The Life-Giving Spirit

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
Professor Emeritus of Biblical and Systematic Theology
Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

On March 10-11, 2015, the Rev. Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, delivered the annual Kistemaker Lectures at the Orlando campus of Reformed Theological Seminary. The topic of his four lectures was “Life-Giving Spirit: The Exaltation of Christ and Salvation in the Theology of Paul.” Gaffin’s presentation was an opportunity for the campus to hear one of the finest biblical theologians of our day speak in summary fashion on what has been a life-long professional focus: the exaltation of Jesus Christ in the theology of Paul. These lectures are now available in iTunes, and Dr. Gaffin has graciously allowed us to use an excerpt from these lectures, slightly edited, in Reformed Faith and Practice. (Two more excerpts are planned for future issues of the journal.)

We turn our attention now to the re-creative or renovative side of the benefits of salvation in Christ and to take note of their dependence on what took place for and in Christ and his resurrection. That comes to light in a most decisive way in what we can fairly say is a statement that is at the heart of both Paul’s Christology and his pneumatology, the statement that we find in the latter half of 1 Corinthians 15:45, where Paul says that in his resurrection, Christ, the last Adam, became life-giving Spirit.

“The last Adam became life-giving Spirit.” The meaning of this statement continues to be disputed. In particular the dispute is whether the reference of the Greek noun pneuma is to the Spirit with a capital “S,” or to a lower case “s” spirit in some sense. I could have well spent at least a full lecture with you addressing this issue and reflecting on it, but will forego that and content myself here with asserting that detailed exegesis leaves little doubt, if any, on two points. First, pneuma here refers to the person of the Holy Spirit, and secondly, Christ’s resurrection is the time of the “becoming” in view. Notice that Paul doesn’t say that the last Adam is the life-giving Spirit; he became the life-giving Spirit. Moreover, in the context of the chapter that “becoming” took place in his resurrection.

On the interpretation of this statement, there is a consensus on the conclusion that I just expressed across a broad spectrum of current commentaries, monographs, and other works on Paul’s theology. Among Reformed interpreters, this is the view of Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, and John Murray (in his Romans commentary and commenting on 1 Cor 15:45). In contrast – and this continues to be a disappointment for me – most English translations have “spirit,” lowercase, apparently for the reason that to capitalize it (as a reference to the Holy Spirit) would seem to translators to lend credence to an anti-Trinitarian reading. (I would not commend the New Living Translation overall as a translation, but it alone among current English translations I’ve seen capitalizes Spirit in 1 Cor 15:45; so credit where credit is due).

It is not only unnecessary but entirely unwarranted to read “Spirit” as a denial of the personal distinction between Christ and the Spirit and as irreconcilable with later church formulation of Trinitarian doctrine. Paul is clear about that personal distinction elsewhere (as in the so-called apostolic benediction with its Triune structure at the end of 2 Corinthians). What needs to be kept in view here is the scope of Paul’s argument, its salvation-historical focus. The point is not who Christ is essentially, eternally, and unchangeably, but what he became in history, particularly what he became in history as the last Adam, or as Paul will say in 15:47, “the second man.” In view here is what has happened to Christ in history as incarnate, in terms of his true humanity.

We may note further the undeniable reference to the Spirit in 2 Corinthians 3:17, where Paul says “the Lord is the Spirit.” In this context I would argue “the Lord” is almost certainly the exalted Christ (although this is disputed by some). So it seems fair to say, as we compare these two statements, the “is” in 2 Cor 3:17 is based on and is the result of the “became” in 1 Cor 15:45.

So, 1 Cor 15:45 expresses the momentous and epochal significance of the resurrection for Christ personally. What Paul brings into view is Christ’s own climatic transformation by the Spirit in his resurrection, a transformation that results in a new and permanent relationship between Christ and the Spirit. The result is a functional unity, a unity in their conjoint activity of such intimacy and inseparability that it is captured most adequately, as the apostle sees it, by saying that in being raised from the dead Christ has become and so now is and remains in his activity the life-giving Spirit. What we are being brought to see, then, is that for Paul, Christ and the Spirit are united in the activity of giving resurrection life, correlatively, life in the Spirit or eschatological life. Resurrection life, life in the Spirit, eschatological life are alternative descriptions of the same reality.

This prompts some further observations on 1 Cor 15:45. First, within the immediate context (vv. 42–49), the last Adam, as resurrected, is also in view as ascended. As the last Adam he is the “second man … from heaven” (v. 47) and in that sense he is the “man of heaven” (v. 48). Note that, given the sustained emphasis on the resurrection in the immediate context, “from heaven” or “of heaven” is almost certainly an exaltation predicate. It refers to what is true of Christ because of where he is now. It is not, as some commentators have taken it, a reference to Christ’s origin, say, out of preexistence at the incarnation.

Second, while in chapter 15 Paul has in view Christ’s future life-giving action by the Spirit in the bodily resurrection of believers (cf. vv. 22, 49), his present activity, as the life-giving Spirit is surely intimated as well. Christ’s resurrection is not an isolated event in the past. Rather, as a genuine historical occurrence, a stupendous miracle that took place in the past, it is also the inaugurating “firstfruits” of the eschatological resurrection-harvest (vv. 20, 23). And Paul is clear: the believer’s place in that one harvest is present as well as future. Christ as resurrected and ascended is already active in the church as the life-giving Spirit, which is to say again, in the resurrection power of the Spirit. In their present union with Christ by faith, believers have already been raised with Christ; for them resurrection life is not only a future hope but a present reality (Gal 2:20; Col 3:3–4; 1:27). As they “belong to Christ” [= are “in Christ”] and “Christ is in them, “the body is dead because of sin, but the [Holy] Spirit is life because of [Christ’s] righteousness (Rom 8:9–10).

