The Most Important Work of the Holy Spirit

 by Robert A. Peterson

The last two chapters have shown that the Holy Spirit is a divine person who does the divine works of creation, giving Scripture, and working in the world, the apostles, and Jesus. The most important work of the Holy Spirit in the realm of salvation is union with Christ. Each person of the Trinity plays a role in this union. The Father planned to join us to his Son before creation. Interestingly, two texts speak of a pre-creation election, and both contain a reference to union with Christ. The Father “chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). God “saved us . . . because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9).

Of course, the Son is crucial in union because it is union with Christ. The Holy Spirit joins us to the Son’s person and saving accomplishments. By grace through Spirit-generated faith we become participants in Jesus’s story, chiefly his death and resurrection. Scripture says we died, were buried, rose, ascended, sat down at God’s right hand, and even in a sense will come again, all with him! And participation in Christ’s saving deeds brings us salvation in its many expressions.

But the chief worker in faith union with Christ is the Holy Spirit. The focus of this chapter is on the most important work of the Spirit pertaining to salvation—joining us to the Son. Paul is the biblical writer who teaches this. He does so in at least three ways. First, Paul directly ascribes our union with Christ to the Spirit. The Spirit is the bond of union. Second, the apostle teaches that people who do not have the Holy Spirit do not belong to Christ, implying that union (belonging to Christ) is essential for salvation. Third, Paul ascribes to the Spirit’s work aspects of salvation that occur in union with Christ. These include regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, preservation, and glorification.

  • The Spirit is the bond of union with Christ.
  • People who lack the Spirit do not belong to Christ.
  • The Spirit brings about aspects of salvation that occur in union.

The Spirit Is the Bond of Union with Christ

The most straightforward passage teaching that the Holy Spirit is essential to spiritual union between believers and Christ is 1 Corinthians 12:12–13: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Paul compares the human body, which is one in spite of its many parts, to the church, the body of Christ (v. 12). Though the church has many members, it is one body. Why? Because all members of the church participate in one Holy Spirit when they are incorporated into Christ’s body. These are two different ways—sharing in the Spirit and being made a member of Christ’s body—of describing the same reality: union with Christ. Paul then employs the images of baptism and drinking of liquid to underscore that it is the Spirit who is the necessary nexus between believers and Christ (v. 13).

I regard it a sound assumption to consider the two lines of verse 13 as referring to the Corinthian believers’ common reception of the Holy Spirit at conversion:1

In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . .

and [we] all were made to drink of one Spirit.

Although it is possible to translate the first phrase “by the Spirit” and regard him as the baptizer, Gordon Fee argues that “nowhere else does this dative with ‘baptize’ imply agency (i.e., that the Spirit does the baptizing), but it always refers to the element ‘in which’ one is baptized.”2 Sinclair Ferguson elaborates:

While [the preposition] en may be translated as “by,” “with,” or “in,” the conclusion that Paul sees the Spirit as the medium (“with/in the Spirit”) and not the agent (“by the Spirit”) is irresistible. For one thing, the language of Spirit-baptism remains essentially unchanged wherever we encounter it, and thus the New Testament consistently sees Christ, not the Spirit, as the Baptizer: “he will baptize.”

In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul’s point is that the body is one because all of its members share in the one Spirit whom they have received simultaneously with their incorporation into Christ’s body.3

Paul uses two pictures to communicate the key truth that the Holy Spirit is indispensable for union with Christ to occur.4 In the second of these pictures we “all were made to drink of one Spirit” (v. 13). William Baker correctly summarizes the two possibilities for the verb used here (ποτίζω/potizō): “This word can refer to the irrigation of crops or to someone drinking a cup of water.”5 It speaks of either watering plants or taking a drink. So Paul portrays either believers’ being drenched by the Spirit (in baptism?6) or believers’ drinking the Spirit. Most commentators prefer the second option. Support for this interpretation is found in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4 (shown here along with 12:13 for comparison):

Our fathers were all . . . baptized into Moses . . . and all drank the same spiritual drink. (10:1, 2, 4)

We were all baptized into one body . . . and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (12:13)

That is, Paul’s words in 12:13 seem to “echo his interpretive description of Israel’s exodus and wilderness experience in 10:2–4,” as Ciampa and Rosner note.7 Some see being “made to drink of one Spirit” as a reference to drinking the cup of the Lord’s Supper (cf. 10:4; 11:25),8 but that probably is too specific. Surely it is a mistake to conclude from the figure of watering or drinking that “its effect is to give a somewhat impersonal view of the Spirit” akin to Hellenistic philosophical views.9 That is to misunderstand the function of the imagery.

What is the apostle’s point, then? Ben Witherington answers, “There are no Christians without the Spirit. At conversion the Christian is united to the body by the Spirit and is given the Spirit to drink.”10 And again, “The image is both external and internal: The Spirit works on believers to unite them to the body and works in them as an ongoing source of life and spiritual sustenance.”11

Paul’s words are reminiscent of themes reflected in the Fourth Gospel:

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13–14)

Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (7:37–39)

In sum: Paul uses two images to communicate the same reality—the indispensability of the Spirit of God for union with Christ. Sinclair Ferguson helps us: the first image says, “All Christians are . . . baptized into one body by Christ; the Spirit is the medium of that baptism.”12 The second image tells of “the initial reception of the Spirit, the river of living water of whom believers may drink and never thirst again.”13 In short, the Holy Spirit is the bond of union with Christ.

People Who Lack the Spirit Do Not Belong to Christ

Indeed, the Holy Spirit is so indispensable for union with Christ that, according to Paul in Romans 8:9, to lack the Spirit means not to belong to Christ. In the preceding context he contrasts two antithetical realms: that of the flesh and that of the Spirit (vv. 5–11). To be “in the flesh” is to be unsaved, to hate God, to be unable to please God, and to be headed for eschatological condemnation. To be “in the Spirit” is to be saved, to love God, to be able to please God, and to be headed for eschatological salvation.

After describing the miserable condition of those “in the flesh,” Paul assures his readers that they do not belong to that group: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (v. 9). We misunderstand the apostle if we take “if” here to suggest that the Roman believers might be “in the flesh.” Rather, as Schreiner asserts, “He assures them that they are in the Spirit. . . . Paul summons the readers to consider whether the Spirit indwells them, wanting them to draw the conclusion that he does.”14 That conclusion is that they are not in the flesh but in the Spirit because, in fact, the Spirit does indwell them.

