Tinkering with the Trinity & Jiggering with Justification

If we are to be faithful heirs of the Reformation then at some point we will have to get in on the family business. We are in real danger of becoming covenantal bums. We want to spend the capital without earning our keep. We have taken the portion of goods that has fallen to us and wasted it on self-righteous living. And we haven’t quite figured out that our fathers earned the inheritance that we have so enjoyed. We would do well to remember that fiducia doesn’t mean “freeloading.”

We say, “Semper Reformanda” as something of a mantra ( I would like to say ‘battle cry’ but we just don’t have the stones for that kind of talk these days) but we get our Westminsterian knickers in a twist if someone actually tries anything of the sort. So it may be that the greatest want of our time is not so much a reformation but reformers.

When the Reformers do finally come they will pick up where our forbearers left off. I have a sneaking suspicion that the next great leap in the progressive of doctrine will focus, once again, on a robust Trinitarianism. The faint glimmers of renewed interest in this area are slowly starting to pierce through the darkness hidebound traditionalism.

I don’t claim to be a reformer but I don’t want to just sit on my keister either. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel but we do need to get it rolling again. To that end I propose that we act in the spirit of sola fidelity and learn the family business.

As we do, we might ask if it could be possible (maybe even necessary) to bring some truths even closer to one another than they have ever been. For instance, we might want to consider the relationship between the Trinity and justification. Specifically, what hath the Spirit to do with justification?  If we look to Reformed Confessions as we presently have them, the answer would seem to be, not so much.

The Belgic Confession (Articles XXII-XXIII) refers to the Spirit as the one who “kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits.” Nothing more is said about the Spirit.  Likewise, the Second Helvetic Confession (Chapter 15) doesn’t mention the Spirit at all, though the following chapter teaches that God gives faith to the elect “by His Holy Spirit, through the means of preaching the gospel and of faithful prayer” (Chapter 16).

Westminster Confession of Faith 11 says that we are justified by the imputation of Christ’s obedience and satisfaction, and in section 4 speaks of the Spirit as the agent for “applying” God’s eternal decree to the elect: “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify the elect . . . nevertheless they are not justified until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.”  We should probably read this in the light of 14.1, where the Spirit is the one who works the grace of faith in the souls of the elect.

By contrast, the Spirit is all over the place in Reformed statements about sanctification.  The elect receive a new heart and spirit “through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them” (WCF 13.1).  Sanctification is struggle, “the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (WCF 13.2), but the outcome of the warfare is certain because the saints are equipped with “the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ” (13.3).  “Sanctifying Spirit” is second-nature to Reformed soteriology.  But talk about the “justifying Spirit” is virtually non-existent.

This should arouse suspicion from two quarters.  The first, lesser, suspicion comes from the axiom that the works of God outside Himself (opera ad extra) are undivided.  All of God does all that God does.  All of God’s actions originate from the Father, are accomplished by the Son, and perfected by the Spirit – such is a patristic axiom.  Justification is a work of God, and as such must be a Trinitarian work.  By emphasizing the Spirit’s role in generating faith, the Reformed tradition gestures at that truth, but the gesture is weak at best.

The second, greater, suspicion comes from the disjunction between modern Reformed reticence about the Spirit’s role in justification and Paul’s references to the Spirit as an integral player in justification.  Galatians 3, for instance, begins with a stinging rebuke to the Galatians: “Who has bewitched you?”  The question Paul poses is about the reception of the Spirit: “did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law or by the hearing of faith?” (2).  Paul berates the Galatians for a few more verses, and then appears to lose interest in the subject, turning instead to Abraham and justification (6-9).  In fact, he has not forgotten about the Spirit at all, and returns to pneumatology in verse 14, equating the Spirit with the blessing promised to Abraham.

