The Order of Salvation
The External Call: Gospel Proclamation
The Internal Call: Regeneration
Union with Christ
One of the most significant characteristics of the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ is that his work is sufficient and effective. The Son of God is no potential Savior. He did not merely “do his part” to secure the salvation of his people, only to leave the decisive determination up to them. Indeed, as he prayed to his Father on the eve of his betrayal and arrest, he declared that he had decisively accomplished the work that the Father had given him to do (John 17:4). On the cross, as he drank not only the jar of sour wine but the bitter cup of his Father’s wrath, absorbing in his own person the full punishment for the sins of his people (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24), he cried out victoriously, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). In that moment, the Savior of the world infallibly secured the salvation of his people once for all (Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27; 10:10). The Son’s mission of redemption was fully accomplished.
Because of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, if a believer is asked when God saved him, there is a sense in which he ought to reply, “Two thousand years ago.” And yet no one comes into this world saved. We are all brought forth in iniquity (Ps. 51:5), dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3), and enemies of God (Rom. 5:10; 8:7–8). Though all the blessings of salvation were purchased once for all at the cross, the people of God do not enjoy the benefits of Christ’s work until the Holy Spirit applies those blessings to individual believers—until they are born of the Spirit unto repentance and faith, are united to Christ, and are thereby justified, adopted, and set apart for a life of holiness and service to God. It is for this reason that we must distinguish between the accomplishment of redemption and the application of redemption.
In the wisdom of God, the Holy Spirit does not immediately, at conversion, apply to the believer all the fullness of the benefits secured by Christ’s work. Instead, these blessings are imparted to us progressively, in stages. For example, sanctification is promised but progressive; we do not receive the spiritual blessing of glorification in the same moment that we are converted. Though we might have preferred to be immediately freed from the presence of sin the moment we believed, God has planned glorification to be the consummation of a lifelong journey of progressive sanctification. Further, even those aspects of salvation that are applied simultaneously are nevertheless to be properly distinguished from one another. For instance, although we are justified and adopted in the same moment (i.e., when we are granted saving faith), both justification and adoption are unique blessings. Collapsing one of them into the other robs each of its distinctive glory. Like a precious diamond, the glory of the application of redemption is multifaceted and is only fully comprehended as each individual facet contributes to the brilliance of the whole. Thus, the study of soteriology is concerned to explore the distinctiveness of each aspect of the application of redemption.
The Order of Salvation
Not only are these aspects of salvation distinct from one another, but they are also logically, and sometimes chronologically, related to one another. The ordo salutis, a Latin phrase that means “order of salvation,” aims to define these logical and chronological relationships between the various stages of the application of redemption.
Some have questioned whether it is proper even to attempt such a thing, since they contend that the Bible does not provide us with a detailed ordo salutis. However, while no text is devoted to explicitly spelling out the order of salvation, there is a significant scriptural basis for recognizing such an order. In some cases, the biblical definition of a particular doctrine insists on even a chronological order. For example, the doctrine of glorification describes the application of salvation unto its consummation, when Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). This is not a present reality for believers but a prospect that we await eagerly (Rom. 8:23; Phil. 3:20). When the Spirit says, “Now salvation is nearer than when we believed” (Rom. 13:11), this recognizes a definite order with respect to glorification; it is the last of the blessings of salvation to be applied to God’s people. In other cases, the relationship of two or more of these aspects of salvation is explicitly defined in the text. An example of this comes in John 1:12, where John says, “But to all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” This text teaches that the legal right to become God’s children—that is, to be given the grace of adoption—is conditioned on receiving and believing in Jesus. Thus, even if the grace of adoption is conferred at the precise moment one believes, faith is nevertheless logically prior to adoption. Similarly, numerous passages in Scripture testify that one is justified by faith (e.g., Rom. 3:28; 5:1), which is to say that faith is the instrumental cause of justification. Thus, faith must logically precede justification, just as it precedes adoption.
These few examples demonstrate clearly that the concept of an order of salvation is not foreign to the biblical text. Indeed, to suggest that glorification is anything but the last step in the application of redemption or to suggest that faith is given subsequent to justification would be to violate the plain sense of the above passages. Therefore, to speak of logical order or priority is not to unnaturally foist “human logic” on the text of Scripture. Instead, it is to read out of the text the divine logic and order that the Spirit of God himself has plainly revealed. This is the goal of a biblical ordo salutis.
THE ORDO SALUTIS AND ROMANS 8:29–30
The clearest single text that speaks to the order of salvation is Romans 8:29–30. There Paul writes, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” As we examine this text, we will discover the beginnings of an ordo salutis.
First, it must be observed that the events of salvation outlined in this passage exceed the boundaries of merely the application of redemption, for the foreknowledge and predestination of the elect mentioned here reach back to the Father’s eternal plan of redemption. Nevertheless, they fit naturally into a definite order. Even the prefixes of both words—“fore-” and “pre-” (Gk. pro-)—speak of the fact that foreknowledge and predestination are antecedent to the later aspects of redemption. Their use elsewhere in Scripture also testifies to this order, as both terms appear with the phrase “before the foundation of the world” in other salvific contexts (Eph. 1:4–5; 1 Pet. 1:20). Thus, the eternal counsel of the Trinity, in which the Father set his electing love on those whom he meant to save, anchors all the saving activity that takes place in the accomplishment and application of redemption.
Second, Paul lists glorification last in this sequence. We have already demonstrated that glorification is the final feature in the application of redemption, as it describes the eradication of sin and infirmity from our present bodies, truly and consummately saving us from sin and all its effects (Rom. 8:19–25; 1 Cor. 15:50–57; Phil. 3:20–21). Therefore, no matter how any other elements of salvation relate to one another, it is certain that glorification must be last in the ordo salutis. Calling and justification must precede glorification.
What, then, is the relationship between calling and justification? In the first place, it is to be observed that the calling Paul has in view here is the effectual call of God that results in salvation (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:9, 24, 26; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Pet. 1:3, 10; cf. John 11:43–44), rather than a general calling that may be rejected (e.g., Matt. 22:14; Acts 7:51). This is so because he says that all those who are thus called are also justified and glorified (Rom. 8:30). No one who hears this calling fails to receive the saving blessings of justification and glorification. Second, given that Paul lists foreknowledge and predestination first and glorification last, it is sound to conclude that he has a definite order in mind as he enumerates these various aspects of salvation. Thus, because he lists calling before justification, it is proper to understand that calling precedes justification. Therefore, the order of the application of redemption as presented in Romans 8:30 is effectual call, justification, and then glorification.
THE ORDO SALUTIS AND OTHER NEW TESTAMENT TEXTS
Romans 8:29–30 does not exhaustively treat every aspect of the application of redemption. There is no mention of regeneration, faith, or sanctification, among other saving benefits. To understand where these other doctrines fit in the order of salvation, we must examine the rest of the New Testament.
In the first place, it may be easiest to place the gift of faith in the order of salvation, since Scripture is clear that faith is the condition of justification. Sinners are said to be justified “by faith” (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Gal. 3:24), “through faith” (Gal. 2:16), and “on faith” (Phil. 3:9). A sinner will not be declared righteous in God’s sight unless he believes, and it is only through the instrumentality of faith that he will lay hold of the righteousness of God in Christ. Thus, it is proper to place faith before justification, and because faith is itself the instrumental cause of justification, nothing ought to come between them. Therefore, we may add faith to our ordo salutis as follows: effectual call, faith, justification, and then glorification.
Further, we must also consider that saving faith is always a repentant faith, for the faith that turns to Christ for salvation necessarily turns away from sin and self-righteousness (Acts 26:17–18; 1 Thess. 1:9). This is why the gospel is preached as a call to both repent and believe (Mark 1:14–15; Acts 20:21), for one cannot exist without the other. Repentance is so vital to saving faith that the apostle James says that to sever them is to kill faith, for faith without works (i.e., “fruits in keeping with repentance,” Luke 3:8) is dead (James 2:17, 26). Such is no true and saving faith but is utterly useless (James 2:20). Further, faith and repentance are so intimately tied to one another that Scripture often speaks of one when both are implied. For example, when the men are convicted by Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and ask him what they must do to be saved, Peter answers, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Yet when the Philippian jailer is similarly convicted and asks Paul and Silas the same question, they respond, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Unless one is prepared to accept the absurd notion that Peter and Paul preached different gospels, it is plain that the repentance that saves is a believing repentance and that the faith that saves is a repentant faith (cf. Matt. 4:17; Luke 24:47; John 3:16; 20:31). Thus, repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin, and together they constitute conversion (cf. Acts 15:3). And because one must logically turn from something before he can turn to something else, repentance is placed before faith. Therefore, our order stands as follows: effectual call, conversion (repentance and faith), justification, and then glorification.
Significant disagreement surrounds the relationship between regeneration and faith, yet Scripture seems to clearly present faith as the consequence of the new birth. In the first place, because the natural man is dead in sin (Eph. 2:1–3) and thus unable to understand and accept the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14), he is absolutely incapable of faith until the Spirit quickens spiritual life in him. For this reason, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65). Second, Jesus declares that the new birth is the prerequisite for seeing (John 3:3) and entering (John 3:5) the kingdom of God. Seeing the kingdom is undoubtedly a figure of speech for exercising saving faith (cf. Heb. 11:1), and it cannot be disputed that one enters the kingdom at conversion (i.e., when the sinner repents and believes the gospel). It follows, then, that the new birth is logically prior to faith. Third, the apostle John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1). The verb tenses in this verse are significant. “Everyone who believes” (Gk. Pas ho pisteuōn) is a present participle, which describes present, continuous action. “Has been born of God” (Gk. ek tou theou gegennētai) translates a perfect indicative, which describes an action in the past whose results continue into the present. Thus, John declares that everyone who presently believes in Jesus has been born of God. The very same relationship (as evidenced by identical grammatical constructions) exists between the new birth and the practice of righteousness (1 John 2:29), love (1 John 4:7), and overcoming the world (1 John 5:4). Yet none of these precedes—and still less, causes—regeneration. Finally, there is good reason to believe that calling and regeneration speak of two aspects of the same reality, namely, the summons to spiritual life on the one hand and the impartation of spiritual life on the other. If calling and regeneration can be thus identified with one another, it is understandable that when Paul speaks of calling in Romans 8:30, he does not need to include regeneration, for he conceives of them as one and the same act. Since it has already been demonstrated that faith is subsequent to calling, it is sound to conclude that while they are temporally simultaneous, regeneration logically precedes and gives birth to faith. Therefore, we may continue building our ordo salutis: effectual call / regeneration, conversion (repentance and faith), justification, and then glorification.
At this point the remaining aspects of the application of redemption are relatively easy to place. As with justification, believers are said to lay hold of the grace of adoption by faith (John 1:12; Gal. 3:26). This is good cause for considering justification and adoption to be contemporaneous blessings. However, it is proper that adoption should logically follow justification. Indeed, believers could not be justly given the legal rights of life in the family of God while they remained destitute of a right standing before him. God must first declare us righteous before welcoming us into the family of the One “whose name is Holy” (Isa. 57:15). Further, the faith by which we lay hold of justification and adoption is a faith that continuously works through love (Gal. 5:6). While regeneration, conversion, justification, and adoption all occur instantaneously, sanctification is a progressive process that takes place throughout the Christian life (2 Cor. 3:18). Thus, sanctification is subsequent to adoption but prior to glorification. The sanctification process is marked by the believer’s persevering in faith (Matt. 24:13) and growing in the assurance of salvation (2 Pet. 1:10; 1 John 5:13).
Therefore, based on the foregoing biblical analysis, we find Scripture to provide the following ordo salutis:
1. Foreknowledge / predestination / election (God’s choice of some unto salvation)
2. Effectual call / regeneration (the new birth)
3. Conversion (repentance and faith)
4. Justification (declaration of right legal standing)
5. Adoption (placed into the family of God)
6. Sanctification (progressive growth in holiness)
7. Perseverance (remaining in Christ)
8. Glorification (receiving a resurrection body)
The first of these saving blessings is pretemporal and precedes even the application of redemption. Steps two through five all occur simultaneously at the time one becomes a Christian. Steps six and seven occur throughout the remainder of the Christian life. Finally, step eight completes the application of redemption at the return of Christ. We turn now to a more thorough discussion of these doctrines concerning the application of redemption.
The External Call: Gospel Proclamation
As mentioned previously, when Paul speaks of the doctrine of divine calling in Romans 8:30, he has in mind God’s effectual call, or regeneration, whereby God sovereignly summons the sinner out of spiritual death and into spiritual life. In fact, when the New Testament Epistles speak of divine calling, in every case they are referring to this internal, effectual call. Certainly, the Gospels speak of another call, often termed the external call, the general call, or the gospel call. This refers to the verbal proclamation of the gospel by which all sinners are called to turn from their sin and trust in Christ for salvation (Matt. 22:14). In other words, there is a distinction between the call of God (the internal call) and the call of the preacher (the external call). The internal call is given only to the elect and always brings the sinner to salvation. By contrast, the external call is given to all people without distinction and is often rejected. Because of this, the external call does not properly belong to the ordo salutis, for the saving benefits of Christ’s redemption are always and only effectually applied to the elect. Nevertheless, because the external call of the gospel is the means by which God issues the effectual call of regeneration, it is a requisite component in the study of the application of redemption.
THE NECESSITY OF THE EXTERNAL CALL
Romans 10:13 declares that the external call is essential for the sinner to be able to “call” on the Lord for salvation:
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:13–17)
This text clearly indicates that proclaiming the message of the gospel is absolutely imperative to people being saved. Sin has penetrated to the core of man’s being, so that he is a sinner not only by choice but by nature (cf. Rom. 8:7; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:3; 4:17–18). Because of this, God’s revelation of himself in the natural world (Rom. 1:19–20) is sufficient to render all inexcusably guilty before God and to convict men of their sinfulness and the coming judgment both temporally (1:21–31) and eternally (1:32). The solution to the damning spiritual condition of mankind is not found, however, in natural revelation, nor by the sinner looking within himself or to his own resources. For salvation to come to anyone, the gospel message of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of the Son of God, sent from heaven to save sinners by grace through faith apart from works, must be proclaimed to them.
Hear what the Spirit of God says in 1 Corinthians 1:18–21:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
This is so because the word of truth is the means by which God brings about the new birth (James 1:18). As the apostle Peter declares, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). Two verses later he adds, “And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:25). Thus, gospel preaching is a prerequisite for salvation, because it is by means of the message preached that sinners are awakened to new life. For this reason, the gospel is hailed as “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16–17; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18). It is by the foolishness of the message preached that God is pleased to save those who believe. Therefore, we must send preachers of the gospel.
THE ELEMENTS OF THE EXTERNAL CALL
In light of the fact that the external call of the gospel is essential to the salvation of sinners, it is imperative that we understand what truly constitutes that call. At least three elements must be communicated in the proclamation of the gospel. In the first place, the gospel preacher must explain the facts of God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, and the work of Christ in accomplishing redemption. God is the Creator of all things (Ps. 24:1), and as his creature, man is accountable to God, his Judge. God is perfectly holy (Matt. 5:48); he is the essence of all that is good—so much so that he can have absolutely no fellowship with anyone who falls short of moral perfection (1 John 1:5; cf. James 2:10). And yet Scripture declares that all people have sinned against God by breaking his law and therefore fall short of the perfect standard of righteousness that is required for fellowship with him (Rom. 3:23). The verdict pronounced over the whole of mankind is, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), and the resulting sentence is death: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Because sin against an infinitely holy God demands an infinite punishment, this death is not merely physical or temporal but also spiritual and eternal. The just punishment for all sin is hell: conscious torment forever away from the saving presence of the Lord (Matt. 13:50; 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 14:11).
It is into this miserable state of affairs that God steps forth in sovereign grace. While man was helpless under the weight of sin with no way to pay its penalty and escape its results (Rom. 5:6), God the Son became a man (1) to live the perfectly righteous life that the sons of Adam had failed to live and (2) to die a substitutionary death in the place of his people (Rom. 5:6, 8), absorbing in his own person the full penalty of the Father’s wrath against their sin (Isa. 53:6; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). After dying in the stead of sinners, he was buried, and on the third day, he rose from the dead in triumph over sin and death (Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:4; Heb. 2:14–18) and ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven (Eph. 1:20–23). Unless a preacher accurately explains man’s predicament in sin and the incarnation, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, the gospel has not been preached.
While believing these facts of the gospel is absolutely essential to salvation, that is not sufficient; indeed, even the demons believe true facts about God and his gospel (James 2:19). For a sinner to have a saving interest in Christ, he must respond to these facts by turning from sin and trusting in Christ for righteousness. Therefore, a second essential element of the external call is the preacher’s earnest call for the sinner to repent and believe. The Lord Jesus himself modeled this kind of gospel preaching; Mark says that he came “proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ ” (Mark 1:14–15). The apostolic gospel message is characterized as “repentance toward God” and “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21; cf. 1 Thess. 1:9). That is to say, a biblical gospel presentation calls sinners to (1) acknowledge their sin and guilt before God (Luke 15:18), (2) abandon all hope of attaining forgiveness by good works (Heb. 6:1), (3) forsake their life ruled by sin and self (Isa. 55:7; Luke 9:23), and (4) put all their trust in the righteousness of Christ alone for being accepted by and reconciled to God (Rom. 10:4, 9; Phil. 3:4–9). Only by repentant faith may a sinner subjectively lay hold of the benefits objectively purchased by Christ. Further, because this is the sinner’s only hope for life and salvation, this call to repent and believe is to be delivered with the utmost urgency. Preachers must not present Christ to the sinner in a cold and disinterested manner; rather, driven by the fear of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:11), they are to earnestly persuade and implore men to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
A third necessary element of the external call is the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. As we call sinners to repentance and faith, we must present to them the incomparable blessings promised to those who are obedient to the gospel call. As with the other elements, we see examples of this element in the preaching of Jesus and the apostles. In John 3:16, Jesus promises that the one who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life. In his Pentecost sermon, after Peter issued the call for repentance, he proclaimed to the Jews the promise of the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; cf. 3:19). And Paul stated it explicitly in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch: “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39). Ultimately, the greatest promise of the gospel is that sinners once alienated from God can be reconciled to a right relationship with him (Eph. 2:18; 1 Pet. 3:18). This reconciliation is so intimate that the sinner is given the right to become a child of God (John 1:12). Therefore, a God-centered gospel presentation will not only proclaim the magnificent promises of forgiveness and eternal life but will also declare that eternal life consists in the knowledge of and communion with the triune God (John 17:3) and will present him, the Giver, as the gospel’s greatest gift.
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE EXTERNAL CALL
The external call to salvation as presented in the gospel is marked by several key characteristics. First, it is a general, or universal, call. That is, the good news of repentance and faith for the forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all people without distinction. Whereas the internal call of regeneration is given only to the elect, the external call of the gospel is to be preached indiscriminately to elect and reprobate alike. Some desiring to exalt God’s absolute sovereignty contradict this teaching by insisting that since God intends to save only the elect, his preachers ought to proclaim the gospel to them alone. However, not only is that impossible (for we have no means by which to distinguish the elect from the rest of humanity), it is patently contrary to Scripture. God represents himself as earnestly desiring that the wicked should repent (Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11; cf. 2 Cor. 5:20), and in accordance with that desire, he exuberantly calls all people to himself: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.… Incline your ear and come to me; hear, that your soul may live” (Isa. 55:1, 3). He entreats sinners to seek him, and is eager to have compassion on them and to forgive them (Isa. 55:6–7). Without discrimination he commands “all the ends of the earth” to turn to him and be saved (Isa. 45:22). The depth and breadth of divine compassion is also fully manifest in the One who is the exact representation of the Father’s nature. If it were the case that gospel preachers ought to limit the external call to the elect alone, surely we would find such an example in Jesus’s ministry, for, unlike us, he knew full well who the elect were. And yet our Lord made no such discriminations but preached the gospel even to those who rejected him (Matt. 22:2–14; Luke 14:16–24), inviting everyone who was weary to find rest in him (Matt. 11:28–30). This universality is represented in the church’s Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19; cf. Luke 24:47) and to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15 NKJV). Thus it is no surprise to see it modeled in apostolic preaching, as Paul declared to the philosophers on Mars Hill that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Indeed, the universality of the gospel call cannot be denied.
A second characteristic of the external call is that it is a sincere, bona fide offer. Some object that because God intends only to save those to whom he has chosen to grant repentance and faith, the universal call of the gospel cannot be genuine on God’s part. This is nothing less than a blasphemous accusation from those who have exalted their own reasoning above God’s revelation. As has been demonstrated, God truly does call all to repentance, and he represents himself as sincerely desiring the repentance of the wicked. He asks, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked … and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezek. 18:23; cf. 18:32; 33:11). Can anyone doubt the sincerity of the God who says, “Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” (Ps. 81:13)? Indeed, he says of Israel, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Rom. 10:21). While it may be difficult to understand how statements of compassion toward the nonelect can be reconciled with the doctrines of sovereign election and particular redemption, it is not an option to conclude that God does not mean what he says! As Berkhof comments,
The external calling is a calling in good faith, a calling that is seriously meant. It is not an invitation coupled with the hope that it will not be accepted. When God calls the sinner to accept Christ by faith, He earnestly desires this; and when He promises those who repent and believe eternal life, His promise is dependable. This follows from the very nature, from the veracity, of God. It is blasphemous to think that God would be guilty of equivocation and deception, that He would say one thing and mean another, that He would earnestly plead with the sinner to repent and believe unto salvation, and at the same time not desire it in any sense of the word.
The God who “has mercy on whomever he wills” and “hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18) is the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. To reason that the former is incompatible with the latter is not an option for the Bible-believing Christian. The offer of the salvation communicated in the external call of the gospel is conditioned on repentance and faith. For it to be a genuine, well-meant offer on God’s part, he simply has to be sincerely disposed to provide the promised blessings upon the satisfaction of the offer’s conditions. And this is precisely the case; if anyone repents and trusts in Christ, God will forgive and save him. However, such repentance and faith are impossible for the natural man (Rom. 8:7–8; 1 Cor. 2:14). Apart from regenerating grace, no man will ever repent and believe. Thus, in the case of the nonelect, the conditions of the offer will never be met. To suggest that God’s offer is insincere—indeed, that he feigns sincerity!—because he does not provide the necessary grace to overcome man’s depravity is to suppose that God is obligated to give grace to all. To such a notion the Lord himself responds, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Matt. 20:15). The potter has the right over the clay “to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (Rom. 9:21). God is not obligated to give grace to any man, let alone all men. The deficiency in the gospel call lies in man’s depravity, not in any supposed parsimony in God’s grace. To suggest such a thing approaches the highest strains of blasphemy.
Finally, a third characteristic of the external call is that, in and of itself, it is not efficacious. Unlike the effectual call in which man is summoned irresistibly to spiritual life (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:9; cf. John 6:44, 65) and is of necessity justified and eventually glorified (Rom. 8:30), the external call can be resisted. Jesus makes this distinction in his conclusion to the parable of the wedding banquet: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). That is, many are invited to partake in the feast of the blessings of eternal life, yet because the Father has only chosen some and not all, few are effectually called. Therefore, many who are invited reject the external call. Any instance in which the gospel is preached and rejected is evidence for the inherent inefficacy of the external call (e.g., John 3:18; 6:64; 12:37; Acts 7:51; 17:32). It is for this very reason that the external call is insufficient for salvation.
The Internal Call: Regeneration
Because of the deficiencies of the external call, sinners stand in need of a sovereignly efficacious call, inherently powerful to overcome the effects of depravity and to bring them to repentance and saving faith. In his natural state, man is characterized by spiritual death (Eph. 2:1). By nature he is a spiritual corpse, entirely unresponsive to the spiritual truth proclaimed in the external call of the gospel. For this reason, the natural man will always reject the gospel, for the things of the Spirit of God “are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Sin has so pervaded man that all his faculties are corrupted by it. He is spiritually blind, for “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4; cf. Rom. 1:21–22; Eph. 4:17–18). When the glory of Christ is presented in the gospel, the natural man does not see it, because the eyes of his heart have been blinded. He is also spiritually deaf; his ears are uncircumcised (Jer. 6:10), and therefore, he cannot perceive the wisdom, grace, and truth announced in the gospel of grace (Isa. 6:9–10; Matt. 13:15; John 8:43). Still further, man’s will and affections are entirely disordered, for, as the prophet Jeremiah testifies, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). Indeed, the natural man is devoid of spiritual life, for Scripture says that his heart is a heart of stone (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26), cold and unresponsive to the meaning and glory of divinely revealed truth.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4–5). In the exercise of his sovereign pleasure, God issues an effectual call in the heart of the elect. He powerfully summons the sinner out of his spiritual death and blindness and, by virtue of the creative power of his word, imparts new spiritual life to him—giving him a new heart, along with eyes to see and ears to hear, and thus enabling him to repent and believe in Christ for salvation (Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:24; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:3). He effectually calls his people “out of darkness” and “into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9), “to himself” (Acts 2:39), into fellowship with his Son (1 Cor. 1:9) so that they belong to Christ (Rom. 1:6), and “into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12). This is the divine miracle of regeneration, or the new birth.
