The Spirit’s Work in Salvation

“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Ezekiel 36:24–27

Ever since sin entered the world, man’s natural state became one of rebellion. The only way to be reconciled with God is to be cleansed of guilt and forgiven of iniquity. Under the covenant of grace, God orchestrated this possibility. Knowing how often His people would fail, He established the sacrificial system. Through ritual purity and blood sacrifices for sins, the Israelites were provided a way to maintain communion with a holy God. But this early covenant of grace pointed to the need for something better. Something lasting.

Ritual cleansing wasn’t enough—people always became impure again. Animal sacrifice wasn’t enough either—it couldn’t transform sinful hearts. In Ezekiel 36:2427, God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel to show that outward cleansing and obedience was never the endgame, because the hope of salvation is ultimately unattainable if left in the hands of sinful people.

For salvation to be accomplished, sinners need to be filled with the Spirit of God.

No matter how hard we try, we cannot save ourselves. If our hearts are like stone, striving to tread the waters of obedience can only get us so far before we sink. We might be able to clean ourselves up on the outside, but we have no power to change our inner nature. Though the reality of our inability might seem discouraging at first, Ezekiel’s prophesy is a proclamation of good news! God had a solution: not only would he cleanse us, but he would give us new hearts and fill us with His Spirit.

As Ephesians 2 explains, we are naturally “dead in our trespasses and sins,” those who follow “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (vv. 1, 3). Whether we live in blatant rebellion or moral uprightness, our hearts are too marred to see Christ and too lifeless to love Him. We simply cannot seek Him on our own, nor do we want to.

It is impossible for man to come to salvation apart from being united to Christ and indwelt by His Spirit, no matter how “obedient” we are. This is perhaps most powerfully illustrated when we consider the Pharisees. Even though they managed to keep the law, it wasn’t enough. Jesus condemned them as whitewashed tombs, people who were outwardly beautiful and yet inwardly dead and impure (Matt. 23:27). Saul was a Pharisee of Pharisees, a man who followed the letter of the law, yet he was utterly blind to the glory of God and persecuted Christ by ravaging His Body (Acts 9:4).

Saul didn’t know that he was in enmity with God. He needed God to take his heart of stone and give him a heart of flesh. It was due to God’s divine initiative that Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit and sent to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:1517). Rather than being the result of pious obedience, Saul’s salvation was due to the Spirit’s work on his behalf.

The Father, Son, and Spirit work in perfect unity to accomplish salvation, but there are several key ways that the Spirit works particularly in the application of salvation.

First, the Spirit enables us to respond to the call of the gospel, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Apart from God putting His Spirit within us, the message of the gospel will remain folly to our ears. We will depend on our own fallen intellect and wisdom. We need the Spirit of God to open our eyes and ears and hearts to receive his gospel.

Second, the Spirit bears testimony to our adoption. Anyone united with Christ becomes a son of God, and this new identity isn’t just an analogous relationship—it is an objective reality. In Christ, we have “received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). We cannot call God our Father unless we first receive the Spirit of adoption. He is the one who cries out on our behalf, and testifies that we are children of God.

Finally, as Ezekiel wrote, the Spirit enables us to obey God. In regeneration, He gives us a new heart and a new spirit and for the first time we want to please God. The Spirit doesn’t merely improve us, He transforms us.

Instead of worshipping ourselves and our desires, we become worshippers of God. Instead of rejecting God’s Lordship, we revere Him. It is impossible to be united to Christ and filled with his Spirit and not show evidence of being a son of God.

As the Spirit indwells us, we begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit and grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:2223). However, because our regeneration exists as an “already” and “not-yet” reality, our lives still bear the effects of the curse and our flesh is still tempted by sin. Sanctification is a process—one that the Spirit is faithful to accomplish. He will transform us from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). 

The Spirit Ezekiel prophesied about is the same Spirit who fills us now. He opens our eyes to the glory of God, gives us hearts of flesh to receive the gospel, grants us adoption, and enables us to walk in obedience. As Herman Bavinck aptly summarizes, “In short, Christ and all His benefits, the love of the Father, and the grace of the Son, become our portion only in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”[1] The Spirit’s role in redemption cannot be overstated.

This does, however, beg the question, what about people in the Old Testament? If the Spirit is so essential for salvation, what happened before He was poured out at Pentecost? Sinclair Ferguson helpfully explains how the Spirit, while not mentioned as frequently in the Old Testament, was still intrinsically involved in the work of God: “The Father plans, the Son accomplishes, the Spirit effects.”[2]

The Spirit who worked in creation (Gen 1:1), now works in re-creation. And though the Spirit didn’t manifest fully until Christ sent Him at Pentecost, the Spirit was still active in the life of God’s people through the entire history of redemption. Bavinck expounds on this as well and writes, “In the Old Testament already the Holy Spirit was the implementer of the guide of the spiritual life (Ps. 51:12 and d143:10). But He is there especially promised as the One who in the days of the New Testament will teach all men, who will grant a new heart, and write the law of the Lord upon it.”[3]

Regarding the relationship between our adoption and sanctification, Rankin Wilbourne explains the indwelling Spirit’s work in this way:

“Christ dwelling in us by his Spirit is a guarantee that we can and will change. We are adopted in God’s family, and not in name only. The Spirit in us now guides and forms us more and more into the family likeness. The same Christ who overcame every temptation and was perfectly obedient—that Jesus is in you now.”[4]

Just as Ezekiel prophesied, God faithfully gathers us from all nations, cleanses us, and makes us new. Our only boast is in Him. It is because He graciously gives His Spirit to us that we are adopted and grow into His likeness. “He saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and the renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

 WISE series (Women in Seminary Education): This article was originally an assignment I submitted to Westminster Theological Seminary, where I am pursuing my Master of Arts in Theological Studies.

       [1] Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 384.

       [2] Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, “The Spirit in the Old Testament” (lecture, Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA).

       [3] Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God, 400.

       [4] Rankin Wilbourne, Union With Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2016), 5152.

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