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No Holy Spirit, No Penal Substitutionary Atonement

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When Christians think of the atonement, their attention is riveted on Jesus Christ, the crucified one. And rightly so. But as proper as this focus is, the Son wasn’t the only member of the Trinity engaged in that act of sacrifice for human sin.

Indeed, we may think of the Father’s action in the death of his Son. After all, Jesus’s haunting cry of dereliction from the cross was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:35, echoing Ps. 22:1). Then, with his last breath, Jesus called out loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). These gasping words of Jesus underscore the Father’s role in the atonement.

Less transparent is the role of the Holy Spirit. This is true in general, as theology is working to remedy the rather meager consideration it has often given to the Spirit and his work in creation, salvation, and consummation. Perhaps the work of the Holy Spirit that has been most neglected is his role in the atonement. And this brings us to our topic, with its twofold emphasis: (1) the role of the Holy Spirit (2) in penal substitutionary atonement.

Perhaps the work of the Holy Spirit that has been most neglected is his role in the atonement.

This second emphasis was chosen because of an increasing number of attacks by some on penal substitution (Green and Baker; Weaver; Boersma; Heim; Baker). Others maintain that penal substitution is at the heart of the idea of atonement (Packer, ch. 2). Before we get too far, however, a definition is in order.

Defining Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Penal substitutionary atonement is an interpretation or model of what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished. As I’ve written elsewhere, its major tenets include:

  1. The atonement is grounded in the holiness of God who, being perfectly holy, hates and punishes sin.
  2. A penalty for sin must be paid.
  3. People cannot pay the penalty for their sins and live; rather, the penalty is death.
  4. Only God can pay the penalty for sin, but he must partake of human nature to pay for human beings.
  5. By his death, the God-man, Jesus Christ, atoned for human sin.
  6. The atonement had to be accomplished in this way (“penal substitution theory”).

Now, this definition rightly highlights the central role of the Son, but there’s much more to be said, because the Son never acts alone.

Inseparable Operations and the Holy Trinity

Because God is triune, the work of the second person is never separated from the work of the first and third persons. This has traditionally been referred to as the doctrine of inseparable operations. It means that in every divine work, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit act indivisibly with one will and one power. For example, in the divine act of creation, God the Father spoke the world into existence through the Word (John 1:3)—the agency of God the Son—as God the Holy Spirit was hovering over the original chaos (Gen 1:2).

God the Holy Spirit was active from beginning to end in the divine work of atonement.

So also here, the three persons acted indivisibly in the divine work of atonement. Specifically, God the Father sent God the Son to become incarnate and to sacrifice himself in penal substitution for human sin (John 3:16–17; Gal. 4:4–5; 1 John. 4:10). God the Son willingly submitted to being sent by God his Father, becoming incarnate and obediently carrying out the Father’s will to complete a penal substitutionary atonement (John 4:34; 5:36).

What then of the Holy Spirit?

The Spirit Was Active Every Step of the Way

God the Holy Spirit was active from beginning to end in the divine work of atonement.

First, in the incarnation, the Holy Spirit was the divine person who brought about the conception of the Son in the womb of the virgin Mary. As the angel explained to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The Spirit’s productive role in this “new” creation is in some way parallel to his fructifying role in the “old,” original creation (Gen. 1:2). As then, so here the Spirit’s work is vital, since there could be no atonement without the incarnation (Heb. 2:9, 17).

Second, from conception through his entire earthly life, Jesus Christ was filled with the Holy Spirit “without measure” (John 3:34). That is, while being fully God in eternal relation with the Spirit, the incarnate Son was also extensively indwelt and expansively empowered by the Spirit. This Spirit-enriching presence meant that whenever the incarnate Son acted—obeying the Father who sent him, resisting temptations, communicating divine words, loving his disciples, proclaiming the gospel, healing the sick, exorcising demons, confronting religious leaders—he was anointed with the fullness of Spirit (e.g., Luke 4:18; Matt. 12:28; Acts 10:38).

Third, just as the Holy Spirit had indwelt Jesus during his entire life, so he did not abandon him at its anguished conclusion. Instead, the incarnate Son underwent his act of penal substitutionary atonement, upheld to the end by the Holy Spirit. The key text here is Hebrews 9:14. In a passage emphasizing the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, the author notes that Jesus “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God.”

Again, the Spirit’s role in Jesus’s death highlights the Trinity’s inseparable operations. Who offered himself? God the Son. To whom did the Son offer himself? God the Father. And how did the Son offer himself to the Father? Through God the Holy Spirit. In other words, it was by means of the enabling presence of the Spirit that the dying Son “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2) and accomplished his penal substitutionary atonement.

Who offered himself? God the Son. To whom did the Son offer himself? God the Father. And how? Through God the Holy Spirit.

But fourth and finally, death didn’t have the last word. The crucifixion was followed by the resurrection (Acts 2:24), without which the atonement wouldn’t have been effective (1 Cor. 15:17)—and the Spirit played a vital role here as well. For example, Paul emphasizes that the Father’s initiatory work to raise the Son was carried out through the Holy Spirit: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).

This enlivening work of the Spirit shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus himself affirmed, “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63). The mystery of godliness confesses that Jesus was “justified” or “vindicated by the Spirit,” a reference to the Son’s resurrection (1 Tim. 3:16). And Paul underscored that Christ “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). With his resurrection through the Spirit crowning his saving work, Christ is said to be raised for our justification (Rom 4:25).

Thus, from beginning to end and through every step of the way, the Holy Spirit was active in Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement.


For further reading:

  • “These Three Atone: Trinity and Atonement” by Fred Sanders
  • “The Atonement and the Holy Spirit” by Christopher R. J. Holmes
  • “Penal Substitution” by Stephen R. Holmes

All found in T & T Clark Companion to Atonement, ed. Adam J. Johnson (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017).

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