The Saving Spirit

This entry repeats my entry at the Cor Deo site. Please post any responses there. Thanks!

What role does the Holy Spirit play in our salvation?

I ask because most formal conversations about salvation feature the Father and the Son while largely ignoring the Spirit. This Spirit-light tradition features the Father’s saving plan for the Son to die as was planned from eternity past. On the cross the Son redeems us by his atoning death as he propitiates sin—that is, he accepts the Father’s wrath against sin in our place. We deserved to die but he died for us and gave us his life.

This sets up a three-step progression. In his vicarious death Jesus bears our judgment. The Father is then satisfied. We, then, are granted salvation through faith. So God is the planner; the Son is the sacrifice; and all who believe are granted eternal life through Christ’s sacrificial death.

This sketch, while sound, is too limited: it misses God’s heart. God made us to share his love and that aspect of salvation is central. The eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit was offered to humanity, beginning with Adam and Eve. The first couple then spurned that love and chose, instead, to love the deceit that they could “be like God.” We can be sure that God was grieved by their hardness towards him: their bond with God, by the Spirit, was broken.

Salvation, then, is the restoration of the elect to the communion Adam once shared with God, a restoration generated by the Spirit —“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

But this raises a question: is the promise in Ezekiel of the Spirit’s coming to be “within you” an altogether new feature of the God-Man relationship, or is it a restoration of what was lost in Eden? Nothing in the Genesis account answers that question directly but we do have some items to consider.

First, we read in Genesis 1 that the creation of Adam and Eve was in the image of God. The Trinity is implicit in the plural features of “let us” and “our image” and the reciprocal account of the “male and female” dimension of the one “Man.” That is, in each case—in God and in Man—we find plurality. So in later Scriptures when the triune communion of the Father-Son-Spirit God is unfolded to us we can look back to Genesis for precursors: for clues that tell us that this relational reality was already present in the beginning. The Spirit would have been present “in our image” just as, earlier, in Genesis 1:2 he was present as a creator.

So, too, we can presume that God didn’t reshape his own being for the sake of our human functions so when we find a parallel feature in God’s being and our being we can be sure of God’s priority in that parallel: we were made to be like him, not the other way round.

I mention this in light of 1 Corinthians 2 where the Spirit is said to search out the “thoughts of God” on our behalf just as each of us have a distinct “spirit” in our makeup that “knows a person’s thoughts” (verses 10-11). In other words God’s Spirit does the work of searching and then communicating God’s inner thoughts—and this would always have been true of God. So who received the Father’s deepest thoughts in eternity past? The Son. And as the Son’s Spirit he also would have revealed the Son’s thoughts to the Father in return.

In other words the Spirit is the communicating presence in God: he actively facilitates the intimate communion of the Father and the Son. And he also stirs and maintains our communion with God and with each other—with representative texts such as Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 12, among others, in mind. Our spirituality relies on the presence of the Spirit. Our creation in God’s image included a human “spirit” as the place where God’s “Spirit” dwells and engages us in God’s life, love, and communion.

So it was that Jesus in John 3 told Nicodemus that any efforts to be engaged with God while functioning as a Spirit-less person was absurd. He needed the restoration of what Adam abandoned: the presence, life, and communion of the Spirit. Apart from the Spirit he was dead towards God.

Salvation, then, relies on the coming of the Spirit to dwell in the human spirit: “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” in the manner of marriage when two are joined as one (1 Corinthians 6:16-17). And in that union the Spirit’s role is to communicate the deepest thoughts of Christ to his human partners, something Paul summarized in Romans 5:5—“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

So when we think of salvation we need to think not only of the Father and the Son, but also of the Spirit. He’s the one who shares God’s life and heart with us, and then shares our hearts with God in return.

Enjoy the communion!


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