Where does the Holy Spirit fit into the Christian life? Sadly, there is much confusion when it comes to the answers to this question in the broader church today. Some people are so focused on the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is pushed into the background, or even forgotten. The same people also often place primary emphasis on one’s personal private encounter with the Holy Spirit or the so-called emotional experience that the Spirit gives in singing worship songs. Then there are those that affirm the importance of the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments in corporate worship, but with little reference to how God makes these means effective for our salvation by the power of the Holy Spirit. For others, there is some combination of these two perspectives or extremes.
But what does Scripture have to say about the role of God’s Spirit toward us in relation to Jesus and his church? In Titus 3:5, we find important help with the answer. Here we learn about how God has chosen to give us new life by applying the cleansing blood of Jesus to us through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit never acts independently, but always works to reveal and give us Jesus and his saving benefits. We also learn from Paul that God has chosen to attach the working of his Spirit to the sacrament of baptism. In other words, the Spirit of God works through means. Baptism is the means by which the Word is made visible and through which the Holy Spirit confirms sinners as new creatures in Christ. Baptism is God’s ordinary means of giving us saving grace by the Holy Spirit, which assures us that God’s Word and deed of salvation is true for us.
[“Where does faith come from?” Answer: “The Spirit creates faith in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments” (Heidelberg Catechism 65).]
Now, the Holy Spirit has a long history of doing something new in this world, which is worth considering for a moment…
Holy Spirit as agent of re-creation
The first time we read about the work of the Spirit is at creation. In Genesis 1:1-2 we read: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Right at the beginning, God’s Spirit or God’s presence features prominently in his first act of re-creation. Here, God transforms a realm of darkness and death into a realm of light and abundant life. Here, the Spirit joins the Father and the eternal Son of God in making his holy sanctuary upon earth. The Spirit is not only God’s agent of new creation, but also serves as heavenly witness to God’s covenant of creation.
After the Genesis account and after mankind has fallen into sin, there are a number of occasions in which God’s Spirit is made manifest at remarkable moments of re-creation leading up to the great outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost in the NT. (Remember that because of Adam’s failure to obey God’s covenant of creation, he and Eve lost the ability to enter into the consummate eternal paradise promised by God for obedience and symbolized in the Tree of Life in Eden. Nevertheless, God did not leave mankind to perish in his sins, but in his covenant of grace made with Abraham, he promised to make a new human race out of sinners.)
When God delivered Israel out of captivity in Egypt, the Spirit of God was there to guide his people and confirm his promises. In the great exodus event, God transformed a people from slaves into freedmen. God brought his people through the waters of judgment in the Red Sea, which the NT calls a kind of baptism (cf. 1 Cor 10). Then he led his people through the wilderness by the presence of his Spirit, in the form of a cloud by day and fire by night. In Deut 32, using similar imagery toto Gen 1, we read that God hovered over his people like an eagle making a sanctuary-like nest for its young. Eventually at Mt Sinai in the Sinai desert, God officially made Israel a nation for himself and he promised them the Promised Land as an inheritance. The Promised Land was a foretaste of the new heaven on earth. Throughout the ceremony in which God made his covenant with Moses at Sinai, the Spirit was there in a form of a cloud to confirm God’s Word of promise.
During Israel’s time in the Promised Land and even once they had been banished into exile, God spoke through his prophets of a greater Day to come, when he would send forth his Spirit in an unprecedented way upon all mankind. That Day would come with the manifestation of the “goodness and loving kindness” of God in Jesus Christ, which Paul writes about in Titus 3:4. It is because of risen Lord Jesus that God has poured out his Spirit in abundance upon the earth and into our hearts. After the ascension of Jesus at the beginning of Acts, God sends forth his Spirit to testify to the coming of his heavenly kingdom and to bring salvation of Christ to every tongue, tribe and nation.
New creatures in Christ
Hence, according to Paul in Titus 3:5, we share in God’s salvation and we have become new creatures in Christ through the work of God’s Spirit in us. It is the same Holy Spirit that which was there in creation, in the Exodus, at Mt Sinai, spoke through the prophets and was poured out at Pentecost, that has united us to Jesus and all his saving benefits. It is by God’s Spirit that we have been saved out of this world and saved from ourselves. The old things have passed away and behold new things have come.
Remember, Paul speaks about our old way of life according to our old sinful nature in Titus 3:3. Once we were spiritually dead and lost in an abyss of wickedness just like the rest of the world. But then, in love, God called us to himself by his Holy Spirit because of Jesus. This is why Paul can write in Titus 3:5-6 that we have been saved by “the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he has poured out richly in Jesus Christ.” Notice, it is not that the Holy Spirit alone has saved us, as if the Spirit has acted independent of the Father and the Son.
