Union with Christ, Christ’s vicarious humanity and the Holy Spirit's ministry

This post reproduces part 2 of  "Refining our Theological Vision," an essay by Dr. Gary Deddo published originally in "GCI Equipper." To read the full essay click here.

 "Take My Hand" by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

In GCI, our understanding is that the New Testament uses union with Christ to refer exclusively to the relationship the Triune God has with believers. Wanting to stick with that biblical usage, it is our goal to avoid making statements that imply that union with Christ pertains to non-believers. At times, we made that mistake, referring, for example, to the journey from non-believer, to new believer, to mature believer as progressing from union to communion with God. We also mistakenly said that all are in union but not all are in communion. Both statements are problematic for several reasons:
  1. The New Testament correlates union and communion so closely that they can be used interchangeably to refer to the same relationship. Although they can, and ought to be distinguished, they can never be separated.
  2. Though the New Testament declares that God loves all and is reconciled to all, it does not speak of all people as being in union with God in that particular way. The New Testament consistently uses union with Christ to speak exclusively of the relationship that believers have with God.
  3. The New Testament declares that, through his post-ascension ministry, the Holy Spirit frees and enables people to receive God's gifts of repentance and faith (belief) and so to become believers. By the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit, those who are believing begin to share (participate) in all that Christ has accomplished for all humanity, including his ongoing intercession for us so that we might share in the perfect responses he makes for us, in our place and on our behalf. The Holy Spirit's ongoing ministry is personal and relational, not mechanical or impersonal. It is not a causal fact, nor a general universal principle that is abstractly effective upon all equally. The Holy Spirit unites believers to Christ, incorporating them into the body of Christ (the church) for personal, relational participation (sharing) in the life of Christ.

Not a universal union

The mistakes we made in using the term union with Christ largely resulted from not realizing the potential for confusion when following the writings of some Trinitarian theologian-authors who refer to the Incarnation as creating, through Jesus’ vicarious humanity, a universal union of God with humanity in Christ (universal in the sense that it includes believers and non-believers). In their way of stating it, this universal union came about through what happened when the Son of God, via the Incarnation, assumed human nature. They thus equate union with Christ with the uniting of human nature with God via the hypostatic union. Unfortunately, this confusion of terms leaves the false impression that the Incarnation itself resulted in all persons having an identical relationship with God---one more or less automatic and causal (and thus objective, in that sense). But that is not what the New Testament teaches in using the term union with Christ, and it is not what GCI believes and seeks to teach.

Union with Christ (and related terms such as in Christ or in the Lord) as used in the New Testament, indicates a depth of relationship that, by the Holy Spirit, is reciprocal and interactive---a personal relationship possible for us individually only on the basis of the objective work of Christ who sanctified, personalized and brought into right, subjective, responsive relationship the recalcitrant human nature that he assumed, via the Incarnation, to himself.

The distinction between believers and non-believers

Misunderstanding union with Christ, some wrongly conclude that there is little, if any, difference between a believer and a non-believer, or at least that whatever we say of a believer should also be said of a non-believer (in the same way). For example, some conclude that all people automatically are united to Christ in the same way. But the New Testament consistently differentiates between those participating in (receiving, responding to, sharing in) the love and life of Christ (the New Testament calls them believers), and those who are not-yet participating (we call them non-believers, though we might appropriately refer to them as not-yet believers).

The erroneous conclusion that both believers and non-believers are in union with Christ results largely from not taking into account that the hypostatic union, which has to do with the union of divinity and humanity (two natures) in the one Person of Jesus, is not equivalent to or identical with, or does not automatically result in, the spiritual union brought about by the Person and work of the Holy Spirit (who ministers on the basis of the Person and work of God in Christ). In all cases where the New Testament refers to union with Christ (and equivalent phrases) it is referring to this spiritual union, not to the hypostatic union.