THE AUTHOR OF REGENERATION
As is plain even from the above discussion, the author of this radical change of man’s nature cannot be man himself but rather must be the Creator of all life, including eternal life—God alone. Some other aspects of the application of redemption require believers to participate actively. In conversion, for example, though repentance and faith are themselves sovereign gifts from God (Acts 11:18; Eph. 2:8), we ourselves must turn from sin and trust in Christ. Though God grants us faith, he does not believe the gospel for us. Similarly, though the Christian’s growth in holiness is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God (Phil. 2:13; cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:16–17, 22–23), we are called to avail ourselves of the means by which the Spirit sanctifies us, working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) and making every effort to supplement our faith with virtue (2 Pet. 1:5–8). The work of regeneration, however, is unlike these other aspects of the application of redemption. In regeneration, man is entirely passive; God is the sole active agent in bringing about the creative miracle of the new birth.
It is significant that Scripture uses the imagery of being born again to describe this work of regeneration (John 3:3–8; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23; 1 John 3:9). In the physical realm, a child makes absolutely no contribution to his conception or his birth. He is nonexistent and thus is entirely dependent on the will of his parents to be brought into being. In the same way, Jesus chooses this analogy to illustrate the reality that dead and depraved sinners cannot contribute to their rebirth unto spiritual life but are entirely dependent on the sovereign will of God for regeneration. Jesus declared these things to Nicodemus, “a man of the Pharisees” and “a ruler of the Jews” who was described as “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:1, 10). He was a member of the strictest and most devout sect of Judaism, he sat on the governing body of the Sanhedrin, and as the teacher of Israel, he occupied a unique place of prominence in the religious system. It was to this man who had risen to the pinnacle of religious devotion that Jesus declared, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). And this is not limited to Nicodemus, for Jesus speaks of mankind in general when he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Sin has so infected and corrupted mankind that nothing less than the wholesale renovation of the soul is required for salvation. Rearranging your life, modifying your behavior, or multiplying religious performances will not suffice. Something is so drastically and irreversibly wrong with mankind that we must be born all over again. When Nicodemus asks how this can happen, Jesus does not give him a list of religious duties by which he can cooperate with God’s grace. Instead, he points to the sovereign will of God and declares, “The wind blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). As John Murray observes, “The wind is not at our beck and call; neither is the regenerative operation of the Spirit.”
Aside from the imagery of the new birth, Scripture explicitly affirms that regeneration is an act of God alone. The apostle John declares that the children of God birthed in regeneration are born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Man is not born again by blood, which is to say that the new birth is not passed down hereditarily through any bloodlines but is entirely supernatural. While the joining of the blood of a father and mother produces physical life, it can never produce spiritual life. One’s heritage or ancestral lineage has no bearing on regeneration. Neither is the child of God born of the will of the flesh. He does not simply decide to be born again as an exercise of his will. No moral effort or religious activity can induce the new birth, for flesh can only give birth to flesh (John 3:6). Because the new birth is spiritual, it cannot come by the will of the flesh. Finally, John says that the child of God is not born of the will of man, which establishes that no man-made religion or sacramental system can produce regeneration.
Instead, the children of God are born of God (John 1:13). Scripture does not hesitate to employ the most active language with respect to God’s role in regeneration. So far from depending on man’s will, sinners are brought forth unto spiritual life by the exercise of God’s will (James 1:18). While man was dead in his trespasses, utterly helpless to bring himself to life, “God … made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4–5; cf. Col. 2:13). According to the Father’s great mercy, “he has caused us to be born again” (1 Pet. 1:3). Through the prophet Ezekiel, God promised a time when he would bring regeneration to his people:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:25–27)
The monergistic work of God in regeneration is unmistakable in this text. In just these three verses, God uses the phrase “I will” six times, insisting that this spiritual heart transplant is entirely his work. In the next chapter, God illustrates his own sovereignty and man’s helplessness by picturing the future regeneration of Israel as his breathing life into a valley full of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1–11). While this is clearly a prophecy of the regeneration and salvation of the Jews before Christ’s return, it assumes that God is the One who regenerates individuals—in Israel’s case, a whole nation of them (Ezek. 37:11). Such is man’s natural state of depravity; he is no more able to bring himself to life than a pile of dead and dry bones could bring themselves to life. Having illustrated his promise, God then declares, “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves.… And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezek. 37:12, 14).
These passages in Ezekiel point to the Holy Spirit’s role in regeneration. Many texts explicitly name the person of the Father as the agent of regeneration (James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:3; cf. Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:9). However, Scripture also indicates that the Holy Spirit participates in this work. As Jesus discusses the new birth with Nicodemus, he says that the child of God is “born of the Spirit” (John 3:5, 6, 8). Later, he goes on to say that “it is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63), a concept that became a maxim of apostolic teaching (2 Cor. 3:6; cf. Rom. 8:2). The apostle Paul says that Christ saves us by “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). We may conclude, therefore, that while the Father is the ultimate agent of regeneration, summoning us out of death and into life, the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause of regeneration, who carries out the will of the Father by giving us spiritual life.
THE NATURE OF REGENERATION
The Greek term for “regeneration” (palingenesia) appears only twice in the New Testament. First, in Matthew 19:28, Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly I say to you, in the new world [Gk. en tē palingenesia; lit., ‘in the regeneration’] when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” He uses the term “regeneration” to refer to the renovation of the creation that will begin in the millennial kingdom and will come to consummation in the new heavens and the new earth. The second occurrence of “regeneration” in the New Testament comes in Titus 3:5: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration [Gk. palingenesia] and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Here Paul uses the term to speak about man’s salvation from sin and indicates that regeneration is characterized by both washing and renewal. This understanding of regeneration is similar to John 3:5, where Jesus says that the new birth consists in being “born of water and the Spirit,” a reference to the prophecy in Ezekiel 36:25–26, which metaphorically describes regeneration as being sprinkled with clean water and being given a new heart. From the uses of the biblical term, then, we may conclude that regeneration speaks of a cleansing from sin and a creation of spiritual life. It is a purifying renovation.
At the most fundamental level, regeneration is the divine impartation of eternal spiritual life into the spiritually dead sinner. Scripture employs numerous pictures to illustrate God’s effectual call of regeneration. As he did with the valley of the dry bones, God will, by the creative power of his word, speak spiritual life into the dead hearts of the Jews, breathing as it were the breath of divine life over the dry bones of their souls and making them alive. As Jesus stood at the tomb of his friend who had been dead four days, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). By this word, Jesus authoritatively summoned Lazarus out of death and into life, for “the man who had died came out” (John 11:44), stumbling from the tomb still wrapped in his grave clothes. So also does God command the spiritually lifeless corpse of the sinner to “come out” of his death and by that word effectually brings him to life. Perhaps most striking is the apostle Paul’s comparison of regeneration to God’s creation of the world. He says, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In the beginning, God spoke the world into existence from nothing (Pss. 33:6; 148:5): “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3), instantly “call[ing] into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). In regeneration, God unites the external call of gospel preaching with his sovereign, effectual call unto new life. Into darkened and dead hearts he speaks the command, “Let there be light,” and instantaneously births in us the light of eternal spiritual life where it had not existed.
This impartation of spiritual life is not limited to the immaterial part of man but is a fundamental re-creation of the whole person. Paul plainly states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). It is not merely the sinner’s spirit or soul that is a new creation, but he himself, as a whole person, is a new creation. Just as man’s depravity is total—that is, just as sin has so pervaded man’s nature as to leave no part of him untouched by sin’s corruption—so also does regeneration reach to the totality of man. The natural man’s mind is blinded (2 Cor. 4:4); he is darkened in understanding (Eph. 4:18) and thus unable to hear (John 8:43) or grasp spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14). His affections are entirely disordered, to the degree that he loves the darkness and hates the light (John 3:19–20), delighting in that which is objectively repulsive and being repulsed by that which is objectively delightful. So driven by his affections, his will obstinately refuses Christ and the glory of his gospel (John 5:40). Mentally, emotionally, and volitionally, man is captive to sin. Therefore, the renewal of man in regeneration is just as extensive as his depravity.
In regeneration, then, the Spirit opens the blind eyes of the mind (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:4, 6; Eph. 1:18), replacing, as it were, the mind of the flesh with the mind of the Spirit (Rom. 8:5–9)—indeed, with the mind of Christ himself (1 Cor. 2:16)—so that the regenerate man appraises all the things that he once could not understand (1 Cor. 2:15; cf. 1 John 2:20, 27). The Spirit removes the sinner’s heart of stone and implants in him a heart of flesh capable of perceiving and loving spiritual truth (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; cf. Deut. 30:6). The affections are thus renewed after the likeness of Christ so that the new man hates sin (Matt. 5:4), loves righteousness (Matt. 5:6; John 3:21), thirsts for the God whom he once abhorred (Pss. 27:4; 42:1–2), and loves and rejoices in the Christ whom he once regarded as foolish (1 Pet. 1:8; cf. 2 Cor. 5:16). With renewed affections, the sinner’s will is finally freed from the bondage of sin unto the liberty of righteousness. He now wants what God wants (Ps. 40:8), for the Spirit of God is at work within him “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13; cf. Ezek. 36:27). Once bound in sin and spiritual death, man’s mind, heart, and will are now renewed unto life. Ferguson helpfully summarizes, “Regeneration is … as all-pervasive as depravity.… [W]hile the regenerate individual is not yet as holy as he or she might be, there is no part of life which remains uninfluenced by this renewing and cleansing work.” The regenerated sinner is truly a “new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24).
The picture of regeneration given in 2 Corinthians 4 is especially helpful in illustrating key truths about the nature of the new birth. In that passage, Paul describes the state of the natural man when he says, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). This is what Paul means when he describes unbelievers as “dead in the[ir] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1; cf. Col. 2:13). He does not mean that they are motionless or stagnant; he means that they are devoid of the spiritual life that allows them to see the true value of the glory of Christ revealed in the gospel. The essence of spiritual death is spiritual blindness. Man’s spiritual perception is so disordered by sin that he has no taste for what is objectively delightful (i.e., the gospel of the glory of Christ) but is infatuated with what is objectively repulsive and disgusting (i.e., sin and the glory of self). The unregenerate man pursues what is worthless because he is blind to its detriment, and he refuses what is most precious because he is blind to its value. Thus, when the objective beauty of Christ is held forth in the gospel message, the unregenerate man sees no glory in him, and therefore, left to himself, he will ever and always choose to reject the gospel.
What, then, is the remedy for such a miserable condition? There is no hope in man’s enslaved will but only in the sovereign grace and life-giving power of God. Paul answers that the remedy for man’s spiritual blindness is monergistic regeneration: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). God shines the light of life into the blind heart. He gives us new spiritual eyes so that we finally see sin for what it is—in all its objective ugliness—and so finally see Christ for who he is—in all his objective beauty and glory. And when sinners finally have functioning spiritual eyes and the light necessary to see things as they actually are, they turn away in disgust from the filth of sin (repentance) and eagerly embrace the Christ whose glory they can at last see (faith).
It is for this reason that theologians speak of the regenerating grace of God as irresistible. It is not that God’s grace can never be resisted; God’s common grace as expressed in the external call of the gospel is resisted all the time (Acts 7:51). Rather, it is that in the irresistible grace of regeneration, God overcomes man’s natural resistance to the gospel by shining light into his heart and opening his eyes to the glory of Jesus. Irresistible grace, then, does not mean that man is coerced or forced into repentance and faith; his will is not violated. Rather, this grace frees man’s will; it opens our eyes so we can accurately compare the glory of sin to the glory of Christ. The Westminster Confession explains,
All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.
It is impossible that anyone with restored spiritual sight through regeneration should see sin and Christ side by side and do anything but turn from sin and embrace Christ in saving faith. Thus, in regeneration man’s will is not violated but transformed. In the final analysis, regenerating grace is irresistible because Christ is irresistible, for regenerating grace opens our spiritual eyes to his irresistibility.
THE MEANS OF REGENERATION
As the Father is the ultimate agent of regeneration and the Spirit is the efficient cause of regeneration, Scripture identifies the word of God itself—specifically the gospel message—as the instrumental cause, or means, of regeneration. James highlights the roles of the Father and the word when he says, “Of his [i.e., the Father’s] own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). The Father’s will is the ultimate cause of our new birth, but he has accomplished this miracle by means of the word of truth. Peter says that the children of God “have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). Then, two verses later he identifies this living and abiding word as “the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:25). Similarly, Paul says that God’s effectual call unto regeneration is accomplished “through our gospel” (2 Thess. 2:14). Thus, it is by means of the preached gospel that the Spirit of God powerfully works to open the eyes of our hearts to the glory of Christ. To be clear, the external call is not efficacious in itself; though the preached gospel is the means of regeneration, it is not efficacious unless it is united with the Spirit’s work in the internal call. Nevertheless, while the external call is insufficient for regeneration, it is absolutely necessary, for the external call of gospel preaching is the vehicle for the internal call of regeneration. For this reason Paul says, “So faith,” which is the immediate result of regeneration, “comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), that is, the gospel message concerning Christ.
Since Scripture identifies the word of the gospel as the means of regeneration, any sacramental view of regeneration is discovered to be unbiblical. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and even some strains of Lutheranism and Anglicanism teach baptismal regeneration—that the grace of the new birth is mediated through the sacrament of baptism. Proponents of baptismal regeneration often appeal to John 3:5, where Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The reference to water, they argue, is a reference to Christian baptism.
However, there are a number of reasons why we ought not to understand “born of water” to refer to baptism. First, Jesus does not mention baptism anywhere in this interaction with Nicodemus. While it is tenuous to automatically assume that “water” refers to baptism in the first place, that teaching is only further undermined when one considers that the rest of the chapter makes no mention of baptism. Jesus speaks continually of the necessity of faith for salvation (John 3:15, 16, 18, 36) but says nothing about baptism. If baptism were the necessary instrument of being born again, it is difficult to explain why Jesus says nothing more about it as he discusses salvation. Second, such a sacramental understanding of baptism is out of accord with Jesus’s statement in John 3:8 that, with respect to the new birth, the Spirit is like the wind that blows where it wishes. Such language pictures the sovereign freedom of the Spirit, an image that is incongruous with tying regeneration to a ritual, physical act of human will. Piper aptly observes that in that case “the wind would be confined by the sacrament.” Third, Jesus expects Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, to understand his teaching on the new birth (John 3:10). However, Christian baptism did not yet exist at that time. It makes little sense to admonish Nicodemus for failing to understand a practice that had not yet been instituted.
Instead, one would expect Jesus to admonish Nicodemus for failing to understand Old Testament teaching on the subject, and in fact, that is the most likely explanation for his words. The Old Testament often employs the imagery of water and Spirit to symbolize spiritual cleansing and renewal, never baptism (cf. Num. 19:17–19; Isa. 4:4; 32:15; 44:3; 55:1; Joel 2:28–29; Zech. 13:1). In Ezekiel’s prophecy of the new covenant, he famously speaks of both water and the Spirit in the context of regeneration:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:25–27)
Surely this was the truth Jesus had in mind when he spoke of being born of water and the Spirit. He was declaring that regeneration was a truth revealed throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 11:18–20) and thus a truth with which Nicodemus should have been familiar. Against this Old Testament backdrop, Christ’s point was unmistakable: without the spiritual washing of the soul, a cleansing accomplished by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) and solely by means of the word of the gospel (Eph. 5:26; 1 Pet. 1:23–25), no one can enter God’s kingdom. Given this proper understanding of John 3:5, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is shown to be without biblical basis. The gospel itself is the sole instrument of the new birth.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF REGENERATION TO FAITH
One of the most common questions related to evangelical soteriology concerns the relationship between regeneration and faith. Which produces which? Does the sinner believe in Christ for salvation and, as a result of his faith, experience the new birth? Or, on the other hand, is the sinner born again unto saving faith? Which action induces the other? Does man’s act of faith bring about the Spirit’s work of regeneration, or does the Spirit’s work of regeneration bring about man’s act of faith? In numerous ways, Scripture answers in favor of the latter: regeneration is the cause, not the consequence, of saving faith.
At the outset, it is important to be reminded of the definition of regeneration that has been demonstrated from Scripture. Regeneration is the sovereign act of God, by the Holy Spirit and through the preached gospel, whereby he instantaneously imparts spiritual life to a sinner, bringing him out of spiritual death and into spiritual life. Many evangelicals who believe that faith precedes regeneration do not define the new birth in this way. Instead, they tend to confuse regeneration with the results of regeneration, viewing regeneration as virtually equivalent to sanctification—the ongoing process by which the sinner’s nature is progressively “regenerated” more and more to reflect the image of Christ. If we were to define regeneration in that way, it would be inescapable to conclude that regeneration follows faith, for sanctification is a result of saving faith. However, Scripture counsels us against defining regeneration in terms of its results. Jesus asserts that regeneration itself is mysterious, unobserved, and uncontainable, like the wind that blows where it wishes (John 3:8). We may perceive the effects of the wind, such as hearing a loud gust or seeing the trees toss from side to side. Yet these results of the wind are not the wind itself. In the same way, the results of regeneration are not regeneration. While the believer’s sanctification is linked organically with his new birth—in a sense, regeneration is sanctification begun, and sanctification is regeneration continued—nevertheless, this intimate relationship must not lead to a conflation of the two. The believer’s continued progress in holiness is the result of regeneration, not an aspect of regeneration itself.
Another preliminary remark in this discussion is to observe that the distinction between regeneration and faith is to be defined not in terms of time but in terms of logical causality. Some synergists reject the notion that regeneration causes faith because they want to avoid saying that someone might be regenerated without saving faith. However, while some monergists have advocated that regeneration temporally precedes faith, most have clarified that they are speaking of logical, not chronological, order. From a temporal perspective, regeneration and faith occur simultaneously; in the exact moment that man is born again, he repents and believes the gospel. Nevertheless, this simultaneity does not rule out causality. Though two events may occur at the same time, one may still cause the other. To illustrate this, consider the imagery Paul employs when he defines regeneration as the opening of the sinner’s blinded spiritual eyes so that he sees the light of Christ’s glory (2 Cor. 4:4, 6). Paul pictures regeneration as the opening of blind eyes and faith as the spiritual perception of Christ’s glory (cf. John 3:3; Heb. 11:1). Now a man perceives light in the very same moment that he opens his eyes; no time passes between the opening of his eyes and his perception of light. However, his perception of light is causally dependent on opening his eyes. Seeing does not cause him to open his eyes; his sight is the consequence of his eyes being opened. In the same way, though they occur in the exact same instant, the sinner’s faith does not cause his regeneration; rather, the opening of the spiritual eyes in regeneration is the cause of the spiritual sight of faith.
Further, the Bible’s teaching concerning the natural man’s spiritual inability precludes any concept of synergism in regeneration. In his state of spiritual death (Eph. 2:1–3), man is incapable even of understanding the things of the Spirit, let alone receiving them (1 Cor. 2:14). The sinner’s mind is so hostile to God that he is literally unable to submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7), and thus he cannot please God in any sense (Rom. 8:8), including the exercise of faith (Heb. 11:6). Man is blind to the value of God’s glory revealed in Christ and is hopelessly enamored with sin, despite its worthlessness. To suggest that a sinner in such a state could, apart from the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, summon from within his own deadness the saving faith that God declares to be his sovereign gift (Eph. 2:8) is to wholly underestimate the miserable nature of man’s depravity. As Murray explains, “Faith is a whole-souled act of loving trust and self-commitment.” But the natural man is utterly incapable of such a noble and spiritual act apart from the new birth. Indeed, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The sight of the kingdom of God can refer to nothing other than the spiritual sight of saving faith (Heb. 11:1, 27; cf. 2 Cor. 4:18), and Jesus says that such a sight is impossible apart from the new birth. Elsewhere he says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), and, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65). Coming to Jesus is a synonym for believing in Jesus—for it is this kind of coming that results in salvation (John 5:40)—and the “drawing” of John 6:44 is the gift spoken of in John 6:65, both referring to the effectual, irresistible call of God in regeneration. Therefore, Jesus is teaching that because of the sinner’s depravity, no one can come to him in saving faith unless the Father grants the gift of being effectually drawn in regeneration.
The apostle John also comments explicitly on the relationship between regeneration and faith in his first epistle. While John’s intention is not to teach a theology lesson on the ordo salutis but rather to instruct the Asian churches about mutual love between believers, his comments nevertheless reveal his understanding of the relationship between regeneration and faith. In 1 John 5:1, he writes, “Everyone who believes [Gk. Pas ho pisteuōn, a present active participle] that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God [Gk. ek tou theou gegennētai, a perfect passive indicative], and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” The Greek present participle ho pisteuōn indicates present continuous action, while the perfect passive indicative gegennētai speaks of a past action whose results continue into the present time. In other words, everyone who presently believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. John thus represents faith as the consequence, not the cause, of the new birth.
This reading of the grammar of 1 John 5:1 is confirmed by examining a selection of grammatical parallels in the same letter. There are two other instances in which John employs a present active participle in concert with a perfect passive indicative to illustrate the relationship between the new birth and its concomitants:
If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices [Gk. pas ho poiōn] righteousness has been born of him [Gk. ex autou gegennētai]. (1 John 2:29)
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves [Gk. pas ho agapōn] has been born of God [Gk. ek tou theou gegennētai] and knows God. (1 John 4:7)
Both of these passages consist of precisely the same grammatical construction that appears in 1 John 5:1. In the first text, John teaches that a habitual pattern of practiced righteousness is an indication of the new birth. The causal relationship between the practice of righteousness and the new birth ought to be obvious. Surely man is not born again as a result of doing good works! Paul patently contradicts such a thought in Titus 3:5, where he explicitly opposes the new birth against salvation on the basis of righteous deeds. The relationship is plain: the impartation of new spiritual life in regeneration is the cause of an ongoing practice of good deeds (cf. Eph. 2:10). In the second text, John singles out a particular good work: everyone who loves has been born of God. Here again, the relationship between love and regeneration is evident: love does not cause the new birth but is the consequence of the new birth. To suggest otherwise fundamentally undermines the gospel of salvation by grace alone. Therefore, if we must conclude that practicing righteousness (1 John 2:29) and loving the brethren (1 John 4:7) are consequences, not causes, of regeneration, we cannot conclude otherwise than that faith is also a consequence of regeneration, since 1 John 2:29; 4:7; and 5:1 are grammatically identical.
One final text is worthy of consideration. In 1 John 5:4, John writes, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” Though the grammatical construction is not identical to the previous three passages discussed, it is nevertheless similar. Here John speaks of the new birth in the perfect tense (“everyone who has been born of God,” Gk. pan to gegennēmenon) and a concomitant of the new birth in the present tense (“overcomes the world,” Gk. nika ton kosmon). Again, the causal relationship between the two is clear: one does not overcome the world in order to be born again but rather overcomes the world as a consequence of being born again. In the next sentence, John identifies the victory (Gk. nikē) that overcomes (Gk. nikēsasa) the world: our faith. Once again, faith is identified as the consequence of the new birth.
Given the clarity of the biblical pictures of regeneration, the implications of man’s total depravity, and the explicit comments of Jesus and the apostle John, the student of Scripture has to conclude that while regeneration and faith are experienced simultaneously, regeneration logically precedes faith and is its cause. Sinners do not believe in Christ in order to be born again but rather are born again unto believing.
THE RESULTS OF REGENERATION
It is clear from the above discussion that saving faith is the first and foremost result of regeneration. As the divine light shines into the sinner’s heart, opening his spiritual eyes to the repulsiveness of sin and the loveliness of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), the newborn soul turns away in disgust from sin and lays hold of Christ with the embrace of saving faith. However, the divine life birthed in the soul of man at regeneration does not lie stagnant after the moment of conversion. In God’s bountiful grace, the Spirit continues to progressively strengthen that holy disposition born in regeneration throughout the believer’s life. That is to say, after repentance and faith, the result of regeneration is sanctification. While a full discussion of sanctification awaits its respective treatment in the ordo salutis, it is worthwhile at this point to mention several aspects of sanctification that Scripture explicitly identifies as results of the new birth.
First, the regenerated believer necessarily makes a practice of righteousness, as the apostle John says, “Everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29). The dominating tenor of the believer’s life is one of increasing holiness (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:10; 4:24). To put it negatively, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). Just as a human birth results from an implanted seed that grows into new physical life, so also the “seed” of the divine life is implanted in the believer’s heart through the Spirit’s regenerating work (1 Pet. 1:23). His nature has been fundamentally changed from death in sin to life in Christ; the old has passed away and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17), and he thus does not make a practice of sinning. This does not mean that the child of God has ceased entirely from sin at the moment of regeneration, for the principle of sin continues to dwell in our flesh (Rom. 7:14–25) and thus must be constantly put to death (Rom. 8:12–13). These texts do not speak of perfection but direction. The believer’s life is characterized by gracious habits of putting away patterns of sin and putting on patterns of righteousness (Eph. 4:22–24). Those who profess to be saved but do not progress in cultivating patterns of life in obedience to Christ’s commands can make no legitimate claim to being true children of God. Whatever they may say with their lips, their lives betray a heart that is still unregenerate. As the new birth is the work of the Spirit (John 3:5, 6, 8; 6:63; Titus 3:5; cf. Rom. 8:2; 2 Cor. 3:6), those who are born again necessarily bear the fruit of the Spirit and are increasingly characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23).
