The Holy Spirit: Agent of Salvation
As the Agent of Salvation, the Holy Spirit gives Christ and all the redemptive blessings he has secured to the people of God. The Spirit applies to the church what Christ has accomplished for the church.
Salvation is purposed by the Father, accomplished by the Son, and applied by the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit’s agency in salvation, all that Christ has accomplished brings no value to us. As Scripture uniformly presents, the Spirit graciously, effectively, and permanently gives us Christ Jesus and every blessing he has secured. Our salvation is in Christ alone. Our salvation is by his Spirit alone.
Carrying out distinct roles in salvation, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit work sovereignly and seamlessly. Yet despite the Holy Spirit’s integral role in salvation, his ministry is frequently understated, his redemptive work, including his illumination of Scripture, relegated to theological postscript. Some see the Spirit as necessary for new birth (the beginning of the salvation experience) but treat him as functionally irrelevant thereafter. Others perceive the Spirit as their private genie, experience-generator, dream-filler and miracle worker.
Unbiblical perspectives about the Holy Spirit boldly appear in certain theological paradigms, but also commonly surface reflexively, even from evangelical lips: “O God, please empower us by your Spirit, so that it can work in our hearts!” It? Scripture protests. The Third Person of the Trinity is no “it!” He is the living God at work among his people unto our salvation.
Privatized, impersonal or rogue conceptions of the Spirit neither honor Scripture nor crest the heights of biblical salvation. Scripture profiles his essential and enduring role in our salvation—from beginning to end. He is the Personal Instrument of the gospel.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
To begin book three of the Institutes, Calvin affirms, the “Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.”1 It must be so, for “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.”2 The Holy Spirit ministers across the ages—bringing Christ and his salvation to those living before and after his redemptive work.3 There is no salvation apart from the Father’s election and the Son’s humiliation and exaltation. True. Yet no one enjoys the benefits of Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection apart from the Holy Spirit. He is the vital bonding Agent, the glue of the gospel, securing sinners immediately and permanently to Christ Jesus.
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus informs his disciples of the unbroken (and unbreakable!) solidarity between him, the Father, and the Spirit.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13–15).
- Jesus affirms the eternal Trinitarian framework for redemption. Salvation is a divine act and divine gift, and in its entirety, attains by the purpose and work of the Triune God (Eph. 1:3–14). Accordingly, Jesus ties his own work and words to his heavenly Father: “all that the Father has is mine.” Jesus “has” what the Father “has.” The immediate context demands that we understand these Trinitarian references here economically (in terms of divine activity on earth). While assuming the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (three Persons/one God ontology)—and the robust inter-Trinitarian fellowship/mutuality which sustain his words, in John 16, Jesus speaks of the work of redemption on the stage of history. Jesus has nothing to do or say except what his Father has given him. His words and works operate according to and in deference to the Father.
- Jesus speaks explicitly concerning what the Holy Spirit says and does. The Spirit never disengages from Trinitarian saving purposes. The Agent of salvation, he promotes and illumines the Son of God as the one Mediator between God and man (2Tim. 2:5). And “as ‘the Spirit of truth,’ he possesses no agenda of his own; his role in the church is basically self-effacing and Christ enhancing.”4 Conforming to the authority of Christ’s redemptive work and words, he tells “whatever he hears” from Christ. The Spirit ministers with tireless Christ-centeredness. His words and works operate according to and in deference to the Son.
- The choice of future verb tenses in John 16 displays Jesus’ anticipation of the unprecedented ministry of the Holy Spirit, which as Luke/Acts discloses, occurs at Pentecost. The hinge-turning event for the Holy Spirit is Christ’s resurrection, when the Son of God is given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18; cf. Rom. 1:1–7). This newly attained authority will put in motion his great missionary endeavor, for which he promises to be with his disciples “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). His empowering presence comes by his Holy Spirit, whom he pours out on his people (Acts 2), and by whom he applies his life-giving resurrection power to all who believe (Eph. 1:15–23). The Spirit ensures the effectiveness of this mission.
The Spirit’s ministry thus carries out a specific charter, marked by the full scope of saving glory––exposing, drawing, and uniting sinners to the resurrected and exalted, life-giving, Savior and King of kings. With his unrelenting Christ-centeredness, the Spirit personally sustains Christ’s mission; the Spirit, in fact, delivers, applies, effects Christ’s salvation.5 Put more properly, the Spirit tenders not only the benefits, but the Benefactor; he gives us Christ himself (Titus 2:14; Rom. 8:9). Salvation, as Scripture presents it, comes by a real union with the real Christ, a personal bond to the Person of Christ by the Person of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit and Salvation
- New Life: Romans 10:9–17 links faith, hearing, and the Word of God. Hearing God’s call to embrace Christ requires new Spirit-given life. Christ does not effectuate salvation on the basis of some dormant human capacity in the unregenerate soul. Scripture describes the unbeliever both as unwilling and unable to believe (Rom. 8:9–11). Dead to God’s will and word, cold to Christ and his salvation, deaf to God’s voice and promise, and devoid of any modicum of spiritual life, the unbeliever needs new life. It is the Spirit who gives it, when he sovereignly, efficaciously, and irresistibly6 takes residence in every believer (John 14:16–17) and unites us to the resurrected Christ (Eph. 2:5).
