Justification, Regeneration, and Adoption
The Articles of Faith of the Church of the Nazarene are statements of how we as Wesleyan-Holiness people understand God’s revelation to humanity through His Holy Word. Articles V to X describe the journey of humanity from sin to holiness.
Article V, “Sin, Original and Personal,” describes how humanity, in Adam and Eve, disobeyed God, lost the living union with God, and reaped the curse of death. In Article VI, “Atonement,” we learn how Jesus’ own journey on earth reconciled humanity to God. The Word of God became flesh in Jesus, who is fully man and fully God. In and through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God and humanity were reconciled.
Articles V and VI form the foundation for Articles VII – X: Sin and death are the problem, and Christ’s atonement is the solution for humanity. Articles VII to X show us how to welcome this divine solution into our lives. The solution begins by acknowledging that we are not the center—we are not the ones who have come up with the idea to be reconciled with God through our own strength. We need God to break sin’s power and the curse of death over us. Article VII, “Prevenient Grace,” shows our dependence on God and the grace that He offers apart from anything we do to merit it. This amazingly generous grace enables and invites us to respond. The first part of this response is presented in Article VIII, “Repentance.”1 Repentance requires God’s grace to make us aware of our sins and their consequences; we are then enabled to turn away from sin and begin doing the right things before God. Article VIII leads us logically to Article IX, “Justification, Regeneration, and Adoption,” because the right thing after we repent is to put our trust in Jesus and in His sacrifice for us, thus entering into a life with God.
Article IX encompasses a part of our faith that is so important and profound such that a simple word or concept could not adequately describe it. Hence, the Article uses three words: justification, regeneration, and adoption.
When we think of the word “justification,” we may picture a judge, lawyers, or a trial. In a courtroom, the judge presides over the guilt or innocence of the accused person. Such imagery helps us understand that when we repent of our sins and put our obedient faith in God, He forgives us and judges us as not guilty. Our faith and God’s grace allow us to move from the condemnation of death to the blessing of life with God. This faith is a saving (justifying) faith, welcoming God’s saving grace.
The apostle Paul, wanting to explain that faith is not a concept but also an action, highlighted that his ministry was to bring people to the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26). This justifying faith is not only about hearing but also about obeying. We must remember that Paul was a Jew, and he was simply helping his Greek audience understand a Hebrew word, Shamah. From Hebrew, Shamah can be translated as “to hear” or “to listen” or “obey.” These three ideas are embedded in Shamah.
To illustrate this point, we can think of a mother saying to her child, “listen!” This mother is not expecting her child to simply listen and then do whatever he/she wants but rather to listen and then respond in obedience.
Justification is about listening to God, who declares through Jesus’ obedient faith that we are forgiven. We receive this gift of forgiveness when we believe in Jesus.
Faith in Christ means that we not only call Jesus Lord but we also respond to what He tells us. Jesus deplored the separation of what we say and what we do as we read in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
To more fully understand what happens with justification, the second word for Article IX is “regeneration.” First, we were dead in sin and now we are alive in God. This is another mind-blowing part of God’s amazing grace. In the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus found in the gospel of John, Jesus starts by saying: “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The term used in the original text in Greek, anothen, can mean either “again” or “from above.” So the translation could also be: “unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.” When we are justified, when our sins are forgiven, life with God is again made possible—we are regenerated. This is exactly what Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus—the need to be “born again” or “born from above.” Regeneration is a new life, a life from above. It is not something we do out of our own strength but something that God gives out of His sheer love.
We often struggle like Nicodemus, who tries to figure out what he has to do when he replies to Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). Regeneration is a gift of grace as is justification. We receive the forgiveness of God, and we receive new life in Him and through Him.
In order to better grasp regeneration, a new life in God and with God, we come to the word “adoption.” An image that we may think of for adoption is God as a father and Christians as His children. Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew that “… unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The emphasis of adoption is not so much on a legal declaration—something more related to justification—but rather on the type of new life that now becomes possible.
If we are justified and we receive new life, it is not just any new life but new life with God as our Father. In the same way that Jesus called God “Father,” we are invited to cry out in joyful gratitude, “Abba, Father,” just as we read Jesus speaking in Mark 14:36 and as Paul encourages us to say in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6.
Adoption means that we are invited to live our life as children of God. We learn to listen to God and to walk with Him in all areas of our lives. Jesus said to His disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Later, Jesus’ disciples were sometimes described as “belonging to the Way” in the book of Acts (9:2; 22:4).
Justification and adoption represent an entrance point into a new reality. Regeneration is the way by which we are prepared to exist in this reality. The ongoing work of regeneration continues in the lives of believers as they exist as sons or daughters of God. This relationship with God is the means by which we continue to grow. Justification is what is declared for us because of what Jesus did on the cross. Because of the work of Christ, if we believe, we are then adopted into the family of God. Once reconciled with God, we are invited to walk in obedient faith with Jesus, our Savior and our Lord.
Stephane Tibi is a missionary serving as regional education coordinator in Eurasia.
All Scripture quotations in this article are taken from the English Standard Version.
1. The second part of the response will be articles IX and X.
Holiness Today, November/December 2020
Please note: This article was originally published in 2020. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.