.

We’re going to stand in a moment and sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, putting your life in the fellowship of this dear church, or looking in faith to Jesus, “Lord, tonight, tonight, come into my heart, make me a child of heaven; and I trust Thee for it, the forgiveness of sins, the power to dedicate all of any future day to Thee, victory now and forever, Lord I trust Thee for it.  And here I am, and here I come,” make it tonight, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.