- Sin: Without the Spirit, there is no spiritual awareness of the heinousness, the sinfulness of sin. And for a sinner to become convinced of Christ’s salvation, the Holy Spirit first exposes and convicts him of his sin (John 16:8–11). This sin-confronting ministry continues through the believer’s life, as the Spirit generates deeper conviction and sincere repentance (Rom. 6:22; 1Jn. 1:9, 2:1–2), as believers grow into conformity unto the holy Christ (Rom. 8:29).
- Faith: Faith is a sacred enablement—a Holy Spirit-ual and wholly spiritual capacity enabling one to see Christ as he is, Savior and Mediator, and to embrace him in his full saving adequacy. Since we “were dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) and therefore unable to believe, saving “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit.”7 Luther captures the point autobiographically: “I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me by his gifts, sanctified and preserved me in the true faith.”8 The Westminster Confession of Faith 14.1 helpfully describes this gift of faith as an active and lively thing: “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts.” Spirit-given faith not only makes its exercise possible but makes it irresistible. Saving faith is an active thing, which compels the believing heart to rely upon Christ personally, receive him savingly, and rest upon him permanently.
- Holy Scripture: The Spirit also changes our attitude toward and receptivity to God’s Word; Christ’s sheep hear and recognize the voice of their new Shepherd (John 10:27). Since the Christian’s ear is now attuned to the Spirit’s living voice––the Scriptures, the one indwelt by the Spirit delights in the Bible and comes to a saving understanding of it (Eph. 5:18 and Col. 3:16). To put it pointedly, when we read the Scripture, understand it and long to obey it, we only do so because of the Holy Spirit, who illumines our minds and warms our hearts to Christ and his salvation (1Jn. 2:20–27).
- The Church: The same Spirit who brings faith and salvation to the individual sinner brings faith and salvation to all of the people of God. The Holy Spirit is the one who creates holy, family fellowship (Phil. 2:1–2). As the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15), he creates one family of God (Eph. 1:3–6; Eph. 2:15). The Apostle Paul describes gospel unity as the work of the Spirit, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1Cor. 12:13). The Spirit of truth confronts many spirits of error by teaching and affirming truth (1Jn. 4:6). He “embeds shared truth in the collective heart of the people of God—visibly expressed in confessional solidarity, theological fidelity, corporate holiness, and hermeneutical unity. As the Reformers discerned and affirmed, such humble understanding [of Scripture] arises only in the visible, confessing body of Christ. And such understanding comes not by mere reliance upon the collective wisdom of the interpreters but upon the Spirit in Scripture speaking to the family of God in one voice.”9 Not everything in Scripture is equally clear, so there are different theological and ecclesial traditions. But in their best manifestation, denominational distinctions represent the shared and Spirit-wrought commitment to trusting, understanding and obeying Scripture. Soteriology (teaching about salvation) is distinct from ecclesiology (teaching concerning the church) but must never be severed from it. Why? Because the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of his church, where Christ openly reigns and is exalted.
- Justification: Scripture speaks frequently of the justification of sinners in the death/resurrection of Christ. Due to Christ’s sinless, covenantally faithful life, the Father vindicates him, declares him righteous (1Tim. 3:16). By the agency of the Spirit, believers enjoy Christ’s vindication/justification as our own: “you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1Cor. 6:11b; cf. Rom. 3:24). Justification is secured by Jesus; it is applied to us by his Spirit.
- Sanctification: Those united to Christ further enjoy “death to sin and newness of life [which] are effected in our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.”10 Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit, as he binds us to the Christ who, at his resurrection, not only overwhelms the guilt of sin (for our forgiveness), but conquers the power of sin and death (for our holiness). Sanctification is secured by Jesus; it is given to us and worked in us by his Spirit (Rom. 6:1–11; Gal. 5:16).
- Assurance: Though believers face seasons of fierce doubt, the Holy Spirit kindly tenders assurance of salvation upon our hearts (1Jn. 5:1–13). In our deepest affliction, the Spirit of God affirms our identity as God’s children and Jesus’ brothers (Heb. 2:11). Christ in his darkest hour prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Children of God discover deepest comfort from our heavenly Father, when we, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, echo our Elder Brother and Savior, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; cf. Gal. 4:6). Jesus’ obedience secured gospel certainty; the Holy Spirit warms our hearts with that Christ-produced certainty.
Salvation is both divine work and divine gift. As such, it is thoroughly Trinitarian, with essential aspects of salvation effected respectively and impeccably by the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Without the gracious purpose of the Father, there is no salvation. Without the satisfactory work of the Son, there is no salvation. Without the faithful agency of the Spirit, there is no salvation. For the Holy Spirit of Christ is “the key that unlocks for us the treasures of the Kingdom of Heaven.”11
Selected Online Resources
- Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “‘Life-Giving Spirit’: Probing the Center of Paul’s Pneumatology,” JETS 41/4 (December 1998): 573–589.
- David B. Garner, “Redemption Applied,” Tabletalk (April 2019)
- Thomas Goodwin, “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Salvation.”
- Robert A. Peterson, “The Most Important Work of the Holy Spirit.”
Selected Print Resources
- Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (IVP, 1996).
- Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “The Holy Spirit,” Westminster Theological Journal (1980): 58–78
- Robert Letham, Union with Christ in Scripture, History, and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011).
- John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans, 1955).
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