No Prophecy, Just Prescription: Solid Theology (Patheos Future of Evangelicalism)

future of evangelicalismI got asked to participate in a panel of sorts over at Patheos on the Future of Religion in America in the next 5 years. There’s actually a great line-up you should go check out (esp, Trueman, Moore, Meador, Dyck, and Wedgeworth’s pieces). Anyway, here’s the beginning of my two cents. 

When I was asked to weigh in on what I judged to be the future of Evangelicalism, my first thought was, “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, I’m just a shepherd of college students.” Who am I to make such weighty prognostications? By nature I’m averse to engaging in any hard futurology — sounds a bit close to astrology. Beyond that, given the increasingly volatile nature of American discourse around religion and the rapidly changing theo-political scene (Obergefell and its rainbow penumbra), we’re dealing with shifting variables whose slopes are slipperier by the day, making mapping a trajectory with any certainty a perilous proposition.

All the same, I’ll hazard a few words about the future of Evangelicalism, not as predictions, but as prescriptions for facing the changes we see all around us and their fallout. From where I stand, I’d say there’s one main priority Evangelicalism needs to set itself, if it’s going to survive the next few years let alone be salt and light for the gospel: prioritizing solid theology.

You can read the rest of my specific article here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Summarizing, Simplifying, and Expanding on the Atonement by Adam Johnson (Guest Post)

atonementAdam Johnson is a professor of theology in the Torrey Honors program at Biola University and excellent chap. He’s just put out a very helpful book–one of my new favorites on the subject–Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, which I’ve already written about here. What follows is an excerpted  section of one of my favorite passages in the work, reprinted with his permission. I hope it encourages you to follow up and pick the book. 

A thorough appreciation of the complexity of the atonement funds our delight and worship, while equipping the church to relate Christ’s work meaningfully to a host of other areas. An equally strong grasp of the simplicity of the doctrine yields a sense of the overall shape and structure of the doctrine, offering meaning and direction to our inquiries within its many elements. Just as in the doctrines of the Trinity and divine attributes (in fact, precisely because of them), the interplay between unity and diversity, simplicity and complexity, plays a vital role here as well. For that reason we must constantly live in the tension between seeking an expansive understanding, and concise definition of the work of Christ.

Summary I: An Exercise in Simplicity

The best summary statements about Christ’s atoning work in Scripture are the following two (closely related) verses:

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

“In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” (Col. 1:19-20)

In short:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

The beauty of this short statement is four-fold. First, the emphasis is first and foremost upon God, which is absolutely vital for the doctrine. The atonement is the work of God bringing God’s creation back to God. God is the origin, means and end of this act, and the role of theology proper is singularly and absolutely determinative for the shape of the doctrine and the coherence of our account of the atonement. Second, this is the work of God as man, as Jesus. That is to say, it is a fully human work, the work of God as one of us, one of our kind living out his life under the same realities and circumstances as we do. It is a work from within our life and experience, in which God makes our situation his own, rather than a work from the outside. Third, this is a work of reconciliation. One could say that God was in Christ, atoning (at-one-ing) all things to himself in Christ, though this does not communicate as readily in contemporary English. In principle, one could substitute “reconciling” for any of a number of soteriological synonyms, including “saving,” “redeeming,” “ransoming” or “sanctifying.” “Reconciliation” is preferable, however, for its positive (indicating salvation for just as much or more than it does salvation from) and comprehensive nature. In other words, it isn’t as readily reducible to merely marshal, judicial or commercial concerns as some of its peers.

The final reason which makes this summary the best single statement in Scripture concerning the work of Christ is its comprehensive scope: all things! Of course this must be unpacked, but such a comprehensive and indeed cosmic affirmation runs no risk whatsoever of leaving anything out. All things are involved and bound up in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is no mere matter of meeting some particular need or void in our lives—the death and resurrection of Christ are of much bigger scope than that. They gather up the identity, condition and fate of all of God’s creation, for in Christ all things are taken up and reconciled to the Father. Regardless of whether we recognize this to be the case, there is nothing in life that is not reconciled to God through the work of Christ (Col. 1:20).

