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Washing of Regeneration (Titus 3:5), ESV Study Bible, & NLT Study Bible

He saved us – not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5; HCSB)

I have mentioned in previous posts how the study Bibles and commentaries feel compelled to backpedal from plain teachings about baptism. I am studying Titus 3 for a lesson that I will give in a couple of weeks. In my studies I was disappointed to see how the “washing of regeneration” was treated.

ESV Study Bible:

3:5 The transformation described in vv. 3—7 (formerly …but now) is not based on human effort. “We were once enslaved” (v. 3) but he saved us. God must act before salvation occurs. Salvation comes not because of works but by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Some have understood this as saying that baptism (“the washing”) causes salvation. However, in this context human deeds are clearly downplayed (“not because of works”) and the emphasis is on divine action and initiative (“he saved us”). The “washing” described here is the spiritual cleansing, which is outwardly symbolized in baptism.

NLT Study Bible:

3:5 He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth (literally He saved us through the washing of regeneration): See Ezek 16:9; John 3:1-15; Eph 5:26; Heb 10:22; 2 Pet 1:9. – and new life through the Holy Spirit (literally and renewing of the Holy Spirit): This signifies a complete departure from the life of sin and death and a transfer into the realm of life and purity (see also Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 5:17; Col 3:10).

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At least the NLT Study Bible did not feel compelled to back away from the plain teaching of the text, although it does not say much about this washing at all. I think it is clear that the washing of regeneration refers to baptism. What else in the scriptures could be called “washing” that is directly tied to salvation? Only baptism. I am growing frustrated with the ESV Study Bible intention to dismiss every passage about baptism through its notes. Again, I think this swings the pendulum too far to the point of seemingly excluding baptism altogether. Yes, we fight the Roman Catholic concept that baptism apart from faith, belief, and repentance does not save. But let’s not throw baptism in the trash in our effort to fight error. Baptism is described here as the part of the mechanism through which we are saved. I wish the study notes would write more about what the verse means, rather than what the verse does not mean.

By the way, I like the NRSV on this verse. The rendering “water” instead of “washing” gives clarity to the reader that I believe is intended and obvious.

…he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5; NRSV)