Primarily when we think of what regeneration and sanctification have in common we should conclude that the answer is that both are works of the Holy Spirit. In regeneration the Spirit, working through the Word, creates new life. In Sanctification the Spirit, working through the Word, brings about the effects or fruit of new life.
We could talk of the different means by which the Spirit works regeneration and sanctification. But I would like to devote my time to what I consider to be the primary means of both. That is to say what happens, what shift takes place when one goes from death to life, dark to light, bondage to freedom and then continues on to higher heights and greater resemblance to the one through whom all this was obtained, Jesus Christ.
This primary means is where the commonality lies between the Spirit’s work in Sanctification and His work in Regeneration. The means is the revelation of the “glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ“. Or the Gospel.
When we think of Gospel, or Good News, I hope what we are thinking of is the message that God the Creator of all things, redeems rebellious man to himself through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. So what then does Gospel and glory have in common? Even more so what is meant by the Gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God? In short the glory of God is the holiness, majesty, perfection, might and transcendence of God. His infinite worth to which nothing can compare. In Christ we see the good news of this worth and perfection displayed. For in perfection Christ displayed the glory of God in the salvation of sinners by satisfying the justice of God by displaying the love of God through his vicarious, atoning death on the cross. At the cross the perfect love of God and the perfect justice of God met in perfect harmony. Then Christ rose from the dead as a testament to the perfect righteousness of God. It is only through what Christ has accomplished that we can behold God’s glory and enjoy Him forever in all his beauty and boundless worth! God created us for His glory. To praise him for it and to reflect it as his image bearers.
The problem with us fallen humanity is that without the regenerating, revelatory work of the Spirit through the Word we would never desire God or see him as the infinite treasure that he is. As those that had fallen “short of the glory of God” we were “dead in our trespasses and sins“. Instead of treasuring the boundlessly glorious and lovely One, we exchanged what we refused by nature to see the value in for images of cheap imitations of glory – created things. Like the cosmos before creation in Genesis 1, we were “formless and void” and “darkness covered the face” of our being. There was no single cell organism floating around. There was not even a random collection of elements waiting to be mixed. There was deadness. There was void. There was darkness. But God was still at work. His Spirit was hovering over that inky blackness and then… the command came.
“Let – there – be – Light”.
And there was light. Where there had been death, void, and inky blackness was now life, substance, and sight. The Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel message, brought vivification and for the first time we were able to see what was beautiful, to perceive what is worthy, and to respond appropriately to such sight and perception. This response is nearly simultaneous and it consists of faith and repentance.
It is not true that saving faith is blind faith. Rather saving faith is that which is informed by spiritual sight and not physical sight. That spiritual sight is this very sight that we are talking of. The first thing that these new eyes behold is the radiance of God’s glory in the revelation of Jesus Christ through the Gospel word. Jesus said “He who has seen me has seen the Father” and Hebrews tell us that “He is the radiance of the glory of God”. Faith is thus an irresistible response to Spirit-given sight in regeneration, for it is a sight that is based on what is seen with the eyes of the heart. Faith is a response to spiritual reality in the heart.
Repentance also is an inevitable response of this regenerating work, for as you behold the glory of God your sin is made plain for what it is. Though you may not see all your sin in one moment, you see the state of your depravity and are made to stand in fear as you consider your rebellion before God. One day “every knee will bow” because they will behold the glory of the Lord, but for the regenerate soul that submission begins when their spiritual senses are vivified and brought to a perception of the majesty and holiness of God. Isaiah, when he beheld the glory of the Lord filling the temple, was struck with fear at the sight and cried “Woe is me! For I am lost!”.
Therefore, we see that when we become a new creation in Christ, the Spirit grants us spiritual sight that we might believe and such sight as beholds the holiness and majesty of God which brings about repentance.
But. The Spirit does not stop with that initial sight-giving act but sustains it and it is by this sustaining that we persevere in sanctification.
Just as the primary means of our regeneration is the spiritual sight which brings about a “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”, leading to repentance and faith, so also this sight continues and by it we are sanctified; transformed more and more into the image of Christ. The great Puritan theologian, John Owen defines it this way “The sanctification of the Spirit is peculiarly connected with, and limited to the doctrine, truth, and grace of the Gospel, for holiness is the implanting , writing, and realizing of the Gospel in our souls”. True regeneration will always lead to sanctification. For as the Spirit brought life to all things at creation and now also sustains the life of all creation (Job 34:14-15), so also the elect owe their spiritual life and growth to the ongoing vivification of the Spirit.
Again, as I set out to prove, like in regeneration, the primary means of the Spirit in sanctification is in the revelation of the glory of God in Christ. For “we all (those regenerated), 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). In theological terms it could be said that the initial sight at regeneration, that burst of light that God declares over the inky blackness of our souls, produces a repentance that comes about as a result of our definitive or positional sanctification by the Spirit. Then the continual viewing of the glory of God in the Gospel brings about progressive sanctification which results in a daily repentance; a daily turning from sin and turning to God. As we behold him, we become more like him. For the verse above say that we are “transformed into the same image“. Also, just as beholding him brought an awareness of our sin and undone state, so a continued beholding, a deepening knowledge of God, leads to a deepening knowledge of self and of sin.
The question we must ask then is, “How do we continue to behold the glory of the Lord?” There are certain means by which we do this and it is due to lack of use of these means that many a regenerate person is carnal and weak. The primary means is that by which we were at first brought to life, the Word of God which is the Gospel. Just as God spoke over us and said “Let light shine out of darkness”, so God has spoken in His Word to His church for all time. It is through Christ, through the Word, that God is revealed. What God has spoken about himself is how we know God; how we see him with that spiritual sight that has been given to us. Thus if we neglect the Bible, then we neglect to grow in the knowledge of God, which means that transformation will stagnate. As time passes and our vision dims as a result of our finitude and abiding corruption we may find ourselves even beginning to backslide. Progressive sanctification is the Spirit’s work in our hearts as we behold the glory of God by His word and respond accordingly, just as we did at the very beginning. Other means that could be discussed are prayer, communion, and fellowship of the saints but I will save that for another time.
In this life we can scarcely remove our eyes from that which is beautiful. When standing on a mountain peak or looking toward the stars on a clear night we are in awe and at times wish that the moment would never end. So the Spirit has revealed the glory of Christ to those of us that were blind until God spoke his creating decree and breathed out his Spirit, creating new life. Now that sight has come and we gaze upon the splendor of this God who has displayed his glory in Christ for His chosen people to see. The Spirit’s work of revealing the holiness, worth, splendor, love and justice of God does not end with the initial creating work in the new birth, but he continues to sustain it so that with spiritual sight and understanding we may continue to behold the glory of the Lord in a way that only increases. As we behold this radiance we begin to reflect it in our own lives until one day when we see Christ face-to-face. Then in that wonderful moment “we shall be like him“. Why will we be like him? For no other reason than why we began to look more like him in this life -because we saw him. Only on that day when we really see him “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2) in that place where there is no sun “for the glory of God will give it light” (Rev 21:23).