Moreover, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (v. 9). Though it is cast in negative terms, in context the purpose of this statement is mainly positive, as C. E. B. Cranfield notes: “It is clear that its purpose here is the positive one of asserting that every Christian is indwelt by the Spirit.”15 Nevertheless, its secondary purpose is to deny that anyone lacking the Spirit is a Christian, regardless of any profession of faith. That is, possession of the Holy Spirit is necessary to salvation.

James Dunn gives us wisdom:

Paul can make this assumption because belonging to Christ and having the Spirit are for him one and the same thing. Possession of the Spirit is what constitutes a Christian, so naturally he assumes that the members of the Roman congregations have received the Spirit. It is possession of the Spirit which makes the difference; Christ’s lordship is realized, documented, and made effective by the presence of the Spirit in a life. In what amounts to the nearest thing to a definition of “Christian” in his writings, Paul defines a Christian, albeit in negative formulation, as one who has the Spirit of Christ.16

Because the Holy Spirit is the bond of union with Christ, both negative and positive results obtain. Negatively, those who lack the Spirit do not belong to Christ. Positively, the Spirit brings about aspects of salvation that occur in union with Christ.

The Spirit Brings about Aspects of Salvation That Occur in Union

The Holy Spirit is responsible chiefly for bringing those separated from Christ into saving union with him. He is the person of the Godhead who joins believers to Christ. Therefore, it should not surprise us to find the Spirit active in the aspects of the application of salvation that make up union. John Murray is correct in saying, “Union with Christ is in itself a very broad and embracive subject. It is not simply a step in the application of redemption; when viewed, according to the teaching of Scripture, in its broader aspects it underlies every step of the application of redemption.”17

Union is the large set of which these elements are subsets: regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. They all occur in union with Christ and are all brought about by the Spirit. My strategy for each aspect of the application of salvation will involve two steps. First, I will demonstrate that the aspect in question accompanies union with Christ. Second, I will show that the Holy Spirit is the one who brings about that aspect.


First, regeneration takes place in union with Christ. Paul teaches this in Ephesians 2. Before prescribing the remedy, he gives the terrible diagnosis of unsaved persons: they are spiritually dead and unable to rescue themselves (v. 1); they follow Satan (usually without realizing it), who is at work in them (v. 2); and from birth their sins merit God’s wrath (v. 3). But thanks be to God for providing the remedy to the disease of sin! Because of his mercy, love, and grace, he saves believers through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Specifically, because he highlights people’s spiritual death apart from Christ, Paul accents regeneration, God’s making sinners alive to him: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (vv. 4–5). The parenthetical clause that immediately follows is vital—“by grace you have been saved” (v. 5). For Paul the epitome of God’s grace is his making persons alive who were dead in their sins.

The most important thing for our present purposes is to see that regeneration takes place in union with Christ: “God . . . made us alive together with Christ” (vv. 4–5). Andrew Lincoln explains:

Salvation for those whose plight is spiritual death must involve a raising to life. This is in fact what God has accomplished for believers. He made them alive with Christ. At this point also, Ephesians is reminiscent of Colossians [2:13]. . . . The thought in both instances is that new life comes to believers because they share in what has happened to Christ. . . . A relationship with Christ is in view which affects believers’ future destinies because it involves sharing in Christ’s destiny.18

Regeneration takes place not apart from Christ but in union with him.

Second, regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is at work in regeneration. The Father takes the initiative: “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3). The Father does this “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (v. 3). The Father is the initiator of regeneration, and the Son supplies the power for the new life through his resurrection. The Spirit applies regeneration to those spiritually dead so that they come alive to God, as the Gospel of John teaches.

Jesus gives Nicodemus, a Pharisee, member of the Sanhedrin, and important teacher in Israel, what he needs—strong correction. He surprises Nicodemus by telling him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is talking about (v. 4), so Jesus issues a restatement: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). I follow Linda Belleville, and her teacher D. A. Carson, in asserting that John distinguishes here between spirit used with and without the definite article. The key is verse 6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The first occurrences of “flesh” and “spirit” have the article and should be understood as humankind and the Holy Spirit, respectively. The second uses of both words lack the article and refer to two realms, that of humanity and that of God, respectively. Also important is Jesus’s criticizing Nicodemus for not knowing about the new birth. Evidently Jesus had in mind Ezekiel’s joining of water and spirit to speak of cleansing (“clean water,” Ezek. 36:25) and heart transformation (“a new spirit,” v. 26) in the last days.

Carson summarizes,

In short, born of water and spirit (the article and the capital “S” in the NIV should be dropped: the focus is on the impartation of God’s nature as “spirit” [cf. 4:24], not on the Holy Spirit as such) signals a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets.19

This prepares us to understand John 3:7–8: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus makes a word play, because pneuma means “breath, wind, or spirit.” He likens the effects of the Holy Spirit to those of the wind. The wind is free and beyond human control; it blows where it wants, and we cannot figure out its course ahead of time. We can only know where it has been by its effects. So are those “born of the Spirit” (v. 8). Carson is correct: “The person who is ‘born of the Spirit’ can be neither controlled nor understood by persons of but one birth. . . . Both the mysteriousness and the undeniable power of the Spirit of God are displayed in the Scriptures to which Nicodemus had devoted so many years of study.”20

We have surveyed regeneration in Ephesians 2 and John 3. Hoekema sums up the gist of the first passage: “The point Paul is making is that this ‘making alive’ takes place in union with Christ. . . . In other words, regeneration occurs when we are for the first time savingly united with Christ.”21 And Leon Morris captures the point of the second passage, “Jesus makes it clear that no man can ever fit himself for the kingdom. Rather he must be completely renewed, born anew, by the power of the Spirit.”22 We thus conclude: the Holy Spirit acts in regeneration to unite us to Christ and bring us new life.23


First, justification takes place in union with Christ. Paul teaches this in 2 Corinthians. Before speaking of justification the apostle treats reconciliation. Reconciliation is peacemaking. God makes peace between himself and alienated rebels and between them and him. He does this through Jesus, the peacemaker, specifically through his death and resurrection. Paul accents two aspects of reconciliation in this chapter: (1) God reconciled us to himself (5:18–19) and (2) gave us the ministry of reconciliation (vv. 18–20).

