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Alexander Campbell

I now proceed to show that immersion and washing of regeneration are two Bible names for the same act, contemplated in two different points of view.

The term regeneration occurs but twice in the common version of the New Testament, and not once in the Old Testament. The first is Matthew 19:28. “You that have followed me in the regeneration, when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of his glory, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

No writer of any note, critic or expositor, supposes that regeneration in Matthew 19 applies to what is, in theology, called the new birth, or regeneration of the soul–not even the Presbyterian Matthew Henry, nor Dr. Whitby, Campbell, Macknight, Thompson; nor, indeed, any writer we recollect ever to have read. Regeneration in this passage denotes a state, a new state of things. In the same sense we often use the term. The American Revolution was the regeneration of the country or the government. The commencement of the Christian era was a regeneration–so will be the creation of the new Heavens and new Earth. As this is so plain a matter, and so generally admitted, we proceed to the second occurrence of this term.

“God saved us by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5). God has saved us through the bath of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Spirit. This is the second time the word regeneration is found in the New Testament; and here it is conceded by the most learned Paidobaptists and Baptists, that it refers to immersion. Though I have been led to this conclusion from my views of the Christian religion, yet I neither hold it myself, nor justify it to others on this account. I choose rather to establish it by other testimonies than by those who agree with me in the import of this institution. Among these I shall place Dr. James Macknight, formerly prolocutor or moderator of the Presbyterian church of Scotland, and translator of the Apostolic Epistles. One of his notes upon Tit  us 3:5, is in the following words:–“Through the bath of regeneration.” “Through baptism, called the bath of regeneration, not because any change in nature” (but I would not say in the state) “of the baptized person is produced by baptism; but because it is an emblem of the purification of his soul from sin.” He then quotes in proof, (Acts 22:16.) “Arise, and be immersed, and wash thee from thy sins.”–Paul. He supports this view also from Ephesians 5:26, and John 3:5. “The bath of regeneration,” is then according to this learned Paidobaptist, Christian immersion.

Parkhurst, in his Lexicon, upon the word loutron, connects the same phrase, the washing or bath of regeneration, with Ephesians 5:26, and John 3:5, as alluding to immersion. So say all the critics, one by one, as far as I know. Even Matthew Henry, the good and venerable Presbyterian commentator, concedes this point also, and quotes Ephesians 5:26, Acts 22:16, and Matthew 28:19, 20, in support of the conclusion that the washing of regeneration refers to baptism.

Our opponents themselves being judges, we have gained this point, viz., that the only time that the phrase washing of regeneration occurs in the New Testament, with reference to a personal change, it means, or is equivalent to, immersion. Washing of regeneration and immersion, are therefore only two names for the same thing.

As regeneration is taught to be equivalent to “being born again,” and understood to be of the same import with a new birth, we shall examine it under this metaphor. For if immersion be equivalent to regeneration, and regeneration be of the same import with being born again, then being born again and being immersed are the same thing; for this plain reason, that things which are equal to the same thing, are equal to one another.


In being born naturally there is the begetter, and that which is begotten. These are not the same. The act of being born is different from that which is born. Now the Scriptures carry this figure through every prominent point of coincidence. There is the begetter. “Of his own will he hath begotten or impregnated us;” says James the Apostle. “By the word of truth,” as the incorruptible seed; or, as Peter says, “We are born again, not from corruptible, but from incorruptible seed, the word of God which endureth forever.” But when the act of being born is spoken of, then the water is introduced. Hence, before we come into the kingdom we are born of water.

The Spirit of God is the begetter, the gospel is the seed; and being thus begotten and quickened, we are born of the water. A child is alive before it is born, and the act of being born only changes its state, not its life. Just so in the metaphorical birth. Persons are begotten by the Spirit of God, impregnated by the word, and born of the water.

