Here is part 5, which concludes the essay Clarifying Our Theological Vision by Gary Deddo, with an introduction from Joseph Tkach. This essay has been published serially here in Equipper. To read each part, click a link: introduction, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. To read the full essay in one article, click here. For the related essay, Covenant, Law and God's Faithfulness, click here. For the related essay, The Church and Its Ministry, click here.
foundational insights and conclusion
By Dr. Gary Deddo
The purpose of this essay, which we’ll now conclude, has been to clarify key concepts related to GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian theology in a way that is consistent with the renewal God has granted us, including the transformation of our doctrine and theology. The clarifications given have primarily addressed our understanding of the Christian life. A companion essay, addressing our understanding of the church and its ministry, is being published serially in GCI Weekly Update (click here for part 1).
In both essays, we’ve sought to give a faithful and thorough account of the biblical, Christ-centered, Trinitarian, historically orthodox faith. The need to do so arose as certain theological concepts were developing within GCI in non-official ways—ones that tended to be grounded in unwarranted assumptions or logical inferences from what we do affirm. Some of our members and pastors were wondering if some of these inferences or assumptions were now official GCI teaching. But as this essay has sought to explain, some of these logical inferences (particularly ones concerning the Christian life) are not warranted and, therefore, are not what GCI officially teaches.
Nothing in this essay should be construed as changing GCI’s understanding of our Triune God’s purpose for all persons and the basis for the fulfillment of that purpose in and through Jesus and by the Spirit. As GCI has proclaimed for over ten years, all are included—Jesus came to redeem the whole creation, and because God already has reconciled all people to himself in Christ, God loves and forgives all people. The essay then explains how, in response to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, each individual might personally receive and share in that redemption.
Let’s now revisit some of the key clarifications presented in this essay, adding additional insights that, hopefully, will lend even greater clarity to our understanding of GCI’s theological vision.
Created and reconciled for the gift of relationship
Throughout this essay we’ve emphasized that God, for and through his eternal Son, created and then reconciled to himself all humanity so that we might enjoy a relationship with God that is living, interactive and personal. That relationship, which is the heart and core of salvation, involves sharing (koinonia), by the Spirit, in Jesus’ own communion with the Father—a dynamic relationship of obedience, faith, hope and love that was evident throughout his earthly life.
We’ve also emphasized that salvation results from the co-achievement of all three of the divine Persons acting together for our benefit. Salvation is the outflow of their internal and eternal good and holy, loving relationship extended to humanity as a gift of grace. That gift involves both a renewed human nature, and a reconciled relationship with God. Both exist already in the glorified humanity of Jesus who, on our behalf, lives in obedient and trusting communion with the Father. It is God’s desire that this gift, which is laid up in store for all people in Jesus, be personally received and thus experienced by all. It is with this understanding that the apostle Paul made this important declaration:
We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:14-21)
Having declared that God has already reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ, Paul indicates that those who have received this free gift experience, through Jesus, a personal, particular and dynamic relationship with God. As Paul notes elsewhere, this relationship is made possible by the Holy Spirit’s ongoing personal, particular and individual post-ascension ministry—a ministry conducted solely on the basis of Jesus’ completed work.
The Spirit’s ongoing ministry has many facets. He incorporates believers into the body of Christ (an event also referred to in the New Testament as being “baptized” or “sealed” by the Spirit). He then calls believers to serve as Christ’s “ambassadors,” sent into the world to proclaim the good news that God, in Christ, has reconciled himself to all people everywhere, and that all people are thus loved and forgiven by God. Christ’s ambassadors are then to call people to “be reconciled to God”—to receive the good news that God has reconciled himself in Christ to them, and that they, by responding to that truth in repentance with faith, enter a good, holy and right relationship with God.
