What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life and Christian theology according the Reformed tradition? If the stereotypes are to be believed, the Holy Spirit doesn’t have much of a place in the Reformed church; the Holy Spirit, it seems, is only for those of a more charismatic or Pentecostal flavor. Perhaps the stereotypes are to be believed, after all, the Westminster Confession of Faith doesn’t even have a section on the Holy Spirit.
So where is the Holy Spirit in the Reformed church?
In his book The Christian Faith Michael Horton makes the point that “in every external work of the Godhead, the Father is always the source, the Son is always the mediator, and the Spirit is always the perfecting agent.” When referring to salvation, it might be said that the Father works in His people through an eternal decree by choosing them in Christ before the foundation of the world; that the Son works in His people by procuring for them a righteous standing before God; that the Spirit works in His people by applying to them that which the work of Christ procured.
The thing here being decreed, procured and applied might simply be called union with Christ, the pivotal element of salvation. There is thus a central theme of the Trinitarian God working out His grace to man: the Father ordains it, the Son procures it, and the Spirit imparts it. Thus once one understands the work of the Father and the Son, it is important to note that without the Spirit applying this work to the individual the endeavor is in vain. But what does that mean, and how does that work?
In light of this Trinitarian nature, the Reformed doctrine of the Spirit can be best seen by first looking at the Holy Spirit as a member of the Triune God, by then looking at salvation in itself, and finally by looking at the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to this salvation. Because we want to be faithful to both the Scriptures and to the historic Christian faith, it is necessary to see what the Scriptures say on the matter, how the historic Christian church has addressed the issue, and how present theologians wrestle with it in the contemporary context.
The Person of the Holy Spirit
Within many Protestant circles the person of the Holy Spirit is often either given so much emphasis so as to overshadow the other members of the Trinity, or else the Spirit is forgotten by the wayside, with the chief focus of Christianity being placed upon the providence of the Father or the atonement of Christ upon the cross. In order to have a balanced theology, it is necessary to focus upon and understand the work of the Trinity in all its parts, neglecting none, for the work of each person of the Trinity is imperative if the Gospel is to have any effect.
As was noted above, it is said in Christian orthodoxy that the Spirit – along with the Father and the Son – is God. Perhaps the place in Scripture where this is most evident is in Matthew 28:19 where the command is given to go and make disciples “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This verse is important because it places the Holy Spirit in the same category as the Father and the Son. Still further, this is not a doctrine that is extrapolated from a single verse standing alone, but rather it can be found throughout Scripture: one may find Scripture that to lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God (Acts 5:3-4); that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), which is elsewhere called “the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16); that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son (Gal 4:6); that He is the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17). Thus it can be seen that the Holy Spirit is one with God.
It is also important to realize in this that the Holy Spirit is indeed a person, and not merely a force. That the Holy Spirit is indeed a person can be realized in passages where the Spirit is said to grieved (Eph 4:30), where He speaks (Heb 3:7), has a will (Acts 15:28), is able to guide us in truth (John 16:13), and where He intercedes for us to the Father (Rom 8:27). This final verse also demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is also a distinct person of the Trinity, given that He intercedes to the Father.
In looking at the person of the Holy Spirit, one may also look at the way the Holy Spirit acts apart from salvation. For instance the Spirit can be seen in creation (Gen 1:2), coming upon individuals in order to have them do something (Jdgs 6:34), inspiring Scripture (Acts 1:16), and even leading Christ into temptation (Mark 1:12). Even just in looking at the person of the Holy Spirit and the way He works outside salvation on can see the theme of the Trinitarian God working out His grace to man, indeed, while any contact that God makes with man is a gracious contact this can be seen most readily in the inspiration of Scripture, by which God has spoken to us. These truths guard against a number of false teachings in the Church. The primary of these are the various heresies surrounding the Trinity, such as modalism, for the Holy Spirit is both truly God and yet a distinct person from the Father and the Son.
In speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit as applying the works of the Father and of the Son, it is important to know what the Holy Spirit is applying.
In speaking of salvation, the pattern most often used to describe the process is the ordo salutis. In Protestantism this is laid out as election, predestination, calling, regeneration, conversion (faith and repentance), justification, sanctification, and glorification. Overall, the thing being worked at here might be said to be union with Christ, indeed as A.W.Pink puts it “Our union with Christ is the grand hinge on which everything turns.” Or as it is stated by Sinclair Ferguson “the forgiveness of sins is not received in a vacuum, but in union with Christ.” Michael Horton makes note in turn that “justification is the judicial ground of a union with Christ that also yields renewal and sanctification” such that the Scriptures “call believers to become more and more of what they already are in Christ.”
Thus, union with Christ is the pivotal part of what salvation is, for it is in being unified with Christ that we are saved. It is into union with and conformity to Christ that we are elected and predestined (Rom 8:29), which we are called into, by which we are justified by having Christ’s righteousness be credited as ours, it is this conformity and this temporal realizing of our union with Christ which constitutes our sanctification, and it is the consummation of this union which is our glorification. Thus, salvation might be said to be the total work – from our election to our glorification – of the Trinitarian God in bringing us into union with Christ.
