Few words in the Greek New Testament are more important than palingenesia, meaning “new birth, renewal, restoration, or regeneration.” It is a comprehensive term for the work of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us and sanctifies us to be members of Christ, applying to us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives (Baptism form).

Regeneration has to do with both how the Christian life begins and how it develops over time. All created life has a birth or beginning, which is actually the culmination of a process that has been under way for some time. In God’s appointed time and way, the Holy Spirit begins to work in us, quickening the heart, enlightening the mind, renewing the will, and instilling a new hatred for sin and a new hunger and thirst for righteousness. Drawing us to Christ, He enables us to use the hand of faith to receive the salvation offered to us in the gospel.

This passage from death to life is called the new birth. It manifests itself as the transition from unbelief to faith in Christ. Note, however, that we do not believe our way into the new birth. Rather, we are born again to faith in Christ as the firstfruits of His grace at work in us. When Christ says “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7), He is showing us our need, not telling us how to meet it. The gospel command is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ!” (Acts 16:31). Those who are born again believe in Christ alone for salvation and are saved.

But just as human beings begin life as tiny infants who must develop and grow to maturity as adults, so the new birth is only the beginning of a long process. This process is the ongoing regeneration or progressive sanctification of the believer. Increasingly, the old man is mortified or put to death, and the new man in Christ is quickened or brought to life and enabled to bear fruit.

As a result of the new birth, the believer can cooperate in his sanctification, working out the salvation that God is working in him, “both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12,13). But what is begun in this life will be perfected only in the glory of the life to come; any proposed way to achieve “entire sanctification” is a false hope. We never outgrow our need for cleansing from sin by the blood of Christ.

The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper reflect this twofold meaning of regeneration. The one is a rite of initiation, administered only once, as a sign of the new birth that happens only once. The other is a rite of nurture, signifying the way in which our souls are nourished and refreshed by feeding on Christ as the true food and drink of eternal life. It must be administered frequently, because the new life within us is still created, dependent life that will wane and die if not refueled and sustained.

It is wrong to think that baptism itself can renew our hearts and wash away our sins. Such spiritual effects are not produced by earthly elements and human acts. “The blood of Christ only, and the Holy Ghost, cleanse us from all sin” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 72). The outward washing of the body is only a sign of the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. The sacrament represents, in a visible way, the inward, invisible operation of God, assuring us of its reality and power.

There is a long history of reading the phrase “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) as a reference to baptism. However, it is also possible to read this phrase as describing at the same time the new birth and the renewing work of the Spirit, a “washing” that quickens and restores the believer. Either way, there is nothing in this passage to support the idea of baptismal regeneration.

Extracted from: Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible Notes

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