A personal, relational gift received by faith
It is vital to understand that salvation is a gift that, rather than being impersonal, automatic or static, is personal and relational. It involves the work of the tri-personal God, and to experience the benefits of the salvation God has secured for us, it must be received personally and relationally—through faith (trusting) in the triune God who gives it. As noted by the author of Hebrews, those who do not receive salvation in this way do not experience its benefits:
Now, since God has left us the promise that we may enter his rest, let us be very careful so none of you will fail to enter. The Good News was preached to us just as it was to them [Israel]. But the teaching they heard did not help them, because they heard it but did not accept it with faith. (Heb. 4:1-2, NCV)
The God who created humanity for personal, dynamic and individual relationship with himself is the same God who provides everything needed for all persons to receive and thus participate in that relationship, which involves loving, obedient communion with the triune God despite the corruption of the very good nature God gave human persons in the beginning. We see this relationship lived out perfectly in Jesus’ earthly life—his loving, obedient relationship with his Father, in the Spirit, that culminated in his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension—the gift he gave for the salvation of all humanity. It is in Jesus’ relationship of communion with the Father that we share when we respond in faith to the personal and dynamic ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Salvation involves two types of union
In order to sort out the meaning and place of our personal response to God (i.e., the Christian life), this essay has addressed the vicarious humanity of Christ and the related doctrine of the hypostatic union, noting that salvation is a personal and relational gift of God. The foundation of our salvation is the completed work of the incarnate Son of God who, having assumed our human nature, transformed (sanctified) it throughout his entire human life, culminating at the cross. The glorification of human nature was then completed in Jesus’ bodily resurrection and ascension. That completed work of Christ reconciled God to all people everywhere, and reconciled them all so that each person might positively respond to and receive that gift, sharing in what Christ has done for them as their Mediator.
We then noted that our sharing in the gift of reconciliation and in a renewed human nature, and so in Christ’s salvation, requires the additional post-ascension ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is at work drawing all humanity, as individual persons, to Christ—freeing their hearts and minds from bondage to the power of sin, guilt and death. No one can, nor would they ever, turn to God, receiving his forgiveness, grace and mercy, except that the Holy Spirit is doing this vital ministry, acting on the basis of the completed work of Jesus Christ.
We noted that salvation, which requires both the ministry of the Son and the Spirit, involves two distinct “unions”:
- The hypostatic union, which unites human nature and the divine nature in the one Person (hypostasis) of the Son of God. One person: two natures.
- The spiritual union (or “the koinonia of the Spirit,” as T.F. Torrance called it) that unites individual persons to Jesus Christ by the distinct but not separate ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Receptivity (responsiveness) to the Spirit’s ministry to unite us personally to Christ is signaled by repentance, faith, hope and love for God on the basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ. The spiritual union (union by the Holy Spirit) results in individual persons being incorporated into the body of Christ. We thus understand, as T.F. Torrance notes, that there is a “dual incorporation”—Christ is incorporated into humanity (as a whole) by the hypostatic union, and we (as individuals) are incorporated into Christ by the spiritual union (the fellowship or communion of the Holy Spirit).
Proclaim the indicatives and the imperatives
We have also pointed out in this essay that our teaching and preaching must convey the distinction between these two unions (incorporations). That means teaching and preaching both the indicatives (positive declarations) of grace and the imperatives (commands) of grace. These indicatives involve the truth that God, as a gift of grace apart from any human response, has, in Christ, reconciled all people to himself. This truth must be proclaimed first, for it is the ground (root or basis) of everything else. But we must also, on that basis (and on that basis alone), call for a positive response to God’s grace, a response that involves personal participation via faith in God—faith in what he has done, is doing and will yet do through Christ and by the Spirit.
Gospel-shaped proclamation of the indicatives of grace will naturally lead to an equally gospel-shaped proclamation of the imperatives of grace—the responses that the Holy Spirit enables people to show. The imperatives (commands) should never be proclaimed apart from the proclamation of the indicatives (positive declarations) of grace. Doing so inevitably leads to legalism, which is based on the false idea that God wants an impersonal, legal, contractual relationship with human beings. On the other hand, proclaiming grace without proclaiming an appropriate and corresponding response, inevitably leads to antinomianism—disobedience that presumes upon grace. Even worse, it obscures the fact that as human beings we were created by God for personal, interactive, dynamic, communicative relationship with God, through Christ, by the Spirit. Proclaiming grace without also proclaiming the need for a personal response tends to present salvation as impersonal, mechanical, automatic, and non-relational.
