The ministry of the Spirit and the Christian Life

In recent months, GCI has been refining and thus clarifying its theological statements related to the post-ascension ministry of the Holy Spirit and what that means for the Christian life (including distinctions between believers and non-belivers). Below is part 3 of an essay by GCI author and editor Dr. Gary Deddo. It helpfully addresses these topics. To read the full essay click here.

The Holy Spirit's ministry, the Christian Life, Believers & Non-believers

By Dr. Gary Deddo

Throughout our journey of theological renewal GCI has, appropriately, emphasized the objective aspects of our Lord's Incarnation, vicarious humanity and ministry. Though always acknowledged, less emphasis has been placed on the subjective aspects of Christ's ministry and the related ministry of the Holy Spirit. As we've looked further at the relationship of our incarnational Trinitarian faith to the ministry of the church, we've seen the need for greater clarity and some adjustment concerning these less fully-developed topics. Toward that end, this part of the essay examines the Holy Spirit's ministry, the implications for the Christian life, and the distinction Scripture makes between believers and non-believers.

The Holy Spirit and our participation

One area where clarification and adjustment are needed pertains to what we teach concerning the relationship of the Holy Spirit and our participation (response) to all Jesus has accomplished for us. We now see that some of the terms we've been using to describe the completed (objective) work of Jesus and his ministry are more appropriately and directly applicable to the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit and our related personal (subjective) participation. In that regard, the terms (which we want to use as they are used in Scripture) “union with Christ,” the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit, and being “members of the Body of Christ” all make reference to the believer's response to the freely-given gift of God’s grace by the working of the Holy Spirit. These terms refer to the quality of relationship that arises out of our participation as persons (subjects) being formed and transformed into conformity with Christ by the Holy Spirit.

"Dove of the Holy Spirit"
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In part 2 of this essay, we noted that we must account for both the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ, as well as the spiritual union that we as believers have with Christ---a union brought about by the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit. Though not separated (as if disconnected), these two “unions” are properly and rightly distinguished as two moments (aspects) of God’s one saving work---a work involving the ministry not just of the Son, but of the Holy Spirit (who is sent by the Father and the Son). Though related, these two moments are distinct aspects of the one (whole) saving work of God. Consequently, we want to avoid the potential error of thinking of the Christian life in ways that collapse the spiritual union (our “union with Christ” by the Holy Spirit) into the hypostatic union, particularly as it pertains to the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit, promise and fulfillment

The New Testament shows that the Christian life cannot be understood apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, which takes place after the ascension on the basis of the completed earthly ministry of Jesus. Recall that the ultimate covenant promise of God being our God, and of we being his people, was prophesied to be fulfilled with the sending (pouring out) of the Holy Spirit. This pouring out, which is like water in the desert or breath to dead bones, raises persons up from their graves, gives them new hearts of flesh, and writes on those human hearts what formerly was written only on tablets of stone. Though Israel had the Word of the Lord in certain ways and the Law (the Torah), the Holy Spirit's coming was the high point of Old Testament prophecy. Looking back, we now see how the coming of God’s Messiah fits into the plan---the Word of God comes in Person and sends the Spirit to work intensively (personally) within individuals, drawing God’s people together. He then works extensively to bring the blessing to all peoples of the earth. Jesus’ own person and ministry is essentially tied in with that of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was conceived, baptized and anointed by the Sprit. He dealt decisively with evil by the power of the Spirit, he rejoiced in the Spirit, and he offered up his life through the Spirit to the Father on the cross. Likewise, Jesus' ministry towards his people is inseparably tied in with that of the Holy Spirit. As John the Baptist proclaimed, Jesus is the one who, uniquely, baptizes with the Holy Spirit, thus fulfilling the covenant promises and related Old Testament prophecies. Jesus’ promise of the Spirit along with his breathing on the disciples while commanding them to wait for the Spirit after his ascension, demonstrate how essential the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit is in bringing about the fullness of God’s saving work. Indeed, Jesus’ own teaching consistently highlights the interweaving of the Spirit’s ministry with his own. Note this declaration from Jesus:
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. (John 15:26 NRSV)
Paul affirms this interconnection of the ministries of Jesus and the Spirit:
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3 NRSV)

