“Unless” One Is Born of Water?

From Issue: R&R – Issue 44 #4

Much of Christendom rejects the act of baptism as being of essential significance. Water baptism is typically viewed as a symbolic ritual that a person ought to engage in after accepting Jesus to become a Christian—but the act is not essential to salvation. Hence, water immersion is not generally considered to be a prerequisite to the forgiveness of sin. However, in Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus, His language suggests otherwise. He used an exceptive statement when He declared to Nicodemus: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Whereas older versions rendered the underlying Greek with the word “except” (e.g., ASV, KJV), newer translations generally use the word “unless.” The underlying Greek expression is e)aV n
mh\ (pronounced ay-on, may). A perusal of its use in the New Testament quickly reveals that the logical force of the expression is “if and only if.”

Logicians, philosophers, and mathematicians define “if and only if” as a “biconditional logical connective between statements” and, therefore, a statement of material equivalence.1 So an “if and only if” statement indicates a necessary and sufficient condition. The logical force of Jesus’ use of “unless” is that I will enter the kingdom if and only if I am born of water and the Spirit. As an example, the statement “Unless the fruit is a banana, I cannot eat it” is logically equivalent to “I can eat fruit if and only if the fruit is a banana,” which is also logically equivalent to saying, “I can eat the fruit if the fruit is a banana, and I can eat no other fruit.”

Observe that in an exceptive clause, when a single condition is specified, it constitutes the one and only means by which the stated goal may be achieved. Respected Greek grammarian A.T. Robertson gives examples of this construction under his discussion of four classes of the conditional sentence.2 Consider the following 10 instances:

1. Matthew 26:42—“Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, ‘O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.’”

Logical Force: The “cup” of crucifixion could be achieved if and only if Jesus “drank” it, i.e., endured it.

2. Mark 3:27—“No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house.”

Logical Force: A strong man’s house can be entered and plundered if and only if the strong man is first bound.

3. Mark 4:22—“For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.”

Logical Force: Things were kept secret if and only if they would later be divulged.

4. John 3:27—“John answered and said, ‘A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.’”

Logical Force: A man can receive divine information from heaven if and only if God wills/allows it.

5. John 10:37—“If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me.”

Logical Force: Believe Me if and only if I perform miraculous works of God.

6. John 15:6—“If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.”

Logical Force: A person can avoid hell if and only if he abides in Christ.

7. John 16:7—“It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.”

Logical Force: The Helper would come to the apostles if and only if Jesus went away.

8. 1 Corinthians 9:16—“For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!”

Logical Force: Paul could avoid woe if and only if he preached the Gospel.

9. 2 Timothy 2:5—“And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”

Logical Force: An athlete is crowned if and only if he competes according to the rules.

10. Revelation 2:22—“Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.”

Logical Force: Jezebel could avoid a sickbed and tribulation if and only if she repented of her deeds.

Consider three additional biblical illustrations of this grammatical principle:3

Luke 10:6—“And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you.”

Logical Force: Your peace will return to you if and only if a son of peace is in the house.

Luke 13:9—“And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.”

Logical Force:Cut it down if and only if it does not bear fruit.

Revelation 2:5—“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.”

Logical Force: The Ephesian Christians could avoid the removal of their lampstand if and only if they repented.

Observe that in each of these cases, the logical force of the underlying Greek is “if and only if.” Only on the sole grounds of the stated condition may the action be accomplished or avoided. Whatever other stipulations/prerequisites are given that may be equally essential (e.g., believe), nevertheless, the use of e)aVn mh\ demands that the condition stipulated by the exceptive clause be met.

John 3:5

The application of this grammatical principle to John 3:5 lies in the words selected by Jesus to clarify for Nicodemus the only way to achieve the new birth: “Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” Jesus’ use of “unless” implies the following logically equivalent statements:

  • All those born of water and Spirit may enter the kingdom.
  • No persons not born of water and Spirit may enter the kingdom.
  • All persons not born of water and Spirit are persons who may not enter the kingdom.
  • No persons not born of water and Spirit may enter the kingdom.4

A person may enter the kingdom of God if and only if he is born of water and the spirit. There are no other/additional ways by which one might enter the kingdom. Jesus’ use of the word “water” is an unmistakable reference to water baptism.5 Hence, a person may enter into the kingdom of God if and only if he is baptized in water. Consider the graphic below.

