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Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.

Introduction

To say that the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation is of vital importance is perhaps to state the obvious. Nevertheless, this must be our starting point. No individual believer and no church of Christ would dare slight or minimize the work of the Spirit in salvation. It is not too much to say that without Him there would be no persons saved and no church gathered. The Spirit is the indispensable Applicator of the blessings of salvation Christ has merited for His own in His death and resurrection. Indeed John Calvin is correct in his judgment that, “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.” How then does Christ become of use and value to the elect according to Calvin? “…He unites himself to us by the Spirit alone. By the grace and power of the same Spirit we are made his members, to keep us under himself and in turn to possess him.”1

Yet in spite of this vital importance of the Spirit’s work in salvation, the doctrine of the Person and work of the Holy Spirit has not always received the attention it deserves. J.I. Packer backs this assessment when he refers to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the “Cinderella of Christian doctrines.”2 It is not the case that the church ignored and was silent about the work of the Spirit; she was merely very brief and did not fully delineate the Spirit’s role in salvation. Of late, however, this has changed. Due most likely to the emphases and excesses of the Pentecostal movement, the church has taken a closer look at the work of the Holy Spirit, setting forth more clearly and fully the role of the Spirit in salvation. This is good, since we owe so much to this divine Person. And therefore, this subject which we here treat is worthy of our attention.

We begin this study of the Spirit’s work in salvation with the understanding that this subject is exceedinglybroad. A hasty glance through a Bible Concordance will reveal that the role of the Spirit in the salvation of men is truly great. The Spirit is ascribed many titles and is connected with a host of activities in salvation. There are, then, many different aspects of the Spirit’s work which one could treat, given the topic we have. One could consider, e.g., the work of the Spirit and regeneration, or the Spirit and sanctification. Or one could consider the work of the Spirit in the elect church as a body and deal with such things as the Spirit and Pentecost, or the Spirit and His gifts in the church. But obviously, we cannot treat the entire scope of the Spirit’s role; we must needs limit our subject.

In this article it is my intent to focus on only a couple of aspects of the Spirit’s work in salvation, but from a somewhat unique perspective. We will consider the Spirit as the Author of life, as the Revealer of truth, and as the Realizer of salvation’s goal; and we will do that from the viewpoint of the parallels between the Spirit’s work in creation and His work in the recreation of the elect sinner. We say that this is a somewhat unique perspective, because there have been others who have made this parallel, Abraham Kuyper being one, in his monumental work The Work of the Holy Spirit, and R.C. Sproul being another, in his recent book The Mystery of the Holy Spirit. I will, therefore, use what they have done, but also expand on it.

There is one other point on which we ought to be clear before we commence our study, and that is that the Spirit about Whom we write we believe to be a distinct Person of the Godhead and thus fully divine (God). Even though our subject is the Spirit’s economic role and not His essential place in the Trinity, yet these two roles cannot be separated. The Holy Spirit Whom we believe to be the One Who applies the salvation God the Father planned and God the Son accomplished is the Holy Spirit Whom we believe and confess “from eternity proceeds from the Father and the Son…; who in order is the third person of the Holy Trinity; of one and the same essence, majesty and glory with the Father and the Son: and therefore, is the true and eternal God…” (Belg. Cod, Art. XI).

The Holy Spirit As The Author Of Life

The Holy Spirit is inseparably connected with life in the Bible. He is everywhere referred to as the Originator of life, both in creation and in salvation. This is the first parallel we make. One of the titles given to Him in the Scriptures is “the Spirit of life” (Rom 8:2). Of this truth we sing: too in Psalter #287: “Thy Spirit O Lord, makes life to abound….”

This is the Spirit’s role in creation. In Psalm 33:6 we read of the truth that all the host of heaven was made by the “breath” of God’s mouth, referring to the Spirit. We are also familiar with the fact that the Spirit of God “moved upon the face of the waters” in the beginning of creation. Edward H. Bickersteth informs us that this “moving” of the Spirit involved His giving life to the creation: “The Hebrew word implies the tremulous fluttering or brooding of a bird over its nest, infusing life from its own vital warmth.”3 The life-giving Spirit was also involved in the creation of man. When God made man, He formed him “of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (i.e., Spirit) of life…” (Gen. 2:7). Adam was quickened by the Spirit. So too Job ascribes his life and existence to the Holy Spirit: “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life” (Job 33:4). Referring to one more passage, we find that in Psalm 104:30 the Spirit is related to the life of the animal world and the renewal of the earth: “Thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.” We concur then with A. Kuyper who writes that it is the Spirit “who animates every rational being; who sustains the principle of life in every creature.”4 For this reason the early church in its Nicene Creed confessed the Spirit as “the Lord and Giver of life.”