As has been stated, union with Christ is the pivotal element of this salvation but it is also made up of many facets (such can be seen through the ordo salutis). Yet even beyond the many facets of the ordo salutis, salvation can be seen in a number of different lights. For instance, on the one hand salvation is legal standing; because of our union with Christ, God does see our own debt but rather sees the credit of Christ accounted to us.
On another hand salvation is a relational standing; we are placed into communion and fellowship with God – and thereby into the relationship of the Father and the Son – through our union with Christ. In yet another, the union itself is a corporate one, for it is the church as a group that makes up the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27), not any one individual. While it is always important to keep the communal aspect of salvation in view that we might not slip into individualism, it is also important to note that the focus is still a personal one, for the believer can be saved without the church as a visible institution.
With this corporate aspect, it is found that God only decrees his election upon a certain group of people, that is, those who believe upon His Son as their Savior (John 3:16). Yet those who believe are those who are decreed by God the Father as His elect, indeed in Acts 13:48 it is read that “when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” Therefore while all have sinned and are justly deserving condemnation (Rom 3:23), God only chooses some in his mercy to receive this salvation, as is stated by John Owen:
Christ did not die for any upon condition, if they do believe; but he died for all God’s elect, that they should believe, and believing have eternal life. Faith itself is among the principal effects and fruits of the death of Christ… Salvation, indeed, is bestowed conditionally; but faith, which is the condition, is absolutely procured.
Given that none are deserving of this salvation, it is still only through the utmost grace of the Trinitarian God that it is dispensed. Salvation is the sinners escape from the just condemnation of their sins, and this is accomplished according to the decree of the Father and made possible by the sacrifice of the Son who is able to fully satisfy the debt owed by us and bring us into the fellowship of the Trinity; yet as John Calvin notes in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, to communicate the blessing of Christ to us he must dwell in us such that “teachers would cry aloud to no purpose, did not Christ, the internal teacher, by means of his Spirit, draw to himself those who are given to him of the Father.” Thus, for all of the realized and actual effects of salvation upon the sinner, one must speak of the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit and Salvation
In following with the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism, as the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is given to the elect of mankind so that through faith they are made to share in Christ. As was stated above, the Father is the source of this grace, the Son the mediator, and the Spirit the perfecting agent; or similarly, that the Father ordains it, the Son procures it, and the Spirit secures or applies it.
For the purposes of analyzing the work of the Holy Spirit directly related to the individual, the sections of the ordo salutis in view are conversion through glorification: as is stated by Calvin “For the Spirit does not merely originate faith, but gradually increases it, until by its means He conducts us into the heavenly kingdom.” Thus, salvation for the purposes here begins with the conversion of the sinner to faith in Christ. ‘Conversion’ here is perhaps a poor term to refer to the originating of faith and repentance – indeed, many Christians are raised in the faith of Jesus Christ, and therefore they have no marked point of conversion. Regardless, whether faith is brought about from childhood or whether the individual comes to it later in life, this faith is a work of the Holy Spirit. We are saved through faith (Eph 2:8), and this faith – as noted by Calvin – originates in the Holy Spirit. Or as it is stated in the Westminster Confession: “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…” Or as is stated in Scripture “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor 12:3). In this faith we share with Christ in his death and resurrection (Col 2:12) and are placed into union with Him.
While the Holy Spirit is active in bringing us into this union with Christ, the instrument for bringing about this union is the proclamation of the Gospel. This is perhaps made most apparent in Romans 10:14-15 where Paul asks:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?
Thus the proclamation of the gospel is the instrument which the Holy Spirit uses to bring the elect into faith in Christ. This faith is accompanied by repentance, thus we are called to “Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). It is important to note here, however, that it is not the faith nor the repentance in and of themselves which truly save us, but rather it is the object of our faith, hence: “It is not the quality of faith itself, but of the person it apprehends, that makes it the sufficient means of receiving both our justification and sanctification.” It is also important – as was mentioned earlier – that this faith is given only to the elect, and does depend for its application upon the will of man, indeed: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16). It is because of this truth that John Owen can say that while salvation is bestowed conditionally, faith – which is the condition – is absolutely procured. The will of man is fallen and must be changed in order to produce faith; free will is properly the will that has been freed from its state of sin to be able to choose the things of God, thus “by his grace alone, [God] enables [man] freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.”
By sharing in this union which we are brought into by the Holy Spirit, we are justified. Yet we are not merely given a legal pardon through our union with Christ, only to be left in the reality of our sins. Rather “God does what he declares. When he pronounces someone righteous in Christ, he immediately begins also to conform that person to Christ.”
The Father declares us righteous due to our union with Christ, and we are brought into this union by the Spirit, yet even further than this the Spirit works to actually conform us to that image of Christ and to rid our selves of the pollution and corruption of sin. That is, we are sanctified. This is just as much wrought in man as the other areas of salvation, as is stated by the Westminster Divines, by the indwelling of the Word and the Spirit “the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they are more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces…”
The Westminster Confession here introduces two different aspects of sanctification, dying to sin and living to Christ, and in this we can see the more day-to-day out-workings of our union with Christ. These two facets can be seen in Scripture in such verses as Galatians 5:24 that “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” and in Colossians 1:10-11 that we are “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” Yet even these good works are not fully our own, for we were “created in Christ Jesus, for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10) so much that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).
