SBC Life Articles

God the Holy Spirit ~ His Role in Salvation

In 1961, John W. Peterson wrote Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul, a Gospel song that was to become wildly popular among Baptists and other evangelical Christians. It ultimately made its way into the 1975 Baptist Hymnal. Part of its appeal was a blending of what some older Baptists called "experimental religion" with sound biblical doctrine. Its third verse drew from a Bible verse rich in visual imagery:

Born of the Spirit with life from above into God's family divine,
Justified fully thru Calvary's love, O what a standing is mine!
And the transaction so quickly was made, when as a sinner I came,
Took of the offer, of grace He did proffer, He saved me, O praise His dear name!

The verse from which this song's stanza is taken is visually gripping. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:8).

People see different images in their mind's eye — the gentle movement of tree leaves at the edge of the forest; the feel of a cool breeze blowing in your face on a warm spring day; the bending movement of broom sage on a distant hillside. I see the slack sails of a vessel stranded on a calm sea — the vessel of my life, and yours. Then a zephyr of wind, ever so slight, ripples the canvas. Within minutes, the sail begins to billow as the wind increases. The ship picks up speed. Soon it is being inexorably driven to its destination by the gusting wind. John's words are instructive — So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

Bringing the quickening and sustaining breath of God to the cold, dead heart of the believer is the dominant ministry of the Holy Spirit. Beginning with Jesus' teaching in John 14-16 and throughout the remainder of the New Testament, the revelation, ministry, and role of the Holy Spirit takes center stage. The rapid expansion of Christianity that has swept across the world since is directly connected to this ubiquitous "wind." The Holy Spirit blows where He wills — and in His wake, pockets of believers are birthed into the Kingdom of God.

There are at least four ways in which the Holy Spirit graces the life of the believer, bringing him or her into a right relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son.

The Convincing Role of the Holy Spirit in Salvation

When Jesus addressed His closest friends in the upper room on the eve of His crucifixion, He introduced them to the far-reaching ministry of the Holy Spirit — the "other" Comforter ("another" of the same essence), the blessed Paraclete. Among the roles God the Spirit exercises is a convincing role. John 16:8-11 is very clear, When He comes, He will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in Me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see Me; and about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.

Theologian Herman Bavinck wrote an important volume called An Introduction to the Science of Missions. Drawing from the word translated "convict," he coined the word elenctics. His argument, written in the context of the mid-20th century, was that missions' strategies and methods of his era had fallen short of the Great Commission mandate. He wrote:

"When we speak of elenctics we do well to understand it in the sense that it has in John 16:8. The Holy Spirit will convince the world of sin. The Holy Spirit is actually the only conceivable subject of this verb, for the conviction of sin exceeds all human ability. Only the Holy Spirit can do this, even though he can and will use us as instruments in his hand."2

The Holy Spirit, using the biblical message of the Cross, "awakens in man that deeply hidden awareness of guilt. He convinces man of sin, even where previously no consciousness of sin was apparently present. The Holy Spirit uses the word of the preacher and touches the heart of the hearer, making it accessible to the word."3

When the Holy Spirit convinces people of their sin, of Jesus' righteousness, and of certain judgment, He awakens the human heart to hear and see truth in a new way. Upon seeing and perceiving (cf. Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:15), the human heart cries out for God.

In ancient times, Job experienced this first hand. Surely I spoke about things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know …. I had heard rumors about You, but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I take back my words and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:3, 5-6, emphasis supplied).

Before the Spirit of God awakened his heart, Job felt free to speak his mind to God. However, somewhere along the way, something transformational happened in his heart. He who had not seen, now saw. Why? The Spirit opened his eyes. He became convinced of his own finitude and of God's eternal majesty and glory. An awakening took place. How? To us it is a mystery, for only the Lord God can effect such change in the human heart. The whirlwind of God's Spirit confounded Job's every thought, directing him to see God and God alone. The wind had blown away every last vestige of earthly reliance and self-righteousness, and Job was changed.

