The Work of the Holy Spirit in the Salvation of the Lost
The majority of the content of this article was posted originally as a chapter in The Humanism of Evangelistic Apologetics. I replicated it here to make it easier to find "Bible 101-Level" articles for the beginning Bible student.
After reviewing many current articles on the web, etc., one of their common characteristics is the tiny/minimal/only-for-lip-service mention of the work of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of the lost. So, after showing in the companion articles the proper biblical foundation (first) of the spiritual nature of the lost and (second) the election of grace, it is necessary also to review the Bible’s teaching regarding the vital topic of the Spirit’s work.
The points being made in this trio of articles is simply this:
- The lost sinner is completely helpless and hopeless in and of himself.
- The LORD alone calls the sinner by means of unmerited favor.
- The work of the Holy Spirit alone breathes new life into the sinner to enable that sinner to repent.
The Apostle Paul characterizes the conflict like this, highlighting the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
By design, I won’t add anything new to the volumes that have been written, commented upon, or preached and taught from this critical passage for many centuries. I want only to highlight three facts:
- The battle is spiritual. It is not cultural, physical, emotional or intellectual.
- The entire array of battle dress consists entirely of defensive elements, with one notable exception: the Sword of the Spirit, the only offensive weapon in the full array of armor.
- The Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God.
[As one meditates upon the imagery that the Apostle Paul provides here under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we take special note of the Sword of the Spirit.
The sword is not subtle, not gentle, not politically correct nor careful of people’s "feelings". It is a dangerous weapon, far from the "safe spaces" of today!
It is sharp, it cuts and pierces in multiple directions when wielded, and leaves an enemy bloody, lacerated, literally in pieces and mortally wounded. It is a weapon designed to kill its enemies. In short, it is a brutal and violent weapon that is merciless to its foes.
This is where the modern Christian really struggles with the sword’s "brutality" and “primitiveness” (for lack of better terms) and therefore seeks to soften (read that “culturally adapt”) its message and effect. But, the foe that must be put to death is sin and the Sword of the Spirit is the only weapon that is able to do so. Attempting to soften the message of the gospel in any way is futile and mitigates the Sword's power.]
Back to the main point: every Christian’s only offensive weapon is the Word of God, that element which is the sword of God’s own Spirit! And in the context of the battle with the lost and evangelism, that “Word of God” is nothing more or less than the gospel!
Let’s take a look at another well-known reference to the sword of the Spirit:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.
If you are to be victorious in the battle for men’s souls that you should be skilled in the use of the only viable, effective, and divinely-sanctioned offensive weapon.
Look at what the Lord Christ taught the early disciples:
When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.
Once Pentecost passed, the early disciples were to operate on the principle that it was the responsibility of the Holy Spirit to testify about Christ. (And, no, I’m not ignoring the remainder of the verse. Just don’t ignore that little word “because”: the early disciples were also tasked with the testimony regarding Christ because they had been with Him as faithful eye-witnesses and were therefore responsible to do so!)
And, before leaving John 15 there is something else that we must not miss: exactly what is it that is to be the testimony of the Spirit and the Lord’s disciples?
It is the Spirit’s testimony of the Lord Christ, without which there is no possibility of the true message of the gospel of Christ reaching the heart of the lost!
There are some activities which can’t be done by the Lord’s disciples:
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into 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 be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Try as he might, the evangelist can never cause the lost to be “born from above”; that power belongs to God’s own Spirit alone. Just as it was the Spirit who brooded over the waters (Gen 1.2) and was that person of the Trinity who “and breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2.7), so is it today with the sole work of the Spirit.
The evangelist’s single responsibility is to proclaim that word of Christ, the gospel; it is that gospel alone that will be used by the Spirit.
Romans chapter 8 is one of the most powerful in the NT and speaks much of the work of the Holy Spirit:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
Who is this One? The “Spirit of life!” Why was that life needed?
For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.
It is needed because man’s spirit is dead; it is the spiritual reality of all who proceed from Adam detailed in Eph 2.1,5 and Col 2.13. To be “in Christ” is to be the partaker of God’s own Spirit, who made our spirits alive. This is restated a few verses later:
For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
There is no way in which the work of the Holy Spirit can be ignored or minimized, from the very start of the process of the “birth from above” until the day that the Christian passes into the resurrection and glory. He is our ever-present witness of Christ!
How true this is:
And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
There is much more in Romans chapter 8 that I could cover, but I need to return to the purpose of this chapter, which is the Spirit’s work in salvation.
