Monday Reverb – 17July2023



The theme for this week is life in the Word.   

The selected passages:  Psalm 119:105-112 • Genesis 25:19-34 • Romans 8:1-11 • Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

  • The call to worship Psalm expresses confidence in God’s word even during life’s severe afflictions.
  • The Old Testament reading from Genesis recounts the birth and struggle of Jacob and Esau and of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob out of fear of death.
  • The epistolary text from Romans strikes a confident note where the fear of condemnation is removed in Christ.
  • The Gospel reading from Matthew includes Jesus’ Parable of the Sower dealing with people’s response to the word of the kingdom.



  • Title:  Death is Short
  • Presenter:  Greg Williams, GCI President
  • Text:  Psalm 119:105-112

From the transcript …




In Christ

Romans 8:1-11 (ESV)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.[a]  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you[b] free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.  By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,[c] he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.  

During this season of Ordinary Time, we have been exploring what it means to live as a Christ follower. We have revisited many passages where Jesus calls his disciples, instructs his disciples, sends them out and commissions them. The life of a disciple is not a small calling, and it is certainly not a boring or passive one. Our passage today may give us some clues as to why this is.

Romans 8:1-11 is a familiar passage to many, especially the first verse which is loaded with good news. Other portions of the passage have unfortunately left many with some confusion regarding how we understand the difference between living life in the flesh and living life in the Spirit. Hopefully we can clear up some of that confusion along the way. But even if we don’t, we can certainly soak up some astoundingly good news from the first verse. So, let’s begin there.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1 ESV)

This is a very strong statement as written, but the Greek packs even more of a punch. In Greek, the most important words are placed at the beginning of a phrase.  Here the very first word is “no.” Paul wants to be emphatic and bold about the truth he is proclaiming. Perhaps Paul knows our strong tendency to feel condemned and to condemn others.

If condemnation was a rock, we would all probably have a bag full of them. Not to mention a handful in our hands. When we see God as a distant angry god who condemns us, we will walk around carrying rocks of condemnation that weigh us down. In addition to being weighed down we are also tempted to hurl our rocks of condemnation at others. As we tightly quench a rock in our fist, we find that we are unable to receive the grace God gives. But may the Spirit speak to us today through this one little verse that God in no way carries rocks of condemnation around.  He does not throw rocks at us, not even a pebble of condemnation.  He has on the other hand, sent us his Son, Jesus Christ who is our Rock of Salvation.  This Rock does not condemn us; rather, as we will see later, he condemns all that condemns us.

As a follower of Jesus, are there ever times when you feel you have been hit by the cutting and bruising stone of condemnation? If so, this verse tells us unequivocally that neither Jesus nor his Father threw it. Perhaps it came from the hands of a friend or family member — those most often hurt the most. Or perhaps you even got pelted by a weighted down preacher. Unfortunately, the pulpit at times gives one a perceived high ground for stone throwing. Or, more common, maybe the stone was let loose from your own sling only to come back and smack you in the head like a boomerang. Self-condemnation is deceptively punishing. Wherever the source of our condemnation, we need to take these words seriously, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” That means, that if there is no condemnation in Jesus, there is no condemnation.

Jesus is the one who determines reality, not our closest family members or friend, not other authority figures, and certainly not ourselves.  Condemnation doesn’t exist for you.  That means that when others hurl it your way, they are hurling a lie. It’s an empty rock weighing less than a feather. In this way, Jesus becomes our shield that repels any rocks of condemnation hurled our way.

This is a good scripture to quote when someone attempts to hit you with a condemning stone.  You don’t have to receive the blow of something that doesn’t exist.  There is no condemnation. And when you are tempted to condemn yourself, you cannot justify your self-condemnation by arguing your case from the evidence of your sins.  All that evidence has been nailed to a cross and put to death.  Your case in the Father’s courtroom is dead on arrival and will not be heard. So, no need to rehearse it over and over on the way. Paul will make that clear as well.  At this point I can hear the protest welling up.  Are you saying that it’s OK to sin then?  Paul had to deal with that protest as well and he again offers an emphatic “NO!” That question misses the point which Paul will elaborate on in the next few verses.

But before we get there, we should note two additional qualifiers of this extremely good news.

First, there is a qualifying “when.”  When will this be that there is no condemnation?  Paul again is quite forceful with “now.”  We don’t have to wait till we overcome all our sins.  We don’t have to wait till Jesus returns.   This is a reality that is given to us right now.  That’s a hard time stamp to accept when we look at how many times we have been deserving of condemnation.

The second qualifier is, who does this apply to?  The answer is, “for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  This is Paul’s favorite phrase for speaking of those who put their faith in Jesus, receiving the new life he has for them.  It is his way of making the supreme distinction between those who are disciples and those who are not: their union in ChristThat’s where the new life that Paul is going to talk about is found and where we live in the reality where condemnation does not exist.

