Question: The Spirit’s Role in Salvation?

A friend of mine, Tyler Williamson, recently contacted me with a fantastic question about the role of the Holy Spirit leading people to salvation. In my experience, I have discovered that many others have similar questions. So, with his permission, I thought I’d share our informal internet conversation.

Now certainly the Holy Spirit’s role of  in salvation is a huge topic; but given the context of his question, my response more narrowly addressed the Holy Spirit’s work in what is called effectual calling and briefly touched on the Spirit’s related work of regeneration. (If the answer I provide is not as direct as you may like, please bear in mind that this was an informal conversation.)

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Christian Tyler Williamson: The Holy Spirit–integral to the relationship of the believer with Christ. Many people talk of free will; many people talk of predestination. What do you believe is the role of the Holy Spirit in the salvation process? Detailed (as you typically are) would be great.

Me: The Bible speaks much of the Holy Spirit’s work of drawing individuals to faith in Christ. This is what theologians call the doctrine of “calling.”

First, let’s look at what this doesn’t mean. This doctrine of “calling” to which I am referring is not the doctrine of general calling, that calling whereby God calls all individuals to repent, believe, and be saved.

Whosoever believes (John 3:16).

For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:14).

Matthew 22:14 is very helpful in distinguishing two different senses of God’s call. There is one sense in which he calls all to repent and believe. But, although many are called to do so, a smaller amount (“few”) are chosen to do so. (The word “chosen” here is the Greek word which can also be translated “elect” and relates to the doctrine of election or predestination as such.)

So, there are those who are not merely called in this general sense but additionally called in this special sense, a calling which ultimately brings about faith. Theologians refer to this calling as a special calling (to distinguish it from the general calling), an inward calling (because it is not merely externally given/announced but also internally grasped and received), or an effectual calling (because it involves the Holy Spirit’s work of moving individuals toward faith in Christ and inevitably results in their regeneration and conversion).

Here are some verses related to this effectual calling:

Those who believe “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Ultimately, it was the will of God that brought about their rebirth, their being born again (although their will was certainly not absent in their conversion nonetheless!)

When talking to Nicodemus about being born again (regeneration as theologians call it), Jesus said,

Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:7-8).

The word “wind” here is the same word for Spirit/spirit in Greek. So, Jesus is employing a play-on-words here. He says, just as we can’t control the wind’s movement, we can’t manipulate or ultimately control the Spirit’s work of granting spiritual life to whomever He wills.

Concerning regeneration, rebirth, “being born again,” even the imagery of birth indicates that our spiritual life is ultimately based on God’s work, namely the person of the Holy Spirit. Just as my mother gave birth to me apart from my own assistance, so the Spirit births (metaphorically) us. It is not our work ultimately.

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day (John 6:37-39).

Here Jesus specifies His mission–to do His Father’s will, which is to bring to salvation all those whom the Father has given to Jesus to save. Jesus guarantees that He will be successful in this mission–“All that the Father gives me will come to me,” they will be brought to faith in Him and will be saved. How does He guarantee this except by the sovereign effectual (unthwartable) work of the Holy Spirit drawing men to faith in Christ?

This is what Jesus is referring to in John 6:44 when He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” No one can come to faith in Christ apart form [sic. from] this work, presumably by the Spirit as indicated by John 6:63: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” It is ultimately the Spirit’s work, not man’s will, that lead’s to man’s will to believe.

So what about those who don’t believe? Jesus recognizes these:

But there are some of you who do not believe. .. This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father (John 6:64-65).

Notice Paul’s words in 1 Thess 1:4-5:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.

How does Paul know that God has chosen these individuals to be saved? Because when they heard the Gospel they believed it. They did not merely receive the general calling, the announcement given indiscriminately for all to be saved. They also received the inward calling by the Holy Spirit, resulting in their conversion.

And those whom he [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:30)

This verse also speaks of God’s inward work of effectually calling the elect, the predestined. Notice, Paul does not say, “God called a bunch of people; and out of that lot, a smaller number were justified (implying that they believed).” No, all whom God called in this special sense were justified. This sort of calling always brings about faith and justification; hence, it’s effectual (cf. Heb 9:15).

Notice what Luke says about Lydia’s conversion: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Here is a real life example of what we’ve been talking about. Here we get the divine perspective of Lydia’s conversion.

There are many other verses on this subject. And of course, all of the verses I’ve cited above have a different “flavor” to them, some addressing the doctrine of effectual calling or regeneration more directly than others. But hopefully, this is a good start. If this is new to you, I imagine that this may spark more questions than answers; but hopefully it does provide answers.

In sum, effectual calling is the Holy Spirit’s work of working in the elect to bring them to faith in Christ. It doesn’t occur contrary to human will. It enables and provokes individuals to will faith, to want Christ. Historically, some of have called this doctrine “irresistible grace,” because when a spiritually dead individual is awakened to glorious saving person and work of Christ He can do nothing else but want Christ; Christ is too wonderful for any person with spiritual life to ever resist.