The pattern of proclaiming grace followed by a proclamation of the need for a personal response pervades Scripture. In the New Testament Jesus calls people to “repent and believe the good news” because the kingdom is present and available in him (Mark 1:14-15). Paul tells us that because God has already reconciled the world to himself in Christ, the church has the ministry of proclaiming that individuals are to turn to God in faith, and so “be reconciled” to God (2 Cor. 5:14-21). Coupling a declaration of the grace of God followed by a call to personal response is the biblical pattern.
The Spirit’s ministry with non-believers
A related issue that has been addressed in this essay has to do with the difference between those who are believing (and thus responding to the ministry of the Spirit) and those who are not yet believing. A related question is this: Is the Holy Spirit absent from the lives of non-believers? The answer is absolutely not! The Spirit has an important ministry in their lives, long before they even acknowledge and so respond to the Spirit. Note these seven points:
- The nature, character, mind, heart and purpose of the Holy Spirit is identical to that of the Father and the Son. The three Persons of the Trinity are undivided in will and purpose, even if differentiated in terms of ministry or work in relationship to creation.
- The New Testament says little about how the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives prior to the time they begin to believe. This is largely because the character and nature of the Spirit is revealed primarily in the Son. The Spirit’s working, which often remains hidden, is hard to comprehend in creaturely terms. As Jesus told Nicodemus, likening the Spirit to the wind, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8).
- Though often hidden from our view, based on what is revealed in Scripture about the Spirit’s character, heart and mind (which is identical to that of the Son and the Father), we can say with confidence that the Spirit is for all persons—the same persons for whom Christ died.
- We can also say with confidence that the Spirit is involved in Jesus’ continuing ministry to “draw all persons” to himself (John 12:32).
- Scripture shows that the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit is required to open eyes, ears and hearts so that any one person may receive the gifts of God’s grace, responding with faith, hope, love and repentance. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can free human beings from the grip of deception, the bondage of sin and guilt, and the pride of self-sufficiency and rebellion against God.
- Anyone who personally turns to God to receive his freely-given gift of grace does so only because of the Holy Spirit’s ministry being conducted for the glory of the Son. No one would (or could) turn to God on their own. No one can truly say and mean, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). Repentance and faith are gifts of Jesus to individual persons, given by and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
- The ministry of the Holy Spirit is not predictable in terms of how he ministers to individuals or even among groups. His ministry is the widest, but also the most individual and personal of God’s workings. The timing of his drawing of individuals to God will always be a mystery to us. His workings with individuals is customized to particular persons, calculated to draw them in and to overcome their resistance, misunderstandings, social conditioning, and even work with their disabilities.
From our standpoint, it seems that the Holy Spirit does not exert the same persuasive power at every moment upon a given individual. Rather, it appears that he moves at just the right moment—perhaps even “waiting” for that moment to arrive—in order to draw persons closer in. Note here the similarity with how human love works—being patient, but persistent; never coercing, yet purposeful, deliberate and persuasive.
What we do know, and can testify to, is that the Holy Spirit, in his particular, unique and even mysterious way, will be faithful to all, just as the Father and the Son are. We must not think of the ministry of the Spirit as being generic, impersonal, automatic, static or fixed. Like all that God does, the Spirit’s ministry is personal and relational.
As shown in the diagram below, the Holy Spirit meets individuals where they are, taking into account all that they are. His ministry is customized (personalized) for each individual. His purpose is always to free persons from bondage, to open their eyes, bringing them to repentance and faith so that they might receive from Christ all he is, and all he has for them. This receptivity is the beginning of an ever-growing life of what Paul refers to in Romans 1:5 and Romans 16:26 as “the obedience of faith” (or “the obedience that comes from faith”)—a sharing in the obedient faith of Jesus; a sharing in his union and communion with the Father.
Note that the Holy Spirit is the center of this diagram—he is intersecting with all people, no matter where they might currently be (near or far from God). No matter which direction a particular person is facing, the Holy Spirit is always interacting with them in order to turn them towards Christ, and then to help them receive Christ and pursue him by living peacefully, joyfully, deliberately and purposefully in relationship with Christ as a response to the Spirit’s continuous upward calling.
