But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. – Titus 3:4-7 (ESV)
In Titus 3 Paul says that God “saved us . . . by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” The word “washing” (loutron) means washing with water, a bath, or the water of baptism (BDAG, 603). Certainly, Paul can use the word “washing” metaphorically. In fact, he does in Ephesians 5:26, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” The washing here is the washing with the word. It’s a metaphor for purifying someone with the word of God.
And yet there is a close connection between baptism and forgiveness in Scripture. Peter says, “And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
So what is going on here? What does Paul mean by “the washing of regeneration,” and what does Peter mean when he says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”? Put simply, how do baptism and regeneration relate to one another?
The Protestant Answer
The Protestant answer is that baptism is a sign of regeneration or, in the case of Lutherans, baptism regenerates on account of the faith of an infant. Here is a brief and not comprehensive survey of various Protestant confessions on baptism.
The Reformed Church (or those who affirm Reformed teaching) affirm that baptism is a sign of regeneration. The Westminster Confession of Faith reads:
I. Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.” (WCF, 28.1).
Baptism is a “sign . . . of regeneration.” It is a promise given by the Spirit of regeneration (See WCF, 28.6). John Calvin argues the same in his Institutes of Christian Religion.
The Reformed tradition thus teaches that Baptism is certainly a sign of regeneration, a promise of the Holy Spirit. But it is not efficacious on its own; baptism promises regeneration but does not guarantee it.
Anglican churches likewise affirm that baptism is a sign of regeneration. Article 27 of the 39 articles reads:
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
Again, baptism is a sign of regeneration or new birth.
John Wesley’s view of baptism was similar to the Anglican view, and the United Methodist Church today teaches, “Baptism is the sacramental sign of new life through and in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Variously identified as regeneration, new birth, and being born again, this work of grace makes us into new spiritual creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17).” (Sec. 31). Again, baptism is associated with regeneration. Baptism (whether of infants or adults in the UMC) is a “work of grace” that “makes us into new spiritual creatures.”
We believe this because the Bible says that infants can believe (Matt. 18:6) and that new birth (regeneration) happens in Baptism (John 3:5-7; Titus 3:5-6). The infant’s faith cannot yet, of course, be verbally expressed or articulated by the child, yet it is real and present all the same (see e.g., Acts 2:38-39; Luke 1:15; 2 Tim. 3:15).
In this brief survey of ecclesial confessions, we see that Reformed churches, Anglican churches (as well as Methodists), and Lutheran churches all affirm either that baptism is a sign of regeneration or that it, in fact, regenerates due to the faith of infants.
No Protestant church affirms that baptism regenerates by the act of baptism. Protestants affirm that faith regenerates and baptism is a sign of that faith (Lutheran) or promise of regeneration (others).
But What about Baptist Churches?
Baptist churches differ from the previous groups of Protestants on the doctrine of regeneration. Baptists affirm that regeneration is the result of faith (or tightly connected to faith). The 1689 London Baptist Confession (LBC) does not mention regeneration in connection to baptism, leaving passages like John 3:5-7 and Titus 3:5-6 uninterpreted. Sections 29.1-2 reads:
1. Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.
( Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2;12; Galatians 3:27; Mark 1:4; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:4 )
2. Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance.
( Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36, 37; Acts 2:41; Acts 8:12; Acts 18:8 )
Interestingly, the 1689 LBC calls baptism a sign not of regeneration but of “fellowship” with Christ. And as section 29.2 conveys, only those who “profess repentance” may be baptized, which does not include infants.
The historic Protestant answer to baptism’s relationship to regeneration is that Baptism is a sign of regeneration or that an infant’s faith regenerates it in baptism. Baptists (and other baptistic groups like Pentecostals) differ here somewhat because they see regeneration as a result of faith, a prerequisite to baptism. Lutherans agree in a limited way with Baptists because they see the faith of infant as being sufficient for baptism.
But with this seeming conflict, there is unity. All Protestants affirm that baptism does not regenerate; baptism by the formal act of dipping or sprinkling a person does not create a Christian. We are all justified by faith alone through Christ alone. Protestants agree: baptism itself does not regenerate in that it creates Christians. Baptism is a sign of God’s promise or a sign of our faith. It never, ex opere operato, creates a Christian.