A Christian speaker recently confused his audience by using the words “regeneration” and “sanctification” as though they were synonymous. Later conversation revealed that he actually did not know the difference between the two.

Although the great majority of Christians are laymen untrained in theological terms, there are certain words expressing vital truths of the Christian faith that should be understood by all Christians.

As a layman writing to other laymen, I would describe the difference between regeneration and sanctification as the difference between birth and growth.

Regeneration means spiritual rebirth, something Jesus spoke of as imperative for those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven. “You must be born again.” This was the sentence that arrested a pious Jew named Nicodemus, and out of it developed the discussion of personal salvation recorded in John 3:1–21.

Sanctification is a process. It is growth in Christian knowledge and in the Christian graces. It is an advance in experience, understanding, and application of Christianity, not only in our relation to God but also in our relation with fellow men.

Through the once-for-all experience of regeneration, one becomes a Christian. Through sanctification, one develops into a mature Christian. This development never reaches its goal in this life; yet it should continue and become increasingly evident in the life of every Christian until he passes over into eternity.

Just as there are children whose minds and bodies stop developing at an early age, so there are Christians whose spiritual development is slight. Ignorant and immature, they hardly honor the name they bear.

Regeneration is an instantaneous work of the Spirit. Although a Christian may not be able to point to a specific time when he passed from spiritual death to spiritual life, still he knows that there was such a time. He knows that at some time the love and saving power of Christ became a reality to him, and he turned to Christ. At this time he was born again.

Regeneration is Christ’s perfect work in every believer. It is the miracle of spiritual birth. Sanctification, on the other hand, takes place in varying degrees. All Christians are plagued in some measure by the temptations and limitations of the flesh. Unfortunately, few of us who have been born again make full use of the means of growth in grace God has placed at our disposal. As a result, we are weak and immature in faith and practice.

Sanctification involves the matter of the will. Are we willing to surrender completely to the Holy Spirit so that he may perfect his work in us?

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It has been said that regeneration is the pardoning of our sins for Christ’s sake while sanctification is the subduing of sins in day-to-day living by the power of the indwelling Christ. Regeneration means entering into a new life, a life in which eternal values and destiny are changed, while sanctification is the growth in appreciation of those values.

The basic question is, of course, whether we have been born again. Have we truly believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and accepted him as our Saviour from sin? If so, regardless of how we may feel, we have become children of God and heirs of all the blessings that come to his children, now and for eternity.

Can we ever be lost? No. We have our Lord’s own promise: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:28–30, RSV).

The hymn-writer captured this comforting truth in these words:

The soul that on Jesus

Hath leaned for repose,

I will not, I will not

Desert to his foes;

That soul, though all hell

Should endeavor to shake,

I’ll never, no never,

No never forsake.

Are we growing as we should? Are we making progress? Can others see in our lives an increase of those qualities that commend the faith we profess?

Here is where honest self-appraisal is needed. We can use certain criteria to help us determine whether there is progress in our lives. Let us ask ourselves these questions:

About God. Do we love him more? Do we enjoy his Word more and more? Are we obedient to his leading? Do worship, praise, and thanksgiving increasingly well up from our souls as we think of him? Does the joy of salvation and a sense of peace fill our hearts? If so, the work of sanctification is going forward, and we can say with the psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”

About men. In our attitude toward others, is there more and more love, a love that is willing to serve, a love not contingent on who people are or how they react to us? Are we growing more patient with others, less likely to respond to them with sharp actions or words? Are we growing in the grace of kindness, even to those who may have been unkind to us? Are we gentle even when our natural reaction is the opposite? Growth in the Christian graces is something that we can sense and that others inevitably see. If we are developing Christ-likeness in our dealings with others, we may be sure that the gracious work of sanctification is a reality for us.

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Sanctification is also characterized by increasing joy in Christ, victory over temptations, faithfulness in the performance of our duties and self-control and temperance in all things.

Does all this mean sinless perfection? Far from it. We become more keenly aware of our sins than ever before and more dependent on our Lord for forgiveness and cleansing.

Just as children have to grow, so Christians must grow. There is no such thing as an immediately mature follower of Christ. Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

The Apostle Peter describes the work of sanctification: “For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:5–7).

Regenerated? Thank God. But let’s not stop there. Let us grow in grace and in the likeness of the One who has redeemed us.


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