For our teaching and preaching to align with the Scriptural usage, it's best we limit our use of union with Christ to refer to the spiritual union---the relationship between God and believers by the post-ascension ministry of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that we must lead with and thus emphasize that non-believers are not yet united to Christ in the same way believers are. It also doesn't mean we must try to figure out who is and who isn't united to Christ, or determine where, on some kind of continuum, each person stands with God. These are not the reasons to hold to the distinction the New Testament makes between believers and non-believers. These would, in fact, be misuses of that distinction. Any distinctions we make must be made for the same reasons the New Testament makes them. Otherwise we fall into another error---an arbitrary, impersonal legalism.

The New Testament distinguishes between believers and non-believers for the purpose of holding out hope to those who are not yet participating, to warn those who are persistently resisting participation, to encourage those who have been participating to keep on, and to highlight all the benefits of participating as fully as the grace of God enables---benefits to oneself and to others, both believers and non-believers. Even more so, making this distinction gives God the glory for enabling us, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit, to enter into a personal, dynamic, responsive and loving communion with him in a relationship of worship. Our message and emphasis should always begin with and continue to emphasize who God in Christ is, and what he has done for all---what theologian JB Torrance calls the “unconditional indicatives of grace.” Building on that foundation, we can then spell out, as does the New Testament, the "unconditional obligations of grace.” Our message is thus Christ-centered and grace-based, not human experience-centered and law-based.

The vicarious humanity of Christ

Let's now shift a bit to consider the topic of the vicarious humanity of Christ, which is related to the hypostatic union but focuses on the essential purpose of Christ’s assumption of our human nature. Together, these truths tell us that Jesus, being fully God and fully human (the divine and human natures being united in the hypostatic union), is in his humanity (human nature joined to his Person) our representative and substitute---the one who, in his humanity, stands in for us. He acts in our place and on our behalf as one of us.

"He Wept Over It" by Simonet (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

What Jesus did (and still does) in his humanity, he did (and does) for us, in our place and on our behalf as one of us. Jesus was baptized for us, overcame temptation, prayed, obeyed and suffered for us. He died for us, rose from death, and ascended to heaven for us—clothed, as it were, in our humanity. That is what Jesus’ vicarious humanity is all about. It's a powerful, consequential truth---the gospel in a nutshell. However, it does not tell us everything about our salvation and our relationship with God through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. There is more to the story and so our preaching and teaching must tell the whole story, not just a part. And the parts should fit together, as they do in the biblical revelation.

Filling out the story in no way denies the reality of what can be called the cosmic (or universal, meaning everywhere throughout the universe) implications of the Incarnation, by which the eternal Son of God assumed human nature on behalf of all humanity, and through his vicarious humanity (representing and standing in for us all) reconciled all humanity in himself to God. Indeed, in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, who is Lord and Savior of all, all have been reconciled to God—all have been forgiven, no exceptions. It is on this basis that we rightly declare that all are included!

The spiritual union involves participation

Though God has reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ, it is those who are participating in (sharing in) that universal, cosmic reality who are said in the New Testament to be in union with Christ—living in relationship with God in what we refer to as the spiritual union. The New Testament calls these believers children of God, noting that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit in a particular way, having been born from above (or born again, as some translations have it). This participation is the gracious gift of God, in Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and not something of our own making or something we have earned. Participation is not a way of qualifying for union with Christ---it is the way of receiving and sharing in the reconciliation we have already with God, in Christ. This is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that God has reconciled the world to himself, then immediately adds that those who are members of Christ’s body (the church) are ambassadors called to tell others to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Paul is not contradicting himself. Because God "has reconciled" all, then all are called by that fact to act, live and so "be reconciled." Paul is revealing the full story of salvation, of our real relationship with God that involves receiving and responding by the Holy Spirit to the gift freely accomplished and given by God through Christ and personally delivered to us by the Spirit.

Three unions

The New Testament addresses three particular unions, all involving Jesus Christ:
  1. The hypostatic union, which unites divinity and humanity in the one person of Jesus.
  2. The spiritual union, which is the believer's union with Christ by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
  3. The ontological union, where "ontological" means "pertaining to being." This is the union between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit by which the three Persons of the Trinity are eternally one in being (substance or essence).  
The ontological union of the divine Persons does not mean that there are no distinctions between them within the one being of God. The one God is not an undifferentiated ontological monad or lump. The ontological union is a unity of distinguishable divine Persons with distinct names and relationships with each other. As stated in the Athanasian Creed, God is unity in trinity and trinity in unity. C.S. Lewis put it this way: God is tri-personal. We could also say that the unity of God is a triunity.

