Third, salvation is by the washing of regeneration. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration” (v. 5). Paul is talking of salvation as the spiritual work of God in our hearts. Regeneration and renewal of the Spirit happen inside of us. Thus, salvation is a spiritual and individual experience, and not a group experience.
The word “washing” (loutron) means “bath.” (Gingrich) Since the work of the Spirit is spiritual, it should mean, “spiritual washing” or “spiritual baptism.” It is not physical baptism, since the Spirit does not wash physically. Rather, it is spiritual baptism—the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). Thus, salvation refers to the baptism of the Spirit, wherein we are washed by the Spirit in regeneration through spiritual baptism. In this sense, spiritual baptism is salvation.
Paul wrote, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11; cf. 1 Pet. 3:21). Note the aorist tense in all the verbs—washed, sanctified, justified—indicating point action in the past, at the moment of conversion to Christ. Washing here means spiritual cleansing of sin at the moment of regeneration; hence, “the washing of regeneration.”
In the “the washing of regeneration,” the genitive case can mean washing coming from regeneration. The genitive can also mean washing characterized by regeneration. This spiritual cleansing has the quality of regeneration and renewal. Thus, the washing of regeneration is the cleansing/baptizing of the Spirit of a believer at the moment of regeneration.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’ (John 3:1-7).
Jesus is talking about regeneration—the work of God in making us to be born again. The noun “regeneration” (paliggenesia) is from “πάλιν (again) and γένεσις (birth); regeneration; . . .(2) as spiritual and moral renewal of an individual new birth, regeneration (TI 3.5).” (Friberg) But the word “genesis” simply means “beginning.” Regeneration thus means “new beginning.”
What is the message of Paul? In v. 3, Paul is saying, “We were once slaves to sin.” In v. 5, he is saying, “We are now made new, with a new beginning, a new rebirth—a regeneration.”