So, with that, we can move on to the next few verses where Paul is going to talk about the new life believers are brought into.  Beware of some confusing and challenging language.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:2-4 ESV)

The new life Paul speaks of that we have “in Christ” is a life of freedom.  We are set free in Christ. And we are told that this is something “God has done,” so it is a freedom given by grace.  We do not earn it in any way.  We first see that we are set free from something, namely, “from the law of sin and death.”   The two enemies of sin and death no longer have the final say over us.  And we are told exactly why.

Jesus was sent to take on all our sin and its penalty of death in order to condemn sin itself.  Nice play of words by Paul there. We are not condemned, sin is.  So, we are now free from it.  But not only are we set free from something; we are set free for something.  As Paul puts it, we are set free “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”  The word “walk” is meant to indicate a way of life. In Christ, we are set free from sin to live a righteous life.  What is the point of being freed from sin if we do not walk in that freedom to live in righteousness?

That answers the question about being free to sin on account that there is no condemnation. That would be equivalent to saying we are free to put ourselves in prison.  That’s not a description of freedom, but a description of insanity.

Now that Paul has spent some time talking about the new life we have in Christ, he is going to reference the old life we have been delivered from.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8 ESV)

In contrasting the old life with the new life, some confusion has slipped into our understanding of what Paul is saying.  He is not speaking of two realities that are warring within us.  Rather, he is talking about two different mindsets.  The old mindset is focused on the “flesh” and the new mindset is focused on the “Spirit.”  And for Paul, the word “flesh” refers to sinful flesh, not our physical bodiesLiving in the “flesh” means we are misusing our bodies, but it is not a renunciation of the body itself.  So, a mindset focused on the “flesh” is not interested in pleasing God.  Therefore Paul can say, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” In contrast, those who have set their minds on the Spirit are led into “life and peace.”  That’s the life we have “in Christ.”

Now Paul will conclude with another emphatic statement of reality for those who are in Christ.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:9-11 ESV)

With no questions asked and without reservation, Paul announces to the church in Rome, and to us today, the assurance that we are “not in the flesh but in the Spirit.” The implication is obvious.  Because we are those who belong to Christ, Paul is telling us to live in our true identity.  To live as if we do not belong to Christ is to forget who we are and to live a lie.  And we do this often.  So, we need constant reminders of who we are, which is exactly what Paul is giving the believers in Rome – Jew and Gentile alike. He is reminding them of what it means to be in Christ, to belong to him and to his Father.

This is the life we are made for, and by God’s grace we have entered it and can start living it out.  And as we live out of our true identity in him, we become a witness to others that they too are invited into this life of no condemnation, a life full of peace and righteousness.

Paul also leaves us with the hope that even our physical bodies, which have suffered at the hands of sin and death, will be raised to new life as wellIn Christ, we are redeemed and made whole.  There will be no fracture between our mind and body.  It will all consist of the same walk, going in the same direction, not being pulled at the seams.  There is a lot to meditate on in these passages. We will be hard pressed to even scratch the surface of what this new life in Christ will fully entail. But for certain, we will not be disappointed.




a recap of last week’s Thursday Dive


From The GCI Statement of Beliefs:

“The Son of God is the second Person of the triune God, eternally begotten of the Father.  He is the Word and the express image of the Father.”   


John 1:1-2 (ESVIn the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  

How can the Word be God and “with God” at the same time?

John 14:20 (ESV)  In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

This passage speaks to three relationships that are more than just relationships.  It speaks to three unions.

    1. “I am in my Father” …. ontological union – the union of Jesus Christ with the two other Persons in the Godhead  
    2. “you in me” …………….. hypostatic union – the union of Jesus Christ with all humans by virtue of his union with human nature …  
    3. “I in you” ………………..  spiritual union – the union of Jesus Christ with some humans by virtue of his union with their persons   

(Eph. 1:10; Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:22; 1 Cor.15:45-47; 2 Cor. 5:18-20)  (Titus 3:5; Luke 2:52; Heb. 5:8; 2:11; John 17:19; 1 Cor. 1:30)  



“To learn more about the distinctions between these three types of union, and the related topic of the differences between believers and unbelievers, see GCI’s essay Clarifying Our Theological Vision.”


Clarifying Our Theological Vision, by Gary Deddo

This essay by Dr. Gary Deddo (with an introduction from Dr. Joseph Tkach) clarifies key concepts of the incarnational Trinitarian theology embraced by Grace Communion International (GCI) and Grace Communion Seminary (GCS)For additional information related to this topic, here are links to three other essays by Dr. Deddo: The Church and Its MinistryCovenant, Law and God’s Faithfulness and Guidelines to an Understanding of the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit.   

Introduction: Our Journey of Theological Renewal

By Dr. Joseph Tkach

As a denomination, our renewal began in the early 1990s with the transformation of our doctrines.  That doctrinal renewal began with a new understanding of the nature of the covenant of grace that God, in Christ, has with all humanity, and how that covenant relates to the provisional Law of Moses and to what Scripture refers to as an “old covenant” and a “new covenant.”  Recognizing that Jesus fulfilled the covenant on our behalf (as grace and truth personified), gave us a clearer focus both doctrinally and theologically, with the result being the transformation of our Christology (doctrine of Jesus Christ).  By God’s grace we came to understand that Jesus is the center and heartbeat of God’s plan for humankindIn our minds and hearts, we became Christ-centered.

