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Trinity in Salvation

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On Saturday May 15, 2010, Jessica Watson arrived in Sydney after sailing around the world. It was a wonderfully inspiring effort. I once got sea sick sitting on a surf ski waiting for waves off Warriewood Beach. So you can imagine how I feel even thinking about sailing through huge seas on a yacht that fits into your bathtub.

Although Jessica was alone on the yacht, it wasn’t really a solo effort. She had radio contact with friends, she received emails and accurate weather reports using all the sophisticated technology. Her success came about by a number of people working together in harmony. And today I’d like us to see that our salvation was accomplished by the persons within the Trinity working together in perfect harmony.

If I were to ask five of you to describe your faith in the Lord Jesus, I suspect I’d get five differently worded answers with hopefully something in common. I’d hear words like ‘faith’ and ‘sin’ and ‘grace’ and ‘repentance’ and ‘thankfulness’. These words are basic to our understanding of the Christian life. Some more theologically minded people might use words such as ‘justification by faith’, ‘in Christ’, ‘propitiation’ and ‘sanctification’. All these words describe who we once were and who we now are as a saved people.

Whatever the language you choose to use, salvation ultimately consists of union with Christ. The gospel is the good news of how we came into union with Christ and how we remain in union with Christ. For example, Paul says in Eph 2:6, ‘And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus’.

Once we were apart from God, stranded in sin and unable to free our ourselves from the gods of this age. But then God did something quite remarkable: he gave us faith in Christ, he freed us from condemnation and we became alive in Christ. So now we are no longer joined to the ruler of this world; now we are joined to Christ. We have a spiritual connection with Christ and our home is in heaven with him. And so this world is a dressing room, a waiting room for that time when we shall leave this earth and be fully united to our eternal King.

I hope this excites you (said in an exciting way). This world is so in our face and has such a strong pull, that we can lose sight of eternal perspectives. The Westminster Larger Catechism describes salvation as ‘union and communion with Christ in grace and glory’. It’s a great description of who we are in Christ. Our union with Christ comes through faith in him. This union is spiritual and mystical, real and inseparable. We have the privilege of enjoying God forever.

Salvation is union with Christ. Union with Christ is how we enjoy redemption, and redemption is the only source of our knowledge of God. Little wonder that union with Christ lies at the heart of John Calvin’s explanation of the gospel. Reformers, such as Calvin, understood that salvation is union with Christ. Usually we move forward from this gospel truth and explore how this ought to effect our behaviour. It’s very important that the gospel shapes our thought life and our action life. But let’s move the other direction for a minute, not towards ourselves but further back into the throne room of God. And we shall do this by asking three questions.

Here’s the first question: why did it have to be the second person of the Trinity who became flesh and dwelt amongst us? Why was it that the eternal Son became man? Why not the Father on the cross, or the Spirit in the baptismal waters? Why not the Son remaining in heaven? Why did it have to be the Son who became flesh?

There’s a smart answer to this question. It had to be the eternal Son who became flesh because that’s the way it happened. That’s the way God caused it to be. And this is exactly what one theologian, T.F. Torrence says. He points out that there is a quality about the second person of the Trinity that means only he could be made flesh and dwell amongst us. The Father couldn’t become incarnate, the Spirit couldn’t become incarnate, only the Son could become incarnate. Only the second person of the Trinity could be the head of a new humanity.

This suggests an element of difference between the persons in the Trinity. If only the eternal Son was qualified to become flesh, then in some way he is different to the other two persons. Theologians recognise this and say that that the persons of the Trinity are ‘irreducibly different’ from one another.

The Father has qualities that do not belong to the Son and the Spirit. The Son has qualities that neither the Father or the Spirit possess. And the Spirit has qualities that belong to him alone. Yet each person shares the divine essence and each person is fully God. So here is a conundrum for us: in any one person of the Trinity, there dwells the other two persons. Yet each person of the Trinity is irreducibly different from the other.

The mystery of the Trinity should not send us scurrying into a corner. There’s a great verse at the end of Deut 29, ‘the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever’ (Deut 29:29). There are mysteries, there are secrets, there is a twilight zone. But what has been revealed is for our good. Gospel truths are for us and for our children. In his pastoral way, Macleod reminds us ‘that we have little finite minds and that there is no way that he [God] can be made to fit neatly into our words and concepts’ (Macleod, Shared Life, 52).

The Son took on human flesh because that was the only option. And when he put on human nature, it would stay with him, forever. He did this for us and for our salvation. The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death’ (Heb 2:14–15). The triune God sent the eternal Son into the world to become like us and free us from our fear of death.

At my mum’s funeral a couple of months ago, there were family and friends who feared death. It was written all over their faces. They looked like they were staring into an abyss and all they could see was despair and gloom and darkness and uncertainty and futility. Christians grieve those who die, but we do not fear death. In my eulogy I told them why I don’t fear what happens after the grave. A pastor once said of his congregation, ‘My people know how to die well’. The Father sent the Son into world and he lived by the power of the Spirit, and he conquered death for us so we can be a people who do not fear death. So that we can be a victorious people. ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!’ (Rev 5:13).

Let’s move to a second question: what are the different roles of the Trinity in salvation? We’ve partly answered this question: the eternal Son became flesh, he lived a righteous life, he was pierced for our transgressions and then he rose to be the head of a new humanity. We can broaden our answer by turning to the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3.

So come with me to Matt 3:13. Matthew tells us that Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptised by John. John points out that Jesus should be baptising him. Nevertheless, Jesus explains in verse 15, he must be baptised in order ‘to fulfil all righteousness’. So the baptism goes ahead and at the moment when Jesus rises from the baptismal waters, the amazing and unexpected happens. Verse 16, ‘As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”’.

Jesus could have been up there with John as he called sinners to repent and be baptised. Instead, Jesus is down there with sinners, affirming his solidarity with us, making himself one with us. In his baptism Jesus ‘fulfils all righteousness’ (Matt 3:15). It is likely that Jesus had in mind Isaiah 53:11, ‘by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities’. Jesus is saying that he is the righteous servant who will justify his people before the Father by bearing their sins. It’s a breathtaking moment. The Son of God becoming the Son of Man so that we can become sons and daughters of God. It’s a gob-stopping event; it’s a ‘where were you when  that happened’ moment.

At this defining moment for the Son, the Father and the Spirit are not far away. For a precious moment the barrier between this world and heaven is set aside as the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus like a dove. In Hosea 7:11 the dove is a symbol for Israel. It’s as though the Spirit is pointing to Jesus as the true, ideal Israelite. And the Spirit descends upon this ideal Israelite, not because he needs more fuel in his tank and not to change a human Jesus into a divine Jesus (adoptionism). The Spirit descends upon Jesus as a sign that this God-man will live in the power of the Spirit, and he will die in the power of the Spirit, and the Spirit of God will raise him on the third day.

Then the voice of the Father is heard to say, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matt 3:17). The Father chooses two quotes from Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42:1. At this moment, the Father publicly presents his Son as the suffering servant. ‘Here is my Son, my eternal Son, I am sending him and he shall be bruised for your transgressions’. There are echoes of Isaiah 53:10, ‘it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand’.

At the baptism of Jesus the triune God is revealed for our salvation. The Son declares that he is the Messiah who will atone for the sins of the people. The Spirit declares that he will empower the Son to remain righteous, for the sin-offering must be a spotless lamb without stain. And the Father declares that his Son is the Christ, the suffering servant. According to the Father’s will, the Son will head a new humanity .

In our tradition we have a very strong emphasis on the cross and we must never diminish our emphasis on the cross. What we could heighten, however, is our appreciation of the role of the Father and especially the work of the Holy Spirit. The charismatic movement with its theological excesses has made us a little scared of the Spirit. The baptism of Jesus reminds us that salvation is the work of all three persons in the Trinity working in harmony with one another. Salvation is the work of the Father, salvation is the work of the Son, and salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Augustine rightly emphasises that in the ways of God, the three persons of the Trinity are at work. No person in the Trinity is so dominant that the other two persons don’t have a role to play. The Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, and to him is attributed the beginning of action. In the incarnation, the Father and Son are active. For example, in Matthew 1 the Lord appears to Joseph and says, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’ (Matt 1:20).

After his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Matt 4:1). In Matt 12:28, Jesus drives out demons by the Spirit of God. Indeed, his whole life is one of obedience to the Father while the Spirit directs and empowers him. Jesus foreshadows the coming of the Spirit who will ‘convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment’ (Jn 16:8). When it comes to the climactic moment on the cross, the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus offered himself up ‘through the eternal Spirit’ to the Father (Heb 9:14). On the third day, the Father raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:11). Afterwards, the ascended  Christ received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and poured him out on his church (Acts 2:33–36).

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit working in harmony for our salvation.

The third question builds upon the previous two questions. (Will you stay with me as we look at one more question?). When we say ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ does this order of names imply a ranking which exists within the Trinity? Is there an order within the Trinity which cannot be violated?

The answer to this question is of the utmost importance. The trinitarian pattern shapes our views in matters such as women’s eldership and ordination, our view of marriage and divorce, relationships at home and at work, and the way we relate to one another at church. This doctrine influences the way we read difficult passages such 1 Tim 2:11, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man’. We have no time to address these issues in detail, but we have time to erect some scaffolding which supports the pattern for all relationships.

Please turn with me to those well known words in Matthew 28. At the close of his public ministry. Jesus meets his disciples on a mountain and he says to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt 28:19).

The disciples are receiving their marching orders. They are to go into the world and believers are to be baptised, not simply into the name of Christ, but into someone more complex: into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But does this order matter? The Father first, the Son second and the Spirit third. Does this say something about how God works in this world?

While the order Father, Son and Spirit is the usual order, it is not the only order. In 2 Cor 13:14, the order is Son, Father and Spirit. ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’. So we shouldn’t read too much into the traditional order of Father, Son and Spirit. Even so, this flexibility in order ought not stop us pondering the sense in which the Trinity work together.

Calvin describes the order of the three persons this way:

[To the Father] is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity (Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.18).

And so the Father is the source of activity, and whatever the Father does, he does through the Son (Rom. 2:16; 3:22; 5:1, 11, 17, 21; Eph. 1:5; 1 Thess. 5:9; Tit 3:5). Later we learn that the Father (John 14:16) and the Son (John 16:7) send the Spirit into the world. Does this not imply that the Father is greater than the Son? Does it mean the Father and Son are greater than the Holy Spirit? Or in trinitarian language: is the Son subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit subordinate to both the Father and the Son?

The Father sends the Son, the Son never sends the Father. This reflects an irreversible order between the Father and Son. It cannot be any other way. The Son never sends the Father, the Father sends the Son to do his will. So there is an order within the Trinity. But there is no hierarchy in the sense of a layered power structure, nor is there subordination or inferiority. The three distinct persons of the Trinity always remain equal in status and identical in being. The unity and co-equality that exists within the Trinity means that there is never any grounds for the subjection of any person, there is never any excuse for misuse of power, and the oppression of anyone by someone is intolerable.

Yet within the equality of the Trinity, there are relationships of authority and obedience. So the Son submits to the Father. Jesus says in the garden, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’ (Matt 26:39). It may puzzle us how there can be equality within relationships of authority and obedience for this is not the normal human experience. Yet this is common place within the Trinity. This is how God exists within his own being, and this is how God reveals himself to us. And this is how the Trinity patterns relationships to us.

Male and female are to mimic the arrangement within the Trinity which includes relationships of authority and obedience. Letham says on the question of superiority and inferiority:

The man is not superior to the woman nor the woman to the man. The status and value of the woman is no less in relation to the man than is that of the Son or the Holy Spirit in relation to the Father. Consequently, any demeaning or exploitation of the woman is a sin against the man as well as against the woman and, even more basically, is a sin against God. (Letham, ‘The Man-Woman Debate’, WTJ 52, 72–73)

And so the Trinity helps us understand passages like Eph 5:22, ‘Wives, submit to your husband as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church […] ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’. This the trinitarian pattern.

Tertullian was right in affirming that the doctrine of the Trinity must be divinely revealed, not humanly constructed. It is so absurd from a human standpoint that no-one would have invented it. Yet this theology is inspiring because it moves us to praise our God whose ways are not our ways. ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen’ (Rom 11:33–36).

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