The Regenerating Role of the Holy Spirit in Salvation

One of my mentors in ministry was fond of saying something like this:

"It is an amazing thing. You can preach the same sermon to the same people in the same way at the same place and get two totally different responses. The first time, something electric happens. People get saved. The movement of God is apparent. The next time, it seems as if nothing happens. No response, no energy, no movement. It is always a sobering reminder. It is not up to us. It is solely up to Him."

In his Dynamics in Pastoring, Jacob Firet explored this idea under the term "agogic moment" (agoge is "to guide" or "to lead"). After multiple hearings of the Gospel, or perhaps after only one hearing of the message, something happens — "a motive force inherent in the coming of God in his word … activates the person on whom it is focused, so that that person begins to change."4 What before had been heard merely as words is now an urgent, unrelenting, gale-force wind, against which there seems to be no resistance, a transforming presence demanding a response. The human heart, being stripped bare of all pretense, clearly sees — and responds in repentance and faith. What has happened is more than mere illumination, although illumination is certainly part of it. The Spirit of God bursts forth into the consciousness of the hearer and calls forth a responsive awareness-an awareness of our desperate neediness placed against the awful, yet wonderful, substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Hearing, seeing, and perceiving, we respond in repentance and trust. We are driven to our knees before Him in awe and wonder and worship.

Gospel hymn writer Daniel Whittle captured the mystery of this moment in a beloved hymn of an earlier generation, I Know Whom I Have Believed. The second and third verses are particularly instructive. Each verse is followed by a refrain containing an exclamation of praise and trust.

I know not how this saving faith to me He did impart;
Nor how believing in His Word wrought peace within my heart.
But I know Whom I have believed!

I know not how the Spirit moves, convincing men of sin;
Revealing Jesus through the Word, creating faith in Him.
But I know Whom I have believed!

The Spirit of God glorifies Jesus, declares Jesus, and guides us to Jesus (John 16:13-14). Though He is active in so many other ways in our lives, this is such a precious gift — the gift of salvation, the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). The wind has blown where it wishes, and we are saved.

The Adopting Role of the Holy Spirit in Salvation

When Ruth implored Naomi, Do not persuade me to leave you or go back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God (Ruth 1:18), she touched on a fundamental human need: the need for community, for relationship, for identity — the need to have a place, to belong, to be accepted.

This is precisely the kind of covenantal relationship the Heavenly Father offers through the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Perhaps the most comforting aspect of our relationship with the King, the Creator of the Universe, is this promise, I will be your God; you shall be my people (see, for example, Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Isaiah 40:1; 51:22; multiple reminders in Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; the new covenant, Jeremiah 31:33; 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 14:11; 34:30; 36:28; 37:23-27; Joel 2:26-27; Zechariah 8:8; 9:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Hebrews 8:10; Revelation 21:3).

In the ministry of the prophet Hosea, his life served as a divine object lesson of Israel's unfaithfulness to the LORD. His younger children received names that cause our hearts to cringe in sadness and horror — "Not-Having-Obtained-Mercy" (Lo-Ruhamah, Hosea 1:6) and "Not-My-People" (Lo-Ammi, Hosea 1:8). These names were reminders not only of Hosea's wife's unfaithfulness to him, but of Israel's spiritual adultery against the LORD. Years later, after the first advent of our Savior, the aged Peter drew from Hosea's experience to remind believers in Jesus Christ that we who had not obtained mercy have now obtained mercy; we who once were not a people, are now the people of God (1 Peter 2:10, KJV). We uniquely belong to the Lord as His "peculiar" people (see Exodus 19:5; Titus 2:14; and 1 Peter 2:9, KJV) — for time and eternity — through the agency of adoption.

The Apostle Paul introduced this adoptive aspect of our salvation in two key texts. Romans 8:15-16 puts it this way: For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, "Abba, Father!" The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God's children …. In Galatians 4, he penned it this way, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba, Father!" So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God (4-7).

