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  • « Contemplation on Christ | Main | Images of the Savior (Conclusion) »

    How the Doctrine of the Trinity Shapes the Christian Mission

    In any discussion of Christian theology, it is virtually axiomatic that the doctrine of the trinity is the foundational doctrine which distinguishes a peculiarly Christian theology from the theology of any other religion, especially of the other great monotheistic religions. Likewise, in any discussion of Christian missiology, it is virtually axiomatic that the core pursuit of the Christian mission is to make good on the commission with which Christ left his Church, to make disciples of all the nations, as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20. But consider: if the doctrine of the trinity is the foundation of Christian theology and the Great Commission to make disciples is the foundation of the Christian mission, then that acknowledgment must have a necessary formative effect on the ultimate goal of missions. A major component of the Christian mission is to teach the doctrine which Christ left the disciples; a major part of that doctrine (or rather, all of it) is trinitarian. Therefore, the doctrine of the trinity must shape the way in which we go about our task as Christian missionaries. I am not sure that all of the ramifications of this concept have been well enough thought out in typical works on missiology. In order to pursue this idea further, this article will reflect briefly on the nature of the trinity, and then explore how those trinitarian truths must shape the goal, means, and source of the Christian mission.

    The Doctrine of the Trinity

    When discussing the doctrine of the trinity, theologians like to distinguish between the ontological trinity and the economical trinity. The ontological trinity describes the inter-relationships of the three persons of the trinity as they have existed without change from all eternity. The economical trinity describes how those essential inter-relationships have come to concrete expression in the diverse and complementary roles that each person has undertaken to play in the great trinitarian work of redemption. The economical trinity is necessary for humans as an entrance into the abstract truths of the ontological trinity. Humans are so designed that they cannot simply absorb abstract truths without first encountering concrete expressions of those truths, which they can then use to form categories, or arrive at an understanding of the basic, unifying qualities underlying those concrete expressions. For example, a child could never come to grips with the semantic force of the term “loving” if he did not have specific, concrete actions pointed out to him as representative of the term. When a mother says, “Johnny, you need to be more loving, and share your toys with your brother...You need to be more loving, and help up your friend who has fallen down...”, eventually, Johnny is able to isolate a common disposition underlying all of those various actions, and come up with an idea of what it means to be loving. In the same way, it is only as we look at the historical activity of the triune Godhead, as he reveals himself in his work of redemption, that we can really get at what it means for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one God and yet three loving, unified, and distinct persons.

    Assuming the basic legitimacy of this sentiment, we will first note some scriptural truths about the nature of the economical trinity, and only then arrive at some conclusions regarding the ontological trinity.

    As we examine the biblical basis for the inter-relationship of the persons of the trinity as they work to redeem a people, we immediately encounter the idea of an inviolable agreement between these persons as to what the role of each should be, which antedates all of the steps that occurred to enact that work. This agreement is seen first between the Father and the Son: in Psalm 2:7-9 we hear the Messianic king recounting a promise that the Father had made to him, to give to him as an inheritance a people from the entire world. The fulfillment of this promise would entail the dramatic presentation of this king as the Son of God and hence would be the climactic economical display of the ontological Father/Son relationship that had always inhered in the Godhead1. The New Testament authors tell us that this promised event occurred at the resurrection of Christ from the dead (see Romans 1:3-4; Acts 13:33). In Isaiah 53:10-13, we encounter another glimpse of this agreement, which indicates the Son's willingness to offer up his life for a certain people, for the redemption of their sins, and the Father's willingness to give that people to the Son as his portion, in consequence of that redemptive work. We are assured that this redemptive work was indeed planned out from before the time that the first step was taken to enact it from such expressions as that phrase in Revelation 13:8, “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”.

    This biblical motif, of an eternal agreement between the Father and the Son to accomplish redemption, finds its fullest expression in the gospel of John. There, the Son expresses his opinion many times both that the Father had given him a work to do, which he would most certainly accomplish (e.g. John 5:17-19, 30; 8:28-29; 10:17-18; 14:31; 17:4); and also, that the Father had promised to give him a certain people, none of whom he would ever lose (e.g. John 6:37-40; 10:29; 17:1-2, 6, 10). In this relationship, the Son would bring glory to the Father and the Father would bring glory to the Son (e.g. John 13:31-32; 17:1-5). In at least two passages, Jesus explicitly says that his accomplishment of the works which the Father had given him to do was intended to demonstrate that he was in the Father, and the Father was in him (John 10:38; 14:10-11). This is all but irrefutable proof that the economical trinity was indeed designed to display the essential, eternal inter-relationships within the ontological trinity.