This ontological union (explored in the excursus below) applies only to the Trinity. It is only in God’s being that there can be three distinct, divine Persons so related that they are one in being. This sort of unity of being is not found in the other two unions, which both involve human nature. In the hypostatic union, the human and divine natures are united in the one Person of Jesus, but those natures are not one in being, they remain distinct in their respective natures. In the spiritual union, human believers are united to Jesus, but the two are not one in being. We humans remain distinct persons. The ontological union is thus absolutely unique as noted in the excursus below.

Excursus on the ontological union

Starting with the eternal Trinity, which Jesus tells us about, we recognize a kind of dynamic permanence, stability and faithfulness in our Triune God for all time. There never was a time within the eternal triune life of God when the Father did not love the Son, the Son did not love the Father and the Spirit did not love or indwell the love of the Father and the Son. Jesus says the same in noting that the Father and the Son know and glorify each other, which we can assume (based on other things revealed) involves the Holy Spirit. These are permanent relationships occurring within the one, Triune God. We can also say that the divine Persons share in one Triune mind and will. There never was a time when they were separated in mind or will, or a time before they came to agree, cooperate and become united in will or mind. 

These dynamic relationships constitute God’s eternal character, nature and being. God was Triune before there was anything existing other than God and would be Triune even if creation never existed. God alone is uncreated and has existence in himself. God is not dependent upon anything else to exist and to be fully and completely the God that he is---the "I Am" revealed to Moses. The triune God is loving in his being as a fellowship and communion that is eternal and internal to God. How that is so is something to ponder---a mystery we cannot ever get to the bottom of because God is the incomparable one---one of a kind. This being the case, we can only know God by his self-revelation and not by comparison with other created things (which would lead to idolatry and mythology). That means that when God acts towards that which is not God, namely everything else that exists, we cannot think of that relationship in the same way we think of the triune being and relationships within God. 

When God acts towards creation to create it or to save it, that act occurs by the gracious will of God---it happens by his choice, his election, in the freedom of his love. Nothing God does external to his being is necessary to God’s being. Creation and redemption are the free and gracious acts of God towards that which is not God, but which are the products of God’s free willing and acting or making. God acts towards creation not “by nature” but “by grace.” All such relationships are external to God (ad extra as theologians say). They are not eternal, not automatic, fixed, necessary or permanent. Some of the things God creates including impersonal things like rocks, are more fixed or static and law- or principle-like than are other things, such as human persons who are created in God's image. But none of these things are identical, and none exist on their own. 

Human persons are not emanations from (extensions of) or parts of God. Persons are works of God's grace, by creation and redemption, created as moral and spiritual persons for personal relations in fellowship and communion with God. As humans, we exist contingently and dynamically in personal relationship with God. We are entirely dependent upon God for our ongoing existence, though God is not dependent upon us (or any other part of his creation) for his ongoing existence. 

As human beings in relationship with God, we have the capacity to live in personal, moral, spiritual relationships with others, God included. In those relationships we can reflect something of God’s internal and eternal relationships---we can love. And so Jesus lays it out simply, maintaining the difference and similarity of relationships. His use of the word “as” indicates a certain comparison, but not an identity when he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” This indicates the Triune relationship (the ontological union) and the hypostatic union and saving work of Christ. He then goes on to say, “As I have loved you, you ought to love one another.” This command speaks of our human relations being like or similar to Jesus’ relationship with us. 

The apostle John, speaking of our relationship to God, says this: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” He also says, “We love because he [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19). Note here that there is a difference of love, indicated by the order and priority of God’s love over ours. John is referencing the great asymmetry between God's love and our love, but in this asymmetry there is not a separation, a disconnection. Our love is dependent upon God’s love; our love has its source in God, who is love, and not in ourselves. We then say that our love is contingent upon God’s love, but his love is not contingent upon ours. 

