A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)
The God Behind the Gospel
Credo Magazine 3:2 (Spring 2013), 20-25
When people get saved, they don’t usually notice that something trinitarian has happened to them. But “something trinitarian” is precisely what goes on in salvation: Everyone who has saving faith has been drawn by the Father (John 6:44) and moved by the Spirit to confess that Jesus is Lord (1 Cor 12:3). To be forgiven is to be justified by the just One when the Father put forward his Son as a propitiation to be received by faith (Rom 3:24-5). God’s great blessing to us in Christ is a single, massive, unified act of choosing before the foundation of the world, redeeming through the blood of his beloved Son, and sealing with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph 1:3-14).
Wherever you turn in the doctrine of salvation, you encounter the integrated work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the concerted undertaking of a great salvation that is purposed by the Father, accomplished through the Son, and applied by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is never more conspicuously displayed than when we look at salvation through the lens of adoption. Here the trinitarian character of salvation shines through constantly: the Son is not ashamed to call us brothers, but brings us into that same filial relationship with the Father that he himself has. The eternal Son becomes the incarnate Son in order to bring creatures into a sonship relation to the Father, through the indwelling Spirit of adoption. What he always has been in heaven, the one in whom the Father is well pleased, he begins to be on earth, among us, in the likeness of sinful flesh. Exalting fallen creatures into that filial relationship is not easy, and is no mere matter of course. It costs. The Father loves the world so much that he gives his Son (John 3:16), and the Son offers himself to the Father through the eternal Spirit to make this happen (Heb 9:14). J. I. Packer has said that the theology of the New Testament can be summed up in three words: “Adoption through propitiation.” The Trinity pays the price of bringing us home to God.
Jesus himself seems to have indicated this trinitarian depth of Christian existence when he commissioned his church to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:20). These three names, or rather this one divine name that points to three distinct persons, is spoken over every person brought into the church. It is not merely a formula to be recited for its own sake, but a kind of summary of the gospel, explaining the depths beneath what every believer experiences in salvation. What Paul calls “the gospel of God” is a gospel about the one who was declared to be God’s Son by his resurrection through the Spirit (Rom. 1:1-4). When we encounter the gospel of God, the reality we come into contact with is the God of the gospel, and it is the task of the doctrine of the Trinity to explain that connection.
But if what happens in salvation is so thoroughly trinitarian, why don’t we simply notice it for ourselves? Why does the Trinity have to be explained and expounded, always with considerable Bible study and usually with a lot of help from the classic consensus of the church fathers? Shouldn’t the sheer trinitarian-ness of the spiritual reality spontaneously generate experiential knowledge of the triune God in all who experience it?
The answer is actually no. The reason that almost nobody moves immediately from experiencing forgiveness of sins to shouting “Eureka, there’s a Trinity” is easily explained. Although the triunity of God is behind everything that happens in salvation, and the gospel only makes sense when it is traced back to its trinitarian foundation, the doctrine of the Trinity is nevertheless not simply a sort of codified account of our spiritual experience, or a belief that we can read right off of our spiritual experience. It gives rise to an experience of God, but it does not derive from an experience. Trinity grounds experience rather than vice versa. The idea that we could read doctrines directly off our spiritual experience was a hallmark of classical theological liberalism, and did not normally promote the health of the doctrine of the Trinity (see the treatments of the doctrine by Schleiermacher and Ritschl, for instance).
The doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t spontaneously emerge from spiritual experience; it has to be carefully taught. The believer who cries out to God may feel an experience of divine intimacy, but that experience is bound to be too nebulous to have the sharp edges and corners of trinitarian theology. We need to read the distinguishing features of the three persons of the Trinity in a text much larger than our hearts, and that book is the history of salvation. Since the history of salvation is authoritatively and inerrantly witnessed in the text of Scripture, the book we need to read is quite literally a book: the Bible.
To grasp the doctrine of the Trinity as it emerges from Scripture and impacts Christian experience, we have to expand the scope of our vision considerably beyond the horizons of our spiritual experience. There are really three steps to take to understand the Trinity’s role in salvation.
The first step is to read the entire Bible. You have to achieve some initial mastery of all the long, main lines of the one story that is the canon of the Christian Scriptures. You have to be able to think back and forth along the canon of scripture, with figures like Abraham and Moses and David and Cyrus standing in their proper places, and with categories like temple and sonship and holiness lighting up the various books as appropriate. You especially need to see the many and intricate ways the Old and New Covenants are inwardly bound to each other. Getting comfortable with the whole volume, the full counsel of God, is the first step toward understanding the Trinity’s role in salvation.
