Key Points of Trinitarian Theology
Following are some basic precepts of the theology presented in the booklet, THE GOD REVEALED IN JESUS CHRIST …
- The Triune God created all people through the Son of God, who also is known as the Word of God.
- We were created so that we could participate in the love relationship enjoyed by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
- We are enabled and qualified to participate in this relationship of love through Jesus Christ.
- The Son became human, the man Jesus Christ, taking on our human nature.
- He did this to reconcile all humanity to God through his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension.
- The crucified, resurrected and glorified Jesus is the representative and the substitute for all humanity.
- As Savior and Lord of all humanity, Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, and he draws all people to himself by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- In Christ, humanity is loved and accepted by the Father.
- Jesus Christ paid for all our sins — past, present and future — and there is no longer any debt to pay.
- The Father has in Christ forgiven all our sins, and he eagerly desires that we receive his forgiveness.
- We can enjoy his love only as we believe/trust that he loves us. We can enjoy his forgiveness only when we believe/trust he has forgiven us.
- When we respond to the Spirit by turning to God, believing the good news and picking up our cross and following Jesus, the Spirit leads us into the transformed life of the kingdom of God.
Addressing Questions and Objections
1. Are you saying there is no difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?
- We are saying that because of who Jesus is and what he has done, all humans — believers and non-believers — are united to God in and through Jesus. As a result, all people are reconciled to God; all have been adopted as his dearly loved children. All, in and through Jesus, are included in the Triune love and life of God: Father, Son and Spirit.
- However, not all people know who Christ is and therefore who they are in Christ. They are not believers.
- One way to speak of the distinction between believers and non-believers is to say that all people are included in Christ (universally) but only believers actively participate (personally) in that inclusion.
- We see these distinctions spoken of throughout the New Testament, and they are important. However, we must not take these distinctions too far and think of non-believers as not accepted by and not loved by God. To see them in this way would be to overlook the great truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done already for all humanity. It would be to turn the “good news” into “bad news.”
- When we see all humanity in Christ, some of the categories we might have held in our thinking fall away. We no longer see non-believers as “outsiders” but as children of God in need of understanding how much their Father loves them, likes them, and wants them. We approach them as brothers and sisters. Do they know who they are in Christ? No — and it is our privilege to tell them of God’s love for them.
2. If all are reconciled already to God in Christ, why does Scripture say so much about repentance and faith?
- In the NT, the Greek word translated “repentance” is metanoia, which means “change of mind.”
- All humanity is invited and enabled by the Spirit to experience a radical change of mind away from sinful egoistic self-centeredness and toward God and his love experienced in union with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
- Notice Peter’s invitation to this change of mind in Acts 2:38-39: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
- God does not forgive people in exchange for their repentance and belief. As Scripture proclaims, forgiveness is an unconditional free gift that is entirely of grace. It (forgiveness) is a reality that exists for us even before we enter into it in our experience.
- The gospel truth — the truth about Jesus and about all humanity in union with God in Jesus — is that God has already forgiven all humanity with a forgiveness that is unconditional and therefore truly free: “Therefore,” invites Peter, “repent and believe this truth — and be baptized by the Spirit with the mind of Jesus — which involves supernatural assurance that we truly are the children of God.”
- Repentance is a change of mind and heart; it involves coming to know who Jesus is for us and who we are in him, apart from anything we have done or will yet do. Through repentance, which is God’s gift to us, our minds are renewed in Jesus through the Spirit and we turn to him and begin to trust him.
- The Spirit moves us to repent because our forgiveness has already been accomplished in Christ, not in order to be forgiven. We repent because we know that, in Jesus, our sins have already been forgiven and that, in Jesus, we are already a new creation. In this repentance, we turn from the alienation within us as the Spirit baptizes our minds in Jesus’ acceptance and in the assurance that comes with it.
3. Why does Paul say that if you don’t have the Spirit, you don’t belong to Christ?
- Romans 8:9 says, “You are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.”
- The sentence “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” is not meant to be lifted out of context and turned into a proof that some people do not belong to God.