If we make the error of thinking that we are somehow fused or one in being with God (even if that fusion were accomplished through some kind of fusion with Jesus), we would be wrongly concluding that our relationship to God is identical to Jesus’ internal and eternal relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit, rather than distinct and comparable. We would be wrongly imagining that our human persons are so fused with God or with Jesus that we would be esssentially indistinguishable as human persons from the Triune Divine Persons---we would thus be a sort of fourth member of the Trinity. Though failing to distinguish between the three unions and mistaking fusion for union may seem like only small technical errors, the reality is that they make total nonsense of the entire story of God’s salvation by grace, including the real relationship between God and human beings. And so we must carefully avoid making these errors.

Three moments of salvation

Understanding the three unions, and thus grasping that our relationship with God (the Source of our salvation) is in the Trinity, we can now fill out the story of God’s saving grace noting that the Bible speaks of the activity of all three Persons of the Trinity united to work out our salvation. This is also indicated by the fact that the New Testament says we have "been saved," are "being saved," and will "be saved." These past, present-continuing, and future tenses speak of one work with three moments (see the note below)---three aspects of the one saving event.

Note: As in physics, a moment is not an interval of time, but is timeless. It is a moment in time, but has no duration itself. So by analogy, God works timelessly within our time. The one work of the Trinity seems to involve a time sequence for us who live in time, but the three moments of God’s work are not strictly separate or divided, rather they are united in the one saving activity of God. One day, even our view of time will be transformed when we participate fully in time’s perfection, when we have our being in the new heavens and earth and in a new and renewed time and space, in what we now call eternity. 

These three distinct (though not separate) moments loosely correspond with the three distinct (though not separate) ministries of the Persons of the Trinity. In Scripture we find that one of the divine Persons is primarily, although not exclusively, associated with a particular moment. We might say that one Person takes the lead or makes a unique contribution to the one saving action towards his time- and space-bound creation and creatures.

These distinct actions of the Persons then contribute to the three distinct moments in God’s united, saving work. But we must remember that all the Triune persons act indivisibly, in unity, as they each share distinctively in one Triune divine mind and will. Note also that these three moments are not exhaustive descriptions of all that the whole God or the Persons do towards creation. They indicate distinct moments of ministry involving the central work of God’s saving activity. The first moment involves the ontological union of the Trinity in relation to salvation. The second, which pertains to the hypostatic union, involves the Incarnate Son’s relationship to our salvation. The third moment, which pertains to the spiritual union, involves the Spirit’s relationship to us in our salvation. These three moments can be summarized as follows:
  1. The moment of the Father’s decision---the decision to save, made "before the foundation of the world," anticipating the involvement of the Son and the Holy Spirit by their being sent by the Father.
  2. The moment of the Son’s work---his saving work, accomplished through his incarnate life, including his earthly ministry, suffering, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit.
  3. The moment of the Holy Spirit’s work---a work involving bringing about, freeing, empowering and guiding the ever-growing participation of believers (via their personal response, receptivity, decision) to Christ's work. This work of the Holy Spirit began with the formation of the church after Christ’s earthly work was finished, though it will be complete only with our glorification on the other side of our death.
It's important to avoid reducing salvation to one of these three moments. Modern western churches tend to do that, almost to the exclusion of the other two. However, some make the opposite mistake of fusing (confusing or conflating) the three moments. We must be careful to uphold the truth that the one, indivisible work of God involves three distinguishable moments in God’s relationship to us in time and space, flesh and blood. We must be careful to uphold both their connection (unity) and their distinction (without any idea of separation).

Union of persons does not mean fusion of being

Now we need to note that it is a mistake to think of the union of persons as a fusion of being. In the ontological union of the Trinity, the three Persons are distinct without separation, but they are not fused. This distinction of Persons is essential to the oneness of being of the Trinity, because without distinction of Persons, there is no real eternal and internal relationships among the Persons. In the hypostatic union, the divine and human natures in Christ are distinct, but they are not fused.