It ought not be surprising therefore that the Spirit is also spoken of as the Author of life in the salvation of elect sinners. He is the Originator of the new life of regeneration. R.C. Sproul draws the parallel where he writes, “As He is the generating power of biological life, so is He the source and generating power of spiritual life. His work in redemption mirrors and supplements His work in creation.5 And Sproul’s chapter on regeneration he aptly entitles “The New Genesis.”

Throughout the Old and New Testament Scriptures the Holy Spirit is identified as the One Who causes the dead sinner to be made spiritually alive. The classic passage in the Old Testament is Ezekiel 37:1-14. There in vision the prophet sees a valley full of dry bones, symbolizing spiritually lifeless and hopeless Israel. But Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to these bones and God promises to make them live. And so after he calls to the wind to breathe upon these bones, the breath came into them and the bones lived. This wind symbolized the life-giving Spirit of God, as God Himself explained to the prophet in verse 14. Here we have an Old Testament picture of the Spirit’s work of regeneration.

This truth we find more clearly revealed in the New Testament. The classic New Testament passage isJohn 3:1-8, where Jesus explains to Nicodemus the great truth that the natural man, who is by nature “flesh,” i.e., spiritually dead in sin so that he cannot even see the kingdom of God, must be born again from above unto new, heavenly life by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit alone is the Author of this life in man. This truth is found in many other places. In John 6:63 Jesus said, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing….” In Romans 8:10Paul teaches: “And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” This same connection between the Spirit and the spiritual life of salvation we find in II Corinthians 3:6 and Galatians 6:8.

It must be stressed that in this work of imparting eternal life to the elect sinner the Spirit is absolutelysovereign. It is a work performed by Him exclusively, without the will and cooperation of the sinner. Just as the original creation came to life not of itself but only through the quickening Spirit, so also does the totally depraved, dead sinner come to life not of himself or by assisting the Holy Spirit, but only through the life-giving Spirit. This has to be stressed over against all those proud, synergistic theories of men, who teach that the sinner can prepare himself to be born again, or is able to choose to be made spiritually alive by the power of his free will, or actually helps the Spirit in the work of being regenerated. All such Pelagian and Arminian errors are condemned by Scripture and by our Confessions, as for example, Canons III/IV, Arts. 12, 14. The Spirit alone is the Author of the new life in man. This truth is not merely one of the doctrines of Scripture and Calvinism; it is the believer’s experience. He knows in the depths of his own heart that he is born again unto newness of life solely by the Spirit of life, and not by anything he has done or willed to do.

The Holy Spirit As The Revealer Of Truth

The Scriptures also join together the Holy Spirit and the work of revealing God’s truth to the sinner. The Spirit is He Who illuminates, bringing things to light; Who enlightens, giving understanding; Who opens up the truth, causing it to be known and embraced. Already in Genesis 1:2, 3 there is a close connection made between the Spirit and illumination in the work of creation. As the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters, God uttered His first command: “Let there be light.” The Spirit was the One through Whom God brought His light to shine upon the creation, thus preparing His creatures for life and motion.

So it is in the realm of salvation. It is the Spirit’s work to reveal the spiritual things of God to man the sinner. Man is by nature in spiritual darkness; his mind is void of the true knowledge of God and himself and the world in which he lives; his understanding is darkened; and his heart is blind (Eph. 4:17, 18). And because man’s will is bound in sin, he does not want to know the truth. As Jesus said in John 3:19, men love darkness rather than the light. Without the illumination of the Spirit, natural man is unable to know anything about the kingdom of heaven and its spiritual realities, let alone being able to seek entrance into it. But Christ, Who is the light of the world (Jn. 9:5), dispenses His Spirit to His elect in order that they might be illuminated to know and understand the truth. Just as God in the beginning commanded the light to shine out of darkness by the Holy Spirit, so He has shined in our hearts by the same Spirit, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4:6).

This truth of the Spirit’s work of revealing spiritual things to the sinner’s heart and mind is set forth clearly in I Corinthians 2:10ff. You will note here the close relation between the Spirit’s role within the Godhead (His essential role11 and His role in salvation (economic role). The Spirit is the One Who searches the deep things of God; He has perfect knowledge and understanding of the spiritual things of God. But these things of God He reveals unto us, so that we have the wisdom of God, the knowledge and understanding of the truth. You will also notice the sharp contrast made here between the natural man and the spiritual man, verses 11, 14. This same emphasis we find in other New Testament texts. In Ephesians 1:17, 18 Paul prays on behalf of the Ephesian Christians that they might be given the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: The eyes of your understanding being enlightened….” This work of the Spirit is implied in Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit of truth, Who would take the things of Jesus and reveal them to His people, and thus guide them into the truth (cf. Jn. 14:17, 26Jn. 15:26;Jn. 16:13-15). This promise was fulfilled in the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost, for that Spirit inspired the apostles to write the New Testament Scriptures, and through those Scriptures the Spirit has guided the church into the truth in all ages.