The tandem ministry of Jesus and the Spirit

This interconnection of ministries is taught definitively in the New Testament's accounts of the Incarnation of the Word of God (Jesus Christ) and of his sending of the Holy Spirit. There we find the "tandem" ministry of the incarnate Son with the Holy Spirit first unfolding, then reaching a new phase following Jesus' ascension. Then with the rebirth of the people of God at Pentecost, which brings about the formation of the church, the New Testament writers give intensive instruction, exhortation, encouragement, commands, correction and even warnings to those who are gathered as the body of Christ (the church). All these things specify aspects of our participation as members of the body. Throughout the New Testament, we find that the ministry of the Holy Spirit always is related to these responses and thus the sanctifying-transforming of the people of God.

"Baptism of Christ" by Davezelenka
(used by permission, Creative Commons)

The vast majority of the more than 100 New Testament references to the Holy Spirit indicate that his ministry is responsible for our participation in myriad ways: speaking the word of God, hearing the word of God, revealing, being guided, sent out, forbidden, justified, sanctified, sanctified to be obedient, declaring Jesus to be Lord, living and being led, putting to death sin, praying, sharing, worshiping, loving, being convicted, having new life, being renewed, expressing joy, proclaiming the good news, being witnesses, given gifts and fruit, being full or filled by the Spirit---all of these (and more) in, with and by the Holy Spirit. Thus we understand that the entirety of the Christian life is bound up with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who engenders all these means of our participation in the life of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit's personal, particular, freeing and transforming ministry

The Holy Spirit frees and enables us to receive and live into the truth and reality of all that God has accomplished for us in Christ. Since salvation is essentially a relationship (a gift of reconciliation between God and humanity), Scripture does not depict the ministry of the Holy Spirit as being impersonal, causal, mechanical or automatic. Having been freed by the Spirit, our corresponding response in relationship to God is dynamic, personal, particular and life sanctifying. Accordingly, Jesus encouraged his disciples with these words:
When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say. (Luke 12:11-12 NRSV)
The book of Acts also provides examples of the Holy Spirit working in individual, highly personal ways: with Cornelius, Philip and the Ethiopian in the chariot, with Stephen, then later with Paul under many different circumstances, and in the many incidents involving other apostles and other groups of people, some who were ready to receive the gospel and some who were not.

The Gospels give many examples of Jesus' personal encounters with people. He extends a personal call to James, John, Andrew and Peter. He speaks privately with Nicodemus. Though some encounters begin in indirect, impersonal ways, they typically turn highly personal---"face-to-face." An example is Jesus' encounter with Zacchaeus. Jesus finds him in a tree and ends up sharing dinner with him. Another example is when Jesus calls back to himself the woman with the flow of blood who had only wanted to touch his robes. The point here is that there is nothing generic and thus impersonal about the ministry of Jesus (and the same can be said concerning the ministry of the Holy Spirit). What we find in the Gospels and throughout the New Testament is what TF Torrance referred to as the "personalizing" ministry of Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

As is true of Jesus, the Holy Spirit's work is not causal or mechanical. He is not an impersonal power or force-vector. Nor is he merely a universal principle. Given that salvation is the gift of a reconciled relationship for us to participate in, the Spirit’s way of working is highly relational and therefore personal. Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit can be resisted. It warns us not to quench the Spirit but to be filled with the Spirit. So there is a real, dynamic interaction between persons and the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit faithfully ministers.

Though not everyone has this personal, relational understanding of the Holy Spirit's work, it is clear that his ministry does not result in a general effect that indiscriminately causes everyone to react the same way. This can be seen, for instance, at Pentecost, where some people observing what was taking place by the Spirit scoffed, claiming it was nothing more than persons being drunk (Acts 2:13). In other incidents in the book of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Spirit and Simon the sorcerer attempted to buy the power of the Spirit for his own purposes. In the book of Hebrews, we are told of people “who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” but who have then fallen away and now “are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb. 6:4-6 ESV). Then we have in the Gospel of Mark the sobering warning about those who are in danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit with the result that they will never “have” forgiveness (Mark 3:29 ESV). They have repudiated the One who is delivering this forgiveness personally and thus directly to them (to their spirits). This does not mean that the Holy Spirit cannot or will not resist someone’s resistance, or object to their objection, but it does indicate that the Spirit can be resisted---an act of human will for which there are consequences.

