The Trinitarian Way of Salvation

by Herman Bavinck

There is room for an order of salvation in a scriptural, Christian, and Reformed sense only on the foundation of the trinitarian confession. In the first place, it follows from this confession that the application of salvation is distinct from its acquisition. The Holy Spirit, as we know, though one in essence with the Father and the Son, is distinct from them as a person. He has his own way of existing, his own manner of working. Although it is true that all the external works of God [opera Dei ad extra] are undivided and inseparable, in creation and re-creation one can nevertheless observe an economy that gives us the right to speak of the Father and our creation, the Son and our redemption, the Spirit and our sanctification. Why is it that Christ can testify that the Holy Spirit had not as yet been given because he himself had not yet been glorified (John 7:39), and why did the Holy Spirit have to be poured out on the day of Pentecost if sanctification were not a work distinct from creation and redemption, just as the Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son? Accordingly, the work the mediator was charged to do did not end with his suffering and death. Christ is not a historical person like others in the sense that, after living and working for a time on earth, he now still affects people by his mind and exerts influence on them by his word and example. Although he completed all the work the Father had instructed him to do on earth, in heaven he continues his prophetic, priestly, and royal activity. Precisely to this end he was justified and glorified at God's right hand. He is the living Lord from heaven. That activity is distinct from that which he performed on earth, though it is most intimately connected with it. By his earthly sacrifice he accomplished everything there was to do in the sphere of justice: he satisfied God's demand, fulfilled the law, and acquired all the benefits of grace. That work is complete and incapable of being increased or decreased. Nothing can be added to it, and nothing can be detracted from it: it is complete, perfect. The Father rests in it and sealed it with the resurrection of his Son. All the benefits that God bestows in the covenant of grace he bestows "through and on account of Christ."

But there is a difference between ownership and possession. Just as a child, even before birth, has a claim on all the goods of his or her father but only at a much later age enters into possession of it, so also all those who will later believe have—long before they believe—ownership rights in Christ to all the benefits he has acquired but only enter into the possession of them by faith. The acquisition of salvation therefore calls for their application. The former implies and produces the latter. As Christ's exaltation is linked to his humiliation, as his activity in heaven is connected with that on earth, so the application of salvation is bound up with its acquisition.

And that application is twofold. Redemption by Christ, we know, is redemption from sin and its consequences. He not only took over from us our guilt and punishment but also fulfilled the law in our stead. The application of Christ's benefits, accordingly, has to consist in justification (i.e., the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and the right to eternal life) but also in sanctification (i.e., the renewal in us of the image of Christ). Not only the guilt but also the pollution and power of sin must be removed. It has to be a complete redemption, a total re-creation. To the end of effecting and bringing about this redemption based on his completed sacrifice, Christ was exalted to the right hand of the Father. To that end he sent the Holy Spirit, who not only "bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:16) but who also regenerates us and refashions us after the image of God. This work of application is, therefore, just as much a divine work as the creation by the Father and the redemption by the Son; and the Holy Spirit who brings it about is therefore, together with the Father and the Son, the one, sole God, to be praised and blessed forever.

Implied in the confession of the Trinity, in the second place, is that the work of sanctification—in an "economic" sense, the task of the Holy Spirit—though distinct, is not for a moment separated from the work of redemption and creation accomplished by the Father and the Son. This is already evident from the fact that in the divine being the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and participates with them in the same essence. And as he is, so he works, both in creation and re-creation. From this it follows, first of all, that the work of the Spirit is connected with and agrees with the work of the Father. Between the two there is neither opposition nor contradiction. It is not the case that the Father wills the salvation of all and the Holy Spirit applies it only to the few, or vice versa, but the two work together because they are one in essence. From this it also follows that nature and grace, however distinct from each other, are not mutually exclusive. The Roman Catholic system is totally dominated by the contrast between nature and supernatural grace; and various Protestant groups and sects have relapsed into that error. Pietism and Methodism misjudge the right and value of nature both before and after conversion. But the Reformation, in principle, knew no other antithesis than that of sin and grace. Also nature was a creation of God and subject to his providence. As such it is of no less value than grace. For that reason the Reformation could accord to nature, that is, to God's guidance in the life of nature, both in that of peoples and that of special persons, a pedagogical role and significance. It is God himself who prepares the gracious working of the Holy Spirit in the line of generations; and the Holy Spirit in his activities links up with the guidance of God in the natural life and attempts by his grace to restore the natural life, to free it from the power of sin and consecrate it to God.

