Part of the beauty of sanctification is that it’s a unique way we work with God in the pursuit of Christlikeness. Sanctification is different from equally important theological terms, like regeneration and justification, because sanctification invites us to participate. (This is especially helpful for those of us who want to “do” something, those of us sitting on our hands wanting a fix. This is for all the hustlers.)
Regeneration happens when the Holy Spirit makes us a new creation, resurrecting us from being dead in sin and making us alive in Christ. This process is completely the work of the Holy Spirit, and not dependent on our works at all. John 1:12–13 says, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” This is regeneration. Think of it this way. You and I didn’t have any responsibility in our own physical births. The same is true for our spiritual births. You and I cannot manufacture or manipulate regeneration. We respond in faith to the wooing of the Spirit. We bring nothing to the table in regeneration, not our works, not our résumé, not any good thing we have ever done or could do.
This is all and only the grace of God and the goodness of the Holy Spirit. Regeneration is a sweet, sweet word, and a term that’s worth understanding. Not so we can use smart words or hang with our seminarian friends. Regeneration reminds us of the goodness of God and our desperate, desperate need for Him to awaken our souls from death. Think Ezekiel and all those dry bones. Life, from death.
But if we lean into regeneration too much, we become the people of the “let go and let God” camp. Regeneration, being made alive, is only part of our spiritual identity. Living people live. It is not biblical for us to sit on our hands expecting God to do all the work. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says it this way: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12–13). We work out what He works in us. We live out how He’s made us alive. Enter sanctification.
Understanding regeneration and sanctification is hard work. But there’s still more work to be done. There is a third category that is necessary for our life in Christ. Justification is a term that explains our right, legal standing before God. After the Holy Spirit has made us new in Christ and we have responded in faith, we are legally forgiven before God. The legal transaction where Christ pays for our debts and God the Father declares us free and righteous is the essence of justification. One critical element of evangelical Christianity is the belief that we are justified not by our works or résumé. We can’t earn justification; we don’t progressively earn a right standing with God by stacking up credits against our debts. We are justified by faith in Jesus and His completed work on the cross.
In his commentary on Romans, Robert H. Mounce says that “faith is the total surrender to the ability and willingness of God to carry out his promises.” Consider how Romans 4:20–22 describes Abraham’s faith. “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’”
Abraham, the “he” the verse above is describing, certainly lived out this principle. God’s promise to Abraham was the substance of his faith.
Most Jews at the time of Paul’s letter to the Romans would have passionately argued that Abraham was justified by his works—offering Isaac as a sacrifice or by Abraham’s circumcision. Circumcision was an outward expression of Israel’s commitment to be set apart from the pagans around them. Jews would point to Abraham, the patriarch of their faith, as a picture of how works earn a right standing before God.
In these first few chapters of Romans, Paul is trying to reframe a commonly held opinion regarding Abraham’s faith. Paul’s primary argument here is that Abraham was justified by his faith, not his works.
So what is justification again? It is a legal declaration that our sins have been paid for by another, and therefore we are not in danger of bearing the punishment our sins deserve. When we are justified we are made right with God. It is God-given faith that activates that deposit or transaction. When Abraham was credited with righteousness by God, he was justified—considered in right standing—before God.
The promise of Abraham being credited righteousness comes from Genesis 15:6, where God restates His promise to make then-Abram into a mighty nation with offspring as numerous as the stars. Ancient Abram and barren Sarai would parent a mighty nation. This promise was made to Abram who was in his eighties married to Sarai (later Sarah) who was well past childbearing age. Yet in that instance, God, who knows men’s hearts, saw Abram’s faith in that promise and legally made Abram righteous by his faith.
More than a decade before his son Isaac was born and twenty-nine years before his circumcision, Abraham was declared righteous. Abraham’s faith and subsequent justification weren’t based on his own works or even on God fulfilling that specific promise. God had yet to make good on His Word and give Abram land or a son. Abraham looked forward in faith and stood firm on the promises of God because Abraham trusted God’s character.
It was Abraham’s faith in the promise of God, Abraham’s faith that God is trustworthy, Abraham’s faith that God will not fail that made him righteous before God.
Where Abraham looked forward in faith, we have the unbelievable blessing of looking back in faith at the finished work of Jesus Christ! What God promised, He fulfilled! And we can live in the sweet assurance that what Jesus did on the cross was sufficient to make us legally innocent before God.
Excerpted with permission from Sick of Me by Whitney Capps. Copyright 2019, B&H Publishing Group.
In Sick of Me, Whitney Capps shows us that spiritual growth means being both honest and holy—that we can come to Jesus just as we are, but we cannot stay that way. While virtues like vulnerability, honesty, and humility are desperately needed, we should fight for more. After all, the gospel is a change-agent.
Whitney calls us beyond trendy transparency and into something better: true transformation. If you want to be honest about all your junk, but are also sick of staying there—Sick of Me is for you.