In short, for a single statement that grasps the foundation of the doctrine of the atonement in the being and act of God, the means of the atonement in the man Jesus Christ, the positive and life-giving nature of atonement as a work of reconciliation, a restoring of relationships, and the scope of the atonement, which brings all things into their proper relationship and fellowship with God, there is no better statement than Paul’s claim that God was in Christ reconciling all things to himself.

Summary II – A Fuller Account

But the purpose of a summary statement is to bring clarity by highlighting the basic elements or structure of that which it summarizes. Accordingly, summary always plays its role as one part of the task of understanding its object, which is to say, summaries play a role within the dynamic movement necessary for understanding a complex reality, moving between a vision of the overall structure and interacting with the smaller parts of which the whole is composed. To honor this dynamic movement, we will briefly unpack the above summary, offering a slightly more complex rendition of the same basic statement:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

To affirm that God was in Christ, that this was the work of God and his presence in this act is what makes it what it is, what gives it its defining features, characteristics and significance, is to affirm first and foremost that this is the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the triune God. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are what they are because they are events in the life of God, willed by the Father, executed by the Son, in the fellowship and power of the Holy Spirit. It is only because the atonement is the work of the triune God, bringing our humanity and sin into the relational dynamics of Father, incarnate Son and Holy Spirit, that this work is what it is. And it is because God does this work through his own life, that it simultaneously involves the fullness of the divine character. In this event, God enacts his love, wisdom, mercy, righteousness, holiness and presence, the fullness of the divine attributes, in his overcoming of sin and evil, and restoration of all things according to his purposes for them.

To affirm that Jesus was a man is to embrace the fact that he was not any man, but an Israelite: born of the line of David, realizing in himself the covenants, prophecies and laws of the Old Testament as the Messiah, the prophet, priest and king, the one who in himself was the faithful Israelite. As such, he is, of course, a human being just as we are, but one with a specific history, and with that history a specific identity and role. Salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and more concretely, from the Jew, Jesus, the son of Mary. And his work was a work of reconciliation, of atonement—of making one through restored relation to God and through him to all things. Relationally, he made things one by bringing about reconciliation or the restoration of fellowship. Cosmically, he made creation one by removing evil, conflict and decay. Judicially, he made us one by doing away with the crime, guilt and punishment. His work was a work of creating and sharing one-ness according to the many forms it takes in different contexts and relationships, bearing in himself and thereby doing away with all sin, evil and discord.

And his work touches on all things: angels and demons, Jews and Gentiles, dogs and cats, mountains and graveyards. And because the center of God’s election in Christ was for a people, for a relationship with humankind, his work relates to middle management and racial relations, body and soul, emotions and habits, families and friendships. Extending far beyond the guilty conscience, God became man in Jesus Christ to bring every aspect of creation, and every aspect of our human existence, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, with all the flourishing and mutual-exaltation that this entails for every aspect of our being (physical, spiritual, social, sexual, economic and otherwise) and that of the creation of which we are a part.

Definition as Springboard to Exploration

But we must be clear about the fact that this more expansive summary is but a springboard to fuller reflection on each these areas. But as we engage in this pursuit, for the sake of clarity and definition, it is helpful that we be able to pull back from detailed exploration of the sub-points of the doctrine, and also be able to affirm with brevity and understanding that:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

Or even more briefly, that:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

Triune Justification, Again (Or, is a Reformed view of Salvation Sub-Trinitarian?)

trinityI’ve noted before the way that Protestant theologies of salvation, especially of the Reformed variety, are occasionally criticized as being sub-trinitarian due to their narrow focus on forensic or legal categories. Whether because of an allegedly blinkered view of the cross, or an “overly-individualistic” transaction model of justification by faith, Reformed theology apparently can’t compare to more Catholic, Orthodox, or some more metaphysically-inclined Anglican proposals flirting with Radical Orthodoxy. (To be honest, the critiques all sort of blur together.)

Triune Justification, Again

Again, while that may be true of some popular Reformed or general ‘Evangelical’ preaching, that’s certainly not the case with classical Reformed theology such as that of Bavinck who lays out a beautifully trinitarian conception of justification. But some may wonder if that’s simply because with Bavinck we are dealing with an exceptional Reformed theologian, a jewel in the tradition who is unrepresentative of the broader whole?

