John 3:5-6 (Misinterpreted Scriptures)


Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and 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. (John 3:5-6 NASB)

Misinterpretation: This passage is used by the UPC as evidence that a person must be baptized (born of water) and be filled with the Holy Spirit (born of the Spirit) in order to enter the kingdom of God. In other words, to be saved, according to the UPC’s interpretation of this passage, a person must be baptized of water and receive the Holy Spirit.

Facts: It’s indisputably clear that a person must receive the Holy Spirit to be saved (cf. Rom. 8:9). Therefore, the UPC’s interpretation of the “born of the Spirit” portion of this passage is correct. (The problem with their view of receiving the Holy Spirit is that it is something that happens after faith–a view that Paul clearly disagrees with in Eph 1:13 when he writes that we are “sealed” with the Holy Spirit upon belief).

The greater question, then, is about baptism. What does Jesus mean when He says that a person must be born of water to enter the kingdom of Heaven? Is He referring to water baptism or something else?

In order to answer that question I’d like to quote from Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary. Their explanation of this passage is the best that I’ve read anywhere. I could just paraphrase it but in my mind that would be plagiarism. They sum it up better than I ever could.

Before I give the citation, though, I’d like to stress that baptism is indeed commanded by Christ (cf. Mat. 28:19). Because of that, if a person claims to have believed and yet refuses to obey Christ then I doubt the sincerity of their belief. Nevertheless, baptism is a response to grace, it is not the cause of grace. We get baptized because we are saved, not order to get saved.

Without further ado, here is the quote from Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary1

Of water has been interpreted as: (1) water baptism. But the NT teaches that one is born again at the point of faith, not baptism (Acts 10:43–47); (2) a synonym for the Holy Spirit. The phrase could be translated “born of water, even the spirit”; (3) a symbol of the Word of God (Eph. 5:26; 1 Pet. 1:23); (4) physical birth; (5) John’s baptism; or (6) a symbol, along with wind, in OT imagery for the work of God from above. The first three views are questionable since they must rely on future teaching in the Scripture which would not have been accessible to Jesus’ listeners For interpretation 4, the idea is that Nicodemus brought up physical birth (3:4) and Jesus went on to say, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (3:6). If one could enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, he would still be flesh. This position is not likely since Jesus’ words would be trivial and do not advance the argument. Options 5 and  6 are the better choices for the meaning of the statement. Option 5 is a viable one since Nicodemus would probably be familiar with John’s baptism.Jesus would be saying that one must identify with and accept John’s message (baptism) and then one would receive Messiah’s baptism in the Spirit as John promised (1:31–33). This view has both historical and theological support. Christ emphasizes by v. 6 that there are two realms, that of the flesh and the Spirit. Humans cannot save themselves but must rely on God’s Spirit to regenerate them. Option 6 relies on the translation of pneuma, wind or spirit. Under this view the Greek term should be understood as wind rather than spirit and thus serve alongside of water as symbols for spiritual truths similar to how these terms are used in the OT (for example, Is. 44:3–5 and Ezek. 37:9, 10). Jesus, then, is contrasting the things from below (earthly womb) from the elements of water and wind from above (the divine work of the Spirit of God). A teacher of Israel should understand such OT imagery. Nicodemus may have been challenged by Christ, since he was a teacher of Israel, to understand the questions of Prov. 30:3–5: (1) Who has ascended into heaven, or descended? (2)Who has gathered the wind in His fist? (3) Who has bound the waters in a garment? (4) Who has established all the ends of the earth? (5) What is His name, and what is His Son’s name? “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him” (compare John 3:15, 16).2

I agree with their opinion that views 5 and 6 are the most likely. I used to believe that being born of water referred to baptism, but I changed my mind even before I left the UPC. I decided that it was more likely that it referred to physical birth while being born of the Spirit referred to spiritual birth. I still think that is a plausible view; it does make sense textually. However, I now think that it was referring to OT imagery. I’m not dogmatic about my view because there are other explanations that make sense. This is one of those passages that has several potential interpretations. The one thing that they all agree on, though, is that Jesus is clearly saying that the Holy Spirit is necessary for salvation. That’s what we need to focus on. The method of receiving the Holy Spirit–belief–is given several verses later, in John 3:16.


  1. I apologize for the long paragraph; that is how it was written []
  2. Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), Jn 3:5. []

19 thoughts on “John 3:5-6 (Misinterpreted Scriptures)

  1. Jason Vanlue


    Can anyone today be saved without being baptized? A follow up, what do you feel is the proper way to be baptized?