This renewal of our Christology led to asking and answering the vital question: Who is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ?  The answer led us to embrace a theological vision that we now refer to as incarnational Trinitarian theology.

That theology (with “theology” meaning “knowledge of God”) is incarnational in that it is Christ-centered, and Trinitarian in that the God who Jesus reveals to us is Trinity (one God in three Persons): Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We came to understand that in the fullness of time, God the Father sent his eternal Son into time and space to become human, thus assuming our human nature as the man Jesus Christ.  And when Jesus ascended, he raised human nature with him in glory and, with the Father, sent the Holy Spirit to be with us in a new and deeper way.  The self-revealing, sending God thus sent us both his Living Word and his Breath.

Our incarnational Trinitarian theology is rooted in Scripture (the New Testament writings in particular) and has been worked out in the writings of teachers in the early (patristic) church including the Didache (a first-century church manual with instructions about baptizing into the one name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and the great Creeds of the church: the Apostles Creed (2nd century), the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (4th century), the Chalcedon Definition/Creed (5th century) and the Athanasian Creed (5th century).  Our theology is thus biblical and historically orthodox.

Our understanding of this theology has been greatly aided by the writings of several early church leaders, including Irenaeus, Athanasius and the Cappadocians.  We have also found helpful the writings of several 20th-century theologians who, in the providence of God, contributed to a resurgence of interest in this ancient Trinitarian theological vision in many parts of the body of Christ over the past six or seven decades.  These theologians include Karl Barth, Thomas F. (TF) Torrance, James B. (JB) Torrance and Ray S. Anderson — men whose faith and understanding traces back to the Bible and to the early creeds of the church.  Their understanding also aligns with the central concerns of the Protestant Reformation framed largely by Martin Luther and John Calvin, especially on the matter of grace.  We have been (and continue to be) greatly aided in our journey of theological reformation by Dr. Gary Deddo, who stands in this ancient and orthodox stream of theological renewal.  We are blessed to have this theologian on our Grace Communion Seminary faculty and, as you probably know, Gary serves as President of GCS and as a special assistant to the GCI president.

Over the last decade or so, as we’ve worked out the many details of our incarnational Trinitarian theology, we’ve used terms in varying ways to communicate its core concepts and precepts.  At times, our use of a few of these terms was imprecise, leading to minor points of confusion, particularly in matters related to the nature of the church and the Christian life.  For that confusion, we apologize, and now we seek to refine our terms and concepts so that there will be consistency and clarity in our communication.  These refinements do not change our core theological convictions, nor the practices that flow from them.  We are simply continuing to build on the solid biblical foundation that has been laid, with Christ being its living cornerstone.

To help in the important task of clarifying and refining our theological vision, I asked Dr. Deddo to assemble an Educational Strategy Task Force.  ESTF members were Gary Deddo (chair), Russell Duke, Charles Fleming, Ted Johnston, John McLean, Mike Morrison and Greg Williams.  All have advanced degrees in theology or ministry, taught at Grace Communion Seminary (GCS) and/or Ambassador College of Christian Ministry (ACCM) and had administrative leadership roles in GCI.

As part of its work, the ESTF identified problems with the way we articulated certain aspects of our theology, and so I asked Dr. Deddo to author an essay titled Clarifying Our Theological Vision to help clarify our theological terms, and thus refine certain key concepts in our theological vision.  The goal is greater consistency and clarity in our publications and in what we teach in our courses.  I also pray that the essay will help sharpen what we teach in sermons and studies in our congregations.

I’m grateful for the journey God has us on and for where we now are.  Have we arrived?  No, our journey continues, with its ultimate destination being a new heaven and new earth in which there will be a new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-4, 22-23).  Thanks for being part of the journey, for your loyalty, patience and willingness to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Thanks also for being a faithful teacher of the glorious gospel of Jesus.

And now the essay from Dr. Deddo.

Part 1: Clarifying Two Key Terms: “All Are Included” and “Union With Christ”

As noted by Dr. Tkach in the Introduction, the goal of this essay is to clarify some of the key terms we use in communicating the wonderful truths of our incarnational Trinitarian faith.  As he also notes, though we’re not making significant changes, we are providing some clarifications to help us in our ongoing journey of theological renewal.


All are included

A key understanding of our theology has to do with what God has accomplished for all humanity in and through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. For many years, we’ve summarized that understanding with the phrase, all are included (and the related declaration, You’re included). By all we mean believers and non-believers, and by included we mean being counted among those who God, in and through Jesus, has reconciled to himself. We thus mean to say that God has reconciled all people to himself.

