Project Canterbury

Regeneration and Renovation: A Sermon.

By the Rt. Rev. William Mercer Green, D.D.

Bishop of the Diocese of Mississippi

Philadelphia: H. Hooker, 1858.


Almighty God, who hast given us thine only begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and * * * to be born of a pure virgin; grant that we, being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the same Spirit, ever One God, world without end.--Amen.


--"the washing of Regeneration, and Renewing of the Holy Ghost."--Titus iii. 5.

These words, I am aware, convey no intelligible meaning, apart from the connexion in which they are used; and even when supported by the context, they have been made the occasion of much and needless discussion. In presenting them now to your consideration I shall endeavour, with the Divine help, so to treat them, as will bring out their true meaning, and impress their importance deeply on your hearts.

Titus was one of the earliest converts of St. Paul. Having all confidence in his piety and prudence, the Apostle left him in Crete as the Bishop or Chief Ruler of the Church in that island, with full authority to "set in order the things that were wanting," and to "ordain elders" in each of its hundred cities. After charging him to be faithful in teaching and rebuking all classes of persons,--men and women, young and old, masters and servants, rulers and subjects, he tells him to put them in mind that they should be "ready to every good work," and "speak evil of no man;" but be "gentle, and show all meekness unto all men." As a reason or argument for the exercise of this meek and charitable spirit, he calls to their remembrance the utterly sinful and lost condition in which they were when the Gospel was first preached to them. And to make this representation of their late heathen condition less revolting 'to their minds, by a figure of speech, not unfrequent in his Epistles, he gives himself a place in the picture, saying, "For we ourselves, also, were sometimes foolish, disobedient, [3/4] deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour, toward man appeared,--not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which he shed on us abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour."

Having thus brought the words of the text in their proper connexion before you, I will endeavour to make their meaning more plain by paraphrasing them thus:--'You Cretians, says the Apostle, should not shrink from this earnest exhortation to love and obedience and meekness towards all men, remembering how lately your condition as depraved and ignorant heathen called for like indulgence at the hands of others. But behold, how different is your present state! You are now snatched from the dominion of the devil, and brought into the way of salvation. And how has this great work been brought about? Why, by the gospel of Christ. And was it for any merit or goodness on your part that this unspeakable blessing was bestowed upon you? By no means, it was through the unmerited and unlooked for kindness and love of God the Father. It was according to his mercy,--and not for any supposed works of righteousness seen in you. And how has this salvation been applied to you, or been brought home to you individually? Why, by the washing of regeneration, which you received at your baptism, and by the subsequent, daily renewing of your spirits, through the sanctifying operation of the Holy Ghost, which God for Christ's sake has so abundantly sent down upon you.'

In this remarkable passage we have, as it were, a whole body of divinity; or an epitome of the entire doctrine of the Gospel. Here are the Three Blessed Persons of the Trinity, each represented as taking part in the great work of man's redemption:--God the Father, of his own boundless compassion providing a Saviour for us:--God the Son, as the [4/5] meritorious and procuring cause of our salvation:--and God the Holy Ghost, as the efficient agent in bringing us out of our lost estate by nature, and enabling us to be, as it were, born again unto God, and renewed, day by day, after his image. It is to these two last mentioned topics that I would now invite your special attention. They have already been announced in the words of my text, "the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost."

As before stated, these words have given rise to much discussion among Christians, within the last two or three centuries. Until then they seem to have had but one meaning throughout the whole Catholic Church of Christ. Later times, by a misunderstanding of the term "regeneration" have given another and far different interpretation to the words of the Apostle.