    In Love,

    Jason Vanlue

    1. Josh (Site Admin) Post author

      Your first question is dealt with in the article:

      “Before I give the citation, though, I’d like to stress that baptism is indeed commanded by Christ (cf. Mat. 28:19). Because of that, if a person claims to have believed and yet refuses to obey Christ then I doubt the sincerity of their belief. Nevertheless, baptism is a response to grace, it is not the cause of grace. We get baptized because we are saved, not order to get saved.”

      The second is answered elsewhere on the site in some of the other articles about baptism.

  2. Glenn Frazier

    Well first of all you pose a good interesting study, but my Bible tells me that Peter said, Repent and be Baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins, and you shall receiver the gift Holy Ghost. Acts 2:38

  3. Thomas

    Josh. I read your views to be of little impact to the believers and followers of Upc. I in fact got into understand the God head which was more frequently misinformed and miss applied by so call generation churches through out the world. Christians in the world need to read and understand the bible more deeper. Any misrepresentation or misinterpretation will be judged accordingly by God. I come to understand the true God deeper and I am proud to be a. UPC.. GOD. IS NOT THE RESPECTOR OF PERSON BUT RESPECTOR OF HIS PRINCIPLES.. There is no little hell in Heaven in Heaven is Purely a Holy place.
    I thank you for setting up this forum which is helping to share our views. May God bless

    1. Josh (Site Admin) Post author

      Thomas, the purpose of this site isn’t to persuade people to not be in the UPC. If you read the About and My Story pages you’ll see what I mean.

      That said, this site has affected many people. I get emails about it almost every day, along with numerous comments. It’s truly humbling; when I made this web site I never thought it would help so many people.

      In Christ,

  4. Alvin

    All this going back and forth and arguing makes me sick! I Thank God I’m grounded and rooted in my faith! If I was searching for the truth and I came to this web site. I would probably just throw in the towel! I pray to God that he would help us be unified and not divided! Help us Jesus! In Jesus name, Amen!

  5. Joe

    Firstly, keep in mind the common misinterpretation is due to a lack of understanding of the word “baptize”. This word literally translates to “submerge”. The word baptize alone does not relate to water at all, although that was it’s most frequent use during the OT.

    Born of the water means to be born as a human (salvation through Jesus is only available to mankind). We are “baptized” (submerged in) amniotic fluid as babies, then we are born of water. This is symbolic to our new birth, being baptized (submerged in) the Holy Spirit upon belief, gives birth to us who are new creatures who have new spirits. Jesus actually marries up the two symbols in the same sentence. He first states:

    1. born of water
    2. born of the Spirit.

    He then repeats with clarity:

    1. born of the flesh (water/natural means/the seen realm)
    2. born of the Spirit (spiritual means/unseen realm)

    The water is representing the flesh (physical birth) and the Spirit represents Spiritual rebirth. Also, Paul was never baptized with water. Jesus should have been the very last person to be baptized with water, as He was doing so to fulfill the law. John the baptist said himself that Jesus would come and baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire, which is greater than water and nullifies the requirement for water baptism. Water baptisms were used because there was no Holy Spirit poured upon man freely until after Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection. If we say “Jesus did it so we should”, then we should also begin our faith in traditional Judaism as He did. He only did so to fulfill the requirements and give us a new way through faith not by works. Do you all recall the story of the Apollos in Acts 18? He had been corrected by the apostolic couple Aquila and Priscilla because he only knew the baptism of John. Paul also had to correct a group of individuals who only knew of John’s baptism in Acts 19:

    1 And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples

    2 he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

    So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”

    3 And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?”

    So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”

    4 Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”

    5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

    6 And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.

    7 Now the men were about twelve in all.

    Bottom line, water baptism is not required under the New Covenant, only Holy Spirit baptism which occurs upon belief of Jesus.

