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Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the newest volume in the Concordia Commentary series: John 1:1–7:1 by William Weinrich. In the meantime, we’ve provided an excerpt below to give you a preview of Dr. Weinrich’s discussion on John 3:3.

“Unless One Is Begotten from Above, He Is Not Able to See the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3)

In his reply to Nicodemus Jesus confronts the Pharisee with the necessity of partaking in the Baptism of Jesus if one is to “see” the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3). At his Baptism the Spirit of God came down, “descending” (καταβαῖνον), that is, from above, and rested upon him (Jn 1:32). This event was “seen” by John the Baptist (τεθέαμαι, Jn 1:32; see also ἴδῃς, Jn 1:33), and this seeing brought John to recognition and confession: “This one is the Son of God” (Jn 1:34). This is the background for the response of Jesus to Nicodemus (Jn 3:3). The generalizing indefinite article τις, “one,” along with the form of the sentence as a general condition (ἐάν μή plus the subjunctive γεννηθῇ), “unless one is begotten,” gives the statement of Jesus the character of a universal, absolute decree. On the basis of this passage the church from earliest times has understood Baptism to be necessary for salvation. For example, Tertullian interprets Jn 3:3, 5 to be a “prescript,” that is, a legal definition that expresses the principle that guides and determines all thought and discussion of the matter: “without baptism, salvation is attainable by none.”

The Baptism of Jesus marked him as the new Israel of prophetic anticipation and promise. The OT speaks of the formation of Israel as the generation of God (Deut 32:18; Is 1:2). That God is Israel’s father and that Israel is God’s son (or the Israelites are his sons) is a common metaphor (Ex 4:22; Is 63:16; Jer 31:9 [LXX 38:9]; Hos 11:1; also Deut 1:31). God called forth his son Israel through the waters of the Red Sea (Ex 4:22–23), which Paul interprets as an antecedent prefiguration of Baptism (1 Cor 10:1–2). Now to Nicodemus Jesus locates the renewal of Israel in his own Baptism. If Nicodemus is to recognize Jesus as the true Israel and become his follower, that is, become a member of the new Israel of prophetic promise, then Nicodemus must undergo the Baptism of Jesus. He must be “begotten from above” (Jn 3:3). The language emphasizes the gratuitous and effective work of God, and in Jn 3:5 the idea of a new Israel will be paralleled by that of a new creation (water and the Spirit). …

The reign of God is revealed and comes in the crucified Jesus, the Lamb of God, who in the perfect humility of his passion demonstrates himself to be the true Son of God (Jn 19:7; 20:31). The realities of Jesus as Son, his passion and death, and the kingdom of God belong together. Similarly, the believer as a child of God, participation in Christ’s death through Baptism, and seeing the kingdom of God belong together. To participate in the death of Christ is to be “begotten from above” (Jn 3:3), and in the removal of sin one sees the merciful rule of God. The term “the kingdom of God” in Jn 3:3 and Jn 3:5 looks retrospectively to the confession of the Baptist that Jesus is the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29, 36) and the Son of God (Jn 1:34) and prospectively to Jesus’ words about the necessity of the exaltation of the Son of Man (Jn 3:14). Similarly, “to see” the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3) prepares for the reference to the Light that comes into the world (Jn 3:19–21), which refers primarily to the death of Jesus. The new life of the Spirit assumes the shape of the cross of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus, the child of God, lives the life free from sin (Jn 1:29; 8:32–36; 1 Jn 3:5–6) and according to the love of God. It is, therefore, correct to say that to see the kingdom of God is to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Jn 20:31), and that the form of such faith is Christ the Crucified.

Footnotes omitted

From Concordia Commentary: John 1:1–7:1, pages 384, 387 © 2015 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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