Jesus, the Messiah, cooperated with the Father’s plan by giving of himself, sacrificing his life on the cross as our atoning sacrifice. Christ gave himself when enabled us to have new life. He also gave us his Holy Spirit to complete the work of salvation that he made possible. The Holy Spirit gives us guidance, supernatural gifts and power for ministry, and produces the fruit of righteousness in our lives. He is the Regenerator. He applies the atonement to our lives, and produces the change that the cross made possible.
Jesus Explained Regeneration
While conversing with a Jewish religious teacher, Jesus explained what regeneration is. Nicodemus, who should have understood these things, did not have a clue.
“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.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes,
and you hear its sound, but you do not know
where it comes from or where it goes. So it is
with everyone who is born of the Spirit.””
People do not give birth to themselves. That was the nature of the rebirth process that Nicodemus could not understand. He asked “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” As a religious professional, Nicodemus was used to being given a command, and working out how he was going to actively obey that command. He was a “hands on” religious practitioner. He did not ask “what?” or “why?” or even “who?.” He asked “how?” because he was comfortable with a religion that required him to do something.
But when Jesus said that regeneration was like a new birth, he implied that the one being born is passive in the process. No one gives birth to himself. The Holy Spirit is the active participant in the process, and the believer is the passive recipient. In natural birth, two parents come together, have sexual relations, and a child is conceived as a result. The child has no say in the process of his conception. He is conceived of flesh, planned by flesh, nurtured during gestation by flesh, and when his birthday arrives – there he is: a bouncing baby flesh.
Jesus taught Nicodemus that spiritual rebirth works the same way. It is God’s Holy Spirit within the life of a believer that produces spiritual life. An unregenerate person is a degenerate. He produces only works of the flesh. They may be noble works of the flesh, or religious works of the flesh, or popular works of the flesh, but they are not God. They do not produce godliness, because God’s Holy Spirit is not there.
In true regeneration, the Holy Spirit applies the sovereign election of the Father, and the atoning sacrifice of the Son to the life of every true believer. The works that are produced are God’s works. The life within is God’s life. He blows around like a strong wind within the human lives of believers and leaves evidence of his existence among them.
The process by which the Holy Spirit does this is sometimes called sanctification. It is tempting to define sanctification as the results of the Holy Spirit blowing around – in other words, the damage caused by the storm, the evidence of God’s existence that believers produce. After all, the New Testament does encourage believers to see our bodies as a temple, and set it apart for God’s use by “cleans(ing) ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
But the results of cooperating with the Holy Spirit within and cleaning up our lives for his use – however noble they are – are not what the Bible calls sanctification. Theologians usually divide the doctrine of sanctification into three tenses:
1. positional sanctification, or the change in our status or standing before God.
2. progressive sanctification, or the change in our present experience because of the Holy Spirit within.
3. perfect sanctification, or our ultimate future condition when we are glorified at Christ’s return.
When seen in that light, the vast majority of the Bible’s treatment of the
subject concentrates on the first tense, on what is called positional sanctification. Consider these texts as examples:
“And now I commend you to God and to the word
of his grace, which is able to build you up and to
give you the inheritance among all those who are
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those
sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints
together with all those who in every place call
upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both
their Lord and ours:”
“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who
became to us wisdom from God, and
righteousness and sanctification, and redemption”
“we have been sanctified through the offering
of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
“Therefore, to sanctify the people by his own
blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp.”
There is a process of sanctification. The New Testament refers to believers as “those who are being sanctified”. The Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, turning us into the people we are going to become. He’s changing us. He is manifesting himself in us and through us.
Ultimate sanctification (or glorification) is our destiny. When Jesus appears, raising us from the dead, or transforming us so that we will never taste death, we will be like him. A transformation will have occurred. We look forward to the day when “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet .. the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”
So, why does the Bible mostly present sanctification as a done deal? To understand this, readers have to stop thinking of sanctification as something that happens to us, and see it as something that happens from God. The Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier and the Regenerator. Our problem is that (like Nicodemus) we see things too much from our perspective. But the new birth could not be best explained from the perspective of those who experience it – the ones begotten. It had to be explained from the perspective of the one who begat – the one who caused the birth to happen.
The apostle Paul understood this quite well. Here is how he described sanctification to the Romans:
“For those whom (God) foreknew he also predestined
to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that
he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And
those whom he predestined he also called, and those
whom he called he also justified, and those whom he
justified he also glorified.”
While he does not use the word “sanctified” in this text, he does use the word “glorified” – and put it in the past tense. But glorification is the future hope of the saints. We do not yet conform fully to the image of Christ, but we have been predestined to do it. It is our future destiny, not present reality.
But Paul spoke of God as having already glorified us. He skipped the process of sanctification and mentioned the event of glorification at the return of Christ and implied that both divine actions have already been accomplished. Did Paul slip in his grammar? No, he said what he meant to say. Paul understood something about God. He is not the God who was, and he is not the God who will be. God is always and eternally the “I AM.” He is within time and outside of time at the same time. He has already accomplished all that he ever will accomplish.
Sanctification was accomplished the very moment the Father chose us to be his own. Sanctification was accomplished the moment the blood of Jesus Christ was shed on the cross. Sanctification was accomplished the very moment the Holy Spirit moved into our lives, and separated us unto God, reserving our lives for his purposes forever. We may not feel sanctified. We usually do not think of ourselves as having already been made holy. But from God’s perspective, it is a done deal.
The Holy Spirit is inside us, indwelling, transforming and regenerating us. He is changing our lives so that we reflect our destiny as glorified saints. He assists in the battle against Satan and sin, and guides us in the process of making decisions that reflect our new status before God. We do not always accept his guidance. We often stubbornly choose to do things our own way. But the God of all time is patient. He sees us not as we are now, but as we will be. So, it does not bother him to put up with our present, unfinished brand of foolishness.
Of course, if we do rebel against the divine Resident within, there is a price to pay. We often suffer simply because we refuse to walk in the Spirit. Our flesh wrestles with our spirit, who wants to cooperate with His Spirit. When we refuse to walk according to God’s wisdom, he will graciously allow us to stumble from our own foolishness. It is all part of the process.
The evidence that the process is indeed occurring includes three things which will be addressed in the next three chapters:
1. conversion: an immediate and ongoing change in our minds.
2. testimony: our attempts to communicate our faith to others.
3. life of faith: actions and attitudes that demonstrate that change has occurred.
 see chapters 37-42.
 John 3:5-8 ESV.
 John 3:4 ESV.
 2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV.
 Acts 20:32 ESV.
 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV.
 1 Corinthians 1:30 NASB.
 Hebrews 10:10 ESV.
 Hebrews 13:12 NET.
 1 John 3:2.
 1 Corinthians 15:52 ESV.
 Romans 8:29-30 ESV.
 Exodus 3:14-15.