  6. Caleb

    To say that you are filled with the Spirit at the point of belief is to neglect the context of the Bible in its entirety. Eph 1:13 does indeed teach that you are sealed with the Spirit of promise after you believed. If not, then how do you reconcile the even in Acts 19 that took place between Paul and some of John’s disciples? They did believe, but still had not received the Holy Ghost. Furthermore, your stance on Eph 1:13 is based upon the faulty notion that belief, in the sense of mental or intellectual assent, necessitates saving faith. However, the reality is that faith/belief is inseparable from obedience in the context of biblical, saving faith (James 2:17-20). James even writes in the scripture I just referenced that devils have the capacity to believe in the one true God, yet I don’t believe or expect that you would assert that a devil has saving faith just because he believes in God (in no way do I mean that sarcastically). Furthermore, Paul makes his statement regarding belief and the sealing of believers on the backdrop of those same believers who heard the word of truth, which he refers to as the “gospel of your salvation.” The gospel is nothing else than the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:1-4). In that particular scripture Paul defines the gospel that he preached to the Corinthians, states that the Corinthians received that gospel and stand in it still, and that it is the gospel that saves them if they keep it in their memory. Therefore, the gospel must me obeyed. I don’t think that you would disagree with that statement either, but lets take it a step further. 2 Thess 1:8 and 1 Peter 4:17 warn against not obeying the gospel, and that disobedience to the gospel will result in a fiery judgment. Now, my question to you is this: how does one obey the gospel? Romans 6:4 tells us how; “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” The imagery here is that we die (repent), are buried (baptized), and are raised again (filled with the Spirit). Those are three different events that are necessary to our association with and obedience to the gospel. You must have belief, in that you are correct, but belief can not save you in and of itself. Notice also that, with the exception of I Peter 4:17, every scripture that I am referencing is written by Paul. Eph 1:13 must be viewed in correct context and in light of the rest of Paul’s writings. In regards to the Nelson Illustrated Bible Commentary quote, to attempt and define what Jesus meant in John 3:5 when only viewing that scripture can lead to a number of different interpretations just as you yourself have stated. But the reality is that the words in the verse are not defined by dictionaries (Greek or English), but are defined by context. The context of the entire Bible, Old and New Testament, points to the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts as the birth of the Church and the revealing of God’s ultimate plan of salvation. You don’t have to guess about what Jesus meant in John 3:5; Peter clearly explains what Jesus meant by his statements and actions in Acts 2, which were made in obedience to the commandments he had been given by Christ.

    1. Josh (Site Admin) Post author


      Even the briefest reading of my articles and comments would show that I do not think that intellectual acknowledgment is biblical faith.

      With that said, I am not the one who said that a person receives the Holy Spirit upon belief, Paul did. It makes no sense to try to separate being “sealed” with the Spirit from being justified. That just doesn’t make sense.

      My article on salvation explains more, so I won’t repeat it here.

      In Christ,

      1. Caleb


        I apologize for not being more specific about something in my previous comment. The point I was trying to make regarding Eph 1:13 is in reference to your statements of (The problem with their view of receiving the Holy Spirit is that it is something that happens after faith–a view that Paul clearly disagrees with in Eph 1:13 when he writes that we are “sealed” with the Holy Spirit upon belief), and then later (Even the briefest reading of my articles and comments would show that I do not think that intellectual acknowledgment is biblical faith. With that said, I am not the one who said that a person receives the Holy Spirit upon belief, Paul did. It makes no sense to try to separate being “sealed” with the Spirit from being justified. That just doesn’t make sense).

        Paul didn’t say that you’re sealed with the Holy Spirit upon belief in and of itself. He was not vague in the slightest way; Paul said that you are sealed AFTER RECEIVING THE WORD OF TRUTH, the gospel of your salvation. In my comment I showed Paul’s definition of the gospel. That is the point that I was trying to make; that belief in the gospel is the prerequisite for the Holy Spirit. According to proper biblical hermeneutics that is nothing else but obeying the death, burial, and resurrection through repentance from sin and dead works, water baptism in His Name, AND receiving the Holy Spirit.

        I will admit that I did not have time to read your article on salvation before my first comment, but I have now read. Needless to say, it is much to long to reply to each facet of your article. But, in my opinion, you are addressing the issue of works salvation. You can’t say that baptism doesn’t save you because the bible specifically says that it does (1 Peter 3:21). Peter certainly wasn’t saying, however, that you could be baptized and be saved; that is purely works. But baptism is a part of salvation. The same principle applies to tongues. This discussion could go on for pages, but I will leave it at that for now.

        God Bless you and your Wife,

        Caleb Hutto

        1. Josh (Site Admin) Post author


          I appreciate your detailed reply, and the spirit that you wrote it in. It’s great to hear from people who disagree but take the time to articulate why :)

          Regarding Eph. 1:13, I have to respectfully say that I think you’re making a very simple, straightforward statement by Paul into a convoluted explanation that just doesn’t fit the text. Paul did refer to receiving the word of truth, but “receiving the word of truth” doesn’t translate into “were baptized and filled with the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in other tongues.” Instead, Paul associated “receiving the word of truth” to “belief.” The NIV puts it like this: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”. It’s simply impossible to interpret Paul’s statement as anything other than belief immediately causing us to be “sealed” with the Holy Spirit. Attempting to insert additional works or “steps” in the middle of the passage totally destroys it.

          It’s worth adding that belief leading to salvation is consistent with every other thing Paul wrote on salvation. The idea that Paul *actually* meant believe, repent, be baptized, and speak in tongues is not consistent with anything that he wrote.

