The Deep Things of God

(This is an edited version of a paper I wrote in seminary.)

1.  The Deep Things of God

Fred Sanders’ book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything[1] introduces the Trinitarian nature of Christianity.  Sanders demonstrates the magnificent implications that spring forth from the doctrine of the Trinity.  He emphasizes the relationship between the gospel and the Trinity, the self-existence of the Godhead, the eternal loving unity of the triune persons, and the economic Trinity in relation to the work of salvation.

2.  The Trinity-Gospel Relationship

In his introduction, Sanders warns his readers: “the doctrine of the Trinity is no place for small-mindedness.”[2]

Sanders also asserts, “the doctrine of the Trinity inherently belongs to the gospel itself.”[3]  The Trinity cannot be explained without the gospel, and any version of the gospel that neglects the doctrine of the Trinity is an incomplete gospel at best.  In fact, “the gospel is Trinitarian, and the Trinity is the gospel.”[4]  The Trinitarian nature of the gospel is central to Sanders’ view of the Trinity.  The gospel is never less than the Father’s election of a particular people, the Son’s redemption of that people, and the Spirit’s work of applying the benefits accomplished in redemption to that people.  The gospel and the Trinity are so interconnected that it is virtually impossible to discuss one without the other.

3.  The Self-Existence and Eternity of the Godhead

God exists as triune apart from anything outside of Him.  This is God’s aseity, or His self-existence.  Sanders asserts that, “the Trinity isn’t ultimately for anything, any more than God is for the purpose of anything…The Trinity isn’t for anything beyond itself, because the Trinity is God.  God is God in this way: God’s way of being God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously from all eternity, perfectly complete in a triune fellowship of love.”[5]  The ultimate aim of this is to demonstrate that God does not exist for any other purpose than to be God.  This is a magnificent picture of the Trinity.

Sanders argues, “God the Trinity is the end, the goal, the telos, the omega.  In Himself and without any reference to a created world or the plan of salvation, God is that being who exists as the triune love of the Father for the Son in the unity of the Spirit.”[6]  The Trinity is the culmination of divinely united love from the Father to the Son by the Spirit.  This culmination is the goal of the universe.  God exists in Himself, apart from reference to any other category.

Moreover, “The doctrine of the Trinity is first and foremost a teaching about who God is, and God the Trinity would have been God the Trinity whether He had revealed Himself to us or not, whether He had redeemed us or not, whether He had created us or not.”[7]  God is God apart from any other reality in existence.  The Father, the Son, and the Spirit exist in perfect love and unity apart from creation.  “God minus the world is still God the Holy Trinity,”[8] Sanders explains.  Even if we did not know God at all, God would still be triune.  The Triune God simply is.  He does not need creation or any of His creatures to define who He is.

Sanders then discusses the eternal nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He explains, “God is Trinity primarily for Himself and only secondarily for us.  One of the consequences of this is that the Father has always been the Father, the Son has always been the Son, and the Holy Spirit has always been the Holy Spirit.”[9]

How is it that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit exist eternally in loving unity?  Sanders answers: “Without reference to creation or redemption, the perfectly blessed life that God lives is a life as the Father who always has His only begotten Son and His uniquely breathed-out Spirit in fellowship with Him.”[11]  None of the persons of the Trinity exist apart from one another; they are inseparable.  Yet we must tread carefully here, unless we should assert something that the Scriptures themselves do not warrant: “[The doctrine of the Trinity] is a truth about God that is only made known by special revelation.  As a result, Trinitarian theology needs to handle its knowledge in a particularly careful way.”[12]

The Father has begotten the Son from all eternity, and the Spirit is “breathed-out” such that the three persons of the Trinity have an eternal unity.  This is as far as we dare to venture into the shadowy depths and mystery of the triune nature of God.  God exists as triune apart from His revelation to us, and everything we know of God comes to us by way of revelation.

4.  The Economic Trinity

Finally, Sanders’ discusses the relations between the economic Trinity, soteriology and Scripture.  How the persons of the Trinity work distinctly yet in unity is crucial to understanding the Trinity.

For example, consider the doctrine of adoption: “The role of the Spirit is especially important in incorporating believers into this Sonship of Christ.  It is the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15), or the Spirit of the Son (Gal. 4:6), who makes us children of the Father.”[13]  It is by the Spirit of the Son of God that humans are brought into an adoptive relationship with the Father.  The Trinitarian shape of adoption is undeniable.

Or consider the Incarnation of the Son, particularly with reference to the saving action of God in Christ.  The Father sent the Son to become incarnate, and the Spirit empowers the Son throughout his ministry.  In the redemptive action of God to rescue humans from their fallenness, depravity, and sin, the Trinity works in a united manner with each person of the Trinity taking on a unique role.  God saves humans for the glory of His name.  The Father sends the Son, the Son redeems the people, and the Spirit applies this redemption to the people.

The Trinity influences our understanding of Scripture: “The voice of God in Scripture is the breath of the Spirit carrying the word of the Father,”[14] and this word from the Father has the Son as its primary content.  Thus, Sanders can say, “Scripture is a field of divine action, and the agents are the Father, Son, and Spirit.”[15]  In the arena of Scripture, the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct in role (Scripture is the Word of the Father about the Son, carried along by the Spirit) yet united in purpose: the ultimate reconciliation of fallen humans into communion with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit.

5.  Critiquing Sanders’ Articulation and Concluding Thoughts

Here are a few minor critiques of Sanders’ book:

I think the phrase, “the gospel is Trinitarian, and the Trinity is the gospel” can lead to oversimplifications of both the gospel and the Trinity.  The Trinity is not the gospel.  God is self-existent and never contingent upon anything because He gives existence to everything that is.  Thus, the gospel is contingent upon the Trinity, and the gospel is shaped by the Trinity, but the Trinity is not the gospel.

To be sure, there is no gospel without the Trinity.  If the work of the Father in election, the Son in redemption, and the Spirit in application is neglected, we lose the gospel completely.  But we must not equate the work of the Trinity with the existence of the Trinity.  A distinction between the immanent Trinity (who God is in Himself) and the economic Trinity (what God does outside Himself) is crucial for our understanding of the proper relationship between the Trinity and the gospel.

Overall, Sanders does a masterful job of presenting the triune nature of God in an understandable way.  The doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps the most difficult doctrine of our faith.  Nevertheless, Sanders’ willingness to explain this truth is refreshing.  His exposition on God’s Trinitarian aseity is most welcome, especially in light of the current state of Western culture.  A right understanding of God’s self-existence helps improve our understanding of both the nature of God and the nature of ourselves as contingent beings.

To close, Sanders notes the importance of a Trinitarian understanding of the gospel: “The great tradition of evangelical Trinitarianism has not dabbled or splashed but has gone deep into the things of the gospel, the deep things of God.  Our churches today face the same opportunity and the same ‘endlessly recurrent temptation.’  God calls us to the depths, the only place we can find the gospel—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”[16]

 


Endnotes

[1] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 61-62.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 63.

[9] Ibid., 83-84.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 92.

[12] Ibid., 92-93.

[13] Ibid., 158-159.

[14] Ibid., 209.

[15] Ibid., 195.

[16] Ibid., 239.


Recommended Reading

Sanders, Fred. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.


Thanks for reading.  Have any additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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