Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
To what I have said in the conclusion of the first discourse concerning the proper import of the word Regeneration, I beg leave to add the following remarks for the farther satisfaction of some worthy persons, who think it may be convenient to state the matter a little more particularly.
I ACKNOWLEDGE that many learned and pious divines have taught and contended, that Regeneration does, in the strictest propriety of speech, signify Baptism -- so that no unbaptized person, how well disposed soever, can properly be said to be regenerated; whereas that title may justly be given to all who have been baptized, how destitute soever they might have been of Christian faith and holiness when they received the ordinance, or how grossly soever they may since have forfeited the final blessings of a regenerate state. Dr. Waterland has stated this matter at large in his labored and ingenious treatise on the subject, which is the best I know on this side of the question. And though this would be a very improper place to enter on a critical examination of that piece, I will briefly touch on the chief arguments which he, or others in his sentiments, have urged in vindication of this favorite notion. So far as I can recollect, what they say is capable of being reduced to two heads; -- that Christian antiquity uses the word in this sense; -- and that there are passages of Scripture which authorize such an application of it.
As to the first of these, I readily own that the word has this sense in the generality of the Christian writers, from about the middle of the second century, though I think not so universally as some have concluded:  but I think it easy to account for such a use of it among them. For in the earliest ages of the church, persons were generally baptized as soon as they were converted to the cordial belief of Christianity; and therefore the time of their conversion, and that of their baptism, might naturally enough be spoken of as one: and as this was a period when they did, as it were, come into a new world, it is no wonder that the action by which they testified a change so lately made, should be put for that change itself. Just as illumination also among the ancients signifies baptism: not to intimate that the grand illumination of the mind was made by this rite, or at the time of it; for that would be supposing the person in darkness when he embraced the Gospel, and determined to be baptized: but because it was taken for granted, and that very justly in those days, that every one savingly enlightened would soon be baptized, that so he might be regularly joined to the society of enlightened or regenerated persons, that is, to the Christian church: which no doubt had the best right of any body of men in the world to that title, though in its purest state it contained some ignorant and wicked members.
In a word, a man by baptism solemnly professed himself a Christian; and as it was generally the first overt act by which his believing the Gospel could be publicly and generally known, and was also supposed to be very near the time of his inward conversion, they dated his regeneration, that is, his happy change (as that word used to signify even among the heathen  ) from that time. We own therefore that these ancient Christians (of whom I always think and speak with great respect) had a very good excuse for this method of speaking: but whether they were perfectly accurate in this, and whether they did not recede from the scripture use of the word, may be matter of farther inquiry.
As to the arguments from Scripture in support of the interpretation I oppose, they are taken partly from particular places; but chiefly, as I apprehend, from the general tenor of it, in which Christians are spoken of as regenerated.
The particular texts are John iii.5, and Tit. iii.5, on which much of the stress of this controversy is laid; but on considering them attentively, I find nothing in either of them to lead us to think baptism the regeneration spoken of there.
As to the former of them, John iii.5, when our Lord says, Except a man be born of water, and of the Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of GOD; it is (after all the contempt with which that interpretation has been treated) very possible he may mean, by a well-known figure, to express one idea by both those clauses, that is, the purifying influences of the Spirit cleansing the mind, as water does the body: as elsewhere, to be baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire, (Matt. iii.11,) signifies to be baptized by the Spirit operating like fire. But if there is indeed a reference to baptism in these words (which I own I am much inclined to believe) it will by no means follow that baptism is Regeneration. On that supposition, I still think the sense of the passage must be that which I have given in my paraphrase on it (Fam. Expos. vol. I. p.148-p.57 Am. Ed.) "Whosoever would become a regular member of the kingdom of God, must not only be baptized, but as ever he desires to share in its spiritual and eternal blessings, must experience the renewing and sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit on his soul, to cleanse it from the power of corruption, and to animate and quicken it to a spiritual and Divine life." It is granted therefore, that how excellent soever any man's character is, he must be baptized before he can be looked upon as completely a member of the church of Christ; and that, in general, being born of the Spirit, he will also be solicitous that he may be born of water, and so fulfill all righteousness. But it will never follow from hence, that being born of water and born of the Spirit are the same thing. The text rather implies they are different; and I think every body must own, they may be actually separate.