In one sense a person is born of his father; but not until he is first born of his mother. So in every place where water and the Spirit, or water and the Word, are spoken of, the water stands first. Every child is born of its father, when it is born of its mother. Hence the Saviour put the mother first, and the Apostles follow him. No other reason can be assigned for placing the water first. How uniform this style! Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born again, or you cannot discern the reign of God.” Born again! What means this? “Nicodemus, unless you are born of water and the Spirit you cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” So Paul speaks to the Ephesians 5:26, “He cleansed the church,” or the disciples, “by a bath of water, and the Word.” And to Titus he says, “He saved the disciples by the bath of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Now, as soon as, and not before, a disciple, who has been begotten of God, is born of water, he is born of God, or of the Spirit. Regeneration is, therefore, the act of being born.

Hence its connexion always with water. Reader, reflect–what a jargon, what a confusion, have the mystic doctors made of this metaphorical expression, and of this topic of regeneration. To call the receiving of any spirit, or any influence, or energy, or any operation upon the heart of man, regeneration, is an abuse of all speech, as well as a departure from the diction of the Holy Spirit, who calls nothing personal regeneration, except the act of immersion.


Some curious criticisms have been offered, to escape the force of the plain declaration of Jesus and his Apostles, upon this subject. Some say, that the words, “Except a man be born of water and Spirit,” are not to be understood literally. Surely, then, if to be born of water does not mean to be born of water, to be born of the Spirit must mean something else than to be born of the Spirit. This is so fanatical and extravagant as to need no other exposure. He who cannot see the propriety of calling immersion a being born again, can see no propriety in any metaphor in common use. A resurrection is a new birth. Jesus is said to be the first born from the dead; because the first who rose from the dead to die no more. And, surely, there is no abuse of speech, but the greatest propriety in saying, that he who has died to sin, and been buried in water, when raised up again out of that element, is born again or regenerated. If Jesus was born again, when he came out of a sepulchre, surely he is born again who is raised up out of the grave of waters.

Those who are thus begotten and born of God, are children of God. It would be monstrous supposition, that such persons are not freed from their sins. To be born of God, and born in sin, is conceivable. Remission of sins is as certainly granted to “the born of God,” as life eternal, and deliverance from corruption, will be granted to the children of the resurrection, when born from the grave.


Now, as the Savior consented to be called a King, and to call the community over which he presides a Kingdom. . . And it is worthy of the most emphatic attention, that it was WHEN SPEAKING OF A KINGDOM, HE SPOKE OF BEING BORN AGAIN. Yes, on that occasion, and on that occasion only, when he spoke of entering into his kingdom, did he speak of the necessity of BEING BORN AGAIN (John 3:3,5). And had he not chosen that figure he would not have chosen the figure of a new birth.

For all persons are passive in being born. So, in immersion, the subject buries not himself, raises not himself; but is buried and raised by another. So that in the act the subject is always passive. And it is of that act alone of which we thus speak.

From all that has been said on regeneration, and from the illustration just now adduced, the following conclusions must, we think, be apparent to all:–

First. Begetting and quickening necessarily precede being born.

Second. Being born imparts no new life; but is simply a change of state, and introduces into a new mode of living.

Third. Regeneration, or immersion–the former referring to the import of the act, and the latter term to the act itself–denote only the act of being born.

Fourth. God, or the Spirit of God, being the author of the whole institution, imparting to it its life and efficiency, is the begetter, in the fullest sense of that term. Yet, in a subordinate sense, every one skillful in the word of God, who converts another, may be said to have begotten him whom he enlightens. So Paul says, ‘I have begotten Onesimus in my bonds:’–and ‘I have begotten you, Corinthians, through the gospel.’

Fifth. The gospel is declared to be the seed;–the power and strength of the Holy Spirit to impart life.

Sixth. And the great argument . . . is . . . that remission of sins, or coming into a state of acceptance, being one of the present immunities of the Kingdom of Heaven, cannot be scripturally enjoyed by any person before immersion. As soon can a person be a citizen before he is born, or have the immunities of an American citizen while an alien; as one enjoy the privileges of a son of God before he is born again. For Jesus expressly declares, that he has not given the privilege of sons to any but those born of God (John 1:12). If, then, the present forgiveness of sins be a privilege, and a right of those under the new constitution, in the kingdom of Jesus; and if being born again, or being born of water and of the Spirit, is necessary to admission; and if being born of water means immersion, as clearly proved by all witnesses; then, remission of sins cannot, in this life, be constitutionally enjoyed previous to immersion. If there be any proposition regarding any item of the Christian institution, which admits a clearer proof, or fuller illustration than this one, I have yet to learn where it may be found.


