The Trinity and Salvation
The doctrine of the Trinity is indispensable in Christian theology and practice. It is particularly important in order to understand the doctrine of salvation. God’s salvation of mankind would not be possible unless God was tripersonal, i.e., a triune God manifested as the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Particularly, Christ’s atoning death would not have the power to save mankind if He was not the human incarnation of God, i.e., “God manifest in the human flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16). The teaching that Christ is the incarnation of God presupposes the doctrine of the Trinity.
In this article, we will show that the salvation of mankind from the evil of sin is not possible unless the Trinity is a fundamental divine reality.
The Doctrine of Salvation
The central thread of the Bible is the salvation history, which is about God’s redemptive activity within human history. His goal is to save mankind from the evil consequences of sin. We are in need for salvation because of our sinful nature. The Bible categorically states that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin is per definition any action, attitude or intention that is against God’s moral law. Sin is a moral depravity that is totally alien to God’s nature. Sin is also alien to human dignity, because human dignity is created in God’s image and likeness: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27). Sin is the force that quenches the light of God’s image in our lives. Because our sinful nature is totally alien to God’s nature, we cannot come near God. God’s justice requires that our sins are punished, and the punishment consists in being removed from God’s life-giving presence for all eternity. Because of our sins, we are doomed to be eternally separated from God’s loving fellowship. Sin is the great barrier between God and us.
The essential message of the Gospel is that God has paved the way for reconciliation, removing the ugly consequences of sin. Here follows a concise account of how reconciliation with God is possible:
God’s justice requires that our sins are punished. The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23). Sinners deserve eternal punishment in hell from God himself because of their sin and guilt. God’s holy anger is directed (Rom 1:18) against all those who have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). And yet because of God’s great love, he sent Christ to bear the punishment of our sins. Christ died in our place, took to himself our sin (2 Cor 5:21) and guilt (Gal 3:10), and bore our penalty so that we might receive forgiveness of sins.1
The foundation for God’s reconciliation is Christ’s atoning death for our sins. Notwithstanding, Christ’s atoning death would not have the power to save us from God’s holy anger unless Christ was the perfect human embodiment of God. Christ, however, could not be the embodiment of God if this God were not a triune God. In addition, Christian practices pertaining to our salvation—baptism and prayer—presuppose the worship of a triune God. The next two sections will elaborate on the fundamentality of the Trinity for Christian doctrines and practices pertaining to the salvation.
Two fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith—the doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Redemption—cannot be properly understood without the Trinity. These two doctrines are fundamental because the denial of them is tantamount to the denial of Christian faith: someone who denies these doctrines is not a Christian. Both these doctrines pertain to the doctrine of the salvation. If we deny these fundamental doctrines, it is questionable if we can be saved, because the denial is about the rejection of the foundation of God’s salvation.
The doctrine of the Incarnation is the teaching that Jesus Christ is the perfect human embodiment of God, i.e., Christ embodies in the human flesh God the Creator;2 “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). In other words, Christ is God manifested in the human flesh (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16); He is both true God and true man.
To repeat, in the virtue of the Incarnation, Christ is both true God and true man. However, it is very important to understand what we mean when we say that Christ is both true God and true man. We do not mean that God the Father became a human being, but rather that God the Son became a man. For this reason, the Incarnation would be a confusing doctrine unless understood through the Trinitarian perspective of God.
It was not the Father who was incarnated in the human flesh, neither was the Holy Spirit, but the Son. The same perspective applies to the atoning death of Christ. It was the Son who died on the cross, and not the Father. If we do not grasp the Incarnation through the Trinitarian framework, we would have many contradictions. Suppose that God is not a triune God, but that He was incarnated as a man. Christ would in that case be identical to the Father. The Father and the Son would not be two different persons, but one and the same. Consequently, Christ’s prayers would make no sense, for He would have prayed to Himself. However, through the Trinitarian framework, where the Father and the Son are distinct persons of the Godhead, Christ’s prayers make a perfect sense, since He prayed to His Father, and not to Himself. Likewise, Christ’s atoning death would not make much sense, for how would Christ’s death be a propitiation for our sins if there is no Father to whom the atoning death would be propitiating?