Second, the regenerate life is marked by overcoming the evil influences of this world system. The apostle John writes, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4). Earlier in his letter, John comments that the world is full of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:15–17), all of which are tools of Satan, in whose power the whole world lies (1 John 5:19). He wields these tools as instruments of temptation in the lives of professing believers, earnestly desiring to cause shipwreck of faith and thus besmirch the name of Christ (1 Tim. 1:19; cf. James 2:17). Yet John declares that the regenerate child of God withstands the pressures and temptations of this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4) and overcomes them through a persevering faith that walks in obedience to the Lord. He never finally and decisively yields to Satan’s temptations, because “he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18). Believers need not ever live in fear of losing their salvation, for persevering faith is the heritage of those truly born from above.
The child of God obeys willingly and delightfully, for as John says in the immediately preceding verse, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Here is a great indication that the sovereign miracle of regeneration cannot be fabricated or imitated by sinful human hypocrisy. Self-righteous moralists may, by strong willpower, be able to bring their behavior into conformity with the external standards of God’s Word (cf. Matt. 15:8), but they find such a task burdensome. They cannot exclaim with the psalmist, “O how I love your law!” (Ps. 119:97), and, “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8). It requires a new heart, a new nature re-created in the likeness of God (Eph. 4:24), to delight in obedience. By God’s grace, this is the birthright of every true child of God. The regenerated believer is not enslaved to do the duty he hates; rather, by virtue of the Spirit’s work, his heart is liberated to love the law he is commanded to follow.
Third, the child of God experiences not only the love of God that issues in a lifestyle of willing obedience but also the love of his fellow believers that issues in a life of sacrificial service. John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). God himself is love (1 John 4:8, 16); it is his very nature. Those who are begotten of God share in his nature (2 Pet. 1:4) and therefore will reflect his nature by serving and benefitting others (1 John 3:16–18). Those who are truly born again manifest an evident love for the church, for the child of God loves the children of God (1 John 5:1) and is devoted to meeting the needs of his brothers and sisters in Christ.
The preceding portion examined the first step in the application of redemption: God’s effectual call of regeneration through the preaching of the gospel, in which he sovereignly imparts spiritual life to the sinner, changing his nature and bringing him from death to life. The very first act of the regenerated sinner’s renewed nature is conversion (cf. Acts 15:3), the conscious decision to repent of sin and believe in Christ for salvation. Returning to Paul’s illustration of spiritual awakening aids us in understanding conversion. As God shines the light of regeneration into the sinner’s heart, he opens man’s spiritual eyes so that he can see the bankruptcy of sin and the worthiness of Christ (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:6), who is perfectly suited to forgive our sins and provide the righteousness we need for eternal life. Finally furnished with the ability to perceive reality as it is, the newborn soul necessarily and immediately turns away in revulsion from sin and eagerly runs to embrace Christ. That turning from sin and unbelief is repentance, and the eager embrace of Christ as Savior from sin and as Lord over one’s life is faith. Together, repentance and faith make up the single act of conversion.
It should be apparent that repentance and faith are intimately related and even inseparable from one another. They are truly two sides of the same coin. In the first place, their connection follows a simple logic: it is impossible for someone to turn away from something without turning toward something else. Conversely, one cannot turn toward something without turning away from whatever was previously occupying his attention. Further, it is impossible to look in two different directions at the same time. But the inseparability of repentance and faith is also a theological necessity. It is inconceivable that one who finally perceives sin and Christ as they actually are should pursue Christ without forsaking sin or should forsake sin without embracing Christ. Remember that regeneration is a spiritual heart transplant—a radical renewal of man’s tastes, desires, and affections. To such a renewed heart, the beauty of Christ’s glory is irresistibly compelling, and it outshines the false glories of sin just as the brilliance of the noonday sun renders the stars invisible. To suggest that one might embrace Christ without also decisively purposing to repudiate sin is to suggest that sin is more objectively desirable to the regenerated heart than Christ is. On the contrary, to the newly awakened sinner, Christ is an inestimably valuable treasure, and to gain him, one delightfully forsakes everything (Matt. 13:44–46; Phil. 3:8). Thus, the faith that saves is a repentant faith, just as the repentance that saves is a believing repentance.
For this reason, the gospel call to salvation is a summons to both repent and believe. According to Mark, the content of “the gospel of God” that the Lord Jesus proclaimed can be summarized as follows: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The apostles followed in the steps of their Lord, for in Paul’s parting words to the elders at Miletus, he characterized his ministry as “testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). This was the commission Paul received from Christ himself, who, Paul recounted to Agrippa, sent him “to open [the Gentiles’] eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18). And it was this twofold conversion that was realized in the salvation experience of the Thessalonians who “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). In true conversion, there is always a turning from sin (repentance) and a simultaneous turning to God in Christ (faith). It is impossible that one should occur without the other.
Nevertheless, as we examine what Scripture has to say about the nature of these two elements of conversion, we must discuss each in its turn. Though they are simultaneous actions, in each instance in which they are named together, the New Testament lists repentance first (Mark 1:15; Acts 19:4; 20:21; Heb. 6:1), indicating a logical priority. For this reason, we will treat repentance first and then faith.
To understand the fullness of the biblical concept of repentance, it is necessary to examine the various terms Scripture employs to describe it. First, the Hebrew term nakham is often used to communicate the emotional component of repentance. Its most basic meanings include “to be sorry or sorrowful,” “to be grieved,” and “to be regretful.” Thought to be an onomatopoetic word, even the phonology of nakham communicates the idea of breathing deeply, or sighing, in sorrow or grief. For example, nakham describes a family mourning the death of a loved one (Gen. 37:35; 38:12). When the Lord brought judgment on the tribe of Benjamin for the wickedness done to the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19:1–30), the Israelites mourned [nakham] the loss of their countrymen (Judg. 21:6, 15). It is not difficult to see how mourning intersects with repentance when one considers that the Lord pronounced a blessing on those who mourn over their sin (Matt. 5:4). In addition to mourning, nakham expresses sorrow over sin, as in the case of Job, who declared from the ash heap, “Therefore I retract, and I repent [nakham] in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Such sorrow may also be accompanied by appropriate shame and humiliation (Jer. 31:19) and often leads to action, such as relenting of an evil course (Jer. 8:6). Thus, nakham teaches that the emotions have a place in repentance. Those who repent will be genuinely sorry and remorseful over their deeds and at times will experience such grief that they will demonstrate their sorrow in action.
The most common Old Testament Hebrew word for “repentance” is shub, whose most basic meaning is “to turn” or “to return.” Hebrew scholars say that “better than any other verb it combines in itself the two requisites of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good.” It describes biblical repentance as turning from sin (1 Kings 8:35), transgression (Isa. 59:20), and iniquity (Dan. 9:13) and as removing injustice from one’s tent (Job 22:23). The repentance signified by shub includes forsaking a path of wickedness and amending one’s deeds, turning from the plans of an evil heart (Jer. 18:11–12; 25:5; 26:3; 35:15). Such repentance involves repudiating all known sin and keeping the commands of God (Ezek. 18:21). Indeed, repentance and sin are mutually exclusive, for one’s sinful deeds will not permit one to return [shub] to God (Hos. 5:4). Thus, repentance is not merely a turning from sin but also a turning to God. Repentant individuals are said to seek the Lord (Isa. 9:13) and his favor (Dan. 9:13), to tremble at his goodness and be enticed to be reconciled to him (Hos. 3:5), and to put away idolatrous worship and commit to worshiping God alone (Jer. 4:1–4; cf. 1 Sam. 7:3). Thus, repentance includes a change that results in obedience, requiring the sinner to “amend [his] ways and [his] deeds” (Jer. 18:11) and to keep the commandments of God’s law (2 Kings 17:13; 23:25). Such repentant obedience is never merely external but rather comes from the heart (Deut. 30:2; 1 Kings 8:48; Jer. 3:10; Joel 2:12–13).
In the New Testament, the Greek term metamelomai represents the emotional component of repentance as denoted by nakham. It describes “regret” (2 Cor. 7:8; cf. 7:10–11) and “remorse” (Matt. 21:32; 27:3 NASB) for evil conduct. Similarly, the Greek term epistrephō and its cognates signify the same general concept of “turning” as the Hebrew shub. When speaking of repentance, it describes how one changes his life’s direction—turning from sin and idolatry to worshiping and serving the true God (Acts 14:15; 1 Thess. 1:9). Such turning to the Lord is used synonymously with forsaking a hardened heart of unbelief and coming to God in faith for salvation (Matt. 13:15; Luke 1:16–17; Acts 3:19; 9:35; 11:21; 26:18, 20; 2 Cor. 3:16).
The most common New Testament Greek verb for repentance is metanoeō (noun, metanoia), which means “to change one’s mind.” It indicates first of all that repentance involves acknowledging one’s sin. John the Baptist came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance [Gk. metanoia] for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). If repentance is for the forgiveness of sins, those submitting to a baptism of repentance must have acknowledged that they were sinners in need of forgiveness. Indeed, Christ came to call sinners, not the righteous, to repentance (Luke 5:32). Such an acknowledgment also implies a fundamental change of attitude toward sin and a purpose to turn away from it. Such is the inescapable meaning of Peter’s charge to Simon Magus (Acts 8:22) and Paul’s charge to the Corinthians practicing impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality (2 Cor. 12:21). Christ himself requires this when he intimately unites the command to repent with an exhortation to “do the works you did at first” (Rev. 2:5). Such obviously implies a change in attitude, resulting in a full change of course that issues in a changed life. Indeed, after acknowledging one’s sin and deserved judgment and after altering one’s course by turning from sins, the sinner is exhorted to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8; cf. 3:10–14) and to be “performing deeds in keeping with … repentance” (Acts 26:20). Thus, the “change of mind” signified by metanoeō is not a mere intellectual alteration. The “mind” (Gk. nous) that is changed refers to the inner consciousness of the whole man and not merely to the mental faculties. Concerning metanoeō, Berkhof wisely observes,
While maintaining that the word denotes primarily a change of mind, we should not lose sight of the fact that its meaning is not limited to the intellectual, theoretical consciousness, but also includes the moral consciousness, the conscience. Both the mind and the conscience are defiled, Tit. 1:15, and when a person’s nous is changed, he not only receives new knowledge, but the direction of his conscious life, its moral quality, is also changed.
To summarize the above lexical analysis, biblical repentance is not a mere change of thinking, though it does involve an intellectual acknowledgment of sin and a change of attitude toward it. Neither is it merely shame or sorrow for sin, although genuine repentance always involves an element of remorse. True biblical repentance is also a redirection of the human will, a purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness and pursue righteousness instead. Thus, genuine repentance involves the mind, the heart, and the will.
Intellectually, repentance begins with a recognition of sin. We must apprehend the truly wicked nature of sin and as a result humbly acknowledge that we are sinners who have broken God’s law, have fallen short of his glory, and therefore stand guilty before him. To experience the intellectual aspect of repentance is to declare with Job, “I have uttered what I did not understand” (Job 42:3; cf. 42:6), and to confess as did David, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13; cf. Ps. 51:3–4). It is to humbly confess one’s need for grace and mercy and to ask for forgiveness (Ps. 51:1–2).
Emotionally, genuine repentance is marked by a sincere sorrow, remorse, and even mourning over one’s sin (cf. Matt. 5:4). Old Testament saints would often act out their sorrowful repentance, by smiting their thigh (Jer. 31:19), sitting on an ash heap (Job 42:6), and donning sackcloth and ashes (Jonah 3:5–6; cf. Matt. 11:21). True, repentant sorrow is distinct from what Paul calls “worldly grief,” which produces death (2 Cor. 7:10). Such was the case with Judas, who “felt remorse” (Matt. 27:3 NASB) for betraying Christ, even to the point of confessing, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matt. 27:4). Yet his was a worldly grief that produced death, for “he went and hanged himself” (Matt. 27:5). Similarly, the rich young ruler went away sorrowful (Matt. 19:22), but he was not repentant, for he clung to the idol of his possessions rather than selling all he had to gain Christ (cf. Matt. 13:44). Nevertheless, while sorrow should not be equated strictly with repentance, it is a necessary component of it and is often a powerful impulse to genuinely turning away from sin. As Paul says, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). Thus, true repentance will always include at least some element of contrition—not sorrow for getting caught, nor sadness because of the consequences, but a spirit broken by the sense of having sinned against God and a longing to be restored to fellowship with him (Ps. 51:12, 17).
Finally, repentance involves a change of direction, a transformation of the will. Far from being only a change of mind, repentance constitutes a determination to abandon stubborn disobedience and surrender the will to Christ. This is powerfully illustrated in the ministries of the Old Testament prophets, who characterized repentance in terms of the wicked forsaking his evil thoughts (Isa. 55:7), turning from his wickedness and practicing justice and righteousness (Ezek. 33:19), and turning from his wicked way (Jonah 3:10; cf. 2 Chron. 7:14). It is a resolute disowning of oneself and one’s sinful way of life and an embrace of Christ for justifying and sanctifying righteousness. As such, genuine repentance will inevitably result in a change of behavior. It is important to note, though, that the behavior change itself is not repentance. The call to repentance is not a call to clean up one’s life to fit oneself for salvation. That would turn repentance into a work of merit and would undermine the gospel of grace. Salvation is a sovereign gift of God’s grace that the sinner apprehends by faith alone (Rom. 3:28; Eph. 2:8), precisely because it is impossible for sinners to satisfy the demands of God’s righteousness by their deeds (Titus 3:5). But while repentance is not to be strictly defined as a change in behavior, a changed life is the fruit that genuine repentance will inevitably bear. Though sinners are not saved by good works, they are saved for good works (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14; 3:8).
Thus, in his ministry the apostle Paul proclaimed to Jews and Gentiles “that they should repent [Gk. metanoeō] and turn [Gk. epistrephō] to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20). Similarly, John the Baptist demanded that those who professed to be repentant “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). When his hearers asked what a repentant life looked like, he responded by saying that a man ought to stop being greedy and indifferent to his neighbor’s suffering and should change his course by lending to him liberally (Luke 3:11). He called the tax collectors to turn from their extortion: “Collect no more than what you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:13). He answered that the soldiers must no longer extort by threats and false accusation but must be content with making an honest living (Luke 3:14). Both Paul and John the Baptist stood on the shoulders of the prophets, such as Isaiah, who identified the fruits of repentance for the corrupt nation of his day: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:16–17). One observes the progression in such a list: repentance begins internally with a cleansing, and then manifests itself in righteous attitudes and actions. In other words, there will be a sincere change in one’s conduct. A person who has genuinely repented will stop doing evil and will begin to live righteously. Where there is no observable difference in conduct, there can be no confidence that repentance has taken place (Matt. 3:8; 1 John 2:3–6; 3:17).
In summary, then, the Scriptures teach that repentance begins with the sinner’s humble acknowledgment of his sin and need for forgiveness. Understanding the offensiveness of his sin before God produces great mourning, sorrow, and even shame and humiliation. His disgust with himself and his unrighteousness leads him to repudiate his wickedness and to decisively turn away from a life of sin. As he turns from his former way of life, he turns to trust and serve the God who is worthy of all worship. In Christ he finds forgiveness and is restored to fellowship with his Creator. Finally, he does not regard that forgiveness as the final step but lovingly, from the heart, purposes to live in obedience to the revealed will of God, empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit. The evidence of his inward repentance is thus manifested in his external deeds.
Repentance is an essential element of conversion and is therefore an indispensable element of the gospel message. Not only is repentance mentioned alongside faith in the proclamation of the gospel (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21; Heb. 6:1), but also many passages in Scripture call for repentance alone to lay hold of salvation. This does not contradict the truth that faith is the sole instrument of justification but rather illustrates that the New Testament authors regarded the relationship between repentance and faith to be so intimate that the mention of the one implied the other—that one cannot turn from sin without turning to Christ in faith, and vice versa. Thus, while Mark records Jesus’s first proclamation of the gospel as calling his hearers to “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15), Matthew records the same as Jesus’s call to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Jesus would later characterize the objective of his ministry as calling sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32) and would demonstrate that truth by declaring, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). In the only record of the Great Commission in which we are given Jesus’s words concerning the content of the message the disciples are to preach, Jesus summarizes the gospel as the proclamation of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in his name (Luke 24:47 NASB). And the disciples were obedient to this commission. As the men of Israel listened to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, they were seized with conviction and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter responded by calling them to repentance: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38 NASB). In his sermon at Solomon’s portico, he concluded with the same call: “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). As Paul preached the gospel to the Athenians on Mars Hill, the climax of his message was a call to repentance: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Scripture is unmistakably clear: repentance is not an optional element but is an essential component of the true gospel. Those who insist that it is possible to savingly trust in Christ without repenting of sin—to believe in Jesus as Savior but not submit to him as Lord—find themselves in direct contradiction to the gospel according to Jesus and the apostles.
Whereas repentance might be described as the negative aspect of conversion—that is, the act of turning away from sin—faith can be styled as the positive aspect, the soul’s turn to God and trusting in the person and work of Christ to provide forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life. As the miracle of the new birth banishes the blindness of spiritual death, the eyes of the sinner’s re-created heart look on the glory of Jesus and delight to find in him an utterly sufficient Savior, perfectly suited to cleanse from sin, provide perfect righteousness, and satisfy the soul. Beholding the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), the sinner embraces Jesus with all his heart, entrusting and committing himself to all that Christ is. Thus, saving faith is a fundamental commitment of the whole person to the whole Christ; with his mind, heart, and will, the believer embraces Jesus as Savior, Advocate, Provider, Sustainer, Counselor, and Lord God.
Thus, like repentance, its counterpart, saving faith consists of intellectual, emotional, and volitional elements: knowledge (Lat. notitia), assent (Lat. assensus), and trust (Lat. fiducia), respectively. The mind embraces knowledge, a recognition and understanding of the truth concerning the person and work of Christ. The heart gives assent, or the settled confidence and affirmation that Christ’s salvation is suitable to one’s spiritual need. The will responds with trust, the personal commitment to and appropriation of Christ as the only hope for eternal salvation. Each of these components requires further elaboration.
Knowledge. The most basic element of faith is knowledge. Contemporary cultural thought, dominated by secular humanism, conceives of faith as the opposite of knowledge—that faith is what takes over when one does not have sufficient knowledge. It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “Well, I can’t really know, but I just believe it.” However, the biblical conception of faith is not an existential leap in the dark or a sentimental, wish-upon-a-star kind of hope. So far from being an alternative to knowledge, true faith is based on knowledge; it has its sure and solid foundation in the knowledge of divinely revealed truth.
Scripture testifies to this in a number of ways. First, the Bible often represents the knowledge of particular truths as the causal ground of faith. For example, faith in Christ for salvation is grounded on “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:16 NASB). It is because we know that works do not justify that we believe in Christ for salvation. Similarly, Paul grounds the believer’s faith in his future resurrection on the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing [i.e., ‘because we know’115] that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again” (Rom. 6:8–9 NASB; cf. 2 Cor. 4:13–14; 1 Pet. 5:9). These passages make plain that biblical faith and knowledge of the truth are not enemies but that the latter is the ground of the former. Scripture further testifies to this relationship between faith and knowledge by often employing the phrase “believe that …” followed by propositional truth claims that identify the content of saving faith. One must believe that Jesus is God (John 8:24; 13:19, where Jesus applies the divine name “I Am” to himself; cf. Ex. 3:14) and is one with the Father (John 14:10–11), that he is the Messiah and Son of God (John 11:27; 20:31; 1 John 5:1, 5) who was sent from the Father (John 11:42; 16:27, 30; 17:8, 21), that he died for sins and rose from the grave (1 Thess. 4:14; cf. Rom. 10:9), that God exists and “rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6), and that sinners are saved by grace through faith alone (Acts 15:11; cf. 15:9). The apostle Paul summarizes the matter when he declares that saving faith comes from hearing the gospel message concerning Christ (Rom. 10:17), so that it is impossible to believe without hearing that message (Rom. 10:14). Knowledge of the gospel message—namely, the divinely revealed facts of God’s holiness, sin’s penalty, Christ’s identity, and what he has accomplished for sinners—is the very ground of saving faith. Clearly, then, true faith has objective substance. Believing is not a mindless leap in the dark or some ethereal kind of trust apart from knowledge. The truth of the gospel message as revealed in Christ and in Scripture provides a factual, historical, intellectual basis for our faith. Thus, we do not believe according to our subjective whims; we are to believe the truth (2 Thess. 2:11–12; cf. John 8:46; 1 Tim. 4:3). Faith that is not grounded in this objective, propositional truth is no faith at all.
Assent. While knowing the facts is necessary to faith, it is not sufficient. It is entirely possible to know the truth without believing or embracing the truth. Many preachers, scholars, and theologians have intellectually grasped great truths of Scripture, such as the virgin birth of Christ and his bodily resurrection, and yet have rejected these doctrines as false. Also, many people understand the truths of the gospel—that man stands guilty before a holy God and will perish in his sins, that Christ has borne the punishment of his people by dying and rising in their place, and that the benefits of his work are to be received by faith apart from works—and yet fail to repent and trust in him themselves. For this reason, faith is said to have an emotional element as well as an intellectual element. Faith not only knows the truth but also assents to and wholeheartedly embraces the truth as it is revealed in Scripture. The truth is known and believed.
The writer of Hebrews speaks to this heartfelt assent as a component of faith when he defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The word translated “assurance” is the Greek term hypostasis, made up of stasis, “to stand,” and hypo, “under.” It refers to a foundation, the ground on which something is built. The writer uses it here to describe faith as a supernatural certainty—a God-wrought conviction about the truth of the Bible’s promises and the trustworthiness of Christ. The writer goes on to say that faith is the conviction of things not seen; that is, what cannot be seen with the physical eyes is unveiled for the spiritual eyes by faith. Hebrews 11:27 characterizes Moses’s faith in precisely this way: “By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.” Moses’s faith consisted of the resolute conviction that the riches of Christ’s glory were more valuable than the treasures of Egypt (Heb. 11:24–26). He did not just intellectually apprehend that Christ was more precious; he was persuaded in the depths of his heart that it was true. It was Paul’s resolute, faith-filled conviction of the sovereignty of Christ that fueled his endurance through the most intense suffering, for he said, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12).
With respect to conversion, then, the one who possesses saving faith wholeheartedly embraces the truth concerning his own sinfulness and Christ’s suitableness to save him. When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was passing by, his resolute conviction that the Son of David was perfectly suited to meet his need caused him to abandon propriety and cry out for Jesus to restore his sight. Jesus responded, “Go your way; your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:46–52). In the same way, the newly awakened believer becomes absolutely convinced that he is helpless to address the inevitable misery of his spiritual condition, and he looks on Christ with the certain conviction that Christ’s sufficiency is the perfect answer to his spiritual bankruptcy. By this faith the sinner is made well.
Trust. There was something more to Moses’s, Paul’s, and Bartimaeus’s faith than merely knowing and embracing the truth. James tells us that the demons know and believe the truth of monotheism (James 2:19). Nicodemus believed that Jesus was a teacher sent from God (John 3:2). Agrippa believed that the Old Testament spoke truth (Acts 26:27). Judas was convinced that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 27:3–5). Yet none of these possessed saving faith. Faith begins with knowledge (notitia) and assent (assensus), but it does not stop until it reaches the will’s utter reliance on Christ for one’s personal salvation (fiducia). As Murray insightfully notes, “Faith is knowledge passing into conviction, and it is conviction passing into confidence. Faith cannot stop short of self-commitment to Christ, a transference of reliance upon ourselves and all human resources to reliance upon Christ alone for salvation. It is a receiving and resting upon him.” That is to say, saving faith moves beyond “believing that” and arrives at “believing in”; it moves beyond mentally assenting to truth about Christ and arrives at personally trusting in Christ and depending on him for forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God.
The apostle Paul narrates his own conversion story in Philippians 3. He characterizes the true Christian as one who puts no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3), one who does not look within himself—to his inherited privileges or religious accomplishments—to acquire the righteousness that God requires. In his life as a Pharisee, he had indeed put full confidence in his flesh—in his heritage, social standing, religious ritualism, traditionalism, devotion, and sincerity, and even in the external observance of God’s commands (Phil. 3:4–6). He trusted in these fleshly credentials to lift him up to reach the standard of God’s righteousness. But that error disappeared after he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. As he said, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:7). When God opened the eyes of Paul’s heart in regeneration, all the self-righteousness that Paul counted on to be gain he came to regard as loss. He counted it all rubbish in order to “gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:8–9 NKJV). He had turned from depending on himself for righteousness to trusting in Christ alone for righteousness (cf. Rom. 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:21).
Not only does the one with saving faith trust in Christ for righteousness, he also receives Christ as treasure. Paul regarded knowing Jesus personally to be of such surpassing value that he was willing to lose everything in his life to gain him (Phil. 3:8). Jesus himself spoke of conversion as finding a treasure: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt. 13:44; cf. 13:45–46). The man whose heart has been awakened in regeneration is like a man who stumbles on a priceless, buried treasure. And because of the surpassing value of the treasure that is Christ Jesus, the sinner willingly forsakes everything he has so he can lay hold of the Savior whom he regards as supremely precious (Luke 9:23; 14:26–33; cf. Matt. 10:37–39). These texts should caution the student of Scripture from conceiving of saving faith as that which merely uses Christ to escape punishment. Saving faith is preeminently an eager embrace of a person—a wholehearted, delightful reception of Christ for the fullness of who he is, namely, the source of all righteousness, life, and satisfaction for the newborn soul (Matt. 5:6; John 4:13–14; 6:35).
