I’ve been thinking about the three doctrines of 321 and how they interact with the four events of more traditional gospel outlines. Previously I’ve discussed Creation and Fall. Now we’ll look at Christ’s work of redemption.
How does 3 shape our understanding of Christ’s redemption
I don’t think I know any gospel outlines that begin with the Trinity. (If you know of any, please tell me). But if a presentation does not have the Son of God “in the beginning” it’s going to be awkward to crow-bar him in later.
How will Jesus be introduced as anything greater than a Prophet in a scheme that does not begin with His divine glory. Instead, the introduction of Jesus into gospel explanations can only befuddle the non-Christian who is prone to ask “Who is this guy? What’s he got to do with this creation and fall business you’ve been speaking of?”
In so many schemes Jesus comes late to fix a problem he’s not been involved with. This has massive implications for the presentation of his Person – does he really come across as fully God? And it hugely affects the presentation of his work – he looks for all the world like an innocent third party interposed into the God – man dilemma.
John Stott saw the desperate need for a trinitarian framing of the cross when he wrote:
At the root of every caricature of the cross there lies a distorted Christology… In particular, it is essential to affirm that the love, the holiness and the will of the Father are identical to the love, the holiness and the will of the Son. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (The Cross of Christ)
The doctrine of penal substitution – which I both affirm and love - has been attacked in recent years. But the version of it that has aroused such scorn has often been the non-trinitarian caricature which Stott wrote against. If we’re going to uphold the glory of the cross we must put it in its proper trinitarian context.
How does 2 shape our understanding of Christ’s work of redemption?
Why did Christ have to become a man? Why couldn’t the Son have incarnated as a literal Lamb? Or why couldn’t God have “zapped” the wooden cross, rather than his Son? If redemption is simply about the just justification of sinners in the punishment of the Son – why does Jesus become our Brother? Couldn’t God’s wrath have been poured out on a non-incarnate Son?
No, no, no! The Son takes our flesh because he’s entering into our plight and transforming it from the inside. As many church fathers have put it: He became what we are, so that we might become what he is. Redemption is not simply the balancing of the punishment books. It’s about our Maker summing up his creation in himself – taking responsibility for it. His penal substitutionary death is absolutely vital. On the cross he is “carrying the can” for his handiwork. But that act is comprehended within a vast work of creation and redemption – moving humanity (and in humanity, the cosmos) through death and curse to life and glory.
Of course the Son had to become Man. Man rules the world. Adam – the pattern of the Coming One (Rom 5:14) – stood over creation, ruling and blessing it. Through the fall, he failed and cursed it. Christ comes to wrest humanity (and in humanity, the world) back to God. In his resurrection, he takes us through death and into an immortal physical glory. This is the cosmic dimension to salvation which will always be missed when we construe the gospel as, simply, the answer to ‘my sin’. ‘Adam and Christ’ vitally connects Jesus’ work to this flesh and this world. Without it, as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15, we have no gospel.
How does 1 shape our understanding of Christ’s work of redemption?
So 3 assures me that Jesus is God. 2 assures me that Jesus is Man. But you might well think – so what? I’m still left on the outside of all this. And at this point two questions become vital to ask and answer:
1) How do I benefit from the Person and work of Jesus?
2) What do I do once I have appropriated Christ’s salvation?
In answer to the first question, many gospel presentations put the task firmly into the sinner’s hands. Jesus has “cleared the path” through his death and resurrection, now the sinner must “take the step of faith” and come to God. The appropriation of Christ’s benefits happens through “the sinner’s prayer” in which we ask for – and God zaps into our account – forgiveness, righteousness, the Spirit and eternal life. Jesus does not really mediate these benefits, he only pays for them. And this leads to a problem in answering that second question: What now?
Now that I’ve stepped across Jesus – “the bridge” – what is the Christian life? I’ve got forgiveness and eternal life, so how will the evangelist tell me to continue? Probably they’ll tell me to go to church, read my bible, pray, try hard not to sin and hold on tight till heaven. To which I’m liable to say “Why??! What connection does any of that have to what you’ve described in your sales pitch?!”
But no. We benefit from the Person and work of Christ because he is given to us in marriage union. All that is mine is his – he takes my sin and shame and covers over it. All that is his is mine – he gives me his status, his inheritance, his family connections. Best of all he gives me himself. And this is the Christian life: belonging to Jesus and he to me.
So of course the Christian now belongs to his body, of course they listen to him (in the bible) and speak to him (in prayer). It’s all organically related to Jesus himself. That’s a salvation – and a salvation message – that makes sense.
But without Trinity, Adam and Christ and union with Christ, the very heart of the gospel – Christ and his work – will be radically misunderstood.