This theological declaration is based on the biblical revelation that Christ died for all and that God has loved and reconciled the world to himself (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:14; John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:19, Heb. 2:9). Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), and he is the “ransom” for all (1 Tim 2:4, 6; 4:10; Matt. 20:28). Because this reconciliation is accomplished, and thus a present reality, God’s desire, which is fulfilled by the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, is for all people everywhere to come to repentance and faith so they may personally experience (receive and live into) this reconciliation and so not perish (2 Pet. 3:9; Ezek. 18:23, 32). Thus when we declare that all are included we are affirming several important truths:

  • Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all humanity
  • He died to redeem all
  • He has atoned for the sin of all
  • Through what he did, God reconciled all people to himself
  • Jesus is the mediator between God and all humanity
  • He has made all his own by virtue of his redeeming work
  • He is for all and against none
  • He is judge of all, so that none might experience condemnation
  • His saving work is done on behalf of all, and that work includes his holy and righteous responses to the Father, in the Spirit—responses characterized by repentance, faith, hope, love, praise, prayer, worship and obedience
  • Jesus, in himself, is everyone’s justification and sanctification
  • He is everyone’s substitute and representative
  • He is everyone’s hope
  • He is everyone’s life, including life eternal
  • He is everyone’s Prophet, Priest and King

In all these ways, all people in all places and times have been included in God’s love and life in and through Jesus and by his Spirit.  In that we rejoice, and on that basis we make our gospel declarations.  But in doing so we have to be aware of some potential for confusion.  We must neither say too little or too much about inclusion (reconciliation).  Perhaps, at times, we’ve said too much, making inferences concerning the reconciliation of all humanity that the Bible does not support — ones that are neither logically or theologically necessarily true.


It’s about relationship, which means participation

To avoid making unfounded inferences, it is important to note that when the Bible speaks about reconciliation (inclusion), what it is referring to is a relationship that God, by grace, has established in the God-man Jesus Christ between himself and all people.  That relationship is personal in that it is established by the person of the eternal Son of God, and it involves human persons who have agency, minds, wills and bodies.  This reconciliation involves all that human beings are — their whole persons.  Thus this personal relationship calls for, invites, and even demands from those who have been included the response of participation.  Personal relationship is ultimately about interaction between two persons (subjects, agents), in this case between God and his creatures.

By definition, personal relationships are interactive — they involve response, communication, giving and receiving.  In and through Jesus, God has included all people everywhere in a particular relationship with himself for just these purposes so that what has been fulfilled for us objectively in Jesus by the Spirit, will then be fulfilled in us personally (subjectively) by the Spirit via our deliberate, purposeful participation (response) as subjects who are moral, spiritual agents.  What Christ did for us, he did so that the Holy Spirit could work a response out in us.

When we understand that the person and work of Christ establishes or reestablishes a living, vital, personal relationship with all humanity, then the biblical teachings concerning inviting, admonishing, encouraging, directing, commanding and warning in regard to setting forth the fitting or appropriate response make sense. But if the gift of reconciliation (inclusion) is understood as merely a fixed principle, an abstract universal truth (like the sky is blue, or 2+2=4), or as an automatic and impersonal effect brought about through a causal chain of events imposed on all, then the myriad directives in the New Testament concerning our response (participation) make no sense.


The indicatives of grace set us free to respond to the imperatives of grace

Many proclamations in the New Testament declare the truth of who God is and what he has done for us, including that he, in Christ, has reconciled all humanity to himself.  These proclamations are the indicatives of grace, which, by their very nature, call forth and set us free for a joyful response to the imperatives of grace that are also defined in the New Testament.  Here is a diagram showing how these indicatives and imperatives are related:

Our responses to the imperatives of grace, grounded in and thus flowing from the indicatives of grace, are made possible only because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who continues his work in the core of our persons (our subjectivities) in order that we might respond freely to God and his grace with repentance, faith, hope and love.

The Holy Spirit grants us this freedom to respond (even as we hear the imperatives) by releasing us from the bonds of slavery so that our responses are a real sharing in Christ’s own responses made on our behalf as our substitute and representative — our great and eternal High Priest.  This indicative-imperative pattern of grace is found throughout the New Testament.  For example, note Jesus’ first proclamation concerning himself and his kingdom (the indicative) followed by the imperative, which defines our response:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)

Note that the imperative, “repent and believe,” is based on and made possible because of the indicative that “the time is fulfilled … the kingdom of God has come near.”  Because of who Jesus is and what he has done, people are given entrance into personal relationship with Jesus as their King and thus can respond by participating in his rule and reign.

At work here is a vitally important truth: because God loves us, he is interested in our response to him.  He looks for it, notices it, even tells us the kind of response that is fitting to the relationship he has already given us by grace (through reconciliation).  Moreover, by the Holy Spirit ministering to us on the basis of Christ’s completed work, our Triune God has even provided all we need to make that response.  We never respond autonomously, simply on our own.  Instead, by the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to begin sharing in Jesus perfect responses that he makes for us as our eternal mediator or High Priest.


Avoid two errors

There are two common errors in thinking about the indicatives and imperatives of grace. The first is to regard the indicatives proclaimed in the New Testament as fixed, impersonal principles or abstract laws — general and universal truths operating like the mechanical, so-called laws of nature, or perhaps of mathematics.