If we ask how God reconciles sinners to himself, Paul has a ready answer, for after imploring sinners to be reconciled to God, he says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that . . . we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21). This is the language of justification. God made the righteous Christ to be sin in his sight so that we sinners might become God’s righteousness. There is imputation, or reckoning, of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us, as Murray Harris underlines:

V. 21a stands in stark contrast to v. 19b. Because of God’s transference of sinners’ sin on to the sinless one, because sin was reckoned to Christ’s account, it is now not reckoned to the believer’s account. This total identification of the sinless one with sinners at the cross, in assuming the full penalty and guilt of their sin, leaves no doubt that substitution as well as representation was involved.24

I deliberately omitted two words when I quoted 2 Corinthians 5:21. Paul writes: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Although rarely do the words “in him” indicate union with Christ in Paul without further nuance, here they do that very thing. Even as Christ shared in the plight of sinners to the point of dying (vicariously) as a sinner, so believers are declared righteous by God when they believe in Christ and share in his perfect righteousness.25

Paul teaches the same thing in Philippians 3. He discounts his pedigree and performance, the very things he once regarded as making him acceptable to God (vv. 4–8). Why? In order to “gain Christ and be found in him” (vv. 8–9). Here again the words “in him” denote union with Christ. Paul declares his desire to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (vv. 8–9). As in 2 Corinthians 5:21, so here union is elaborated in forensic terms. Paul eschews a merited righteousness of law keeping for a faith-righteousness that comes from God. Hoekema explains:

The words “be found in him” . . . tie in justification with union with Christ. . . . Most incontrovertibly, therefore, this passage sets forth the truth that we are justified not on the basis of any works which we do ourselves, but solely on the basis of what Christ has done for us. The righteousness of God thus obtained through faith is a treasure of such incomparable worth that in comparison with it we too should count every other gain but loss.26

Justification takes place not apart from Christ but in union with him, as both 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Philippians 3:8–9 show.

Second, justification is the work of the Holy Spirit. Hoekema is emphatic: “Our justification . . . is inseparable from the work of the Holy Spirit.”27 We see this in 1 Corinthians 6:11. In a context in which Paul condemns Christians’ taking other Christians to court before unbelievers, he speaks against the greed and fraud that provoked this discussion (v. 8). Such behavior is unworthy of the name of Christ. Paul immediately launches into a condemnation of sinful lifestyles with these words: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (v. 9).

After listing evil lifestyles characteristic of lost persons rather than saints, Paul gives a word of encouragement: “Such were some of you” (v. 11). Some of the Corinthian Christians had pursued these lifestyles before they believed. Paul continues, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified” (v. 11). He uses three verbs to describe their salvation. They were “washed” from the pollution of their sins, probably a reference to baptism. They were “sanctified” with initial or definitive sanctification, that powerful work of the Holy Spirit in setting sinners apart to God and constituting them his saints. They were “justified” or declared righteous by the Father on the basis of Christ’s saving accomplishment.

The key for our present study is the pair of prepositional phrases that follow: “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” and “by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11). Probably the two phrases go with all three verbs, but they certainly go with the last one—“you were justified.” When we ask what the connection is between justification and the “name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” the answer is that we are justified by believing in Christ’s name, that is, his person. The first phrase thus denotes the object of faith. But how were they “justified . . . by the Spirit of our God”? The answer is that the Spirit enables us to believe in the name of Christ. The Spirit grants the gift of saving faith.

Fee comments helpfully on this phrase, “The reference to the Spirit reflects Paul’s understanding of the Spirit as the means whereby God in the new age effects the work of Christ in the believer’s life.”28 Indeed he does, and here he effects Christ’s work in believers’ lives by enabling them to believe in Jesus’s name for justification, which (according to 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:8–9) is inseparable from union with Christ. In conclusion: the Holy Spirit acts in justification to unite us to Christ and bring us forgiveness and a righteous standing before God.

Third, the past twenty years have witnessed vigorous debates concerning justification. Though most of these are beyond the scope of this book, some attention to them is warranted here; thus the addition of this third point.29 After summarizing my own understanding of justification, I will focus on justification and union with Christ. I hold to a traditional evangelical and Reformed doctrine of justification, emphasizing the Trinity and the “already” and “not yet,” and benefiting from the work of Richard Gaffin and Michael Bird.

God the Father is the Judge who legally declares believing sinners righteous. This declaration is based on the saving accomplishment of the Son in his death (“a propitiation” [Rom. 3:25–26] and “one act of righteousness” [Rom. 5:18]) and resurrection (Rom. 4:24–25). The Holy Spirit’s part in justification is sometimes neglected. In keeping with his other ministries in applying salvation to the people of God, he gives the gift of faith, enabling guilty sinners to believe and be justified (1 Cor. 6:11; see exposition above).

As with every other aspect of the application of salvation, justification is most properly and finally eschatological. On the last day God the Judge will declare believers in Christ righteous before humankind and angels (Matt. 12:36–37; Rom. 5:19; Gal. 5:5). The judgment will be based on thoughts (1 Cor. 4:5), words (Matt. 12:36), and deeds (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12–13) that demonstrate the reality of faith in Christ. This is the “not yet” aspect of justification. The miracle of the gospel is that there is also an “already” aspect. “Since we have been justified by faith . . .” (Rom. 5:1). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). The word “now” in this verse alludes to the new era in redemptive history inaugurated by Jesus’s death and resurrection and the resultant positive relation with God enjoyed in the present by those who know the Judge’s future verdict. With different vocabulary John’s teaching overlaps Paul’s: “Whoever believes in him [the Son] is not condemned. . . . And this is the judgment” (John 3:18–19).

Richard Gaffin convinces me that justification (as well as adoption, sanctification, and glorification) is first of all a christological category and secondarily a soteriological one.30 Vicariously the sinless Christ in his resurrection was justified (1 Tim. 3:16), adopted (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:4), sanctified (Rom. 6:9–10), and glorified (1 Cor. 15:20, 42–44). Then, by virtue of union with the risen Christ, believers are justified, adopted, sanctified, and glorified in him.

