By Joanna Tien, Class of ’18
“Take away the dispensation of the Spirit, and his effectual operations in all the intercourse that is between God and man; be ashamed to avow or profess the work attributed unto him in the gospel, — and Christianity is plucked up by the roots.” – John Owen
The Holy Spirit’s role in salvation and redemptive history is often the most overlooked and under-appreciated. God the Father’s sovereignty, mercy, and righteousness is exalted. Jesus Christ’s love and ultimate sacrifice on the cross is extolled. The Holy Spirit’s invaluable work in and beyond salvation, however, is often relatively unacknowledged. Part of the Holy Spirit’s work in executing the unified will of God the Father and Jesus Christ does involve him directing glory to the Father and the Son, which means he is supposed to draw our attention and affection to them. Nonetheless, Christians still ought to know and appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit. As John Piper stated:
Before Christ’s coming . . . the prominence of God the Father; during the days of Christ’s earthly life . . . the prominence of God the Son; and since the ascension of the Son . . . the prominence of God the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we live in a unique, climactic period of redemptive history, the days of the Spirit. Just as Israel of old had a special responsibility to know and honor God as Father in the oneness of his nature, and just as the people of Palestine had a special responsibility to know and honor Jesus as the Son of God in the days of his flesh, so now we have a special responsibility to know and honor the Holy Spirit.
In other words, when we have a better understanding of the Holy Spirit’s personhood and work, we have a better understanding of the one, eternal God. In fact, one of the indispensable works of the Holy Spirit is regeneration. To overlook the Holy Spirit or his work in transforming unbelieving, dead spirits into believing, living spirits is to overlook a necessary part of God’s redemptive plan of restoring sinful humans to our original intended relationship with him. Conversely, acknowledging the Spirit’s sovereignty in regeneration affords us a better perspective on how the Trinity is manifested in God’s glorious work of salvation as a whole.
Who is the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Trinity, the doctrine that there is one God who eternally exists in three equal and unique persons. The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force, as some people have misunderstood him to be. Jesus made this very clear during his time on earth. When he promises the Holy Spirit to his followers in John 14, he calls the Holy Spirit “another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). The language Jesus uses denotes the nature of the Spirit—the Spirit is another Helper like Jesus who is able to connect with individuals on a personal level. Jesus expands on the personhood of the Spirit as the Helper in subsequent verses. In John 14:17, Jesus states that it is possible for his followers to “know” the Spirit—that is, know the nature and work of the Spirit. Furthermore, 1 John 2:27 describes how the Holy Spirit is personally involved in Christians’ spiritual lives by teaching them about the Gospel message as part of his guiding ministry. As seen from these Scripture references alone, the Spirit is able to accomplish these things because he is a unique person.
As a person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit’s relationship with the Father and the Son is unique. In 1 Corinthians 2:10-13, the Apostle Paul describes how the Spirit searches the “depths of God” and comprehends them because he is the Spirit of God. In addition to being coequal with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit’s guiding and transforming ministry is equally as important as the Father’s work of creation and the Son’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Jesus emphasized the importance of the Spirit when he declared the Spirit to be more important than his own bodily presence in John 16:7, where Jesus said, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.” The conclusions we can draw from what Scripture says about the Spirit ought to inform our desire to appreciate his work just as much as we do with the Father and the Son.
The work of the Holy Spirit in this period of redemptive history began at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the believers in a new, more powerful way. Acts 2 describes how the the Spirit enabled them to speak in other tongues, which is just one of the works of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant age (the time from Christ’s death and resurrection to when he returns in the future). The Spirit’s other works include our sanctification (Romans 8:29), intercession on our behalf (Rom. 8:26-27), illumination of our understanding of Scripture (Luke 24:27; 44-48), communication of gifts to the church (Acts 1:8), and more. As John Owen stated in Pneumatologia, the Father appointed the Holy Spirit to “make the effects and fruits of the incarnation, obedience, and suffering of his Son, effectual in us and towards us.” In order for those things to happen, the Holy Spirit needs to first perform his work of regeneration.
What is Regeneration?
Regeneration is the Holy Spirit’s work of transforming a person’s spirit from one that is unable to know or please God to one that is spiritually alive. In John 3, Jesus illustrates the importance of regeneration by describing it as a spiritual rebirth. He says that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” or heaven (John 3:3). Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish governing body the Sanhedrin, mistakenly believes that Jesus’ statement is about physical rebirth, to which Jesus replies that one must be born of “water and the Spirit” (John 3:4-5). Jesus states in John 3:5-6 that the first time someone is born, he or she is just flesh, meaning that his or her spirit is dead. As Paul later declares in Romans 8:7-8, that individual’s mind is hostile to God. He or she cannot obey God’s commands nor please God because they are controlled by the sinful nature. However, Jesus says that those born of the Spirit, i.e. born again through a second birth, are spiritually alive. Spiritual rebirth both cleanses individuals of their past sin and renews their spirit so that they can enter a relationship with God.