The Holy Spirit, maturity and sanctification

By observing that the Holy Spirit works in the church in ways that are not causal or deterministic (thus not "even"), we learn that there are degrees of maturity within the body of Christ, even though God's goal (aim or purpose) is for all to reach maturity in Christ. Paul puts it this way:
It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Col. 1:28 NRSV)
With the goal of maturity in mind, Paul distinguishes between those who are spiritual and those who are unspiritual, meaning not yet mature in response to the ministry of the Word and Spirit:
We speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. (1 Cor. 2:12-15 NRSV)
Not all are spiritual (spiritually mature), even though that is the goal, not only of Paul, but of the Holy Spirit and his ministry. Such maturity is also referred to in the New Testament as being sanctified. But that too is regarded as a process of growth that involves the personal and personalizing ministry of the Holy Spirit. The outcome is that not all are sharing to the same degree in Christ’s full sanctity, though all are to continue in faith, by the Holy Spirit’s ministry, to grow (mature) in that direction since no one has fully arrived at the ultimate goal. Note, for example, what Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification…. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (1 Thess. 4:3; 5:23-24 NRSV)
Because Paul did not expect the results of the ministry of the Holy Spirit to be instantaneous, he wrote this to the Christians in Corinth:
All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)
The Christian life is not a self-help program---the relationship we have with Christ through the Holy Spirit, that like all real relationships is personal, particular, dynamic and interactive. Our relationship with Christ, by the Spirit, occurs over time, resulting in personal transformation that conforms us to Christ. However, those who continually resist or reject the Holy Spirit will not experience most of the benefits of Christ. So the author of Hebrews explains the difference between those who believe and enter God’s rest and those who do not:
For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. (Heb. 4:2 ESV)
The finished work of Christ’s earthly ministry accomplishing all that is needed for salvation (wisdom, righteousness, sanctification) is never questioned but affirmed (1 Cor. 1:30). Likewise, the Holy Spirit’s faithfulness is stressed and never questioned (Phil. 1:6). The author of Hebrews both assures us of Christ’s finished work, but at the same time also indicates that this puts in motion a dynamic process: "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Heb. 10:14 ESV). We are sanctified in Christ, but we are also being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. As Paul says in Philippians 2:12, we are to "work out our salvation" (live into it) because God is at work in us. Paul also says that we are to "press on" to make Christ our own, because he has made us his own (Phil. 3:12, 14). All obedience then is the obedience that belongs to, or is the product of faith in God’s faithfulness (Rom. 1:5; 16:26, Heb. 11:1-40).

The point here is that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is personal and personally transforming---it is dynamic and interactive, bringing about receptivity, responsiveness and participation. And the result is that we are on a journey towards spiritual maturity and full sanctification, being changed into the likeness of Christ. But this journey is not automatic, causal, or impersonal. It is not mechanically imposed on all believers, much less on all human persons (including non-believers). Since personal (subjective) receptivity and participation do make a difference, much of the New Testament indicates the differences it makes and encourages, exhorts and even commands us to be receptive to the Word of God and the ministry of the Spirit out of trust in God’s faithfulness through the Son and in the Spirit. As Paul exhorts in Ephesians 5:18, we are to “be filled with the Spirit.”

These personal distinctions related to personal participation should not be taken to mean that God is faithful to some but not to all. The difference our personal responsiveness makes does not condition God into changing his purpose and aim for us and all humanity. It does not make God for some and against others, and it certainly does not lead him to want to see those who are unresponsive perish. 

Our personal response (or lack thereof) to God cannot undo the fact that Jesus is and remains Lord and Savior of all. The character and purpose, mind and heart of God remain just as they have been revealed in Christ. The finished work of Christ is never undone---God remains, in Christ, reconciled to all people, no matter their response. He has and holds out forgiveness for them, is ready to receive them back into fellowship with him, and in that sense accepts them. However, while God accepts them, he does not accept their rejection, their sin, their rebellion, but accepts them in order to do away with what is against them and against their participation in the reconciliation accomplished for them in Christ. Nothing changes that reconciliation (with all it means), not even a person's complete or partial rejection of God's gift. However, our personal response (participation) does affect the quality of our lived relationship with God and thus our personal experiencing of the benefits of Christ.

