Our creeds, taking cues from Matthew 28:18-20 and other biblical texts, speak of the order of the Trinity as “Father, Son, Spirit.” This order is evident in the order of redemption as well: the Father sends the Son, who ascends to heaven to receive and send the Spirit.
Luke 1, though, indicates that it is equally biblical to say “Father, Spirit, Son.” The Son takes flesh in Mary’s womb through the overshadowing Spirit (v. 35). In the gospels, in fact, this is the dominant Trinitarian pattern. At Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:21-23), the Father sends the Spirit to the Son, and significantly, speaks words that allude to Psalm 2 (“Today I have begotten You”). Jesus was God the Son prior to His baptism because the Father eternally begets the Son. But the public declaration of His Sonship, the begetting of the Son as Anointed One, occurs at His baptism, when He receives the anointing of the Spirit. The Father commissions the Son as Son through the Spirit.
The same Spirit drives Jesus on into the wilderness to confront the devil (Luke 4:1), and Jesus performs miracles by the “finger” or “Spirit” of God (Luke 11:20). In John’s gospel, Jesus is the one “born of the Spirit,” whose voice is heard but whose origins and destiny are unknown (John 3:5-8). As He approaches the cross, Jesus addresses the Father as His “Abba” (Mark 14:36), and Paul tells us that it is through the Spirit that we can cry out “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). Jesus goes to the cross to obey the One He calls His “Abba” through the Spirit.
The Father raises the Son from the dead through the Spirit. Jesus is “declared Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). Later in Romans, Paul says that the Spirit of the Father who raised Jesus lives in believers and will give them resurrection life (8:11), implying that the Spirit is the Father’s agent for raising the Son.
From His incarnation through His ministry to His death and resurrection, Jesus is the obedient Son – which is to say, He is Son, since it is His sheer obedience that constitutes Him as Son – as He keeps in step with the Spirit given by His Father. Jesus the Son is the Son of the Father through the Spirit.
Once we see this pattern in the gospels, we begin to notice it throughout the Scriptures. Yahweh, the Word, and the Spirit are seen together in many passages of the Old Testament, and it is through the Spirit that the Word of Yahweh is made effective. Jesus is the eternal Word of the Father, by whom all things were made, but the Word that speaks the world into existence comes with the Spirit or “breath” of the Father. The Spirit hovers over the waters of creation before the Word is spoken (Genesis 1:2). God forms Adam from the dust of the ground and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life, and so Adam becomes God’s image and likeness, the human son of God (Genesis 2:7). When Israel, God’s son, is a field of dry bones in the days of the exile, Ezekiel prophesies to the bones, and the wind or breath of God brings them to life. Israel is raised from the grave of exile through the power of the Spirit and the Word (Ezekiel 37).
Gregory of Nyssa recognized that the Word is the effective Word of the Father by the power of the Spirit: “it would not be right that God’s Word should be more defective than our own, which would be the case if, since our word is associated with bread (spirit), we were to believe he lacked a Spirit.” John of Damascus put it more succinctly: “When we speak a word, this movement of the air produces the voice, which alone makes the meaning of the word accessible to others,” and so also in God the Spirit “accompanies the word and reveals its efficacy.”
Since God opens Himself in the economy of redemption, these events give us insight into the inner life of God. The Father, according to Scripture and the creeds, eternally begets the Son; the Son is the “only-begotten of the Father” (John 1:14), but if the incarnation reveals the relation of the Father and Son, we can say that the Father eternally begets the Son through the Spirit. The Spirit is the Love by which the Father begets the Son, and the Love through which the Son loves the Father. Since the Father is the Father only because He has a Son, we might even say that the Spirit through whom the Father begets the Son makes the Father the Father, even as, being the agent of begetting, He makes the Son the Son. It’s traditional to say that the Father is the “source” of the Son and Spirit, and that is true. But it is also true that the Spirit is the Person who personates, who hypostatizes, the Father and the Son, the eternal Power by whom the Father begets His Son and so the Power by which the Father is Father. The Spirit is the Breath by which the Father speaks an effective Word.
So what? This matters not only because it reveals something about the inner life of God, but also because it reveals something about our salvation. The Father begets the Son through the Spirit, and that sets the pattern of redemption. Paul frequently teaches that we have received the Spirit so that we can be conformed to Christ the Son. The Father raised us through the Spirit to a new life (Romans 7:6; 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8). The Spirit is the “spirit of Sonship” that enables us to join in Jesus’ address to His “Abba” and conforms us to the life of the Son (Galatians 4:4-8). Through the Spirit, we are made sons, and if sons, then heirs. Through the Spirit, we are brought into the Triune community as sons, or, to change the image, as the bride of the Son.
We are the new Adams created by the Spirit, new creations over which the Spirit has hovered, dry bones revived and enfleshed, made alive by the voiced word of the Father. The Father who eternally begot the Son through the Spirit now begets sons from sinners through the same Spirit. The incarnation is the presupposition and revelation of this pattern of redemption, and it shows that our salvation is not accidental or arbitrary, but is rooted in the very life of God.
This means that God’s work in and for us is as secure and certain and well-founded as the union of Father, Son, and Spirit. Salvation is not some arbitrary work of God. We are bound to the Son through the very same Spirit by which the Son was conceived in the womb of Mary. We are bound to the Son as surely as the humanity of Jesus is united to His divine nature, because we are bound to the Son by the Spirit who knit Jesus’ flesh. If we are bound to the Son, then we are bound to the Father, through the very same Spirit who eternally binds together the Father and the Son. We can trust God to save us to the uttermost. We can trust that He will not allow any to slip through His fingers. Through Spirit, the Father formed a new Adam from His eternal Son. Through the same Spirited Word, the Father is forming us as a new Adamic race. God’s plan for our redemption cannot fail because it rests on God’s own character.
How certain is it that God will fulfill His plan to form a new human race through His Word and Spirit? It’s as certain as the fact that God is Word and Spirit, as certain as God’s Triune character itself. Which means, it is as certain as anything can possibly be.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House. Much of this essay was inspired by Thomas Weinandy, The Father’s Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity.