“But when the benevolence and philanthropy of God our Savior appeared, not because of works of righteousness which were produced by us, but according to his mercy, he saved us through the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, in order that, being justified in that grace, we became heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
“He saved us through the washing of regeneration…” So, what is regeneration and why does Paul call it a “washing” here, when he speaks of it to Titus? First of all, there are many ways the Bible speaks about regeneration. We see the term παλιγγενεσία (palingenesia) used here and in Matthew 19:28, that refers to a complete change in one’s life. In 1 Peter 1:3 and 1:23, it is spoken of as ἀναγεννάω (anagennao), or being reborn. This is very close to the language we find on Jesus’ lips in John 3:3,7, when he speaks of it as being born again or γεννηθή ἄνωθεν (gennethe anothen). Later, in John’s first epistle, he refers to it as being ἐκ του θεου γεγέννηται (ek tou theou gegennetai) — “born from God.” Similarly, Paul refers to believers as a “new creation” — καινή κτίσις (kaine ktisis) — in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and in Galatians 6:15, and similarly, in Ephesians 2:5 and Colossians 2:13, he speaks of believers as being “made alive together” — συζωοποιέω (suzo’opoieo). The strong conclusion being made from all of these passages is that this regeneration is a kind of rebirth, from dead to the living and is done entirely by the work of God — for what can the dead do to aide themselves? They can do nothing but be acted upon.
The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and thus, in Adam and Eve’s sin, they brought death into the world as was promised by God (Genesis 2:17). Yet, death did not just come to Adam, but as Adam was our covenant mediator, it came to all who would descend from Adam (Romans 5:17). Thus, all born into this world are born under the curse of a failed covenant mediator and need to be redeemed. Further, the dead cannot enter into the kingdom of God because God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living (Mark 12:27); thus to enter the kingdom of God, one must first be born again (John 3:3). Thus, this regeneration, this spiritual rebirth by the work of God on the dead souls of men must be accomplished — something that God sovereignly does (the theological term is “monergism” — “one working”). Yet, though a sovereign work of God in giving new life, he uses as a tool, the preaching of the Gospel. Thus, Paul will write that faith comes through hearing and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17)…an echo of Jesus’ promise in John 5:25 that the hour is coming when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.
But why does Paul refer to this regeneration as a “washing”? The answer is that our spiritual death is caused by sin and sin is described as a filthy garment in the scriptures (see Zechariah 3 for a depiction of Jesus taking away the filthy robes of the High Priest, Joshua). Thus, regeneration is a washing away of the sin that brought us death. Does that mean as those washed in the blood of Christ that we never sin again? No, but it does mean that the debt for all of our sins has been fully paid for by Christ. Does that mean we can live as we like? Certainly not, how can we who have been born again return to the wickedness of our own lives (Romans 6:1) — instead, we are to live like children of God…children who have been given new life and washed clean from our sins.
And thus, it is by these means that God has saved us…not because of works we have done, but because of his eternal mercy to his elect. May we live lives of gratitude toward Him because of it.