Likewise, in the spiritual union of believers to Christ, the believer's person remains distinct and is thus not fused (conflated) with the Person of Christ. Properly upholding this unity-with-distinction with respect to all three unions, along with upholding the corresponding three moments in salvation, helps us to avoid several common errors that have to do with fusing (conflating or collapsing) together what are distinct aspects of the reality of the three distinct unions (or we might say, three unities):
  • The error of collapsing our person(s) with Christ’s person.
  • The error of collapsing Christ’s two natures (divine and human) into one.
  • The error of collapsing Christ’s Person into his nature(s).
  • The error of collapsing our sanctification into our justification.
  • The error of collapsing our subjective (personal) responses into Christ’s objective responses (work) on our behalf.
  • The error of separating or collapsing the ministry and person of the Holy Spirit into the ministry and Person of the Son.
  • The error of confusing God’s uncreated Triune being with created being.
Not only must we avoid these errors of collapsing/confusing different kinds of relationship, we must also avoid the opposite error of entirely separating them. All these relationships involve a certain kind of unity-with-distinction and also coordination (co-action) in relationship all brought about by God's grace. Returning now to the three moments of the Triune God’s saving work, we can see how this is so. If we collapse the second moment (Christ’s incarnation and redemptive work) with the first moment (the Father’s act of decision and intention within the eternal life of God to will or decide to save), then there would be no need for the Incarnation---no need for the actual, dynamic interaction and relationship of God with his creation or his creatures to bring about his saving purposes. With salvation without Incarnation, God’s mere thought or idea or intention would be all that was needed to bring about salvation. In that case, salvation would apply only to that which is internal and eternal to God, namely the Triune Persons who have no need for salvation. A creation external to God and distinct in being from God would then not experience God’s salvation except perhaps as having an abstract idea in mind. In that case, there would be no such thing as grace, since no benefit would freely go forth to that which is external to God and dependent upon God. The grace of God would thus remain locked up in God and establish no real saving relationship with that which is not divine, with what is created and fallen. Such a salvation would fail to amount to a real restored relationship with God. It would be personally meaningless to created personal beings. Furthermore, the death and evil that take place in creation would remain untouched.

Both the revelation of creation and the revelation of salvation through the incarnation of the Person of the Son of God (assuming to himself a created human nature, involving his bodily crucifixion and resurrection in history), unequivocally and undeniably indicate an entirely different relationship of God with creation through Incarnation. Salvation in Christ, as depicted in biblical revelation, involves unique personal and dynamic interaction between God and creation. In that story, there was a time when there was no hypostatic union (even if it was anticipated by God from all eternity). God’s intention towards that which is not God (external to God) had to be actualized---realized by God, in and for God’s fallen creation. It required the voluntary condescending of the Son of God, “from above,” as Jesus says, taking on the “form of a servant” as Paul puts it. It required the Father’s willing, deciding and then actually sending of his Son. It required a real Incarnation, not just the appearance of Jesus looking as if he assumed a human nature when, in actuality, he did not! God came in Christ, in our place and on our behalf, to actually undo what we had done (Ephesians 1:10). In that undoing, a real relationship (via the hypostatic union) between God and mankind was forged in the Son of God's own person.

How does this hypostatic union and the second moment of salvation fit into the overall story of our salvation? The union of the two natures in the one Person of Jesus does not create a oneness of being where the human and divine natures are fused into one nature---the divine ceasing to be divine, and the human ceasing to be human, thus turning into a third kind of thing, neither divine nor human. Nor do the two natures via this union turn into one another---one swallowing up the other. The union of the two natures in Christ (via the hypostatic union) is a dynamic communion in personal relationship---a dynamic unity where the love of God for humanity and the love of humanity for God meet. The salvation worked out in Christ is the work of the Person of the Son of God bringing his human nature into right relationship with the divine nature, and so into reconciliation with the Father, thus making the human nature ready to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit in a new way---often referred to in the New Testament as being baptized by the Spirit. Created humans are not God and they do not become God through Jesus. God is not a creature. But that does not mean there can be no real, dynamic and relational interaction between these two very different kinds of being (created and uncreated). However, in this relationship there is no fusion, confusion or conflation, instead there is gracious and saving relationship, which we see clearly in the earthly life of Jesus.

