It is common when the discussion of baptismal regeneration comes up between Protestants and Catholics, the Catholic is quick to point to Titus 3:5 to argue for baptismal regeneration. The assumption given is that this passage speaks so clearly and evenly about being regenerated by water of baptism that it becomes the hammer in the discussion. Trying to discuss passages that speak of regeneration being an act of God alone outside the context of ritual becomes irrelevant. It becomes, then, an example of arriving at one’s conclusion before proving it.
Often, various arguments are given to solidify the stranglehold on the passage:
- The word for washing can also be translated water, or is used of ritual cleansing
- All the church fathers believed this, and they were experts in Greek, Latin, etc.
And, at first light, these arguments might sound convincing. I mean, has any Protestant ever checked every reference of the Fathers to see if Tit 3:5 was always interpreted as baptismal regeneration? And, even conceding that point, does that really make a difference on what the text actually says? This article will leave it to others to examine the Early Church Fathers on the issue, as this is primarily concerned with the text itself.
As one who adheres to Sola Scriptura, it is my assertion that the text does not speak of baptismal regeneration, and that it is a tradition forced onto Titus 3:5. If we allow the text to define its own meaning, and allow it to speak on its own terms, then I believe that we will find an entirely different viewpoint than what the Catholic will hold to.
Let us look into the surrounding context, then. Titus 3:4-7:
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared,
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
When the entire sentence is read, one must wonder where the argument holds ground in the first place. For in the text, several things are certain:
- God is the subject. He is doing the saving (v. 5)
- God’s mercy is given as the motivation for the action
- There is an explicit denial of human activity, as he has not saved us by works done in righteousness
- The agency of the salvation is not of human origin, as both washing of regeneration and renewal have the Holy Spirit as the source
- The means by which we received the Holy Spirit upon us was Jesus
So, one has to wonder the basis upon which the Catholic feels justified to argue that baptism done by a human accomplishes spiritual regeneration.
The focal point of the argument seems to hinge upon a singular word, which carries with it a great deal of assumption and theological baggage. It is the word “washing.” Though it looks to be a verb, it is, in fact, a noun. The verb-like qualities often confuse people as to its meaning. We will deal with that term momentarily.
Titus 3:4 But when the kindness and benevolence of God our Savior appeared,
The sentence actually begins in verse four. Here, we see a reference to Christ’s coming. The word translated “benevolence” is translated by the NASB as “love toward mankind”. It is as though these two terms, kindness and benevolence, are personified in Christ. One might make this case in that in a previous verse, we are told that the grace of God has appeared, and in 2:13, which certainly seems to be a reference to Christ. However, it appears that the Father is the subject in the following verses, since God is described as our savior, and then we are told that he saved us. And, since Jesus Christ is mentioned as the means by which we have been given the Holy Spirit, it is not likely that Jesus is the subject of the verbs following, else we would expect a reflexive pronoun.
Titus 3:5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,
It is important to note that at no point in this sentence are humans mentioned, nor is human activity ever the subject or means of any verb. But, humans are the objects of the main verb in this clause. He saved us. In looking into this passage, observing these things is important:
- Who saved? God saved.
- Saved whom? God saved us.
- Why did he save? Because of his mercy.
- By what means did he save? By the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Spirit.
We observe from the very outset that human activity is explicitly denied in this passage. Certainly, if baptism were in view, we would see some reference to at least our obedience (if, perhaps someone wishes to separate obedience from an act of righteousness). There would at least be some reference to our activity. There is not, however. The phrase translated above as, “not on the basis of deeds” is a negation of human works. To further separate the work of salvation from human effort, Paul uses a strong adversative (grk. alla). Thus, a strong contrast is given here. It is not on the basis of works (not just any works, but those done in righteousness) but it is on the basis of his mercy. Thus, God was not motivated to save because of a work of man, even those deeds that are righteous (of which baptism is certainly one), but because of his mercy. Even still, baptism is not listed as a parallel activity, since the “washing” is not given as a separate function from the Holy Spirit. In other words, were one to be able to show that baptism does regenerate a person in other passages, it still does not affect the meaning of this passage. The meaning if this passage is that in every respect, we are saved by God, and not by any action on our part. It is entirely unilateral here. Therefore, even if a person baptized another, and regeneration happened at the same time, one could not say that the baptism performed in anyway resulted in regeneration. Otherwise, the meaning of the passage would be on its head, and the motivation for God to save would, indeed, we a work done in righteousness. If, truly, “all our righteousness is as filthy rags”, then even the greatest of our deeds does not merit eternal life. Surely, one could never make the case that anything less, or anything other than a righteous deed would be worthy of merit. But, Paul denies even the righteous deeds.