But it’s only the first step. The second step is to understand the shape of God’s economy of salvation. The Bible is not just a series of textual messages, but is a vast and comprehensive story about one thing in particular: salvation. God has ordered all of these words and events that are recorded in Scripture toward one end. It’s not good enough just to know the content of the whole Bible, especially if you misinterpret it as a haphazard assemblage of divine stops and starts along the way to a variety of divergent goals. These are not disparate Bible stories, but the written form of the one grand movement in which God disposes all his works and words toward making himself known and present. In this great sweep of salvation history, God is making himself known. The Bible communicates that above all.
The third and final step is to recognize the economy of salvation as a revelation of who God is. This is actually the biggest interpretive step of all. When you know the entire Bible, and understand that it presents to us God’s well-ordered economy, you still have to come to see that God is making himself known to us in that economy. After all, it is theoretically possible for God to do great things in world history without really giving away his character or disclosing his identity in doing so. Theoretically, he is free to do things that do not broadcast his character in the kind of detail that would enable us to say who he is. This final step on the way to the doctrine of the Trinity is the recognition that God behaved as Father, Son, and Spirit in the economy because he was revealing to us who he eternally is, in himself. He wasn’t messing around with that Son and Spirit stuff. He put himself into the gospel.
That is the right way to interpret the Bible. It’s also the traditional way, recognized by the church fathers and the reformers. It’s also the Christian way. It yields the doctrine of the Trinity, not in scattered verses here and there that tell us a weird doctrine at the margins of the faith, but as the main point of the whole history. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son (Gal 4:4), a Son he always had with him in the unity of the Spirit. And having sent his Son to redeem us from the curse of the law, he sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6).
When we know all of this, we know where the gospel came from. We know that in this work of human salvation, the character of God is made known to us, and that character is the triune character of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Taking the big view of how we know the details of the doctrine of the Trinity helps explain the odd situation we started with: that everyone who gets saved has had this deeply trinitarian experience, but few notice the trinitarian character of it. When we get saved, we are immersed into a trinitarian reality, but we need to have that reality explained and expounded to us. God gives us the gift of salvation, and completes the gift by giving us understanding of it: “we have received… the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor 2:12). God gives the Spirit of adoption, the Spirit without whom we do not belong to Christ, and also gives the Spirit who helps us understand the gift: same Spirit. The God behind the gospel is the Trinity, and wants us to know that.
All of this helps account for why the doctrine of the Trinity has had its ups and downs through the history of the church. This is not a doctrine that is especially helpful for the task of evangelism. There is really no need to emphasize the doctrine of the Trinity when communicating the core claims of the gospel to unbelievers. It rarely helps and often confuses your hearer; this is because the doctrine was not designed for evangelism. It was also not designed for apologetics, and to be honest the doctrine often seems like something of an apologetic liability: a hard part, tending to attract scorn and suspicion, and to sound irrational when described to a hostile audience. The doctrine is also not a classic or central exegetical doctrine, in the sense that its main purpose is not to illuminate key terms and central motifs of Scripture itself. The doctrine may have some usefulness in exegesis, in apologetics, and in evangelism, and is not to be hidden under a bushel. But its chief use is not in these areas. The chief use of the classic doctrine of the Trinity is in catechizing.
The doctrine of the Trinity is the quintessential catechizing doctrine. Whenever and wherever the Christian churches have understood the urgency of the task of teaching the truth to believers, the doctrine of the Trinity has thrived: think of the fourth century and the sixteenth, both periods rich in catechetical literature and practice. On the other hand, when the practice of catechesis has fallen into neglect, the doctrine of the Trinity has lost its luster and drifted into apparent irrelevance.
There are many promising signs that indicate the churches are reawakening to the need for catechesis, and especially a more deliberate instruction of new believers, who can no longer be assumed to have underlying worldviews that are benignly compatible with Christian faith in some way. The doctrine of the Trinity is a trustworthy tool at hand for this catechetical labor. It explains to those who have heard the gospel what the gospel has to do with God himself. It pulls together the full counsel of Scripture and articulates it very clearly, insisting that what we have in the good news of salvation is a revelation of who God is in the depths of his eternal being: God the Trinity, the God of salvation, the God behind the gospel.