Rather, the Holy Spirit is the one that gives us a new heart so that we can receive Jesus as our Saviour from sin by faith. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the one who brings us into personal saving union with the gift of God’s Son, so that all the spiritual benefits that Jesus earned are now ours by faith: that is, his justification, his adoption, his sanctification and his glorification. And not only does the Spirit unite us to the saving merits of Jesus, but the Spirit also gives us a new heavenly disposition and the power of Christ’s resurrection to now live a life of obedience to God. For the Holy Spirit has not only been washed us of all our past, present and future sins, is also the one who renews us in holiness more and more after the image of Christ. In other words, the Spirit of God unites us to Christ’s body and the risen Christ now lives out his life in us on earth through the same Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, when the Holy Spirit came upon you, God chose to make his holy dwelling in you. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. God has taken up personal residence – he has made his sanctuary – in your heart. The Holy Spirit witnesses to the reality that all of God’s covenant promises are yes and amen for us in Jesus Christ.
Thus far we have seen that the role of the Holy Spirit toward us is always to reveal and unite us to our Saviour. But how does this truth then relate our participation in the visible church?
Baptism as a sign and seal of engrafting into Christ
The answer to this question is not immediately obvious in Titus 3:5, but emerges when we read Paul’s words here in light of his other letters and other parts of Scripture as well. For Scripture teaches that God’s Holy Spirit does not work in an invisible or unmediated way, but rather through churchly means. Earlier in Paul’s letter to Titus, Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that God makes use the external and public means of preaching (ordained preachers) to bring salvation to his people. It is the Holy Spirit working through (or in union with) the Word preached, which makes God’s Word effectual unto salvation in us. In Titus 3.5, we find reference to another means by which God communicates salvation to his people, which is through the sacrament of water baptism: which – again – is God’s visible Word to us.
Like circumcision in the OT, baptism in the NT is the sign and seal (or confirmation) of our participation in the covenant of grace. Both circumcision and baptism not only represent purification from sin, but they also confirm or ratify God’s promised Word of forgiveness. With this said, it is important to understand that baptism is the fulfillment of the OT sign of circumcision. There is no longer the need for the shedding of the blood of goats and bulls because Jesus shed his blood once and for all at cross to wash away the sins of mankind: which Paul call’s Christ circumcision at the cross. Hence, the NT sign of entry into the church is not a bloody or physically painful one.
Our baptism is God’s ordained sign that we have become new creatures in Christ thanks to his atoning sacrifice of Jesus. But it is also more than a symbol and more than a reminder of past events to strengthen our faith. Rather, while the water of baptism cannot in and of itself save (it does not create faith or salvation), it is nevertheless the external means by through which God delivers saving grace to his people. In Titus 3, Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit saves us. In a place like 1 Peter 3, Peter tells us that baptism saves us. Taken together, we arrive at the sacramental understanding of baptism: it is both a sign and seal of salvation.
In baptism – whether at the time it is administered or some time in the future – it is the Holy Spirit that unites to Christ in his death to sin. Through the Spirit and by faith, we – like Noah’s ark – have passed through the floodwaters of God’s judgment in Jesus Christ. The Spirit has also united us to Christ in his resurrection unto new life.
In God’s inscrutable wisdom, he has chosen speak and act upon his promise of salvation through the Word made visible in baptism, by his Spirit. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the ordinary sign of baptism does the thing that it signifies: it washes away our sins and brings us into spiritual union with Christ and all his benefits. Baptism confirms in us that God’s Word of promised salvation is indeed true for us. The washing away of our sins spiritually is as real as physical washing with water. Baptism is not only the mark of solemn admission into the visible church, but also the sign and seal: of the covenant of grace, of our engrafting into Christ; of our regeneration; of our forgiveness of sins; and of our commitment unto God through Christ. Baptism is the beginning of our new life in Christ.
With all this said and as important and mysterious as the sacrament of baptism is, we must keep in mind that our salvation does not depend on our baptism. The ground of our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone, which we receive by faith. Paul also tells us in Romans 10 that faith comes through the hearing of the Word preached. Baptism, then, is God’s means of confirming and strengthening his Word of promised salvation in Christ. To reject God’s command to be baptized is in effect to reject the salvation it symbolizes and the grace it offers, at our spiritual peril.
For consider, beloved, it is in baptism that the believers in Crete back in the 1st century and us today find immeasurable comfort and motivation for the Christian life. For whether we are dealing with the influence of false teachers and their self-cleansing programs or pagans and their self-help programs, our baptism testifies to the objective truth that God has single-handedly redeemed us from our sins. Baptism confirms to us that God in Christ has purified us and worked for us. Baptism teaches us that the gospel and our justification cannot be dependent on anything we do: whether it be abstaining from “dirty” things in this world, fleeing society, turning over a new moral leaf or transforming society.
When we understand baptism in the way that Paul has taught it in Titus and elsewhere, we learn vital truths about the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. For the Spirit is never detached from Jesus and should therefore never become the sole focus of our lives as Christians. What is more, the Spirit keeps baptism from becoming a mere external and lifeless sign.
Let us, therefore, work out the realities of our baptism in gratitude. Let us live out the Christian life as those motivated by our redemption in Christ. Let us pursue good works as those indwelt by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us seek to bring glory and honour to God in this world as those who have been marked out by God for eternal life. Amen.
“How is it signified and sealed unto you in holy baptism that you have a part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross? Answer: “Thus, that Christ has appointed the outward washing with water and added the promise that I am washed with the His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.” (Heidelberg Catechism 69)
Simon Jooste, RCSS Morning Service, Febraury 17, 2013