The nature of the Spirit’s “presence”
Though the Holy Spirit is present in the lives of both believers and non-believers, we must not think of him as being present to everyone in exactly the same way. To do so would be to turn the Spirit into some sort of ubiquitous universal law, abstract principle, or impersonal force like gravity or electricity. The truth is that God the Holy Spirit is personally present in an infinite number of ways, as he sees fit. In that regard, you will recall from the Old Testament how the Spirit worked in various ways with Adam and Eve, Noah, Saul and David (to name just a few). You will also recall the astonishing promises given by the Old Testament prophets concerning a new presence and effect of the Holy Spirit, which would be realized with the Messiah’s coming. The prophets promised that the Spirit would give life to dead bones and change hearts and minds resulting in a deeper and true knowing of God.
In the New Testament accounts of the time following Jesus’ earthly ministry, we find examples of yet more variability in the Spirit’s work. You will recall Paul’s experience, that of the Ethiopian eunuch, Stephen’s vision upon his martyrdom, and of course, Pentecost itself, where some received the promised Spirit announced by the Old Testament prophets, but others scoffed and rejected this new phase of the Spirit’s work. John tells us specifically that the world has no ability of itself to receive, know or perceive the Holy Spirit, but Jesus’ followers do (John 14:17).
Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit is present and acting, but in a wide range of ways, and often unpredictably. Consider the preaching of Peter, the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira, the encounter with the sorcerer Simon Magus. Also consider the visions of the apostle John recorded in the book of Revelation. We could give many more examples.
Leading up to Pentecost (and providing its foundation) was the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus, including his conception, baptism, dealing with demons, and crucifixion. These represent a whole variety of workings and, to some degree, variability in the Spirit’s presence, yet without the Spirit ever being absent from Jesus’ life. Key to Jesus’ own teaching was his promise of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophetic promises about the Holy Spirit. He promised that he, with the Father, would be sending the Holy Spirit to establish a new presence and ministry of the Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26). You will also recall Jesus breathing his Spirit upon his apostles (John 20:22), yet telling them to wait for the sending of the Spirit (Luke 24:49). He specifically tells them that the Spirit who was with them, would be in them (John 14:17).
These examples show us that there is no single, simple pattern of the Spirit’s presence or absence. Instead, there is a mysterious, sovereign and dynamic personal presence. Recall again Jesus’ words to Nicodemus concerning the unpredictable nature of the Spirit and his ministry (John 3:5-8).
The Spirit’s ministry is personal and dynamic
Unfortunately, some want to construe the Spirit’s ministry in non-relational, contractual or legal terms: If we do X, then the Spirit will now be able to do Y. With this wrong-headed approach, the Holy Spirit is construed as being conditioned by individual effort and achievement with his presence and ministry being seen in mechanical and material terms, as if the Spirit exists in variable quantities or in divisible pieces or parts. This way of viewing the Spirit and his ministry is not Scriptural.
In contrast, the New Testament holds forth for us a personal, often individual and always dynamic view of the Spirit and his ministry. It can speak of an individual being “born of” the Holy Spirit and “indwelt” by the Spirit (in contrast to not being indwelt). Many individuals are spoken of as being “filled” by the Spirit, and then serving in some particular and distinctive way at a certain time and place. Think, again, of Stephen’s martyrdom, or of Peter’s preaching, or of the New Testament’s teaching concerning the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit’s dynamic presence is also brought out in the fact that the effects of his faithful ministry can be blunted, diminished and even outright repudiated (blasphemed). We are warned not to “grieve” the Spirit. Instead we are exhorted to, “be continually filled” by the Spirit (Eph. 5:18, where the verb indicates present and continuous action) and to be “led” by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18).
Some of the variability in our experience of the Holy Spirit involves the variability of our response and so a variability in how the benefits of the Spirit’s ministry are received. This is not to say that we somehow condition the Spirit to be graciously present and active. But it does lead to the fact that our experience of the benefits of the Spirit involves, to some significant extent, human responsiveness to the faithful and sovereign presence and working of the Spirit, all as the Spirit deems appropriate. We do not condition the active grace of the Holy Spirit, but we can either resist him or cooperate with him, and that will make a difference in the extent of the benefits we experience of the gifts that the Spirit freely gives.