On this work of the Spirit the believer also lives in conscious dependence. He knows he owes his saving knowledge of God to the Spirit; he knows he depends on the Spirit for the understanding and application of the reading and hearing of the Word; he knows he needs the Spirit for the knowledge of his sins; in sum, he knows that he is indebted to the Spirit for all his light. He gives thanks and prays for the Spirit as his divine Revealer.

The Holy Spirit As The Realizer Of Salvation’s Goal

By this we have in mind the idea that the Holy Spirit is the One through Whom God brings all things to the goal He has purposed, viz., perfection in the new creation. He is the divine Realizer of God’s plans, both with regard to the creation and with regard to His elect people. A. Kuyper makes this point in his work of the Spirit: ‘Thus to lead the creature to its destiny, …to make it perfect, is the proper work of the Holy Spirit.”6 Closely related to this work of the Spirit is His work of preserving all things until God’s purposes are fully realized. The Spirit is also the Preserver of God’s works. We find this truth about the Spirit from His work in creation first of all. In connection with the Spirit’s role of “brooding” over the waters in the beginning of creation, it may also be pointed out that this implies the Spirit’s sustaining power. R.C. Sproul makes this point in connection with Genesis 1:2: “Part of the Spirit’s work is to ‘hover’ over creation, keeping things intact. In this regard we see the Spirit as the divine Preserver and the Protector. The Spirit works to maintain what the Father brings into being.”7 What we have to understand is that the Spirit upholds the creation in order to bring it to God’s completed goal in the new heavens and earth.

This work of the Spirit in up holding and realizing God’s works must also be applied to His work in the salvation of the elect. It is God’s goal to bring His people to perfection, to eternal glory, to that state in which they are without sin and death, and in which they are fully in His image in Jesus Christ. And the Holy Spirit is His agent to realize this goal. The Spirit leads the elect to perfection. This He does first of all by preserving His work of salvation in the elect, so that they are kept in grace and do reach their goal. This idea we recognize as the fifth point of historic Calvinism—the preservation of the saints. The Spirit preserves the life of regeneration in His people. He indwells, the elect and keeps them in union with Christ. He powerfully keeps His own in sanctification, helping them in the fight against sin and evil, and giving them the victory.

This preservation of the Spirit is beautifully taught in the Scriptures. In II Corinthians 1:22 and Ephesians 1:13, 14 we find the ideas of the sealing of the Spirit and the Spirit as our earnest. To be sealed with the Spirit means that due to the indwelling of the Spirit, our salvation and perfection are secured. We are marked by the Spirit as being God’s, and nothing can make us lose our seal. And again, because of the indwelling of the Spirit, the elect have God’s down payment and thus His guarantee that they will reach their goal, the inheritance of eternal glory. Romans 8:19ff. tie together the creation’s desire for perfection with God’s people’s. And it shows that our groaning for glory is due to the fact that we have the firstfruits of the Spirit. In Him we have the first cutting of the harvest, and thus the pledge of the full harvest in the day of Jesus Christ.

Yet, in the second place, the Spirit is also the One Who actually brings about our perfection in glory. He is the Realizer of our salvation and He brings it to pass by His saving work. When the believer dies, it is the Spirit Who ushers the soul into the bosom of Jesus. And in the end of time it is the Spirit Who is said to be the One to raise our bodies and bring us into the perfection of the new creation. Just as Christ was quickened according to the body by the Spirit, so also will the elect be in the day of their resurrection (Rom. 8:11). In fact, the Scripture teaches in II Corinthians 3:18 that the believer is already in this life changed into the same image as his glorious Lord, from glory to glory, by the Spirit of the Lord. Is it any wonder then, that the apostle Peter refers to the Spirit as “the Spirit of glory”?! (cf. I Pet. 4:14).

With this Spirit in his heart the believer has an assured hope and confident expectation of reaching the goal. With this thought we conclude using the apostle’s benediction in Romans 15:13: “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.”


1. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, p. 541, Vol. 2 of McNeill ed., Westminster Press, 1973. 

2. Knowing Gal, J.L Packer, p. 60, Intervarsity Press, 1973. 

3. The Holy Spirit, His Person and Work, Edward H. Bickersteth, p. 14, Kregel, 1976. 

4. The Work of the Holy Spirit, Abraham Kuyper, p. 26, Funk and Wagnalls, 1900.

5. The Mystery of the Holy Spirit, RC. Sproul, p. 90, Tyndale, 1990. 

6. Work, Kuyper, p. 21. 

7. Mystery, Sproul, p. 85.