The transition from Galatians 3:5 to 3:6 looks abrupt, but for Paul it’s a single smooth argument.  Verse 6, where Paul begins to talk about Abraham, begins “even so” (kathos).  Though framed in a series of rhetorical questions, Paul’s argument is this: “You received the Spirit by hearing the gospel with faith and not by the working which the law works, just like Abraham, who had righteousness reckoned to him because he believed the promise of God, the promise that pre-preached the gospel.”  That argument assumes that reception of the Spirit is at least analogous, perhaps even identical, to reception of justifying righteousness.  Put simply, believing the gospel equals reception of the Spirit; believing the promise equals being reckoned righteous. The distinction between these events may be much smaller than we previously supposed.

Galatians 3 is not alone.  At the putative climax of Paul’s argument about justification in Romans, it seems that Paul again pulls the Spirit out of nowhere.  “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for . . . .”  For what?  For “Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us”?  For “we are united to the righteous Risen Christ”?  For “habitual grace has been infused into the soul”?  None of these of course: What Paul says is, “for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1-2).  What’s this?  No condemnation because the Spirit has liberated us from the power of sin?  That doesn’t sound right, but that’s what Paul says.  Whatever the Spirit’s precise role here, it is clear that His work is integral to justification, here described negatively as “no condemnation.” We might debate over how His presence is working in justification but there is no debate as to whether He is actually working or not.

And then there are the toss-off lines where Paul brings the Spirit and justification into uncomfortable proximity.  Formerly the members of the Corinthians church were idolaters, sodomites, drunks and dykes, but now they have been washed, sanctified, and “justified . . . in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).  Jesus’ justification is the paradigm of all justifications, and according to the “common confession” of the “mystery of godliness,” Jesus was “justified in the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16).  And before Paul, we find that Peter knows that God has accepted the Gentiles when the Spirit fell on them (Acts 11:1-18).

I suspect that Protestants are fearful of talking about the Spirit in the context of justification because some of the less charitable brethren might accuse them of dangling their toes in the Tiber.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  High and late medieval dogma, not to mention Tridentine teaching on justification had little to say about the indwelling Spirit.  Catholics talked a good bit about grace of all different sorts, but not much about God’s self-gift and personal communion with the believer.  Saying that justification comes through the indwelling Spirit of the Risen Christ is quite different from saying that God bestows operative and cooperative grace on the soul.

Perhaps Protestants avoid wedding pneumatology with justification because they fear it will threaten the Reformation’s emphasis on salvation solo Christo.  That is a groundless fear.  The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.  In fact, the Spirit is the One through whom Christ is with us: He has not left us orphans, but He has come to us in His Spirit.  There can be no competition between a “justifying Christ” and a “justifying Spirit.”

Where does this leave us, then?  What is the Spirit’s role in justification?  That is a large question.  As a start, though, we can say this: Christ has become to us righteousness (1 Cor 1:30), and we are righteous because we are united to the Righteousness that He is.  The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and thus is the Spirit of righteousness.  We can say, then, that we are righteous because we are in the Spirit – because being in the Spirit and being in Christ are the same thing.

Then we can say this: Justification is rooted in our entanglement in a perichoretic communion. Christ in us, we in Christ; the Spirit in us, we in the Spirit.  It is all one: Christ the righteous in us, we in the righteous Christ.  The Righteous Spirit in us, we in the Spirit of righteousness.  When Paul says “Christ lives in me,” then too He is talking about justification.  But, as they say, that’s none of my business.



  1. You did a great job of inviting Paul to the table (you Pauline guys think you have it all). I am also certain that John attests to the necessity of the Spirit in salvation when he relays Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus: “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.”

    I’ve realized lately that for many, the Spirit is merely Christ’s shadow–he’s just kind of along for the ride. Thanks for exercising my thoughts in this area as well.

    1. Thanks for taking time to read and share your thoughts Daniel. They are always appreciated. I do think that John adds a dimension to Pneumatology that is often missing in Pauline studies, just as Paul adds forensic dimensions that aren’t clearly worked out in Johannine studies. I am starting to think that, in justification, Paul marries all these concepts together.

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