Sanctification actually begins at the time of our conversion, when by an act called regeneration, or the new birth, the principle of spiritual life is planted within us. This work of regeneration is promised in such Old Testament prophecies as Jeremiah 31:33, where God says, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” And in Ezekiel 36:26–27 He says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
In the New Testament, Paul also described regeneration in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” And again in Titus 3:5: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth [or regeneration, as it is translated in many versions of the Bible] and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
Note the radical change that is explicitly described in each of these Scripture passages. God will put His Law in our minds and write it on our hearts. That is, He will give us a new disposition that, instead of being hostile to God’s Law, actually delights in it. The Law, which before was merely external, is now written in our hearts by the Spirit of God so that we are moved to obedience.
The heart of stone is transformed into a heart of flesh. “Heart of stone” is a figurative expression for a hard heart, one that is insensible to the things of God and unable to receive any impressions of divine truth. The heart of flesh represents a soft and tender heart, one that is able and willing to receive and act upon the truths of God’s Word. Matthew Henry says of this verse, “Renewing grace works as great a change in the soul as the turning of a dead stone into living flesh.”
Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that when a person is united to Christ, there is a new creation. A Christian is a radically changed person the moment he or she trusts Christ. This doesn’t mean we become “saints” in practice overnight. It does mean a new creation—a new principle of life—has been planted within us by the Holy Spirit, and we can never be the same again.
The expression “born again,” from John 3:3–8, is usually taken to mean no more than being saved from the penalty of sin. According to Jesus, it means to be born of the Spirit (John 3:6, 8), that is, to be given new life. Paul said the same thing in Titus 3:5 when he spoke of renewal by the Holy Spirit.
This act of regeneration or new birth by which a person enters the Kingdom of God (John 3:5), is solely the work of God the Holy Spirit. Thus it is entirely a work of grace, just as justification is. It is also an instantaneous act of God. The moment we are justified we are also regenerated. A person cannot be justified without being regenerated.
Again I am concerned that there are thousands of professing Christians who think they have been justified, who think their sins are forgiven and that they are on their way to Heaven, who show no evidence of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I fear for them that they will one day hear those awful words from the lips of Christ, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:23).
Lest I be misunderstood at this point, let me say emphatically that the solution for these people is not to change their conduct so that they might see some evidences of regeneration. The solution is to come to Jesus, renouncing any confidence in their own goodness, confessing themselves to be sinners in the sight of God, and trusting entirely in His atoning work. They will then be truly justified (saved from the penalty of sin) and will at the same time be genuinely regenerated (made new creations in Christ). The evidence of regeneration will then be apparent to them and to others around them.
Regeneration, then, is the beginning of sanctification, or to use Paul’s word in 2 Corinthians 3:18, of transformation. Sanctification, then, is the carrying out of regeneration to its intended end. William Plumer, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister, wrote, “Regeneration is an act of God’s Spirit. Sanctification is a work of God’s Spirit, consequent upon that act.… In regeneration we become ‘new-born babes;’ in sanctification we attain the stature of full-grown men in Christ Jesus.”
The question is sometimes asked, “What is the relationship of sanctification to justification? Can a person be justified but not sanctified?” The answer is, justification and sanctification are inseparable. God never gives justification without sanctification (see 1 Corinthians 1:30 and 6:11). Both have their source in the infinite love and free grace of God. Both are accomplished by faith. In justification we rely on what Christ did for us on the cross. In sanctification we rely on Christ to work in us by His Holy Spirit. In justification, as well as regeneration, God acts alone. In sanctification He works in us but elicits our response to cooperate with Him.
Quoting William Plumer again,
Justification is an act of God complete at once and for ever. Sanctification is a work of God begun in regeneration, conducted through life and completed at death. The former is equal and perfect in all; the latter is not equal in all, nor perfect in any till they lay aside the flesh. In justification God imputes [that is, credits] to us the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification he [imparts] grace, and enables us to exercise it.