One of the effects of the progress of society is to change the meaning of words and phrases, even of some that are in daily use. How this comes to pass is a question that belongs more to the lexicographer and philologist than to the expounder of Christian doctrine. I will, however, by way of illustration, point your attention to those two common words "let" and "prevent." A moment's reflection will enable you to recall several passages in your Bibles and your Prayer-books, in which they express a meaning almost directly the reverse of that which is given to them at the present day. In like manner, the term "regeneration" contained in our text, has through the carelessness of some, and the ignorance of others, been perverted from its plain, scriptural sense, to the expression of a meaning never dreamed of for many centuries after it was written by the pen of the Apostle. According to this modern interpretation, the manifest distinction made by the Apostle between the phrases "washing of regeneration," and "renewing of the Holy Ghost," is overlooked or repudiated; and the two, though wholly different in nature and intent and operation, are understood by many as expressing nearly the same thing. In a word, the term "regeneration" has been [5/6] confounded with that of conversion; and its original application to the subject of baptism has been set aside for what seems, to the enthusiastic minds of some, a more spiritual, if not a more scriptural meaning. In the language of this modern theology a regenerate man is the same as a converted man, or as one that has been renewed by the Holy Ghost. In this perverted sense the terms regenerate and regeneration have, no doubt, often come to your ears, my brethren. And I would not go too far in presuming that many of you have never viewed them in any other light. Now, as it has pleased God to record his will concerning us in written language, which language is made up of words and syllables, it becomes the duty of all who prize that sacred record to see that no one word nor syllable be turned from its original sense. I trust therefore, brethren, that you will not regard either your time or mine as misemployed, whilst I endeavour to free the language of the text from a wrong interpretation, and to show you its true and primitive meaning.

Having called your attention to the modern perversion of the language of the Apostle, I will now state that for fifteen centuries after the publication of the Gospel, the term "regeneration" was used in connexion with Baptism; and was employed to denote the spiritual change in its relationship to God which the baptized undergo in that sacrament; whilst the "renewing of the Holy Ghost" was, by an equally unanimous consent, understood of those daily and hourly supplies of grace which the baptized need to advance them in holiness, or to restore them, when fallen, to that state of pardon and justification in which their baptism had placed them. That such is the true interpretation of the Apostle's language in our text I will now endeavour to make evident.

A very slight acquaintance with the original language from which the word "regeneration" is derived will serve to show that it is identical in meaning with a new or a second birth. This carries us from the language of the [6/7] Apostle to the more explicit and authoritative declaration of his Divine Master. "Ye must be born again." But here we find ourselves very much in the condition of the Jewish Ruler, who asked, "How can these things be?" The reply of our Lord brings us at once to an unmistakable though succinct definition of his meaning. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God." In order to understand this solemn declaration in its' full and right meaning, it will be necessary to go back to some of the institutions and customs of the Jews. "We find our Lord, in repeated instances, grounding his instruction to his Disciples on the well-known rites and practices of that people. So also does St. Paul, in most of his Epistles. Now among these Jewish ceremonies and observances was one to which our Saviour had direct reference in his conversation with Nicodemus, viz., their method of receiving converts or proselytes from other nations. When a heathen renounced his idolatry, and applied for admission into the Jewish Church, he was first circumcised, then baptized, and afterward offered a sacrifice to the Lord. And every proselyte, after complying with these several requirements, was considered by the Jews in the light of a new-born infant. One of their principal writers [Maimonides] says expressly, "A Gentile who is become a proselyte, and a slave who is set at liberty, are both, as it were, new-born babes." It is in reference then to this well-known practice that our Lord says, "Ye must be born again." And hence the surprise which he manifests at the ignorance or dulness of Nicodemus,--"Art thou a Master of Israel, and knowest not these things?"

But in order to take in more thoroughly the meaning of our text, it will be necessary to go back still further in the history of God's Church. The spiritual life at first breathed into Adam's soul by the breath of God, was forfeited and lost by his transgression in the garden. Language can but imperfectly portray the fruits of that first and most fatal [7/8] sin. Its effect upon the spiritual condition of the offender can be expressed by no word so suitable as that of death--the death of the soul. Such we know was the nature of the penalty threatened by Adam's Creator and Lawgiver, "In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die." And as such it is spoken of in sundry places of the Scriptures.