So God will bring this good work to completion, and the works that we do have been prepared for us beforehand. In becoming more and more who we are in Christ, in being unified with him and being conformed to his image, we put to death sin and walk in holiness, and both of these are worked in us through the workings of the Holy Spirit, not of our own will or our own strength. Because it is the work of the Holy Spirit and not our own we can have assurance that we will persevere and not fall away from the faith; indeed, He who began a good work will finish it, and again “I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
Because it is the work of the Triune God we can be sure that it will not fail and we will be brought into glorification: the Father has not failed in his decree, the Son has not failed in his work on the cross but was raised from the dead for the remission of sins, and so the Holy Spirit has not and will not fail in his work of applying these benefits to the sinners and of brining them into the union of Christ into which they are predestined.
The Holy Spirit’s Work in Salvation Defending Against Heresy
Because of these truths of Scripture a great number of heresies and false teachings are guarded against, many of which are still present in the contemporary context. Because faith itself is a work of the Holy Spirit, not of the will of man, the false teaching of Arminianism is guarded against. Because salvation is brought about by faith through the working of the Spirit and not by the good works of the individual (which are themselves also fruit of the Spirit), the false teaching of legalism is guarded against, that we must perfectly live up a given set of laws – indeed, Christ did this because we could not. Because the Holy Spirit is actively at work in those to whom he brings faith, the false teaching of antinomianism is guarded against, claiming that it doesn’t matter what the Christian does and opening up the possibility of being a carnal Christian. Similarly, because it is the work of God, the false teaching that one can lose their salvation after acquiring it is guarded against, for as has been stated none will pluck us out of His hand.
Regarding the contemporary context, perhaps the greatest heresy which is guarded against by the truths of the Holy Spirit is the great pessimism that comes with postmodernism. Pessimism, for one, that we as Christians can truly change; pessimism, for the second, as to whether we can even know God at all. Again, because salvation is the work of God, and because the real sanctification of the individual is a part of this salvation, we can be assured that we will truly be changed, that we are not left in total depravity throughout our mortal lives. Because it is the Holy Spirit – God himself – who has inspired Scripture and has decided in his grace to communicate with man, we can be assured that we can indeed know God in our finite way as much as God chooses to reveal himself. Furthermore, because the Spirit has inspired the Scriptures we can rest assured that the truth of them is not founded in any individual, which thereby guards against the great subjectivism of postmodernism; because this is the only Word which the Spirit is inspired, the pluralism of the contemporary world is also guarded against.
The mere fact that He has chosen to reveal himself is in itself gracious, and because He is God he will not fail in this endeavor and we can truly know him. Not only has God given us is Word in the form of the Holy Scriptures, but the Holy Spirit himself works in us to have faith and knowledge of this.
The Practical Effects of Spirit’s Work & Salvation
Just as these truths regarding the Holy Spirit and salvation guard against a number of false teachings within the church, so they are also of great practical benefit to the believer. As Horton claims “the gospel is the answer not only to our guilt and condemnation but to our corruption and slavery to sin.” Freedom from guilt and slavery to sin are in themselves supremely practical things; no longer must we dwell in the shame of our sin but we can look with joy upon the grace that has been decreed for us by the Father, wrought for us by Christ, and wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, we are truly enabled and made by the Holy Spirit to be free from the tyranny of sin in our lives. This union with Christ is incredibly comforting and liberating, as John Bunyan put it upon realizing this truth: “Now did my chains fall off my legs; indeed I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away…”
A personal, practical, and real change is brought about in the believer’s life due to these truths, and because we do not have to rely upon our own strength but may see ourselves joined with Christ we may be kept from despair. Because the Holy Spirit is God he will not fail, and because he will not fail we will without a doubt be changed, that we will be graciously saved according to the decree of the Father that was worked out by the Son and is being applied by the Spirit.
In the same way that these truths affect our own personal assurance and growth, they also affect that of our ministry. We are called to preach the word, and the word is an instrument for the bringing of faith, yet because faith itself is a work of the Holy Spirit in the believer we can be assured that so long as we faithfully proclaim the gospel of Christ that the Holy Spirit will do His gracious work. Thus it does not rest upon us in our own power of person, on our own eloquence, or on our own power of reason, to convince people to believe the gospel. A great weight is therefore taken off of the minister and they are able to distinguish their actual mission from the perversion that tends to turn the church into a cult of personality.
Just as we can have hope for real change in our lives, we can call our congregations to this change. We can hold them accountable for their sins when they fall into the habit of the carnal Christian and assure them that the Holy Spirit will work in them for their sanctification. The Trinitarian God is working out His grace to man: the Father has ordained it, the Son has procured it, and the Spirit is actively imparting it for our salvation.