“There are three things that, according to the Bible, are absolutely necessary to the salvation of every man and woman in Christendom. These three things are justification, regeneration, and sanctification. All three meet in every child of God; he is born again, justified, and sanctified. He who lacks any one of these three things is not a true Christian in the sight of God, and will not be found in heaven and glorified in the last day if he dies in that condition.”
These are the words of 19th century theologian JC Ryle in his book Holiness. It’s a wonderful read that I would recommend to every Christian who wishes to grow in sanctification (which should be all of them). This quote comes from the start of the second chapter, and I think it’s a great summary of the requirements for salvation.
Understanding the process by which we are saved is of utmost importance. If you want to be sure of your own salvation and live a Godly life, you need to know how salvation is achieved. If you want to do your duty as a Christian and share the gospel, you must understand how people are saved. As Ryle says, there are three parts to salvation: regeneration, justification, and sanctification. They must come in that order and they must all be present in the life of a Christian. Let’s take a closer look at each part individually.
The first thing that takes place in salvation is regeneration. This is what we call “being born again.” It’s the moment when God changes our hearts; our eyes are opened and we are granted a new nature capable of trusting Him.
Before regeneration, all people are completely dead in their sin. No one seeks after God (Romans 3:10-11). In fact, we cannot seek after God. “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8).
However, God saw fit to redeem some. As He says in Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Notice who is doing the work here. The phrase “I will” is repeated multiple times. God is the one who removes our heart of stone. He is the one who causes us to walk in faith and obedience. Without Him, we would be stuck in our sin. Fortunately, He saw fit to redeem us.
It is very important to understand that this step comes before justification. As we will discuss in a moment, justification is a gift from God received through faith; however, we cannot have faith until God first works in us. If faith is a requirement for regeneration, then we are saved by our work (that work being putting faith in God). The scriptures make it very clear that we are saved by God’s work—not our own. He is always the one who takes action. Jesus says in the gospel of John that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
The idea that regeneration must come before justification is often a controversial one, and I understand the difficulty many have with it. Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on our “free will.” People believe their own personal choices determine who they fundamentally are, and this idea seems to contradict that. Additionally, it’s hard to hear that our sin nature has such a hold on us that we completely lack the ability to put our faith in God without His intervention—but that is the gospel. We were “dead in [our] trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), but God, “being rich in mercy…made us alive together with Christ” (v 4-5).
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.Ephesians 2:8-10
The next part of salvation is justification. This is the moment when God declares us righteous. When we are justified, God no longer looks upon us and sees the filth of our sin; He sees the righteousness of Christ. It is a work that is done once and it is completed. When we are justified, our sins are atoned for, and they always will be. This is accomplished through faith. Faith is often called the “instrument of salvation” because it is the way we accept the gift of salvation.
Despite what critics constantly say, this faith is not a “blind belief” in the existence of God—it has nothing to do with unquestioning acceptance. All men know that God exists. As Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Rather, it is a placing of our trust in God because we have good reason to do so. It is believing that Christ died and rose again, and trusting that God will keep His promise that our sins will be washed away.
Justification by faith is unique to Christianity. Man made religion tells people they are justified through their works, meaning people must rely on themselves to be saved. But as we covered in the previous section, we can never earn our own salvation. Ray Comfort often compares salvation by works to attempting to bribe a judge; we will not be judged for the good things we do, but our evil. Even our good deeds are evil because they do not stem from a desire to love and glorify God. As Isaiah 64:6 says, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
Though the thought that we can never earn our salvation may initially sound depressing, it is actually a big relief. The burden is taken off of me and placed onto Christ. I never wonder if I have done enough good things to outweigh the bad, because Christ’s death is sufficient for all sin. And because I am not the one who earned my salvation, I cannot lose my salvation either. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). God loved us enough to draw us out of our sin despite the fact that we were sinners, and He will not let us go.
Sanctification is the part of salvation that is often overlooked, especially in our current age where many people call themselves Christians but don’t live like one. However, it is most certainly a requirement of salvation. Everyone who is regenerated and justified will be sanctified. All who are sanctified are justified—you cannot have one without the other. Once we are saved, we begin a life long process of overcoming our sin and fighting to live more like our savior. That is not optional. As Ryle says in Holiness:
“He who thinks that Jesus Christ only lived and died and rose again in order to provide justification and forgiveness of sins for His people has much yet to learn. Whether he knows it or not, he is dishonoring our blessed Lord and making Him only a half Savior. The Lord Jesus has undertaken everything that His people’s souls require—not only to deliver them from the guilt of their sins by His atoning death, but to deliver them from the dominion of their sins by placing the Holy Spirit in their hearts, not only to justify them, but also to sanctify them. He is, thus, not only their righteousness, but their sanctification.”
So sanctification will take place in the lives of every true Christian, but what is it? It is much different than the other two parts. Regeneration and justification are both one time events. There is one moment when God replaces our heart of stone and one moment when He declares us righteous. Sanctification, however, is a process that takes place over the course of our entire lives, and it begins the moment we are justified. Unlike the other two parts, which were solely acts of God in which our works had no impact whatsoever, our works are very important in sanctification; and that is because sanctification is the process in which we become more like God and less like the world. We cannot become more like God if we still act like the world.
This does not mean our works save us; we are already saved, and works are an evidence of that salvation. Our works cannot justify us, but as Ryle says, “Anyone who thinks that works are of no importance because they cannot justify us is a very ignorant Christian.” In the book of James, we see that a faith which does not produce works is dead (James 2:17). If you truly put your faith in Christ, good works will result from that. You will have a desire to live according to the standards of our Father.
If that desire and those good works are not present in the life of a professing Christian, the chances are they are not truly a Christian. Regeneration and justification cannot be seen outwardly, but sanctification most certainly can, and it is very good evidence of regeneration and justification. Likewise, the lack of sanctification is evidence that a person is not regenerated and justified.
Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.1 John 3:7-10
In Holiness, Ryle makes the point that most “deathbed conversions” are most likely false conversions. He is not saying that it is impossible for someone to be saved on their deathbed, but that most people will die the same way they have lived. The only reliable evidence of salvation is a life lived for Christ. Anyone can claim to be a Christian, especially someone who is about to leave this life and is afraid of what is coming next. If you are truly saved, go serve your king.
Unfortunately, sanctification is never going to be complete in this life. It is a fight we must engage in for all our days serving Christ. We are still plagued with a sin nature, but by God’s grace, we have the ability to suppress it. The Holy Spirit enters us and fights along side us, giving us the ability to improve. And through that lifelong improvement, we are prepared for heaven. The Kingdom of God will be a holy place full of holy people doing holy things and worshiping a holy God, which is why we must work to become holy now.
Even though that work will not be complete in this life, we still have the hope of Christ. Our sin is atoned for. God looked at us in our pathetic state and saw fit to pull us out of it, even though we were His enemies. We continue to rebel, but His grace continues. And one day, we will stand before the God of the universe; He will look upon us and see the good work of Christ, and He will welcome us into His kingdom.