The second error (which often accompanies the first) is to regard the imperatives mentioned in the New Testament as sheer, externally imposed legal obligations that indicate the potential ways we can condition God to act or react to us in some way.  Embracing that false notion, we are tempted to think of the imperatives as setting forth terms of a contract with God: if we do certain things (fulfill certain contractual obligations) we will bring to pass the responses from God that we desire and to which he has contractually agreed.

Both of these errors presume legal, mechanical, cause-and-effect, force-vector-like actions and reactions instead of what is found in a real personal relationship. These errors reflect thinking that is not grounded in the covenant of grace by which God has freely established a relational reality with humankind for the sake of dynamic, personal and interactive participation, communication, communion, fellowship — what the Greek New Testament calls koinonia.  

We err when we imagine we are somehow coerced slaves to God and to his imperious ways, or when we imagine we can manage a contract with God where we attempt to negotiate terms of mutual obligation agreeable to both parties. Such imaginings are not how God operates. He created us for real, personal relationship in which we participate, by grace, through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. All our responses are real participation in an actual relationship—the relationship God has established for us for the sake of koinonia (fellowship, communion) with him in dynamic, personal ways—the ways of freedom in love.

We did not establish this relational reality by our responses. Only God can create the relationship, and so he has, on our behalf in and through Christ. Note, however, that though our personal responses create nothing, they do constitute real participation in the relationship God has given us in Christ. These responses are made possible by the freeing and enabling ministry of the Holy Spirit, based on the vicarious ministry of Jesus. We have been included, through Christ and by the ministry of the Spirit, in a saving, transforming and renewing relationship with God — a relationship that calls for our response.

With this clarification in mind, we can see that we must not use the phrase all are included to say too little or too much — and perhaps, at times, we have said too much. Yes, all humanity has been included in a saving, transforming and renewing relationship with God (referred to in Scripture as reconciliation with God). But this particular kind of inclusion in Christ is not a fixed, impersonal, causal and abstract universal “truth” that is divorced from real relationship. In fact, reconciliation is specifically for the sake of our response, and so it is for real, personal relationship.

What we can say is this: all have been reconciled(included) but not all are participating. The God-given purpose of this relationship, established through reconciliation, cannot be fulfilled in us as long as there is little or no participation in the relationship — if there is resistance to and rejection of the relationship that has been freely given to us. The full benefits of the relationship cannot be known or experienced by us if we do not enter into it — if we are not receptive to it and its benefits.

Thus we must account for the difference between participating in the relationship, according to its nature, and not participating, thus violating its nature and purpose. Non-participation does not negate or undo the fact that God has reconciled us to himself (that he has included us in the relationship he has established, in Christ, with all humanity). To deny this reality does not create another reality. Going against the grain of reality does not change the direction of the grain, though it might gain us some splinters! We have no power to change the grain.

A good example of the difference between participation and non-participation is the elder brother mentioned in the parable of the prodigal son. He refused to participate—to enter the celebration the father established and invited him into. Note also this example in the book of Hebrews:

For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. (Heb. 4:2)

This personal and relational understanding of receiving the gift of grace freely given us by the whole God (Father, Son and Spirit) helps clarify many things in the New Testament that otherwise would seem inconsistent or even incoherent. To think otherwise (in mechanical or causal ways) would be to ignore, or (worse) to dismiss, whole swaths of biblical revelation. A personal and relational understanding of God’s grace helps make sense of the proclamation of the indicatives of grace and the proclamation of the imperatives of grace, the latter being the call to receive and participate in the gift of the relationship established in Christ that is being fulfilled by the Holy Spirit.


Union with Christ

Having looked at the term all are included (which pertains to the reconciliation all humankind has with God in Christ), we now can look at a related biblical teaching that also needs clarification — the term here is union with Christ.  As with reconciliation, we err if we view union with Christ as a fixed, generic and abstract principle, rather than the dynamic, covenantal and relational reality that it is.  In making that error it’s easy to erroneously equate the concept of the reconciliation (inclusion) that all humanity has with God in and through Christ with the concept of union with Christ.  

Though some assume that all who God has reconciled to himself in Christ are automatically in union with Christ, there are significant problems with this assumption — problems that have become more apparent to us over the last four or five years as pastors have sought to teach about union with Christ and/or church members have tried to understand the concept.  Because of these problems, we’ve spent time in further investigation of the biblical teaching and we’re now addressing those problems by providing this additional teaching (via this series of articles) on this important topic.

First, it’s important to note that the New Testament never equates reconciliation (universal inclusion) and union with Christ.  The truth that Christ, who died for all, is everyone’s Lord and Savior, does not mean that everyone is united (by the Holy Spirit) to JesusUnion with Christ, as that term is used in the New Testament, is limited to describing those who are receptive, responsive and thus participating by the Holy Spirit in the gift of relationship with God established by Jesus Christ.  This delimited description of union with Christ also applies to other closely related New Testament expressions including being “in Christ” or “in the Lord.”

