Experiencing the Trinity in Salvation

Last week I began a series of blog posts to go along with a series that I am preaching entitled “Experiencing the Trinity.”  Last week, we looked at the basic doctrine and some historic departures from the orthodox position.  Click on the links below if you want to review these posts or listen to the sermons.  This week, we are going to move forward to see how we experience the Trinity in our Salvation.

Click on the links below to see last week’s posts:

  1. There is only one God
  2. One God – Three Persons
  3. Each Person in the Godhead is Distinct
  4. Three common mistakes

If you would like to listen to the sermons click here.

Experiencing the Trinity in Salvation 

Rod Adams was one of the best Christians I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.  He and his wife Jean were members of Open Door Baptist Church in Colliers, West Virginia and I had the privilege of serving as their Pastor and calling them my friends. At least once a month, sometimes more, Jean would call and invite me to have lunch with her and Rod at their apartment.  On one of those occasions Rod shared with his personal testimony.

When I knew Rod, he was one of the sweetest, kindest men you’d ever meet.  But that wasn’t always so. Like many men in that area, Rod went to the Army right out of high school and to work in the steel mill right after his discharge. Over time he developed a reputation for being rough and mean. By his own admission, he was a womanizer, a drinker, and basically a scoundrel.  But then through a series of events, God began to get ahold of Rod’s life.

Rod told me, “My first marriage had ended because I was unfaithful to her and basically I was running around doing all kinds of things that I shouldn’t have been doing.”  But one of Rod’s friends began to share the gospel with him.  Rod said, “At first I made fun of him and thought he was crazy. But eventually I began to see a difference in his life, a real peace and contentment that I didn’t have.”  So, Rod began to ask some questions and even started reading his Bible.  Before long he was going to church and talking to the Pastor.  He told me, “It was strange, every time I read the Bible it seemed to be speaking directly to me.  The more I understood about how much God loved me the more I wanted to know about Him.  Eventually, I become convinced that Jesus was indeed the Son of God and that I needed Him in my life.”

At that point, Rod got so emotional that he began to weep.  He then said, “One night, I couldn’t bear it anymore.  I didn’t want to go on living the way I was, so I got on my knees and confessed my sin to Jesus and asked Him to save me.”  Then he added, “That night my entire life changed, and I’ve never been the same again. God came into my life that night and saved me.”  Rod had been born again.

As evangelicals, we all know people with stories just like Rod’s.  In fact, if you are a believer, you have a story similar to Rod’s.  Conversion stories are a hallmark of evangelical Christianity. In one sense this is positive.  Our personal stories are powerful ways to open up opportunities for sharing the gospel with other people. Unfortunately, we sometimes get stunted by failing to see the big picture of our salvation.

This is partially due to the way we think about the salvation experience. For most evangelicals, our understanding of salvation has been reduced to the bare essentials.  Our focus tends to be limited to the moment of conversion —  how we get saved — while ignoring the process leading up to this moment. This way of looking at conversion is tragically shortsighted. Rightly understood, salvation is a work of all three members of the Trinity — God the Father elects us, God the Son redeems us, and God the Holy Spirit seals us. The best place to see this big-picture view of salvation is in Ephesians 1:3—14.

 

Background

As in all his writings, Paul had a missional purpose for this letter.  Much of his third missionary journey had been spent laboring in Ephesus (Acts 19) and his ministry there represents the high-water mark of his missionary career. From this city, the gospel would spread up and down the Lycus river valley to the furthest reaches of the Roman empire.  It’s easy to understand, then, why Paul wanted to do everything in his power to ensure the continued strength and stability of this strategic church.

By the time this letter was written, the church in Ephesus was several years old.  Its members no longer needed to be reminded of the rudimentary elements of the Gospel but were ready to capture a bigger vision of what God had done for them. So, beginning with the Father in eternity past, Paul zooms out and shows the Ephesians how each member of the Trinity was involved in their salvation.

  1. Chosen by the Father (v.3-6)

If you were asked you to share your salvation testimony, you’d probably start out the same way as my friend Rod.  First, you’d tell me what your life was like before Christ.  Then you’d move on to tell me how you came to know Christ before concluding with what your life is like now.  This is a time tested and Biblical way of sharing our testimony.  In fact, it is the very pattern Paul generally used when sharing his testimony (see Acts 22:1-21; 26:1-23). While our testimonies are a good place to begin our understanding of salvation and a powerful tool for witnessing, they are not to be the final word on the doctrine of salvation.

Notice that here in Ephesians, Paul wants to take us beyond the basics of his testimony. Instead of retelling his Damascus road experience, which they’d probably already heard before, Paul takes them into eternity past.  He goes all the way back into eternity to ground our salvation firmly in the sovereign will of God the Father.  This a good lesson for us.

While our testimonies are an amazing tool for sharing the gospel, they should never be our sole means of understanding salvation.  We must go beyond the initial salvation experience by pulling back the tapestry of time and capturing a glimpse of the Trinity at work.  That’s what exactly what Paul does in Ephesians 1:3-14.  He transports us back into eternity, giving us a view of our salvation from the standpoint of eternity:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.  (1:3-6)

Paul grounds our salvation, not in the moment we chose to follow Christ, but in the moment God chose to save us.  Our salvation, in other words, does not begin at the moment of conversion but in the eternal counsel of the Father’s sovereign will.

Tomorrow we will look at three aspects of God’s choice.  Please follow this blog to receive regular updates and share with your friends if you find it helpful. 

Common Mistakes About the Trinity

Today, I want to explore three common mistakes made when thinking about the Trinity.  This is a very important post  because mistakes about how we formulate the trinity abound all around us.  What I hope you will see is that these mistakes are not new.  In fact, every error that we face concerning the Trinity today, can be traced backed through the history of the church for centuries.  Learning about these mistakes in the past will help us to avoid repeating them today.  So, with that said, let’s look at the first mistake made when thinking about the Trinity.

Mistake #1: Denying the Distinctive Personalities of the Son or Spirit

The first mistake we want to consider is the error of denying the distinctive personalities of the Son and the Spirit. Theologians refer to this mistake as Modalism.  Modalism teaches that God does not exist as three distinct personalities, but that He sometimes reveals Himself as Father, sometimes the Son and at other times the Spirit. We might think of this mistake as turning God into someone with a split personality or as an actor taking on different personas when they play different roles.

This mistake has reared its head many times throughout the history of the church, most notably by a man named Sabellius in the third-century. While serving as a priest in Rome, Sabellius began to teach that the Trinity was not a matter of God’s actual nature but simply of his revelation.  He claimed that the one true God revealed Himself as Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Holy Spirit in sanctification. Rather than three distinct personalities, Sabellius claimed they were merely different modes.

Some people still hold to this doctrine, but it will not fit with the Biblical teaching concerning the three persons of the Trinity. As we have already seen in the baptism of Jesus, each member of the Trinity is a distinct personality.

Mistake #2: Denying the Deity of the Son or Spirit

Whereas Sabellius and his followers did not see any distinction between the members of the Trinity, others went in the opposite direction making too great a distinction. The whole problem began in 318/319 A.D when the bishop of Alexandria, who by coincidence was also named Alexander, preached a sermon entitled “The Great Mystery of the Trinity in Unity.”  Sitting in the audience was a young man named Arius, who believe that Alexander had failed to make a proper distinction between the members of the Trinity.  In reaction, Arius began to claim Jesus created by God not co-eternal. Arius and his followers, claimed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, not only in a functional sense, but also in a metaphysical sense.  The New Testament is very clear that Jesus was submissive to the will of His Father in coming to earth to carry out His will. (See John 4:34, 6:38) Arius, however, took this a step farther by claiming that Jesus was also subordinate in His essence to the Father.

You might think of Arianism as swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction of modalism.  In this mistake, the deity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit ends up being denied or at least redefined. Rather than being fully divine and coequal with God, Arius viewed Jesus a mere man raised to the level of deity but never sharing in the divine nature or essence.

Countering this argument, was a man named Athanasius, who served as a deacon in the church of Alexandria and assistant to the bishop.  Athanasius, at once recognized the extreme threat Arian doctrine represented.  Specifically, he saw how this teaching would undermine the doctrine of salvation.  Athanasius reasoned that for Jesus to be the sacrifice for our sin, He had to be fully human.  But to be perfect and sinless, He also had to be fully God.  By teaching that there was a time when Jesus did not exist, Arius denied the deity of Christ, therefore, rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity while at the same time undermining the Biblical doctrine of salvation.

This line of reasoning is very important and demands our careful attention.  Let’s break it down and take a closer look.  Athanasius showed that if Jesus was not fully man, He could not be our representative on the cross.  If He was not fully God, He could not have been the perfect sacrifice for our sin.  Therefore, he understood the teaching of Arius undermined redemption. Athanasius and his supporters countered the Arians by defending the Biblical view that Jesus was of the same “essence” (homoousios) as the Father, but was a distinct personality.

This argument came to a head in 325 AD in the city of Nicaea, when the Emperor Constantine called for a meeting of the church’s bishops.  That summer, 250-300 Bishops from across the empire gathered to debate and settle the issue.  In the end, they adopted the position of Athanasius, which was officially formulated in the Nicene Creed. While this creed officially settled the Orthodox position on the Trinity, it did not end the controversy.  Athanasius ended up being exiled several times, mostly due to the Emperor favoring one position over the other at various times. Attacks on the nature of Christ and the Trinity continued to rage in the church throughout the 4th and 5th centuries.  Eventually two more heresies began to spring up within the churches – monophysitism and Nestorianism. Which brings us to the third common mistake made in understanding the Trinity.

