Tag Archives: John

By the Washing of Regeneration

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, ESV)

This coming Sunday, I have been asked to provide pulpit supply for my pastor who is taking some time to visit his brand new, and very first, grandson. The text I selected was Titus 3:1-7, and in particular, a section in the middle jumped out at me. One phrase caught my attention.

by the washing of regeneration

Paul, writing to one of his successors Titus, is concluding the letter with some instructions. Immediately before this passage, he exhorted the people to obey the governing authorities, to be ready to do good works, and to be charitable all people. (1-2)

Then he grounds his command in the fact that we were once sinners who also needed God to show us kindness and charity. (3)

That brings us to our passage. While we were still in the state described in verse 3, the loving-kindness of the Father appeared. That loving-kindness was Jesus. (John 3:16, Rom 5:8) Contrary to Roman Catholic thought, the Father saved us “not because of works done by us in righteousness.” (3:5a) Rather he saved us “according to his own mercy. (3:5b)

In the second half of verse 5, we come to the contentious phrase which is the subject of our inquiry today.

by the washing of regeneration

This passage has been interpreted variously throughout Church history. Some see it as an obvious reference to the rite of baptism. They use this passage to demonstrate that the washing (baptism) is effectual to bring about regeneration. They read the phrase as though it said something to the effect of “the regenerating washing.” This position the prevailing view among Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and some Anglicans. However, even among early church commentators who affirmed Baptismal Regeneration, this interpretation was not universal.

Strange! How were we drowned in wickedness, so that we could not be purified, but needed a new birth? For this is implied by “Regeneration.” For as when a house is in a ruinous state no one places props under it, nor makes any addition to the old building, but pulls it down to its foundations, and rebuilds it anew; so in our case, God has not repaired us, but has made us anew. For this is “the renewing of the Holy Ghost.” He has made us new men. How? “By His Spirit” (John Chrysostom, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. James Tweed and Philip Schaff, vol. 13 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 538.)

It is interesting to note here, that Chrysostom literally says “we were baptized (βεβαπτισμένοι) in wickedness.” It seems like if he was going to make the point that baptism regenerates us, that this would be a perfect intro. We once were baptized in wickedness, and we are now baptized in righteousness. However, he does not do so. Rather, he points out here that we cannot be purified, but rather we must be entirely rebuilt. That certainly does not sound like an infusion of grace that transforms us such that we are inherently just. I digress.

The Baptismal Regeneration reading is not justified. Rather, we should read the passage such that regeneration itself is the washing. Grammatically, the phrase λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας simply does not bear out the adjectival reading above. Rather, the second noun in the construction is better seen as the means or agent of the first. Thus it is better understood as something closer to “the regeneration which washes” or “the washing which comes about because of regeneration.” We see this clearly when we observe the following phrase which is joined with the coordinating conjunction καὶ.

and the renewal of the Holy Spirit

The phrase ἀνακαινώσεως πνεύματος ἁγίου is parallel to λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας and thus we may draw a reasonable conclusion that the construction is also parallel. It is evident that the phrase “Holy Spirit” does not describe the word “renewal.” If we take the Baptismal Regeneration view above, and λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας means “regenerative washing,” then this phrase here must mean something like “Holy Spirit inducing renewal.” Now, while it is true that those holding to Baptismal Regeneration would agree that baptism indeed brings about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, I am not aware of a single commentator here that uses this passage to support that. Rather they are of one voice in recognizing that this is telling us that the Holy Spirit brings about renewal. However, the same construct used immediately prior, says the Baptismal Regeneration Advocate, says that washing brings about regeneration. Why the discrepancy?

Instead, we ought to read this passage as though identical constructions function identically. In fact, the two constructions are referring to the same thing. The regeneration which washes is, in fact, an act of the Holy Spirit who renews. The washing described in the first phrase is the renewal described in the second.

If “through” (dia) were used before “renewal,” thus rendering “through the washing of rebirth and through renewal of the Holy Spirit,” it would describe two events instead of one. Simply stated, the text indicates that “washing” is an activity of the Holy Spirit and that this washing involves “rebirth” (palingenesias) and “renewal” (anakainoseos). (Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin, New American Commentary, vol. 34 (Nashville: B&H, 1992), 323.)

