This enlivening work of the Spirit shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus himself affirmed, “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63). The mystery of godliness confesses that Jesus was “justified” or “vindicated by the Spirit,” a reference to the Son’s resurrection (1 Tim. 3:16). And Paul underscored that Christ “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). With his resurrection through the Spirit crowning his saving work, Christ is said to be raised for our justification (Rom 4:25).
When Christians think of the atonement, their attention is riveted on Jesus Christ, the crucified one. And rightly so. But as proper as this focus is, the Son wasn’t the only member of the Trinity engaged in that act of sacrifice for human sin.
Indeed, we may think of the Father’s action in the death of his Son. After all, Jesus’s haunting cry of dereliction from the cross was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:35, echoing Ps. 22:1). Then, with his last breath, Jesus called out loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). These gasping words of Jesus underscore the Father’s role in the atonement.
Less transparent is the role of the Holy Spirit. This is true in general, as theology is working to remedy the rather meager consideration it has often given to the Spirit and his work in creation, salvation, and consummation. Perhaps the work of the Holy Spirit that has been most neglected is his role in the atonement. And this brings us to our topic, with its twofold emphasis: (1) the role of the Holy Spirit (2) in penal substitutionary atonement.
This second emphasis was chosen because of an increasing number of attacks by some on penal substitution (Green and Baker; Weaver; Boersma; Heim; Baker). Others maintain that penal substitution is at the heart of the idea of atonement (Packer, ch. 2). Before we get too far, however, a definition is in order.
Defining Penal Substitutionary Atonement
Penal substitutionary atonement is an interpretation or model of what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished. As I’ve written elsewhere, its major tenets include:
1. The atonement is grounded in the holiness of God who, being perfectly holy, hates and punishes sin.
2. A penalty for sin must be paid.
3. People cannot pay the penalty for their sins and live; rather, the penalty is death.
4. Only God can pay the penalty for sin, but he must partake of human nature to pay for human beings.
5. By his death, the God-man, Jesus Christ, atoned for human sin.
6. The atonement had to be accomplished in this way (“penal substitution theory”).
Now, this definition rightly highlights the central role of the Son, but there’s much more to be said, because the Son never acts alone.
Inseparable Operations and the Holy Trinity
Because God is triune, the work of the second person is never separated from the work of the first and third persons. This has traditionally been referred to as the doctrine of inseparable operations. It means that in every divine work, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit act indivisibly with one will and one power. For example, in the divine act of creation, God the Father spoke the world into existence through the Word (John 1:3)—the agency of God the Son—as God the Holy Spirit was hovering over the original chaos (Gen 1:2).
God the Holy Spirit was active from beginning to end in the divine work of atonement.