God’s omnipresence and the Holy Spirit

Another question often raised about the person and work of the Holy Spirit pertains to God's omnipresence: Is not God’s Spirit at work everywhere all the time upon all people, since God is Spirit and thus is not absent from anywhere in his universe? While this is true, the biblical depiction of the working of God’s Spirit and the nature of his presence is that God can be present and active in a wide variety of ways. God’s presence is not impersonal, static, fixed or constant, as a law of physics might be. This can be seen in the Old Testament wherever God particularly speaks a Word and where particular prophets receive God's Word. We note as well that certain persons were gifted to contribute to the construction of the Tabernacle. Some were (temporarily, it seems) filled with the Spirit of God for a certain task. We also note that the temple was filled in a particular way with the glorious presence of the Lord---a presence not found elsewhere. In the New Testament we find a similar dynamic of presence. Jesus said this to his disciples:
This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. (John 14:17)
Note how Jesus makes a distinction between the Spirit’s being "with" them compared to being “in” them. Notice also that Jesus understands that the world in general, rejecting the truth, cannot on its own “receive” the Spirit, and therefore the Spirit will not be dwelling in them compared to those who are receptive. In like manner, Paul makes these statements in his letter to the believers in the churches in Rome:
You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Rom. 8:9 NRSV, and see Gal. 6:1) For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God... (Rom. 8:15-16 ESV)
Though God is indeed present to everything that exists, the nature of his relationship with all that he is present to is not static, fixed, impersonal, non-relational. God, by his Spirit, is present and active in a whole range of ways, forging personal relationships with persons and even transforming them to become more truly the persons God intends for them to be in his image. Speaking more colloquially, God’s presence is not like a blanket spread out over everything. God’s presence is not like having an electrical switch being in the “on” or “off” position---either 100% present or completely absent.

It is only as we give full account of the ministry of the Holy Spirit as interconnected with the ministry of the Son, that it becomes clear why so much of the New Testament is dedicated to giving particular instruction, encouragement, explanation, exhortation, correction and even warnings. All these have to do with our participation---our involvement in real relationship with the present, living, acting and speaking Triune God. Only by seeing our participation in light of the Holy Spirit (whose ministry takes place entirely on the new basis of a reconciled relationship to God, brought about by Jesus’ finished earthly ministry) will we not end up either back in the place of an external and legal relationship with God or a life that ignores or makes largely irrelevant so much of the New Testament teaching concerning the nature and shape of our joyful participation. Even more than that, there is the danger of losing track of God’s great interest in having us enjoy a growing, maturing relationship with him that yields repentance, faith, hope and love---a relationship with him of children with a loving and gracious Father.

Life in the Spirit (personal response)

Given these considerations, it is imperative that we understand (and communicate as best we can) how the moments of our responsive participation in personal relationship to God are due to the ministry of the Holy Spirit on the basis of the finished earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Our complete salvation (with its past, present and future moments or aspects) is the work of the whole Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit). We gain this fully Trinitarian approach by accounting for the scriptural testimony indicating that the Person and earthly work of Christ alone do not automatically, mechanically, impersonally, causally or necessarily result in our spiritual union with God, even though that is the aim (goal, purpose) for Christ’s life and ministry.

All Christ accomplished for us provides the absolutely necessary basis (ground, foundation) for the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the one who frees and enables our receiving of, participation in, and benefitting from the work of Christ. By the Holy Spirit, we are united to Christ as we enter into a personal relationship with him. And in and through that relationship, we share in all that he has done and is doing for us as our Lord who shares our human nature.

Our participation in the reconciled relationship forged by Jesus Christ in his assumption, redemption and sanctification of our human nature throughout his earthly ministry is brought about through the further ministry of the Holy Spirit. We rightly preach and proclaim the Person and work of Christ for all (and here we rightly proclaim that “all are included”), which by the ministry of the Holy Spirit calls forth a particular response to receive (and thus live into) that gift---to thus participate in the relationship. By the Holy Spirit, we are personally addressed and involved in a dynamic interaction with God through Christ and are transformed into Christ’s image or likeness. Who we are in Christ becomes more and more manifested in us as we participate by the Spirit who unites us with Christ. We could say that the finished earthly work of Christ is fulfilled in us, personally, by the freeing and transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit.