What Paul here is describing is the regeneration and conversion of a Christian. He goes on to say that the purpose of the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit by which we were saved is “so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (7) He also notes that the Holy Spirit who brings about this regeneration and renewal is “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (6) This act is an act of the triune God from start to finish.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that this is not precisely the same as what is advocated by many in the Reformed tradition. Both Matthew Henry and John Calvin associate the phrase “washing of regeneration” with baptism. Henry does so more strongly than Calvin, but it is important to note that both draw the conclusion that the combination of phrases “washing of regeneration” and “renewal of the Holy Spirit” deny Baptismal Regeneration. What they are saying is not all that far off from what I’m saying. Rather than understand this passage as advocating Baptismal Regeneration, instead what we see is that the sign (baptism, here called the washing of regeneration) is here directly associated with that which is signified (regeneration itself here called the renewal of the Holy Spirit). While I disagree with them that baptism is in view here, I fully affirm the theology they are putting forward.

Augustine and Divine Processions

This year, as part of my devotional studies, I am working my way through Augustine’s magisterial volume On the Trinity.[1] I am hoping to provide some reflection and analysis here as I work through it.

Today, I was reading 2.1.4 and 2.1.5 today (99-100) and came upon something I think is a very fruitful discussion. Augustine, toward the beginning of this chapter, discussed that there is a particular rule which was informally utilized by various commentators and theologians. Roughly speaking, the rule was that if the text speaks of the Son as less than the Father, it is referring to the “form of a servant” IE according to humanity. If the text speaks of the Son as equal to the Father, it is a reference to the “form of God” IE according to divinity.

He also points out that some unclear passages which speak of the Son in a way that refers to the fact that the Son is from the Father, and do not fit either of the above two categories.

There are, however, some statements in the divine utterances of such a kind that it is uncertain which rule should be applied to them; should it be the one by which we take the Son as less than the Father in the created nature he took on, or the one by which we take him as equal to the Father, while still deriving from him his being God from God, light from light? (2.1.2)

He uses these passages to ground the eternal processions of the Son and Holy Spirit.[2]  Of particular note is John 5:26 and 5:19.

For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. (5:26, ESV)

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.(5:19, ESV)

Augustine brilliantly uses the latter to show that the external works of the Trinity are one. I will leave that discussion for a later post. But the former is a verse that has always puzzled me. The verse is arguably talking about the divine attribute of aseity, but how can in-him-self-ness be granted to you? Doesn’t that defeat the whole point of aseity?

Augustine explains

So the reason for these statements can only be that the life of the Son is unchanging like the Father’s, and yet it is from the Father (2.1.3)

The Son is indeed a se, but his aseity is from the very nature which comes from the Father. That is, since the Son’s personal origin is that he is begotten of the Father, he gets everything he has and is from the Father. That is why the Nicene Creed, which Augustine is referencing here, says that the Son is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” It is also the reason that the Athanasian Creed indicates that although each person considered as a person is a given attribute —Aseity, Omnipotence, etc.— that there is only one attribute shared among the persons.

Therefore, just as He gave the Son life (Jn 5:26) means nothing else than “He begot the Son who is his life… (2.1.4)

Understanding this is vital for the Reformed to, because this theology would develop into a doctrine in Roman Catholic thought —especially under Aquinas— where the nature of the Son is actually communicated to the Son by the Father such that it is practically a second numerical nature. Calvin, however, would postulate a different formula which better retains the numerical singularity of the divine nature.[3] Some accuse Calvin of implicitly denying eternal generation —and consequently of eternal procession— but in actuality, this is simply a proper recovery of what Augustine is saying here.

Augustine then takes this same approach and applies it to the procession of the Holy Spirit.

And just as the Son is not made less than the Father by his saying, The Son cannot do anything of himself except what he sees the Father doing (Jn 5:19) […] so her it does not make the Holy Spirit less to say of him, He will not speak from himself but whatever he hears he will speak (Jn 16:13). This is said in virtue of his proceeding from the Father. (2.1.5)

While I doubt that this kind of sophisticated reasoning will do much to convince the hardened Jehovah’s Witness… or EFS advocate for that matter… it goes a long way to demonstrate —using Scripture— that these eternal processions exist.