Notice that the logical force of “unless” necessitates that water immersion is the one and only entrance into the kingdom of Christ. Other alleged entrances into the kingdom—whether “faith only,” “accept Jesus as your Savior,” “the sinner’s prayer,” “just believe,” or predestination—are ineffectual. While faith, repentance, and oral confession all precede salvation,6 the “doorway” or entrance point into the kingdom is water baptism. Water baptism constitutes the actual threshold that enables the unforgiven individual to pass into the kingdom of Christ. Baptism is the “dividing line” between the world and the kingdom. No wonder Jesus proclaimed: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). No wonder Ananias announced to Paul: “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16, NASB). No wonder Paul declared: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). And no wonder Peter declared: “baptism now saves you…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21, NASB).7


1 See, for example, university math professor Bruce Ikenaga’s discussion at:; also  I.M. Copi, C. Cohen, D.E. Flage (2006). Essentials of Logic (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, second edition), p. 197; UHM university professor Tom Ramsey, “If and Only If,”; Rudolf Carnap (1958), Introduction to Symbolic Logic and Its Applications (New York: Dover), p. 8; E. Mendelson (1997), Introduction to Mathematical Logic, 4th edition (London: Chapman & Hall), p. 14. See also Irving Copi (1972), Introduction to Logic (New York: Macmillan), p. 343—“exceptive propositions are most conveniently  regarded as quantified biconditionals.”

2 A.T. Robertson (1934), A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press), pp. 1004ff.

3 F. Blass, A. Debrunner, and Robert Funk (1961), A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), p. 254.

4 For further discussion of the logical import of exceptive statements, see Lionel Ruby (1950), Logic: An Introduction (Chicago, IL: J.B. Lippincott), pp. 208,270; Virginia Klenk (1983), Understanding Symbolic Logic (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall), pp. 350-353; Robert Sharvy (1977), Logic: An Outline (Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams, & Co.), p. 38; Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks (1990), Come, Let Us Reason (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), p. 126; Robert Baum (1975), Logic (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston), p. 55.

5 Some have suggested that “water” is being used figuratively to refer to the Holy Spirit. At least three contextual indicators suggest otherwise: (1) The word “water” is used again in the same context (18 verses later) with an obvious literal import: “Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized” (John 3:23); (2) If “water” in John 3:5 refers to the Spirit, then the sentence becomes nonsensical: “unless one is born of the Spirit and the Spirit….” (3) John alludes to a remark of Jesus in 7:38 in which “water” is used figuratively for the Holy Spirit’s impending role once the New Testament Era commenced—a role which Jesus elaborated on in chapters 13-17 which would pertain to the apostolic role in the establishment and spread of the Kingdom. Observe, however, that John had to provide an explanatory remark in order to clarify the fact. The New Testament consistently represents water immersion—literal H2O—as integral to God’s plan of salvation: Matthew 3:11,16; Mark 1:8,10; Luke 3:16; John 1:26,31,33; Acts 8:36,38,39; 10:47; Ephesians 5:26; 1 Peter 3:20-21. No wonder when it became evident to those assembled that Gentiles had the right to be saved and become Christians, Peter issued a rhetorical question: “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized…? And he commanded them to be baptized” (Acts 10:47-48).

6 e.g., Romans 10:17; Acts 2:38; Romans 10:9-10.

7 Of course, water has no saving power. Rather, the Bible teaches that God forgives a person based solely on the blood of Jesus. The question is not how God saves, but when. The New Testament plainly teaches that God forgives sin based on Christ’s blood when the penitent, confessing believer submits to water immersion. See Dave Miller (2019), Baptism & the Greek Made Simple (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press). Also Dave Miller (2021), “Does the Water Regenerate?” Reason & Revelation, 41[11]:131, November, Some have argued that “water” in John 3:5 refers to Christ’s blood or to the amniotic fluid that accompanies the physical birth of a child. For a response to these claims, see Dave Miller (2005), “Baptism and the New Birth,” For further study, see Receiving the Gift of Salvation,


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