“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” – Romans 5:6-11
In our Wesleyan Methodist heritage, we believe that Accepting Grace (Justifying Grace) is the work of God that grants us pardon and new life. We call it the moment of salvation – when we say yes to God’s invitation to life, we are saved, born again, redeemed, granted pardon. God’s Accepting Grace is two works of God taking place at the same time. When we say yes with our words and our heart, we are Justified and Regenerated.
Justification is what God does FOR us – forgiving our sins. Regeneration is what God does IN us – renewing our fallen nature. Accepting Grace is both of these at work in us. God accepts us, cleanses us, claims us, and changes us.
Justification is that great image of being declared NOT GUILTY. We are actually guilty since we are all sinners, but as we know one can go into the courtroom guilty and through a variety of factors be declared NOT GUILTY. I can’t think of anyone particular to use as an example here, but I can point to the irony of being declared NOT GUILTY when you are guilty in the American judicial system. For example, when you bust into a Las Vegas hotel room to reclaim your stolen memorabilia. But that is another story for another day…
John Wesley, in his sermon Justification by Faith, stated, “justification is the clearing us from the accusation brought against us by the law: At least if this forced, unnatural way of speaking mean either more or less than this, that, whereas we have transgressed the law of God, and thereby deserved the damnation of hell, God does not inflict on those who are justified the punishment which they had deserved.” Justification is what God does FOR us.
Regeneration is what God does IN us – renewing our fallen nature. Regeneration is not about status, rather it is about nature and being. Regeneration is not a declaration, it is a transformation. The great image here is of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. What amazes me when I visit the Cecil Day Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, is how a caterpillar can become a butterfly. It is the same creature and yet completely different. This is the work of regeneration through the Holy Spirit – we are the same creature, yet completely different.
John Wesley, in his sermon, The New Birth, says this about regeneration, “this is the great change God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty spirit of god when it is ‘created anew in Christ Jesus’, renewed after the image of God, when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender love for all humanity.”
Now here’s the rub, Accepting Grace is our way of understanding what God does FOR us and IN us at salvation. But this work of Accepting Grace must be volitionally accepted, unlike Preparing Grace (Prevenient Grace) which is poured out on all regardless of response. Accepting Grace requires a YES from us. In our recent United Methodist experience and tradition, we have moved away from talking about this YES. This may be one of the reasons we have many church members on the rolls and in the pews who want to think of themselves as justified, but have never experienced regeneration! They have never said YES with their hearts allowing the Spirit to renew their fallen nature.
It is time to begin to reclaim this distinctive and essential doctrine of our faith. Methodists are people who believe in a decision of faith, whether that decision comes in a blinding light, or a slow and nuanced growth in the church. Either way, the moment of Justification and Regeneration must occur.
The beauty of our denomination is the proclamation of love. We respect each other even when we have differing views on issues that are not essential to the faith. We focus primarily on our love of God and neighbor manifested through action. But let us never forget the need of new birth. Let us proclaim and invite. Let us lift high the redeeming cross of Christ.