“Conversion” is, on all sides, understood to be a turning to God. Not a thinking favorably of God, nor a repenting for former misdeeds; but an actual turning to God, in word and in deed. It is true, that no person can be said to turn to God, whose mind is not enlightened, and whose heart is not well disposed towards God. All human actions, not resulting from previous thought or determination, are rather the actions of a machine, than the action of a rational being. “He that comes to God,” or turns to him, “must believe that God exists, and that he is a rewarder of every one who diligently seeks him.” Then he will seek and find the Lord. An “external conversion” is no conversion at all. A turning to God with the lips, while the heart is far from him, is mere pretense and mockery. But though I never thought anything else since I thought upon religion; I understand the “turning to God,” taught in the New Institution, to be a coming to the Lord Jesus–not a thinking about doing it, nor a repenting that we have not done it;–but an actual coming to him. The question then is, Where shall we find him? Where shall we meet him? Nowhere on earth but in his institutions. “Where he records his name,” there alone can he be found; for there only has he promised to be found. I affirm, then, that the first institution, in which we can meet with God, is, the institution for remission. And here it is worthy of notice, that the Apostles, in all their speeches and replies to interrogatories, never commanded an inquirer to pray, read or sing, as preliminary to coming; but always commanded and proclaimed immersion as the first duty, or the first thing to be done, after a belief of the testimony. Hence, neither praying, singing, reading, repenting, sorrowing, resolving, nor waiting to be better, was the converting act. Immersion alone was the act of turning to God. Hence, in the commission to convert the nations, the only institution mentioned after proclaiming the gospel, was the immersion of the believers, as the divinely authorized way of carrying out and completing the work. And from the day of Pentecost to the final Amen in the revelation of Jesus Christ, no person was said to be converted, or to turn to God, until he was buried and raised up out of the water.


Some have objected against the “seasons of refreshment,” or the comforts of the Holy Spirit being placed subsequent to “conversion,” or “regeneration,” or “immersion;” (for when we speak scripturally, we must use these terms as all referring to the same thing,) because the gifts of the Holy Spirit were poured out upon the Gentiles before immersion. They see not the design of thus welcoming the Gentiles into the kingdom. They forget the comparison of the Gentiles to a returning prodigal, and his father going out to meet him, even while he was yet a good way off. God had welcomed the first fruits of the Jews into his kingdom, by a stupendous display of spiritual gifts, called the baptism of the Holy Spirit, before any one of the Jews had been immersed into the Lord Jesus. And, as Peter explains this matter in Cornelius’s case, it appears that God determined to make no difference between the Jews and Gentiles in receiving them into his kingdom. Hence, says Peter, “he gave them the same gift which he gave to us Jews at the beginning,” (never since Pentecost.) Thus Peter was authorized to command those Gentiles to be immersed by the authority of the Lord, no man daring to forbid it. But these gifts of the Holy Spirit, differed exceedingly from the seasons of refreshment, from the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, the common enjoyment of all who were immersed into the name of the Lord Jesus for the remission of sins. Let it be noted here, as pertinent to our present purpose, that as the Apostle Peter was interrupted by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, when he began to speak of the forgiveness by the name of the Lord Jesus; so soon as he saw the Lord had received them, he commanded them to be immersed by the authority of the Lord.


I come now to another of the direct and positive testimonies of the Apostles, showing that immersion for the remission of sins is an institution of Jesus Christ. It is the address of Ananias to Saul: “Arise and be immersed and wash away your sins, calling upon the name of the Lord.”

Paul, like the Pentecostian hearers, when convinced of the truth of the pretensions of the Messiah, asked what he should do. He was commanded to go into Damascus, and it should be told him there what to do. It was told him in the words now before us. But, say some, this cannot be understood literally.