In the New Testament, those who are responsive to the Holy Spirit (believers) are encouraged to be more consistently responsive. Those who are resistant to the Spirit (both believers and non-believers) are warned not to presume upon the grace of God and exhorted to repent of such resistance. The connection, even of the believer, with the Holy Spirit is personal and dynamic, not fixed, static or mechanical. The effects of the ministry of the Spirit thus can be varied even while he is present in a way particular to those who are believing. The Spirit is constant and faithful in character and purpose but dynamic in ministry—because the Spirit is personal (as T.F. Torrance often said, he is “personalizing”).
Though this relational, personal and personalizing presence of the Spirit is variable, it cannot be properly thought of as broken up into “parts,” nor can it be explained as a matter of simple “presence” or “absence.” Instead, Scripture calls upon us to intersect as best we can with what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives. It is in that way that our responsiveness (or lack thereof) to the presence and activity of the Spirit does make a difference—not one in the intention and faithfulness of the Spirit, and certainly not one in the character of the Spirit. Rather, there is a difference in how persons are benefitting in the Spirit’s presence and ministry. Once again, we are dealing with the relational nature of God’s work—in this case as it pertains to the particular ministry of the Spirit. It’s important to recognize the difference our responsiveness does and does not make.
Now returning to the question of how the Spirit is involved in the lives of both non-believers and believers, we are not able to specify exactly how the Spirit works in either case. Ultimately how he operates is a mystery beyond our knowing. However, we can know something of the why he operates—we can understand his overall purposes and aims, which are the same for both believers and non-believers. How is it that we can understand? The answer is that we know the character, heart and mind of the Spirit, because that has been revealed to us. It is identical with that of the Son and the Father—the triune Persons are one in will and purpose. But how exactly the Spirit works out that will and purpose, we cannot (and we need not) say. It is sufficient for us to know the Spirit’s mind, heart and intention, which is consistent towards believers and non-believers.
The many examples of the Spirit’s presence and ministry recorded in Scripture cannot be reduced to an impersonal, fixed formula. They cannot be reduced to conditions that need to be met in order for the Holy Spirit to be obligated to act in certain ways. However, these examples do indicate that the Spirit takes account of the personal, particular and individual situations of persons even while accomplishing his predetermined purpose, which is to draw all persons to Christ and then into Christ.
Here is a helpful way to look at the Spirit’s ministry: No matter who we are, no matter what condition we are in, the Holy Spirit is drawing us in one direction—upward, towards a worship relationship with God through Christ. As seen in the diagram above, the Spirit’s work has a certain trajectory—one that slopes upward towards the high calling of Christ (to paraphrase Paul). The top of the slope represents a full and complete relationship with Christ—sharing completely in his sanctified and glorified human nature. This represents the complete conformity of our whole lives to Christ. The bottom of the slope then represents full and complete rejection of Christ. It represents death and rebellion against God—a refusal of the gifts of Christ and of life in Christ given by the Spirit.
What is most important in this attempt to graphically illustrate something of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is the direction the Spirit is drawing all people (both non-believers and believers). Where a given individual stands on this slope is of secondary importance. The Spirit, being personal and ministering to humanity in particular and dynamic ways, can be redemptively present with a person no matter where they are on the slope. Note, however, that the Spirit is always working with each person to draw them in one direction only—towards God, through Jesus.
The Spirit will do this work of drawing no matter where on the slope the individual may be—close to Christ, or far away—and no matter which direction they currently are headed. The aim of the Spirit will always be to turn the person in the direction of moving deliberately, intentionally and personally, upward on the slope towards Christ. The Spirit does this by setting the person free to exercise a personal faith, hope and love towards God on the basis of the mediation of the Son and his completed work.
In this personal, relational ministry, the Holy Spirit accounts for all of a person’s particularities—their age, gender, ethnicity, mental capacity, physical and emotional abilities and disabilities, background, education, current frame of mind, place in society, economic state, family history, religious background, etc. The aim will always be to turn them to Christ and to have them participate as fully as they can, in as deep a relationship as possible, with Christ at any given time.
Compared to where someone happens to be on the slope at any given time, what is far more important is the direction the person is facing. Are they facing towards Christ and responding to his upward call through the Spirit? Or are they facing away from Christ, resisting the Spirit, rejecting their need for grace, clinging to their self-will and self-righteousness?
