“… For through [Christ] both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (Eph 2:18)
The “both of us” here refers to Jews and Gentiles alike. In this section of the chapter, Paul reminds the Gentiles of their previous position vis-à-vis God’s salvific economy: they were “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12). It is Christ who by abolishing the Law (v. 15) has created a new a humanity centered around Him, in which the distinction between Jew and Gentile no longer holds, and in whose body both groups are reconciled to God (v. 16). As I have noted before, it is very impressive to note that, in spite of the privileged position of the Jews with respect to the promises and the covenants, they too nevertheless had to be reconciled with God through Christ because of sin.
In the verse I quoted above, Paul very succinctly emphasizes the operation of the Trinity in our salvation. As St. Irenaeus said, God the Father works by means of His “two hands,” the Son and the Spirit. And this is exactly what Paul says, as well: the Father brings us to Him, granting us access to Him: through Christ, through what Christ has done in abolishing the Law and winning forgiveness of sins; in the Holy Spirit, in that transformation of the heart and mind which the Holy Spirit brings about in regeneration.
Perhaps we might think of it this way. Our sin presents a two-fold barrier to our fellowship with God. In the first place, there is the fact of our guilt before God, in virtue of which we deserve punishment and exclusion from God’s presence. In the second place, there is the fact of our sinful disposition, as a result of which we do not love God and do not wish to obey His commandments and do not want to seek fellowship with Him. Christ’s work of atonement sets aside that first barrier and the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration sets aside that second barrier. In this way, God Himself saves us and gives us access to Him.
A question arises for me in the consideration of this passage. If we have access to the Father through Christ in the Spirit, is this access unmediated or is it necessarily mediated? For example, suppose that I commit a sin and I want to be forgiven of it. Can I seek forgiveness directly from God, or must my forgiveness be mediated through another person with the appropriate standing? Note: the question is not whether God’s forgiveness can be mediated by another person with the appropriate standing, but whether it must be.
It might appear that the requirement that forgiveness be mediated by another person of the appropriate standing actually undermines Paul’s point in this verse about the access which we have to the Father through Christ in the Spirit. Especially important, I should think, is the prepositional phrase “in the Spirit.” If our access to God is in the Spirit, then we must already have God in order to have access to Him. If I have access to God in the Spirit, then I can seek forgiveness of my sins in the Spirit, as well. In that case, it would seem superfluous for the grace of forgiveness to be mediated by means of another.
However, there is a counterargument. One might argue that committing mortal sins causes the grace of God to be lost (cf. 1 John 5:16-17). In such a case, one cannot presume upon the possession of the Holy Spirit for unmediated access to the Father.
In response to this counterargument, we might consider a few possible objections.
First, we should ask whether and under which conditions a person might lose the Holy Spirit. David commits adultery and murder, and he prays that God not take the Holy Spirit from him (Ps. 51:11). This presupposes that he already has the Holy Spirit, even after having committed such heinous sins. On this basis, we might think that God is presumably quite generous with respect to His remaining in a person even after she has committed sin. But on the other hand, a person might complain that David cannot be talking about the possession of the Holy Spirit which belongs to Christians in the New Testament; rather, he is perhaps asking that God not take away his spirit, i.e. his life. For this reason, this first argument seems to be less than perfectly convincing.
Second, I think it is worth noting that this argument appears to beg the question. For even if the grace of the Holy Spirit can be lost as a result of sin, it still has to be established whether the only way to regain that grace is by means of the mediation of an appropriately authorized person. It is one thing to say that the sacrament of penance, for example, is a possible means by which the grace of the Holy Spirit is regained, and it is quite another to say that it is the only means. What is to stop God from awakening the conscience of the person who has sinned and restoring her by His own direct act, just as took place in conversion? God is free, of course, to make use of secondary causes in His work, but He is also free to bring about effects directly.
I have to spend more time thinking about these things, so I cannot draw any conclusions here.