What does life in the Holy Spirit look like? In the most comprehensive sense, it looks like conformity to Christ---mirroring in our lives the kind of relationships he had with the Father, the Spirit and with others. That life is often summarized in Scripture as receptivity of and positive response to the revelation and reconciliation achieved by Jesus Christ. Those responses are often summed up by the biblical words repentance and belief (or faith). It can also be summarized as having faith, hope and love for God because of and through Jesus Christ.

Most particularly, life in the Spirit of Christ looks like a joyful, free “obedience of faith” in God through Christ that works itself out in following the many commands, imperatives and exhortations and correctives addressed to the church found throughout the New Testament. It involves a deliberate and purposeful participation in ministry as worship and witness that follows the patterns and priorities set out in the New Testament as enabled and gifted by the Holy Spirit. We can summarize all this under the heading of the Great Commandments of love for God (with all we are and have) and love for our neighbors (as God's representatives).


Excursus on Jesus’ assumption of our human nature

How should we understand Christ’s assumption of our human nature via the hypostatic union in a way that fits with a full recognition of our spiritual union and participation by the Holy Spirit via the spiritual union? A clarification is needed at this point---one that though in line with the historic, orthodox and biblically founded faith, and contained in the writings of leading incarnational Trinitarian theologians, has perhaps not been highlighted sufficiently by GCI in addressing the kinds of questions we find ourselves needing to answer at this point in our ongoing renewal.
Down through the ages a longstanding and essential distinction has been made in Christian theology between person and nature. The importance of this distinction arose in the Ecumenical Council of AD 680 (the third meeting in Constantinople) in seeking to understand and communicate faithfully who Jesus Christ truly is. With that starting point, nature has come to be defined as that which consists of the characteristics, functions and abilities that a class of things (or persons) share---what they have in common. Members of the class that we refer to as "human" share "human nature." Humans have matching physiologies and senses; they can think, feel, know, remember, will, love, appreciate beauty, make moral judgments, seek justice, communicate in language, and respond to God’s revelation and interact with God, etc.

Giving consideration to the nature of a person only, one is not able to distinguish one human being from another. Rather, persons are distinguished not by their natures but by their unique personal identity: who they are. Persons have (possess) these characteristics, abilities and functions, but that is not who they are. As personal subjects or agents, they use these capacities and faculties to live out, express or communicate themselves and so live in meaningful relationship with the surrounding environment, including with other persons. A person constitutes what makes someone distinct from all others. It is what gives them unique individuality. A person has functions or abilities, such as mind and will, but cannot be reduced to them. No person could live and express themselves in the world without these functions, since all persons have natures. But their persons, their being subjects, or who they are, are not the same as their natures.

The words “soul” or “spirit” are often used in Scripture to refer to the essential personal, individual identity of someone. They indicate what is irreducible and therefore not to be confused with another, no matter how much they may have in common with another of the same kind. Also, speaking of human beings as being created according to "the image of God" can be used to point to what all human beings have in common. Being created according to the image of God may also simultaneously point to the fact that human beings also are subjects---unique human persons who cannot be reduced to their abilities, faculties, functions, in a way that reflects the ultimate personhood of the Triune Persons and of God being personal, a subject, an absolutely one-of-a-kind God.
The Person of Jesus is what makes him distinct, unique, a one-of-a-kind personal subject or agent. He is eternally the divine Person of the Son, personally distinct from the Father and the Spirit. And, we can say, he shares with them a divine nature. He is one with the Persons Father and Spirit because he has a divine nature in the same way they do. The human nature Jesus assumed is what he has in common with all human beings; it is what makes him related to all human beings at the level of our being. Thus we say of Jesus that he is "fully human." There is no aspect of human nature that he did not assume: a human body, a human mind, will, emotional capacities, etc. Early on it became the consensus of the church that had Christ not assumed some part of human nature, that part would not have been redeemed, healed, reconciled to God. But God in Christ regenerated human nature itself so that we might share in that redeemed nature by his Spirit. That’s what was involved in and accomplished by the “hypostatic union.”
Via the Incarnation, God in Christ did not assume all human persons to himself. Had that been the case, the distinction between Jesus and all others would have been obliterated---Jesus would be all persons and all persons would be Jesus. As a result, all persons would be identical to the divine Son of God and thus members of the Trinity as Christ is. But that is not what happened at the Incarnation---that is not what the gospel declarese. Jesus Christ assumed human nature---that, which all human beings have in common, not what makes them unique individuals or subjects---that which gives them personal identity.