Finally, in this volitional aspect of faith, one not only trusts in Christ but also entrusts oneself to Christ, for believing in a person necessarily involves a personal commitment. The one who trusts Christ places himself in the custody of Christ for both life and death. The believer relies on the Lord’s counsel, trusts in his goodness, and entrusts himself for time and eternity to his guardianship. Saving faith, then, is the sinner, in the whole of his being, embracing all of Christ. That is why Scripture often uses such metaphors for faith as looking to him (John 3:14–15; cf. Num. 21:9), eating his flesh and drinking his blood (John 6:50–58; cf. 4:14), receiving him (John 1:12), and coming to him (Matt. 11:28; John 5:40; 6:35, 37, 44, 65; 7:37–38). One demonstrates his faith that bread satisfies hunger not merely by confessing, “Bread satisfies!” but by eating the bread. In the same way, one demonstrates his faith in Christ not merely by saying, “I believe!” but by coming to Christ, receiving all that he is, and entrusting to him all that the believer is. In summary, faith is leaning wholly on Christ—for redemption, for righteousness, for counsel, for fellowship, for sustenance, for direction, for succor, for his lordship, and for all in life that can truly satisfy.
This means that true, saving faith necessarily works itself out in loving obedience (cf. Gal. 5:6). The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is dedicated to illustrating this sole principle. After defining the nature of true faith in the opening verses, the author scans the whole of redemptive history to demonstrate that faith works. By faith Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice (Heb. 11:4); by faith Enoch walked with God and escaped death itself (11:5); by faith Noah built an ark (11:7); by faith Abraham obeyed (11:8), lived in a foreign land (11:9), and offered up Isaac to God (11:17–19); by faith Isaac and Jacob blessed their sons (11:20–21); by faith Joseph spoke of the exodus (11:22); by faith Moses’s parents hid him from Pharaoh (11:23); by faith Moses rejected the passing pleasures of Egypt, embraced the reproach of Christ, and left without fear (11:24–27); by faith Moses kept the Passover (11:28); by faith Israel crossed the Red Sea (11:29) and conquered Jericho (11:30). Faith offers, walks, builds, blesses, hides, leaves, and conquers. In short, faith obeys. It compels one to act in accordance with the truth that one professes to believe. At conversion, saving faith does nothing but passively receive the provision of Christ. Yet true faith never remains passive; it immediately goes to work—not as a means of earning divine favor but as a consequence of having received the grace of God that works mightily within us (Col. 1:29). As we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12–13).
GIFTS THAT KEEP ON GIVING
Two other features of repentance and faith must not go without mention. First, both repentance and faith are sovereign gifts of God himself. While it is true that repentant faith is held out to sinners as their responsibility and the condition for their justification, the corruption of their mind, affections, and will makes it impossible for them to truly repent and believe. It is only by the sovereign work of the Spirit in regeneration, renewing man’s heart and opening his spiritual eyes, that he is enabled to turn from sin and self and trust in Christ alone for righteousness.
For this reason, Scripture speaks of repentant faith not as a sovereign decision of the human will but as that which is supernaturally granted as a gift of God’s grace. In the case of repentance, Peter declared to the Sanhedrin that God accomplished Christ’s death and resurrection in order “to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). When Peter later testified to the Jews that the Spirit had fallen on the Gentiles, they concluded that God had given this gift to the Gentiles as well: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). Similarly, Paul instructed Timothy to gently correct those who opposed him, in the hope that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).
Correspondingly, Scripture identifies faith as a gift of God’s grace. Perhaps the most familiar passage on the subject is Ephesians 2:8–9, where Paul declares, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Here, Paul refers to the entirety of salvation as the gift of God, which necessarily includes the faith by which the sinner is justified. Further, Luke characterizes Christians as “those who through grace had believed” (Acts 18:27); thus, faith comes only through God’s grace and therefore is a gift. Paul explicitly teaches this idea in his letter to the Philippians when he tells them, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil. 1:29 NASB). Along with suffering for the sake of the gospel, faith in Christ is granted as a gift from God.
As a divine gift, then, the repentant faith that saves could never be transient or temporary. It has an abiding quality that guarantees it will endure to the end, so that repentance and faith characterize the lifestyle of the true Christian. In the first of his “Ninety-Five Theses,” Martin Luther (1483–1546) famously wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Thus, when Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive a brother who sins against him (Matt. 18:21), Jesus responded, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3–4). The principle is that one ought to repent as often as one sins. In his letters to the churches of Asia, Christ instructed believers (i.e., “those whom I love”) at the church of Laodicea to “be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19), which shows that repentance is not just a one-time event at conversion but is expected even of true Christians. The Lord also taught his disciples to be in the habit of praying for forgiveness (Matt. 6:12), which necessarily requires ongoing repentance. The apostle John similarly states, “If we confess [Gk. homologeō] our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The present tense of homologeō indicates ongoing activity. Thus, believers show that they are the ones God has forgiven and cleansed because they are continually confessing their sins. In sum, though justification frees the believer from the penalty of sin, the presence of sin still remains in his unredeemed flesh. Therefore, because he continues to sin against God and others, he must continue to repent. In a believer’s life, a spirit of repentance must be as indwelling as is his remaining sin.
The same is true for faith. The familiar words of Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (cf. Rom. 1:18; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38), speak not of a momentary act of believing but of a living, enduring trust in God. Hebrews 3:14 emphasizes the permanence of genuine faith. Its very durability is proof of its reality: “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” The faith that God gives can never evaporate. And the work of salvation cannot ultimately be thwarted (1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6; Col. 1:22–23). The apostle Paul summarizes the totality of the Christian life when he declares, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20; cf. Heb. 10:39). The Christian’s life is to be distinguished by daily confession of, mourning over, and turning from sin, as well as a persevering faith in the person of Christ and the promises of God.
Union with Christ
One of the most precious truths in all Scripture is the doctrine of the believer’s union with the Lord Jesus Christ. The concept of being united to Christ speaks of the most vital spiritual intimacy that one can imagine between the Lord and his people. While Christ relates to believers as Lord, Master, Savior, and Teacher, they are not merely associated with Christ as the object of his saving grace and love. It is not that Christians merely worship Jesus, obey him, or pray to him, though surely those privileges would be enough. Rather, they are so intimately identified with him and he with them that Scripture says they are united—he is in them and they are in him. The Lord and his people share a common spiritual life, such that the apostle Paul could say that our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3), that Christ is himself our life (Col. 3:4), and that Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20). United to his people in this way, Christ acts as their representative and substitute; that is, that which Christ has accomplished on behalf of his people God reckons to have counted for them, just as if they had done it themselves. Because of union with Christ, believers have been crucified with him (Gal. 2:20), have died with him (Rom. 6:8; Col. 2:20), have been buried with him (Rom. 6:3), have been raised with him (Eph. 2:5–6; Col. 3:1), and have even been enthroned in heaven with him (Eph. 2:6). He is thus the Mediator of all the benefits of salvation, for God our Father “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3 NASB).
Such intimate spiritual union is unique to Christianity. In no other religion is the object of worship said to become the life of the worshiper. Muslims do not speak of being in Allah or in Muhammad; Buddhists never say that they are in Buddha. They may follow the teachings of their respective leaders, but Christians alone are said to be in Christ, united to him as their representative, substitute, and Mediator.
This concept of union with Christ is as pervasive as it is precious. Most commonly represented by the tiny preposition “in,” the believer’s union with Christ permeates the New Testament. Believers are often said to be “in Christ” (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:17), “in the Lord” (Rom. 16:11), and “in him” (1 John 5:20). Similarly, Christ is also said to be in his people (Rom. 8:10; 2 Cor. 13:5; Eph. 3:17), a notion that Paul defines as the very “hope of glory” itself (Col. 1:27). Sometimes both of these aspects of union with Christ are presented in the same text, only further emphasizing the intimacy of the mutual indwelling of Christ and the believer (e.g., John 6:56; 15:4; 1 John 4:13). Clearly, the importance of the believer’s union with Christ cannot be overstated.
UNION WITH CHRIST AND SOTERIOLOGY
How the doctrine of union with Christ relates to the rest of soteriology has long been a matter of discussion. That is because it is not merely another phase in the application of redemption, like regeneration, faith, or justification. Instead, union with Christ is the matrix out of which all other soteriological doctrines flow. Indeed, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:3, our union with Christ is the source of every spiritual blessing we receive—from the Father’s election in eternity past, to the Son’s redemptive life, death, burial, and resurrection, all the way to the glorification of the saints with Christ in heaven. For this reason, the great theologian John Murray called the believer’s union with Christ “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” It is the unifying principle of all soteriology, spanning from eternity past to eternity future.
In the first place, the Father’s election is rooted in Christ. Paul says, “[The Father] chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). He also tells us in 2 Timothy 1:9 that God gave us grace “in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” Though the Father’s work of election occurred before we even existed, his choice to save his people is nevertheless in Christ. This means there was never a time when God contemplated his elect apart from their vital union to Christ.
Second, Scripture teaches that God reckoned the elect to be united with Christ throughout every act of the Son’s accomplishment of redemption. It is in him we have redemption and forgiveness (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). We are united to him in his perfect life of obedience. As he “fulfill[ed] all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15), so also those united to him are clothed in his righteousness (Gal. 3:27), that is, credited with his obedience (Rom. 5:19; cf. 1 Cor. 1:30; 15:22). This union was also the ground on which our sin could be justly imputed to Christ. The Father counts the elect to have lived Jesus’s life because he counts Jesus to have lived our lives and thus punished him accordingly (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). Thus we are said to have “died with Christ” (Rom. 6:8; Col. 2:20; cf. Col. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:11), “our old self [having been] crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6). Not only this, but we were “buried with him” (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12), raised from the dead with him (Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12; 3:1), and even “seated … with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). His life is our life, his punishment our punishment, his death our death, his resurrection our resurrection, his righteousness our righteousness, his ascension and glorification our ascension and glorification. In summary, though we had not yet been born, God nevertheless counted his people to be in union with their Savior throughout the accomplishment of his redemptive work. Christ did not live, die, and rise again for a faceless, nameless group; redemption was remarkably personal, as the body was always reckoned to be united to the head (Eph. 5:23, 25).
Third, just as the plan and accomplishment of redemption occur in Christ, so too does the application of redemption. Believers are born again unto saving faith in union with Christ. Paul describes the believer’s regeneration when he says that they have been “made … alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5) and are “created in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:10). If anyone is united to Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), which is another way of saying that one is born again in union with Christ. This impartation of new spiritual life issues immediately in repentant faith, the instrument by which one subjectively appropriates all the spiritual blessings planned by the Father and purchased by the Son (Gal. 2:20). United to Christ by faith, believers lay hold of Christ’s righteousness (Phil. 3:9), and so are justified in him (Gal. 2:17), for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Thus declared righteous in Christ, believers are adopted into the family of God through Christ (Eph. 1:5; cf. Gal. 3:26), and are sanctified in him for holiness and service to God (1 Cor. 1:2).
Union with Christ is also the source of the believer’s progressive sanctification and perseverance. Christ is called our sanctification because it flows from him (1 Cor. 1:30). We bring forth the fruit of righteousness only as we stay connected to our vine (John 15:4–5). The members of the body grow into maturity as they receive the communication of life from their head (Eph. 4:15–16). Thus, believers “[died] to the Law through the body of Christ,” because it is only as they are “joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead,” that they might walk in his resurrection life and thereby “bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4 NASB; cf. 6:4–11). Increasing in holiness is impossible apart from union with Christ. Further, it is on the basis of this union that true believers always persevere until the end (John 10:27–28), for while they are in Christ nothing can separate them from the Father’s love (Rom. 8:38–39). Indeed, not even death severs this union, for Christians who die are called the dead in Christ (1 Thess. 4:14, 16).
Finally, it is on the basis of union with Christ that believers will be raised from the dead. He is the firstfruits of our resurrection, as Paul comforts the Corinthians: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20–22). Paul reasons elsewhere, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5; cf. 8:17).
It is plain, therefore, that the believer’s union with Christ encompasses every step of salvation, from election in eternity past to glorification in eternity future. Those whom God has chosen, whom Christ has purchased, and to whom the Spirit gives life are never contemplated apart from their union with Christ. And yet this union is not actualized in the sinner’s experience before his conversion, for the apostle Paul speaks of a time when believers were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). He continues, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). That is to say, the sinner passes from separation to union with Christ when he becomes a partaker in the gospel purchased by Jesus’s blood, the benefits of which he lays hold of by faith alone (Rom. 3:25; 4:24; Gal. 3:24). It is for this reason that we treat union with Christ at this point in discussing the application of redemption.
THE NATURE OF THE BELIEVER’S UNION
Having seen the significance and breadth of the believer’s union with Christ, it is now appropriate to inquire into the nature of this union itself. What does it mean exactly that believers are united to Christ? Scripture answers by illustrating the intimacy of this union with a number of metaphors. By understanding these metaphors, we can reach sound, biblical conclusions concerning the nature of our union with Christ.
First, Scripture uses the picture of a building and its foundation. In Ephesians 2:19–22, Paul speaks of the church as God’s household, a spiritual building laid on the foundation of the divine revelation communicated by the apostles and prophets. The cornerstone of that foundation is Christ himself (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5–7), and it is in him that “the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21). The Greek term translated “joined together” speaks of the union of every component of this building. Just as every stone in a literal building is cut precisely to fit snugly, strongly, and beautifully with every other part and to rest perfectly on the foundation, so also does the unity and stability of the church depend on Christ, her foundation. It is only by being built on and permanently united to Christ, our cornerstone, that believers find their spiritual existence, support, and security to be well-founded.
Second, the believer’s union with Christ is pictured as the union between the vine and its branches. Jesus taught, “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4–5). Just as the branches depend on the vine for life, strength, and sustenance, so also does the believer depend on union with Christ for all spiritual nourishment and growth. Apart from Christ the vine, we the branches can bear no fruit; we are entirely useless, destitute of any spiritual vitality unless we remain connected to our vine.
Third, Scripture also uses the metaphor of marriage to portray the union between Christ and his church. The church is often pictured as Christ’s bride (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7; 21:9), and Christ as the husband and head of the church (Eph. 5:22–33). In Ephesians 5, Paul based all his instructions for the husband-wife relationship on the relationship between Christ and his bride. At the end of this discussion, Paul quoted from the first wedding sermon, Genesis 2:24, where God said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). Then Paul added, “This mystery is profound; and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).
The metaphor of marriage has great significance for understanding the believer’s union with Christ. First, it speaks to the intimacy of this union. The one-flesh union of husband and wife is the most private, personal, and intimate relationship among mankind, and its primary purpose is to be a picture of the union between Christ and the church. Second, it speaks to the organic nature of this union. The new life created via the one-flesh union of husband and wife portrays the mutuality and vitality of the church’s union with her husband. Third, this figure illustrates the legality of this union. As marriage legally joins the husband to the wife, so also does the believer’s union with Christ enable Christ to act as the legal representative in his stead (discussed further below). Finally, marriage illustrates the unbreakable bond that exists between Christ and the church. “To hold fast to” translates the Greek term proskollaō, which literally means “to be glued or cemented together.” God’s design for marriage is to be permanent (Mal. 2:16; Matt. 19:6), and it thus illustrates the permanence of the union between Christ and the church.
Fourth, perhaps the greatest metaphor given to illustrate union with Christ is the union of head and body (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12–13, 27; Eph. 1:22–23). Also pictured in the marriage text of Ephesians 5, Paul says, “Christ is the head of the church, his body” (Eph. 5:23). The one who nourishes and cherishes his own body loves himself (Eph. 5:28–30), because there is such an intimate union between the head and the body. Believers’ bodies are members of Christ’s own body, so much so that to unite oneself to a prostitute is to unite Christ to a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:15–16). Thus, what happens to the head happens to the body, and what happens to the body happens to the head.
This metaphor lays the groundwork for understanding the legal and representational nature of the believer’s union with Christ, where Christ obeys (Rom. 5:18–19; cf. 1 Cor. 1:30), dies (Col. 2:20), rises (Col. 3:1), and ascends (Eph. 2:6) in their place, such that they are reckoned to have done all those things. Because this union is a legal union—that is, because Christ is the representative head of his people—there is no element of Christ’s earthly life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension in which the believer does not partake on account of being in him. Thus 1 Corinthians 15:22 says, “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” That is to say, all humanity was reckoned to be united with Adam as our representative, such that his disobedience counted as our disobedience and brought condemnation on us (Rom. 5:12, 18, 19). In the same way, all those in Christ are united to the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) as their representative, such that his obedience counts as our obedience and brings righteousness and the justification of life to all in him (Rom. 5:18, 19).
In summary, then, we can speak of at least five characteristics of the believer’s union with Christ. First, it is an organic union. That is to say, Christ and believers form one body, of which he is the head and they are the members. Thus, what is true of the head is true of the body. Second, it is a legal union, fitting Christ to be the representative head of his people and fitting them to be the beneficiary of his substitutionary work of salvation. Third, it is a vital union, in which all spiritual life and vitality flows from the vine to the branches, such that the life of Christ becomes the dominating and animating principle of believers’ lives (Gal. 2:20). Fourth, it may be called a spiritual union not only because spiritual life is communicated to and strengthened within the believer but also because this union has its source in and is mediated by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9–10; 1 Cor. 12:13; John 14:17–18). Finally, it is a permanent union that can never be severed, as nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in—that is, which is ours in union with—Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 8:38–39).
ERRONEOUS CONCEPTIONS OF UNION WITH CHRIST
Some conceptions of union with Christ have missed the mark of the biblical picture. First, union with Christ is not merely speaking of the love and sympathy Jesus has for his own. It is not that believers are merely in touch with Jesus on a moral level as our teacher or friend. This was the error of the Socinians and the early Arminians. Such a conception falls short of the sharing of common spiritual life that is so vividly illustrated by the metaphors of the vine and the branches and of the head and the body. As mentioned above, Christians are not merely associated with Christ; our life is hidden in him, such that he himself is our life (Col. 3:3–4; Gal. 2:20).
On the other hand, other theologians make the opposite error by supposing that union with Christ speaks of the believer’s union with his essence. This has become especially popular among certain Lutheran theologians who believe that man is divinized in justification. However, it is impossible for any human being to become one with Christ in his essence, for that would remove all distinctions between the believer and the person of Christ. We do not become one with Christ in such a way that he is no longer himself nor we ourselves, any more than the union of husband and wife causes them to cease to be two persons. Such would destroy the distinct personhood of the Son and would effectively deify the believer, both of which are contrary to Scripture.
Still another error is sacramentalism—that union with Christ is mediated by participating in baptism or the Lord’s Supper, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches. However, this is to undermine the very heart of the gospel, because it proposes that physical and tangible rituals are required for a believer to lay hold of a saving participation in Christ. Yet Scripture reserves this role for faith alone (Rom. 3:28; 4:3–5; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 3:9). Indeed, the ordinances of baptism and Communion presuppose that union with Christ already exists, as these are to be practiced only by believers. As A. H. Strong wrote, “Only faith receives and retains Christ; and faith is the act of the soul grasping what is purely invisible and supersensible: not the act of the body, submitting to Baptism or partaking of the Supper.”
IMPLICATIONS OF THE BELIEVER’S UNION WITH CHRIST
The foregoing study provides a number of implications with respect to the believer’s union with Christ. First, since the Son is united to the Father and to the Spirit, believers, by their participation in Christ, are also made one with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus thus prays for the unity of the church to reflect the unity he shares with his Father: “… just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21). Thus, we are said to be in the Father (1 Thess. 1:1) and the Father in us (1 John 4:15). Similarly, believers are said to be in the Spirit (Rom. 8:9) and the Spirit in us (2 Tim. 1:14). In an unspeakable mystery, we who were once separated, alienated, and without God in the world are swept up into the divine life of the triune God himself (2 Pet. 1:4). This is great cause for worship.
Second, those who are one with Christ are also one with everyone else who is one with Christ. This speaks of the fundamental unity of all believers in Christ. It has become popular to speak of one’s “personal relationship” with Jesus, but a more accurate expression would be that Christians have a corporate relationship with Christ, for we are united to all who are united to him. We are the unified members of his body (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:26; Eph. 5:23), the living stones in the spiritual house built on Christ the foundation (Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Pet. 2:4–5). To suggest that one can be united to Jesus apart from his church is to tear the head from the body. There is no union with Christ that does not issue in fellowship with his church (1 Cor. 1:9; cf. 1 John 1:3). Indeed, the unity of the Trinity is the ground of Jesus’s prayer for the unity of the church (John 17:21). What a motivation for diligently pursuing the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace among all believers (Eph. 4:3)!
Finally, we must grasp the significance that every spiritual benefit received in salvation comes only through Christ. As John Owen wrote, this union “is the cause of all other graces that we are made partakers of; they are all communicated unto us by virtue of our union with Christ. Hence is our adoption, our justification, our sanctification, our fruitfulness, our perseverance, our resurrection, our glory.” It is only as we share in Christ that we have a share in what is his. No spiritual blessing in all the world is found anywhere but in Jesus. Therefore, if we are to have an interest in Christ’s blessings, we must have an interest in his person. The gifts are wrapped up only in the Giver.
In the previous section, we examined how the believer’s union with Christ is the fountain out of which every spiritual blessing flows. The immediate result of that union is God’s free gift of justification, by which he declares believers to be righteous because of their union with the Righteous One, the Lord Jesus. The application of redemption continues to unfold. In regeneration, God performs that divine operation in the sinner’s soul whereby he births new spiritual life in him. In conversion, God grants the necessary gifts of repentance and faith by which we are united to Christ and lay hold of the blessings of salvation. Then, in justification, God legally declares that we are no longer deemed guilty under the divine law but are forgiven and counted righteous in God’s sight.
In justification, God provides the answer to mankind’s most basic theological and religious question: How can sinners come to be in a right relationship with the holy God of the universe? God is perfectly righteous (Matt. 5:48). He is light, says the apostle John, and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). That is, he is entirely holy, free from any moral defect or impurity. All mankind, on the other hand, has sinned against God and thus falls short of that holy standard (Rom. 3:23). By our sin, man has become the very darkness that has no fellowship with the God of light. All have broken his law and have thus incurred the penalty for their crimes: death and condemnation (Rom. 5:16; 6:23). If sinners are to have any good news at all, the consequences created by their breaking that law and being alienated from God must be overcome. But how can that be?
In every age of human history, religion has answered that we can get to heaven by being good people. The various religious systems of the world concoct lists of rituals and ceremonies that must be performed to achieve a measure of righteousness that might avail in the courtroom of God. However, the answer that Jesus himself gives to this question was nothing short of shocking to his listeners: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). In Jesus’s day, the scribes and Pharisees were the paragon of ceremonial righteousness in Israel. They were the religious elite; everyone in Jewish society would have expected the scribes and Pharisees to have attained the righteousness that God requires. And yet Jesus says that if man is to enter heaven, he needs a righteousness that surpasses even the most religiously devout people. In fact, he goes further than that just a few verses later when he says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). If man is to be reconciled to God, he does not just need to be a good person; he needs to be a perfect person. He needs a perfect righteousness, for God himself is perfect and requires perfection.
At the very outset, then, it is necessary to understand that salvation is a matter of righteousness. People are condemned to eternal spiritual death because they lack the righteousness that a perfectly holy God possesses and requires for fellowship with him. And the only way sinners are ever reconciled to God is by being given the righteousness that belongs to God himself. That is why the thesis statement of the book of Romans—the most thorough treatment on justification in all Scripture—takes up this theme of righteousness. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” precisely because “in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Rom. 1:16–17). The gospel saves because God gives his very own righteousness to man. The rest of the New Testament attests to this truth as well. Paul summarizes the essence of the gospel by casting it as “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:22; cf. 3:20–26). Israel’s failure to attain salvation stemmed from their “being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own” (Rom. 10:3). Christ himself is described as “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). The explicit purpose for which the Father made the Son to be sin on the cross is “so that in [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Indeed, Jesus had to die precisely because the law could only condemn; it could never provide the righteousness that brings salvation and life (Gal. 2:21; 3:21–24). Speaking of his own conversion, Paul defines the nature of Christianity itself in terms of righteousness when he describes himself, like the true believer, as “not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9 NKJV).