Furthermore, Michael Bird, building on N. T. Wright’s work, has taught me that “justification is covenantal since it confirms the promises of the Abrahamic covenant and legitimates the identity of Jews, Greeks, and barbarians as full and equal members of God’s people.”31

Two major issues are disputed concerning justification and union with Christ: the relationship between justification and union, and whether imputation is involved. I will address these in turn. First, three views compete concerning how union with Christ and justification are related. Some so emphasize justification that there is little place for union. A recent example is Robert Reymond’s treatment of the two doctrines in his systematic theology. Although he grants that union with Christ is “all-embracive” and the “fountainhead from which flows the Christian’s every spiritual blessing,” he allots less than four pages to it. On the other hand, he allots eighteen pages to justification.32 Union seems to play a small role in his overall soteriology.

Some reverse this and allow union to swallow justification so that it occupies little place. Albert Schweitzer is a seminal example of this approach. Wright summarizes: “Schweitzer, for his part, famously regarded ‘justification’ and the other ‘forensic’ language of Paul as a second-order way of thinking, a ‘secondary crater’ within the ‘primary crater’ which, for him, was ‘being in Christ.’ ”33

I favor a mediating position that acknowledges union as the larger category of which justification is a subcategory. This is what I demonstrated above when arguing, “Justification takes place in union with Christ.” Campbell aptly summarizes this position: “Justification occurs through and in Christ. . . . Union is an originating theme through which others derive. On that score, justification is likewise derived through union with Christ and coheres with Christ’s other works by virtue of their common source in Christ.”34 But at the same time, I am eager to give proper weight to justification as a key way of expressing the gospel and not to allow union to overwhelm justification.

A second issue concerns union with Christ and imputation. Carson begins an essay in defense of imputation thus:

For many Protestants today, the doctrine of imputation has become the crucial touchstone for orthodoxy with respect to justification. For others, imputation is to be abandoned as an outdated relic of a system that focuses far too much attention on substitutionary penal atonement and far too little attention on alternative “models” of what the cross achieved.35

Carson correctly cites John Piper, and Joel Green and Mark Baker, as proponents of these two views, respectively.36

More specifically, some have argued against imputation in Paul. Rather, they say, believers receive Christ’s righteousness in union with him, and there is no need for imputation. Daniel Powers, who maintains that salvation for Paul is corporate participation in Christ, rejects outright the idea of imputation.37 Many others affirm imputation in Paul and connect it to union with Christ, including Brian Vickers and Lane Tipton.38

I side with this second position. I believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the ground of justification.39 But I do not regard it as the touchstone of orthodoxy. Many true believers in Christ have never heard of it, and some even deny it. I do not endorse the latter course, but acknowledge that among those who trust Jesus as Lord and Savior in his death and resurrection are some who deny imputation. Nevertheless, I affirm that imputation belongs to Paul’s doctrine of justification and urge acceptance of it.

As I argued above, justification is entailed in union with Christ. It is a key outworking of union. And, it seems to me, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is an important aspect of justification. I agree with Carson:

In short, although the “union with Christ” theme has often been abused, rightly handled it is a comprehensive and complex way of portraying the various ways in which we are identified with Christ and he with us. In its connection with justification, “union with Christ” terminology, especially when it is tied to the great redemptive event, suggests that although justification cannot be reduced to imputation, justification in Paul’s thought cannot long be faithfully maintained without it.40


First, adoption takes place in union with Christ. Paul teaches this in Galatians 3. He reviews redemptive history in 3:15–4:7, speaking of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and new covenants in turn. Here he deals with the last, which has arrived “now that faith has come” (3:25).

Anticipating his treatment of adoption in 4:1–7, Paul writes, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (3:26). In translating, there is ambiguity concerning where to put the words “in Christ Jesus.” The NIV puts them with “faith”: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” The ESV translates it, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” As noted earlier, where the Greek is potentially ambiguous I assume that a Greek writer would use word order to clear up the ambiguity. In this instance, the NIV follows the Greek word order. Thus, although the ESV rendering would provide another reference to union with Christ, I assume Paul uses “in Christ Jesus” to present Christ as the object of faith (NIV).

A brief summary of adoption is in order. “Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.”42 The background for adoption is bondage to Satan and sin (4:3, 7). Christ, the eternal Son of God, became flesh to redeem spiritual slaves and make them God’s sons (vv. 4–5). Like justification, adoption is by grace through faith, as the NIV rendering of 3:26 shows.

Adoption also takes place in union with Christ (according to 3:26–27). Verse 27 explains why the people mentioned in verse 26 are “sons of God”: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Being “baptized into Christ” denotes union with Christ, as the image of putting on clothes suggests. Baptism/conversion involves figuratively putting on Christ as one puts on clothes. As clothing covers the body, so Christ “covers” believers.

In sum: To be “baptized into Christ” is to be joined to him.43 And since verse 27 explains what it means to be “sons of God” (in v. 26), union is a bigger category of which adoption is a part. The word for is important: “You are all sons of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (vv. 26–27, my translation). Their baptism explains their status as God’s adopted sons. (Paul does not teach that the act of baptism automatically saves the Galatians.)44 Adoption takes place not apart from Christ but in union with him.

Second, adoption is the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul teaches this in Romans 8. After exhorting his readers to live not for sin but for God (vv. 12–13), Paul turns to adoption. In fact, verse 14 prevents a possible misunderstanding of verse 13, which sets forth two alternatives in strong terms: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” “You will die” and “you will live” denote the final states of damnation and salvation, respectively.

Some have concluded that verse 13 teaches that believers may fall from saving grace and be lost. This is a wrong conclusion for two reasons. First, it clashes with strong preservation passages that surround it in 8:1–4 and 28–39. Second, verse 14 clarifies verse 13 by giving assurance that God’s children obey the Spirit: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” That means they “put to death the deeds of the body” (v. 13). Paul thus gives God’s condition for gaining eternal life in one verse and gives confidence to God’s children that they will satisfy that condition and gain life in the next verse. In other words, God’s children are identifiable; they acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s leadership and live for their heavenly Father.

Paul next contrasts the “spirit of slavery” and the “Spirit of adoption”: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons” (v. 15). Here again we see that the background for adoption is slavery to sin and the fear that goes with it. God gives us the “Spirit of adoption as sons.” He assures us of his fatherly love by giving us the Spirit.

The names of the first two persons of the Trinity are ideal to communicate God’s grace of adoption. God is the Father who adopts us into his family. God is the Son who through death and resurrection enables us to become his brothers and sisters by faith. But the name Holy Spirit is not ideal to communicate God’s love in adoption. So what does God do? He alters the name of the third person of the Trinity to communicate his adoptive love for us. He calls him “the Spirit of his [the Father’s] Son” (Gal. 4:6) and “the Spirit of adoption as sons” (Rom. 8:15).