By the hypostatic union, which took place at the ontological level of human nature, all human persons are not fused with the person of Jesus. But Jesus Christ did become Lord and Savior of all by his saving assumption of human nature, and he did so in order that all persons might live according to that reality as human persons who, as subjects, receive and participate by the Holy Spirit in that new and regenerated human nature Christ has for them.

Thus we understand that the word “humanity,” when used in the context of the Incarnation or hypostatic union, is speaking specifically of human nature, which is common to all human persons. It is not speaking of their individual, unique persons, though we do understand that Jesus assumed human nature for the sake of all human persons (with their natures).

Since the hypostatic union does not bring about the fusion of human persons with the human-divine Person of Jesus, we do not worship human beings. Paul and Barnabas rejected completely the worship of those at Lystra who mistakenly thought they were gods in human form, declaring that they were of like (human) nature with those people (Acts 14:8-18). God’s reconciliation and redemption does not mean God turned a created human being (Jesus) or all human beings into a divine being, fusing our persons. Rather, God in Christ reconciled, regenerated and renewed human nature at its very root (Titus 3:5). He reconciled and sanctified human nature in himself (John 17:19). He did that so that we, by the Spirit, might share in Jesus’ sanctified and glorified human nature and so become fully (or perfectly) human.

The Christian life: participation in Christ's humanity by the Spirit 

Having been permanently joined to the Person of Christ via the Incarnation (with its hypostatic union), human nature was sanctified, transformed, renewed, regenerated and glorified in Christ. We could also say, as does T.F. Torrance, that the human nature Jesus assumed was personalized in who Christ is (as the God-man) and in what he has done.

As we, by the Holy Spirit, participate in the vicarious, perfected humanity of Jesus, we are able to have, in and through Christ, full fellowship with God. This participation in Christ's sanctified and glorified humanity is possible because Christ’s humanity is now at the root of all humanity and because the Holy Spirit, through his ongoing ministry, sets us free to receive from and to participate with Christ. It is on this two-fold basis that we have union and communion with Christ (what the New Testament refers to as “union with Christ” or being “in Christ,” or being “indwelt” by the Holy Spirit).

This spiritual union with Christ does not fuse or confuse our persons with the Person of Jesus (nor does it fuse our spirits with the Holy Spirit). One the contrary, the spiritual union establishes our true individual personal identity, which is able to enter into real dynamic personal relationship with God, who is the source and measure of all personhood. The hypostatic and spiritual unions thus do not eliminate human personhood. Instead, through the ministry of the Son and Spirit, both human nature and human personhood are confirmed and perfected.

A renewed (recreated) human nature (found in the vicarious humanity of Christ), is the basis for the new phase of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to all humanity post-Pentecost. That basis, completed and thus established on behalf of all, is a work of grace that is absolutely necessary for anyone to receive the gift of participation in the new relationship established for humanity in Christ---a relationship realized in individuals by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament refers to this relationship as "union with Christ" (what we refer to generally as the "spiritual union"). This union is brought about by the Spirit, and so is concurrent with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

