The Saving Spirit

Dove2What 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!

3 Responses to The Saving Spirit

  1. Judy October 31, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    What an interesting article. You expanded my thinking of the dynamic role of the Holy Spirit. By removing the Holy Spirit from the Son and Father it illuminates my understanding of the Spirit’s dynamic purposes. The contrast between God and Jesus with out the Holy Spirit is seeing God and Jesus as a stiff, alien source unable to relate to us or us to God.

    It was interesting thinking about the significance The Spirit plays in the Godhead and especially our salvation. As you stated without the …”the presence, life and communion of the Spirit”…”we are dead towards God.” I am awed by our God who gives…” us His Holy Spirit’s life which flows through our lives.” What a dynamic, live-giving God we serve.

    Thank you, Judy

  2. Rick November 1, 2013 at 12:22 am #

    Ron – Excellent post. As I was reading I found myself thinking about the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve and would be interested in your thoughts. Over the years of pondering this topic, I think I have come to understand that prior to the ‘fall’, Adam and Eve were not indwelt by the Spirit of God (as we who are Christians are indwelt by the Spirit – because of the second Adam – the better Adam – Crhist). Yes, they were created in the image and likeness of God and had a spirit, yet were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit. They fellowshipped with God (by ‘walking’ with Him), but were not in union with God. So prior to the ‘fall’, there was neither the principle of ‘death’ (sin) nor the principle of the life (in the sense of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit). I don’t believe they would have ‘fell’ if they had the Holy Spirit indwelling them – they would have been like Christians in their glorified state – incapable of sinning. So when Satan presented himself to Adam and Eve, he tempted them as creatures created in the image and likeness of God, yet God was not present (in the sense of indwelling them). After they sinned, they tried to hide from God, because that is how they experienced their relationship with Him – as ‘walking’ with Him rather than as indwelling them (they thought they actually could hide from Him). Thoughts?

  3. Ron November 4, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    Thanks for the response, Rick. You’ve summarized a view shared by many throughout the history of church conversations on the Spirit. My entry here is a bit of a pushback on that tradition. A pivotal but unstated assumption in this view is that the coming of Christ and the New Covenant relationship we have with Christ depends on the Spirit taking up a new role of indwelling all believers: i.e. he is the “new” one who comes with the New Testament, empowering believers as never before. To that I can only say, Amen.

    I’m convinced, however, that it breaches a Trinitarian reading of the Bible to presume that the Spirit was somehow left out of the “let us make man in our image” of Genesis 1. And when I read John 3, where Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus on the basis of OT revelation about the need to be ‘born again’ and from above by the Spirit, it follows that the status of being “born of flesh” and not “of the Spirit” is a problem that began at a point in time. Which time? Certainly in the controversy over death in Genesis 3. In other words, what was lost in Eden was God’s life that he shared with Adam by the Spirit. And in the OT era all true believers were only reengaged with God’s life by the renewed presence of the Spirit (e.g. David in Psalm 51).

    The notion that Adam couldn’t fall if he had the indwelling Spirit in Gen. 3 isn’t actually supported by other statements about our being able to ‘grieve’ or ‘quench’ the Spirit. In other words, in a true relationship, the Spirit’s presence is defined by our reception of his love. If we blaspheme his loving presence (by attributing it to the devil) there’s nothing left for us. And so on. What does change after Genesis 3 is that we’ve tasted the promise of the Serpent and now reject it as an ultimate deceit, with the Spirit’s witness. So our new love of Christ is no longer vulnerable to the “what-would-it-be-like-to-be-independent-from-God” question of Genesis 3.

    As for the Spirit’s new role in the NT, I take it to represent the new dimension of Christ’s human experience (as he bears witness of Christ to us) in all the ways we need as children of God. The Spirit’s ministry in the OT pre-incarnate era of Christ would have been to witness to him as the coming Promise that had the Tabernacle & Temple as the focus of relational engagement.

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