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The Washing of Regeneration

by Jim Ward
via The Lost River Bulletin, Vol. 58, No. 4, September 2008.

The denominational world has spent centuries trying to oust baptism from God's plan of salvation. One of the most common efforts centers on works. Notice this argument in syllogistic form:

First Premise: Works do not save: (Titus 3:4-6).
Second Premise: Baptism is a work.
Conclusion: Therefore, baptism does not save.

Through this argument appears sound, it has a flaw: the Second Premise is not true; Scripture does not teach that baptism is a work. In order for a conclusion to be true, BOTH premises must be true.

Now consider this counter argument:

First Premise: Works do not save (Titus 3:4-6)
Second Premise: Baptism saves (I Peter 3:21)
Conclusion: Therefore, baptism is not a work.

In this case, since both premises are Scriptural, the conclusion is true, and it directly rebuts the Second Premise -- and thus the conclusion -- of the above syllogism. But if baptism is not a work, what is it? There are several Biblical answers to this question, but we will focus upon just two:

Baptism is a tool or instrument which God uses to save sinners: The core of Paul's long sentence in Titus 3:4-7 is "He (i.e., God) saved us" (vs. 5). Verse 6 then declares the means by which God saves: "the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit." What is this "washing of regeneration"? Let's notice the comments of several scholars:

Marvin R. Vincent

"The phrase 'laver of generation' distinctly refers to baptism, in connection with which and through which as a medium regeneration is conceived as taking place. Compare Rom. 6:3-5. It is true that nothing is said of faith; but baptism implies faith on the part of its recipient. It has no regenerating effect apart from faith; and the renewing of the Holy Spirit is not bestowed if faith be wanting" (Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, pg. 108).

R.C.H. Lenski

"God saved us by means of baptism. Baptism is a bath of regeneration and renewing, in both of which the Holy Spirit is the actor. That is why God could use baptism as such a means (dia), why baptism is by no means a mere symbol or picture but a true means of divine grace ... To reject baptism is to confess the absence of regeneration" (St. Paul's Epistle to Titus, pp. 935,936).

Newport J.D. White

"God saved us by Baptism, which involves two complementary processes, (a) the ceremony itself which marks the actual moment in time of new birth, and (b) the daily, hourly, momently renewing of the Holy Spirit..." (The Expositor's Greek Testament. p. 198).

G.R. Beasley-Murray

In answering the question of whether baptism is in Titus 3:5, Dr. Beasley-Murray said, "Of the commentators who have written on these Epistles, I can find but one who denies it." Later in this same discussion, he says, "God saved us through baptism ... 'that we might become heirs of life eternal'" (Baptism in the New Testament, pp. 209,216).

Clearly, these scholars believe that the phrase "washing of regeneration" refers to baptism. Thus, they conclude, it is unavoidable that God saves us through baptism, which makes it His work, not ours.

Baptism is an unavoidable expression of faith in the working of God

This is our second answer to the question, "If baptism is not a work, what is it?" To say it another way, faith is not faith without baptism (nor, by the way, is baptism truly baptism without faith). Notice a segment of the earlier quotation from Vincent: "It is true that nothing is said of faith (in Titus 3:5 -- jww) but baptism implies faith on the part of its recipient. It has no regenerating effect apart from faith; and the renewing of the Holy Spirit is not bestowed if faith be wanting." Anyone who rejects baptism and the place God has given it in salvation does not have the kind of faith that saves. In a practical way, this means that those who are baptized with a grasp of God's teaching on the subject do not trust in water or in their own merit, but in the grace and working of God. The regeneration and renewal of Titus 3:5 are OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. This truth is echoed in numerous other passages:

Colossians 2:12: the Colossians were buried with Christ in baptism and "raised with Him THROUGH FAITH IN THE WORKING OF GOD."

John 3:5: Jesus told Nicodemus that the new birth could be accomplished only through water and the Spirit.

Acts 22:16: The washing away of sins relies upon calling on (i.e. trusting in) the name of the Lord.

I Corinthians 6:11: The Corinthians were washed, sanctified, justified, in the name of Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

I Peter 3:21: Baptism saves us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The denominational world is so intent on making baptism a work of man's righteousness that it misses the fact that it is a work of God's righteousness. In baptism we confess our sins and our helplessness to deal with them. In baptism we declare our complete dependence upon God. In baptism we make "an appeal to God for a clear conscience" (I Peter 3:21). Far from betraying trust in self, baptism reveals an absolute trust in God. He saves us by His mercy and justifies us by His grace.