John 3 is just one example of the two categories Jesus (as well as Paul and various other authors of books in the Bible) identifies in regards to the the kinds of people there are at this stage of redemptive history. There are those who are dead, who live according to the flesh and the sinful nature—the people who do not know God. And then there are those who are born of water and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells within them so that they are no longer “children of wrath” but children of God (Ephesians 2:3; Romans 8:15). Such a spiritual birth cleanses people of a heart that is enslaved to sin and makes them slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:18).
Another way to understand the distinction that the Bible draws between post-Fall man (those who live according to the flesh) and reborn man is to consider the phrases non posse non peccare (not able to not sin) and posse non peccare (able not to sin). Post-Fall man is in the state of non posse non peccare (not able to not sin), or total depravity. Such a doctrine states that after the Fall, man was so corrupted by sin physically, mentally, and spiritually that all he does is sin (Romans 3:9-18). Romans 3:23 states “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, sin is at the core of post-Fall man. He tries to fill the God-shaped hole in his heart by “carrying out the desires of the body and the mind,” but his mind is so weakened and darkened by sin that he does not and cannot realize that such things lead to death (Ephesians 2:3). Paul writes that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). If these people are not regenerated by the Holy Spirit and saved, they will be held accountable and suffer eternal punishment (Ephesians 2:3; Matthew 25:46).
Reborn man, however, is in the state of posse non peccare (able not to sin). He is still able to sin; but thankfully, he is also able to not sin. This illustrates why Christians do sin but can also recognize and fight sin. As previously stated, post-Fall man can neither recognize nor fight sin. First John 3:9-10 and 5:18 declare how due to the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration, those born of the Spirit cannot live in the pattern of sin that the spiritually dead do. This is because the Holy Spirit transforms our spirits and gives us wisdom to recognize our sinfulness and be repentant. In other words, the mental and spiritual effects of the Fall are partially reversed through regeneration, but only because regeneration effectively bridges the spiritual gap between God and man and makes the message of the cross truly comprehensible (1 Corinthians 2:12).
Effectual Calling: Regeneration is Purely the Work of the Holy Spirit
Regeneration is the sovereign and free work of God accomplished through the Holy Spirit—it is like the wind, which operates of its own accord (John 3:8). As previously stated, post-Fall man does not and cannot realize that he is a slave to sin according to the doctrine of total depravity. Thus, he is in total rebellion to God, totally unable to submit to and please God, and totally deserving of eternal punishment. How, then, can post-Fall man get himself out of this predicament and become a reborn man? The answer is he cannot. Post-Fall man is utterly helpless and undeserving of regeneration and salvation. God is the only one who is able to pull post-Fall man out of the clutches of sin and death and wash his soul clean through water and Spirit, and thankfully, he is loving and merciful enough to do so (John 3:5).
In order for a post-Fall man to be reborn, the power of the Holy Spirit has to call man to God (John 6:44). Such a call is effectual and so irresistible that man is inevitably drawn to God and regenerated, and he can then be led to faith in the Son and salvation. If effectual calling is purely God’s work and there is nothing post-Fall man can do to initiate it, then it follows that God calls people on the basis of his predestination (Romans 8:28-30). Such predestination is based on God’s free choice regarding what would best serve his purpose (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11). God, by definition, is all-powerful and thus his choice is not constrained by any merit or distinctiveness man possesses—God does not have to predestine specific people for salvation and instead he chooses freely (2 Timothy 1:8-9).
If post-fall man were left to his own devices, he would never choose God. It is only God’s merciful predestination and the Holy Spirit’s glorious work in regeneration that secures reborn man’s faith and salvation. Romans 8:29-30 clearly states that, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Effectual calling is the doctrine which expresses that God’s divine call kickstarts our transformation and enables saving faith. In other words, God always successfully draws a person to him through regeneration. After the Holy Spirit makes the Gospel truly comprehensible, God then leads a person to faith in the Son and salvation (John 6:44). Thus, as Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Salvation is the effect of regeneration, not the cause. And our obedience and faith in God is not of our own doing but rather the Spirit’s doing.
Regeneration is the work of God and it is free, but only because God has already paid the price by sending his Son to die in our place on the cross. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see that despite our fallen nature, God has always cared about redeeming us to our original purpose. When the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration is placed in the context of the depravity of post-Fall man, effectual calling and predestination, and the glimpses of glory in reborn man, the Spirit’s importance in God’s redemptive plan is further accentuated. Possessing a better understanding of the Holy Spirit is not an end in and of itself—the more we know about the Holy Spirit and appreciate how redemptive history as a whole is a demonstration of God’s impossibly deep love and mercy towards sinners and rebels, the more we ought to give God the rightful glory that is due in every aspect of our lives.
Owen, John. Pneumatologia. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967.
Piper, John. “The Holy Spirit: He Is God!” Desiring God, 5 Feb. 1984, http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-holy-spirit-he-is-god. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017