Nothing therefore can be more absurd than to infer from this text, that if there be two persons, one of whom is born of the Spirit, and not of water; another of water, and not of the Spirit; the latter, that is, the wicked man, who has perhaps with some iniquitous design been baptized, may properly be said to be regenerated, or born of GOD, and consequently to be an heir of GOD, (Rom. viii.17,) rather than a truly religious man who has not yet been baptized, either through want of opportunity, or through some unhappy mistake, as to the nature and design, or the perpetuity and obligations of that ordinance. Now this I take to be precisely the question, and must declare that when a baptized person is destitute of true religion, that birth which he had by water, seems to me as it were an evanescent thing, or a thing which disappears as unworthy the mention; and that it must be therefore most safe and advisable, as well as most agreeable to the scripture sense, to appropriate the title of regenerate persons to those sanctified by Divine grace, rather than to use it of all who are baptized.
As to the text in Titus (chap. iii.5,) where God is said to save us by the washing of regeneration, or, as some earnestly contend it should be rendered, by the laver of regeneration: I might answer, that as that interpretation is by no means necessary,  it cannot be proved that baptism is here designed; though I acknowledge there may be a graceful allusion to it. The Apostle may mean, we are saved by GOD'S washing our hearts by his sanctifying Spirit (a phrase so often used in the Old Testament) and thereby making us his children: and in this sense it might have been used, though baptism had never been instituted. But granting (as I have done) that Loutron may be rendered laver, and that baptism may be the laver referred to; and that "there is indeed an allusion to the washing new-born children; (as Mr. Mede in his diatribe on this text contends;) I think this text will be so far from proving that St. Paul meant to call baptism Regeneration, that it will prove the contrary: for regeneration itself, and the laver of regeneration, can not be the same thing. And whatever Tertullian and other ancients may fancifully talk of our being generated like fishes in the water, in a weak allusion to the technical word IChThUS, (a fish,) common sense will see how absurd it would be to apply this to a child, and will teach us rather to argue, that as children must be born before they can be washed, so they must be regenerated before the washing of regeneration (that is, the washing which belongs to their new birth,) can be applied to them. But on the whole, I am more and more inclined to think there is no reference at all here to a laver, or to the washing new-born children; and therefore, that this washing and the renewing of the Holy Ghost are exegetical, and that the latter clause might be rendered, even the renewing, &c, which makes the text decisive for the sense in which I use the word.
After all, then, if any argument can be deduced from scripture in favor of the manner of speaking now in debate, it must be from the general tenor of it; according to which it seems that all who are members of the visible church are spoken of as regenerate; from which it may be inferred, with some plausible probability at least, that baptism, by which they are admitted into that society, may be called Regeneration. And I am ready to believe, as I hinted above, that this was the chief reason why the ancients so often used the word in the sense I am now opposing.
Now with relation to this, I desire it may be recollected, that when Christianity first appeared in the world, it was attended with such discouragements, as made the very profession of it, in a great measure, a test of men's characters. The Apostles therefore, knowing the number of hypocrites to be comparatively very small, generally take no notice of them, but address themselves to whole bodies of Christians, as if they were truly what they professed to be. Just as our Lord Jesus Christ, though he knew the wickedness of Judas, often addressed himself to the whole body of his Apostles, as if they were all his faithful servants, and makes gracious declarations and promises to the whole society, which could by no means be applicable to this one corrupt and wretched member of it; telling them, for instance, that they should share in his final triumph, and sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Matt. xix.28.