As one of us, Jesus was born, grew in wisdom and stature, learned obedience, overcame temptation, rejoiced in the Holy Spirit, suffered and submitted to the cleansing judgments of God on the cross. Jesus then died, was raised and ascended bodily. Especially in the Garden, we see the resistant human will of his assumed nature brought step-by-step into conformity with the will of God, finally exhibiting a perfect trust and love for God. We see this in Jesus words following a torturous internal battle: “Nevertheless, thy will be done” and, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

The human and divine natures are united in the one eternal Person of the Son of God Incarnate. But in that union there is no fusion, confusion or conflation of the natures. Had the natures been fused, there either would be no God to save humanity, or no humanity to be saved, since the one nature would have turned into the other, or both would have turned into a third that is neither divine nor human. Were the two natures fused, there would be no grace, no redemption of created human persons and thus no real ongoing saving relationship between God and humanity. But the idea of a fusion of natures is not the gospel story of God’s grace. Being faithful to the gospel requires that we distinguish between the ontological union (and the moment of the Father’s decision with the Son to bring about our salvation), and the hypostatic union (and the moment of incarnation that united God with human nature in the Person of the eternal Son of God). It also requires that we distinguish between God and God’s creation of human creatures, even in the hypostatic union.

The gospel declares that we were created for real relationship---a relationship that, as Calvin said, was healed, not only by Christ, but in Christ---in his Person. But how are we personally involved in all this? To answer, we must (on the basis of revelation) distinguish between the second and third moments and so between the hypostatic and spiritual unions that correspond to these two moments. If we fail to do so, we get an erroneous result that similar to the fusion/confusion we examined above (except in this case, there is no need for the ministry of the Holy Spirit, rather than no need for the Incarnation). If fusion is the case here, once again the story of our salvation, as depicted in biblical revelation, makes no sense.

The essence of the Holy Spirit's special ministry following Christ’s ascension, is to bring about personal participation (sharing) in Christ’s perfect relationship (as one of us) with the Father and the Spirit. If we think of moments two and three as being fused, we miss the importance of the Spirit's gracious ministry, thus eliminating the third moment, which brings about the spiritual union. Envisioning the fusion of moments two and three means viewing the hypostatic union as accomplishing all that is involved in our salvation. But that can't be the case, for the biblical story places great emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit as being essential to our salvation.

The Bible shows that the Holy Spirit works deeply within us to free and enable us to respond personally and grow up into Christ---a transformation that clearly is an essential part of God's plan of salvation for us. This is made clear in Jesus' directives (before and after his resurrection) that his disciples must wait for and receive the Holy Spirit. In Jesus' view, this third moment (the Holy Spirit's post-ascsension ministry) is not optional---a view supported by the rest of the biblical story, beginning with the book of Acts.

By (wrongly) concluding that the hypostatic union fully accomplishes our salvation, one also concludes that there is no need for the participation brought about by the post-ascension ministry of the Spirit who indwells believers. There is not a real living, acting, responding, receiving relationship of saving grace. Instead, our relationship to God, through Christ, is fixed, automatic, impersonal and mechanical---an abstract fact that is generally and generically true---like a natural law, a forensic fact, or a universal principle that is accomplished by the mere fact of the hypostatic union.

When we regard the hypostatic union (rather than the spiritual union) as the final moment of our salvation, we are left with a salvation that is accomplished in Christ, but remains external to the individual human person, with no personal and transforming indwelling of the Holy Spirit that, according to the biblical revelation, is essential to our salvation. Some might insist that the hypostatic union itself accomplishes everything needed at the ontological depths of our very being, and therefore is not merely external. However, without the personal, personalizing, and subsequent ministry of the Holy Spirit, such an ontological and objective union would amount to a mechanical, automatic and impersonal connection, not a relationship of personal participation, communion, fellowship and sharing that is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Without the spiritual union (which includes the ministry of the Holy Spirit), the dynamic, transforming personal relationship and responsive interaction of salvation is eliminated, replaced by an automatic, impersonal ontological effect that emanates to all from the hypostatic union.