Mistake #3: Confusing the Dual Natures of JesuS   

            The third common mistake made regarding the Trinity focuses on the relationship between the divine and human natures of Jesus.  The Bible teaches that Jesus is both fully man and fully God (see John 1:1, 14).  The challenge for Christians has always been to understand how these two natures exist in one person.  Some have made the mistake going to the extreme of comingling the two natures into one new nature, this is called monophysitism.  Still others have gone to the opposite extreme, viewing Jesus as actually being two persons – one divine, one human — this is called Nestorianism.

Monophystism comes from a compound word made from mono, meaning one, and phases, meaning nature.  The basic teaching of monophysitism is that the divine and human natures of Christ were comingled to form a brand new “hybrid” nature.  Eutyches, the founder of this school of thought, coined the term theanthropic (theos=god, and anthropos=man) to describe this single “divinely human” nature of Christ.  Of the three mistakes this is the most common today because it is so subtle many people don’t even realize they are making it.

The basic problem with is view is that it co-mingles the divine and human nature of Jesus into one — thus making Jesus something less than truly God and something more than truly man.  We might think of this in terms of what the Romans did with their Emperors when they raised them to the level of a god.  Monophysitism sees Jesus as a deified man rather than the eternal Son of God, who put on human flesh. His divine nature and his human nature became fused into one new divine/human nature.

Around the same time the church was battling Eutyches and his monophysitism another false doctrine popped up.  This time the leader was a named Nestorius, who taught that if Jesus had two-natures he must by necessity be two persons – thus He was a divine person and a human person coexisting in one body. Whereas the monophystites merged Jesus two natures into a single new nature, the Nestorians went too far towards the other extreme by completely separating the two.

The struggle to understand this issue comes about as the result of trying to understand apparent conflicts in the Biblical presentation of Jesus.  For instance, how could Jesus be all powerful, yet at times He is presented as being weak, tired, and hungry?  How could Jesus know all things, yet not know when the Second coming would occur?  These and a host of other issues were the motivating factors that led Eutyches and Nestorius to develop their positions.  But these extreme positions created more problems than they solved.

To resolve the problem, the Emperor Marcion called together 520 bishops to Turkish city of Chalcedon for a council.  In the end, they agreed to a statement which said that Jesus was, “truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood…”

What this means is that Jesus has two natures that exist together in one person.  The properties of each nature are kept and both are joined in one person. Theologians refer to this as the hypostatic union.  Rather than having two personalities as Nestorius taught or a new “hybrid” nature as Eutyches taught, the two natures of Christ exist together, without any confusion, change, division, or separation. This helps to explain the contradictory statements mentioned above.

One of the fascinating places where we can see the interplay of the two natures in the personality of Christ involves His attitude towards the cross.  His human will desired to avoid the cross.  Therefore, in Matthew 26:39 he said, “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…” But at the same time, His divine will desired to avoid being made sin (2 Cor 5:21).  Ultimately, He surrendered His will to that of the of His father, which is why He said, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Theissen 1979, 223)

Conclusion

Guarding against false doctrine is an essential activity in every era of the church.  The Bible teaches us that Satan is like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.  He likes nothing more than to make subtle changes to cardinal doctrines, such as the Trinity. While at first these may appear to be minor, when fully grown they become destructive and corrupt the very heart of the gospel.  Arius is our prime example of this process.  What looked at first like a reasonable correction to an overemphasis by Alexander, resulted in one of the most effective attacks on the doctrine of salvation ever launched.

Just as Athanasius stood for the truth in his day, so must Christians today be ready to give a defense of the essential doctrines of our faith.  The first step in this process is being able to articulate and explain the doctrine from Scripture.  This was the goal of the first chapter in this book.  If you are not able to do this, go back to that chapter and study it again and again and again.  Study it as many times as necessary until make you are firmly grounded in a Biblical understanding of the doctrine and able to explain it to someone else.

Second, every believer needs to be familiar with the three mistakes we outlined in this chapter.  These are certainly not the only errors that have been made concerning the Trinity, but they represent the first step in being able to recognize major departures from the Biblical doctrine.  I say this for two reasons.

First, the mistakes covered in this post represent the most common mistakes made concerning the Trinity.  Ninety percent of the time, if there is an error being taught about the Trinity it will fall into one of these three mistakes. So, if you can recognize these three basic problems, you are inoculated against most of, much of false teachings about the Trinity.

But they also serve a secondary purpose.  Learning these three mistakes will help to refine your thinking and make it more precise.  Sadly, most evangelicals are not prone to careful thought about the things we believe.  Nor are we precise in the way we express them.  By taking some time to see how doctrinal mistakes were made in the past we can sharpen our own thinking on the subject.  Obviously, the short treatment of this subject in this post should serve as an introduction rather than as the end of your study in this area.  But hopefully, this brief introduction will serve to spark a deeper level of thinking and interest in your mind.