While God intends union with Christ for everyone on the basis of the atoning, reconciling work of Christ, not all have received that union or have entered into it.  In that sense not all are united to Christ, not all are one with Christ, not all are “in Christ,” not all “have the Son” (1 John 5:12), and not all “have the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9).

None of this means that God is separate from, or has rejected non-believers.  It does not mean that God is against them, has not forgiven them, has not accepted them, or does not love them unconditionally.  It simply means that such persons are not yet participating in (or possibly are resisting) the work of the Holy Spirit, whose ministry it is to open the minds of non-believers to the truth of the gospel, unite them to Christ, and call forth a response of repentance and faith befitting that union.  In the end, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13; Ps. 86:5), though not all (yet) are calling on the Lord.

In the New Testament, union with Christ cannot be separated from participation in Christ or from communion or fellowship (koinonia) with Christ.  Union with Christ, understood properly, is about personal relationship, and is thus limited to those who are participating in the relationship God has given us by grace.  As James B. Torrance used to summarize it: union with Christ cannot be separated from communion with Christ.  These twin doctrines cannot be separated even though they can be distinguished.

We must not think of union with Christ in fixed, mechanical, objective and impersonal ways, assuming that non-believers are automatically united with God, in Christ, in the same way as believers (who by definition, are participating by their believing, their faith). To do so would be to separate union with Christ from participation with Christ. If we are to follow the mind of Christ as found in the New Testament, we should reserve “union with Christ” and being “in Christ” as ways of describing those who, by the Spirit, are participating, receiving and responsive to Christ and his word. Participation does make a difference, though it does not make all the difference. It doesn’t, for example, change God’s mind or his intention or desire. However, our way of speaking and our theological understanding ought to be able to communicate the difference participation does make, and do so in ways that match the biblical ways of speaking.


Faithfully and accurately proclaiming the gospel

Carefully and closely following the biblical patterns of speech and thought will help us communicate the truth and reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ with consistency, clarity and biblical accuracy. It will also help us avoid contributing, even inadvertently, to confusion or hesitation about the truth of union and communion with Christ by the Spirit.

We should avoid, therefore, using the term all are included as an umbrella phrase that tries to say everything there is to say about salvation. What Scripture consistently means when speaking of union with Christ is not the same as what we mean to say in using the phrase all are included, which as we’ve seen, pertains to the gift of universal reconciliation.  

Though in Acts 17:28 the apostle Paul (quoting a pagan philosopher known to his audience) says that “in him [God] we [all humans] live and move and have our being,” he is referring to the created state of all humans and not to union with Christ — a concept he develops elsewhere to refer to the  reciprocal, personal relationship  that exists, through the Holy Spirit, between God and believers (Christians).

Not properly distinguishing between all humanity having been reconciled already to God in Christ (and thus included) and the believer’s union with Christ, confuses or conflates biblical terms and thus risks the following:

  • The loss of most or all of the full understanding of the personal, dynamic and relational nature of the gift of salvation in relationship with the living, triune personal God.
  • The loss of the fact that the gift of salvation involves the ongoing ministry of the whole God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • Turning what is dynamic and relational into something non-relational, generic, impersonal, causal and a fixed fact or data point that does not necessitate (in a vital way) the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the members of the church, the body of Christ.

Our incarnational Trinitarian faith is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, not a gospel of universal inclusion (where “inclusion” is used as an umbrella term to speak of all aspects of salvation). We proclaim the good news about the relational nature of the gift of grace that God, in Christ, and by his Spirit, freely gives us. Inclusion is one aspect of that gospel, but not the whole of it.


Two related, but distinct unions

This brings us to another point that needs clarification, as it too has contributed to some confusion or hesitation. In accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we rightly distinguish between two types of relationship, which, theologically, have both been referred to as unions, but when carefully treated by theologians are distinguished by qualifying each with a different accompanying term. The problem here is not so much one of biblical usage as discussed above, but one of how union is used in theological formulations. In the latter case, many overlook the important theological qualifications made and assume all unions involving God are identical, when they are not. The problem is made greater when an improper notion of inclusion is conflated with either or both of these notions of union.


The hypostatic union

The first union pertains to what theologians refer to as the hypostatic union. This is the union of divinity (divine nature) and humanity (human nature) in the one person (hypostasis) of the God-man Jesus Christ at his incarnation. It should be noted that this union does not amount to a fusion or confusion of these two natures, but a joining together that maintains their distinction while bringing about a true relationship and interaction between them under the direction of the subject of the eternal Son of God. (This theological understanding goes all the way back to the Chalcedonian Definition/Creed of the 5th century.)