Paul’s next words present the Holy Spirit as the agent of adoption: “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (v. 15). It is the Spirit who enables sinners to cry out for salvation to God as Father. Douglas Moo is pithy: “Since the Spirit is presented as the Father’s agent in conferring ‘life’ (see v. 11), it may be better to think of the Spirit as the agent through whom the believer’s sonship is both bestowed and confirmed.”45

Adoption, then, is the Spirit’s work. He enables those who were enslaved to sin to believe in the unique Son and so become sons themselves. He enables them to call God “Father,” “Abba,” the very word Jesus uses to address his Father (Mark 14:36). By God’s grace and the Spirit’s agency believers thus have a relationship with God akin to Jesus’s relationship to his Father (though his is eternal and by nature, while ours had a beginning and is by grace).

Cranfield waxes eloquent concerning these truths:

The Spirit they have received has not led them back into bondage, and so into that anxiety which is its inseparable characteristic. . . . He has not betrayed their hopes by subjecting them to the same sort of anxious fear as they had experienced before. . . . Instead, He has proved Himself to be the Spirit of adoption, that is, the Spirit who brings about adoption, uniting men with Christ and so making them sharers in His sonship.46

Subsequent verses give even more blessings that follow adoption—the Spirit’s internal witness, believers’ inheritance, and future glory—but now it is time to sum up: the Holy Spirit acts in adoption to unite us to Christ and bring us all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that accompany it.


First, sanctification takes place in union with Christ. Paul teaches this in Romans 6, where he returns to the false charge of antinomianism previously lodged against him (cf. 3:8). He has just written, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5:20), from which his enemies wrongly deduce that he is teaching antinomianism. They throw this question in his teeth: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (6:1). Paul finds this repugnant and asks incredulously: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (v. 2).

Paul explains that we die to sin when we are baptized: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (v. 3). The apostle teaches that baptism denotes union with Christ in his death. We are baptized into Christ; we take part in his narrative. Just as he died, then, in union with him we also die to sin. Christ’s atonement breaks the domination of sin over our lives; we no longer have to obey that harsh master. Instead, we belong to another Master, who bought us with his death and resurrection. We now love and serve him.

It saddens Paul that believers would keep living in sin after baptism (v. 2). To do so is to misunderstand baptism, in which God identifies us with Christ in his cross and empty tomb. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4). We must live, then, as those who with Christ died to sin and who live to God.

According to Paul, Christians share in Jesus’s story. We are crucified with him (v. 6), participate in his death (vv. 5, 8) and resurrection (v. 5), and “will also live with him” (v. 8). Our union with Christ in his death and resurrection is the source of successful Christian living (vv. 4, 6–7, 11–14). That is why Paul commands, “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (v. 13). Sanctification takes place not apart from Christ but in union with him.

Second, sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul teaches this in 2 Thessalonians 2. He says that he, Silvanus, and Timothy (see 1:1) “ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved” (2:13). Paul’s ministry team should thank God always for loving and electing the Thessalonians for salvation.47 Paul specifies that God chose them to be “saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” Here are the means God uses to bring his eternal plan into effect. He uses the Spirit’s sanctifying work and the Thessalonians’ resultant faith in the gospel to rescue them from their sins.

Gene L. Green’s discussion is apt:

[Paul] assured the Thessalonians that sanctification was a work of God (1 Thess. 5.23) that he effects through the agency of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 4.8). The process of sanctification began at their conversion (1 Pet. 1.2) and is being worked out throughout their lives so that the believers might be blameless before the Lord at his coming (1 Thess. 5.23 . . .). Far from its being auxiliary to their salvation, the apostle understands the sanctifying work as the action of the Spirit of God that brings about their salvation.48

Though we commonly restrict sanctification to its progressive aspect, Scripture presents it as initial or definitive, progressive or lifelong, and final or complete. We see the first in 1 Corinthians 7:11 and 1 Peter 1:2; the second in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7; and the third in Ephesians 5:25–27 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23.

Other passages bear witness to the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in the people of God:

On some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 15:15–16)

You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood. (1 Pet. 1:1–2)

Hoekema is correct: “That our sanctification is ascribed to the Spirit does not come as a surprise. In fact, the very name ‘Holy Spirit’ already suggests that the Spirit is associated with holiness or sanctification.”49 It is true: the Holy Spirit acts in sanctification to unite us to Christ, constitute us as God’s saints, and begin the lifelong process of making us holy.


First, preservation takes place in union with Christ. Paul teaches this twice in Romans 8, once at the beginning and once at the end of the chapter. He writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). We saw earlier that the word “now” points to the “new era of salvation history inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection,” as Moo points out.50 Paul employs legal language to affirm that Christ delivers his people from the penalty lawbreakers deserve—condemnation. Christ has saved believers from God’s never-ending wrath. Cranfield is succinct when he says, “For those who are in Christ Jesus (cf. 6:2–11; 7:4) there is no divine condemnation, since the condemnation which they deserve has already been fully borne for them by Him.”51 Indeed, Scripture declares that Christ died in the place of his people:

He was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed. (Isa. 53:5)

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” (Gal. 3:13)

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. (1 Pet. 3:18)

“Those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1) refers to those in Christ’s realm. Paul contrasts that realm with the one “of sin and death” (v. 2). People who are in Christ’s realm are justified already and will not receive a verdict of condemnation at the last judgment. Rather, they will be declared righteous. Schreiner sums up the matter:

Thus there is no condemnation for those in Christ because the future deliverance from death has invaded the present world. . . . Via union with Christ . . . they have already died with Christ and been raised with him (6:1–11). . . . The word κατάκριμα [katakrima, “condemnation”] is a forensic term . . . denoting the removal of the curse (cf. Gal. 3:13) from those who are descendants of Adam.52

The apostle also affirms that God preserves those who are “in Christ” at the end of Romans 8: “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38–39). These verses occur at the end of the strongest preservation passage in Scripture, Romans 8:28–39. There Paul, in turn, bases God’s keeping his people safe on his sovereignty (vv. 28–30), power (vv. 31–32), justice (vv. 33–34), and love (vv. 35–39).53