A great deal of weight is placed upon the word “washing.” It is the Greek term loutron, which certainly bears that meaning. The idea of the word is a ritual cleansing, rather than simply a cleansing from dirt, though that meaning is there. The practice of ritual cleansing before service is not at all uncommon, as this was the rite the sons of Aaron were required to practice. Thus, many have gone through great lengths to somehow tie rituals of cleansing to loutron in this context. But, this is an example of what is often called “one-word exegesis”. This is another way of saying that the people are practicing eisegesis, or reading into the text their assumptions. Let me explain. A single word with no context has no meaning, since it has no defining parameters to limit its meaning. To put it another way, a word with no context bears every possible meaning that a dictionary might give it, including poetic and metaphoric usage. I have often used the word “fire” as an example. With no context, the word fire can be a command (Fire!) as in an execution, an exclamation (Fire!) as in the warning of a fire, it can mean passion ( heart of fire) or anger (heart of fire). Without context, it is simply impossible to know truly the meaning of a term.
In this passage, there is no difference. Simply connecting the lexical meaning of loutron to ritual cleansing without observing what the context is telling us about that term is irresponsible exegesis. In the context, we must note that though the word is rich in meaning regarding ritual cleansing, and has been interpreted as baptism (being a Christian symbol of cleansing), loutron is the work of the Spirit, and not of men. In context (v. 1-3), Paul tells us that we need to be kind, respectful, and benevolent to others, “we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.” In contrast to that, God’s undeserved kindness and benevolence toward us resulted in our salvation. The sins and attributes that Paul uses to describe our lost state are grim, as Paul pulls no punches. But, works done in righteousness will not offset the ugliness of that sin. Therefore, in accordance with his mercy, he saved us, by pouring His Spirit upon us. He is the one who cleansed us, by His Spirit, as the passage clearly states.
Whom he poured out richly upon us through Jesus Christ, our Savior.
So, flowing into this next thought, having seen the meaning, we now see exactly the means of “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Again, this next verse further denies human activity in that it is not the Spirit being poured out upon us in baptism, for it is not the work of man by which the Holy Spirit is poured out. God is the subject here. He poured out the Holy Spirit upon us. And, once again, neither man, nor the activity of man is the means of this activity, for it is Christ that is the means by which we have the Spirit.
What we see, then, is that this passage is not speaking of water, or physical baptism. It is in fact using such language to refer to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is poured, not water, God does the pouring, not man, and water or ritual is not given as the means by which such is done, but either the Holy Spirit, or Jesus is the means, motivated by God’s mercy alone.
This concept does not exist in a theological vacuum. Indeed, the background of this passage can be found in the Old Testament. One can easily see the parallel with Ezekiel 36:
23 “I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. 24 “For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. 25 “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (emphasis mine)
Despite the rebellion of this people, and their “filthiness” and idolatry, God promises to redeem them, to “sprinkle clean water on” them. Surely no one can see a parallel to Baptism in this, since it is not men who pour this water. This unilateral working of God is truly awe-inspiring. In the vindication of his holiness, again, actions of men are not the motive for His action (indeed, their deeds should be cause for judgment, rather than mercy), He cleanses his people, gives them a new heart and spirit, removes the heart of stone, and gives them a heart of flesh. He will put his Spirit within us and cause us to walk in his statutes. This is the heart of the message of Titus. God saves men, and he does so perfectly. Who can stand within his presence and, however subtly or pretentiously humble and declare their own helping hand? This water came from God. He sprinkled pure water on us. He cleansed us. How could this be made clearer?
Of course, other passages can be brought into the discussion, such as Isaiah 44 and Joel 2. But I think Ezekiel makes the point clear: God saves. It is not by the washings or rituals of men wherein salvation is found, but in the mercy and grace of our Lord. But, there is more that can be seen in this. There is perfect and complete unity within the Godhead in the redemption of humanity. There is no confusion, no dissension, only the Almighty Trinity working toward the redemption of men, to the glory of his Grace.
Indeed, when one looks very closely at Titus at this point, one sees that magnificent sight: The blessed Trinity involved in our salvation, a complete agreement within the Godhead, promised long beforehand, regarding the redemption of man. God saves, the Spirit regenerates, the Son provides the Spirit. It is beautiful to see the perfect works of God, united in Trinity, rather than the errant works of men.
That, because we have been justified by his grace, we should be made heirs, according to the hope of eternal life.
It cannot be emphasized enough that we are the objects of salvation, we are objects of justification, and our efforts are utterly denied. The only verb that has man as the subjects (the exception being “we have done” in verse 5, where the works we have done are denied as the motivating factor in our salvation) is “we should be made.” However, this does not do anything to the denial or the negation of human activity since this is a passive verb, and as such we are receiving the action of being made heirs.
Verse seven constitutes a clause of purpose/result. What this means is that in the mind of the author, the purpose of the main verb in the clause not only indicates the intention of the action, but also its sure accomplishment. The nature of the construction, even though the mood of the verb (a subjunctive) is called the verb of doubt, in the context of the purpose/result clause, there is no doubt in the mind of the author as to whether or not the action will be accomplished.
Therefore, we can conclude very easily that our regeneration and salvation is brought about as a work of God, and not in correspondence to our actions. The text simply will not allow it to be so. Further, since there is no effort, cooperation, or rituals of men in this context, then the responsibility of salvation and its sure completion therein, is based solely and completely on the work of God. His honor and integrity are placed on the line.
It is here, where we need to be humbled, and not arrogant, as to the sovereign working of God. May our hearts be softened so as to praise his glorious grace.