The foundational ministry of the Spirit is to turn people towards God, in Christ, setting them free to trust in Christ and so to begin drawing from the full storehouse of blessings that are already complete in Christ.
Our ministry: sharing in the Spirit’s ministry
Given that this is the nature of the Spirit’s ministry, it follows that the ministry of the church should also be the same towards believers and non-believers. The Spirit calls and gifts us to proclaim who Christ is and what he has done for all people. We are to make God known to all according to his self-revelation in Christ and the witness presented to us in Scripture. On that basis, we encourage, persuade and direct people to begin or to continue to put their trust in Christ and what he has done for them, and to begin or continue to repent of putting ultimate trust in anyone or anything else.
This message and witness—this ministry—is one and the same toward all, no matter where they are on the slope; no matter which direction they may be facing at the present time. In this way we join with the Spirit in his ministry. Though this does not mean that we cannot take into account where a person is located on the slope, or which direction they may currently be facing, these will not be the primary determinates of our proclamation. Instead, our calling is to point all people to Jesus, calling them to a personal, particular, vital and transforming relationship in communion with God through Christ and by the Spirit according to Scripture. Such a relationship will come to involve their participation in the church. Those who follow Jesus will want to associate with other believers as the Holy Spirit incorporates (baptizes) them into the body of Christ. Such persons will also want to join in the mission of the church—witnessing to Jesus by word and deed. They will want to grow in their relationship with God, understanding more fully his Word and ways. They will want to follow Christ, exploring where he leads them through this relationship of union and communion with God.
It cannot rightly be said that those who are not receptive to the Holy Spirit have been incorporated by the Spirit into the body of Christ. As is clear from the New Testament, sharing in Christ’s mission in worship and witness as members of his body is something that takes place purposely and consciously—by prayer and with thanksgiving. As Karl Barth has indicated, the Holy Spirit does not fulfill his ministry on behalf of Jesus anonymously—there are no anonymous Christians. However, this does not mean that we can know with certainty who is and who isn’t a member of Christ’s body at any given time. But it does inform us that those who are responsive to the Spirit’s drawing, and receptive to receiving the grace of God as it comes to us through Christ, experience a unique quality of relationship that corresponds to the New Testament’s description of the fellowship enjoyed by those who are members of the body of Christ.
Christian ministry and the Christian life follow this biblical pattern of thought, but not in ways that are self-righteous and dismissive of those who are not believers. Instead, we are encouraged as the church to persevere in the work to which we are called, and encouraged as individual believers to persevere in following Jesus forward.
The nature of the Christian life
How we follow Jesus forward has to do with the nature of the Christian life—another primary topic that we’ve been addressing in this essay. As shown in the diagram above, we live this life of following Jesus “between the times”—in the time between Jesus’ first and second advents. During this time, Christ’s ministry is taking place by his presence in and through the Holy Spirit, who forms and sends the church, the body of Christ, into the world.
The Christian life is first and foremost about our participation, as the body of Christ, by the Spirit, in the Son of God’s relationship with his Father. As brothers and sisters of Jesus by adoption, we share in Jesus’ worship and communion with our mutual Father. We also partake together of Jesus’ responses to the Father. As we do so, Jesus sanctifies our partial and inadequate responses, leading us, as one of us, in worshipping the Father.
What the Son of God has accomplished for us, the Holy Spirit works out in us. That means that our whole salvation (including our justification and sanctification), which are complete in Christ, is worked out completely in us. We have a share in all these aspects of salvation now as a kind of inheritance, because by the Spirit, there is (as Calvin put it) a “wonderful exchange” whereby Jesus takes what is ours, makes it his own, then by the Spirit gives it back to us. This understanding echoes Paul’s statement:
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9, NRSV)
We share in what is Christ’s. Because we live between the times, this will be a matter of dynamic interaction, relationship and process. It’s definitely not a fixed, automatic set-up. It involves both repenting and confessing sin when we fall into temptation. It also involves being renewed in our faith, hope and love for God and for others (what Calvin called our “mortification” and “vivification”). The New Testament speaks of dying to self and rising to Christ and of putting off our sinful ways, then putting on Christ. Thus we acknowledge the reality that we have a past and a weakened human nature.