Now from this state of spiritual death or disability we have all been freed, my brethren, through the mercy of our Heavenly Father bestowed upon us for the Redeemer's sake. For no sooner had Adam sinned against his Maker, and in consequence, forfeited all claim to his favour, and lost that likeness to him in which he had been created, than God for Christ's sake, restored to him a spiritual capacity sufficient to enable him to repent of his transgression, to lay hold of the promise held out to him in a crucified Redeemer, and to turn his heart once more to the love and service of his Creator. And this restored spiritual life, blessed be God! was not bestowed on our first parents only; but has through abounding mercy, become the birthright of every man that cometh into this world of sin; so that in the language of St. Paul, "As in Adam all died," or forfeited their spiritual life, so through the undertaking of Christ, all have been so far made alive again as to have salvation placed within their reach, and the Spirit of God given them in sufficient measure to enable and dispose them to embrace it. This spiritual heritage it is our privilege, my brethren, to enjoy in common with every accountable individual of our race. And if its kindly warnings and instructions be faithfully followed out, it will not fail to lead the soul to God. This is the light which, as St. John says, "lighteth every man that cometh into the world." And this is the guide which the poor heathen have as "a lamp unto their feet, and a light unto their path."

But inasmuch as this restored spiritual life meets in the breast of every man with the fallen nature of our first parents which is ever inclining us to evil, it has pleased our [8/9] Heavenly Father to provide further and mere efficient aid to the struggling soul in its warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil. And this aid is to be found in the Gospel of Christ, which not only brings to light the life and immortality of an eternal world, and sets the Saviour plainly before the view of the sinner, but provides the most abundant means for making his salvation sure. Oh what unspeakable treasures are there in the Gospel of Christ! How full are its disclosures; how precious its promises; how sweet its encouragements; how earnest its calls; how rich its rewards; how fearful its threatenings; how free to all is the salvation which it offers! But the Gospel, dear as is the sound to the sinner's ear, and rich as it is in mercy to all, can not of itself re-unite our fallen and sin-defiled souls to God. It can, and does do much, nay it does all that is necessary towards showing the sinner the salvation provided for him in Christ, and encouraging him to seek it without delay; but it is not the province of the Gospel, nor has it the power, to take the soul out of its alien and banished state, and restore it to Sonship with God; to make it a member of Christ's body; and seal to it for ever a title to the glorious kingdom of God.

No: these high privileges it belongs to the Church of Christ to bestow. As the Jewish proselyte when he threw away his idols, received the law of Moses, and submitted to the rite of circumcision, was considered as then placed in a higher state of salvation, and born again into a new life both of knowledge and obedience; so is it with all to whom the Church comes with her heaven-appointed ordinances. Although, through the undertaking of our blessed Lord, power from on high has been given to all to seek after God, and even to obey him to the saving of their souls, yet none can truly enter into Covenant with God, can claim to be "one with Christ," or be assured of forgiveness and salvation upon scriptural grounds, unless they be baptized into Christ, and thus be born again of water and the Spirit, and received into the adoption of sons. This is what Baptism [9/10] does for us. Before we passed through its holy waters we were "aliens and foreigners:" in that sacred stream we were made "fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God." Before, we were "servants;" now "sons"--sons of God, and joint-heirs with Christ. Before, we were "far off," now ' 'brought nigh," and made one with Christ, even members of his body, and of his flesh, and of his bones.

