“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 in Jesus Christ our Savior…” -Titus 3:4-6
I have been slowly making my way for the second time through a series of books entitled “On the Christian Life.” Each book examines a particular saint and addresses his/her approach to the Christian walk. So far I have examined the lives of Jonathan Edwards, Amy Carmichael, and George Whitefield. I am now finishing up the life of John Wesley.
What has struck me in each of these person’s stories is their heavy emphasis on the importance of justification by faith and the regeneration that either precedes or follows that moment in time (depending on the views of the particular person). It struck me while reading that, in all likelihood, many believers have very little knowledge about these events that have taken place in their own lives.
Although I disagree with Wesley (imagine that, little ol’ me disagreeing with the man who may have shaped the history of religious thought in Great Britain more than anyone in history – but there you have it) on when and how regeneration and justification actually occur in the new believer, I think he may explain the difference between the two better than anyone else. In Wesley’s sermon entitled The New Birth(an incredible sermon, look it up online and read it), he rightly says: “If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two; the doctrine of justification and that of the new birth” (i.e. regeneration). He goes on to teach, again rightly in my mind, that justification and regeneration must be distinguished from one another for the very reason that they are held so closely together. Justification, he teaches, relates to the great work of God that he does forus (in forgiving our sins), while regeneration relates to the great work which God does inus (in renewing our fallen nature).
The two ideas are conjoined. In other words, if you have been regenerated by God (if he has changed your nature by the work of the Holy Spirit), then you have also been justified (declared not guilty by God) as well. One “restores to us the favor of God (justification), the other the image of God” (regeneration). Simply put, justification takes away our guilt and sin; regeneration takes away the power of sin over our lives. I teach and believe that biblically it works like this: God regenerates us, he gives us faith to believe, faith leads us to repentance, he declares us justified and without guilt, he then begins the process of sanctification in us. Wesley, however, taught that we act upon a grace that God has given all humans (prevenient grace) utilizing our own faith, which leads us to repentance. In response to our action, God regenerates and justifies us in one great act of salvation. I am fairly sure that I am right and Wesley is wrong, but we both believe that salvation is a work of God’s grace in those he has called. We also both agree that without God declaring us guiltless regarding sin (via Christ’s redeeming work on the cross) and changing our natures through regeneration, we are “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). This is, in a nutshell, the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, the great rallying cry of the protestant reformation.
John Wesley was a great and godly man. I have learned much in this little book on his Christian life. He lived out his faith. He taught that if a person is truly born again, he/she will know it – that the person will have communion with God and will live out that faith observably. He was surely right in this way of thinking (see Romans 8:16-17).
I leave you this week with his words: “Is the love of God shed abroad in thy heart? Can ye cry out, ‘My God and my all?’ Dost thou desire nothing but him? Are ye happy in God? Is he thy glory, thy delight, thy crown of rejoicing? Believest thou the Lamb of God hath taken away thy sins? Then doth his Spirit bear witness with thy spirit? Thou hast redemption through his blood, and thou art a child of God.” I say “amen” to that.
Grace and peace,