Some might counter by arguing that the hypostatic union was personal because we are united to the Person of Christ. But without the ministry and moment of the Holy Spirit, who brings about personal participation and responsiveness in relationship, such a union with the Person of Jesus entirely effected by the hypostatic union takes us back to the problem of being ontologically fused in our persons to the Person of the Son. We would thus become Christ, and Christ would become us. As a result, real relationship would be eliminated and once again there would be a confusion of human persons with Christ’s person, making us identical in being with Jesus Christ and potentially members ourselves of the Holy Trinity. Union with Christ would thus be turned into fusion with Christ, and personal, dynamic relationship and communion would become optional to salvation. Some may insist that the hypostatic union alone is sufficient to accomplish our objective salvation in a way that does not eliminate the ministry of the Holy Spirit who is needed to bring us to conceptually know or agree to the fact of the hypostatic union. However, this line of argumentation truncates the view of the Holy Spirit and his ministry that is presented in the biblical story of our salvation. This truncated view reduces the Spirit's ministry to bringing about a mere cognitive change, rather than the fully human-relational change (a whole transforming and personal change by uniting us to Christ and incorporating us into the body of Christ) presented in Scripture.

Such a reduced ministry of the Spirit would not bring about the participation---the dynamic fellowship that is a true sharing in the life of Christ with all we are and all we have---a participation that involves the receptivity and responsiveness of our whole persons to the Spirit—one expressed in confession of sin and the birth of faith, hope and love along with a life of growing up in Christ, being transformed from one degree of glory to another. Were it true that the objective fact of the hypostatic union accounts for the entire work of salvation, our subjective participation would be swallowed up and disappear in a radically objective hypostatic union with Christ. In that case, our subjectivity would all but be lost in the objective work of Jesus Christ, rather than (as the gospel declares) being fully enlivened by the Holy Spirit who brings about our growing and transforming participation through a fully personal and personalizing relationship with God through Christ and by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

A truncated view of salvation, does not align with what the Bible tells us about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and its fruits in the lives of those who belong to Jesus Christ and “have the Spirit of Christ.” It does not align with the personal, relational dynamic of relationship with God that the Holy Spirit brings about by enabling us who are distinct in person from Christ, to share in his sanctified and glorified human nature in right relationship with God. When we fail to distinguish between the hypostatic union and the spiritual union, and the moment of the Son's work from the moment of the Holy Spirit's work, we lose the full understanding of the nature of our salvation, including the meaning of Christ's vicarious humanity, which becomes, at most, something fused with our persons---his subjectivity fused with our subjectivity---the result being that the distinction of persons as subjects and agents is all but erased.

The ministry of the Holy Spirit

When we fail to make these critical biblical distinctions, the gospel of Jesus Christ is reduced to believing in the sending work of the Father and the hypostatic work of the Son, leaving out any vital, saving and relational work of the Holy Spirit on the basis of the completed work of Christ. Unfortunately, this is what some formulations of Trinitarian theology have done---they overlook (or at least deemphasize) the Person and ministry of the Holy Spirit by locating the saving union almost exclusively in the vicarious humanity of Jesus (the hypostatic union). But as noted above, our salvation is the work of the whole Trinity, and that includes the work of the Holy Spirit. What Christ in Person and work accomplished for us in our human form (nature) was worked out in him in perfect fellowship and communion with the Holy Spirit. And now, what Christ accomplished for us in the power of the Spirit is being worked out for us and in us by the same Spirit who by indwelling us, unites us to the Person and saving work of Christ.

Throughout the New Testament, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to unite us to Jesus in a dynamic, personal and personalizing way. By the Spirit we are set free to receive from and respond to Christ with all that we have and are able. It is the Holy Spirit who incorporates us into the body of Christ, with Christ as head, and those so incorporated are made to be members one of another in unity and distinction.