This hypostatic union pertains to all people since the human nature Christ assumed is common to all humankind—both believers and non-believers. Human nature, with all its attributes (mind, will, affections, etc.) has, in Christ through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, been regenerated, justified, sanctified and glorified. On that basis, God, in and through Christ has brought about the reconciliation of all humankind with himself. As a result, God holds nothing against humanity or human nature. In that way, Christ is the first-fruit or first-born from the dead and is the new head of humanity (the new Adam, to use Paul’s terms). Jesus has become the beginning of a new humanity. Thus we can say that there is a right way to say “all are included” meaning “all humans have been reconciled” on the basis of the renewal of human nature itself in Christ.

This understanding is why T.F. Torrance can assert that all are “implicated” (included) in what Christ has done, or that all humanity has been placed on a whole “new basis” in what Christ has done. Likewise, Karl Barth can assert that on the basis of the hypostatic union of the two natures in Jesus, all people are “potentially” Christians—“potentially” members of the church or body of Christ; or all can be considered “virtual” Christians (even if not actual Christians); or that all have been saved in principle by Christ (de jure) but not all are saved in actuality (de facto). These theological understandings parallel the New Testament understanding of Christ being all in all, but also recognizing that not all are participating in that relational reality—not all are believing, not all are responding to or are receptive of this reality. Not all are worshipping God in Spirit and in truth. Not all are active witnesses to Jesus Christ. And in that sense, not all are actual Christians.


The spiritual union

The second kind of union of which theologians speak pertains to the spiritual union that, by the Holy Spirit, unites believers with God in a particular type of relationship. The New Testament refers to this kind of union as “union with Christ”—a union and communion with God, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. In this kind of union there is an essential recognition of a distinct, though not separate, ministry of the Holy Spirit to bring it about. After the incarnation and the earthly work of Christ, the Spirit is sent on a special mission, or for a special ministry, that is only now possible on the basis of the completed work of Christ accomplished with or in our human nature.

By this follow-up ministry of the Holy Spirit, individuals and groups of persons are freed and enabled to repent and believe, and have faith, love and hope. They are able to enter into a worship relationship with God “in Spirit and in truth.” By the Spirit, persons are incorporated into the body of Christ as they respond (participate), typically by baptism, confession of faith, participation in communion (the Lord’s Supper) and in Christian worship where they receive instruction and put themselves under the authority of the apostolic-biblical revelation. The spiritual union thus designates participation by the Spirit in the renewed human nature Christ provides for us so that we might participate in right relationship with God through him, by the Holy Spirit.

It is also important to note that in this union and communion with Christ, by the Holy Spirit, we do not become one in being with Jesus Christ—we do not become Jesus, and he does not become us. Union and communion with Christ is not a fusion or confusion of persons—it is a personal and relational union or unity, which necessarily includes a participation that maintains the difference of persons, the distinction of subjects (or personal agencies). While the work of Christ reaches the very depths of who we are (our being or ontology), the ontological difference of persons is not erased in our union with Christ. We are not absorbed into Jesus, nor into the being of God. Thus the relationship between the two persons at the deepest (ontological) level of who we are remains a real relationship, with real participation and fellowship maintained.



With these thoughts in mind, we now can summarize our key points:

  • God has reconciled all people (believers and non-believers) to himself in Christ. All people have been implicated in the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity brought about through the Incarnation of the Son of God.
  • Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, believers are brought into the spiritual union of God and humanity, and thus are “in Christ” by virtue of their positive, Spirit-enabled response to (participation in) the relationship created by the hypostatic union.
  • Not all are included in the spiritual union since not all are participating in the saving relationship.  Not all are included in that sense, even though the hypostatic union in Christ was accomplished for the sake of the spiritual union that would be brought to fullness through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
  • The goal of the hypostatic union is thus fulfilled in the spiritual union, brought about by the Holy Spirit as persons participate in the relationship begun in the reconciliation of all humanity to God in and through the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
  • In our gospel declarations, we need to account for both types (or perhaps we could say both  phases) of union, noting that both are aspects of the outworking of our salvation involving the work of the whole Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit).
  • We can rightly use the phrase all are included when referring to the hypostatic union (the first phase). In doing so we should note that human nature was joined (but not fused) to Christ, and thus included in his whole mediatorial ministry of learning obedience, overcoming temptation, ministering under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, submitting to the righteous judgment of God on the cross, and in the resurrection of our human nature with him in his resurrection and raised up to glory in his ascension.
  • As we use the term inclusion to refer to the hypostatic union, it’s vital to remember that the purpose of this inclusion is personal relationship. Via the hypostatic union, God, in the person of the God-man Jesus Christ, has graciously reconciled all humanity to himself. All people (believers and non-believers) are, through the hypostatic union, included in a relationship with God for the purpose of personal participation — a personal response of repentance, faith, hope and love.
  • We should be careful to not talk about inclusion (which pertains to the hypostatic union) in ways that obscure or make seem minor the matter of the Holy Spirit’s ministry and the related matter of our participation and response to God, both of which pertain to the spiritual union.
  • The difference participation makes holds out hope of renewal and transformation for those who have not yet turned to Christ. It also provides insight and motivation for those who have begun to participate but who have grown weary or might be tempted to return to their old ways of non-participation. That’s the point of the many admonitions in the New Testament to continue living in relationship with and thus to turn back to Christ. That’s the point of its warnings to not resist the Spirit.
  • If we fail to uphold the differences that participation does make, we will be unable to talk accurately about the differences it does not make, namely that though we be faithless, God remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13).
  • In our preaching and teaching we must account for both types of union, carefully explaining the importance of participation which relates to entering into deliberate, personal relationship with God, since that’s what God has provided so richly for us. We need to preach and teach together both the indicatives of grace and the imperatives of grace that call for and enable our fellowship and communion (koinonia) with God, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit.