- In the context of this passage, Paul is addressing believers; he is not making a statement here about non-believers.
- He is warning disobedient believers who are refusing to submit to the Holy Spirit in their lives. In effect, he is saying, “You say that the Spirit of God is in you, and you are right. However, your life should be reflecting the presence of the Spirit of Christ.” As Paul says in verse 12, “We have an obligation — but it is not to the sinful nature…” (see verses 10-17).
4. If the world is reconciled, why would Jesus say that he doesn’t pray for the world?
- In John 17:9, Jesus says: “I pray for them [his disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.”
- Just because Jesus said in one instance that he was not praying for the world does not imply that he never prayed for the world. It is just that right then, his focus was on his disciples.
- It is also important to understand how John uses the word “world” (kosmos in Greek) in his Gospel. At times the word can refer to all people (who are all loved by God; see John 3:16) while at other times it can refer to the worldly “system” that is hostile toward God.
- It is apparently this system that Jesus has in mind in John 17. Since this system resists God, Jesus’ prayer does not include it. He is not praying for the world in its current form, rather, he is praying for a group of people whom he can use to declare his love for the world.
- Later on in his prayer, Jesus does have the whole world in mind. He prays that all of his followers “may be one, Father…so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Just as John 3:16 said, God loves the whole world and wants to save everyone.
5. If all are reconciled already to God, why does Scripture speak of hell?
- Scripture speaks of hell because it is the natural consequence of rebellion against God. That is why Christ came.
- God allows us to respond to what he has done for us in Christ. We are included in Christ, but we can refuse that inclusion. We are reconciled to the Father, but we can refuse that reconciliation.
- However, such refusal does not negate what God has done for all humanity in Christ.
- In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis wrote:
- There are only two kinds of people in the end; those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
6. Why does the Bible talk about people whose names are not in the book of life?
- Revelation 13:8 says, “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast — all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.”
- Revelation 17:8 says, “The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast.”
- We need to consider the literary genre of Revelation. John writes using a genre known as apocalyptic. This genre, commonly used by Jewish writers in John’s day, is highly symbolic.
- There is not a literal “book of life.” The “book of life” is a figure of speech, a symbolic way of referring to those who are in allegiance with the Lamb. These verses in Revelation refer to people who reject the new life that Christ has already secured for them.
7. Why does Peter say it is hard to be saved?
- 1 Peter 4:17-18 says: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’”
- The point of verses 17-18 is found in verse 19: “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
- Peter was encouraging persecuted believers to live in accord with their identity as children of God and not like those who were living in debauchery and idolatry (verses 1-5).
- As part of his argument, he points out that persecution is participation in the suffering of Christ, and therefore if believers are to suffer, they should suffer for their faith and godly behavior instead of suffering for sinful and ungodly behavior (verses 12-16).
- His point is that believers, who know that Jesus is the merciful Judge of all, should not be living in the same evil ways as those who oppose Christ.
- It would be impossible for anyone to be saved … were it not for Christ. The Gospel is that He has done what is impossible for humans to do for themselves.
- Those who reject Christ are not participating in Christ’s suffering; they participate in their own suffering as they reap what they sow.
8. What is everlasting contempt and destruction?
- Daniel 12:2 reads, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
- 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9 says, “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.”
- Both passages refer to the time of the final judgment when Jesus is “revealed” (sometimes referred to as the Second Coming or Jesus’ “return in glory”). This is the time when all humans will see clearly who Jesus is and thus who they are in union with Jesus. And this “revealing” presents to them a choice — will they say “yes” to their inclusion in Christ, or will they say “no”?
- Their decision neither creates nor destroys their inclusion, but it does determine their attitude toward it — whether they will accept God’s love for them and enter the joy of the Lord, or continue in alienation and frustration (and thus in shame and everlasting contempt and destruction). The destruction is a self-destruction as they refuse the purpose for which they have been made, and the redemption that has already been given to them.