For experiment, then, take it figuratively. Of what was it figurative? Of something already received? Of pardon formerly bestowed? A figure of the past?! This is anomalous. I find one writer, and but one, who converts this into a commemorative baptism, like Israel’s commemorating the escape from Egypt, or Christians commemorating the Lord’s death. And, if I do not mistake, some preacher said it was a figurative expression, similar to “This is my body!” One, whom I pressed out of all these refuges, was candid enough to say, he really did not know what it meant; but it could not mean that Paul was to “be baptized for the remission of his sins!”

“To wash away sins” is a figurative expression. Like other metaphoric expressions, it puts the resemblance in place of the proper word. It necessarily means something analogous to what is said. But we are said to be washed from our sins in, or by the blood of Christ. But even “washed in blood” is a figurative expression, and means something analogous to washing in water. Perhaps we may find in another expression a means of reconciling these strong metaphors Rev.7:14, “They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Here are two things equally incomprehensible–to wash garments white in blood, and to wash away sins in water! An efficacy is ascribed to water which it does not possess; and, as certainly, an efficacy is ascribed to blood which it does not possess. If blood can whiten or cleanse garments, certainly water can wash away sins. There is, then, a transferring of the efficacy of blood to water; and a transferring of the efficacy of water to blood. This is a plain solution of the whole matter. God has transferred, in some way, the whitening efficacy, or cleansing power of water, to blood; and the absolving or pardoning power of blood to water. This is done upon the same principle as that of accounting faith for righteousness. What a gracious institution! God has opened a fountain for sin, for moral pollution. He has given it an extension far and wide as sin has spread–far and wide as water flows. Wherever water, faith, and the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are, there will be found the efficacy of the blood of Jesus. Yes, as God first gave the efficacy of water to blood, he has now given the efficacy of blood to water. This, as was said, is figurative; but it is not a figure which misleads, for the meaning is given without a figure, viz., immersion for the remission of sins. And to him that made the washing of clay from the eyes, the washing away of blindness, it is competent to make the immersion of the body in water efficacious to the washing away of sin from the conscience.

From the conscience, I say; for there its malignity is felt; and it is only in releasing the conscience from guilt, and its consequences–fear and shame, that we are released from the dominion of sin, or washed from its pollution in this world. Thus immersion, says Peter, saves us, not by cleansing the body from its filth, but the conscience from its guilt; yes, immersion saves us by burying us with Christ, raising us with him, and so our consciences are purified from dead works to serve the living God. Hence our Lord gave so much importance to immersion in giving the commission to convert the world–“He that believes and is immersed shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).

But, while viewing the water and blood as made to unite their powers, as certainly as Jesus came by water and blood, we ought to consider another testimony given to this gracious combination of powers, by Paul the Apostle: “Being sprinkled in heart from an evil conscience, and being washed in body with clear water.” (Hebrews 10:24). The application of water, the cleansing element, to the body, is made in this gracious institution to reach the conscience, as did the blood of sprinkling under the law.

Some ask, How can water, which penetrates not the skin, reach the conscience? They boast of such an objection, as exhibiting great intellect, and good sense. But little do they think, that in so talking, they laugh at, and mock the whole Divine Economy, under the Old and New Institutions: for, I ask, did not the sacrifices, and Jewish purifications, some way reach the conscience of that people!! If they did not, it was all mere frivolity throughout. And can eating bread, and drinking wine, not influence nor affect the soul! And cannot the breath of one man pierce the heart of another, and so move his blood, as to make his head a fountain of tears! He, who thus objects to water, and the import of immersion, objects to the whole remedial institution, as taught by Moses and by Christ, and insults the wisdom and goodness of God in the whole scheme of salvation. And he, who objects to water, because it can only take away the filth of the flesh, ought rather to object to blood; because it rather besmears and pollutes than cleanses the body, and cannot touch the soul. But all such reasoners are foolish talkers. To submit to God’s institution is our wisdom, and our happiness. The experience of the myriads who were immersed for the remission of their sins, detailed in the Christian scriptures, to say nothing of those immersed in our times, is worth more than volumes of arguments from the lips and pens of those who can only regard, and venerate the traditions of their fathers; because it is presumed their fathers were wiser and more able to judge correctly, than their sons.