Paul describes God’s love as “in Christ Jesus our Lord,” thereby telling where the love of God is most clearly seen. Because of God’s love in Christ, nothing at all will ever separate believers from their Lord. Paul uses comprehensive language. What is not included in “neither death nor life”? For those whose past sins are forgiven, what could possibly be omitted from “nor things present nor things to come”? And just to make sure all his bases are covered Paul adds, “nor anything else in all creation.” Cranfield sums up the matter well:

The movement of thought surely requires that the list in these two verses should be all-embracing, and the presence of the next phrase shows that it is intended to be so. . . . [“Nor anything else in all creation”] stands . . . by itself, and concludes the list. It is apparently added in order to make the list completely comprehensive.54

Paul thus teaches emphatically that God’s keeping believers is bound up with his love “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As Dunn, speaking of Paul, eloquently states:

The sweep of his faith is truly majestic. No longer simply situations of stress and suffering within life, but the boundary situations of life and beyond life, the powers that determine eternal destiny, all fall under his gaze, with no different result: nothing can loose the embrace of God’s love in Christ. . . . Whatever names his readers give to the nameless forces which threaten the Creator’s work and purpose, they are in the end impotent before him who is God over all. . . . Nothing, but nothing, can separate from “God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”55

In short, preservation takes place not apart from Christ but in union with him.

Second, preservation is the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul teaches this in two places in Ephesians, both concerning the Holy Spirit as seal. It is important to see the Spirit’s role in broader theological context. Preservation is the work of the Trinity. “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has caused us to be born again to a living hope . . . an inheritance that is . . . kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for . . . salvation” (1 Pet. 1:3–5). Jesus, referring to his sheep, says, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29).

The Son also plays an important part in the preservation of the saints. He says, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (6:37). Concerning the elect he says, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (v. 39). And he also keeps the sheep safe in his arms: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:27–28).

The Holy Spirit plays a part in preservation; this is clearly seen when Paul presents him as the seal of our final redemption. In Ephesians 1:3–14 Paul offers praise to the triune God for salvation. This includes the Father’s election (vv. 4–5, 11), the Son’s redemption (v. 7), and the Holy Spirit as seal (vv. 13–14). We will focus on the last: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (v. 13). Paul says that when the Ephesians heard the gospel and believed in Christ, they were “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”

In three places Paul presents the Spirit as the seal of salvation. In 2 Corinthians 1:21–22 he teaches that the Father is the sealer, distinguishing “God . . . who has also put his seal on us” from “Christ” and “his Spirit.” In two other places he uses the divine passive to imply that the Father is the sealer (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). So in Ephesians 1:13 the apostle means that when the Ephesians believed, they “were sealed [by the Father] with the promised Holy Spirit.” “Promised”56 indicates that the Spirit has come in fulfillment of Old Testament prediction.

The key is the Spirit himself as seal. “In him you . . . were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (v. 13). The Father seals believers with the Spirit. Furthermore, the two words that begin the verse are crucial: “in him” is used as a locative (figuratively) to show realm. The Father seals believers with the Holy Spirit in Christ’s domain. Here is the main point: God makes us part of Christ’s realm permanently. And he gives us the Spirit as seal of that fact.

Verse 14 confirms our interpretation of verse 13: “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” “Guarantee” is the Aramaic loanword arrabōn, which means “first installment, deposit, down payment, pledge.”57 “It was a common commercial word denoting a pledge—some object handed over by a buyer to a seller until the purchase price was paid in full,” as F. F. Bruce explains.58 Paul thus teaches that the Father seals believers in Christ with the Holy Spirit as the pledge or “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (v. 14). The Spirit is God’s pledge to us that we will not fail to gain our final inheritance as God’s children. The Spirit thus plays an important role in keeping God’s people saved until the end.

Bruce beautifully applies Paul’s message:

The Spirit consciously received is “the guarantee of our inheritance,” the pledge given to believers by God to assure them that the glory of the life to come, promised in the gospel, is a well-founded hope, a reality and not an illusion. . . . They can enter into the enjoyment of this everlasting portion here and now by the ministry of the Spirit. . . . Redemption is already theirs through the sacrifice and death of Christ (v. 7), but one aspect of that redemption remains to be realized. On the day of resurrection God will “redeem” his own possession, and the evidence of his commitment to do so is given in his “sealing” that possession with the Spirit.59

In Ephesians 4:30 Paul is even more emphatic. He commands, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” The apostle regards the Spirit as a (divine) person who can be hurt. In this context, Christians grieve the Spirit with sinful anger or speech. Once more Paul uses the divine passive to imply that the Father is sealer. He seals us with the “Holy Spirit of God . . . for the day of redemption.” Here Paul plainly gives the Spirit a major part in keeping us for final salvation.

O’Brien’s words are accurate and edifying:

The “day of redemption,” which is unique to Ephesians, refers to the final day of salvation and judgment, that is, the goal of history. . . . On the final day God will “redeem” his own possession, and the guarantee he has given of this is his sealing of them with the Spirit. . . . There is a fulfilment yet to come, and believers eagerly await it. For the moment, however, the apostle’s gaze is on the presence of the Spirit in their midst. They are to live out the future in the here and now until that “day” of redemption arrives, and this reminder that the Holy Spirit is God’s own seal should be an incentive to holy living and speaking.60

Hoekema’s summary anticipates my own: “The Holy Spirit, in other words, in a mysterious but wonderful way, enables us to persevere in the Christian walk until the day when we shall enter into our final inheritance on the glorified new earth.”61 In other words, the Holy Spirit plays a part in our preservation, which takes place in union with Christ, because the Spirit is God’s seal, protecting us until we enter final salvation.


First, glorification takes place in union with Christ. Paul teaches this in Romans 8 and Colossians 3. In the former passage, after urging believers to live wholeheartedly for God and speaking of the glories of our adoption by the Father, he turns his attention to the Spirit. The Spirit enables people to cry out to the Father in saving faith. “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (Rom. 8:15). The Spirit also testifies within believers’ hearts that God is their Father: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (v. 16).

Paul extends the adoption metaphor to include inheritance: “If children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (v. 17). As God’s children by adoption we are also his heirs! Paul says the same thing in Galatians 4:7: “You are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” If we take into account the Bible’s big story, the inheritance of believers is startling: we inherit the Trinity and the new earth (1 Cor. 3:21–23; Rev. 21:1–7)!

