It’s one thing to be forgiven, and another thing to be born again. Both happen at once, but they are distinct from each other. They have to be distinguished clearly, in order to be united perfectly. It’s hard to know whether it’s more important to distinguish them, or to insist that they go together. John Wesley may have been the most successful at distinguishing and uniting them in his preaching.
Nearly everything Wesley taught flowed from his understanding of the new birth, because the new birth (or regeneration) is where the great salvation proclaimed in the gospel actually enters into human experience. It is “a vast inward change, a change wrought in the soul, by the operation of the Holy Ghost.” And it is crucial that we see how Wesley related this doctrine, a doctrine about a change that takes place in the human subject, to the great objective truths of salvation in Christ.
Sermon 45, entitled simply “The New Birth,” begins with the important distinction: “If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two; the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth.” Note carefully how Wesley goes on to relate these two doctrines. He is not famous for his careful theological distinctions, but on this point he is ruthlessly, incisively cautious. Justification and regeneration must be distinguished from each other precisely so they can be held together; they must be understood to be different if they are to be recognized as inseparable. Justification, says Wesley, is a doctrine “relating to that great work which God does for us, in forgiving our sins,” while regeneration relates to “the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature.” Justification is for us, regeneration in us.
The two certainly belong together: “on the one hand, …whosoever is justified, is also born of God, and on the other, …whosoever is born of God, is also justified;” in fact, it is certain “that both these gifts of God are given to every believer in one and the same moment.” Both happen at once: “In one point of time his sins are blotted out, and he is born again of God.” They occur simultaneously in the “order of time,” but logically, conceptually, or in the “order of thinking,” justification comes first. “We first conceive his wrath to be turned away, and then his Spirit to work in our hearts.”
For this reason, Wesley cautions against confusing them, an error he says is all too common. “But though it be allowed, that justification and the new birth are, in point of time, inseparable from each other, yet they are easily distinguished, as being not the same, but things of a widely different nature.” And following out the “for us” versus “in us” logic, Wesley distinguishes them further:
Justification implies only a relative, the new birth a real, change. God, in justifying us, does something for us; in begetting us again, he does the work in us. The former changes our outward relation to God, so that of enemies we become children; by the latter our inmost souls are changed, so that of sinners we become saints. The one restores us to the favour, the other to the image, of God. The one is the taking away of the guilt, the other the taking away of the power, of sin.
The distinction is perhaps even clearer if we think of regeneration as initial sanctification. The same irreversible order applies to the relationship between justification and sanctification, as Wesley points out in Sermon 5, “Justification by Faith.” Justification is primarily a matter of being forgiven.
It is not being made actually just and righteous. This is sanctification; which is, indeed, in some degree the immediate fruit of justification; but nevertheless, is a distinct gift of God, and of a totally different nature. The one implies, what God ‘does for us’ through his Son; the other, what he ‘works in us’ by his Spirit.
Regeneration is the first moment of that sanctification, the instant when God (working in us by his Spirit) places holiness in us and makes a change to our actual state. A justified sinner is forgiven, but his character has not been changed by the act of justification (which God does for him through his Son). The regenerate person, however, has a character which has been changed by God’s intervention. He has been “made actually just and righteous,” at least in principle and as the beginning point of a process that, as it continues to develop, will be recognized outwardly as sanctification.
Justification is the imputing of righteousness to the believer, and regeneration is the implanting of righteousness into that same believer. Both happen at once, but they are different things. They belong together as the concerted actions of the one God, who “implants righteousness in every one to whom he has imputed it.” They belong together as the concerted action of God the Father, who takes action for us through his Son, and in us by his Spirit.