Such are the high privileges to which our Baptism, or new birth admits us. And hence the strong language of St. Peter, "Baptism doth also now save us:"--not that it ensures our final and eternal salvation, but takes us out of our lost and banished condition by nature, and places us in a state of safety, and of filial relationship to God, with every help to know and do his will. As the element of water cleanses that which is defiled, so does the blood of Christ in the regenerating stream of baptism wash from the soul of the penitent believer all his past guiltiness, and seal to him his pardon, and adoption into the family of God. But mark me, brethren, I say the penitent believer. For whatever advantage the impenitent and unbelieving may reap from being admitted through that holy sacrament into Christ's visible church, they can, in no wise, lay claim to the higher and spiritual benefits which attach to it when duly and rightly received. And what I thus say of the believing and repenting soul, blessed be God, can with equal truth be asserted of the benefits conferred on our infant offspring in that holy sacrament. For although they can exercise neither faith nor repentance; yet they come to the font of God with that which no one of accountable age can bring--a freedom from actual and wilful sin. And thus presenting no barrier to the work of the Spirit in that ordinance, they are received without limit or condition to the full adoption of sons, being thus regenerated, or born again; "born of God" because thereby and therein adopted into his family:--born of water as the appointed element or instrument of his adopting grace: born of the Spirit, because it is through his "inward spiritual grace given unto [10/11] us" that our Heavenly Father is pleased to carry on all his merciful provisions for the saving of our souls.

This is what baptism or the washing of regeneration does for us. Let us now inquire into the meaning and application of the second topic of our text--"the renewing of the Holy Ghost."

In our explanation of the nature and effects of baptism we were duly cautious to prevent you from supposing that in that sacrament any moral change is wrought in the nature of the baptized. No; that must be brought about by the subsequent and gradual operation of the Holy Spirit, working in and by those varied means of grace which the Divine bounty has provided. In baptism we are taken, as already said, into covenant with God; and if truly penitent and believing our sins are in that very moment forgiven us for Christ's sake. But how shall we be kept in that state of salvation? Or how, in the beautiful language of our Prayer book, shall we "continue in that holy fellowship?" Or how recover ourselves, when we have fallen into sin? Our text makes a full and sufficient answer,--by "the renewing of the Holy Ghost;" viz.: by the daily and hourly assistance of that Spirit of Grace which has been abundantly poured oat upon us ever since our blessed Redeemer ascended to his Father, leading captivity captive, and showering down gifts upon his Church. And without these gracious helps who could stand a single hour, although adopted into the family of heaven, stamped with the seal of redemption, and made one with Christ in the eye of the Father? None. No; this upholding, this restoring, this advancing power is the special work of the Holy Spirit, And oh! what a blessed assurance is furnished in the word of God that these needed helps are ever at hand, and in abundant measure for all. If the believer should fall into sin even within the very hour of his baptism, let him not despair of again obtaining forgiveness and the assurance of salvation. But let him hasten to his closet; fall low before the Divine footstool; confess the sin whatever it may be that he has [11/12] committed; plead earnestly for pardon; and beg for more grace, more strength, more heart to love and do the will of God. And this let him do just as often as an enlightened conscience tells him that he has either "done the least thing which he ought not to have clone," or "left undone the least thing which he ought to have done."

Nor will this confession and supplication be in vain. A sin-pardoning God will once more look favourably upon him, will seal anew his forgiveness in the sacrament of the body and blood of his dear Son, and will raise him up, and give him more grace against future trials. Thus the work begun in baptism is renewed and carried on day by day in the heart and life of the believer until the conflicts of time merge in the rewards of eternity. And thus it is through the abounding mercy of God, as revealed to us in the gospel of his Son, that we are "saved" through the "washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost." Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and the mercy of God in Christ Jesus!

