Triune Atonement in Westminster

the trinityEvangelical and Reformed accounts of atonement emphasizing the penal and substitutionary aspects of Christ’s work are frequently maligned as subtrinitarian, or rather binitarian; a transaction carried out entirely between the Father and the Son. While that may be true of some popular preaching, it’s manifestly not the case in the tradition’s careful exponents and its confessional documents.

I know I beat this drum a lot, but looking into the Westminster Confession of Faith, I was struck again by how thoroughly its account of Christ the Mediator (chapter 8) is permeated by trinitarian terms and shaped by its categories, and specifically, how many references there are to the Spirit’s work in his mediation.

Here are a few of the articles:

II. The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.

III. The Lord Jesus, in His human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, He might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a Mediator and Surety. Which office He took not unto Himself, but was thereunto called by His Father, who put all power and judgment into His hand, and gave Him commandment to execute the same.

V. The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him.

The second paragraph clearly lays out a Nicene and Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ, with the consubstantial Son assuming humanity, being conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. Because the Reformed tradition has always strongly stressed the real humanity of Christ, the Second Adam, and the importance of both his passive and active obedience in the on our behalf, the third paragraph emphasizes the sanctification and anointing of Jesus’ humanity by the Spirit, empowering him to take on his office in obedience to the Father. And in the fifth paragraph, we have a clear invocation of Hebrews 9:14, where Jesus our representative high priest makes his self-offering to the Father only “through the eternal Spirit.”

Pour through the entire chapter, as well as the rest of the Confession for that matter, and you’ll see every part of our salvation is expounded with reference to three persons and their one work on our behalf.

All that to say, when contemporary Reformed theologians make a big deal of emphasis the trinitarian shape of Christ’s Mediatorial work–even on the cross–they’re not doing anything new or fancy, or fixing an inherent deficiency. They’re simply staying true to the roots of what we’ve always said: atonement is the work of the thrice-holy Trinity,  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria


10 thoughts on “Triune Atonement in Westminster

    • Tony,
      A Triune God who takes our place. God saves us from God. If you want to know what God is like look to Jesus, God incarnate. Isn’t He Lovely? Raised to defeat death for our Justification. And we can have a union with Him, His life within us. He in us and us in Him. You don’t know who you are missing and what you will and won’t miss.
      Someone always pays a price for forgiveness. There is always a cost. If God the Son doesn’t pay it for you, you will.
      Think it was CS Lewis who said something like: there are two types of people 1 those who say to God “Your will be done” 2 those to whom God says, “Your will be done.”
      You’ll go your own way. He’ll give you over to your polite decline.
      You will then never know what true love is, will never know that God is Love. Will never know what you are saved from and saved for. Without the cross, which obviously is an offence to you, it can not be truly said that God is love. But human love is not God. Of the many names for God in Islam, Love is not one of them’
      The imagination of the most brilliant of minds, in philosophy, could never come up with the radical Oneness of the Triune God. It could only ever be revealed by God Himself

      • Sorry, Timothy.
        Then again, just as I got your name wrong, you are getting the Name of God (the person of God) wrong.

  1. While contemporary Trinitarian projects find precedent in Reformed confessions, isn’t the main critique precisely over how the doctrine is specifically explicated and employed by various theologians? That said, not many theologians seem to talk about the Holy Spirit’s role in the objective reality of Christ’s atoning work (whether advocating penal substitution or not)…usually they to a briefly (and suggestively) appeal to Heb. 9:14 without going further. Are there any works you’d recommend that carry out this logic more extensively?

    • Abraham Kuyper has a good section in the Work of the Holy Spirit. John Owen as well in Pneumatologia. More recently Mike Allen in Justification and the Gospel has a good section too.

    • Sinclair Ferguson has much to say concerning the Holy Spirit in his book, In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel-Centered Life. However, Ferguson also has the volume in the Contours of Christian Theology series (IVP): The Holy Spirit. Reading Sinclair Ferguson is always rewarding.

  2. Pingback: Review: What happened at the cross? | Stepping Toes
  3. Pingback: The Atonement in Type and Antitype 1 Sacrifices and High Priests | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

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