This is therefore the true key to all those passages in which Christians are, in the general, said to be adopted, sanctified, justified, &c., as well as regenerated. The Apostles had reason, in the judgment of charity, to think thus of by far the greatest part of them; and therefore they speak to them all, as in such a happy state. And agreeably to this, we find not only such privileges, but also such characters, ascribed to Christians in general, as were only applicable to such of them as were Christians indeed. Thus all the Corinthians are spoken of by the Apostle Paul, as waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, (1 Cor. i.7,) and all the Ephesians, and all the Colossians, as having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and love to all the saints, (Eph. i.15; Col. i.4,) and all the Philippians, as having a good work begun in them, which Paul was persuaded GOD would perfect, (Phil. i.6,) and all the Thessalonians, as remarkable for their work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope; (1 Thess. i.3;) though it evidently appears there were persons in several of these churches who behaved much amiss, and to whom, had he been particularly addressing each of them alone, he could not by any means have used such language. On the like principles Peter, when addressing all the Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, speaks of the whole aggregate of them, (1 Pet. i.8,) as loving an unseen Saviour, and amidst all their tribulations, rejoicing in him with joy unspeakable and full of glory; though probably there were some weak and dejected Christians among them, and undoubtedly in so large an extent of country, in which there were such a vast number of churches, not a few, who (as our Lord afterwards expresses it of some of them) had only a name to live, while they were dead; (Rev. iii.1:) in which passage, by the way, our Lord uses the same figure, and describes the whole body by the character of those who made the greater of it.
I state the matter thus particularly, because I think this obvious remark is a sufficient answer to what is most peculiar and important in a late Discourse, consisting of near 130 quarto pages, and entitled A Key to the Apostolic Writings, &c., prefixed by the Rev. Mr. Taylor, of Norwich, to his late Paraphrase and Notes on the Romans.  I think what I have briefly advanced here, will much more effectually answer the end of fixing the true sense of the scripture phrases in question. And I cannot forbear saying, that to determine the sense of the words called, redeemed, sanctified, &c., when applied to the Christian church, by that in which they are used in Moses and the prophets with respect to the whole people of Israel, seems to me as unreasonable, as it would be to maintain, that the dimensions, the strength, and the beauty of a body are to be most exactly estimated by looking on its shadow.
Yet on this evidently weak and mistaken principle, the learned and ingenious Author referred to above, ventures not only to attempt an entire alteration in the generally-received strain of theological Discourses, but to throw out a censure, which, considering its extent and its severity, must either be very terrible, or very pitiable. He not only seems to think, if I understand him right, that we were all regenerated (if at all) as well as justified, in those of our parents who were first converted from idolatry to Christianity, (Key, � 81, 82, and 246,) as indeed he expressly says, "that we are born in a justified," and therefore undoubtedly, (if the word is to be retained,) in a regenerate "state:" but he presumes to say, that such doctrines as have been almost universally taught and received among Christians, concerning "Justification, regeneration, redemption, &c., have quite taken away the very ground of the Christian life, the grace of God, and have left no object for the faith of a sinner to work upon." (� 357.) And hereupon, lest it should be forgot, he repeats it in the same section, that to represent it as "the subject of doubtful inquiry, trial, and examination, whether we have an interest in Christ, whether we are in a state of pardon, whether we be adopted, (and by consequence, to be sure, whether we be regenerated,) "is" (as the Antinomians I imagine would also say,) "to make our justification, as it invests us in those blessings, to be of works, and not by faith alone;" and (as we just before said in the same words,) "to take away the very ground of the Christian life, the grace of God, and to leave no object for the faith of a sinner to act upon." And this way of stating things, which has so generally prevailed, is joined with the wickedness and contentions of professing Christians, as a third cause of that disregard to the Gospel which is so common in the present day.
Now as no book can fall more directly under this censure, than this of mine, in which, it is the business of the first three discourses to direct professing Christians into an inquiry, whether they be or be not in a regenerate state; I thought it not improper, in this postscript, briefly to acquaint my reader with the principles on which I continue to think the view, in which I have put the matter, to be rational and scriptural,  and do still in my conscience judge it far preferable to what the advocates of baptismal regeneration on the one hand, or Dr. Taylor on the other, would introduce.
It seems to me, that the points in dispute with him are much more important than our debates with them, as a much greater number of Scriptures are concerned, and the whole tenor of our ministerial addresses would be much more sensibly affected. Had I leisure to discuss the matter more largely with this gentleman, I should think it might be an important service to the Gospel of Christ. I hope it will be undertaken by some abler hand; and shall, in the mean time, go on preaching and writing in the manner so solemnly condemned, with no apprehension from the discharge of all this overloaded artillery, except it be what I feel for the zealous engineer himself, and a few other friends who may chance to stand nearer him than in prudence they ought.
Northampton, June 13, 1745.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.