With these thoughts in mind, we can now draw some conclusions about the Christian life:
  • The union (not fusion) of the eternal Son of God and our human nature is called the hypostatic union, which results from Jesus Christ bearing and personalizing human nature on our behalf (thus we speak of Jesus’ vicarious humanity).
  • To maintain the distinction of persons between Jesus and human individuals, and the importance of our participation (via the ministry of the Holy Spirit), we cannot think (or talk) as if the vicarious humanity of Christ is all there is to God’s salvation.
  • Though we are not fused with Christ (we remain distinct persons), yet we benefit from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who personally unites us with Christ in a way that we are able to personally participate in the relationship that God has forged for us in Jesus Christ and thereby receive all his benefits.
  • Through the hypostatic union in Christ, which unites (without confusion) God’s divine nature with human nature in the Person of Jesus, and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (who unites us to Christ’s vicarious humanity), we are set free as distinct human persons to participate in the gift of a personal and personalizing relationship in which we, by Christ, have been included.
We should emphasize at this point that the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit (including the call for our ongoing participation in union with Christ) does not nullify or set aside what Christ accomplished for all humanity (believers and non-believers) and what God intends for all. What God has done in Christ places everyone in a new situation---a new, reconciled relationship with God. The ministry of the Holy Spirit then builds upon that, bringing to fulfillment what God intends. As was explained in part 1 of this essay, God has reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ. In that sense, we declare the wonderful gospel truth that all are included. As also noted in part 1, this relationship of reconciliation calls for, invites, even demands the response of participation in the relationship that has been established for all in and through the God-man Jesus Christ.

Related but not equal in relationship

The relationship we are given with the triune God in Christ and by the Spirit does not require that there be exactly mutual, equal exchanges between God and us. In fact, these exchanges cannot be equal, for we all stand in need of God’s free grace---we all must be freed from bondage to even begin to respond to God. Though the exchanges we have with God are not between equals they are, nevertheless, reciprocal (dynamic, interactive). What we are given by God the Father, in Christ, and by the Holy Spirit, involves a real relationship---one of personal interaction that is subject-to-Subject. Speaking of our participation in this relationship (which is the essence of the Christian life), we declare rightly that this participation (like all aspects of salvation) is a gift of grace—one freely given so that it might be received. We are dependent upon God to free and enable our personal response, which is what his grace accomplishes. But we are not thereby eliminated or obliterated as persons (subjects) who personally respond. Indeed, this personal (subjective) response is what we were created and redeemed for. But how do we go about receiving this gift of personal response? Note these points:
  • We do nothing to establish the basis or ground or foundation of our response/participation.
  • We do nothing to earn or deserve or make the response possible.
  • In responding, we are not exercising a freedom to respond to him that we somehow possess apart from God.
  • All our responses to God are enabled by the Holy Spirit, who enables us to receive a share in Christ’s own (vicarious) responses and thus for us to share more and more fully in his responses, made for us—that is, in our place and on our behalf.
  • Our responses are thus gifts of sharing in the Son’s responses on our behalf through the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. That is why repentance and faith are called gifts of God’s grace.
Admittedly, these points fall short of exact explanations of how the Holy Spirit (mysteriously) works, by grace, in bringing about our response (participation), but that should be expected. The gracious working of the Triune God involves more than just a little mystery for creatures to comprehend. But we do our best to account for what has been revealed to inform our understanding, though we must leave open the “hows” of God’s workings. In the end the best explanation as to how we participate in our spiritual union is to say, “by the Spirit.” And if we take into consideration all that we come to know about the Holy Spirit in Scripture, that should be sufficient.

What about believers and non-believers?

In the New Testament, belief (faith) is the most often-used indicator of those who are receptive and positively responsive to the Word of God and to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament is clear that not all are believers---not all are responding in faith to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The New Testament assumes a strong distinction between those who are believing and those who are not, or at least not- yet, believing. It assumes that there may even be some who are persistently and actively resisting God (the Holy Spirit in particular).