When the Apostle Paul came to Corinth, he remembered this (as he spoke about it later in his first epistle):
1 Cor 2.3-5
I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
So, what was the secret to this power borne by the Spirit? The answer is as simple as it is profound:
1 Cor 2.1-2
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the mystery of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
This record of the use of the Spirit’s testimony of the Lord Christ couldn’t be clearer. What is the power of the gospel and how does it accomplish its mysterious work in the heart of the lost? The message of the gospel, the Word of God, is the Sword of the Spirit, the Spirit’s testimony of the Lord Christ to the sinner. When the evangelist avails himself of it wholeheartedly and unreservedly, then the Spirit has the means by which He was promised to work! Only when the Spirit of God has breathed life into the dead sinner can that sinner understand the gospel.
Let's continue to review the many and serious limitations of the lost, dead sinner:
1 Cor 2.14
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
Listen to the words of the Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul here:
1 The 1.2-5a
We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction;
Once again, we see this pattern: God elects the sinner to salvation, the message of the gospel is brought to the sinner, and the Spirit works powerfully through the gospel message to actually effect that salvation.
The Lord made another promise regarding the Spirit:
But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment;
Remember, the gospel is a message that is designed to deal with the vital issue of sin! Once Christ returned to the Father, the work of the Holy Spirit is to convict the lost of their sin.
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
You simply can’t escape this pattern: God chooses to show mercy to some through the election of grace, the message of the gospel finds its way to that sinner through the witness of those who have experienced that grace, and the Holy Spirit does His powerful, effectual work to breathe life into the dead spirit!
We find similar language here:
2 Cor 4.3-6
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Though He is not mentioned here explicitly, it is the Spirit’s responsibility to apply the word of the gospel to the heart of the sinner, something in clear view here: “… the One who has shone in our hearts…”. (Very often, the Apostle verbally moves within and between the recognition of the Persons of the Trinity, sometimes emphasizing one, sometimes another, sometimes mentioning only the One, God.)
From early in the Scripture, it is the Spirit (as Christ said in Joh 16) whose job it is to strive (in conviction of sin) with man:
Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”
Note also that it was mentioned that His activity has a time limit; this is another sign of the election of grace. The Lord is not compelled to bring sinners to Himself except as it pleases Him.
The first martyr Stephen spoke about that aspect of man, who by nature does not respond to the Spirit:
You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.
This characteristic is not isolated only to OT Jews! Until the “birth from above” (Joh 3), the man “in the flesh”, in contrast to the man “in the Spirit”, will always resist:
For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
The man “in the flesh” is utterly unable to come to the Lord on His own; He responds only when the electing God sends His Spirit to give the “birth from above”. It is the Lord who begins and finishes this effectual work:
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
That same thought is expressed a chapter later:
for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
Yes, the Triune God causes the sinner “to will”; this could not be clearer! Otherwise, how could a spiritually dead sinner respond to the call of the gospel? That dead one was caused, by the Spirit, to be “born from above”, at which point the Lord enables that now-alive “reborn one” to believe! It is a process that is divine in all its aspects, from before the world began until the Lord is surrounded by His saints in glory forever.
All good that comes to the lost in salvation has its genesis in the prior grace of the Triune God. He leaves nothing out, and He alone is able to overcome lost man’s natural and systemic resistance to the “things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2.14).
How was it that lost Gentiles were called out as a “people of God” in a way identical to the Jews? By their own religious inquisitiveness and indomitable seeking for God? No, not by any means! It was by grace alone:
And Isaiah is very bold and says, “I was found by those who did not seek Me, I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.”
And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
1 Pet 4.17-18
For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?
I’ve always been intrigued with Peter’s statement: Jonah told us that "salvation is of the Lord" (Jon 2.9) but Peter states that this was accomplished “with difficulty”!
Think about the testimony of Saul of Tarsus, one who was present at the murder of Stephen. Saul was a Pharisee of whom it could be said that he “always resisted the Spirit”! Saul hated Christ, hated Christians and could not do enough to persecute, imprison and exterminate them. But what happened during that journey to Damascus?
He met the glory of Christ face-to-face!
This is how the now-converted Paul describes that moment:
But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles
Paul preached Christ, breathed Christ, adored Christ, worshipped Christ, glorified Christ—lived Christ!
I shouldn’t close this chapter without mentioning another, vital aspect of the Spirit’s work after He has breathed life into the dead sinner: he “seals” him:
In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.
So, not only was the Lord pleased to pour out His mercy on His elect, not only did the Spirit perform His wonderful work of breathing life into them, they were “sealed” by the Spirit. This is the Lord’s guarantee that He will bring them to glory!