- In the Judgment, everyone will face Jesus, the Judge who died for all, and they will have to decide whether they will trust him. Those who trust their Savior take part in the joy of the life God has given them in Christ. Those who reject him continue in their hostility and the hell that goes with it.
9. What about the “narrow gate”?
- Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
- Jesus is speaking of life on this side of the general resurrection, when most are living on the “broad road” of destruction. Though included in Christ, they live as if they were not. Only a “few” have embraced the truth that is in Jesus—and it is he who is “the narrow gate.”
- Jesus addresses a similar issue in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
- These people have done miracles, and in doing so have deceived many. They claim to know Jesus, and though Jesus obviously knows them (he is omniscient), he does not see himself in them with regard to their actual faith or behavior, and so he proclaims, “I never knew you.”
10. But don’t we become God’s children only at the point of belief?
- John 1:12-13 says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born neither of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
- God has included everyone in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. When he died, we all died; when he rose; we all were born again in him. Therefore all humans are, from God’s perspective, already his children. He gives people that “right” long before they accept it.
- Those who believe enter into, and begin to experience, the new life that has been theirs all along – the new life that has been “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). In other words, what has been objectively true for them all along becomes subjectively and personally experienced when they become believers.
11. Is this universalism?
- Not in the sense that every person will be saved whether they trust in Christ or not. There is no salvation outside of Christ (Acts 4:12).
- But Jesus’ atonement is universal (Romans 5:18).
- Scripture shows that God, in Christ, has reconciled all humans to himself (Colossians 1:20), but he will never force any person to embrace that reconciliation. Love cannot be coerced.
- God wants sons and daughters who love him out of a joyful response to his love, not zombies who have no mind or choice of their own. As has been revealed in Jesus Christ, God is love in his innermost being, and in God the Persons of the Trinity relate to one another in the freedom of love.
- To hope that all people will finally come to Christ is not universalism — it is simply Christian and reflects the heart of God (1 Timothy 2:3-6; 2 Peter 3:9). However, we cannot profess to know whether every person will finally come to faith.
12. If we are included already, why struggle to live the Christian life?
- Some people do not like the idea that others who do not work as hard as they do will end up with the same reward as they (See the parable of the labourers in Matthew 20:12-15). But this concern overlooks the truth that no one, no matter how hard they work, deserves salvation. That is why it is, for everyone, a free gift.
- However, in Scripture we learn that our participation now in Jesus’ love and life bears good fruit and personal joy that stretch into eternity.
- Living in ungodly ways results in pain, anguish and misery for oneself and others. That is why God doesn’t want us to live that way. Consider the following passages:
- 1 Corinthians 3:11-15: “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
- Galatians 6:7-8: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”
13. What about Christian mission? If all are included already in God’s love and life through Jesus, why do we proclaim the gospel to the world and make disciples for Jesus?
- It is Jesus’ union with each of us that provides the basis and foundation for every aspect of our life, including our participation in mission and ministry with Jesus. The love of Christ compels us to take part in what Jesus is doing in the world through the Spirit. We declare the gospel and invite all people to receive and embrace it. In doing so, we hope what is true of them already (objectively) will be experienced by them personally (subjectively).
14. How do we explain John 6:44?
- John 6:44 says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
- The religious leaders were seeking to deflect Jesus’ seemingly outrageous claim: “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven” (John 6:41). This statement was tantamount to claiming divine status.
- Jesus’ reply to the Jewish leaders’ complaint concerning this claim was that they “stop grumbling” (43) and realize that “no one can come to me [the bread of heaven] unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (v.44). Jesus’ point is that the people would not be responding, except that God was making it possible for them to do so.
- In this passage, Jesus is not limiting the number of people who are drawn to him; he is showing that he is doing the Father’s work. Elsewhere he says: “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). And since Jesus does only what his Father wants, John 12:32 shows that the Father indeed draws all people to Jesus.
15. If the entire cosmos is included in Christ, why is there still evil in the world?
- The fullness of the kingdom of God will not arrive until Christ’s return.
- As Peter preached on Pentecost, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-20).