          Regarding 1 Peter 3:21, I want to address your comment on baptism being a part of salvation. There are numerous reasons why it’s inconsistent to teach that baptism leads to justification. I’ve outlined many of those in my article on salvation so I won’t repeat them here. I will add, though, that it’s just not logical. If there are 4 steps to salvation (belief/repentance, baptism, and “receiving” the Holy Spirit by begging for it for minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or even years), then when is a person actually justified? Justification is an either/or thing. You’re either justified or your not. There’s no middle ground. A person can’t be 1/4 justified, 1/2 justified, 3/4 justified, and then fully justified. That’s not consistent with Scripture and it’s not consistent with logic. If speaking in tongues is the thing that causes a person to be justified then baptism does NOT cause them to be justified. If baptism causes them to be justified then receiving the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues does NOT cause them to be justified. We can’t have 4 things that justify a person (or 7, as one UPC Bible study teaches). We can only have one thing that justifies, and Scripture repeatedly says that it is grace through faith (belief).

          So how does 1 Pet. 3:21 fit in? The explanation is pretty simple, and it doesn’t require working around or twisting any other Scripture. Frank Viola, the author of “Pagan Christianity,” explained that baptism wasn’t emphasized until the 3rd century AD. He’s totally accurate. I could quote any number of scholars who say the same thing, but Frank Viola’s book is readable and informative so I love promoting it. He went on to explain that baptism in the 1st century church was the equivalent of the sinner’s prayer (or in our case we could say it was the equivalent of the altar call). People in the first century church were baptized immediately AS a profession of their faith, not in ADDITION to it. They didn’t believe then wait to be baptized, they believed AND were baptized. The two went together hand in hand. This is illustrated in Acts as well–there was never a delay between belief and baptism.

          Therefore, Peter didn’t see any need to differentiate between belief and baptism. In his world–indeed, in the entire church of his time–belief was directly associated with baptism. He could quite honestly say “baptism saves us” without contradicting himself, Christ, or Paul, because baptism and belief went hand in hand.

          On a side note, a proper understanding of early church baptism helps us understand why the New Testament authors didn’t clarify its role. They didn’t see a need to. In their world, Jesus said be baptized so they did it. A person believed, they got baptized. In Acts it even happened the same night that they believed. No delay. If we handled it the same way today then we could immediately resolve almost all of the arguments about baptism. Why argue about its purpose if we all agree that everyone should do it?

          In Christ,

    2. Misael Hernandez

      I agree with you Brother! It is true that the Word cleanses us but it is through obeying the Word. it is not enough to believe-to be saved is to be baptized with water and with the Holy Spirit.

  7. Biak

    Josh, pls take off your biases before reading the bible, coz it sometimes blocks the truth from our eyes and minds.

    We are same in saying that bapt. is a response or obedience to Gods grace (what God has done for us, namely, salvation). Can Gods grace (salvation) be yours without a response or obedience hand? Bapt. is your response or obedience hands to Gods grace (salvation). It does not mean that bapt. causes salvation.


    1. Josh (Site Admin) Post author


      If we agree that baptism is a response to salvation then I’m not sure what biases you’re referring to :). If we agree then I apologize for misunderstanding your earlier comment.

      In Christ,

  8. Biak


    If we are saved before baptizing, what made you to be baptized? You may say, it is the commandment of Christ, even though you accept that Christ never ask or command us to do something for nothing. Why did Jesus command his disciples to baptize people, if it does nothing for those who were baptized? Dont forget that baptism is a response or obedience to faith in Gods grace. Faith without obedience is not faith at all.

    1. Josh (Site Admin) Post author


      It’s true that faith without obedience is not faith. The key point to remember though is that the good works that we’re commanded to do cannot be done unless the Spirit of Christ already resides in us. For example, when Christ talked about spiritual fruit in John 15:5 he said, “apart from me you can do nothing.” In 15:4 He says, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

      The key point here is that baptism is a response to grace, it is not a cause of grace. We do good works because the Spirit of God enables us to do so. We don’t do good works in order to get the Spirit of God. When we say that baptism is necessary for salvation we put the cart before the horse. Baptism is a response, not a cause. To say that baptism causes salvation nullifies grace. Here are several articles that deal more with this subject.

      In Christ,

      1. Jonathan

        I’m not sure I follow your logic. I am UPC, I too, had a choice to make, I too, prayed and spent a great deal of time in coming to my decision. However, you appear to be majoring in the minors. Forgive me for this thought process, i may be wrong. I would never intend to offend you, your circular logic is not making sense to me. I do know that there is a lot difference in churches (UPC or not) across the states and the globe. What you are saying is taught as a UPC standard for salvation is not something I have heard for some time. I am 40 years old and was born into the UPC. 4th generation on both sides. If you were told that baptism was a cause of grace, then the teacher was mistaken. The grace of God has nothing to do with us at all except that we are the recipients of it. The Cause was the cross, the baptism is the end result of what happened on that tree. If baptism was never necessary, then the blood of Christ was shed for nothing. So why did Jesus die? please enlighten me Josh.


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