We Distinguish in Order to Unite
Over and over in our Christian experience we note the difference between the Son and the Spirit. There are many things we say about the Son of God that we would never say about the Spirit. We are to be conformed to the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29), not the Spirit. We are told to be like Christ, and even to imitate God the Father in a certain sense (Eph. 5:1), but never to imitate the Holy Spirit. Again, there is one mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5), and that is the man Jesus Christ, not the Holy Spirit. It may be tempting to extend these terms (conformed, imitate, mediator) to the Holy Spirit, from a sense of wanting to defend the full equality of the Spirit or to make sure the third person has the same honor as the first and second. We might even be able to argue that there is some metaphorical sense in which we imitate the Spirit or to extend the word mediation to describe the way the Spirit brings us to God through Christ. But that would be to speak very loosely and to ignore the categories that Scripture establishes. We would be in danger of missing the Spirit’s distinctive work by confusing his work with Christ’s. The best way to keep them unified is to see their difference; we distinguish in order to unite.
Accomplished by the Son, Applied by the Spirit
A classic way of looking at the two-handedness of God’s work in salvation is the relationship between how the Trinity accomplishes redemption and how the Trinity applies that redemption to us. This idea of redemption accomplished and applied is a handy way of considering salvation in its objective and subjective aspects, even when the two phases of God’s saving work are not correlated with the Son and the Spirit.1 Redemption would not reach its goal without being applied, but there would be nothing to apply if it were not already accomplished. But recognizing the Son and the Spirit, respectively, as the leading figures in the two phases enriches the idea even more. Christ the Son accomplishes redemption in his own (Spirit-created and Spirit-filled) work. The Holy Spirit applies that finished redemption to us in his own (Son-directed and Son-forming) work. The two works are held together by an inherent unity. The Son and the Spirit are both at work in both phases; nevertheless, the Son takes the lead in accomplishment, and the Spirit takes the lead in application.
1. See John Murray’s book of this name, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), a classic of its kind.
This article is adapted from The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything by Fred Sanders.
- Why the Doctrine of the Trinity Is Crucial for the Christian Life (Matthew Barrett, Michael A. G. Haykin)
- 10 Things You Should Know about the Trinity (Fred Sanders)
- How Does the Trinity Practically Apply to Your Life Today? (Michael LeFebvre, Philip Graham Ryken)