In our relationship with God, we confess our sin when we fall into temptation, going to God knowing he is ready and able to renew us and give us his forgiveness again. We do not presume upon his grace—we hand over to God all that needs eradication, and God cleanses us again. God renews and strengthens us. This is what our sanctification in this life is like in relationship to Christ and the Spirit between the times, looking forward, in faith, with hope, to the day when we will see our weaknesses gone, and all traces of sin removed.
This is what the normal Christian life looks like. You will recall Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17 where he prayed for this very thing to occur in our lives. He knew we were going to need to receive his sanctification as he left us in the world to be his witnesses. Even in our times of confession, Jesus does not leave us alone, relying on our own strength. Instead, he stands with us, by the Spirit, as our High Priest, praying for us and with us, cleansing us with his own sanctity, then handing us over to the Father.
Our singular identity, in Christ
This dynamic relationship and process is truly hope-filled. Why? Because we know that our salvation is complete in Christ, and we know that God is faithful. With this confidence—this hope grounded in faith in God—we are involved in a life-long transformative relationship, becoming conformed to Christ as the Lord pleases, in his time and in his way. In this life, we are becoming, in ourselves, what we truly are in Christ.
However, in this time between the times, we are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). As noted earlier in this essay, this does not mean that we have two “selves” or two “identities”—one here on earth and another hidden with Christ in heaven. Scripture teaches that, as those belonging to Jesus, we are a single self—we possess a single identity. Jesus is our life—we belong to him, body and soul.
Knowing this, we “press on” (Phil 3:12) to live into this one, true identity. Jesus alone tells us who we are in him. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, he gives us a share in his meaning, significance, security, dignity and destiny. We do not derive these things from any other source. We live into and out of our single identity “in Christ.” This, it seems, is what Paul means by “working out” the gift of our salvation.
Because we are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit (the spiritual union, which we’ve addressed at length in this essay), our pasts do not determine who we are, or who we are becoming. Jesus, who is Lord of all time, is Lord of our past and our future. Thus we understand that we are no longer simply sinners—we are forgiven sinners. Having been created “good” creatures, we know that we will be the glorified, perfected children of God. This means that we should not, indeed we cannot, define our identities on the basis of our fallen, weakened human nature that is still prone to sin and so is open to being taken advantage of by the power of sin.
Our human nature, which already is perfected in Christ, is in this time between the times, in transition. Our attention (wills, minds, hearts and bodies) can be directed towards the past (which is passing away under the judgment of the cross of Christ) or it can be directed, by the power of the Spirit, towards the high calling of Christ. The New Testament indicates that we have a part to play in this dynamic.
On the basis of our singular identity—the identity of our persons in union and communion with Christ—we are to align ourselves with the power of the Spirit that leads to life, and thereby resist the power of sin that leads to death. This does not mean that it is all up to us—not at all! We do have our part which, according to Paul, is to “fight the fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). This we do in alliance with the Spirit, placing our trust and hope in God’s faithfulness on the basis of his Word. What God has begun in us, we know he will bring to completion (Phil. 1:6). We are to direct our selves—our persons, our personal agencies—our nature and its natural, if weakened capacities, toward serving the glory of God through the power of the Word of God and the Spirit.
Avoiding two errors
This understanding of the nature of the Christian life, and of the identity and future we have in Christ, helps us avoid two errors that some have embraced. The first error is thinking that the fullness of our salvation is fully accomplished by the Incarnation (i.e., the hypostatic union). That viewpoint fails to properly account for the biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the related doctrines of the body of Christ, the church, and the Christian life.
The second error is thinking that we have a divided self, or two wills, or two natures, or even two identities. As we have shown in this essay, that is not the case. As Jesus says, we are not to serve two masters because we have only one. We are to live with a single (sound) eye (mind) (Luke 11:34). We are slaves only to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We have a fallen (weakened) human nature that cannot, in this age, be completely restored. That nature can be tempted to live in the past—to revivify what has been crucified with Christ. But it is tempted not because there is a division within it, or because we have two identities. Instead, it is tempted by the power of evil still operating to some degree in this age. That evil looks for an opportunity to take advantage of our weakness.