Thus it is plain that the doctrine of justification flows from the very heart of the gospel and the soul of Christianity itself. It is, as Martin Luther said, the article by which the church stands or falls, for it concerns the only way sinful man can be declared righteous in God’s sight.131 Man’s answer is always to try to order his life by some moral or ritualistic standard; if he does that successfully, he can contribute something to his salvation and thus achieve a righteousness acceptable to his god. Yet the Bible consistently denies that anyone can be justified by works. Rather, salvation is God’s righteousness imputed to the believer by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:21–28)
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:16)
For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal. 3:21–26)
The distinction could not be clearer. In these passages, the apostle Paul is contrasting biblical Christianity with Judaism in particular, but what he says about Judaism can be applied to every other religious system in the world. There have only ever been two religions: the religion of human achievement, by which man works to contribute to his own righteousness, and the religion of divine accomplishment, whereby God accomplishes righteousness by the holy life and substitutionary death of the Son of God and then freely gives that righteousness as a gift through faith alone. The religion of human achievement encompasses every other religious system in the history of mankind—from the pursuit of nirvana in Buddhism, to the five pillars of Islam, to the sacraments and acts of penance of Roman Catholicism. Biblical Christianity is the lone religion of divine accomplishment. Because Christians are justified by faith alone, their standing before God is not in any way related to personal merit. Good works and practical holiness are not the grounds for acceptance with God. God receives as righteous those who believe, not because of any good thing he sees in them—not even because of his own sanctifying work in their lives—but solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, which is graciously reckoned to their account through faith alone. As Paul says, “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
Therefore, we may define justification as that instantaneous act of God whereby, as a gift of his grace, he imputes to a believing sinner the full and perfect righteousness of Christ through faith alone and legally declares him perfectly righteous in his sight, forgiving the sinner of all unrighteousness and thus delivering him from all condemnation. We will unpack the elements of that definition throughout the rest of this section.
THE NATURE OF JUSTIFICATION: A LEGAL DECLARATION
Before examining any particular aspect of justification, we must be clear about what the Bible teaches concerning the nature of justification itself. Justification is a legal, or forensic, declaration of righteousness, not an actual impartation or infusion of righteousness. It describes what God declares about the believer, not what he does to change the believer. In fact, justification itself effects no actual change whatsoever in the sinner’s nature or character. It is an instantaneous change of one’s status before God, not a gradual transformation that takes place within the one who is justified.135
Legal declarations like this are fairly common in everyday life. When a minister declares, “By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife,” there is an instant change in the legal status of the couple standing before him. Seconds before, the law regarded them as two distinct individuals. Yet on the basis of this pronouncement, their legal status before God and in society changes entirely. And while that declaration has profound and life-transforming implications, nothing about the couple’s character or nature changes as a result of the minister’s words. It is a legal declaration only. To take another example, when a jury foreman announces to the court that a defendant is not guilty, the legal status of the defendant changes instantly. Seconds before, the law regarded him as “the accused,” innocent until proven guilty. But as a result of the foreman’s verdict, he is not guilty in the eyes of the law. Yet the jury’s verdict does not make the man not guilty; his own actions are the basis of his guilt or innocence. Neither does it declare his life free from any and all evil. The foreman’s announcement simply declares the defendant’s status before the law. In a similar way, the justification spoken of in Scripture is God’s divine verdict of “not guilty—fully righteous” pronounced on the sinner. In the case of justification, it is not that the accused is innocent but that another has paid in full the penalty for his crimes.
Disagreement over the nature of justification was one of the key debates of the Protestant Reformation, and it still divides biblical Christianity and Roman Catholicism to this day. Roman Catholic theology teaches that justification is not merely forensic but transformative. In other words, according to Roman Catholic teaching, “to justify” does not mean “to declare righteous” but “to make righteous.” Now, it is true that the saving grace of God is transformative; those who are declared righteous in conversion will be progressively made righteous throughout the course of their Christian lives. However, this progressive transformation defines the reality not of biblical justification but of sanctification. By failing to distinguish these two intimately related yet nevertheless distinct applications of redemption, Roman Catholicism collapses sanctification into justification. The inevitable consequence is that the believer’s own imperfect righteousness replaces the perfect righteousness of Christ as the sole ground of justification. The result is “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law,” which, as Paul says in Philippians 3:9, is not the saving righteousness of God. Because of this, failing to understand the nature of justification as a legal declaration and instead mischaracterizing it as a transformative process destroys the very foundation of the gospel.
Scripture itself testifies to this truth, for the biblical writers often use the terms for justification and righteousness in a way that must be declarative rather than transformative. In the Old Testament, the tsadeq word group is often used in judicial contexts. Deuteronomy 25:1 is a clear example: “If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked …” (NASB; see also Ex. 23:7; 1 Kings 8:31–32; Job 9:15; Isa. 43:9, 26; Jer. 12:1). As discussed above, judges do not make people righteous or wicked. They perform no transformative act that infuses righteousness or wickedness into the nature or character of a person. Instead, a judge merely declares a defendant to be righteous or guilty. Indeed, God pronounces woe on those “who justify the wicked for a bribe” (Isa. 5:23 NASB), for “he who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 17:15). If justification were transformative, how could it be said that making a wicked person righteous is an abomination? Transforming the character of a wicked person and infusing him with righteousness would be a righteous act! Thus, a transformative understanding of justification violates the sense of these texts. To justify the wicked is not to make him righteous but to declare him righteous when he is not.
The New Testament presents further evidence supporting the declarative nature of justification. First, justification is shown to be declarative and not transformative in those instances in which God is the one said to be justified. In Luke 7:29, we read, “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just” (Gk. edikaiōsan ton theon; KJV: “justified God”). If the sense of justification were transformative, this would be nothing short of blasphemy, for the notion that the people and the tax collectors could have effected a positive moral transformation in God is nonsense. The ESV properly brings out the sense in the translation, “declared … just.” That is, God’s righteousness was vindicated and demonstrated (cf. Rom. 3:26). Second, justification is often clearly contrasted with condemnation, and condemnation obviously speaks of a legal declaration. In Romans 8:33–34, we read, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” (see also Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 3:9; cf. Job 9:20; Ps. 94:21; Prov. 17:15). God’s justifying act is clearly contrasted with bringing a charge and condemning. But to condemn someone does not mean to make someone wicked; it means to render a verdict and declare that he is wicked. For the parallel between justification and condemnation to hold, we must also understand that justification does not mean to make righteous but to declare righteous.
Therefore, when we turn to texts that speak of God justifying the believer in a salvific sense (e.g., Rom. 3:20–28; 4:4–5; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:11, 21–26; 5:4), we ought to understand them to be referring to God’s instantaneous declaration that the sinner is in a right standing before him. These passages teach that God declares the believer to be righteous as a gift of his grace, which the believer receives by faith alone apart from works.
THE GROUND OF JUSTIFICATION: IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS
But how is such a declaration by God just? Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked … [is] an abomination to the Lord.” All mankind is wicked. We are lawbreakers, deserving God’s condemnation, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Indeed, Romans 4:5 explicitly says that God justifies the ungodly. How can God declare to be righteous those who are actually guilty, and not, as Proverbs 17:15 says, participate in something abominable? How can God be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26)? The answer to that question is the doctrine of imputation. God’s declarative act of justification is based on his constitutive act of imputation.138 This is a twofold act; God imputes—that is, counts, credits, or reckons—our sin to Christ and punishes him in our place, and he imputes Christ’s righteousness to believers and grants them eternal life in him.
Forgiveness of Sins: The Imputation of Our Sin to Christ. First, God imputes our sin to Christ: “For our sake he [the Father] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). Now, in what sense did the Father “make” the Son “sin” on our behalf? In only one sense: the Father counted Jesus to have committed all the sins of all those who would ever repent and believe in him. He did not actually make Jesus a sinner; it would be blasphemous to suggest that the God-man was actually made a sinner, for God cannot sin. Instead, since justification is a legal declaration (as established in the previous section), the Father judicially reckoned Christ to have committed the sins of those for whom he was giving himself as a substitute. Just as the scapegoat bore the guilt of Israel when Aaron confessed the people’s sins over its head (Lev. 16:21), so “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6), such that Christ actually “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24; cf. Isa. 53:4–6). And just as the blood of the goat of the sin offering was sprinkled on the mercy seat (Gk. hilastērion [Septuagint]) to propitiate God’s wrath (Lev. 16:15), so also was Christ “put forward as a propitiation [Gk. hilastērion] by his blood” (Rom. 3:25). Though innumerable sinners will escape divine punishment, no sin will ever go unpunished, for every sin of the elect has been reckoned to Christ and punished in him on the cross. In this way divine justice is satisfied. Sin has not merely been dismissed or swept under the rug; it has been justly punished in a substitute. This is the gospel through which God demonstrates his righteousness, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
Therefore, because the believer’s sins have been imputed to and punished in Christ, they are not counted against him. As Paul quotes David’s words from Psalm 32, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count [Gk. logizomai] his sin” (Rom. 4:7–8). Because they have been counted, or imputed, to Christ, the believer’s sins are not imputed to (or counted against) him. They are forgiven and covered. Therefore, the justified believer faces no condemnation (Rom. 8:1, 33–34) but enjoys peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and the sure hope of eternal life (Rom. 8:30; Titus 3:7).
Provision of Righteousness: The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness to Us. But the forgiveness of sins does not exhaust God’s work in justification. In fact, if the only benefit believers received in justification were the forgiveness of our sins, we could not be saved. The old Sunday school definition of justification—“just as if I’d never sinned”—is inadequate, because salvation is not merely a matter of sinlessness or innocence but is also a matter of righteousness (Matt. 5:20, 48). The law of God, which man broke, thereby incurring the death penalty (Rom. 6:23), carries both positive demands and penal sanctions. That is to say, God’s law requires both (1) that his creatures perform certain duties suitable to his righteousness and (2) that they undergo a certain punishment if they fail to perform those duties. Man has failed to do both. We do not live lives of perfect righteousness, walking in obedience to God in all things, loving him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Neither could we pay the penalty that our disobedience demands without perishing eternally in hell. Therefore, if we are to be saved, our substitute must not only pay our penalty by absorbing the wrath of God against our sin but must also obey all the positive demands of the law that were required of us. This twofold nature of Christ’s substitutionary work is sometimes referred to as his passive obedience and active obedience. John Murray explains:
The law of God has both penal sanctions and positive demands. It demands not only the full discharge of its precepts but also the infliction of penalty for all infractions and shortcomings. It is this twofold demand of the law of God which is taken into account when we speak of the active and passive obedience of Christ. Christ as the vicar of his people came under the curse and condemnation due to sin and he also fulfilled the law of God in all its positive requirements. In other words, he took care of the guilt of sin and perfectly fulfilled the demands of righteousness. He perfectly met both the penal and the preceptive requirements of God’s law. The passive obedience refers to the former and the active obedience to the latter.
Without the positive provision of righteousness, mere forgiveness would leave us in a state of innocence or moral neutrality, as Adam was before the fall—reckoned as never having sinned but as never having obeyed either.
For this reason, Scripture speaks of the justified sinner being counted righteous in addition to being forgiven. God’s people testify to this in Isaiah 61:10: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” In fact, salvation is described in terms of imputed righteousness as early as God’s dealings with Abraham. Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gk. elogisthē autō eis dikaiosynēn [Septuagint]). The apostle Paul quotes this very verse in Romans 4:3 to substantiate his argument for justification on the basis of an imputed righteousness. He then comments, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Gk. logizetai … eis dikaiosynēn, Rom. 4:4–5).
In the next chapter, Paul identifies the righteousness that is imputed to believers to be Christ’s own righteousness. In Romans 5:12–19, Paul compares and contrasts the two representative heads of humanity: (1) Adam and (2) Christ, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). His argument climaxes in verses 18–19:
Therefore, as through the one man’s [Adam’s] trespass there resulted condemnation to all men, so also through the one man’s [Christ’s] righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were constituted141 sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be constituted righteous. (author’s trans.)
Paul’s main argument is as follows: Adam disobeyed God, and his disobedience was counted for condemnation to all who were in him. In the same way, Christ obeyed God, and his obedience was counted for righteousness to all who are in him. So far from a “legal fiction,” both the imputation of sin and the imputation of righteousness have a basis in the actual, lived-out actions of Adam and Christ.
With respect to justification, then, God not only satisfies the penal demands of the law by imputing our sin to Christ and punishing him in our place but also satisfies the positive demands of the law by imputing Christ’s righteousness to us. Paul describes this great exchange in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In justification, the perfect righteousness that God requires (Matt. 5:20, 48) is not worked in us in a transformative sense but is credited to us through our union with Christ, the Righteous One, who has fulfilled all righteousness on our behalf (Matt. 3:15; Gal. 3:27). Thus Paul says, “For the goal of the law is Christ for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4, author’s trans.). When we are “found in him,” we do not have a righteousness of our own derived through commandment keeping; rather, we lay hold of the alien (i.e., belonging not to us but to another) righteousness of God that comes through faith in Christ (Phil. 3:9). By God’s doing, we are united to Christ, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
In summary, in Christ we have a substitute who has both paid our penalty and achieved our righteousness. Christ provided forgiveness by atoning for our sins on the cross. Just as our sins were reckoned to his account when he died on the cross, in the same manner his righteousness is counted as ours. His perfect righteousness is thus the ground on which we stand before God. Sinners are not justified because of some good thing in them; God can declare us righteous—he can justify the ungodly and yet remain just—because he graciously imputes to us the perfect righteousness of his own dear Son. Thus, the sole ground of justification is the righteousness of Christ counted to be ours as a gift by grace alone (cf. Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:7).
THE MEANS OF JUSTIFICATION: FAITH ALONE
Christ’s accomplishment of redemption—both in paying for sin and providing righteousness—occurred two thousand years ago, apart from any human influence. His work was objective, external to you and me. Therefore, the question that must be answered is, how can the objective work of Christ be applied to me personally? By what means can my sins be imputed to Christ and his righteousness be imputed to me? The answer Scripture consistently gives is that we are justified through faith alone apart from works. Faith unites us to Christ in his death and resurrection, so that his punishment counts for our punishment and his righteousness counts for our righteousness.
The clearest exposition of the doctrine of sola fide, “faith alone,” comes in Paul’s letters, especially the book of Romans. As Paul introduces the good news of salvation in Romans 3, he casts the gospel as the manifestation of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22). He goes on to say that the gift of justification is “to be received by faith” (3:25) and that God is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). He summarizes his argument in utter candor: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28). After illustrating the truth of sola fide through the example of Abraham in Romans 4 (discussed below), he offers another summary of the gospel in Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Taking up the matter again later in the epistle, he declares that saving righteousness comes by faith (9:30; 10:6), that Christ is righteousness to everyone who believes (10:4), and that “with the heart one believes and is justified” (10:10).
Paul also discusses this theme in his letter to the Galatians, where he says, “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). Thus it is plain that one believes in order to be justified. In the next chapter, Paul denies that righteousness comes through law keeping:
But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
… So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.… [F]or in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal. 3:22, 24, 26)
Although Jesus never formally explained the doctrine of justification (as Paul does in Romans), the doctrine of sola fide underlies and permeates all his gospel preaching. For example, in John 5:24, Jesus declared, “Whoever hears my word … has passed from death to life.” Without undergoing any sacrament or ritual and without any waiting period or purgatory, the believer passes from death to life. The thief on the cross is the classic example. On the most meager evidence of his faith, Jesus told him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). No sacrament or work was required for him to procure salvation. Furthermore, the many healings Jesus accomplished were physical evidence of his power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:5–6). When he healed, he frequently said, “Your faith has made you well” (Matt. 9:22; Mark 5:34; 10:52; Luke 8:48; 17:19; 18:42). All those healings were object lessons on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
But the one occasion where Jesus actually declared someone “justified” provides the best insight into the way he taught the doctrine:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
Jesus’s listeners “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Luke 18:9)—the very definition of self-righteousness—and so it was nothing short of shocking for him to place a detestable tax collector in a better spiritual position than a praying Pharisee. Without delving into abstract theology, Jesus clearly painted the picture: a sinner is declared righteous by faith alone.
Note first that this tax collector’s justification was an instantaneous reality. There was no process, no time lapse, and no fear of purgatory. Further, he “went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14) not because of anything he had done but because of what had been done on his behalf. Notice also that the tax collector understood his own helplessness. He owed an impossible debt he knew he could not pay. All he could do was repent and plead for mercy. He knew that even his best works were sin, and so he did not offer to do anything for God. He simply pleaded for divine mercy. He was looking for God to do for him what he could not do for himself. That is the very nature of the penitence Jesus called for. Finally, note that this man went away justified without performing any works of penance, sacraments, or rituals. His justification was complete without any works whatsoever, because it was granted solely by means of faith. Everything necessary to atone for his sin and provide forgiveness had already been done on his behalf, and he looked outside himself to receive it as a gift. While the working Pharisee remained unjustified, the believing tax collector received full justification by faith alone.
Perhaps the clearest affirmation of justification by faith alone comes in Romans 4, as Paul turns to God’s dealings with Abraham to illustrate that his gospel has ancient roots. In verse 3, he cites Genesis 15:6: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ ” God imputed righteousness to Abraham by means of Abraham’s faith. His works had absolutely nothing to do with it, for Paul goes on to say, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4–5). Here Paul explicitly negates the teaching that works constitute any part of the ground of justification. If we were to perform any good work for our salvation—whether baptism, church membership, Bible reading, prayer, or even faith—the righteousness that would result could never properly be called a gift. The worker earns wages. But the recipient of salvation is “justified by [God’s] grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:24), and a gift can only be given apart from any work. The glorious consequence of this precious doctrine is that salvation is totally free. With an empty hand, the sinner lays hold of the righteousness of Christ through faith alone.
It is important to state that faith in Christ is not the ground of the believer’s righteousness but merely the means, or instrument, through which we receive righteousness. This is an important distinction, because many people mistakenly suppose that faith is the basis of our righteousness. Their hope for heaven rests on the fact that they had the good sense to believe the gospel. But such an understanding undermines the truth that we are saved by grace alone. Righteousness cannot be based on my faith without that righteousness becoming “a righteousness of my own” (Phil. 3:9). If saving righteousness is grounded on the sinner doing anything—even believing—it is no longer an alien righteousness given as a gift and therefore cannot be the righteousness of God required for salvation. In that case, faith would be made into a work, and “grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6). If we contribute to the basis of our righteousness in any way, then there is no good news, and we are all damned in our sins. God’s holiness is so magnificently perfect—his standard so high and our depravity so pervasive—that all our righteousness must be a free gift of his sovereign grace, because we could never earn it. Thus, God declares sinners righteous not because their faith has earned them righteousness but because Christ has earned righteousness and because God has given sinners that gift by the means of faith.
What is it about faith that makes it so suitable to be the instrument through which we receive justification? Paul gives us an answer in Romans 4:16, where he makes a comment that exposes the “inner logic” of salvation. He says, “For this reason, it [salvation] is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace” (NASB). In other words, there is something inherent in the nature of faith that uniquely corresponds with the free gift of God’s sovereign grace. Later in Romans, Paul says that if works have any part of salvation, “grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6). Rather than being the ground of our righteousness, faith is “something which looks out[side] of self, and receives the free gifts of Heaven as being what they are—pure undeserved favor.… Faith justifies, not in a way of merit, not on account of anything in itself, … but as uniting us to Christ.” So far from being the currency by which we purchase salvation from God, faith is uniquely suited to grace because it is nothing more than the outstretched arm and the empty hand that says, “I have nothing! I am bankrupt of any spiritual resources or ability! Lord, I receive your gift of salvation in Christ.”
THE RESULT OF JUSTIFICATION: GOOD WORKS
Perhaps the most common objection to the doctrine of sola fide is the accusation that the apostle James explicitly contradicts it. James 2:24 says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” How can James’s comment be reconciled with the doctrine of justification by faith alone? The answer is that James uses the word “justified” (Gk. dikaioō) in a different sense than Paul uses it in the above texts. In particular, James speaks of justification in the sense of “vindication” or “the demonstration of righteousness.”
Scripture often uses the word “justification” in this sense. For example, when a lawyer purposed to test Jesus by asking him what he must do to gain eternal life, Jesus instructed him to love his neighbor as himself. Luke tells us that, in response, the lawyer “desir[ed] to justify himself, [and] said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ ” (Luke 10:29). In saying this, the lawyer was not seeking a legal pronouncement of his righteousness; he was attempting to demonstrate to others that he was already righteous. In other words, he was seeking to vindicate his own righteousness. Similarly, we read in a confession of the early church that Christ “was manifested in the flesh” and “vindicated [Gk. edikaiōthē] by the Spirit” (1 Tim. 3:16). Certainly, the Lord Jesus stood in no need of forensic justification, of being legally declared righteous. Rather, this passage speaks of the Spirit’s vindication of Christ by the many miracles he performed (Acts 2:22), as well as the ultimate vindication of the resurrection (Rom. 1:4). In the same way, James uses the term “justified” in the sense of “vindicated” or “demonstrated.”
That he does so is borne out not only lexically but also contextually. In this passage, James is commenting on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac according to God’s commandment (James 2:21; cf. Gen. 22:1–14), an event that took place many years after it was declared that Abraham “believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). In contrast, when Paul desires to illustrate the truth of the imputation of righteousness through faith alone apart from works (Rom. 4:6), he chooses this earlier instance in Abraham’s life before there was even any law for him to follow (Rom. 4:9–13). James, however, is not speaking of forensic justification and the imputation of righteousness. He is not speaking about good works that are the ground of our salvation. Rather, he is speaking about good works that are the necessary evidence of our salvation. Abraham’s faith, which was credited to him as righteousness apart from anything he had done, was vindicated by his works. In other words, Abraham’s works demonstrated that his faith was true faith and not dead faith (cf. James 2:17, 26). True faith is shown by its works (James 2:18), but those works are the evidence and result of our justification and initial sanctification, not the ground of our justification.
Far from refuting the doctrine of sola fide in favor of the legalists, James’s argument actually provides a defense of the doctrine from the attack of the opposite error: antinomianism. This word comes from the prefix anti– and the Greek word nomos, which means “law.” Antinomianism, then, speaks of those who are “against the law,” specifically, in its theological sense, those who deny that sanctification is the necessary fruit of justification. Whereas legalism fails to distinguish between justification and sanctification, antinomianism severs the vital union between the two. Whereas legalism undermines the gospel by insisting that we must add our obedience to Christ’s work in order to be justified, antinomianism perverts the gospel by subtracting from the efficacy of Christ’s work, denying that those who receive Christ as Savior must also submit to him as Lord. James absolutely demolishes that proposition. He explains that the “faith” of professing Christians who fail to make progress in practical holiness, continuing to walk in patterns of unrighteousness, is no true and saving faith at all. Theirs is a dead faith (James 2:17, 26), a demonic faith (James 2:19), and a useless faith (James 2:20) that marks them out as those who address Jesus as Lord but to whom he will chillingly declare, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23).
In fact, John Calvin, the great Reformer and believer in sola fide, stood on the teaching of James 2 when he wrote, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” In other words, salvation is not a result of good works (Eph. 2:9), but salvation does necessarily result in good works. This is the very purpose of our salvation: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Christ gave himself for us not only to forensically redeem us from all lawlessness but also to “purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Those who deny that good works are the necessary fruit of the justification received through faith alone make out the Lord Jesus Christ to be half a Savior—one who saves from sin’s penalty but not its power. Yet Scripture teaches that we are united with Christ not only in his death but also in his resurrection, the necessary result of which is a holy life (Rom. 6:3–6; 2 Cor. 5:14–15). All true Christians have been “set free” from sin’s bondage and have become “slaves to God,” resulting in sanctification (Rom. 6:1–14, 22). Therefore, while it is faith alone that saves, the faith that saves is never alone but will always be accompanied by the fruit of righteousness (Phil. 1:11) wrought by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer (Gal. 5:22–25; cf. John 15:8).
CONCLUDING REMARKS REGARDING JUSTIFICATION
In summary, justification is that aspect of the application of redemption in which God legally declares the sinner to be righteous in his sight. The ground of this declaration is the righteousness of Christ that he accomplished in the sinner’s stead by (1) dying to provide forgiveness of sin and (2) walking in perfect obedience to his Father in order to provide the righteousness required for fellowship with God. By grace alone, God imputes our sin to Christ so that he might truly bear our punishment, and he imputes Christ’s righteousness to us so that we might stand before him in perfect holiness. This imputation is mediated through faith alone; it is received apart from any works on the sinner’s part. The good works that necessarily follow justification are the evidence—not the ground—of true and saving faith.
The doctrine of justification runs straight to the very heart of the gospel. It offers the only hope of salvation to guilty sinners, who, apart from Christ, have no hope of a restored relationship with the holy God of the universe, yet who, in him, are clothed with the perfect righteousness of God’s own beloved Son. The good news of the biblical gospel is that this blessing is offered freely to all who would receive it, apart from any works, through faith alone. The doctrine of justification is the very foundation of the gospel promise of John 3:16, that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” and of Romans 8:1, that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
As the child of God meditates on the manifold spiritual blessings to be received in union with Christ, he cannot help but overflow in praise of God for his wisdom, kindness, and grace revealed in salvation. It is no wonder that, as Paul contemplates these spiritual blessings, he bursts into worship: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). The Father has chosen us (Eph. 1:4), the Son has redeemed us (Eph. 1:7), and the Spirit has regenerated us (John 3:3–8; Eph. 1:13–14) and begotten divine spiritual life in us (John 6:63; cf. Ezek. 36:27; 37:14), giving us eyes to see the glory of Christ and the ruin of sin (2 Cor. 4:4, 6). As a result of that new birth, we experience conversion, having been given the gifts of repentance (Acts 11:17–18; 2 Tim. 2:25) and faith (Eph. 2:8). Through faith, we are intimately united to Christ, such that all that is his becomes ours. We are justified—forgiven of all our sin and the eternal punishment we rightfully deserve and credited with the full righteousness of Christ himself, such that we can stand confidently before our holy God. Blessed be God indeed!