There follows an important proviso: we are God’s children and heirs “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). When God adopts children, he not only places them in his family but also gives them his Spirit and changes them. They are identifiable: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (v. 14). This is because union with Christ involves union with his death and resurrection. Because we are joined to Christ in his death, we “suffer with him.” And because we are joined to Christ in his resurrection, we will “also be glorified with him.”

As we saw previously, it is impossible to be a Christian without the Holy Spirit. Those who lack the Spirit are not believers: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (v. 9). Conversely, those who have the Spirit are Christians. The Spirit’s main job is to unite us to Christ in his death and resurrection, and that is why Paul can issue his proviso, as Moo explains concerning the inheritance promised in verse 17:

Paul adds that this glorious inheritance is attained only through suffering. . . . Because we are one with Christ, we are his fellow heirs, assured of being “glorified with him.” But, at the same time, this oneness means that we must follow Christ’s own road to glory, “suffering with him.” . . . Paul makes clear that this suffering is the condition for the inheritance; we will be “glorified with” Christ (only) if we “suffer with him.” Participation in Christ’s glory can come only through participation in his suffering. . . . For the glory of the kingdom of God is attained only through participation in Christ, and belonging to Christ cannot but bring our participation in the sufferings of Christ. Just as, then, Christ has suffered and entered into his glory (1 Pet. 1:11), so Christians, “fellow heirs with Christ,” suffer during this present time in order to join Christ in glory.62

In Colossians 3 also Paul teaches that glorification takes place in union with Christ. He opposes the false teachers and their asceticism, which has “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (2:8–23, quoting 23): “Set your minds . . . not on things that are on earth” (3:2). His chief concern, however, is positive: “Christ . . . seated at the right hand of God” (v. 1). For this reason he commands, “Seek the things that are above. . . . Set your minds on things that are above” (vv. 1–2). The antidote to destructive teaching and futile asceticism is Christ (2:8–15). This is why the apostle points the Colossians “above,” where Christ is.

Paul underlines union with Christ in his narrative as motivation to “seek” him. When he tells his readers, “You have died” (3:3), he means with Christ (cf. 2:20). He specifically mentions union with Christ in his resurrection (3:1). Due to his readers’ union with Christ in his death and resurrection, Paul concludes, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (v. 3).

Contrary to asceticism, Paul’s readers are to pursue Christ above. This does not entail despising their earthly lives, for he teaches them how to relate to one another in church and home (3:18–4:1). This is “earthy” teaching. It does not involve denial of bodily appetites as a means of spirituality; instead, it means drawing strength from union with Christ in heaven for daily life on earth.

Astoundingly, Paul carries participation in Christ’s story even further. We not only died with him, were buried with him, arose with him, ascended with him, and sat down in heaven with him. But in a sense we also come again with him! This is the meaning of Paul’s words, “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (3:4). “When Christ . . . appears” refers to his return. And “you also will appear with him in glory” refers to our return, so to speak. Believers have a “second coming” in union with Christ, as O’Brien explains:

For the moment their heavenly life remains hidden, secure with Christ in God. Their new life as Christians in Christ is not visible to others, and, in some measure, is hidden from themselves. It will only be fully manifest when Christ, who embodies that life, appears in his Parousia. Indeed, the day of the revelation of the Son of God will be the day of the revelation of the sons of God. That manifestation will take place “in glory” for it will involve the sharing of Christ’s likeness and the receiving of the glorious resurrection body.63

Our union with Christ is so all-encompassing that we will (in a sense) come again with him. Only at his second coming will our true identities “in Christ” be disclosed. In the meantime we do not even come close to being the holy and glorious persons we will be in the resurrection.64 Glorification takes place not apart from Christ but in union with him.

Second, glorification is the work of the Holy Spirit. I was surprised to find that Scripture does not teach this truth as directly as the previous five, concerning the Spirit’s role in regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and preservation. Nevertheless, Scripture implies it. Consider that the following texts serve as background for this truth by combining the Spirit and glory:

If the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? (2 Cor. 3:7–8)

We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (v. 18)

The text that best implies the Spirit’s role in glorification is 1 Peter 4:13–14. In his first epistle Peter encourages persecuted believers to persevere in their faith by entrusting themselves to God and doing his will. So he writes in chapter 4, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (v. 12). Christians are to expect persecution, as he says elsewhere, a truth echoed by Paul: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

Moreover, believers can even rejoice in persecution. “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13). Peter instructs his readers to be glad when they suffer for and in Christ now, because such suffering is an indication that they will share in his glory at his return. Underlying this verse is the doctrine of union with Christ in his death and resurrection; or, as Peter is wont to say, in his past suffering and future glory. Davids captures Peter’s thought remarkably:

As the Christians suffer because of their identification with Christ, they enter into the experience of Christ’s own sufferings. This experience creates a re-imaging of their own suffering, which will allow them to see the real evil as an advantage as their perspective shifts. This process is precisely what each of the passages in 1 Peter that use this language does: each encourages a re-imaging of suffering as an identification with Christ . . . that will lead to an eventual participation in glory.

It is because of this re-imaging of suffering that the Christians can be instructed to “rejoice,” . . . for they obtain an eschatological perspective on their problems. This perspective becomes explicit in the promise that they will “also rejoice, being glad when his glory is revealed.” On the one hand, there will be a corresponding participation in the glory of Christ for those who now share in Christ’s sufferings. . . . On the other hand, while this revelation of Christ’s glory is future . . . they can rejoice now in the evidence that they belong to him (their suffering) because they anticipate the coming joy.65

This is where the Holy Spirit enters the picture: “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (v. 14). Peter’s wording agrees much with that of Isaiah 11:2 in the Septuagint: “The Spirit of God . . . will rest on him.” He adapts for Christians words that refer to the Messiah, “probably on the basis of the application of ‘the name of Christ’ to Christians in the preceding clause.”66 The Greek syntax is awkward in the last clause of 1 Peter 4:14, and another interpretation is possible based on another translation option, as Schreiner, who favors this option, shows.67

I respectfully follow the translation of the ESV (the NIV is very similar): “The Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” When believers suffer because they are Christians, Peter insists, they can rejoice because they have been joined to Christ and thereby participate in the Holy Spirit. The way Peter refers to the Spirit within this context implies that glorification is the work of the Spirit. Davids concludes:

Thus those suffering for Christ experience through the Spirit now the glory they are promised in the future (1:7; 5:4; cf. 2 Cor. 4:17; Col. 3:4). Indeed their very suffering is a sign that the reputation (glory) of God is seen in them, that the Spirit rests on them. They can indeed count themselves blessed.68

In 1 Peter 4:13, then, Peter promises suffering believers a share “when his [Christ’s] glory is revealed,” and then speaks of the “Spirit of glory and of God” resting on them in verse 14. The implication is that the “Spirit of glory” will enable each one of them to be a “partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (5:1). Schreiner is right in affirming, “Believers who suffer are blessed because they are now enjoying God’s favor, tasting even now the wonders of the glory to come and experiencing the promised Holy Spirit.”69

I conclude: the “Spirit of glory and of God” (4:14) will act in glorification to unite believers to Christ “when his glory is revealed” (v. 13).