    Although the scriptural basis for an eternal agreement between the Spirit and the Father and Son is somewhat less explicit, it can likewise be derived from a couple of considerations. First, the Spirit is said to be “sent” on his redemptive mission, both by the Father and the Son (John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-14); and second, he is depicted in those same passages as engaging willfully in this redemptive task; and this is largely within the broader context of one of Jesus' clearest discussions of the redemptive agreement between the Father and the Son (John 14-16). This leaves the conclusion virtually certain that the Spirit was also engaged in a pre-temporal agreement with the other persons of the Trinity to accomplish a specific role in the work of redemption. Furthermore, passages such as Ephesians 1:3-14, which clearly speak of the different parts that the three persons of the Godhead play in accomplishing redemption, argue for the same basic paradigm.

    Now, the question only remains, “Is it appropriate to speak of this pre-temporal agreement between the persons of the trinity as a 'Covenant of Redemption?'”. Although the term “covenant” is nowhere in the bible used of this divine arrangement, I would contend that two considerations argue for the propriety of its usage in theology. First, this agreement manifests most explicitly the basic realities we see presented to us elsewhere in the scriptures, under the rubric “covenant”. There is a promised reward and a condition to be met, which includes the shedding of blood to make the agreement firm. In fact, it could almost be argued that the nature of the great biblical covenants could not be fully understood without first looking to the redemptive work of Christ on the cross as an explication of just what a covenantal agreement is (which the author of Hebrews is quite fond of doing); so that, to all practical intents and purposes, it is not just a covenant, but the prototypical covenant. And second, it fits the divine pattern of displaying the nature of God in mankind, in part, through his complex social relationships. God is a complex being, and it stands to reason that a mere individual human could never have shown forth the image of God as fully as humans in relationship. The eternal Father/Son relationship within the Trinity is imaged in the father/son relationship of mankind. So then, why could the most basic and foundational relationship of human society, the covenant of marriage, not image the eternal covenantal relationship between the members of the trinity? But here, we are encroaching on our next point, the ontological trinity.

    As we have mentioned before, the ontological trinity can only be approached by means of the concrete truths of the economical trinity, as the persons of the Godhead engage in their covenantal work of redemption. In the economical trinity, we have seen that, by an irrevocable agreement which each person has willingly entered into, the members of the Godhead have undertaken to bring glory to each other. In the discharge of their peculiar offices, they are always in perfect harmony. This would lead us to understand the ontological trinity as an eternal, unchangeable relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit which involves perfect harmony, love, and mutual glorification. And this is exactly the picture that we see in the gospel of John: the persons of the trinity have been bound together by a mutual indwelling, a mutual love, and a mutual glorification of each other from before the foundation of the world (e.g. John 5:20; 10:38; 14:10-11; 17:1-5; 21-24). The ontological trinity, then, may be summed up in this expression: an eternal covenant of love. In the economical trinity, we saw a pre-temporal covenant of redemption, harmoniously wrought through the diversely complementary offices of Father, Son, and Spirit, for the purpose of the loving glorification of each other. In the ontological trinity, we see an eternal covenant of love back of this pre-temporal covenant of redemption, which is the concrete expression of its ontological counterpart.

    How does this doctrine of the trinity shape our understanding of the Christian mission? I would suggest that it gives direction to the mission's ultimate goal; it illuminates the mission's necessary means; and it clarifies the source from which the mission derives in the first place.

    The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Goal of the Christian Mission

    The most basic application of the doctrine of the trinity to the goal of Christian mission is simply this: if the inter-relationships of the ontological trinity are indeed covenantal, then the goal of Christian mission must also be covenantal. When God first created man, it was explicitly for the purpose of showing his own image. Man was different from all the creatures in the garden because he alone was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). When man fell and marred that image, God's purpose was not frustrated: just as he had planned to show his image in creation, so he had planned to show his image even more fully in redemption. Not only did he create all things for his glory, he also engaged in all of his redemptive tasks for his own glory (see Isaiah 43:5-7); which is simply shorthand for the display of his own nature, which is eminently glorious.