How lovely is this exhibition of his grace to such lost and frail creatures as we feel ourselves to be! How sweetly does it harmonize with all that he has revealed to us of his own Divine perfections! And how admirably and completely is it adapted to the nature and necessities of our fallen race! Wherever the sinner may be found, anxiously desirous to turn his own heart to God, or to dedicate his offspring to his service, there also may water be found; there too close at hand may stand a man of God commissioned to baptize in his name; and there, above all, will be ever present the Good Spirit of Grace prepared to bless the work and to carry it on unto perfection. And what more could poor lost sinners ask than this,--a reconciled God--an all-powerful Saviour, a Holy Spirit to renew and sanctify their souls, and the privilege of becoming members of Christ, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven? These are mysteries and blessings which angels may well desire to look into. But, alas! how little are they [12/13] thought upon or appreciated by many in this enlightened but undiscerning age. Erroneous notions of the Divine perfections; insufficient views of the character of the Saviour; confused conceptions of the work of the Holy Spirit; and a thorough undervaluing of the sacraments and ordinances of the Church form one of the painful features of the present day. The "old paths" are no longer prized and asked for. Novelty and excitement, and popular effect are chiefly in demand. And the most serious truths of our blessed religion require to be guarded no less from the crude conceits of friends than from the rude assaults of foes. Should we not bless God then, my dear brethren, for the gift of his Church, which an Apostle justly styles "the pillar and ground of the truth?" and which has proved its right to that glorious title by being the faithful keeper of his written word, by carefully handing down to us the very sacraments which our Lord instituted for the engrafting and nourishing of our souls; and by preserving in unbroken succession that heaven-derived authority which is essential to their right administration.

But, of what avail, my dear hearers, is all this merciful provision to those who make light of these instituted means of grace, and take as their best guide their own heated imaginations? Or what profit will it be even to us who have been rightly instructed in these things, if we fail to reap the unspeakable benefit which they were intended to convey? Oh, worse than vain will it be to you, my hearers, who were in your infancy washed with the regenerating water of baptism, if you have not subsequently sought and obtained the converting influences of the Holy Spirit. I say the converting power of the Holy Ghost. When Peter by denying his Lord, was about to fall from the grace of his first calling, the blessed Jesus said unto him, "When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren." And in a like sense of the term, does the faithful minister of God at the present day address every one who is honest enough to confess himself a sinner before God and man. "Except [13/14] you be converted, you cannot enter into the kingdom of God." And who is there here present, or within the wide range of accountable creation, that has not abundant reason to make this confession. To all such, we say then that every offence committed against God's holy law since your baptism, yes, every single offence, whether of thought, word, or deed, has subjected you anew to the condemning power of God's law; and has consequently demanded at your hands a, separate confession and repentance, in order to a renewed pardon from your offended God, and a renewed act of the Holy Spirit to strengthen you and uphold you under future trial. And it is this successive, this gradual work of the Spirit of Grace on our hearts, setting us daily more and more against sin, and confirming us more and more in the ways of God that constitutes our renovation or conversion. And when through many long and painful trials we come at length to attain some mastery over our evil nature, and live near to God, then commences our sanctification,--that great end for which every means of grace has been vouchsafed to us, and toward which all our powers should daily and hourly tend.

Such is the beautiful order in which our Church sets before her members the great and leading truths of the Gospel. And yet there are some who affirm that she insists not on the necessity of conversion, or change of heart. This mistaken view, or I may rather say, this injurious charge, arises, I would fain believe, from what I have already brought to your attention--the confounding of the two perfectly distinct acts of regeneration and renovation. In the former, man is passive, whilst God alone acts by Ills minister and Holy Spirit and element of water, receiving him as his adopted child. In the latter, the lapsed believer, by the effort of his own will (though not unaided by the Spirit of Holiness,) seeks to return to God, and to have his heart brought more under the influence of renewing grace. "With good reason then is it that the Church instructs us thus to offer up our thanksgivings in behalf of [14/15] each infant in the very moment after its baptism, "We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this infant with thy Holy Spirit." And with equal propriety and in equal consistency with Gospel truth does she immediately afterwards call upon us to pray, "And humbly we beseech thee to grant that he being dead unto sin and living unto righteousness, and being buried with Christ in his death, may crucify the old man, and utterly abolish the whole body of sin." Here then within the compass of this single prayer is a distinct acknowledgment of the three great doctrines, regeneration, renovation (or conversion,) and sanctification; and all in their proper order. The child is regenerated and made "dead unto sin" and alive unto God in the moment of its baptism:--It is expected thenceforth to do what? To "crucify the old man" day by day; this is its gradual renovation or conversion. And this spiritual warfare is not to cease until the "whole body of sin is abolished," and the work of sanctification completed, so far as it can be now in "the time of this mortal life."