Thus we understand that the temptations we experience do not arise from within us, but from what is alien to us, and more importantly, what is alien to the Holy Spirit and the life he has for us in Christ. Yes, sometimes the tension we experience seems to be within us—evil attacks us and tempts us at the deepest level of our being. But this tension is not between two intrinsic, irresolvable “parts” dueling away within us (as illustrated below). Instead, it’s between what is not us, namely sin or the power of sin, on the one hand, and life in the Holy Spirit on the other.
Consequently, we are not in a hopeless state—we are not caught in an “existential bind.” As Paul tells us (see Romans 5), our union with Christ (the new Adam—the new head of humanity) by the Spirit is far greater than our connection with the first Adam and our fallen nature, which has been corrupted by a past that is now passing away. Thus the New Testament teaches us to expect some degree of transformation even now as we share (from the inside out) in what Christ gives us of himself by his Word and Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).
This transformation, under the direction of the personal and particular ministry of the Holy Spirit, is custom-fitted to each individual as a member of the body of Christ. Thus the scope and rate of this transformation cannot be predicted. Nevertheless, its basic pattern is predictable. The Spirit will lead us to proclaim Christ and the work of salvation that he has completed in our place and on our behalf. He will lead us to be announcing the faithful ministry of the Holy Spirit so as to encourage ourselves and others to press on—to live in fellowship and communion with Christ, ready to receive all he has to give us, and to turn away from all that hinders us from receiving and enjoying fellowship and communion with him.
The obedience that comes from faith
Paul characterizes the life that results from fellowship with Christ, in the Spirit, as “the obedience that comes from faith” (or “the obedience of faith” in some translations). By using this phrase (in Romans 1:5 and Romans 16:26) Paul indicates that all that is said and done in the Christian life arises out of confidence in the person and work of Christ—in who he is and what he has done, is doing and will yet do according to his Word.
The foundation for all our doing as Christians is our being in Christ. The commands (imperatives) of the Christian life are thus based in the facts (indicatives) of grace, which we can absolutely count on. As shown in the diagram at the beginning of this part of the essay, when commands (imperatives) are given, they typically appeal to the indicative of the identity we have in Christ—in essence, we are being told to “be who you are in Christ.”
Christian ministry (including our teaching and preaching) should thus always begin by proclaiming the indicatives (the positive facts of grace)—all that God can be trusted for on the basis of his Word and revealed character. Only then do we address our response (the commands, the imperatives of grace). For example, we declare that we are to forgive because we have been forgiven. That we are to love because we are loved. That we are to be generous to others because God has been generous to us. That we are to care for the orphans and widows because God cares for them. That we are to be faithful in marriage and faithful in celibacy as singles because God is faithful to us and will never abandon us. That we are to pray because God listens to our prayers with the Son and Spirit as intercessors for us.
All these are examples of the obedience that comes from faith—the only kind that God is interested in because it is the only obedience that arises out of a trust and recognition of the truth of who God is—a recognition of his goodness, love, holiness and faithfulness. This kind of obedience is the fruit of spiritual maturity. It’s obedience that rules out both legalism and antinomianism.
It is the Holy Spirit’s ministry to lead members of the church both individually and collectively in making these kinds of grace-based responses, which are all about receiving from Christ, being conformed to Christ, growing up into Christ, being transformed, and being sanctified by sharing in Christ’s regenerated and sanctified humanity. The church then is the context in which we grow and are transformed as we feed upon Christ and his Word, and as we build up and strengthen one another. It is within the church that we partake in worship and witness, sharing in the mission of the church to know God in Christ and to make him known, in word and deed, as we are both gathered and sent out.
We now conclude this series, not because we’ve said all that can be said on these topics, but knowing that the conversation will continue, building on what we’ve covered. This essay is offered in the hope that enough was said to lend greater clarity to our understanding of Christ’s relationship to us by the Incarnation (the hypostatic union) and by the Spirit (the spiritual union), and also of the nature of the Christian life in response to the grace of God. The Father, Son and Spirit (the whole Trinity) call us to enter into deep and abiding fellowship and communion with them both now and into eternity. It is for this that we were created and then redeemed. Amen.