Well, actually no. Once again, I ran across this little gem in Thomas Watson’s commentary on the Westminster Catechism’s treatment of justification. Watson is dealing with the various “causes” of salvation, such as faith which receives it, Christ’s righteous life and death as its ground, and so on. He moves to ask about the “efficient cause” or author of our justification:

What is the efficient cause of our justification?

The whole Trinity. All the persons in the blessed Trinity have a hand in the justification of a sinner: opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. God the Father is said to justify. ‘It is God that justifieth.’ (Rom 8:83). God the Son is said to justify. ‘By him all that believe are justified.’ (Acts 13:39). God the Holy Ghost is said to justify. ‘But ye are justified by the Spirit of our God.’ (I Cor 6:61). God the Father justifies, as he pronounces us righteous; God the Son justifies, as he imputes his righteousness to us; and God the Holy Ghost justifies, as he clears up our justification, and seals us up to the day of redemption.

There you have it. Drawing on the classical trinitarian logic that all of the Trinity’s ad extra or “outward” works are undivided, Watson traces the triune shape of God’s one justifying action in Christ. There’s absolutely nothing “sub-trinitarian” about even the very clearly forensic or legal dimension to a Reformed account of God’s saving work.

But Even Beyond Justification

It also bears pointing out that much of the confusion comes when we miss the fact that a Reformed view of salvation is not limited to justification by faith. It gladly encompasses it, but free justification and the forgiveness of sins is not the sum total of the gospel, nor of the benefits that make up our salvation. No, arguably, the larger category to keep in view is the doctrine of union with Christ, whereby in faith we are united legally, spiritually, morally, mystically, and vitally with Jesus and all of his benefits, which ends up giving us far more than justification alone. It’s also the broader picture that completely destroys the sub-trinitarian charge.

Instead, union with Christ expands to include things like the effectual calling out of darkness into light which precedes justification. Then also come the gifts of adoption into Father’s family, with all of the spiritual privileges that come with being a child of God such as access in prayer, peace, and the assurance of the Spirit. We are also given the sanctification and growth in holiness which inevitably follows as we received the gift of the Holy Spirit in our union. Finally, we are promised glorification, or the perfection of our salvation when we are resurrected anew by the Spirit and the process of sanctification is complete as we are fully and finally conformed to the Image of the Son, the Resurrected Jesus, in order that we might look upon the face of God in glory.

Theologian Todd Billings had an excellent little article on this recently, articulating all this as an expression of what we might (carefully) call a Reformed doctrine of deification. I’ll quote Billings at length:

Nevertheless, classical Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ. As Calvin asserts, in our present life of union with Christ by the Spirit – which is nourished through the preached and sacramental Word in community – believers are “participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (Institutes 3.2.24). Moreover, believers are “fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him” (Institutes 2.16.3). Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ (Institutes 3.1.2). Indeed, through the Spirit “we come to a participation in God (in Dei participationem venimus)” (Institutes 1.13.14). As the “perfection of human happiness is to be united to God,” this union takes place in redemption (Institutes 1.15.6). Yet this union does not make us “consubstantial with God” like a fourth member of the Godhead, but it is in Christ, through “the grace and power of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.15.5).

Calvin also speaks of a coming beatific vision, a “direct vision” of the Godhead, “when as partakers in heavenly glory we shall see God as he is” (Institutes 2.14.3). This final, temporal end is in fact “the end of the gospel,” that is, “to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us” (commentary on 2 Peter 1:4). For Calvin, the present and future scope of God’s work in salvation requires us to go beyond looking at how we receive salvation and what salvation saves us from. All of this takes place for the sake of union and communion with God. Salvation not only restores what is lost by the fall; it incorporates creatures into the glorious life of the Triune God.

I’d recommend going and reading the whole of the article and maybe picking up his book Union with Christor this free article on Calvin’s view of salvation focused on the way union with Christ organizes things along trinitarian, Christocentric, and non-reductive lines, if you’re curious about more along these lines.