While it may seem impossible to improve on such gifts as regeneration, conversion, union, and justification, the Word of God speaks of yet another spiritual blessing in the application of redemption: the Father’s adoption of believers as his children.
The concept of adoption is familiar to us because it remains common in today’s world, and it is a rare case when the story of any particular adoption fails to warm the heart. Eager to love and care for a child they have never met and who can do nothing to repay them, parents fill out stacks of paperwork, incur significant expenses, and often travel thousands of miles in order to welcome a little boy or girl into their family. After months and sometimes years of preparation, everything changes in a moment when the judge legally declares the child to be a member of his new family, with all the requisite rights and privileges. In many cases, if adopted children had remained in an orphanage or in the care of abusive and neglectful birth parents, the outcome would likely have been tragic. But through the intervention of a compassionate benefactor, adopted children are welcomed into the loving home of a new family eager to provide protection, instruction, and the hope of a future.
The New Testament builds on this blessing of human adoption by using it as an analogy to describe God’s fatherly love for us. We were spiritual orphans under the cruel oppression of sin and Satan. By nature, we were “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), “sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2; 5:6), and even children of the Devil himself (John 8:44). Our only home was this sin-cursed world that is fast passing away (1 John 2:17). Our only guardian was the avowed enemy of our souls (1 Pet. 5:8). Our only future was the terrifying expectation of hell’s judgment (Heb. 10:27).
But God, eager to display the glory of his grace, intervened on our behalf:
In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Eph. 1:4–6)
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal. 4:4–5)
The eternal Son of God himself traveled the infinite distance between heaven and earth, united the nature of God and the nature of man in his own person, and was forsaken by his Father so that we might be welcomed as sons. At great cost to himself, God took every legal measure to rescue us from sin and make us part of his family. As planned in eternity past, the Son purchased believers on Calvary, and they finally lay hold of the blessing of adoption at the time of conversion, “for,” says the apostle Paul, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26; cf. John 1:12). In adoption, God legally places regenerated and justified sinners into his family, so that they become sons and daughters of God and thus enjoy all the rights and privileges of one who is a member of God’s eternal family.
THE UNIQUE BLESSING OF ADOPTION
Though it has often been confused with regeneration or viewed as just another aspect of justification, the spiritual blessing of adoption is a unique privilege in God’s economy of redemption. As Grudem observes, “We might initially think that we would become God’s children by regeneration, since the imagery of being ‘born again’ in regeneration makes us think of children being born into a human family. But … the idea of adoption is opposite to the idea of being born into a family!” Though they are intimately related, Scripture nevertheless distinguishes these two blessings with respect to the author, nature, and means of each. First, regeneration is a work of the Spirit (John 3:5–6, 8; 6:63), whereas adoption is an act of the Father (Eph. 1:5). Second, regeneration is transformative; it is a work in the heart of man that fundamentally transforms his nature (Ezek. 36:26–27; 2 Cor. 5:17). Adoption, on the other hand, is declarative; it does not change man’s character. Rather, it is a fundamentally legal act in which God gives to those who receive Christ “the right”—that is, the legal authority—“to become children of God” (John 1:12). Third, regeneration is said to be mediated by the Word of God (James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23–25), while the blessing of adoption is obtained through faith in Christ (John 1:12; Gal. 3:26). It is plain, therefore, that adoption is distinct from regeneration.
Further, adoption should not be viewed as just a subset of the work of justification. Though both justification and adoption are declarative acts mediated through faith, they are distinct blessings. Justification is the legal declaration that one is righteous with respect to the demands of God’s law. Adoption, however, is the legal declaration by the divine Judge that the justified one has been made a member of the divine Judge’s family.
It is an unspeakable blessing to be granted new spiritual life in regeneration. So also is it a remarkable privilege to be freed from the penalty of sin and declared righteous in Christ. If the bestowal of God’s gifts stopped at regeneration and justification, no one would question his goodness or regard his grace as deficient. But the peculiar glory of adoption is in the superabundance of God’s grace. In an extravagant expression of love, God adopts believers into his family, so that we may relate to him not only as the Giver of spiritual life and the provider of legal righteousness but also as our loving and compassionate Father. For this reason, adoption has rightly been designated “the highest privilege that the gospel offers”156 and “the apex of grace and privilege” that “staggers imagination because of its amazing condescension and love.” Indeed, as the apostle John considered the reality of the believer’s adoption, he was compelled to let out yet another apostolic burst of praise: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1 NIV). How great indeed!
CLARIFYING MISCONCEPTIONS OF ADOPTION
When speaking about sinful men becoming sons of God, it is necessary to distinguish between the Father’s adopted sons and daughters, on the one hand, and his one and only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, on the other. In one sense, we must not downplay the significance of the radical privileges of adoption. We are made partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), are indwelt by the Spirit of God himself (Rom. 8:14–16; Gal. 4:6), and are fellow heirs with Christ of eternal life (Rom. 8:17, 23; 1 Pet. 1:4). Believers have been so highly exalted that Christ is properly called our brother (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:17). Indeed, because Christ the sanctifier and we the sanctified have one Father, the Lord Jesus is unashamed to call us brothers (Heb. 2:11–12).
Our exalted position, however, does not eliminate the uniqueness of Christ’s relationship to the Father as his eternal Son. The Lord himself clearly maintained this distinction when he instructed Mary to tell the disciples, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). If the uniqueness of Jesus’s sonship was not to be distinguished from ours, such a statement would be cumbersome and redundant; he could have simply said, “… to our Father and our God.” But by distinguishing between “my Father” and “your Father,” he emphasized that, though we relate to God as true sons and daughters, his position as Son was of a distinct and unique character. After all, he is ton huion ton monogenē—God’s “only Son” (John 3:16). The Greek word monogenēs is derived from the terms monos (“only”) and genos (“kind,” “type”; e.g., Mark 9:29), and thus speaks of “one of a kind.” In no sense, then, does our adoption as sons bring us into a union of essence with Christ so that we participate in the inner life of the Trinity, as some teach. We may become God’s sons by adoption, but Christ is the Father’s only eternal Son.
In the second place, the notion that believers become the children of God at the time of conversion deals the deathblow to the doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God—the liberal Protestant teaching that all human beings are God’s children by default. It is true that Scripture sometimes speaks of God’s fatherhood in universal terms. As Paul reasons with the philosophers on Mars Hill, he quotes the poet Aratus (ca. 315–ca. 245 BC), who said, “For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28), and then comments with approbation: “Being then God’s offspring …” (Acts 17:29). However, the context of this statement clearly indicates that Paul was speaking of the reality that God is the Creator of all mankind and thus is the universal Father only in that sense. He is “the Father of spirits” (Heb. 12:9), who “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25), and he “made from one man every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:26). Thus, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This may also be Malachi’s intent when he rebukes the sinful priests of his day, asking, “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?” (Mal. 2:10). However, given his reference to “the covenant of our fathers” at the end of the verse, it is more likely that he is referring to God’s fatherhood of Israel as a covenant nation (Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1).
Nevertheless, the fact that God is the common Creator of all human beings does not mean that all are his children in the relational sense indicated by the doctrine of adoption. Jesus himself speaks most severely on this issue, noting that all unbelievers are children of Satan himself. He clearly distinguishes between his Father and the Pharisees’ father (John 8:38), denies that God is their Father (John 8:42), and explicitly declares, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44). The apostle John comments on this distinction between the children of God and the children of the Devil, noting that the latter are those who do not practice righteousness (1 John 3:10). Scripture differentiates between the children of the flesh and the children of God (Rom. 9:8), the children of the slave woman and the children of the free woman (Gal. 4:22–31), and the children of light and the children of darkness (Eph. 5:8). These passages militate against any understanding of the universal fatherhood of God. Indeed, rather than being sons of God, natural man is described as “the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2; 5:6). So far from relating naturally to God as children, all fallen human beings are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Unless something drastic happens—indeed, nothing less radical than being made alive from the dead (Eph. 2:4–5)—man in his natural condition will not know the blessings of a loving Father but rather will experience the wrath of a righteous Judge. It is only to those who receive Jesus and believe in his name that authority is given to become children of God (John 1:12), for all of God’s adoptive children are “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26 NASB) as a result of his work of redemption (Gal. 4:5).
Therefore, rather than an essential fatherhood of God or a universal creative fatherhood of God, these passages on adoption speak of the redemptive fatherhood of God, in which justified sinners become sons and daughters of the Father with all the rights and privileges that a member of his family enjoys.
THE PRIVILEGES OF ADOPTION
What, then, are those rights and privileges to be enjoyed by members of the family of God? In the first place, the chief blessing of our adoption is that the Holy Spirit himself takes up permanent residence in our hearts, freeing us from sin and fostering our fellowship with God. After speaking about the adoption accomplished by Christ’s redemption, Paul adds, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son” (Gal. 4:6–7). Elsewhere he speaks of believers having “received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15–16). Though we were enslaved to sin and idolatry (Gal. 4:8), the Spirit of adoption has liberated us from our slavery into “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21; cf. 2 Cor. 3:17). We are no longer slaves of a master but permanent sons of our Father (John 8:35), and the Spirit himself bears witness in our hearts to assure us that this new relationship is genuine. So intimate is our bond with the God of the universe that the Spirit compels us to cry out to him with childlike affection, “Abba! Father!” An informal Aramaic term for “father,” Abba signifies the most endearing tenderness and intimacy between a father and a son. Aside from these two passages, it occurs only one other time in the New Testament: on the lips of Jesus himself during the darkest hour of his earthly sojourn. In Gethsemane, as the Son poured out his heart to the Father, pleading that the cup of divine wrath be removed from him, he called to him as “Abba” (Mark 14:36). It is nothing short of staggering to think that we who were once alienated from God because of our sin (Eph. 4:18) have been given the privilege of crying out to the Father in the very same way that his beloved Son did. The glory of that thought is exceeded only by the reality that his cry of “Abba” was ignored so that ours would be heard.
Because we can relate to God as our Father, we share in the richness of his loving compassion, protection, provision, and beneficence. His disposition to us is as a father to his children, eager to display kindness and to act in our greatest interests. The psalmist tells us, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). That disposition to compassion is illustrated by the Lord himself, who asks,
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:11–13)
Not only will God give us his Spirit, but as the parallel passage puts it, God will also give us the “good things” for which we ask him (Matt. 7:11). Because of this, we have no need to become anxious about our daily necessities, for the Father is happy to provide these for us: “And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For … your Father knows that you need them” (Luke 12:29–30). Immediately after these consolations from our Lord, he comforts us with the Father’s beneficence in what may be the most tender words he ever spoke: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). God is not merely a distant, disinterested-though-generous benefactor. As a father delights to bless his children with an inheritance, it is his good pleasure—he eagerly delights—to make us sharers in the fullness of the kingdom itself.
Implied in this eagerness of God to bless his adopted children is the reality that we may approach the Lord of glory in prayer. As Jesus said, our Father is ready to give good gifts “to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11; Luke 11:13), and he provides for the necessities of life as we seek first his kingdom (Luke 12:30), which is done preeminently through prayer. For this reason, when the Lord taught his disciples to pray to God, he instructed them to address him saying, “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). What a privilege it is to approach the throne of grace with the confidence that the sovereign Lord is our heavenly Father, eager to hear our requests and bless us from his bounty!
Another privilege of our adoption as sons is the loving, fatherly discipline we receive from God. The author of Hebrews counsels us, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:5–6; cf. Prov. 3:11–12). When we depart from God’s will and engage in sinful thoughts and actions, he will providentially order various hardships and afflictions in our lives to warn us of sin’s consequences, to lead us to repentance, and to cultivate greater spiritual maturity in us (e.g., 2 Sam. 12:10–12; 1 Cor. 11:30). The author of Hebrews goes on to explain that when we experience this discipline, “God is treating [us] as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, … then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Heb. 12:7–8). Indeed, when God withdraws his discipline, it is the severest indication of his judgment, as he is giving people over to their sin and its consequences (Rom. 1:25–28). In the human realm, Scripture says that parents who withhold discipline from their children hate them (Prov. 13:24) and desire their death (Prov. 19:18). Thus, for God to discipline us as his children is sure testimony of his earnest love and sincere desire for our greatest benefit. As the author of Hebrews continues, “he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). Though in the moment “all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, … later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). When we consider that there is a “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), we are compelled to treasure the loving discipline of our Father, for it fits us for fellowship with him. What a privilege that the God of the heavens has taken a personal interest in our spiritual welfare—not only to declare us righteous but also to work practical righteousness in us by his great grace!
Still another privilege of our adoption into God’s family is the unity we enjoy with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The church is not merely a social club or a political organization knit together by common interests or shared hobbies. By virtue of the electing work of the Father, the redemptive work of the Son, and the regenerating work of the Spirit, we are objectively united to one another as members of the same family. No wonder the early believers addressed one another as brothers and sisters (e.g., Acts 1:15–16; Rom. 12:1; 16:14; Phil. 4:1; 1 Tim. 5:1–2; cf. Matt. 12:46–50). Now, a family is not merely a group of people with some shared interests and a subjective appreciation for one another. Instead, brothers and sisters are bound together by something much deeper—by the objective union that results from the love shared by their parents. And while brothers and sisters may not always relate to one another on the best terms, no amount of discord or conflict can break the objective bond that they share. The same is true within the family of God. Tensions and disagreements may arise between us and our brothers and sisters in Christ. But just as nothing can separate us from the loving union that we share with Christ individually (Rom. 8:38–39), neither can anything separate us from the union that we share with one another corporately. It is on the basis of this objective union that we pursue “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). As long as Christians do that, we will never be alone. We will always belong to one another. Because of the adopting grace of our Father, we face life’s darkest trials alongside our brothers and sisters as the family of God.
In addition to all these privileges that we enjoy in the present time, our adoption as children of God also guarantees us a share in the future inheritance of eternal life. Paul writes that if we are adopted children, we must also necessarily be heirs. We are no longer slaves but sons, “and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:7)—indeed, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). In human relations, sons and daughters inherit the estate of their parents at the time of their passing. All that belonged to the parents is bequeathed to the children as they carry on the family legacy. In a similar way, though by nature we had no rightful claim to all the riches of the kingdom of God, by grace we have become God’s adopted children and have thus become legal heirs of “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” for us (1 Pet. 1:4). So genuine is our inheritance that we are described as fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). Everything that Christ will receive by divine right as the natural Son of God, we will receive by divine grace as adoptive children of God. Because Christ is God’s Son, all that the Father has belongs to him. And because we are in Christ, everything that is Christ’s is ours, “whether … the world or life or death or the present or the future” (1 Cor. 3:22–23)—all things belong to the children of God. The redeemed are sure to enjoy all the blessings of heaven in God’s presence, for he promises that “he who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son” (Rev. 21:7 NASB). Chief among these heavenly blessings is the promise of a glorified body after the likeness of Christ’s resurrection body, free from all sin and infirmity (1 Cor. 15:23, 42–44; Phil. 3:20–21). While in this house we groan under the effects of sin’s curse (2 Cor. 5:2), we look forward to the consummation of our adoption as sons and daughters of God, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23).
This glorification has, in a sense, begun in this present life in the form of progressive sanctification, yet another privilege of our adoption. Just as children imitate their father, so also are we exhorted to “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1). One of the richest blessings of God’s grace in salvation is that he attaches his name to his people. He graciously pursues the welfare of his people with the same zeal with which he upholds the honor of his reputation, because they bear his name (cf. Josh. 7:9; 1 Sam. 12:22; Jer. 14:7, 9; Dan. 9:17–18). As children of God, we bear the “family name” of God, and as Isaiah says, his name is Holy (Isa. 57:15; cf. 1 Chron. 29:16; Ps. 33:21; Isa. 47:4; Luke 1:49). Thus the apostle Peter exhorts us, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ ” (1 Pet. 1:14–16). If we call on this holy One as Father, we ought to live lives that resemble his holiness (1 Pet. 1:17), conducting ourselves as “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15).
The conclusion to the study of the doctrine of adoption must be a call to holiness. God’s promise to us is, “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me” (2 Cor. 6:18). If we enjoy such an exalted position as children adopted into the family of God, enjoying all the rights and privileges as sons and daughters of the Almighty himself, we must respond as Paul instructs in the next verse: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Therefore, we now turn our attention to the doctrine of sanctification.
Thus far in this study of the application of redemption, we have considered those benefits purchased by the work of Christ that the Spirit applies immediately to believers at the inception of the Christian life. At regeneration, the sinner is made alive, granted repentance and faith, united to Christ, declared righteous on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, and adopted into the family of God. However, the blessing of sanctification is a benefit of the application of redemption that, though it begins at regeneration, is applied throughout the entirety of the Christian’s life. In sanctification, God, working especially by the Holy Spirit, separates the believer unto himself (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2) and makes him increasingly holy, progressively transforming him into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18) by subduing the power of sin in his life and enabling him to bear the fruit of obedience in his life.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN JUSTIFICATION AND SANCTIFICATION
Sanctification is intimately connected to justification, since both benefits are enjoyed by virtue of the believer’s union with Christ. Nevertheless, sanctification is not to be confused with or collapsed into justification, as in Roman Catholic theology. Justification is the once-for-all judicial declaration of righteousness that defines man’s legal standing before God. Sanctification, on the other hand, is a gradual, ongoing transformation of his nature. With respect to justification, Christ has secured forensic righteousness for the believer; in sanctification, the Spirit progressively works practical righteousness in the believer. Justification concerns the imputation of righteousness, whereas sanctification concerns the impartation of righteousness. To confuse the two is to fundamentally undermine the gospel.
POSITIONAL (DEFINITIVE) SANCTIFICATION
Though sanctification is primarily understood to be a process in which the believer is conformed into the image of Christ (e.g., Scripture speaks of believers as “those who are being sanctified,” Heb. 10:14), that process has a definite beginning at regeneration. The present-tense aspect of sanctification is often called progressive sanctification, whereas the past-tense aspect may be called either initial, positional, or definitive sanctification.
As discussed earlier, regeneration is not only the impartation of spiritual life but is also a definitive cleansing from sin. That is why, in John 3:5, Jesus speaks of the new birth as being born of the water and the Spirit. In that passage he refers to Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning regeneration, in which God promises not only to give his people a new heart and to cause his Spirit to indwell them but also to sprinkle clean water on them to purify them from their uncleanness (Ezek. 36:25–27). Mirroring Ezekiel’s imagery, Paul designates regeneration as both a washing and a renewal (Titus 3:5). Thus, when the Spirit imparts spiritual life into the soul of the dead sinner, opening his eyes to the filth of sin and the glory of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:4, 6), man’s nature is sanctified—definitively transformed from spiritual death to spiritual life, such that Scripture calls him a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The holy disposition that is strengthened throughout the believer’s progressive sanctification is that same holy disposition that is born in the believer at regeneration. In this sense, regeneration is the beginning of sanctification.
For this reason, the New Testament often employs the terminology of sanctification in the past tense, characterizing the Christian as one who has been initially sanctified by God. In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus, Paul spoke of the inheritance they share “among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). In his defense before Agrippa, he recounted his conversion experience on the Damascus road, when Jesus had commissioned him to the Gentiles so “that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). That such a designation does not refer to some completed state of progressive sanctification is established by Paul’s letter to the sinful Corinthian church members, whom he addressed as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2). The Corinthians were that motley crew of professing believers who were splitting up into factions (1 Cor. 1:11–13), whom Paul could only address as fleshly (1 Cor. 3:1), among whom there existed a kind of immorality not even named among the Gentiles (1 Cor. 5:1), who were suing one another before unbelieving judges (1 Cor. 6:1–7), who were defrauding the Lord’s Table to satisfy their gluttony and drunkenness (1 Cor. 11:20–22), and who were abusing the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12–14). If to be sanctified meant to have reached a state of exalted practical holiness, that description could hardly be made of them! And yet Paul spoke of their definitive sanctification: “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). For this same reason, both the Old and New Testaments identify all of God’s people as saints—literally, “the holy ones” (e.g., Pss. 16:3; 34:9; Dan. 7:18–27; Matt. 27:52; Acts 9:13, 32, 41; Rom. 1:7; 8:27; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; 6:18; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2; Jude 3; Rev. 19:8). So far from identifying a spiritually elite people on the basis of their personal merits, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches, what makes a believer a saint is not his practical righteousness but his positional righteousness. All believers are saints because all believers have been set apart by a holy God and have been united to the holy Lord Jesus. This is precisely the concept of definitive sanctification.
The most significant reality in definitive sanctification is that, through union with Christ, the believer is set free from the dominion of sin. While justification and imputed righteousness grant the Christian freedom from sin’s penalty, initial sanctification grants him freedom from sin’s power. This is precisely Paul’s point in Romans 6:1–7:6. There he states that believers have “died to sin” (6:2) by virtue of their union with Christ in his death and resurrection (6:3–5) and that “our old self was crucified with [Christ] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For,” Paul reasons, “one who has died has been set free from sin” (6:6–7). Because Christ died and was raised, sin and death no longer have dominion over him (6:9–10). Believers “were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that [they] might be joined [i.e., united] to another” (7:4 NASB), and since the law to which they died “is binding on a person only as long as he lives” (7:1), they must “consider [them]selves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11)—sin’s legal right to rule over them is broken. For this reason Paul declares, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (6:14), and “having been set free from sin, [believers] have become slaves of righteousness” (6:18). All this assures Christians that, though once hopelessly bound to the enslaving power of sin, they are now possessed of Christ’s resurrection power to resist temptation, mortify sin, and pursue increasing holiness. To be sure, sin remains present in their flesh (7:14–25; 1 John 1:8), but its power has been defeated through the efficacy of Christ’s death and the virtue of his resurrection. Therefore, though the believer may struggle mightily with sin, he must never adopt a defeatist attitude in which he is resigned to accept the reality of sin in his life. To do so is to make peace with a dethroned enemy—to submit to sin’s dominion that has nevertheless been conquered.
The Christian’s freedom from the dominion of sin through union with Christ is the necessary foundation for all progress in progressive sanctification. Only because sin’s reign has been overthrown is the believer exhorted to “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:12–13). Believers can only obey these imperatives because union with Christ results in the indicative reality of freedom from sin. Indeed, it is the believer’s contemplation of the end of sin’s dominion (“Consider yourselves dead to sin,” 6:11) that grounds the command to not let sin reign (“Let not sin therefore reign,” 6:12). And then Paul repeats the gracious foundation of our battle against sin in Romans 6:14: “For sin will have no dominion over you.” This indicative-imperative paradigm is the difference between truly biblical, distinctively Christian ethics and the moralism of legalistic religion or naturalistic philosophy. It is only because of what Christ has accomplished in his historical death and resurrection and only because we are united to him in his death and resurrection by the grace of God that the believer can make any progress in practical holiness. The believer can live a life of faithful obedience on the sole basis that he has really been crucified with Christ and that Christ now really lives in him (Gal. 2:20). Only because he is already chosen, holy, and beloved can the follower of Christ put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col. 3:12).
Therefore, any attempt at morally improving oneself apart from the working of God’s supernatural grace bestowed through the believer’s union with Christ is a man-made counterfeit of the work of sanctification that finds no favor with God and is ultimately ineffective (Rom. 8:8; 14:23; Heb. 11:6). The Christian pursues practical holiness not to enter a relationship with God or to earn his love; he pursues practical holiness because he has already entered a relationship with God by grace through faith in Christ and because he is already the recipient of God’s love and favor in Christ. Worshiping Christ as the solid rock on which she stands, the church rightly sings, “He breaks the power of canceled sin; he sets the prisoner free.” The only kind of sin whose power is broken in the lives of people is canceled sin—sin that has already been punished in Christ’s death and forgiven through faith. Thus it is necessary to fight sin in the strength and in the freedom of that gracious reality. Believers in Christ can be victorious over sin only because—and must be victorious over sin precisely because—Christ has conquered sin in them by virtue of his death and resurrection.
As has already been implied, however, though the believer enjoys this decisive victory over the dominion of sin as a result of union with Christ, his heart and life are not totally purified. Though the penalty of sin is paid for and the power of sin is broken, the presence of sin still remains in the believer’s flesh and therefore must continually be put to death. Thus, the sanctification that begins definitively at regeneration necessarily continues throughout the entirety of the Christian life. This continuous aspect of sanctification is called progressive sanctification.