Because our Triune God, who is love, is interested in us, he wants to have with us a real, actual, living, loving, vital relationship. Through the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, God reconciled all humanity to himself precisely so that humans may have a worship relationship with the Trinity. Now, God, in Christ and through the Spirit’s ongoing ministry, is drawing believers into a spiritual union (union with Christ) that involves participation (response, sharing in, living into, communion). In this koinonia there is a difference between those participating in God’s free gift of relationship (established in the hypostatic union) and those refusing to participate, or who have not yet begun to participate. That’s why, in the New Testament, the term “union with Christ” applies to persons in a posture of responding in the Holy Spirit, and not to persons in a posture of resisting or ignoring the Holy Spirit.   That is why receiving what is freely given is often emphasized in Scripture, as seen in these verses:

  • [Jesus is sending Paul] to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:18)
  • All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:43)
  • If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17)
  • Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)


Given this biblical emphasis and language, it would be unwise to equate the term inclusion (which speaks to the hypostatic union and thus to reconciliation) with the term union (as in “union with Christ” or being “in Christ” or “in the Lord”). Besides departing from the ways the Bible uses these terms, equating the two collapses the biblical distinctions between the hypostatic union and the spiritual union, thus leading to confusion, including obscuring or avoiding the personal and relational nature of salvation which calls for our participation by the Holy Spirit.

The hypostatic union in Christ is not the same as our spiritual union with Christ by the Spirit. Even though they cannot be separated from one another, they must be properly distinguished. Hopefully, it is now clear why, when speaking theologically of these two unions, we must carefully qualify each (as do careful theologians) so as to avoid confusion.

To reiterate this important point, in the New Testament, union with Christ (spiritual union) necessarily involves participation (koinonia, also translated communion or fellowship) with Christ. Why? Because the New Testament uses the word union to speak not of the hypostatic union (related to the vicarious humanity of Jesus), but of the spiritual union (union with Christ).

This spiritual union is not automatic — it is not impersonal or mechanically caused by the hypostatic union. If it were, that would make the full ministry of the Holy Spirit unnecessary, contrary both to how the New Testament depicts the Spirit’s ministry and how it describes the explicit purpose for which the Son sends the Holy Spirit in the name of the Father.

That being said, it’s important to note that the spiritual union is absolutely dependent upon the hypostatic union, wherein the eternal Son of God, via the Incarnation, assumed to himself our human nature (the nature common to all humanity). However, the phrases “union with Christ,” being “in Christ” or “in the Lord,” being members incorporated into “the body of Christ” (the church), being “indwelt” by the Holy Spirit, and being “born again” as a “child of God” are all phrases or terms the New Testament uses in a way that includes (and thus presupposes) the idea of participation—that is, communion with Christ through the Spirit, which is about living in active personal relationship with Christ as a member of his body, the church. Said another way, these particular phrases are reserved in the New Testament for Christians (believers). We believe it is important that we use these phrases in the way the New Testament uses them, not assigning to them different meanings (as do some Trinitarian authors).

We’ve raised several issues in this lengthy article, and we’ll add further detail as this series unfolds. Some of the issues that we will be addressing more fully are the vicarious humanity of Jesus, and what union with Christ entails.

Part 2: Union With Christ, Christ’s Vicarious Humanity and the Holy Spirit’s Ministry

In this part of the essay, we’ll fill out what we covered in Part 1 concerning union with Christ and the vicarious humanity of Christ. We’ll then look at the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the related topic of the biblical distinction between believers and non-believers. These topics are of great importance to our understanding of incarnational Trinitarian theology.

Union with Christ

As we noted last time, the New Testament uses union with Christ to refer exclusively to the relationship the Triune God has with believers. We want to stick with that biblical usage, avoiding 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 we believe and seek 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 again 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.

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

In part 1 of this series, we mentioned two unions addressed in the New Testament: the hypostatic union (that unites divinity and humanity in the one person of Jesus) and the spiritual union (the believer’s union with Christ by the ministry of the Holy Spirit). We can now mention a third union that also is of great theological importance—theologians call it the ontological union (with “ontological” meaning “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).

This 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 essentially 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 (Eph. 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-ascension 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.

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; 8:2, 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 comes 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.


Part 3: The Holy Spirit’s Ministry, the Christian Life, Believers and Non-Believers

Throughout our journey of theological renewal, we have, 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.

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.

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 NRSV)

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 Phil. 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 Eph. 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 NRSV)

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 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).



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