The Spirit becomes the means by which Pannenberg connects the church and creation to the eschatological reality of the coming kingdom of God while preserving God’s lordship over his kingdom. The kingdom, church, and society are all social realities, but their distinctions have eschatological significance. Foundational for the entire discussion is the emphasis given to God’s determinative role in the kingdom of God. As God’s kingdom, Pannenberg wants to completely avoid any anthropological contamination of our eschatological hope, by presuming that creatures or the church can be an active participant in bringing in the Kingdom.
The church, made up of individual believers, is then “only a sign of the future fellowship in God’s kingdom and it is an instrument of behalf of our unity with God and on another only by means of its function as a sign – not by setting up the kingdom, not as an instrument by means which the kingdom will become a reality in human history” (III, 48). This sharp distinction does, however, contain within it the important distinction between the church and society as communal bodies, primarily that the church has a significatory function in proclamation of the Word, celebration of the sacraments, and its communal unity.
The church as sign of the Kingdom’s future salvation does not control institutionally the presence of God’s saving future and in the sense that it is a work of the Spirit’s life-giving action, but it is part of the fabric of God’s creation. By functioning as a sign the church can present Christ to individuals who in turn respond to the kingdom, here following the pattern of the ministry of Jesus, and avoiding the mistake of making the church the vehicle of salvation. Again, the Spirit negotiates the difference, for as the eschatological reality the Spirit is at work simultaneously in both creation and the church. As a sign, the church can challenge the political reality by proclaiming the eschatological destiny of humanity in fellowship with God.
In Pannenberg’s argument it is important to connect individual believers directly with Christ for salvation, but also with the church. The church is described as the fellowship of believers who make up the body of Christ that anticipates the unity present in the coming of God. Through the work of the Spirit each individual believer is present to Jesus Christ and thus the Spirit brings salvation.
Pannenberg explores the salvific effects of the Spirit through the categories of faith, hope, and love. Faith, having its ground in the self-revelation of God in history, participates in the anticipated fulfillment of God’s lordship of creation. Hope is given a universal outlook, since it is only in the destiny of humanity in Christ that personal hope can be grounded in the action of God and not an anthropological projection. Love is finally understood in relationship to the love of the Father and Son, creating the ability for one to participate in the love of the Son for the Father and God’s loving movement towards the world in the love of neighbor. The presence of the Spirit connects the salvation of the individual to that of God’s movement of salvation from creation to consummation.