In terms of the categorical anthropological distinction that Paul draws in 2 Cor 4:16, while the outer self or body is undergoing decay, the inner self or elsewhere in Paul, “heart,” who we are at the core of our being, is being renewed daily. While outwardly, bodily they are not yet resurrected, believers are already resurrected inwardly. That carries with it this important implication that we need to think through: as Paul sees it, at the core of their being, in the deepest recesses of who they are, believers in Jesus Christ, will never be more resurrected than they already are.

Third, turning now to an important overall issue for New Testament theology, an issue that also continues to be debated across the face of worldwide Christianity, I want to propose that the latter part of 1 Cor 15:45 is, in effect, a one-sentence commentary by Paul on Pentecost and its significance. To see that we’re going to have to refer to an intertextual connection and look very briefly back in Acts 2 at Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Towards its conclusion with its focus on the earthly activity, the death and then especially the resurrection of Jesus, we come to this culminating statement in Acts 2:32-33, where Peter draws together the threads of what he has been saying. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out that which you are both seeing and hearing.” Here in a summary sequence we have four elements: resurrection, ascension, reception of the Spirit in the ascension, and, finally, outpouring of the Spirit. The last of these, Pentecost, is linked with the other three. It belongs together with the resurrection, the ascension, and Jesus’ reception of the Spirit in his ascension.

We must appreciate from this statement of Peter that Pentecost is climactic and final on the order that the other events are also climactic and final, and as such is in no more need of being repeated than are these other events. Resurrection, ascension, Pentecost though temporally distinct, constitute a unified complex of events, a once-for-all unified series in redemptive history that is indivisible. The one is given with the others, and none of them exists without the others. In 1 Cor 15:45 this unified event complex is compressed and given its central focus by saying, “the last Adam became the life-giving Spirit.”

If the sequence in Acts speaks of Jesus having received the Spirit following his ascension and that is implied, as we’ve seen, in 1 Cor 15:45, how then is this reception to be understood? That question is raised considering that Luke previously reported that Jesus received the Spirit at the Jordan when he was baptized by John (Luke 3:22), and even before that he was conceived by the Spirit (1:35). Also, throughout his ministry prior to his resurrection he was filled with and empowered by the Spirit (e.g., 4:1, 14, 18; 10:21).

The answer to that question lies in appreciating the analogy between the Jordan event and Pentecost: in the former, Jesus being baptized by John and in the latter, Jesus baptizing the church with the Spirit. This analogy is particularly significant for both the accomplishment and application of salvation. On the one hand, at the Jordan the Messiah-Son receives the Spirit from the Father as endowment and equipping that is absolutely essential for the impending kingdom conflict facing him—the battle between the messianic kingdom and the kingdom of Satan that will take him through the path of obedience and suffering that ends on the cross where he dies for the sins of his people (cf. 2 Cor 5:20; Phil 2:6–8).

On the other hand, in his ascension the resurrected Christ receives the Spirit from the Father as the reward deserved for the kingdom task now completed. Further, we must note that he does not keep this climactic reward for himself. As Calvin says (Institutes 3.1.1), “not for his own private use”! Rather, this deserved reward becomes, in turn, the consummate gift that Christ shares with the church. Pentecost reveals Christ as the exalted receiver-giver of the Spirit, or in other terms, the life-giving Spirit.

So to draw things to a conclusion here, essential for Christ’s role in applying salvation in his state of exaltation is 1) his own climactic transformation by the Holy Spirit and 2) his new and consummate possession of the Holy Spirit resulting from the resurrection. What Christ now does rests in part on what was done to him and what he has become in his exaltation. By his resurrection he was “justified in the Spirit” and became “the life-giving Spirit.”

The single action of the Spirit in raising Christ from the dead constitutes him as the source, now exalted, of both the forensic and renovative aspects of salvation. His resurrection-justification grounds the removal of condemnation and entitlement to eschatological, resurrection life. Furthermore, that resurrection life, life in the Spirit, also eradicates the power and corruption of sin and death.

These two aspects are plainly inseparable. Yet the judicial aspect has an essential and decisive priority in the accomplishment of salvation that grounds its application. Because Christ’s obedience unto death is the requisite judicial ground for his resurrection and being highly exalted (Phil 2:9), his becoming the life-giving Spirit presupposes his being justified in the Spirit, not the reverse. Seen in terms of this climactic relationship between the exalted Christ and the Spirit, expressed in other categories, the outpouring-giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is an integral event in the historia salutis, not an aspect in the ordo salutis. Pentecost has its primary place in the once-for-all, completed accomplishment of redemption. It is not to serve as a model for individual Christian experience.

It does not overstate it to say this: without Christ himself being constituted the justified, life-giving Spirit, and his correlative outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, there is no salvation. Without Pentecost, the definitive, unrepeatable work of Christ is incomplete. In no respect is Pentecost a model for an additional, “second” blessing that makes for a “full gospel.” It is a first order, primary blessing apart from which there is simply no gospel.

The task set before Christ as the last Adam was not only to secure the remission of sin, as important and absolutely necessary as that is, but also, and even more ultimately, as the grand outcome of his lifetime of obedience and atoning death, it was to obtain life eternal – eschatological life, resurrection life; that is, life in the Spirit.

Without that life, “salvation” is not only truncated, but also meaningless, as 1 Cor 15:17, for one, makes clear. And it is just that life, that salvation now completed in his exaltation, and Christ as now qualified to be its giver that is openly revealed in the giving of the Spirit by Christ, the life-giving Spirit on Pentecost.