“The key to our sharing in the Father-Son relationship is the work of the Holy Spirit, who enters us personally in order to bring us to trust in Christ and thereby to unite us through Christ to his Father.”70 Donald Fairbairn’s summary of the church fathers’ understanding holds true for this study: the most important work of the Holy Spirit in salvation is to join human beings to Christ.

We have seen three pieces of evidence for this statement. First, in 1 Corinthians 12:12–13 Paul uses two pictures to credit union with Christ to the Spirit. Christ baptizes all believers into his body with the one Spirit. And all believers have drunk of the one Spirit. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the Spirit is indispensable to union with Christ, as the next piece of evidence says in no uncertain terms.

Second, the apostle says point-blank, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9). That is, the Spirit is the bond of union with Christ. This fact yields both negative and positive results. In negative terms, it is as simple as this: no Spirit, no union. In positive terms, the third piece of evidence is true.

Third, Paul ascribes aspects of salvation that occur in union with Christ to the Spirit’s working. Different ways of talking about salvation applied to sinners include regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. Each of these aspects of the application of salvation takes place in union with Christ, and each is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Marcus Johnson’s words form a fitting conclusion to this chapter:

We are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. . . . To say that our union with Christ occurs by the power of the Spirit means that the Holy Spirit is himself the bond that united us to the living Christ. . . . The heart of the Spirit’s ministry is to join us to the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and living Lord Jesus Christ. J. I. Packer writes that “the distinctive, constant, basic ministry of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant is . . . to mediate Christ’s presence to believers.” Therefore, describing union with Christ as a “spiritual” union can mean only that it is a union with Christ that takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit—it is a Spiritual union.71


From Salvation Applied by the Spirit: Union with Christ Hardcover – November 30, 2014 by Robert A. Peterson (Author)



1 I acknowledge help from Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 603.

2 Ibid., 606.

3 Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 194.

4 For refutation of Pentecostal attempts to make Pentecost normative, see ibid., 80–87.

5 William Baker, 1 Corinthians, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2009), 182.

6 So ibid., 183.

7 Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 591–92.

8 So Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999), 463.

9 C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1968), 289.

10 Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 258.

11 Ibid., 258n18.

12 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 194.

13 Ibid.

14 Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 413.

15 C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 388.

16 James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1988), 444.

17 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 161.

18 Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1990), 101.

19 D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 195, emphasis original. Carson acknowledges Linda Belleville, “ ‘Born of Water and Spirit’: John 3:5,” Trinity Journal 1 (1980): 125–41.

20 Carson, Gospel according to John, 198, emphasis original.

21 Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 59.

22 Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 219.

23 See also Titus 3:4–5: “God . . . saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”

24 Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 453.

25 So Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 186–87.

26 Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 160.

27 Ibid., 30.

28 Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 246.

29 Proponents of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) include James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); and N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). Opponents of the NPP include Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007); and Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2004). Valuable collections of essays on justification include James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, eds., Justification: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011); and Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Trier, Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004). An important but neglected resource is Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987). Recent insightful treatments include R. Michael Allen, Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013); and Michael F. Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perspective (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2006).

30 Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption, 114–34.

31 Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 567, emphasis original.

32 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 736, 739. He devotes pp. 736–39 to union with Christ and pp. 739–56 to justification.

33 Wright, Justification, 84, citing Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (London: A & C Black, 1931), 225.

34 Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ, 396.

35 D. A. Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation: On Fields of Discourse and Semantic Fields,” in Beilby and Eddy, Justification: Five Views, 46.

36 John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002); Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).

37 Daniel G. Powers, Salvation through Participation: An Examination of the Notion of the Believers’ Corporate Unity with Christ in Early Christian Soteriology (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2001).

38 Brian Vickers, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006); Lane G. Tipton, “Union with Christ and Justification,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Mentor, 2007), 23–49.

39 See the cogent defense of this Reformed view in Vickers, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness.

40 Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation,” 77.

41 For a book-length treatment of adoption, see Robert A. Peterson, Adopted by God: From Wayward Sinners to Cherished Children (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).

42 Westminster Shorter Catechism, q. 34.

43 See F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 185.

44 See ibid.

45 Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 502.

46 Cranfield, Epistle to the Romans, 396–97.

47 There is a textual variant in v. 13 that yields either the translation “God chose you from the beginning to be saved” (NIV) or “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved” (ESV). Both are true theologically, and neither has a bearing on our current investigation. For discussion, see Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 301–2. Fee concludes in favor of the second option.

48 Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 326–27, emphasis original.

49 Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 30.

50 Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 472.

51 Cranfield, Epistle to the Romans, 373.

52 Schreiner, Romans, 398–99.

53 For a theological exposition, see Robert A. Peterson, Our Secure Salvation: Preservation and Apostasy, Explorations in Biblical Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 60–67.

54 Cranfield, Epistle to the Romans, 444, emphasis original.

55 Dunn, Romans 1–8, 512–13, emphasis original.

56 Literally, “the Holy Spirit of promise,” with the genitive “of promise” (τῆς ἐπαγγελίας/tēs epangelias) used as a qualitative genitive and correctly rendered “promised.”

57 BDAG, 2nd ed. (1979), 109.

58 F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 266.

59 Ibid.

60 Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 349.

61 Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 31.

62 Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 505–6, emphasis original.

63 Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), 171, emphasis original.

64 Although it is little known, Paul teaches the same truth in Rom. 8:19: “The creation waits with eager longing for the revelation of the sons of God” (my translation).

65 Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 166–67.

66 J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1988), 264.

67 Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 222–23, offers this paraphrase: “The eschatological glory promised in v. 13 and the Spirit of God rest upon you.”

68 Davids, First Epistle of Peter, 168.

69 Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 223.

70 Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 195.

71 Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 45, emphasis original. He cites J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), 49.

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