At the end of all this, though, it should be enough to dispel the very misguided charge that a Reformed view of salvation is sub-trinitarian due to its legal flavor. Not only does that misconstrue what the Reformed actually say about justification, it misses the much broader trinitarian context of salvation in union with Christ that justification is set within. Honestly, if I wanted to, I could have gone through and shown the trinitarian shape of each of those gifts (calling, sanctification, etc) in detail from the Reformed sources. But this enough to reflect on for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: On Liturgy and Recovering the Past

Mere FidelityMost of the usual crew join this conversation on Christian’s attempt to recover the past, especially through liturgical forms of worship. We’re talking about a two part series by Alastair Roberts (part one is here, part two will be added when it is published). In any case, we chat about some of mixed motives, confusion about the nature of the past, and some of our misguided ideas about what it means for the liturgy to “form” us. We hope you’ll profit from the discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria

God is a Spiritual Being. But What Does that Even Mean?

sinai

Israel never saw God’s form at Sinai, only smoke, fire, and lightning.

Q-4: What is God?

A: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

-Westminster Shorter Catechism

I don’t think most of us give thought to the fact that God is a Spirit (John 4:24). I know I hadn’t much until I was forced to think through some of the metaphysics of spiritual beings in my class on medieval philosophy in college (Angels, Humans, and Evil, I think it was called). In any case, we discussed the differences between angels and humans (at least according to Aquinas) and one of the main ones was that angels are pure spirits, intelligences with no bodies. So what does it mean for God to be spiritual?

Thomas Watson, in his sermon commenting on this question in Body of Practical Divinity states:

By a spirit I mean, God is an immaterial substance, of a pure, subtile, unmixed essence, not compounded of body and soul, without all extension of parts.

God being spirit means that God is not material, not bodily, not made up of parts you can pull apart and put back together. Sounds simple enough.

Angels and Souls are Spiritual, though, too? Some Clarifications

Still, if this is what it means for God to be spiritual, then that raises the question that occurred to me in college. If God is an immaterial substance, and angels are immaterial substances, what distinguishes them? Is God just bigger? Do they run into each others? What’s the difference? Watson, again, anticipates the question:

The angels are spirits. We must distinguish spirits. The angels are created, God is a Spirit uncreated. The angels are finite, and capable of being annihilated; the same power which made them is able to reduce them to their first nothing; but God is an infinite Spirit. The angels are confined spirits, they cannot be duobus locis simul, but are confined to a place; but God is an immense Spirit, and in all places at once. The angels, though spirits, are but ministering spirits (Heb 1:14). Though they are spirits, they are servants. God is a super-excellent Spirit, the Father of spirits (Heb 12:2).

So, apparently, there are a few. First, and most important is that God is Creator and angels are created. For that reason, God infinite, without boundaries or limits to his power, location, or anything else. Angels are still created beings, finite in knowledge, power, and yes, even location. They are upheld in their existence by God at every moment and could wink out of existence should he decide to remove his hand. In Christian theology, you always have to reckon with the Creator/creature distinction. Mess with that, and just about everything else falls out of place.

Okay, well, what about human souls? Sure, humans are soul + body, but what if I’m feeling extra dualist today and I want to play up the spirituality of the soul? What distinguishes human spirits from God’s Spirit, especially since humans are God’s Image. Apparently heretics like Osiander and Servetus actually thought the soul was the essence of God communicated to human beings. Watson says that’s silly. We’re made in his “image and likeness.” God’s essence is incommunicable, but “When it is said the soul is a spirit, it means that God has made it intelligible, and stamped upon it his likeness, not his essence.”

But what about this whole “partakers of the divine nature” business in 2 Peter 1:4? Well, here Watson gives a standard Reformed response:

We are made partakers of the divine nature, not by identity or union with the divine essence, but by a transformation into the divine likeness.

Okay, that’s clear enough so far. But say I know my Old Testament pretty well. Do you know how often we read about people seeing God walking around, using his hands, sitting on a throne, and all kinds of corporeal, physical stuff? Well, yes, I do. And so does Watson. In response to that charge made by a party named the “Anthropomorphites” who believe that God has a physical body, he gives their exegesis and hermeneutics a little tune-up.

