Much of the so-called “gospel-centered sanctification” promoted in books like Jesus + Nothing = Everything so badly blurs the lines between sanctification and justification that many important biblical doctrines are forgotten, downplayed or ignored. The Bible’s teaching on regeneration is certainly near the top of that list.
To be “regenerate” means to be reborn or made new. God does this to us when he saves us (Jn.1:13; 3:3-8; Eph.2:4-5; Col.2:13; Tit.3:5; Jms.1:18; 1Pt.1:3; 1:23; 1Jn.2:29; 3:9; et al.). Regeneration is a very prominent doctrine in the New Testament and cannot be discounted or we will fail to see the radical differences between being dead in our sins and being alive in Christ.
So often you will hear Christians enlisting all sorts of self-deprecating words and phrases to describe themselves – not as who they once were, but as who they now believe they are. Tchividjian is boldly called a “loser” in the opening endorsements of his book (p.3), a label he later accepts while he is deriding the “modern church” which he calls “narcissistic” because it proffers the “‘you can do it’ songs and sermons” (p.50). We should not adopt such assessments as appropriate forms of Christian modesty or humility, because often they reflect a serious misapplication of scriptural descriptions and realities that, in biblical context, depict an unredeemed and unregenerate life.
Though the Bible says there is a stage of redemption yet to come (Rom.8:23), which means we will for the time being continue to battle the sinful impulses and appetites that are associated with our fallen humanity or “flesh”(1Pt.2:11), the New Testament consistently speaks of a transformation that takes place at the moment of our conversion. We “were dead in trespasses and sins” but now we have been “made alive together with Christ” (Eph.2:1, 5). In Christ we are “a new creation” for “the old has passed way” and “the new has come” (2Cor.5:17). “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom.6:4). He saved us, “according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Tit.3:5). Something fundamental and profound has changed about who we now are. It is something hopeful, positive, and genuine. It is something that transforms our core desires even though we continue to be encased in a fallen and unredeemed body. We “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col.3:10). We now as “living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Pt.2:5).
This is not to deny that we are undeserving of the blessing of being made new. This should in no way detract from the fact that we are still fully reliant on the mercy and unmerited favor of God. This is not to say that as regenerate people we are now somehow inherently worthy of the gifts God gives. It is simply to underscore that to nurse the defeated, dejected, self-deprecating view of the Christian life, which is so increasingly popular today, is to ignore the realities, privileges and renewal that accompanies our regeneration.
Even Princeton’s famous Calvinist professor of a hundred years ago, Benjamin Warfield, who embraced and utilized the “poor sinful man” and “miserable sinner” terminology of the Reformed catechisms and confessions, went to some lengths to salvage these terms from the kind of defeatist and hopeless use of them that I find is so common today. Warfield writes,
The Christian is conceived fundamentally in other words as a penitent sinner. But that is not all that is to be said: it is not even the main thing that must be said. It is therefore gravely inadequate to describe the spirit of “miserable-sinner Christianity” as “the spirit of continuous but not unhopeful penitence.” It is not merely that this is too negative a description… It is a wholly uncomprehending description, and misplaces the emphasis altogether. The spirit of this Christianity is a spirit of penitent indeed, but overmastering exultation. The attitude of the “miserable sinner” is not only not one of despair; it is not even one of depression; and not even one of hesitation or doubt; hope is too weak a word to apply to it. It is an attitude of exultant joy. (Perfectionism, Part 1. Baker Books, 2003, p.114.)
Not only is our outlook to be positive because of Christ and our changed status, but we should rightly celebrate the truth that God has profoundly changed our core appetites and desires. Any acts of obedience, while always being credited to God’s gracious provision and enablement, stem not merely from our new relationship with God (though that is indispensably so! Gal.2:20), but also from the cooperative activity and effort of our regenerate nature (Mt.7:17). These new holy desires, appetites and inclinations are endowed by God with our new birth. As F. F. Bruce writes in his comments on Colossians 3:10, “The new man who is created is the new personality that each believer becomes when he is reborn as a member of the new creation whose source of life is Christ” (Eerdmans, 1957, p.273).
This miracle of regeneration will necessarily be ignored if we indiscriminately apply the same definitions of depravity and inability from our doctrine of justification to our understanding of sanctification.