- Until then, we find assurance in Jesus’ words: “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
16. How does this theology compare to Calvinism and Arminianism?
- In comparing and contrasting Christian theologies, we are talking about different approaches among Christians who seek to serve the same Lord. Thus, our discussion should reflect respect and gentleness, not arrogance or hostility.
- Calvinism is a theology that developed from the teachings of the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvinism emphasizes God’s sovereignty in election and salvation.
- Most Calvinists define God’s “elect” as a subset of the human race; Christ died for only some people (“limited atonement”). Those he did die for, however, were truly and effectively saved in the finished work of Christ, long before they became aware of it and accepted it. According to Calvinist doctrine, it is inevitable that those Christ died for will come to faith in him at some point. This is called “irresistible grace.”
- Trinitarian theology’s main disagreement with Calvinism is over the scope of reconciliation. The Bible asserts that Christ made atonement “not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). And
- while Trinitarian theology rejects the restrictive extent of “limited atonement” and the determinism of “irresistible grace,”
- it agrees with Calvinism that forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, justification, etc. were all accomplished effectively by what Christ did.
- These gospel truths have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do.
- Arminianism derives from the teachings of another Protestant reformer, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). Arminius insisted that Jesus died for all humanity, and that all people can be saved if they take necessary, personal action, which is enabled by the Spirit. This theology, while not ignoring God’s sovereignty, tends to rely on a person’s human decision and free will. Its premise is that salvation, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, justification, are not actually effective until a person has faith.
- Trinitarian theology differs from Arminianism over the effectiveness of the reconciliation.
- Atonement (at-one-ment) between God and humanity is only a hypothetical possibility for Arminians; it does not become an accomplished actuality until one’s decision of faith.
- Trinitarian theology, however, teaches that the atonement and reconciliation is objectively true even before it has been subjectively accepted and experienced.
- While Calvinism and Arminianism emphasize different aspects of salvation theology, Trinitarian theology has attempted, as did Church Fathers Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Gregory, to maintain in harmony the wideness emphasized by Arminians with the effectiveness emphasized by Calvinists.
17. What is perichoresis?
- The eternal communion of love that Father, Son and Spirit share as the Trinity involves a mystery of inter-relationship and interpenetration of the divine Persons, a mutual indwelling without loss of personal identity. As Jesus said, “the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38).
- Early Greek-speaking Christian theologians described this relationship with the word perichoresis, which is derived from root words meaning around and contain.
- Each person of the Trinity is contained within the others; they dwell in one another.
TIPS on BIBLICAL EXEGESIS
In this booklet, we have sought to address typical questions and objections that arise as people consider Trinitarian theology. No doubt, there are other verses that bring similar questions or objections. What we have sought to do in this booklet is to demonstrate a Trinitarian, Christ-centred approach to reading and interpreting all passages of Holy Scripture.
Some object to the idea of interpreting Scripture. They say, “I just let the Bible say what it means.” This idea, though admirable, is not accurate. The act of reading is, necessarily, an act of interpretation. So the issue is not whether to interpret; it is this: What criteria do we use in interpreting as we read?
We always bring to Scripture certain ideas and advance assumptions. What we are urging here is that we come to Scripture with the truth of who Jesus Christ is as the beginning point and the ongoing criterion by which we read and interpret the Holy Scriptures. Jesus must be the “lens” through which all Scripture is read.
Therefore, in reading Scripture, we recommend thinking about the following questions:
- How does this passage line up with the gospel, which answers the question, “Who is Jesus?”
- Is this passage referring to the universal, objective salvation of all humanity in Jesus, or is it referring to the personal, subjective experience of accepting or rejecting that salvation?
- What is the historical, cultural, and literary context?
- How is this passage worded in other translations? Other translations can sometimes help us see passages from different perspectives. It’s also helpful to check Greek lexicons and other translation helps, because some of the richness and subtleties of the Greek New Testament are lost in translations into other languages.
- For a guide to biblical exegesis, you may find it helpful to consult How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart (Zondervan, 1981, 1993) or Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers, by Michael J. Gorman (Hendrickson, 2009).