The Roman Catholic Church holds that justification “is not only the forgiveness of sins, but also sanctification and the renewal of the inner person.” The last two aspects of this definition—sanctification and inward renewal, or regeneration—are the focus of this question.
Regeneration is, in one sense, a first sanctification. Inextricably tied to baptism, regeneration comes about by the infusion of grace through the sacrament. This grace cleanses infants of their original sin (or, in the case of adults, their original sin and actual sins), causes them to be born again, and joins them to Christ and his Church. They now have a new nature, one that is characterized by holiness and justice. In one sense, regeneration is a return to the original state of Adam and Eve, who were characterized by righteousness. God dwells in them as they are in the state of sanctifying grace.
The Catholic Church supports this close association of regeneration with baptism by Jesus’s exhortation that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). According to the Catholic interpretation, “born of water” refers to the sacrament of baptism, while “[born]of the Spirit” refers to the divine regenerating work. But on closer inspection, Jesus does not affirm two elements—a sacramental aspect and a Spirit action— but only one water-Spirit action. Being born again is a divine work that involves cleansing from sin (washing symbolized by water) and inward transformation (by the Holy Spirit as the agent of regeneration). Jesus refers to Ezekiel’s promise of cleansing and inward renewal through the Spirit as part of the future new covenant (Ezek. 36:25–27). Water baptism brilliantly pictures this mighty divine act of regeneration, but the Roman Catholic insistence on baptismal regeneration is based on a misunderstanding of Jesus’s exhortation.
Part and parcel of this cleansing of original sin (and actual sins, in the case of adults) and new birth is, according to Catholic theology, incorporation into Christ and thus into the Church. Through union with God, the Catholic faithful begin their lifelong journey toward ultimate salvation. This pilgrimage is the process of sanctification.
The sacrament of baptism establishes the baptized into a state of grace. Through the sacramental economy of the Church, the Catholic faithful continue to receive new infusions of grace for the increase of sanctification. This process lasts their entire life as they grow into the likeness of Christ, experience the reality of the indwelling Trinity, and become holy through the Holy Spirit.
When this lifelong process continues properly all the way to the end of their life, the Catholic faithful “die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified.” Having been completely sanctified in their lifetime, they enter immediately into heaven. In the majority of cases, however, their entrance into heaven is delayed and comes about through an additional process of purification in purgatory. “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Not having been completely sanctified in their lifetime, the Catholic faithful must undergo a final purification of purgatory. When that process is done and they are fully sanctified, they enter into heaven.
A Protestant View of Regeneration and Sanctification
According to Protestant thought, regeneration is “the mighty work of God by which unbelievers are given a new nature, being born again. Regeneration is particularly ascribed to the Holy Spirit (John 3:3–8) working through the gospel (James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23–25). It is both (1) the removal of one’s old, sinful nature, and (2) the imparting of a new nature that is responsive to God. Unlike conversion, which is the human response to the gospel, regeneration is completely a divine work, to which human beings contribute nothing.” While some Protestants associate it with baptism, there is still a significant difference from the Catholic view of baptismal regeneration.
Sanctification, according to Protestants, is “the cooperative work of God and Christians (Phil. 2:12–13) by which ongoing transformation into greater Christ-likeness occurs. Such maturing transpires particularly through the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:16–23) and the Word of God (John 17:17).” While most Protestants include the sacraments or ordinances as essential means of grace, they break with the Roman Catholic view of infused grace that enables Christians to engage in good deeds by which they can merit eternal life. Sanctification, according to Protestantism, is not oriented to achieving ultimate salvation but will conclude with it.
This difference is due to the basic Catholic-Protestant disagreement about the doctrine of justification. The Catholic position conflates justification and sanctification. The Protestant perspective distinguishes them. This divergence means that justification-sanctification is a lifelong endeavor for the Catholic faithful. But for Protestants, justification establishes their eternal standing before God—they are declared “not guilty” but “righteous” instead—while sanctification is the natural outworking of justification in terms of progress in Christlikeness. Importantly, justification is solely a work of God. As a monergistic work, it involves no human effort or cooperation. By contrast, “sanctification is synergistic. God operates in ways that are proper to his divine agency (e.g., convicting of sin, empowering by the Spirit, willing and working to accomplish his good pleasure) and Christians work in ways that are proper to their human agency (e.g., reading Scripture, praying, mortifying sin, yielding to the Spirit).” To emphasize once again, this collaborative operation is not about a divine provision of grace that supports human effort for the meriting of eternal life.
Another major difference between the two traditions is that the Catholic Church believes that the faithful can fail to cooperate with sacramental grace, turn from their lifelong journey of sanctification, and lose their salvation. While some Protestants agree with this view, others hold to perseverance in sanctification. Genuine Christians “are being guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5 CSB). Thus, despite the many trials and tribulations they will face during their lifetime, they will continue by God’s gracious protection to make progress in their sanctification until their death or the return of Christ.
The Catholic Church closely associates justification with regeneration and sanctification. Regeneration takes place through the sacrament of baptism and initiates people into a life of infused grace. Sanctification is the life- long progress that follows. It depends on new infusions of sacramental grace by which the Catholic faithful are enabled to engage in good works to merit eternal life. Protestantism rejects this confusion of justification, regeneration, and sanctification. Additionally, in many cases, it disagrees with baptismal regeneration. Moreover, its understanding of the nature of regeneration and sanctification is quite different from the Catholic view of them.
 CCC, 1989; the citation is from Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 6th session (January 13, 1547), Decree on Justification, chap. 7.
 For further discussion, see Question 20.
 CCC, 1023.
 CCC, 1030.
 Gregg R. Allison, The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), s.v. “regeneration.”
 Allison, Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms, s.v. “sanctification.”
 Allison, Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms, s.v. “sanctification.”
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Straightforward answers about Roman Catholicism for a Protestant audience
The Roman Catholic faith is one of the world’s most widespread religious traditions, yet the unique aspects of Roman Catholicism elicit perennial questions from adherents and outsiders alike. Such questions tend to fall into three major categories: historical backgrounds, theological matters, and personal relationships. Using Catholic Church documents and the writings of Catholic scholars, Baptist systematic theologian Gregg R. Allison distills the teachings of Catholicism around forty common questions about Catholic foundations, beliefs, and practices. The accessible question-and-answer format guides readers to the areas of interest, including:
- Where do Roman Catholic and Protestant beliefs differ?
- What happens during a Roman Catholic Mass?
- How does Roman Catholicism understand the biblical teaching about Mary?
- Who are the saints and what is their role?
- How can my Roman Catholic loved ones and I talk about the gospel?
40 Questions About Roman Catholicism explores theology and practice, doctrine and liturgy, sacraments and Mariology, contributions and scandals, and many other things, clarifying both real and perceived differences and similarities with other Christian traditions.
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