Sometimes Christians develop spiritual amnesia. Forgetting where they came from, they cease to show compassion to unbelieving family members, neighbors, and fellow citizens. For this reason, the apostle Paul urges believers to remember their lives before knowing Christ: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:3–6, ESV).
It’s easy to get puffed up with pride and act self-righteously toward the lost when we forget our own shipwrecked condition before salvation. It was the goodness and kindness of God that reached down into our messed-up, sin-filled lives and rescued us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (Romans 5:8; Romans 2:1). Our good works did not save us (Ephesians 2:8). It was God’s mercy “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” generously poured out on us “through Jesus Christ our Savior,” explains Paul.
The “washing of regeneration” refers to being born again. The Greek word for “washing” in Titus 3:5 describes the act of cleansing something all over thoroughly. Regeneration means taking an already existing thing and making it new again or starting over. In literal terms, it means “birth again.” This renewal work of the Holy Spirit is described as “cleansing” and “purifying” in Ezekiel 36:25–27: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
Speaking about the washing of regeneration, Jesus said, “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5, NLT). “Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life,” continued Jesus (John 3:6, NLT).
Before we surrendered our lives to Jesus Christ, we were dead in our transgressions and sins, obeying the devil, following the ways of the world, and living only to satisfy our sinful desires (Ephesians 2:1–3). By nature, we were dead, and by nature we deserved to die. Nothing we could have done or said would change us. We were hopeless without God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14). This explains why Jesus told Nicodemus, “‘You must be born again” (John 3:7).
At salvation, the corrupt human nature undergoes a radical and miraculous transformation by the Holy Spirit. We cease to be spiritually dead and are made alive in Christ. Water baptism is a beautiful picture of the washing of regeneration: “For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins” (Colossians 2:12–13, NLT; see also Hebrews 10:22; Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21).
The “washing of regeneration” is a metaphor for complete spiritual cleansing and removal of our sins. When we call on the name of the Lord, our sins are washed away (Acts 22:16; cf. Psalm 51:1–2). When a sinner trusts in Jesus Christ, he or she is justified or declared righteous by God through the sacrificial death of His Son. Christ’s work is justification. Simultaneously, through the power of God’s indwelling Spirit, the washing of regeneration purifies us from all sin. At once, we are made righteous, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus Christ by God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11). “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NLT).
Salvation and the radical, transformative washing of regeneration are all God’s doing; therefore, believers have no room for spiritual pride. We must remain humble and compassionate toward unbelievers, remembering to demonstrate the same kindness and love God showed us.