The continual, progressive nature of sanctification is substantiated in the Bible’s numerous calls to holiness in the present tense, indicating ongoing, continuous action. For example, Paul commands believers not to be conforming themselves to the world but to “be transformed [Gk. metamorphousthe, lit., ‘be continually being transformed’] by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The author of Hebrews commands Christians to “strive for [Gk. diōkete, lit., ‘be continually pursuing’] … the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Putting to death the deeds of the body is the characteristic action of one who is indwelt by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:13; cf. 8:9). Further, several passages explicitly assert the progressive nature of sanctification. Paul notes that his own sanctification is incomplete, so he continually presses on toward the goal of the heavenly prize (Phil. 3:12–14). Though the old self has been put off once and for all at conversion, yet the new self is continuously “being renewed [Gk. anakainoumenon] in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9–10). He prays that believers’ love would “increase and abound” (1 Thess. 3:12) and “abound more and more” (Phil. 1:9). Peter charges believers to “grow up into salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2) and to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18)—the concept of growth indicating an ongoing process. And most clearly, Paul states that as believers behold the glory of Christ with the eyes of the heart, they are thereby “being transformed [Gk. metamorphoumetha] into the same image from one degree of glory to another [Gk. apo doxēs eis doxan, lit., ‘from glory to glory’]” (2 Cor. 3:18). Believers are not conformed to the image of Christ in an instant, but rather, they experience a progressive transformation into his image by degrees. Thus, the Holy Spirit’s work in believers will cause them to increase in sanctification throughout their Christian lives.
Just as sanctification has a definitive beginning at regeneration and increases throughout one’s life, it will also at some point be brought to completion—namely, at the end of the believer’s life. Second Corinthians 3:18 outlines the directly proportional relationship in progressive sanctification between beholding the glory of Christ and being transformed into the image of his glory; to the degree that we behold his glory, to that degree are we sanctified. Because in this life we see him imperfectly, even if truly (1 Cor. 13:12), the perfection of our sanctification awaits the day when we will see him face-to-face. First John 3:2 explicitly shows that this directly proportional relationship continues until sanctification is perfected in glorification: “But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Yet for all who will have died in faith before the return of Christ, the perfection of sanctification comes in two stages: the soul is fully sanctified at death, while the body awaits its perfected sanctification at the second coming of Christ. When believers pass from this present life, their spirits are separated from their bodies (2 Cor. 5:8) and enter the presence of the Lord (Phil. 1:23). Thus the author of Hebrews speaks of the glorified citizens of heaven as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). They are glorified in the sense that sanctification is complete, but it is specifically their spirits that experience this perfection, since their bodies undergo the corruption that is tied to sin and death. However, the Lord Jesus does not provide half a salvation. He has purchased the redemption not of men’s souls alone but also of their bodies (Rom. 8:23). For this reason, says Paul, we eagerly wait for Christ’s return from heaven, when he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20–21). The believer’s perishable, inglorious, weak natural body will be raised from the dead and transformed into an imperishable, glorious, powerful spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:42–44; cf. 15:22–23). This is glorification, the final aspect of salvation.
Contrary to a number of notions throughout church history, sanctification can never be completed in this life. The doctrine of perfectionism holds that it is possible and necessary for the believer, in this present life, to attain a level of moral perfection. Several arguments used to substantiate this error must be refuted from the Bible.
First, it is argued that Scripture exhorts believers to holiness in language that sounds very absolute. Jesus commands his hearers, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), and Peter similarly cites the Levitical holiness code: “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ ” (1 Pet. 1:15–16; cf. Lev. 11:44). If we are thus commanded, the perfectionists reason, we must have the ability to obey these commands.
However, this is nothing more than the unproven assumption that responsibility implies ability, that ought implies can—an assumption that Scripture explicitly contradicts. For example, Jesus proclaims the moral inability of humans when he says that “a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). However, he immediately follows up this statement by saying that the moral inability of the unbeliever (represented by the diseased tree) to produce good fruit does not absolve him of (1) his responsibility to do so and (2) the certain consequences of failing to do so: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:19). Further, just because man is morally unable to repent and believe in Christ for salvation (Rom. 8:7–8; 1 Cor. 2:14) does not remove his responsibility to do so. All people everywhere are held responsible to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30; cf. Mark 1:15)—the very thing Scripture elsewhere declares they are unable to do. Thus, the assumption that the existence of a command necessarily implies man’s ability to obey is shown to be contradictory to Scripture.
Perfectionists also appeal to passages such as 1 Thessalonians 5:23, in which Paul prays that God would sanctify the church entirely, and James 1:4, which speaks of endurance rendering a believer “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (cf. Col. 1:28; 2:10; 2 Tim. 3:17). Special recourse is made to statements by the apostle John in his first epistle, such as, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him” (1 John 3:6 NKJV), and, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9 NKJV).
It is a misinterpretation to take these passages as referring to perfected sanctification. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, complete sanctification refers to sanctification in the entirety of man’s nature, which Paul mentions explicitly in the next phrase (“your whole spirit and soul and body”). He is praying that God would sustain their faith throughout their life and finally bring his sanctifying work to completion, perfecting both the spirit/soul and the body at the return of Christ (cf. Phil. 3:21). The passages that speak of believers being “perfect” (Gk. teleios) refer not to total sanctification but to spiritual maturity, as the word is often translated elsewhere (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:6; Heb. 5:14). And John’s statements that no one who has been born of God and who abides in Christ sins are rightly understood when one properly translates the verb tense of John’s words. Rather than teaching that Christians never commit any acts of sin, John is teaching that no true believer continues in an unbroken lifestyle or pattern of sinning as he did in his unregenerate state. The ESV more accurately captures the continuous aspect of these verbs by translating 1 John 3:6 as, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning [Gk. hamartanei],” and 3:9 as, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning [Gk. hamartian … poiei].” Indeed, John’s other comments from the same letter emphatically exclude any notion of sinless perfection in this life, for he tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Those who believe themselves to have reached entire sanctification in this life have deceived themselves, “for,” as Solomon says, “there is no one who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46), and again, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccles. 7:20). The concept of perfectionism is worthy of rhetorical derision, as seen in Proverbs 20:9: “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” James comments that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), and as we daily commit sin, the Lord Jesus instructs us to daily pray for forgiveness (Matt. 6:11–12; cf. 1 John 1:9).
Far from thinking to attain spiritual perfection in this life, all believers ought to cry with Paul,
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12–14)
Then, in a display of apostolic irony, he adds the exhortation, “Let those of us who are mature [Gk. teleios] think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil. 3:15). Those who are “perfect” (i.e., truly spiritually mature) are those who realize they are not perfect and who acknowledge the perennial need for exhausting one’s efforts in the pursuit of personal holiness.
THE CHARACTER OF PROGRESSIVE SANCTIFICATION
So much of the confusion over how to properly and successfully pursue sanctification comes from fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of sanctification. Followers of Christ, therefore, must understand the character of this holiness that they are commanded to pursue. While several passages of Scripture must be consulted to clarify this truth, two foundational texts stand out as especially pertinent:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12–13)
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)
These and other texts establish several conclusions concerning the nature, author, means, and dynamics of progressive sanctification.
The Nature of Sanctification. In the first place, sanctification is fundamentally a supernatural work of God done in the inner nature of man. Paul declares that God is at work in believers that they may not only work for his good pleasure but even will for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). That is to say, God works for the believer to sanctify not merely his external actions but also his internal desires. Further, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul speaks of sanctification as the believer’s “being transformed” [Gk. metamorphoumetha] into the image of Christ, a term that describes an inward change in fundamental character. Elsewhere, Paul indicates that such a transformation requires the renewal of one’s mind (Rom. 12:2) and prays for believers to that end (Eph. 4:23), along with asking that they would be “strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Eph. 3:16)—all of which testify to the fundamentally internal nature of sanctification. Commenting on Paul’s exhortations for believers to be renewed in the spirit of their minds (Eph. 4:23), Charles Hodge rightly observes that
sanctification … does not consist exclusively in a series of a new kind of acts. It is the making the tree good, in order that the fruit may be good. It involves an essential change of character. As regeneration is not an act of the subject of the work, but in the language of the Bible a new birth, a new creation, a quickening or communicating a new life, … so sanctification in its essential nature is not holy acts, but such a change in the state of the soul, that sinful acts become more infrequent, and holy acts more and more habitual and controlling.
Therefore, believers should not conceive of holiness as the reformation of external behaviors, in which people bend their wills to perform duties for which they have no Godward motive; rather, believers must recognize that sanctification consists fundamentally in the miraculous inward transformation of the affections. To use Hodge’s metaphor, it is not taking fruit and stapling it to the tree branch but is rather rooting the branch in the vine so that the fruit is borne by virtue of the believer’s vital union with the Lord Jesus Christ. While the holy person certainly does what God commands, he does so because he loves God and loves what God loves. Sanctification is the spiritual transformation of the mind and the affections that in turn redirects the will and the actions.
The Author of Sanctification. Since sanctification is not fundamentally external but is rather an internal and supernatural work in the heart of man, its author must be God. Consistent with this understanding, Paul states that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13), and he elsewhere ascribes the entire work of sanctification to God (1 Thess. 5:23). The God of peace is entreated to equip his people that they might “do his will” and to work in them “that which is pleasing in his sight” (Heb. 13:20–21). For this reason, Scripture often employs the passive voice in key texts on sanctification, commanding believers not to transform themselves but to be transformed (e.g., Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). Thus, Berkhof concludes that sanctification “consists fundamentally and primarily in a divine operation in the soul.”
More specifically, Scripture identifies the Holy Spirit as the member of the Godhead who is the divine agent of sanctification. Peter speaks of “the sanctification of the Spirit” (1 Pet. 1:2). He is “the Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4) who wages war directly against the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:17), while those virtues that constitute a character of holiness and integrity are said to be the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22–23). It is no surprise, then, that Paul says the believer’s transformation into the image of Christ “comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
The Means of Sanctification. However, while sanctification is properly said to be an internal work of the Spirit, it does not follow that the believer has nothing to do in this matter, since Scripture is replete with exhortations and imperatives for the believer to pursue holiness. Paul commands the church to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” precisely because God is at work within them (Phil. 2:12–13). So far from being an excuse not to work, God’s sanctifying work in believers is the very ground of their efforts. Peter declares that, on the basis of the work of Christ, believers have been granted “all things that pertain to life and godliness,” and have “escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Pet. 1:3–4). And he follows these precious indicatives with a rousing call to action: “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Pet. 1:5). As John Murray writes,
God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us.
Thus we are to “strive for … the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), to “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13), to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18), to “pursue righteousness” (2 Tim. 2:22), and even to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
Thus, while believers cannot directly effect the inner transformation of sanctification for their souls and while sanctification is properly said to be the Spirit’s work, believers are not entirely passive in sanctification. Instead, the Holy Spirit effects his sanctifying transformation in the hearts of believers through the use of means that must be appropriated. The Scottish Puritan Henry Scougal provides an effective illustration:
All the art and industry of man cannot form the smallest herb, or make a stalk of corn to grow in the field; it is the energy of nature, and the influences of heaven, which produce this effect; it is God “who causeth the grass to grow, and the herb for the service of man” (Ps. 104:14); and yet nobody will say that the labours of the [farmer] are useless or unnecessary.
In other words, while it is true that God is the One who causes grass to grow and makes the land produce crops, only a foolish farmer passively waits for the land to yield its produce by divine fiat. Instead, he acknowledges that God brings forth fruits and vegetables from the earth by means of a farmer’s labors—through the cultivation of the soil, the sowing of the seed, and the plant’s exposure to sunlight and water. Similarly, in and of himself, the believer is just as powerless to effect holiness in his heart, for it is the work of God. Yet only a foolish person waits passively for his heart to spring forth in righteousness by divine fiat. Instead, the faithful Christian acknowledges that God brings forth the fruit of holiness by means of the believer’s labors. Scripture’s repeated calls to effort, action, and obedience are commands for believers to put themselves in the way of those channels of sanctifying grace that the Spirit employs to conform Christ’s people into his image.
The means of sanctification include the following:
1. Reading and meditating on the Word of God (Pss. 1:2–3; 19:7–11; 119:105; John 17:17; Acts 20:32; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; Heb. 4:12; James 1:23–25)
2. Praying (Ps. 119:37; Luke 11:9; Phil. 4:6–7; Heb. 4:16; James 4:2; 1 John 1:9)
3. Fellowshiping with the saints in the context of the local church (Prov. 27:17; 1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 4:11–16, 25; Heb. 3:12–13; 10:24–25)
4. Interpreting the experiences of God’s providence according to Scripture (Rom. 8:28–29), especially the experience of trials (Ps. 119:71; Rom. 5:3–5; 8:17; Phil. 3:10–11; Heb. 12:10; James 1:2–4; 1 Pet. 1:3–7)
5. Keeping the commandments of God (John 15:10)
Sanctifying grace flows through all these channels, and thus it is the responsibility of Christians to put themselves in the way of these blessings. Though believers cannot perform the divine operation of sanctification on their own souls, they must nevertheless pursue holiness by availing themselves of the means by which the Spirit of God accomplishes this divine operation.
The Dynamics of Sanctification. The question of the dynamics of sanctification concerns how sanctification actually works. Why does reading and studying the Word of God sanctify? How is prayer a means of grace? Why does fellowship with other believers push the people of God to greater holiness? Once again, answers to these questions come in 2 Corinthians 3:18, where Scripture reveals a sixth means of sanctification that stands at the foundation of the rest, thus rendering them efficacious. Paul writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Boiling that complex sentence down to a simpler form, it reads, “We all, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed.” As believers in Christ behold his glory as revealed in the Word with the eyes of their heart (Eph. 1:18), they are thereby progressively conformed into his image.
This theme of spiritual sight is not isolated to this single text but is established throughout the New Testament’s teaching concerning sanctification. The author of Hebrews states that the Christian life is a race run with endurance as believers fix their eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of faith (Heb. 12:2). Faith itself is spiritual sight that sees and believes the truth, “the assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1); that is, what cannot be seen with the physical eyes is unveiled by the spiritual eyes of faith. In this way, Moses’s faith was strengthened to endure all manner of temptation by “looking to the reward” (11:26) and “seeing him who is invisible” (11:27). Paul encourages the Corinthians with the thought that the temporary affliction of this life is producing an eternal weight of glory for God’s people, provided that they look with the eyes of faith at what is unseen: the spiritual truth that reveals the glory of the Savior (2 Cor. 4:17–18). And once again, the apostle John instructs us that our being perfected in the image of Christ will result from finally seeing him unhindered: “But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
The cumulative weight of these texts compels us to understand the spiritual sight that beholds the glory of Christ as the foundational means of sanctification. John Owen summarizes this biblical teaching:
Let us live in the constant contemplation of the glory of Christ, and virtue will proceed from Him to repair all our decays, to renew a right spirit within us, and to cause us to abound in all duties of obedience.… It will fix the soul unto that object which is suited to give it delight, complacency, and satisfaction.… When the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and his glory, when the soul thereon cleaves unto him with intense affections, they will cast out, or not give admittance unto, those causes of spiritual weakness and indisposition.… And nothing will so much excite and encourage our souls hereunto as a constant view of Christ and His glory.
In other words, when the believer apprehends the glory of Christ with the eyes of faith, the sight of his beauty satisfies his soul in such a way that he does not go on seeking satisfaction in the false and fleeting pleasures of sin. Just as in regeneration, when the Spirit shone into sinners’ hearts the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), overcoming spiritual blindness by awakening souls to the filth of sin and the loveliness of Christ, so also does the Spirit work in progressive sanctification, strengthening that holy disposition created in regeneration. The spiritual apprehension of Christ’s glory conforms believers’ affections to the divine will, causing them to hate sin and love righteousness. Then, sanctified affections direct the will in such a way that it desires the righteousness it has come to love and repudiates the sin it has come to hate. Finally, the internal transformation is brought to fruition externally, as the sanctified will issues in holy living.
Therefore, as the believer avails himself of the various means by which he lays hold of the Spirit’s sanctifying grace, he is to look with the eyes of faith to the transforming glory of Christ revealed through those means. The Word of God is a vehicle for the glory of God (Ex. 33:18; 34:5–7; 1 Sam. 3:1, 21). Prayer is the occasion for personal communion with God, in which the worshiper seeks God’s face (2 Chron. 7:14; Pss. 24:6; 27:8; 105:4; Hos. 5:15) in order that he might behold his transforming beauty (Ps. 27:4). Fellowship in the local church is an opportunity to hear the Word preached skillfully, to sing songs of worship with sanctifying lyrics drawn from biblical truth, to pray corporately as the body of Christ, and to see the gospel pictured in the ordinances of baptism and communion. Besides this, to whatever degree Christians have been imperfectly conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18), to that degree they reflect the image of his glory to one another. Finally, obedience itself is the avenue for greater disclosure of the glory of Christ to the eyes of the heart (John 14:21). When confronted with temptations to sin, believers must reason with themselves, considering that sin never delivers the satisfaction it promises. They must consider that obedience brings fuller disclosures of the Savior, who is the source of all true pleasure and satisfaction. And out of a desire for the superior pleasure that is found in Christ, they must engage in (1) the work of mortification—putting to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13), that is, laying aside the old self (Eph. 4:22) and the sin that so easily entangles (Heb. 12:1) and that clouds the sight of Christ’s glory—and (2) the work of vivification—putting on the new self (Rom. 13:14; Eph. 4:24), that is, delightfully disciplining themselves to behold Christ in Scripture, prayer, fellowship, providence, and the obedience that brings deeper communion with him.
By fighting to behold the glory of Jesus by all the means of grace, the follower of Christ will be gradually transformed into his image from the inside out. He will therefore conduct himself in a manner worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27) and worthy of the Lord himself (Col. 1:10), working out his salvation with fear and trembling, just as Scripture commands (Phil. 2:12). As 2 Timothy 2:21 declares, “He will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”
A sincere (and often vexing) question among professing Christians concerns whether or not salvation in Christ is eternally secure. Do those who truly know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord by faith persevere in that faith to the very end of their lives? Or is there a possibility that a genuine Christian could lose his salvation? Can those who genuinely trust Christ for salvation later abandon their faith and thus ultimately lose their eternal life? The unified teaching of the whole Scripture answers with an emphatic no to each of these questions. All those who are truly born of the Spirit and united to Christ by faith are kept secure in him by God’s power and thus will persevere in faith until they go to be with Christ in death. This doctrine is often labeled the perseverance of the saints.
THE PRESERVING POWER OF THE TRIUNE GOD
The eternal security of the true believer in Christ is ultimately founded on the preserving nature of the triune God. First, the believer’s security is grounded in the unchanging love, infinite power, and saving will of the Father. Salvation began in eternity past, when God set his saving love on his elect and granted them grace in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 1:9), appointing Christ to be their Mediator. Scripture describes this decree as the Father giving the elect to the Son (cf. John 6:37, 39; 10:29; 17:2, 6, 9, 24) and predestining them to become conformed to the Son’s image (Rom. 8:29). It is impossible for those whom the Father has predestined to Christlikeness to fail to attain that end, for “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). In these verses, Paul presents the events of redemption as an unbreakable chain of God’s sovereign grace. The final consummation of the believer’s salvation is so certain and sure that Paul can speak of the justified one as if he has already been glorified. All those whom God chose he also justified on the ground of the righteous work of the Son, and all those whom he justified he also glorified. It is impossible that one who has been united to Christ and granted his righteousness in justification will not be glorified as well. The Father will not fail to carry out the fullness of his electing purpose to its designed end. To this thought Paul adds that none for whom Christ died is subject to condemnation (Rom. 8:31–34; cf. 8:1). He declares that nothing in all creation shall separate true believers from the love of God in Christ:
Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:35, 37–39)
The Lord Jesus makes this very point concerning the Father’s saving will when he declares,
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:37–40)
The will of the Father is that Christ will lose none of those whom he has given him and that every elect believer will possess eternal life and will be raised to everlasting glory on the last day. And the Father’s will cannot be overturned by anyone or anything (Job 42:2; Pss. 33:10–11; 115:3; Isa. 46:9–10; Dan. 4:35), for he is not only graciously disposed to his people but is also sovereignly powerful to accomplish his desired ends. As Jesus says, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28–29). Using the strongest negative language available in the Greek language, Jesus emphatically declares that those who belong to Christ by faith “will never perish” (Gk. ou mē apolōntai, John 10:28) but will have eternal life (John 3:16). He grounds the eternal security of Christ’s sheep in the sovereign power of the Father who holds them in his hand. The Father is so great and mighty that no one could snatch from his hand those whom he holds forever.
For this reason, Paul expresses his confidence that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Quite simply, God finishes what he starts. Since it was the sovereign grace of the Father—not the free will of man—that began the work of salvation in the lives of sinners (cf. Acts 11:18; 16:14; Eph. 2:4–9; Phil. 1:29; James 1:18), so also will God exercise that same sovereign power to bring this great work to its completion. Believers can be confident that they will persevere by the preserving power of the Father.
Second, the believer’s security is grounded in the merits of Christ’s saving work and the efficacy of his present intercession. For this reason, Paul writes, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:33–34). Christ’s death, resurrection, and present intercession constitute the basis on which no charge against his people will ever stand. Because he has died, has risen, and is interceding before the Father, no one will separate us from his love (Rom. 8:35–39).
Just as the Father’s predestining purpose fully achieves its desired end, so also the Son’s redeeming work accomplishes its design with perfect efficacy. As the substitute for his people, the Son of God stood in the place of elect sinners on the cross and bore the fullness of divine punishment against their sins (1 Pet. 2:24). In doing so, he has fully propitiated the Father’s wrath against his people (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), purchasing them out of the slave market of sin with the price of his own blood (Acts 20:28; Rev. 5:9). Not only this, but the Father has also certified, by raising Christ from the dead, that his death sufficiently atoned for sin. The resurrection was the great vindication and validation of Christ (1 Tim. 3:16), verifying that the Father had approved of his completed work and that there was no more penalty left to pay, no more wrath left to bear for those who are in him. To suggest, then, that sinners for whom Christ offered himself as a propitiation may yet suffer the eternal penalty of God’s wrath is to demean the worth of his redemptive sacrifice and to contradict the Father’s testimony in the resurrection. Further, through the Spirit’s application of Christ’s redemptive work, the sinner is credited with Christ’s righteousness in justification. It is unthinkable that the Spirit would apply only a portion of those saving benefits purchased by Christ’s redemption, so that a soul declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s work should at some point be stripped of that righteousness to undergo the penalty of condemnation from which he had been redeemed. There is no condemnation for those who are united to Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1; cf. Acts. 13:38–39).
Moreover, Christ not only has offered an infinitely worthy sacrifice on behalf of his people but also continuously intercedes for his people before the Father at the present time (Rom. 8:34). He prays particularly to ensure the eternal salvation of the elect, as Hebrews 7:25 says, “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” The writer is as emphatic as he can be: Jesus does not save his people in a manner in which that salvation can be forfeited or lost. No, he saves “to the uttermost” (Gk. eis to panteles)—perfectly, completely, and eternally—and he intercedes to ensure that salvation will not fail with an intercession that is always efficacious. When Satan had demanded to sift Peter like wheat, Jesus responded by assuring Peter, “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31–32). Jesus’s intercessory prayer is enough to ensure the preservation of Peter’s salvation, for he continues, “And when”—not “if”—“you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). All believers are the beneficiaries of their Great High Priest’s perfectly efficacious intercession and thus are kept by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:5).
Third, the believer’s security is grounded in the sealing ministry of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13–14; cf. 4:30). In Paul’s day, affixing one’s seal to something expressed the concepts of security, authentication, and ownership. God seals his people with the Holy Spirit himself, giving his own Spirit to personally indwell each believer as a pledge of the future inheritance of salvation (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5). The Greek word translated “pledge” is arrabōn, a commercial term that refers to an earnest or down payment—a “first installment with a guarantee that the rest would follow.” Once again, God would not affix his seal of ownership to his people, causing the Holy Spirit himself to indwell them as a pledge of his earnest faithfulness to bring them to their promised inheritance, and yet fail to secure them so as to deliver fully on his promise for eternal life. As Grudem says, “All who have the Holy Spirit within them, all who are truly born again, have God’s unchanging promise and guarantee that the inheritance of eternal life in heaven will certainly be theirs. God’s own faithfulness is pledged to bring it about.”177
THE PERSEVERING FAITH OF THE CHILD OF GOD
While all true believers are sovereignly preserved in their salvation by the almighty power of God, his sovereignty in no way eliminates their responsibility to persevere in faith throughout their lives. Just as God’s sovereignty in conversion does not mitigate the responsibility to repent and believe (Rom. 9:14–18; cf. Rom. 10:11–21), and just as God’s sovereignty in sanctification does not rule out the need for sustained effort in pursuing holiness (e.g., Phil. 2:12–13; 2 Pet. 1:3–5), so also God’s sovereign preservation is not at odds with the necessity of the believer’s perseverance. All true believers are “by God’s power … being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). God’s power is the decisive preserving force, but his power keeps his people through faith—that is, through the continuing, persevering faith that works through love in every believer (Gal. 5:6).
Therefore, Scripture issues numerous calls to persevere in faith, indicating that failure to persevere will result in a failure to lay hold of final salvation. Jesus warns of the inevitable persecution his followers are bound to face in a world that is hostile to truth and righteousness. In the face of that hostility, he calls for endurance: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22). He speaks similarly of those believers alive in the tribulation: “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:12–13). Jesus exhorted the Jews who had made an outward profession of faith in him to demonstrate the genuineness of their faith by obedience: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31). Thus, those who do not abide in his Word are shown to be false disciples—or “false brothers” (2 Cor. 11:26; Gal. 2:4), who claim to belong to Jesus but fail to bring forth the necessary fruit that gives evidence of genuine conversion. Therefore, Paul seeks to give assurance to those for whom Christ has died yet suggests that some who claim to be among that number are not. He explains that Christ will “present you holy and blameless and above reproach before [the Father], if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:22–23). Similarly, the author of Hebrews assures us that “we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:14).
