The Holy Spirit and His role in the salvation of the lost are often either misunderstood or ignored altogether. Among many believers today, the Holy Spirit seems to be the most “mysterious” and maybe even a “lesser” part of the triune Godhead. For many, the Holy Spirit is nothing more than some force or power. There is often a failure to comprehend that, although the Spirit is a distinct person within the Trinity, He is still one with God the Father, and God the Son. As such, the Spirit performs a vitally important, distinct, and equal role in salvation.
For many who call themselves believers, the Holy Spirit is nothing more than something they have been promised if they “become saved.” Many of us have heard the phrase, “God has promised that if I become a Christian, the Holy Spirit will then dwell in me.” Although that phrase is partially true (If you are truly saved, the Holy Spirit is present within you), might I suggest that this statement is altogether backward, and gets the timeline of your salvation mixed up.
The problem with this assumption (that the Spirit only enters you after your salvation) is that it completely nullifies the work that the Holy Spirit does in you during the process of your salvation. It assumes you do the work of salvation (by accepting Christ), and then the Spirit can enter in to dwell with you. You must realize that it is the Spirit doing the work of salvation in you to give you a new heart, a heart that can now believe the gospel. You are only a recipient of his work in you, not an active participant in that work prior to your salvation.
Near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we read in John chapter 3 that there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus. He had come to Jesus by night, asking how he might be saved and Jesus told him he must be born again (v3). This confused Nicodemus, as one might expect, and so he inquires what Jesus means by this. Jesus tells him in plain words that he must be born of the Spirit.
Jesus anticipates the questions that might arise from this seemly absurd statement, and He continues:
“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 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” (John 3:5-8).
What Jesus is telling Nicodemus here, is that in order to be saved, you must be born of the Spirit. You must be “born again,” and it is the Spirit that gives birth to your new and regenerated heart. It is the Holy Spirit that changes your cold dead heart and gives you spiritual life. Your salvation is not birthed out of your effort or your decision, but rather it is birthed by the Holy Spirit working in you.
Just as you have nothing to do with your physical birth, so too, you have nothing to do with your spiritual birth. It is a work of the Holy Spirit. Just as it is not of ourselves that we are physically born, it is not of ourselves that we are born again spiritually. Just as the birth of a baby is the work of the two parents (strictly in a physical sense, as physical birth is truly a miracle of God), so the birth of a new Christian is the work of the triune God. Babies cannot choose to be born, and have nothing to do with their birth. They are simply present during the process. A baby is completely helpless in its birth, just as we are helpless in our spiritual birth. We have nothing helpful to offer for our salvation.
You might still be plagued with the same question as Nicodemus: “what must I do to be born again?” Jesus answered Nicodemus with a simple answer. “Just like the wind blows where and when it pleases, without your control, so it is with being born again. It is not in your control, but rather it is the work of the Spirit that brings forth new birth.”
The process of salvation involves all three persons of the Trinity: God the Father decrees salvation for his chosen people (predestination, Eph 1:5,6), Jesus Christ the Son of God purchased salvation for his chosen people by his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, and the Holy Spirit applies salvation to his people by giving them a new and living heart so that they can repent and believe this gospel message.
God spoke through the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, saying: “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” (Ezekiel 36:26).
And so we see that the Spirit has a vital role in the salvation of Gods people. He is the one who gives us this new heart of flesh and removes the heart of stone. God the Father declared those who are to be saved, Jesus Christ paid the purchase price for that salvation by his death on the cross and his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit gives us a new heart so we can believe the good news of this gospel. It is so amazing to see that all three persons in the triune Godhead are working together for the salvation of his people. God is so good and worthy of our worship!