For a very helpful modern treatment of the subject, see Holmes, Christopher. The Holy Spirit. New Studies in Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015. Holmes devotes 4 chapters —two each— specifically to the procession of the Holy Spirit as it is developed by Augustine and Aquinas in their commentaries and sermons on the Gospel of John.


[1] I am working from Augustine of Hippo. The Works of Saint Augustine. Edited by John Rotelle. Translated by Edmund Hill. Vol. 5. Hyde Park: New City, 1991. All citations will follow the numbering and pagination schema for that version.

[2] Processions refer to the two relationships of origin which the Son and Spirit have with the Father. It is an unfortunate quirk of theological linguistics that the term Processions (plural) is used to describe these relationships while the term Procession (singular) is also used to describe the unique relationship of origin which the Spirit has with the Father (and or through the Son)

[3] Dr. K Scott Oliphint offers an excellent lecture regarding this that is available at the Reformed Forum site.

Church Discipline and Exclusion

Opting out of Church Discipline, is opting out of the Church.

– Tony Arsenal

In the 18th chapter of Matthew, we have recorded for us a vital teaching for the Church. Found in verses 15-20, the Lord explains to his people how a person who sins against his brothers is to be handled.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

Jesus

This is a relatively familiar passage to many people. However, most that I have talked to do not recognize the radical conclusions that we have to draw if we take what Christ has taught us seriously.

I want to share three observations.

First, the whole point of the sequence of actions here is to love and win your brother back. It is not to punish them for the sake of punishing them. It is because they have sinned, and it is loving to correct them. Failing to do so, or more commonly refusing to do so, is not loving. Just like it is not loving to let an addict continue to abuse his own body is not loving. Calling what you are doing (ie ignoring their sin) gracious does not make it so. This process is given to us by the Lord as the way to show love to our brother, and to refuse to give someone life saving medicine is hatred.

Second, the final step of this process is severe. If someone refuses to be corrected by the Church (specifically, the elders of the Church) then we are to regard them as though they are not believers and not a part of the Church. The act of excluding them from the Visible Church, is intended to communicate that you do not regard them as part of the Invisible Church. That is not to say you are condemning them. The Church does not have the authority to determine the eternal fate of a person, but she has been given the authority to recognize and pronounce the eternal fate of a person. When a person refuses to submit to the Church, it is indicative that they have probably refused to submit to the Head of the Church. Keeping in mind what I said in my first observation, allowing someone to believe something about themselves that appears to be untrue is hatred. If someone is struggling to swim, but tells you that they are fine… to let them believe that lie instead of forcefully imposing the truth by rescuing them is hatred. Encouraging someone who has refused to submit to the discipline of the Church to continue living as though that is not the case is hatred for that person.

Third, Christ promises that when this process is executed according to his command, that he will be with those who have faithfully obeyed his instruction. This language is rooted in the Old Testament judicial code, which is why the phrase “two or three” is used. After a person has confronted the sinning brother directly and privately, it becomes a legal case. That person is to gather two or three others to confront him, because they are presenting charges against that person… and charges are established on the testimony of two or three witnesses. When two or three have established those charges, and the Church pronounces her verdict, the Lord is present in that judgment. It is not simply men who are excluding the person from the Visible Church, it is Christ himself who is enforcing that sentence. As such, to refuse to acknowledge that verdict by allowing that sinful brother to carry on as though he were not under discipline is to reject the authority of the Church, and to reject the authority of the one who is Head of that Church and confirms her pronouncement.

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him

– The Apostle John

Keeping Christ’s commands is not optional. If you know Christ, you are obligated to do the things he commanded you to. If you refuse to, then you are a liar and the truth is not in you. Christ did not suggest the discipline process laid out in Matthew 18, he commanded it.

Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

Jesus

If you refuse to follow the commands that Jesus has given us, then you have no claim to say that you love Jesus. To ignore his commands, especially at the cost of the safety of his flock, is to hate the Shepherd. To hate the Shepherd, is to hate the one who sent him.