First, he lays out the clearer statements of Scripture about the nature of bodies and spirits according to Jesus and the rest of Scripture:

It is contrary to the nature of a spirit to have a corporeal substance. ‘Handle me, and see me: for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’ (Luke 24:49)…Now that God is a Spirit, and is not capable of bodily shape or substance, is clear, for a body is visible, but God is invisible; therefore he is a Spirit. ‘Whom no man has seen, nor can see’ (I Tim 6:16.), not by an eye of sense. A body is terminated, can be but in one place at once, but God is everywhere, in all places at once; therefore he is a Spirit (Psa 139:9, 8.). God’s centre is everywhere, and his circumference is nowhere. A body being compounded of integral parts may be dissolved; quicquid divisibile est corruptibile: but the Godhead is not capable of dissolution, he can have no end from whom all things have their beginning. So that it clearly appears that God is a Spirit, which adds to the perfection of his nature.

If this is true, then what are we to do with the language of Scripture?

Bodily members are ascribed to God, not properly, but metaphorically, and in a borrowed sense. By the right hand of the Lord is meant his power; by the eyes of the Lord is meant his wisdom.

This is an example of allowing Scripture to clarify Scripture, using the direct statements on the nature of bodies and so forth, to then set the parameters for how we read other texts. On this reading, Scripture gives a clear directive to read these passages as communicating truth, but figuratively, not literally. Again, that seems simple enough.

But Why Does it Matter?

Okay, with all that said, who cares? Why is the “spirituality” of God an important point to understand? It doesn’t immediately seem to be emphasized in Scripture, even if it seems to be taught. Of what use is it for us to know and dwell on this reality?

Well, for starters, that’s one of those things that makes the Incarnation all that more amazing. The God who is immaterial, unbounded, and so forth, deigns, in Christ, to assume or add to himself a body, which is not natural to him. That’s just part of the glory of the Gospel–God becomes what is not God in order to reconcile us to himself.

But Watson presses beyond this to draw out a number of implications I can only briefly touch on.

First, Watson says that if God is spiritual, that means he’s impassible–not capable of being harmed, overcome, or anything human foes might think to do to him. What are you going to do? Chuck a spear at him? His essence is beyond all harm. That is grounds for worship and comfort.

Second, if God is Spirit, then Watson thinks that should put image-worship or veneration to bed. God is Spirit and no likeness of him can be made suitable to his perfection.

 ‘To whom then will ye liken God, or what likeness will ye compare unto him?’ (Isa 40:18)How can you paint the Deity? Can we make an image of that which we never saw? Ye saw no similitude. God is a Spirit.

How are we to worship and conceive of him, then? Here Watson gives a Christologically-focused answer:

We must conceive of him spiritually. In his attributes; his holiness, justice, and goodness, which are the beams by which his divine nature shines forth. We must conceive of him as he is in Christ. ‘Christ is the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15). Set the eyes of your faith on Christ as God-man. In Christ we see some sparklings of the divine glory; in him there is the exact resemblance of all his Father’s excellencies. The wisdom, love, and holiness of God the Father, shine forth in Christ.‘He that has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:4).

Third, “If God be a Spirit, it shows us, that the more spiritual we grow, the more we grow like to God.” To turn your eyes to God and your desires to the heavens away from mere earthly concerns is to grow in the likeness of God.

Fourth, God’s being a Spirit means that our worship ought to spiritual too. For Watson that means a number of things. (1) Worship is without ceremonies, as the OT ceremonies have been abrogated, so why return to the shadows with man-made replacements? (2) It is to worship him with faith in the blood of the Messiah, with zeal, with prayer, with true consecration, without the vain pretenses of outward shows.

Fifth, this should move us to ask for the Spirit that we may become more spiritual:

The essence of God is incommunicable; but not the motions, the presence and influences of his Spirit. When the sun shines in a room, not the body of the sun is there, but the light, heat, and influence of the sun.

Sixth, Watson reminds us that if God is Spiritual, shouldn’t we expect his blessings to be spiritual?