"Christ and the Rich Young Man" by Mironov
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Belief is the chief way of indicating a person’s participation or fellowship with Christ by the Spirit. Unbelief and refusing to repent are indicators of resistance to participation, to receiving the gifts of God’s grace. These two responses to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ lead to other correlating differences variously described in the New Testament. As developed above, theologically we can say that not all are in spiritual union with Christ, not all are then incorporated into the Body of Christ, not all are participating in the life of the Holy Spirit. And so not all are maturing in Christ, not all are sharing in the new life found in Christ, not all are sharing in his sanctified human nature by the Holy Spirit. There are other ways the New Testament consistently makes a distinction between believers and non-believers (not-yet believers). Concerning believers, it says this:
  • They are open to and are receiving Christ and his Word, responding with repentance and faith.
  • They are united with Christ (via the "spiritual union").
  • They are members of the body of Christ (incorporated into his body, the church).
  • They are brethren (brothers and sisters).
  • They are saints, being indwelt and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
  • They are adopted children of God.
  • They are “in Christ.”
  • They have been “born from above” (born again).
  • They have the mind of Christ.
  • They are children of the light.
These phrases and terms are used in the New Testament exclusively of those who are open, receptive and responsive to the Word of God (both Living and written) as the Holy Spirit ministers in their lives on the basis of who Christ is and what he has done for all humanity. Concerning non-believers, the New Testament says this:
  • They have not yet yielded to the Holy Spirit.
  • They are resisting the Holy Spirit.
  • They are not yet repentant—they do not admit they need a Savior, need forgiveness, require God’s freely given and unearned grace.
  • They continually defend and justify themselves in such a way as to attempt to insist they do not need grace or can somehow earn or deserve God’s grace as if they, by their own efforts, can place God in a situation where God owes them favor, mercy, grace such that if God did not give them that favor, he would be in the wrong.
  • They go on living in conformity to the particular practices of the surrounding culture that are God-dishonoring. They heedlessly disobey the ethical standards of the New Testament that contribute to life-enhancing, God-glorifying relationships.

Why make these distinctions?

Why distinguish between believers and non-believers (not-yet believers) when it is so unpopular in our day to distinguish between people on any basis? There are several important, biblical reasons:
  • The Bible clearly distinguishes between believers and non-believers, and we must assume it does so for good reasons, even if those reasons are not readily apparent at first sight.
  • We maintain the distinctions that Scripture does because we believe that they serve a very good (God-honoring) purpose.
  • These distinctions are made by the Triune God who has distinction of Persons in his own Trinitarian being. Though the Creator is distinct from and other than his beloved creatures, he loved them and gave his Son for them and their salvation—at his own (very great) cost.
  • Making distinctions is not inherently wrong or evil. We make them because the New Testament makes them, but never in abusive or condemning ways. For example, the New Testament never makes distinctions to justify hatred, alienation, injustice or even unkindness. It never uses them to feed self-righteousness, self-justification, pride, arrogance or any form of superiority. Following this example, we should never use such distinctions in God-dishonoring ways. Instead we must always uphold the New Testament usage.
  • Positively speaking, the New Testament distinguishes between believers and non-believers in order to show the fullness of God’s saving work and not truncate or diminish it. The whole God is involved, each Person of the Trinity making a distinct contribution. God’s purpose is to bring people into the fullness of right relationship, which involves a reciprocal relationship wherein there is real participation (response, receptivity).
  • The distinctions made in Scripture between believers and non-believers show the way forward for every person by showing the depth of our need. Our solidarity with all human beings, whether Christian or not, is in the need for grace, for forgiveness, for the work of Christ and for the gift of the Holy Spirit and God’s written Word. We all stand under God’s judgment of having fallen short. We all stand on common ground at the foot of the cross. We all, by the grace of God's Spirit, need to hear about, receive and then respond as fully as we can to the gospel of God’s full provision and our deepest need.
  • Pointing out the distinction shows the way forward, whether we have been dominated by our own patterns of sin (non-participation, non-communion) or have been sinned against. Christ, by the Holy Spirit working deep within us, can set us free from the bonds of sin, one way or another. That is truly good news!
  • The distinction also is used to prevent us from presuming on the grace of God and not participating or actively receiving from God all his provision for us. The distinction is used to encourage and give hope to those who are participating in the relationship leading to healing, growth and transformation in and through that relationship. God is not finished with any of us yet! Our relationship with him is living, dynamic and transforming. We are not stuck, we are not hopeless, we are not victims of ourselves or of our circumstances. He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion! Of that we can be sure.
  • The distinction is used to show that God is faithful in transforming us in relationships (we are no longer where we were) and to encourage and even warn us of falling back into old patterns and old ways, which we used to practice and which others currently practice.
These, then, are some of the good and loving ways the New Testament distinguishes between believers and non-believers. There is no good reason for us to not follow this biblical pattern of terminology and application. By God's grace, making the distinction as Scripture does can serve as an impetus for those who are resisting repentance to begin participating by the Holy Spirit in the life God has forged for them in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. In this way, they may personally and individually live in fellowship with God through Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, and thus begin to experience all the benefits of Christ, now and into eternity.