Saturday, December 08, 2007

Calvin on Regeneration and Sanctification

I'm about 800 pages into Calvin's Institutes (which is why I haven't been blogging much lately). Previously, I'd read a bunch of it here and there, but most of my understanding of Calvin had been mediated through later Reformed writers. Consequently, I had wrongly assumed that Calvin was consistent with the contemporary evangelical/Reformed distinction between regeneration and sanctification (regeneration denoting the initial moment of renewal, and sanctification denoting the subsequent process of renewal). Not so. Calvin addresses the topic of repentance under the rubric of regeneration, talking of them as though they are virtual synonyms. Further, he does not see regeneration/repentance as limited to the beginning of the Christian life, but rather extends this work of God to the duration of earthly life. He writes,
Therefore, in a word, I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God . . . And indeed this restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and even slow advances God wipes out in his elect the corruption of the flesh . . . In order to reach this goal, God assigns to them a race of repentance, which they are to run throughout their lives(601-02).
I like Calvin on this, and find him more consistent with Pauline/NT semantics. While the theological labels of regeneration and sanctification have (I suppose) been useful in delineating between the initial and subsequent work of God in the believer's life, they have allowed for certain traditions to bifurcate regeneration and sanctification and then argue that salvation consists surely of the former but not necessarily the latter. This is common in Free Grace theology, and I'm sure one can find variations of it in most traditions. But Calvin's doctrine of regeneration does not allow for this. For Calvin, to be regenerated is to be renewed into the image of God throughout the duration of one's life--to run a lifelong race of repentance. No lasting fruit, no connection to the root.


WTM said...

Regeneration / justification and sanctification go inseparably together. There is, however, an ordering principle. For the latter does not come without the former and is, therefore, dependent upon and not presupposed by it. This is the point that is dominant in much of the contemporary or modern representatives of the Reformed tradition. What they seem to forget is that the former also necessarily produces the latter; where there is justification there will follow sanctification.

You are right that Calvin does a nice job on holding these things together, at least in my opinion.

Keep reading Calvin! He is good for the soul as well as the head.

Gerald said...


Thanks--What I like about Calvin is not the way he holds justification and sanctification together, but the way he holds regeneration and sanctification together.

The contemporary Reformed order of salvation typically has four primary categories: regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification (in that order).

But since Calvin does not distinguish between regeneration and sanctification, he has only three: regeneration, justification, glorification (again in that order).

Perhaps this is what you were saying.

WTM said...

I'm not familiar with the contemporary Reformed scene (federal vision, etc). The sequence you present in their name - regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification - seems wrong to me on a lot of levels.

In my reading of Calvin, 'regeneration' is a catch-all term. It has to do with the awakening to and life in faith that characterizes the Christian's existence. It is comprised of justification and sanctification, but not in any merely legal sense because the whole edifice is founded upon the union with Christ that occurs in the Holy Spirit awakening us to faith.

Gerald said...


You are correct that Calvin's whole "edifice" is built upon his notion of union with Christ. But for Calvin, regeneration is not a catch-all term, including justification. He very pointedly insists that justification and regeneration are two distinct gifts. The former is legal and consists "solely" in the forgiveness of sins. The second is ontological/ethical, and consists in our being refashioned into the image of God. Further (and most significantly) it is justification--and decidedly not regeneration--that "opens the door to eternal life."

This distinction and emphasis on justification has given Reformed soteriology a distinct legal turn. From what I can tell, the Federal Vision guys are reacting against this, and are more willing to fuse together justification and regeneration in ways that Calvin and traditional Reformed thought did/does not.

Cam said...

Calvin sounds very much like Luther on this point except for Luther's extra emphasis on the role that baptism plays in this process:

"The life of a Christian, the baptized, is to be one of daily contrition and repentance as it says in Luther’s Small Catechism. We sin daily and much. Repenting, that is confessing our sins, we turn again to Jesus. He takes us back to the font where both died with Him and were raised in the power of His resurrection. The gift of the Holy Spirit works in us to will and to do according to the Lord’s good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). This cycle of repentance and forgiveness is constant for a believer until their last breath. Indeed the very first of Luther’s 95 theses states, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”