This may comfort a Christian in all his labours and sufferings; he lays out himself for God, and has little or no reward here; but remember, God, who is a Spirit, will give spiritual rewards, a sight of his face in heaven, white robes, a weight of glory. Be not then weary of God’s service; think of the spiritual reward, a crown of glory which fadeth not away

We neglect the spiritual nature of God to our own detriment. We miss out on part of the glory of Jesus in the gospel, the nature of true worship, and so much more.

Watson’s meditations remind us, once again, that everything about God is worthy of worship. Nothing we learn about Father, Son, and Spirit can fail to contribute to our love of God or his glory if we think it through with care and prayer.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

You Can’t Sideline the Trinity (Or, Realize that Every Sunday is Trinity Sunday)

trinityIn closing his tremendous section in the Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation on the dogma of the Trinity–God’s being one being, yet three persons–Bavinck gives a number of arguments for importance of the Trinity. That God is Father, Son, and Spirit gives us the truth of the fact that God is a living God without pulling us into the various errors of pantheism, monism, and deism (p. 331). He is the one who is Three whose internal life is truly lively with the generation of the Son of the Father and the procession of the Spirit from them both. What’s more, out of this fullness  of eternal life consisting in mutual glorification, blessedness, is the ground for a doctrine of creation that, again, doesn’t fall into those various errors. Instead, because God is triune, out of the movement and perfection of his own inner life he can make a world that is not himself, upon which he is not dependent or in needy, yet can truly be an object of his love and self-communication (p. 332-333).

Beyond these meta-theological questions, though, Bavinck says that this doctrine is of “incalculable importance” for the Christian religion–the actual lived, practice of knowing and worshipping the True and Living God. Bavinck states:

The entire Christian belief system, all of special revelation, stands or falls with the confession of God’s Trinity. It is the core of the Christian faith, the root of all its dogmas, the basic content of the new covenant. It was this religious Christian interest, accordingly, that sparked the development of the church’s doctrine of the Trinity.

This isn’t just a matter of philosophic speculation, or having our doctrinal ducks in a row so that our early church bishops could have something to fight about and feel important. No, deep down, every Christian who properly owns the name knows that something more fundamental, more primary, valuable than a tidy metaphysical set-up is at stake; salvation, the history of redemption itself, hangs in the balance:

This is so strongly felt that all who value being called a Christian recognize and believe in a kind of Trinity. The profoundest question implicit in every Christian creed and system of theology is how God can be both one and yet three. Christian truth in all its parts comes into its own to a lesser or greater extent depending on how that question is answered. In the doctrine of the Trinity we feel the heartbeat of God’s entire revelation for the redemption of humanity. Though foreshadowed in the Old Testament, it only comes to light fully in Christ. Religion can be satisfied with nothing less than God himself. Now in Christ God himself comes out to us, and in the Holy Spirit he communicates himself to us. The work of re-creation is trinitarian through and through. From God, through God, and in God are all things. Re-creation is one divine work from beginning to end, yet it can be described in terms of three agents: it is fully accomplished by the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Not only does the question of the Trinity matter for the broader history of redemption, but God being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit matters at a personal level too. It is something that a Christian ought to feel in their own “flesh and bones”, so to speak. The Trinity is essential to the life of faith:

A Christian’s faith life, accordingly, points back to three generative principles. “We know all these things,” says article 9 of the Belgic Confession, “from the testimonies of holy Scripture, as well as from the operations of the persons, especially from those we feel within ourselves.” We know ourselves to be children of the Father, redeemed by the Son, and in communion with both through the Holy Spirit. Every blessing, both spiritual and material, comes to us from the triune God. In that name we are baptized; that name sums up our confession; that name is the source of all the blessings that come down to us; to that name we will forever bring thanksgiving and honor; in that name we find rest for our souls and peace for our conscience. Christians have a God above them, before them, and within them. Our salvation, both in this life and in the life to come, is bound up with the doctrine of the Trinity; yet we grant that we cannot determine the measure of knowledge—also of this mystery—needed for a true and sincere faith.

