Ordination Questions: Traditional Evangelical doctrines

5.) How do you understand the following traditional evangelical doctrines: (a) repentance; (b) justification; (c) regeneration; and (d) sanctification? What are the marks of the Christian life? 

            Repentance has its conceptual roots in the Hebrew language.  The original word, bwv – transliterated as shuwb – simply means to turn around.  Thus, in terms of the evangelical understanding of the life of faith, repentance means to make a 180 degree turn with ones life.  In other words, when we are heading down a path separated from any consideration of God and the things of God, repentance would mean to literally change course and turn back on a path that led to the richness of God’s love and guidance.  John Wesley spoke regularly about, “bringing forth fruites meet for repentance,” such as ceasing from doing evil and learning to do well.[1]  Wesley also believed that repentance was in some sense a necessary predecessor to justification, even though he believed faith has to be the only absolutely necessary prerequisite for justification.

            Justification itself is a slightly more difficult concept.  According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary article by Richard B. Hays, justification is, “A term that describes the event whereby persons are set or declared to be in right relation to God.”[2]  This is justification at its very simplest.  Our experience shows us a demonstrable gulf between humanity and the Divine.  In order for us to regain a holistic connection with God, something must take place.  That “something” is the event we describe using the word justification.  Although Protestantism, beginning with Martin Luther, has emphasized “justification by faith alone,” Wesley and the Anglican tradition from which he arose have been careful to emphasize the dual importance of faith and works.  By holding these two together, Wesley emphasized that true faith is never simply mental assent to several difficult propositions.  One cannot simply mouth the words, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” like a magical formula and be justified.  True faith, instead, is always a faith of the mind and heart.  True faith is faith working in love.[3]  

            While justification gives us new standing in relationship with God, regeneration is the way we describe the renewed ability we are given to live life in a new way.  While some parts of the Christian Tradition have focused on justification alone, others have focused primarily on transformation that comes through faith in Christ.  The doctrine of regeneration, at its best, holds these together.  The doctrine of regeneration teaches us that salvation is more than a personal policy for salvation; it is the beginning of a transformed life to live out the call to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength while loving our neighbor as ourselves. 

            After justification and regeneration, we are called to continually grow in grace toward the end God has in store for us. Although we enter a new relationship with God when we are justified, we still have to undergo a process of transformation to be the people God ultimately calls us to be.  Over time, we are shaped and formed more profoundly as followers of Jesus.  Sanctification is the term we use to describe this long-term process transformation that occurs by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

            The marks of the Christian life are the tell-tale signs of growth in grace.  As we are shaped and formed more clearly into God’s image, by God’s sanctifying grace, we grow to be more Christ-like.  Galatians 5:22 gives us the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit which are definite marks of the Christian life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Although the language sometimes obscures the meaning, we who follow in the theological traditions of John Wesley believe that we are being made perfect in grace.  Therefore growth in grace is one of the great distinguishing marks of the Christian.  I often tell people in my congregation that the question is not, “Am I like the perfect Christian I have pictured in my mind?”  Instead, we’re called to look at our lives and ask, “Am I more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, and so on than I was one year ago, five years ago, or ten years ago?”  Further, “Are we seeing a transformation from selfishness and inward focus to loving God and loving neighbor?” By God’s grace, we will be able to respond with great confidence that we are moving on to perfection as we are shaped and formed more fully in God’s image. 

[1] Abraham, William., Wesley for Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), p. 75

[2]Freedman, D. N. The Anchor Bible Dictionary . (New York, Doubleday, 1996)

[3] Abraham, William., Wesley for Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), pp. 76-77

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