From the essential unity of Father, Son, and Spirit, it also follows that the Holy Spirit is connected with the work of the Son. The Son and the Spirit do not work against each other. An illustration of that would occur if, for example, the Spirit would apply salvation only to a few, whereas the Son had acquired it for all humans, or vice versa. One in essence, the three Persons, in their varying activities, work together. By his humiliation the Son himself, after all, became a life-giving Spirit. He lives totally by the Spirit. "The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God" (Rom. 6:10). He has fully attained immortality, the eternal life of the Spirit. In him there is nothing "natural" or "soulish" left that can suffer and die. Having already been equipped by the Spirit for his work on earth and anointed without measure with him, he has fully acquired that Spirit and received all the gifts of that Spirit and now lives, rules, and governs by that Spirit. The Spirit of the Father and the Son has become his Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. Before Christ was glorified, he was not yet that Spirit, but now he is the Spirit of Christ, his rightful property, his possession.

And so, on the day of Pentecost, he sends that Spirit in order by the Spirit to apply all his benefits to his church. The Holy Spirit does not acquire those benefits nor add a single benefit, for Christ has accomplished everything. In no respect is the Spirit the meriting cause of our salvation. That is Christ alone, in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily and whose work therefore does not need to be augmented or improved. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit takes everything from Christ: as the Son came to glorify the Father, so the Holy Spirit in turn came down to glorify the Son. To that Son he bears witness; out of his fullness, he communicates grace upon grace; he leads people to that Son and through the Son to the Father. He applies all Christ's benefits, to each in his measure, at his time, according to his order. He does not stop his activity before he has made the fullness of Christ to dwell in his church and the church has reached maturity, "the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). The activity of the Holy Spirit is therefore nothing but an applicatory one. The order of redemption is the application of salvation (applicatio salutis). The relevant question, therefore, is decidedly not, What must a person do to be saved? but only, What is God doing in his grace to make the church participate in the complete salvation acquired by Christ? Also the "application of salvation" is a work of God that must be viewed theologically, not anthropologically, which from beginning to end ("economically" speaking) has the Holy Spirit as its author and may be called his special work. The whole "way of salvation" is the "applicatory grace of the Holy Spirit."

Against this view of the order of salvation and from the side of Pelagianism, however, the objection is always raised that in that way the right of humanity is denied, human self-activity is suppressed, and an ungodly life is fostered. Insofar as this objection is fundamentally calculated to overturn the scriptural testimony that by the works of the law no human being will be justified (Rom. 3:20), it is not, from the Christian position, admissible. Those who would to some extent agree with it would at the same time and to the same extent leave the scriptural basis behind. Insofar as it is really an objection and deserves consideration, it is untrue and based on misunderstanding. For the view of the "application of salvation" as God's work does not exclude but includes the full recognition of all those moral factors that, under the guidance of God's providence, affect the intellect and heart of the unconverted person. They may not suffice for salvation, as Scripture and experience clearly indicate, but on a truly reformational position there can be no failure to appreciate their value, even for the work of grace. It is God himself, after all, who thus leads his human children, witnesses to them, and showers benefits down on them from heaven [cf. Acts 14:17] that they should seek God in hope of finding him [cf. Acts 17:27]. We do not see, moreover, why the Holy Spirit, who calls people to faith and repentance by his Word, should nullify that moral effect of the Word on the human heart and conscience that Pelagianism attributes to it.

Reformed doctrine contains not less but more than what is recognized by Pelagius and his followers. They think they can be content with that moral effect. Augustine and his allies, however, while considering it inadequate, still fully included it in the Holy Spirit's working of grace. In addition, the application of salvation is and remains a work of the Spirit, a work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, and is therefore never coercive and violent but always spiritual, lovely, and gentle, treating humans not as blocks of wood but as rational beings, illuminating, persuading, drawing, and bending them. The Spirit causes their darkness to yield to the light and replaces their spiritual powerlessness with spiritual power. Grace and sin are opposites; the latter is overcome only by the power of the former, but as soon as and to the same degree that the power of sin is broken, the opposition between God and humans ceases: It is God's Spirit who "bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (cf. Rom. 8:16). "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me; the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God" (cf. Gal. 2:20). "It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" and who himself wants us to work out our salvation "with fear and trembling" (cf. Phil. 2:12–13). This theological view is so far removed from fostering an ungodly life that, instead, it alone guarantees the reality of a new Christian life, assures believers of the certainty of their salvation, infallibly vouches for the victory of the kingdom of God, and causes the work of the Father and of the Son to attain completion in that of the Spirit. Pelagianism, by contrast, makes everything wobbly and uncertain—even the victory of the good and the triumph of the kingdom of God—because it hangs everything on the incalculable arbitrariness of humans. Standing up for the rights of humankind, it tramples on the rights of God and for humans ends up with no more than the right to be fickle. But the Reformation, standing up as it did for the rights of God, has by that very fact again gained recognition for the rights of humankind. For here, too, the word of Scripture applies: "those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt" [1 Sam. 2:30]. The theological view of the order of salvation gathers up all the good that is concealed in the anthropological view, but the reverse does not happen. Those who start with God can also do justice to humans as his rational and moral creatures; but those who start with humans and first of all seek to secure their rights and liberties always end up limiting the power and grace of God.


Source: Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2006). Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, pp. 569–573). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.


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