"Pentecost" by Restout (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In the biblical revelation, union and communion with Christ (the spiritual union) is not located primarily in the Incarnation, but in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. However, this union is, indeed, dependent upon the completed work of Christ---his life, death and resurrection and ascension as the Incarnate one, on the basis of his vicarious humanity. That is why Jesus promises, then sends the Holy Spirit---a glorious event we celebrate each year on Pentecost Sunday.

The Holy Spirit comes to humankind in this new, unique way on the basis of the finished earthly ministry of Jesus. On that basis, the Spirit brings about the moment of our response, our receptivity---our first and ongoing repentance, faith, hope and love. In over one hundred mentions of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, the Spirit's ministry is directly connected to our responses to God (to Christ, to God’s word). The Holy Spirit reveals, teaches, enables us to hear, to speak and proclaim, to love, to obey, to pray, worship, love, minister, rejoice, to confess Jesus as Lord, and confess Jesus has come in the flesh. He also leads, sends, guides, sanctifies, unifies and harmonizes the body of Christ, gives gifts of ministry and fruits of Christ-like character to the members of the body of Christ. In sum, he gives us new life in Christ so that we live in the Spirit (Rom. 7:6; Rom. 8:2; Rom. 8:5; 2 Cor. 3:6). What Christ has done for us, the Holy Spirit works out in us on the basis of what Christ has done for us. This “outworking” involves relationship between Christ and us, through a relationship between us and the Holy Spirit. This coordination of the ministry of the Holy Spirit with the finished work of Christ is so close that believing persons can be said to be both in Christ and in the Spirit, and sometimes in the same breath (see Phil. 2:1; 3:3). But our survey of the particular ministry of the Holy Spirit demonstrates that participation and our union with Christ depend upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who brings about our spiritual union with Jesus Christ. The hypostatic union of the Incarnation does not establish this spiritual union, which pertains to our participation and fellowship with Christ. That is the distinct ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The ontological basis of that spiritual union and participation by the Spirit in Christ is the saving and reconciling work of Christ in the flesh as one of us, in our place and on our behalf. Without the hypostatic union and the vicarious mediatorship of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit alone could not bring about our union and communion with Christ. Because the work of the Holy Spirit is distinct, it should not be conflated with the Incarnation, though it is not separable from it. Thus we understand that the Holy Spirit, who is united to the Father and the Son in the ontological union of the Trinity, has a ministry distinct from the Son, yet inseparable from the Person and work of the Son. On this side of Christ’s earthly ministry (post-ascension), the Spirit, who is sent by the Father and the Son, interacts with humans in new ways and at new depths. Why? Because of what Christ accomplished in his earthly ministry, which includes his life, death, resurrection and ascension. This ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit is essential for our participation in relationship with God on the basis of Christ’s ministry.

The Spirit is the one who, in the proclamation and our hearing of the Word, gives us freedom to respond, who delivers to us the desire and willingness to repent, believe and trust Christ, and thus to receive the forgiveness God has, in Christ, already extended to us, and to receive the power to become and live as the adopted children of God that believers are. The Spirit opens us up to receive all these benefits of Christ, which reach down to the roots of who we are and who we are becoming. Once again, all this saving work coemes to fruition through relationship (participation, interaction, involvement).

The work of the Person of the Holy Spirit results in our spiritual union with God, in Christ—a union that is manifested as we participate in the gift of reconciled relationship to God brought about by Jesus Christ through the hypostatic union and thus brings about an atoning union of God with all humanity. Thus, as noted earlier, the saving union is distinct from, yet reliant upon the hypostatic union, and so upon the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. The distinction and proper ordering of the spiritual union to the hypostatic union no more denigrates the hypostatic union than the hypostatic union ought to diminish or dismiss the spiritual union.


With these thoughts in mind, we can now make this summary statement:
Without the distinct and inseparable gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit, we could not and we would not participate—we would and could not share in Christ’s own (vicarious) responses of repentance, faith, hope and love for God and receive his grace given to us. Our salvation requires the ministry of all three Persons of the Trinity and all three moments of God’s saving action towards us, each contributing to the one whole will, purpose and accomplishment of our salvation.