The Holy Spirit’s work is a work of grace in two respects. In an earlier book, Transforming Grace, I showed that the Scriptures use the word grace in two distinct but related ways. The broader, more common meaning is God’s unmerited favor to us through Jesus Christ. But there are several instances in Scripture where the meaning is God’s divine assistance to us through the Holy Spirit. But even this divine assistance is a result of God’s unmerited favor. So whether we think of sanctification as an undeserved blessing, which it is, or as the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in us, it is indeed a work of grace.
Our part, that is, our response to the Holy Spirit’s work and our cooperation with Him in His work is the pursuit of holiness. We will be considering our part in sanctification beginning in chapter 7. But for now, I want to emphasize that the pursuit of holiness, though requiring diligent effort on our part, is dependent upon the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul expressed this principle of dependent discipline quite succinctly in Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Paul did the work, in that case, learning to be content. But he did it through the enabling strength of the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to grasp this principle of being responsible yet dependent. But it is absolutely vital that we grasp it and live by it.
The goal of sanctification is likeness to our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that we “are being transformed into his likeness.” In Romans 8:29 he said that God “predestined [all believers] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.” Christlikeness is God’s goal for all who trust in Christ, and that should be our goal also.
Both words, transformed and conformed, have a common root, form, meaning a pattern or a mold. “Being transformed” refers to the process; conformed refers to the finished product. Jesus is our pattern or mold. We are being transformed so that we will eventually be conformed to the likeness of Jesus.
Sanctification or holiness (the words are somewhat interchangeable), then, is conformity to the likeness of Jesus Christ. We see this same idea expressed in different wording in other New Testament scriptures. In Ephesians 4:24, Paul said our new self is “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” The writer of Hebrews stated that God disciplines us, “that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10), and in 1 Peter 1:16, the apostle Peter quotes an Old Testament passage where God said, “Be holy, because I am holy” (emphasis added in each Scripture quoted).
How can we know whether we are being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ? We begin by studying His character. One of my favorite descriptions of Christ is that He “loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (Hebrews 1:9). Jesus did not just act righteously, He loved righteousness. In His humanity He loved equity, fairness, justice, and upright dealings with others. At the same time He hated wickedness. Jesus hated sin as sin. We often hate the consequences of sin (even if it seems to be no more than the guilt feelings that follow sin), but I suspect we seldom hate sin as sin. We saw in chapter 2 that sin is a rebellion against God’s authority, a despising of His person, and a defiance of His commands. Do we truly hate sin when we see it in our own lives because of the despicable nature of it? To the extent we do, we are being transformed into His likeness.
Another Scripture that is helpful to me is John 6:38: “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” Jesus’ entire goal in His earthly life was to do the will of His Father, even though that will culminated in Jesus laying down His life for His sheep. If we are going to become more and more like Him, we must grow toward that same goal of seeking His will. To be like Jesus is not just to stop committing a few obvious sins such as lying, cheating, gossiping, and thinking impure thoughts. To be like Jesus is to always seek to do the will of the Father. That is a very high standard. We frequently desire to do our own will, resulting in actions that may not appear to be sinful in themselves. But they are sinful if they are not the Father’s will.
Not only did Jesus do the will of the Father, not only was that His whole goal in life, but Psalm 40:8 tells us that He delighted to do the will of the Father. To become like Jesus, then, is to come to the place where we delight to do the will of God, however sacrificial or unpleasant that will may seem to us at the time, simply because it is His will.
Then there is Jesus’ statement in John 8:29, “for I always do what pleases him [the Father].” Everything Jesus did was done with the aim of pleasing the Father. And of course, He perfectly realized that aim. What about us? How often do we think, speak, or act with the aim of pleasing the Father? Of course, we will never attain that aim to the extent Jesus did, but the question remains, what is our aim? Is it to please the Father in all we do, or is it to just get through life as comfortably as we can?
Consider also that God looks at our motives as well as our actions (see 1 Chronicles 28:9; Proverbs 16:2; 1 Corinthians 4:5). We may do or say the right thing outwardly, but what is our motive? Is it to please the Father, or is it sometimes to feel good about ourselves, or to look good to others? I’m not saying that we should always be questioning our motives, I’m just attempting to paint a picture to some degree of what it means to be transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.