I’m writing this post today because, in the broader church calendar, this is “Trinity Sunday”, a Sunday traditionally set apart for preaching on, teaching about, and honoring God as Trinity. And there is wisdom setting aside a Sunday to explicitly do so. The one caution I would throw up is to say is this: take care that we don’t think the doctrine of the Trinity is one we can save for one Sunday a year, to reflect on. It’s not to be sidelined, or put in the corner again until next year, as we preach on the “main things” of the gospel or the Christian life.

Why? Because in all of Christianity, in the gospel, we have to do with God–restoring right relationship with him, living before him, being transformed into his Image. But what we must remember is that there is no other God than He who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, today might be Trinity Sunday, but every Sunday we have to do with the things of the gospel, we have to do with the things of the Trinity.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Does it Matter that the Holy Spirit is a Person?

holy spiritMany of us are confused about the Holy Spirit. The Father we have a decent conception of, the Son too (Godman, Lord, Redeemer, etc), but the Spirit? We honestly don’t know what to do with “it.” And that’s one of the main problems. Some of us think of the Spirit primarily as an “it”; a thing, a force, and not a person. But according to the Scriptures the Holy Spirit is a person, coeternal, and coexistent with the Father and the Son. What’s more, it matters that we know that he’s a person.

This is one of the realities R.A. Torrey emphasized in his later teaching on the Holy Spirit. In a lecture* aimed at proving the personality (personhood) of the Spirit from Scripture, Torrey first argued for the importance of the question. (I kind of love that, by the way. People used to argue for why they were going to argue.) He knew some might write it off as an abstract, unimportant question, so he very quickly made three arguments for why we should care to know this.

First, “it is of the highest importance from the standpoint of worship.” Look, if the Holy Spirit is a person alongside the Father and the Son, then he deserves to be worshipped alongside the Father and the Son. If we treat him as just an impersonal power or force sent from the Father, or something like that, we will be “robbing him of his due.” We won’t be treating him with the adoration, honor, glory, and majesty that a Divine Person is worthy of. According to Jesus, God desires to be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth (John 4). If you miss the personality of the Spirit, you’re actually missing out on both of those dimensions. You are missing out on the joy of knowing Him for who not just what he is.

Second, “it is of the highest importance from a practical standpoint that we know the Holy Spirit as a Person.” From the Spirit comes the power to do all that God calls us to do in this world. But, Torrey says, if we think of the Spirit as a mere force, then we will be constantly asking silly questions like, “How can I get hold of the Holy Spirit to use it?” much like Simon the Magician. We don’t know to ask in prayer, “How can the Holy Spirit get a hold of me and use me?” The difference between these two questions is the difference between pagan use of the divine and a biblical understanding of God as Lord.

What’s more, on the one way, we will ask how to get more of the Spirit instead of asking how the Spirit can get more of us. Torrey says the first way necessarily leads to pride, strutting about as if you belong to a better class of Christians because we have “more” of the Spirit as force. When you understand the Spirit is a person, you realize you have to humble yourself to be of any use to him. He is the one who comes and takes a hold of us, fills us, disposes of us, and glorifies Jesus through us as he wills.

Third, “the doctrine of the personality of the Holy Spirit is of the highest importance from the standpoint of experience.” Here Torrey points us to the experience of Christians, both in his own ministry, and throughout the centuries that attest to this. Knowing the Spirit as a person means the possibility of deeper communion, joy, and love, as we come to know our God as he dwells within us. God does not come to us through a lesser, impersonal intermediary. He does not speak to us at a distance and relate to us from far away. Instead, Father and Son send the Spirit, another Advocate, who comes to inhabit us, and bringing us into the very life of God through union with Christ.

We could go on at length on the importance of the personhood of the Spirit. We will stop here for now. Maybe take some time to pray. If you have not considered the reality that the Holy Spirit is a person, stop and meditate on that. Pray that God would give you a sense of it, both intellectual and spiritual. If this is not new to you, stop anyways. Maybe pray Torrey’s prayer, “Lord, how can the Spirit get a hold of more of me? In service? In communion?” Or maybe simply praise God that through the gift of the Spirit, God gives you the gift of himself.

Soli Deo Gloria 

*reprinted in Fred Sanders’ How God Used R.A. Torreypp. 203-227