    What this means for the Christian mission is that, its ultimate goal is not simply to get as many individuals as possible off of the course of destruction, and into the bliss of heaven (as vital as that work of mercy is for displaying the character of a merciful God). On the contrary, it is all about reforming a new mankind, that will display God's image in covenantal unity, even as the trinity exists in a covenantal love and unity. This is why, throughout the history of the Old Testament, God's dealings with mankind were ever enacted on the basis of the covenants that he had inaugurated with them (see Genesis 9:8-17; 17:1-8; Exodus 19:3-6; 2 Samuel 7:12-16), and they ever involved the formation of an indissoluble and unified people of grace, and not merely a composite collection of persons of grace. God chose and saved the nation of Israel, not one person in ten from every nation of the world. And even now that he is expanding his kingdom to include every nation, he is still doing so by bringing representatives of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation into one new people, his own kingdom of priests (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22; 3:6; 1 Peter 2:9-10; Revelation 5:9-10).

    This concept has at least three applications to the goal of missions: first, a Christian missionary's task, when dealing with any unbeliever, is not just to get him a ticket to heaven, but to bring him into a covenantal relationship with God. Christ died, not so that we might sit on clouds with halos and strum our harps, but to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). The ultimate expression of the blessings of redemption is being brought into a covenantal relationship with God himself, which is substantially similar to the inter-relationship of the eternal persons of the trinity. Jesus died, by his own confession, to keep believers “in the name” of God (John 17:11-12). What that means precisely becomes clearer a little later when Jesus prays that they would “be one in us” (that is, in the Father and the Son – John 17:21), and that he himself would be “in them” (John 17:23, 26). The final goal of the Christian mission is to bring believers into a personal relationship with God which precisely expresses the personal relationships within the eternal trinity.

    Second, the task of Christian missions is to bring believers into a mutual relationship with each other which in itself reflects the inter-relationships within the trinity. Throughout the epistles the virtue of Christian unity is espoused and urged more than almost any other virtue (e.g. Ephesians 4:1-6; Philippians 1:27; 2:1-5). Believers show forth the divine, inter-trinitarian image when they are united in a diverse, loving, and mutually-honoring covenantal relationship.

    Third, the goal of the Christian mission is ultimately to glorify God. If believers are to be perfectly happy, it is only to be by entering into a state similar to that of the perfectly blessed (i.e. happy) Godhead (e.g. 1 Tim. 1:11; 6:15). True Christian joy reflects the state of unruffled blessedness that has always existed in the trinity, the persons of which bring constant and illimitable joy to each other unceasingly. Therefore, it is a joy which is primarily designed to glorify God, that is, to display the nature of God. In other words, as great as are the blessings which God has given to followers of Jesus, those blessings themselves serve the greater purpose of glorifying God. God accomplished his work of redemption in order “to show...the riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). It was “to make known the riches of his glory in vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand unto glory” (Romans 9:23). Thus, any expression of the goal of the Christian mission which stops short with the needs of the unbeliever is essentially inadequate. Missions exists to bring eternal joy and life to sinners, but only because that will bring eternal glory to God, by displaying his nature in those whom he saves.

    The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Means of the Christian Mission

    Not only does trinitarian theology shape the goal toward which the Christian mission is striving; it also clarifies the means which are to be used in the pursuit of that goal. Redemption is ultimately an accomplishment of the triune God; he alone is the doer of the work, and therefore, any human activity must flow from his prior activity, and be directed and empowered by him. The mission that God left his people with is ultimately his mission, and advances on the basis of his eternal, immutable design; and so, any human activity which fails to take into account God's redemptive plan as he has made it known is bound to be frustrated. Human mission endeavors are likely to be successful only as they understand the divine agenda and lean upon divine strength. This means that a first qualification for any missionary is a knowledge of the triune God; an awareness of the role of the persons of the Godhead in the work of redemption, as revealed in the scriptures; and a heart-attitude of faith in those joint operations of the persons of the Trinity.

