If we even think very much about the Spirit and our salvation, we usually have a fairly cold view of His work. I say cold because we think in terms of the Spirit merely handing to us, or pumping into us the blessings of salvation from a reservoir in heaven. And though this might be a nice figure to teach us how the Spirit works, it sometimes leads to an abstract and cold perception of the Spirit.
It’s also true that our common notion of the Spirit’s work is fairly narrow. And I say narrow because we think of the Spirit in terms of One Who only sanctifies, or One Who only works IN us. Just look at the confessions and the forms in the back of the Psalterand you will notice that our fathers had a much broader and warmer view of the Spirit’s involvement in our salvation.
But when we think of the Spirit in terms of the covenant, or the living fellowship with our living God, our perception of the Spirit not only broadens, but warms up. The Spirit of Christ is a covenant Spirit, actively involved in all of God’s work, not only in us, but for us; not only giving us things, but making us what God decreed for us; and not only saving us, but bringing us into intimate fellowship with God.
We usually divide the work of salvation into two parts: the work of God FOR us (when Christ paid for our sins and earned for us the grace of salvation) and the work of God IN us (when the Spirit gives us these blessings Christ earned for us). The Baptism Form and the Heidelberg Catechism both make this distinction. Surely it is the Spirit of Christ Who works salvation IN us. But it is just as true that the Spirit worked salvation FOR us. Let’s see how this is the case.
The New Testament begins by informing us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost (Matt. 1:20). This is the beginning of Christ’s work FOR us, a work not usually ascribed to the Spirit. But there is more. As a child, Jesus came “by the Spirit into the temple” (Luke 2:27). The Spirit anointed Christ for His work of redemption (Mark 1:10). And after His anointing, it was by the power of the Spirit that Christ was led into the wilderness to begin His battle with the devil, as well as brought back out of the wilderness (Luke 4:1, 14). He preached by the ‘Spirit (Luke 4:18). And, amazingly, as we read in Hebrews 9:14, Christ offered Himself through the same “eternal Spirit.” He was raised from the dead by the Spirit and was justified in the Spirit (I Peter 3:18 and I Tim. 3:16).
And though this is all part of the work of Christ FOR us, the Spirit was actively involved in all of it. That is, God’s work of salvation FOR us is not only the work of the Son made flesh, but very much the work of the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. That begins to give us a much broader view of Who the Spirit is and what He does in our salvation.
Since Christ (by the power of the Spirit) has performed the work of salvation FOR us, the Spirit given Him at Pentecost now applies those blessings to us, or works them IN us. He regenerates, calls, and converts us, gives us faith, justifies, sanctifies us, gives us the assurance of forgiveness, testifies to our spirit that we are God’s sons, preserves and glorifies us. And though these blessings are marvelous beyond compare, we still view them in a cold way when we think of them apart from the covenant—vibrant and living fellowship with Abba, Father.
The goal of the Spirit’s work is to bring us into the comfortable home of, and fellowship with, that Father in heaven. Or, to use another figure of Scripture, the Spirit makes us “one flesh” with our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, preparing us for the great wedding feast in glory when our marriage will be consummated in the fullest sense.
The Spirit performs that by giving us the blessings of salvation. This is the proper way to view salvation. Salvation, then, is not first of all receiving the blessings that Christ merited for us, but is being brought out of the darkness of separation from God into the marvelous light of His blessed fellowship.
The Spirit does that first by making us legally one with Christ, THE Son of God. The Spirit applies the righteousness of Christ to all God’s sons and daughters whom He chose from eternity. Without that righteousness we have no right to fellowship with God, for “righteousness has no fellowship with unrighteousness” (II Cor. 6:14). But now we have the right to be in God’s presence. God tells us, as it were, “You may come into My home, and dwell with Me. You may be in My home in My presence and taste My goodness.” That is justification, what we usually call the “fourth blessing” of salvation.
Second, the Spirit brings us into covenant fellowship with God by giving us the life of Christ. The Spirit is primarily a life-giving Spirit. God breathed life into Adam’s body. John tells us that we are born of the Spirit. Romans 8:11 says that we are raised from the dead by the Spirit. When, therefore, we are given the life of Christ, we are not only given the right to live in God’s home, but God actually makes His Home in us! It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to “dwell in them, and walk in them . . . and be their God” (II Cor. 6:16). And that is regeneration, what we usually call the “first blessing” of salvation.
Included in that new life of regeneration is that the Spirit actually conforms us to the image of the Father, changing us from glory to glory (II Cor. 3:18). As sons and daughters of the Father, we are made, in a creaturely way, to reflect the glories of the Father. So when we are brought into God’s house and presence, we not only have the right to be there, but we belong there and feel comfortable there. This is true because they who do not look (spiritually) like the Father, not only do not belong, but have no place and therefore no desire to be there. But they who look like the Father and the Son, feel very comfortable and in place with Them in Their Home.
What we sometimes call the “third blessing of salvation” is actually the means that God uses to bring us into living “connection” with Christ. Faith ingrafts us into Christ (John 15:5, Romans 11:17-20, Heid. Cat. Q. 20, 80). By means of faith, a gift of God through the Spirit, we are grafted into Christ, drawing from Him His life and gifts and love.
The Spirit brings us into fellowship with the Father, finally, by working in us a desire to be with Him in heaven. The Spirit stirs up in our hearts the cry that our children cry when they desire to be with their father. That cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15), is an expression of our love for Him and our desire to be with Him not only in Spirit, but in person. And by the strength of faith, we reach out, cling to God, and more and more receive His fellowship and love.
Each of the blessings of salvation—given us by the Spirit—are means to bring us into fellowship with God. The Spirit is the means that God uses to reveal Himself as “a Father unto you.” And all of this is done with a view to bringing us to the perfect goal of our salvation—eternal glory with the Father.
How is it then, you ask, that the Spirit performs this in us? The Spirit does not inject us coldly with these blessings, does not save us when we are unconscious. Rather, as the catechism tells us, the Spirit works these blessings in us by the preaching of the gospel. That makes sense too. The preaching of the gospel is the proclamation of the Word of God in Christ. And the Spirit is the dynamic of that Word. The Spirit empowered the writers of the Scripture to set down that word, because the Word is Christ and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. So when we hear the Word preached, it comes to us by the power of the Spirit in the preacher. It meets in our hearts with the Spirit, and becomes effective to the increase of our covenant fellowship with, and knowledge of, our Father in heaven.
“Most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture, inspired by the author of this work declares . . . .” In this we “rest satisfied with knowing and experiencing, that by this grace of God we are enabled to believe with the heart, and love (our) Savior.” (Canons III, IV, Art. 12, 13).