The teaching that Christ is the incarnation of God, i.e., He is true God and true man, is a fundamental doctrine of Christian faith, because our salvation depends upon believing in it.
Why is the Incarnation fundamental for our salvation?
If Christ was not true God, He could not have the power to redeem mankind through His bodily death on the cross. If He was not a true man, He could not be the federal head of the redeemed humanity.
Why could not Christ’s death have the power to redeem mankind if He was not true God? The redemption of mankind requires an innocent life of infinite worth. Only God’s life is of infinite worth. An atoning death of a finite creature has no power to redeem billions of sinful men and women of all ages of human history. However, the atoning death of Christ has the power to redeem mankind, since Christ’s divine life is of infinite value.
For this reason, Christ’s atonement for our sins could not be accomplished unless He was indeed the perfect human embodiment of God. Precisely because He is both true God and true man, Christ can be our mediator between the Heavenly Father and mankind (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrew 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). As David J. MacLeod notes: “He is the perfect ‘middle-man’ between God and the sinner. Because of His human nature He can die as our sin bearer; because of His deity His death has infinite value.”3
The above type of argumentation for Christ’s both divine and human nature was first contemplated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Anselm asked, “Cur Deus Homo?”, i.e., Why did God become man? In contemplating the doctrine of the Incarnation, Anselm sought to give an explanation of why God’s incarnation was in fact necessary for salvation.
One might think of Anselm’s purpose, then, in these terms: he sought to articulate just why Christ must be both God and man in order for this Christ, the Messiah, to be a Savior and for his atoning death to be efficacious. Anselm expresses the heart of his answer to this question in one place this way, saying that "it is necessary that a God-Man should pay" for sin, since, "no one can pay except God, and no one ought to pay except man" [Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 2.6].4
However, we should not just stop at the Anselm’s question “Cur Deus Homo?”, but ask a similar kind of question that was first seriously contemplated by Bruce A. Ware:
Cur Deus Trinus? i.e., Why must God be three in one for salvation to be effected? … Must God be triune for the Messiah to be our atoning Savior and for his atoning death to be efficacious? That is, is it necessary that the God who saves be the trinitarian deity of the Christian faith?5
This question, “Cur Deus Trinus?”, will be further explored when dealing with the Christological question of God’s incarnation, where we will focus on Christ’s human nature. This is the topic of the next section.
Christ’s Human Nature
To repeat, as a perfect human embodiment of God, Christ is both true God and true man. However, when saying that Christ is both true God and true man, it is important not to emphasize the divine nature of Christ at the expense of His human nature, and vice versa.
Overemphasizing Christ’s divine nature at the expense of His human nature can lead to the false Gnostic doctrine of docetism, i.e., a teaching that Christ seemed to be a human. As all human beings, Christ also underwent human growth, as reported by Luke in his summary of Christ’s childhood: “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit” (cf. Luke 1:80). Christ partook in the full spectrum of human experience. For instance Jesus wept (cf. John 11:35), slept (cf. Mark 4:38), tired, hungered and thirsted (John 4:6-8; Matthew 4:2 parallel Luke 4:2). Christ possessed all human limitations except for sin, which made Him the perfect High Priest for His people: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Did Christ’s human limitations degrade His divine nature? When He walked among us, as the incarnated God in our living midst, He could have, if He so wished, manifested His divine attributes, such as omnipotence or omniscience. However, he had willingly chosen not only to submit Himself to human limitations, but also made Himself to be a servant for our sake.