The Holy Spirit places the newly born follower of Christ into the spiritual family — the family of God. Then the Spirit puts a new song in the heart of every child of God (see Ephesians 4:17-20 and Psalm 40:3) and confers upon the believer an intimacy with the Father that is wholly undeserved. We who were not a people now have an "Abba, Father!" relationship with the King of the ages. This mediating work of the Holy Spirit elicits praise and thanksgiving in the heart of the true believer in Jesus. And yet, for all of this, there is more.

The Sealing Role of the Holy Spirit in Salvation

The Holy Spirit serves as the guarantor that what God has begun in our hearts will be carried on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

This "seal" of the Holy Spirit is specifically referenced in three New Testament texts — 2 Corinthians 1:21, 22; Ephesians 1:13; and Ephesians 4:30. The sealing metaphor has a variety of meanings. Things were (and are) sealed to indicate ownership. Seals also were (and are) used to guarantee the security of something in transit (see Romans 15:28). This is one reason Southern Baptists cling so tenaciously to the eternal security of believers, for when Paul wrote these words the readers understood the seal on an item in transit could only be broken by the recipient upon arrival; thus the true believer is guaranteed safe arrival to that eternal destiny. In addition, seals were (and are) used to guarantee the quality of goods. Finally, seals did (and do) provide proof of identity (see Romans 4:11).5

The word arrabon, also found in only three New Testament texts (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14), is beautifully juxtaposed with the seal. Consistently translated "earnest" in the KJV, more recent translations use such synonyms as "guarantee" (ESV), "deposit" (NIV), and "down payment" (HCSB).

William Barclay, in his New Testament Words, wrote: "In classical Greek the word arrabon regularly means the caution money that a purchaser had to deposit and pay down when a bargain was struck and which was forfeited if the purchase was not carried out. It was the first instalment [sic] which was the pledge and guarantee that the rest would follow in due time."6 He continued, "[W]hat Paul is saying is that God's gift to us of the Holy Spirit here and now is an instalment [sic], a guarantee, an advance foretaste of the life which the Christian will some day live when he lives in the presence of God."7

Oswald Becker observed that Ephesians 1:14 interprets the other two occurrences of the word arrabon. "The Spirit as the present earnest of our future inheritance guarantees our complete, final salvation, i.e. eternal communion with God …. [I]n the sealing of the believer, the Holy Spirit is given to the human heart as an earnest. The future reality represented by the earnest of the Spirit appears in 2 Corinthians 5:5 as the 'house' expected from heaven which will one day replace the 'tent' of our earthly body."8

Pointing to the theological significance of the interplay of the "seal" and the "down payment" in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, David Garland observed, "It guarantees that our relationship with God is not something ephemeral but permanent and will continue beyond our death."9 He further noted, "Believers do not receive a portion of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit Himself is the installment that gives a foretaste and assures the glory that is to come."10


Of course, the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer in many other ways — equipping for service, gifting for specific ministries, bestowing joy, strengthening for a lifetime of growth in grace, conforming the believer more and more into the full stature of Christ, and completing the work of sanctification. Once His wind begins to blow upon the frail bark of our lives, He will continually fill our sails and our souls with His presence, His love, His grace, and His compassion. He will encourage us as the Comforter. He will fill our hearts with song.

He will be our God. We shall be His people.





1. John W. Peterson, "Heaven Came Down," The Baptist Hymnal, (Nashville: Convention Press, 1975), # 425.
2. J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1979), 222.
3. Ibid., 229.
4. Jacob Firet, Dynamics in Pastoring, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 101.
5. David E Garland, "2 Corinthians," The New American Commentary, Volume 29, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999), 106.
6. William Barclay, New Testament Words: English New Testament Words Indexed With References to The Daily Study Bible, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 58.
7. Ibid. 59.
8. Oswald Becker, "Gift," The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 2, Colin Brown, General Editor, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 40.
9. Garland, 107.
10. Ibid. 108.

    About the Author

  • Roger S. (Sing) Oldham