These passages clearly indicate that the professing believer must persevere in faith and obedience if he is to finally come to salvation. While some assure professing Christians that heaven is theirs no matter how they live after they profess faith—as is popular in forms of antinomianism, quietism, and so-called “free grace” theology—such conceptualizations of the preserving power of God stand in stark opposition to the teaching of Scripture.
An implication of this truth is that many people may give outward signs of devotion to Christ and his church who are inwardly not true Christians. Illustrated by the seed that fell on the rocky ground, some professing Christians seem to receive the Word of God joyfully. Yet they have no root, so when tribulation and persecution come, they fall away from Christ and abandon their profession of faith (Matt. 13:3–9, 18–23). Jesus warns that some who enthusiastically profess faith in Christ and even seem to exercise miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit will come to the day of judgment expecting to inherit salvation but will instead be sent away to destruction:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matt. 7:21–23)
Interestingly, Jesus does not say, “I knew you once, but you failed to persevere and fell away from the faith.” Rather, he says, “I never knew you,” indicating that those who make even the sincerest professions of faith but who fail to supplement their faith with the fruit of the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:5–10; Gal. 5:22–24) were never true Christians to begin with. This is significant, because many object to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints on the basis of experiencing a friend or relative who professed faith in Christ but later fell away. Experience, in concert with several passages of Scripture that threaten final perdition for failing to persevere, suggests to them that true Christians may actually lose their salvation. However, Scripture teaches that those who fail to persevere to the end reveal that they were never true Christians to begin with. The apostle John writes, “They went out from us”—which is to say, certain people associated themselves with the church yet later departed—“but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
Those who teach that Christians can lose their salvation also point to such passages as Hebrews 6:4–10 and 10:26–31, which on a superficial reading may seem to suggest that eternal life can be lost. Hebrews 6:4–10 declares,
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.
On closer examination, however, the writer of Hebrews is clearly contrasting at least two kinds of hearers of the same message of the gospel. The one group, illustrated in verse 7 as ripe ground, on which the rain of gospel seed falls, produces the fruit of eternal salvation. However, according to verse 8, a second group, presumably members of the same congregation, hears the exact same message, and yet in them the truth of the gospel produces worthless thorns and thistles destined to be burned. The writer is warning this second group of hearers that they are in danger of having never rightly responded to the gospel seed. This is why he says in verse 9, “Though we speak in this way [i.e., issuing these severe warnings in verse 8 to those who are in danger of rejecting the gospel], yet in your case, beloved [i.e., those in verse 7, who genuinely believe in Christ], we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.”
Thus, the key to interpreting this passage (as well as the other warning passages in Hebrews, such as 10:26–31) is to determine who is being warned and why. Those who respond positively to the gospel at first only to reject Christ later—even if they associate themselves with the people of God and attend to the external duties of religion—are not true believers who forfeited their salvation but are apostates who never exercised saving faith. In light of the full revelation of the truth, they abandoned the faith and renounced Christ in settled, callous unbelief. The writer of Hebrews declares, “It is impossible … to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb. 6:4–6). In light of the above scriptural testimony, it is impossible to apply such language to true believers who have been united to Christ by faith. Thus, these warning passages are just that: severe warnings to those in the midst of the assembly of professing Christians who, by their failure to persevere in faithful obedience to Christ, are in danger of apostasy and damnation.
ASSURANCE OF SALVATION
How, then, can one be assured that he is a true believer in Christ and will not one day fall away, revealing that he was never a true believer at all? Scripture calls those who profess faith in Christ to examine themselves. Paul urges the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5). Peter similarly exhorts the churches in his care, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Pet. 1:10). The apostle John dedicated his entire first epistle to the subject, stating his theme at the end: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). The authors of Scripture clearly desired that believers be assured of their salvation by examining their lives for evidence of genuine spiritual life. Consider the following eleven lines of evidence—largely drawn from the tests outlined in 1 John—by which Christians can gain assurance that their faith and salvation are genuine.
Evidences from the Christian’s Relationship with God. First, a true Christian enjoys fellowship with the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of his letter, John tells his readers that he is proclaiming the gospel to them in order that they might experience the same communion with God that he enjoys. He says, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Indeed, the one who is born of God loves both the Father and the Son (1 John 5:1). Paul likewise describes salvation as being “called into the fellowship of [Christ]” (1 Cor. 1:9), and he characterizes his Christian life as living by faith in Jesus, who lives in him (Gal. 2:20). Salvation is to personally taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8)—to walk with God, intimately knowing him as “the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3), “the God of all grace” (1 Pet. 5:10), and the God who supplies all our needs according to his riches in Christ (Phil. 4:19). He is the One to whom we draw near in times of trouble (Heb. 4:16), crying, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). Those who regularly experience this communion with God in love, in joy, in prayer, and in the discovery of biblical truth can rejoice in the assurance that their faith is genuine.
A second evidence of genuine salvation is the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the heart. John writes, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13). When a sinner confesses that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world and commits his life to him, it is the Spirit’s doing. The Spirit also illumines the believer’s mind to understand Scripture, as John says, “The anointing that you received from him abides in you, and … teaches you about everything” (1 John 2:27; cf. 1 Cor. 2:10, 12). The Spirit convicts, encourages, and brings joy to the true believer’s heart as he studies the Bible. Further, the Spirit produces fruit in the true believer’s life, such that his life is marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23).
Third, Christians may gain assurance of salvation from answered prayer. John says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14; cf. 3:22). A true believer prays according to the will of God, asking for forgiveness and a clear conscience, for boldness to proclaim the gospel, and for contentment in times of difficulty. The hearts of God’s people are strengthened and encouraged when their Father answers those prayers for his glory and their benefit.
Fourth, the true citizen of heaven eagerly longs for Christ’s return (Phil. 3:20). The foundational characteristic of the true Christian is love for Christ (1 Cor. 16:22). That love causes him to eagerly await the day when he will see his Savior face-to-face and thus be perfectly conformed into his image (Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:1–3). This is an indication of the presence of a new nature, which longs to be delivered from a body of sin to become like the perfect Christ. Such holy longings and affections are an indication of genuine salvation.
Evidences from the Christian’s Spiritual Life and Growth. A fifth evidence of salvation is spiritual discernment. Those who are born again are able to discern between spiritual truth and error—to test the spirits to see whether they are from God (1 John 4:1–3). Adherents of false religious systems attempt to undermine the biblical truth concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:16), but God equips his children to recognize and reject false teachers and to cling to sound teaching (1 John 2:12–19; 4:5–6). While even the demons may believe sound doctrine and be destitute of saving faith (James 2:19), one will not enjoy true assurance without believing sound doctrine (1 Thess. 5:21; 1 Tim. 6:3–5; 2 Tim. 2:13–14).
Sixth, an acute awareness of the holiness of God and the guilt of one’s sin always accompanies genuine salvation. John writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8–10). An identifying characteristic of unbelievers is that they do not regard themselves as sinners. They fail to recognize the absolute moral perfection of God—that he is light and that in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). Failing to see themselves in the light, they do not recognize the extent to which they are polluted by the darkness of sin. True believers, however, have a keen sense of their sinfulness, and their lives are characterized by increasingly putting off sin and putting on righteousness. When they sin, they experience the godly sorrow of a cleansed conscience that leads them to repentance (2 Cor. 7:10), and they confess their sin and seek forgiveness in Christ. Paul’s personal testimony in Romans 7:14–25 is an example of the believer’s sensitivity and aversion to sin. Like the apostle, the true children of God sin in various ways but confess their sin and seek restoration to communion with God. The false Christian ignores and hides sin, but the genuine believer cries out with Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). The child of God is wearied by the burden of sin and longs for restored fellowship with the Father through confession and repentance.
A seventh manifestation of genuine salvation is the decreasing pattern of sin in one’s life. Not only is the child of God sensitive to his remaining sin, but by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit, he will also have progressive victory over those sins. John writes, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). Regardless of one’s profession, unbroken patterns of sin mark the unregenerate (1 John 3:8), not the children of God. When the sinner is regenerated, the dominion of sin is broken and the Spirit births holy affections in the new convert. Indwelling sin remains, but the love of sin is broken. The true Christian is no longer enslaved to sin but is a slave to righteousness (Rom. 6:14–18).
Eighth, as patterns of sin decrease, patterns of obedience increase. John could not be clearer: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). The Greek word translated “keep” (tēreō) speaks of watchful, careful, thoughtful obedience—not just the hands but also the heart. True Christian obedience is a willing, habitual safeguarding of the Word both in letter and in spirit. A true believer obeys the commandments of Scripture (John 8:31), and patterns of sustained obedience produce confidence that one has a saving relationship with God.
Evidences from the Christian’s Relationships with Other People. A ninth evidence of genuine salvation is a growing rejection of the worldliness that dominates human life. In 1 John 2:15, John writes about the true Christian’s deepest affections, greatest desires, and ultimate goals, commanding us, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (cf. James 4:4). “The world” speaks of the evil world system operated by Satan (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; 1 John 5:19), which encompasses false religion, errant philosophy, crime, immorality, materialism, and the like. While these things dominate the affections and will of all unbelievers, they disgust the true believer. It is true that Christians may sometimes be lured into worldly things, but such sin brings conviction, confession, and repentance. Though remaining sin is frustrating and discouraging, true believers can be grateful that sin is a reality they have been made to hate and no longer love (Rom. 7:15). New life in Christ nurtures love for God and the things of God. Thus, those examining themselves must ask whether they reject this evil world system, along with all its false ideologies, damning religions, godless lifestyles, and vain pursuits, and instead love God, his truth, and his people. Such affections are neither natural nor attractive to depraved humanity (John 3:19–20; 8:44) and therefore are evidence of the Spirit’s grace at work in the heart.
Tenth, the genuine Christian not only rejects the world but is also rejected by the world. For this reason, John writes, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). When God’s people stand apart from the world—rejecting its sinful values and standing for righteousness—its evil is exposed. Because darkness hates the light (John 3:19–20), it reacts with animosity and hostility to those influences that expose it. In the preceding verse, John notes that Cain hated his brother and murdered him precisely because Abel’s righteous behavior exposed Cain’s wicked rebellion (1 John 3:12). God’s people, then, will experience ostracism, rejection, and even persecution by the world because they belong to Christ, who also suffered for the sake of righteousness (Matt. 5:10–12; John 15:18–21; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pet. 4:12–14). Those searching for assurance must ask if they are readily accepted by the world or if, as those conformed to the image of Christ, they draw the same rejection that Christ himself drew from the enemies of righteousness (John 7:7).
Finally, antithetical to the hatred of and rejection by the evil world system is a true believer’s love for fellow Christians. First John 3:10 says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (cf. 1 John 2:9–11). Loving fellow Christians comes naturally to the believer. As Paul said to the Thessalonian church, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9). Jesus went so far as to say that his disciples’ love for one another would be the evidence before all people that they were his followers (John 13:35). Therefore, those who are cold, uncaring, and indifferent toward other believers betray a self-centeredness that is indicative of unbelief, but those who delight in the fellowship of their brothers and sisters in Christ and eagerly desire to meet the needs of the saints can be assured that they are of the truth (1 John 3:16–19).
The final divine act in the application of redemption is glorification. Given its immense importance, it is critical at the outset to distinguish glorification from other eschatological events. It must not be confused with the intermediate state. For those who die in faith before the return of Christ, their souls immediately go to be with the Lord (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). Because glorification involves both the body and the soul, it does not take place when a believer’s soul enters the current intermediate heaven but rather at the second coming of Christ. Neither is glorification to be confused with the restoration of the earth. While it is a marvelous promise that the whole earth will be restored (Acts 3:21)—just as creation was cursed as a result of man’s sin, so also will it be redeemed as a result of man’s redemption (Rom. 8:20–21; cf. Isa. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:7; Rev. 21:1)—these acts must not be conflated. Glorification refers to the final salvation of persons, not the redemption of inanimate objects. Finally, not all believers will be glorified at the same time. The dead in Christ and those alive at his coming will be glorified in the twinkling of an eye at his return (1 Cor. 15:23, 52; cf. 1 Thess. 4:16–17). Yet there will also be those who repent and turn to Christ during the time of the tribulation, while the saints are feasting with Christ at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7–10). The tribulation saints will await their glorified bodies until the millennial reign of Christ (Rev. 20:4; cf. Isa. 26:19–20; Dan. 12:2). Those who die during the millennium may very well be instantly transformed at death into their eternal bodies and spirits.
Glorification is the radical transformation of both the body and the soul of believers, perfecting them in holiness, and thereby fitting them for eternal life on the new earth in perfect communion with the triune God. Murray helpfully describes glorification as “the complete and final redemption of the whole person, when in the integrity of body and spirit, the people of God will be conformed to the image of the risen, exalted, and glorified Redeemer, when the very body of their humiliation will be conformed to the body of Christ’s glory” (cf. Phil. 3:21).
THE CONSUMMATION OF SALVATION
The resurrection of the body is the consummation of our salvation, as the Spirit applies to completion the redemption that the Father planned and that Christ purchased. Romans 8:30 features glorification as the climax of redemption: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Those on whom the Father set his electing love he predestined for salvation, and these—whose redemption Christ purchased by dying in their place as a propitiation for their sins—enjoy the benefits of that redemption. In justification, they are freed from the penalty of sin, and in sanctification, they are freed from the power of sin. In glorification, they are finally freed from the very presence of sin in both body and soul.
Christ himself indicated that the salvific intentions of the triune God reached beyond man’s soul even to the resurrection of the body, declaring,
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:39–40; cf. 6:44, 54)
Glorification is also the fulfillment of Jesus’s desire to see his church purified from all spot, wrinkle, or any such thing (cf. Eph. 5:27), dwelling with him for all eternity. Jesus explicitly prays for this in his High Priestly Prayer, saying, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Finally, glorification consummates the objective of salvation—namely, to glorify Christ by making him the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:29). Because glorification is the consummation of sanctification, in which believers are perfectly conformed to the image of Christ, glorification especially magnifies Christ as the preeminent source of the beauty of holiness that is reflected in his perfected brethren.
Scripture regards the doctrine of glorification as absolutely essential to the Christian faith, so much so that if it were not true, the apostle Paul says that we, of all people, would be most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:12–19). It was the hope of a glorified body that galvanized Paul to totally surrender his natural body to the mistreatment and persecution that attended a life of gospel ministry. He said, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1; cf. 4:14–18). The “sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” and so believers welcome the sufferings of Christ if it means that “we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17–18; cf. Phil. 3:10–11). Therefore, while life in a world and in a body that are both cursed by sin causes us to groan, that groaning is assuaged by the eager anticipation of “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).
Not only is the resurrection the eager anticipation of the New Testament Christian, it was also the great hope of the old covenant believer in Yahweh. When Job was abandoned by his brothers and acquaintances, his relatives and intimate friends, his wife and other members of his household, and his associates and those whom he loved (Job 19:13–19), he set his hope on fellowship with God on a new earth in a resurrection body: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:25–27). Job’s confident hope was that after he had died and his body was destroyed by decay, he would nevertheless see God in his flesh. His Redeemer would vindicate him in the glory of a bodily resurrection in which he would enjoy perfect communion with God. As another example, at the end of Daniel’s prophecy, he declared, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2; cf. John 5:28–29; Rev. 20:4–6).
That the resurrection of the body unto glorification was taught in the Old Testament is evidenced by the New Testament’s testimony that the Jews looked forward to a future resurrection. As Martha pled with Jesus to exercise his divine power with respect to the death of Lazarus, Jesus responded by telling her that he would rise again. Astutely, Martha replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). As Paul stood trial before Felix, he declared that “a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” was “laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14–15). And Hebrews 11:10 teaches that the Old Testament saints hoped to inherit a physical city that could only be made possible by bodily resurrection (cf. Heb. 11:16).
Standing on that Old Testament foundation, the reader can view the New Testament Epistles’ explicit teaching on the resurrection of the body as a welcome elaboration and development of the ancient and living hope of the people of God. Paul reveals that as the condemnation of Adam brought the whole human race guilt and corruption unto death, in the same way, union with the second Adam will cause all believers to overcome sin and death and to be made alive in him (1 Cor. 15:22, 45). This takes place “each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end” (1 Cor. 15:23–24). To the Thessalonians who were concerned that their deceased brothers and sisters would miss this glorious resurrection, Paul offered the comfort that
through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:13–17)
Indeed, the dead in Christ and those alive at his coming will be glorified in the twinkling of an eye at his return:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Cor. 15:51–53)
At that time, death itself—the very last enemy—will be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26; cf. Acts 2:24; Heb. 2:14–15; Rev. 1:17–18), which will be cause for victorious celebration:
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:54–57)
Clearly, Christianity is simply not Christianity without the resurrection. Glorification was promised in the Law and the Prophets and by Jesus and the apostles, and Paul wrote that without it, the Christian has no true hope (1 Cor. 15:16, 19). To deny this final work of God in the plan of salvation would be to deny the Christian message of peace and joy in final glory.
THE NATURE OF THE GLORIFIED BODY
Not only does Paul identify glorification as the consummation of the Christian’s hope of salvation, he also gives details as to the nature of the glorified body. While the natural body differs in numerous ways from the spiritual body, it must be noted that there is a fundamental continuity between them. That is to say, the body we inherit in glorification will not be an entirely new body but will be in some way the body we currently inhabit in this life. Scripture declares that God “will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). That is, he will not replace your current body; he will renovate it. Our bodies will be changed, not exchanged (1 Cor. 15:51). Paul says, “This perishable body [i.e., the body he inhabited during his life on earth] must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53). Further, since Christ himself is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23), and since Scripture says that he will transform the bodies of believers “into conformity with the body of His glory” (Phil. 3:21 NASB), it is right to draw inferences about the nature of believers’ glorified bodies by considering the nature of Christ’s glorified body. And Christ rose in the very body in which he died, something that Thomas acknowledged when he placed his hands in the wounds that had been inflicted on Jesus’s body during his crucifixion (John 20:27; cf. 20:20). Thus, whatever trauma the believer’s body might experience as it succumbs to the curse of sin and death in this life, the omnipotent God will raise that body to perfection and unite it with the soul in the resurrection.
Nevertheless, while the resurrection body will have continuity with the natural body, the two bodies are significantly different from one another. In 1 Corinthians 15:42–44, Paul outlines four contrasts between the resurrection body and the current, natural body:
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
Each of these four contrasts gives insight into the mystery of what the glorified body will entail.
First, the resurrection body will be imperishable. In this life, it is painfully obvious that our bodies are subject to infirmity and deterioration and will eventually succumb to the universal inevitability of death (Heb. 9:27). However, Paul teaches that our resurrection bodies will not be subject to the corruption and decay to which our present bodies are destined. They will not grow old or wear out, nor will they contract sickness or disease. Thus it is right to conclude that in the eternal state our bodies will not age, “but will have the characteristics of youthful but mature manhood or womanhood forever.”
Second, Paul says that the natural body is characterized by dishonor but that the resurrection body will be marked by glory. The body is not inherently dishonorable, but it has been dishonored by the curse of sin and is the instrument of man’s sinful acts—the vehicle through which sinners dishonor God and gratify sinful desires (Rom. 6:13). The body that ought to be set apart and consecrated as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) is yielded to sin as an instrument of unrighteousness, which dishonors both God and the body. Even the most faithful believer will experience the ultimate dishonor of death, the body in a state of dishonor, imperfection, and incompleteness. However, that imperfect and dishonored body will one day be raised in glory. Throughout eternity, Christians’ immortal bodies will also be pure and honorable bodies, perfectly suited to please, praise, and fully enjoy the Creator who made them and the Redeemer who restored them.
Third, the natural body is sown in weakness, but the glorified body is raised in power. It is only a matter of time before the reality of the physical limitations of our bodies confront us with what it is to be weak. If he lives long enough, even the strongest of the strong experiences the waning of his strength. Scripture even associates the flesh with moral weakness (Matt. 26:41). This will not be the case with the new bodies, for they will be raised in power. This is not necessarily to say that believers will possess superhuman strength, but glorified bodies will have “full and complete human power and strength,” which God “intended human beings to have when he created them apart from sin. It will therefore be strength that is sufficient to do all that we desire to do in conformity with the will of God.”
Finally, Paul contrasts the “natural” body and the “spiritual” body. It is important to note that by “spiritual” Paul does not mean “immaterial,” for the resurrection bodies of believers will be patterned after the resurrection body of Christ, who is the firstfruits of the material resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23). Again, Paul has said that Christ will transform the bodies of believers “into conformity with the body of His glory” (Phil. 3:21 NASB), and it is without question that Christ rose bodily from the grave. He himself declared that “a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:29), and he ate a piece of fish to prove his materiality, for disembodied spirits do not have stomachs and digestive tracts (Luke 24:36–43). No, Jesus was raised from the dead in his body, and so will believers be raised bodily. Instead, by calling the resurrection body “spiritual,” Paul intends to teach that they will be entirely submitted to and in perfect harmony with the Holy Spirit. In the perfection of their sanctification, believers will have a heart undisturbed by the deceitful lusts of sin, truly godly ambitions and aspirations, and a physical body that is able to carry out those holy impulses without a moment’s distraction or weariness, and therefore, they will be able to fully enjoy the bounties of the new creation God has created for his people. John Murray was right to observe that such a destiny “is the highest end conceivable for created beings, the highest end conceivable not only by men but also by God himself. God himself could not contemplate or determine a higher destiny for his creatures.”
We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2) and bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, because he, according to his great mercy, has caused us to be born again to this living hope of “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [us], who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3–5).
In the face of so great a salvation, spanning from eternity past to eternity future, the only fitting conclusion is to add our voices to the heavenly chorus—that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9). We must cry out in worship along with them, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10). Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
Our loving heavenly Father,
You graciously gave Your Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
He obediently took our sins to the cross,
where He bore unspeakable judgment on our behalf
in accordance with Your perfect will.
You powerfully declared Him to be the true Son of God
by raising Him from the dead.
And now through your precious Spirit
You earnestly invite all who hunger and all who thirst
to come (penitently yet boldly) and partake freely
of the bread of heaven and the water of life—
without money, and without price.
Those blessings are given freely to us;
but they were not obtained without cost to You.
They cost You Your only begotten Son, and they cost Him His life.
He bore the curse incurred by our sin.
When the law thundered against us like Mount Sinai—
threatening us with condemnation,
pronouncing our doom,
and consigning us to the darkness of hell—
Christ silenced the law’s claim against us
by taking the condemnation upon Himself.
He paid, once for all, the awful price.
We could never have fully discharged that debt to Your justice,
even if we suffered an eternity of torment in hell.
So we owe Him everything we are.
We were deeply stained,
guilty of countless sins (both careless and deliberate).
Our sins had cut us off from heaven,
excluded us from the commonwealth of Israel,
left us total strangers to the covenants of promise—
without hope and without God in the world.
But then the blessed good news came to us.
The gospel declared to us the way of life.
Truly it is the power of God for salvation
to everyone who believes.
Your Spirit graciously drew us into the household of faith
and You adopted us into the family
of Your redeemed children.
The human mind simply cannot fathom
the magnitude of our debt to Your grace.
Nor is the human tongue capable of adequately expressing
the fullness of our gratitude for so many undeserved mercies.
We know that there is no merit and no atoning value
in our good works, our prayers,
our tears, or our good intentions.
Only the atoning blood of Christ
could ever make an appropriate satisfaction for our sins
Therefore we were not redeemed with perishable things
like silver or gold,
but with that precious blood,
shed by the spotless lamb of God.
This was the plan of salvation You ordained
before the foundation of the world, for our sake.
When we ponder these truths carefully,
we are astonished that You would save rebellious sinners.
Why should guilty evildoers like us
be washed in the atoning blood of Your Son
and clothed in His righteousness?
Why should we be allowed
to radiate the bright glory that belongs only to You?
Why should we be advanced to such a high and eternal state?
Why would You choose us to adoption as Your children,
even before the foundation of the world?
Such knowledge is too wonderful for us;
it is high; we cannot attain it.
But we can thank You for Your kindness.
We can only do so in a feeble and inadequate way.
But in the name of Christ our Savior
we offer what we can of our heartfelt gratitude.
Please receive our worship, loosen our tongues,
sanctify our lips, and enlarge our hearts
to worship you more fittingly than we are currently able.
And may our service be acceptable in Your sight. Amen.
“Our Great Savior”
Jesus! What a Friend for sinners!
Jesus! Lover of my soul;
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
He, my Savior, makes me whole.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Hallelujah! What a Friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.
Jesus! What a Strength in weakness!
Let me hide myself in Him;
Tempted, tried, and sometimes failing,
He, my Strength, my vict’ry wins.
Jesus! What a Help in sorrow!
While the billows o’er me roll,
Even when my heart is breaking,
He, my Comfort, helps my soul.
Jesus! What a Guide and Keeper!
While the tempest still is high,
Storms about me, night o’ertakes me,
He, my Pilot, hears my cry.
Jesus! I do now receive Him,
More than all in Him I find,
He hath granted me forgiveness,
I am His, and He is mine.
~J. Wilbur Chapman (1859–1918)
 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 565–661). Crossway.