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
“The death of the cross” would not be possible if Christ was not a man. For this reason, the redemption of mankind would not be possible unless it was a man who died on the cross. But in His death, there is a profound mystery: He gave His life that is of intrinsically infinite value in the virtue of being divine life. Christ’s human weakness and death paradoxically revealed God’s power and life! He paid a price by giving His life that is of an infinite divine value: it has a divine power to redeem mankind from the terrible consequences of sins. He paid a price so that we would not die. If we do not repent in due time, we will experience the coming God’s wrath that awaits the unrepentant human world. It is only through Christ’s great sacrifice that we can be redeemed and saved from the terrible consequences of our sins.
Christ’s willingness to submit Himself to human limitations was ultimately a divine act of love. His willing submission reveals a divine dimension that shows how great He is as God. Yes, He is so great that He is truly worthy of all our worship! His selfless act of sacrifice has made the reconciliation between the Heavenly Father and mankind possible; His cross is the meeting point of God’s grace and holy justice. The Father can forgive our sins without compromising His holy standard of justice because Christ paid the price.
The Son’s Messiahship through the Power of the Spirit
Another important truth concerning Christ’s human nature is that Christ did not heal people or performed miracles all by Himself. Christ’s miracles were rather the result of being empowered by the Holy Spirit precisely because He was the Messiah (cf. Matthew 12:28; Luke 4:14, 18; Acts 10:38). The term messiah comes from Hebrew and literally means “anointed (one),” referring to Israelite priests, prophets and kings who were anointed by oil in consecration to their respective offices. This act of anointing symbolizes the empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Samuel 16:13; Isaiah 61:1 quoted in Luke 4:18; Acts 10:38). In other words, the office of messiahship was a ministry shaped by the guidance and power of God’s Spirit. Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew term messiah.6
What separates Christian faith from the faith of rabbinic Judaism is the recognition that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah. The first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah by observing that all the messianic prophecies were fulfilled in Him.7 It is important to keep in mind that Jesus could not act as the Messiah without being anointed by the Holy Spirit, i.e., being powerfully filled and led by God’s Spirit. It is through guidance of the God’s Spirit that Christ fulfills His mission to save mankind by perfectly obeying God’s Law. His fulfillment of God’s Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18) made Him the perfect mediator between mankind and God the Father. Here we see the indispensable role of the Holy Spirit for salvation:
- The messianic prophecies would not be possible without the influence of God Spirit which inspired the ancient Jewish prophets.
- Jesus would not be the promised Messiah (Christ) without being anointed by God’s Spirit.
- Christ’s miracles and works of healing would not be possible without the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Christ’s fulfilled the whole Law as a man who was guided by the Holy Spirit.
- The Church is the body of believers empowered by the Holy Spirit.
From this we can conclude that the salvation would not be possible without the guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit. Equally we see that the salvation depends on the Heavenly Father’s grace and love: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). And we have already shown how salvation depends on the Son’s atoning work: He is the unique mediator between God and man. In other words, the salvation is the work of the Holy Trinity. Recognizing how all three persons of Godhead have a unique role in the salvation, we have answered the question “Cur Deus Trinus?”
Baptism and Prayer
Two important practices of the Christian faith that presuppose the worship of a triune God are baptism and prayer. These two practices pertain to our salvation. Baptism pertains to our salvation in that it is a powerful symbolic confession of our saving faith. It is important to stress here that we do not baptize in order to be saved. Quite on the contrary, we must first be saved so that we can be baptized. Prayer pertains to our salvation in that we have a fellowship with God, and without this fellowship we cannot have a proper spiritual growth. It must be noted that a prayer for forgiveness, where we confess our sins before God and show our remorse for our sins, is an expression of our saving faith. Such a prayer is necessary for our salvation.