Having thus explained the "doctrine" of the text, and freed it, as I trust, from a very common and erroneous interpretation, let us now see what we may draw from it by way of "reproof" or "correction," or "instruction in righteousness."

And first, let me ask if, after all that has just been said, there is a single soul present that can rest contented, even for another hour, with no other claim upon the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, than what is derived from the simple fact of his baptism? Who is there amongst us, dear brethren, that has not sinned times and ways without number since in that blessed sacrament our infant souls were washed from their original defilement, and made "members of Christ, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of Heaven?" Oh! not one. If then God has said "The soul that sinneth, it shall die," are we not all at this moment hell-deserving sinners unless we have earnestly and [15/16] humbly acknowledged our sins before our God in our closets, openly before the world confessed the name of his dear Son, and again and again besought his pardon and the renewing influences of the Holy Spirit? Is it not of such despisers and neglecters of salvation that the Great Judge will say in the last day "I know you not?" Ah! In vain will they then cry, Lord, Lord, were we not baptized in thy name? Did we not from time to time, sit under thy preached word? Did we not again and again enter thy courts? Did we not even give of our substance to the support of thy cause? To all this the answer may well come, "To what profit, either to your own soul or the glory of my name, was it that in your unconscious infancy I took you out of the filth of your natural corruption, washed you in the laver of regeneration, and made you even as one with my only begotten Son? What have been the fruits of your sonship? Where is the open confession of my name, which I called upon you to make? Where the faith and repentance and earnest crying for forgiveness, and hearty seeking for the Spirit's influences which your manifold offences so loudly and so frequently called for at your hands?" What will you be able to answer to all this, my unconverted hearers? Will you not stand dumb and confounded before your righteous Judge? Will you not wish that you had never been born, either of your natural parents, or of spiritual regeneration, when the command goes forth, "Take those unprofitable servants and cast them into outer darkness?" Oh, dreadful doom! But who shall say that it will not come upon every neglecter as well as despiser of salvation who now hears me? In the sight of God, what matters it, sinner, whether you openly contemn or perseveringly pass by the salvation which he has provided? And do you not signally neglect and pass it b}r when you put off from day .to day and year to year, the dedication of yourselves to his service, and the performance of all those holy duties to which your baptism has bound you? I leave you to answer to your own heart and to your God,

[17] One more word, and I have done. If on any part of God's creation there exists one of that unhappy class described as "knowing their Master's will, but doing it not, may he not be found among you, my dear hearers? Shall I recount to you the many privileges you enjoy? Need I call your attention to the offer of salvation this moment, and it may be for the thousandth time, pressed home upon you "Oh hearken to this present call from a long-suffering God. Behold in the light of another Lord's day; in this house of prayer; in this outspread volume; in this preached word, in these proffered ordinances, and in him who is commissioned to dispense them to you:--behold in these the out-stretched arms and loving calls of Him who died that you. might live. Oh, let him not call in vain. But hasten, sinner, to place yourself on the side of the Lord. If you have never yet been baptized, go, in deep penitence and a lively faith, to that spiritual stream that you may "wash and be clean," and receive the assurance of your forgiveness. Or. if you were baptized in your infancy, but have never since confessed the Saviour's name, hasten I beseech you, ere it be too late, to devote yourself to his service. If you refuse, or if death shall overtake you in your delay, all that was done for you in your baptism, great and gracious as it was, will profit you nothing, but will rather increase your condemnation in that day when God shall sit in judgment on your soul.

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