But as it is not our object to quote, and expatiate upon, all the sacred testimonies, direct and allusive, to immersion for the remission of sins, we shall close the proof and illustration of this proposition with an incidental allusion to the cleansing efficacy of this institution, found in the 2d Epistle of Peter (2 Peter 1:9). After enumerating the additions to faith necessary to secure our calling and election, of which courage is the first, and charity, or universal love, the last; the Apostle says, that “he who has not these things is blind, shutting his eyes, and forgetting that he was purified from his old sins.” I need not here say, that this is, perhaps, (and certainly as far as I know,) universally understood to refer to Christian immersion. The “old sins,” or “former sins,” can, we presume, mean no other sins than those washed away in immersion. No person has yet attempted to show that these words can import anything else. It is one of the most unequivocal, and, because incidental, one of the most decisive proofs, that, in Peter’s judgment, all former sins were remitted in immersion. With Peter we began our proof of this position, and with Peter we shall end our proof of it. He first proclaimed reformation for the remission of sins; and in his last and farewell letters to the Christian communities, he reminds them of that purification from sin, received in, and through immersion; and in the strongest terms cautions them against forgetting that they were so purified.

Were any person to reason upon the simple import of the action commanded by Jesus, I think it might be made apparent from the action itself, in its two parts, the burial and the resurrection, that it must import everything which we have heard the Apostles ascribe to it. Corruption goes down into the grave literally; but does corruption come forth out of it? Is there no change of state in the grave? Who is it that expects to come forth from the grave in the same state in which he descends into it? The first born from the dead did not; nor shall any of them who fall asleep in him. How, then, can it be, that any person buried with Christ in immersion, can rise with Christ, and not rise in a new state!! Surely the Apostle exhorts to a new life from the change of state effected in immersion. “Since, indeed, you have risen with Christ, set your affections on things above.” Walk in a new life.

Again, and in the last place here–Is a child in the same state after as before its birth? Is not its state changed? And does it not live a new life, compared with its former mode of living? As new born babes desire the milk of the breast, so let the newly regenerate desire the unadulterated milk of the Word, that they may grow thereby. Call immersion, then, a new birth, a washing of regeneration, or a resurrection, and its meaning is the same. And when so denominated, it must import that change of state which is imported in putting on Christ, in being pardoned, justified, sanctified, adopted, reconciled, saved, which was the great proposition to be proved and illustrated, and which we think, has been proved and illustrated by the preceding testimonies and reflections.



Views of baptism, as a mere external and bodily act, exact a very injurious influence on the understanding and practice of men. Hence, many ascribe to it so little importance in the Christian economy. “Bodily exercise,” says Paul, “profits little.” We have been taught to regard immersion in water, into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as an act of the whole man;–body, soul, and Spirit. The soul of the intelligent subject is as fully immersed into the Lord Jesus, as his body is immersed in the water. His soul rises with the Lord Jesus, as his body rises out of the water; and into one spirit with all the family of God is he immersed. It is not like circumcising a Hebrew infant or proselyting to Moses a Gentile adult.–The candidate believing in the person, mission, and character of the Son of God, and willing to submit to him, immediately, upon recognizing him, hastens to be buried with the Lord, and to rise with him, not corporeally but spiritually, with his whole soul.

Reader, be admonished how you speak of bodily acts in obedience to divine institutions. Remember Eve, Adam, and all transgressors on the one hand. Remember Abel, Noah, Enoch, Moses, Abraham, down to the harlot Rahab, on the other; and be cautious how you speak of bodily acts! Rather remember the sacrifice of a body on mount Calvary, and talk not lightly of bodily acts. There is no such things as outward bodily acts in the Christian institution; and less than in all others, in the act of immersion. Then it is that the spirit, soul, and body of man become one with the Lord. Then it is that the power of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, come upon us. Then it is that we are enrolled among the children of God, and enter the ark, which will, if we abide in it, transport us to the Mount of God.

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The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”