Through baptism, we symbolically bury the old man of sin (by immersion into water) and confess our faith in the resurrection (by rising from water), cf. Colossians 2:12. The reason that baptism presupposes the Trinity is the baptismal formula. As Jesus taught us, the proper formula of baptism is conducted “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” cf. Matthew 28:19. The formula of baptism would not make much sense if God is not a triune God. Notice that baptism is not carried out in the names (plural) of the holy persons of God head, but in the name (singular), signifying the fact that the holy persons of the Godhead are one Being. As David J. MacLeod notes,
The new follower of Christ is to be baptized “in the name,” or more literally, “into the name” (εισ το ονομα, eis to onoma). … What is significant for the study under investigation is the singular “name.” Jesus does not say εισ τα ονοματα (“into the names,” eis ta onomata, plural). Nor does He say, “Into the name of the Father, and into the name of the Son, and into the name of the Holy Spirit,” as if He were speaking of three different Beings. … [Christ] asserts the unity of three by combining them all within the bounds of the single Name; and then throws up into emphasis the distinctness of each by introducing them in turn with the repeated article: “Into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”8
In the same vein, G. Joyce notes,
It is incredible that the phrase “in the name” should be here employed, were not all the Persons mentioned equally Divine. Moreover, the use of the singular, “name,” and not the plural, shows that these Three Persons are that One Omnipotent God in whom the Apostles believed.9
It is worth noticing that both the Father and the Spirit were present when Christ was baptized by John the Baptist.
Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased. (Luke 3:21-22)
Given the fact that all three persons were present at this important event of Christ’s baptism, we can conclude that they are all different and distinct: the Father is not the Son, the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit. However, they share the same divine nature or essence: they are coeternal having the same divine attributes.
A prayer is a form of fellowship with God through God’s Spirit where we address the Heavenly Father in Jesus’ name (Mathew 6:6-13; John 14:13; 15:16; 4:23-24; Romans 8:26; Ephesian 2:18). A prayer guided by the Holy Spirit, where the Father is addressed in the name of Jesus, is truly a trinitarian one because all members of the Trinity are involved in the prayer. As Bruce A. Ware notes: “The Christian’s life of prayer must rightly acknowledge the roles of the Father, Son and Spirit as we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit.”10
Thomas R. Schreiner, “Penal Substitution View,” in: The Nature of the Atonement - Four Views ed. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2006), pp. 72-73.↩
In our context, the noun incarnation means “a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or quality,” while the verb incarnate means “to embody a deity or spirit in human form.” The origin of incarnate: from ecclesiastical Latin incarnat “made flesh,” from the verb incarnare (in- “into” + caro “flesh”). [Definitions taken from English Oxford Living Dictionaries (English Oxford Living Dictionaries, http://en.oxforddictionaries.com, accessed 1 March 2018)]↩
David J. MacLeod, “The Trinity and Scripture,” in: Understanding the Trinity, ed. John H. Fish III (ECS Ministries, Dubuque, Iowa, 2006), p. 83.↩
Bruce A. Ware, “Christ’s Atonement: A Work of the Trinity,” in: Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective, ed. Fred Sanders & Klaus Issler (B&H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee, 2007), p. 158; bold letters added.↩
Messiah is a title for the savior of mankind. The term messiah comes from the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ, translit. māšîaḥ. In Greek the term is translated as χριστός, translit. khristós. From the Greek khristós comes English “christ.” For this reason, Christians in english speaking countries call Jesus as Christ.↩
The ancient Jewish prophets have given numerous prophecies known as messianic prophecies because they are about the promised Messiah, who is a very special servant of God with the mission to save mankind. The Messiah was heralded by ancient prophets: Christ’s birth and His birthplace, His mission as a healer and a miracle performer, circumstances and timing of His death, as well as His resurrection were proclaimed in ancient prophetic scriptures whose origin has been confirmed as dating back to times before Christ. The prophetic writings in question are the writings of the ancient Jewish prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and many others.↩
David J. MacLeod, “The Trinity and Scripture,” p. 35-36; bold and italics original.↩
G. Joyce, “The Blessed Trinity,” in: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15 (Robert Appleton Company, New York, online edition from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15047a.htm, accessed March 6, 2018).↩
Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance (Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2005), p. 18.↩