Apr 1, 2012

The God-Centered Gospel

4 Min Read

One of the benefits of the older liturgies is that they provided a framework for our prayers to the Father in the Son by the Spirit. They taught our hearts to preach, pray, sing, and witness in a Trinitarian way. Yet, even in our circles it’s commonplace to hear prayers that end: “In your name. Amen.” We even hear prayers that thank the Father for dying for our sins or other examples of the same confusion of the persons with the essence. Known technically as the heresy of “modalism,” a perennial tendency (especially in the West) is to treat the three persons of the Godhead as if they were one person manifesting Himself in three different personas, like an actor on the stage playing different roles. As Christians, we affirm that God is one in essence, but we also affirm with equal zeal that this one God exists in three persons. Whenever God acts, there are three persons on the stage.

John Calvin and his heirs have often invoked the formula of the ancient church father Basil the Great: everything that God does comes from the Father in the Son through the Spirit. However, this important way of putting things often gets lost in the way we talk about creation under the Father, redemption under the Son, and the application of redemption under the Spirit. Actually, in all of these works, each person of the Trinity is involved mutually and yet in His own distinct way. In creation, the Father creates everything in His Son and brings it to completion by the Spirit. It’s the same in redemption and its application.

One of the great places where this gets worked out in Reformed theology is the covenant of redemption. Also known by its fancy Latin name, the pactum salutis, this covenant was made in eternity between the persons of the Trinity. The Father gave the Son a people whom the Spirit would eventually unite to Him in history. In this covenant, the Son signed His death warrant, joyfully assuming the office of Mediator between God and man.

We see this covenant of redemption implied and explicitly mentioned in Jesus’ ministry, especially in John’s gospel. Jesus speaks of having been given a people by the Father (John 6:39; 10:29; 17:2, 6–10; see also Eph. 1:4–12; Heb. 2:13), who are called and kept by the Holy Spirit for the consummation of the new creation (Rom. 8:29–30; Eph. 1:11–13; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:5). In fact, to affirm the covenant of redemption is little more than affirming that the Son’s self-giving and the Spirit’s regenerative work were the execution of the Father’s eternal plan. Not only were we chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), Christ Himself is spoken of as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).

The covenant of redemption underscores not only God’s sovereignty and freedom in electing grace, but the Trinitarian and, specifically, Christ-centered character of that divine purpose. It all takes place “in Christ”; hence, the emphasis in covenant theology on the theme of “Christ the Mediator.” And yet, it’s not just Christ-centered but Trinity-centered.

It’s terrific to see so many younger Christians excited about being “God-centered.” However, Islam and Orthodox Judaism claim to be “Godcentered,” too. The Christian faith is distinguished by its claim that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we know this from Scripture, preeminently in the Son’s entrance into a fallen world in our own flesh. We dare not approach “God” in His blinding majesty apart from Christ our Mediator. Apart from Christ, the Father is our Judge, and His glory is the worst thing we could ever encounter. That’s not because the Father is less loving than the Son, but because we are sinners. And we can say our “amen” to the Son only because of the Spirit who indwells us.

A Trinitarian understanding of the gospel clears up a lot of popular misunderstandings. For example, it challenges presentations of the gospel that make it sound as if a wrathful Father took out His anger toward us on His passive Son. On the contrary, the Father “so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). It was the Father who chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). And as for the Son, He was hardly a passive victim; He gave Himself up for His people. Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2; see Isa. 53). He was a willing sacrifice: “No one takes [my life] from me,” He said. “I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 4:34; 10:11, 18; see also Matt. 16:23; Luke 9:51; Heb 10:5–10). He went to the cross knowing that His suffering would lead to glory not only for Him but for His people. In spite of His grief, He determined, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). The cross itself was far from a joy, but He endured it for the joy that lay beyond it. He had embraced the cross in eternity.

Wherever God’s sovereignty in predestination is strongly defended apart from such a covenantal framework, the concrete revelation of our election in Christ according to the gospel’s promise is often surrendered to theoretical debates and endless speculation on God’s hidden counsels. It is dangerous to talk about the glory and sovereignty of God unless the God we have in mind is the Trinity, to whom we have access only in the Son as He is revealed in the gospel.

To be God-centered in this Trinitarian sense is also to give equal weight to the Holy Spirit, the person who turns a house into a home. He hovered over the waters in creation to prepare dry land, led Israel through the sea to the Promised Land, and filled the temple. It was the Spirit who hovered over the waters of a virgin’s womb so that what was born of her was the Son of God. This same Spirit led Jesus through His trial in the wilderness, upheld Him and empowered His ministry of signs and wonders, and raised Him from the dead as the firstfruits of the new creation. And now, the Spirit has filled the temple that is Christ’s body, indwelling each believer and the church corporately as the deposit guaranteeing our participation in Christ’s resurrection. As Geerhardus Vos writes concerning the covenant of redemption, “Just as the blessedness of God exists in the free relationship of the three Persons of the adorable Being, so man shall also find his blessedness in the covenantal relationship with God.”