    For example, take the scriptural revelation of the work of the Father in the plan of redemption: he is the ultimate planner, the source from whom the whole work flows and is governed. We see throughout the gospel of John that the Son, in the fulfillment of his part of the redemptive work, acts in an unceasing obedience to the Father's will (e.g. John 5:17-19, 30; 8:28-29; 10:17-18; 14:31; 17:4). Likewise the Spirit, when he comes, speaks not on his own, but only what he has heard from the Father and the Son (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-14). This role of the Father in planning out the work of redemption is seen with special clarity in the aspect of his choosing its subjects. We have already observed that the Father has chosen a specific people to give to the Son, and that the Son has purposed to redeem these alone (e.g. John 6:37-40; 10:29; 17:1-2, 6, 10); we may add to this testimony the witness of the epistles, which speaks of the Father's choice of a certain people to be redeemed in no uncertain terms (e.g. Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:3-6; 1 Peter 1:1-2). We may learn further from the revelation of scripture that this people is chosen out of every kindred, tribe, tongue, and nation (e.g. Revelation 5:9), and that it will be called out only when the gospel is proclaimed in all the world (e.g. Matthew 24:14).

    So how does this truth affect the task of the Christian missionary? First, it gives him a clear directive in the pursuit of the task: as the Church continues to spread across the world, believers may know that in their missionary endeavors they ought to target the kindreds, tribes, tongues, and nations which are yet unreached, because they know that the conversion of representatives from these peoples is the Father's will. Their task remains undone as long as there is any people group that has not heard the gospel, or that has not yet seen fruit from the proclamation of the gospel. Second, this understanding gives hope to missionaries laboring in the most difficult places. When Paul was experiencing opposition in Corinth, he was comforted by the realization that the Father had many people in that city, chosen for a redemption which had not yet been applied (see Acts 18:9-11). In the same way, the missionary who understands the biblical representation of the Father's role in redemption has a strong hope that his labor will not be in vain, and has cause to cry out to God in faith for the success which has been promised. Because God has chosen a people, our ultimate success is guaranteed. This foundational awareness of the Father's revealed role in the work of redemption drives a faithfulness which would otherwise wilt under the discouragement of unfavorable circumstances.

    Consider as well the Son's role in the work of redemption: he has determined to redeem the people God has chosen through his sacrificial blood, shed in their behalf; and in consequence of this redemption, he has won the right to return and judge the world, saving those who believe in him and condemning those who do not believe. Understanding this role clarifies the missionary's task of proclaiming the gospel: for the account of this work is precisely the gospel he must proclaim. To the extent that one has not understood the role of the Son in redemption, he cannot proclaim the good news of that redemption. When Paul labored to bring the gospel to people, he emphasized Christ's role as the returning judge and his resurrection from the dead, which had given him the authority to be Lord of the living and the dead (e.g. Acts 17:31; Romans 14:9). He also emphasized his shed blood, which serves as a fully acceptable propitiation for the sins of all who believe in Christ, and on that basis exhorted people to be reconciled to God (e.g. Acts 13:38-39; Romans 3:23-28; 1 Corinthians 1:23-24; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21). Now, to forget the part of Christ's redemptive work which promises him the authority to come and judge the world, casting his enemies into eternal punishment, strips the gospel of its necessary context. Just asking a person, “Do you want to be saved?” is meaningless unless it is made clear what he must be saved from. But saying, “God has raised his Son from the dead, vindicating his authority to return to the earth and judge all who are opposed to him; would you be saved from the wrath that he will soon bring upon the earth in great fury?” – that provides the necessary background to display the surpassing goodness of the good news. But not only must Christ's judging role be emphasized; so also must his atoning, propitiatory role be emphasized, or else the news is not good at all. Saying, “Jesus has risen from the dead, and is Lord over all” is only bad news for anyone still in his sins. To the extent that the missionary does not understand the role of the Son in the work of redemption, therefore, he is left without a message to take to the nations of the world, the message by which all the Father's chosen people will be called out.

    Similarly, without an understanding of the Spirit's role in redemption, the missionary is apt to be frustrated. It is only through the Spirit's empowerment that the missionary can proclaim the good news with boldness and clarity (see Acts 1:8); and likewise, it is only through the Spirit's work of convicting and regeneration that the elect of the Father can understand and come to Christ (e.g. John 3:5-8). Understanding the role of the Spirit directs the means of praying for and pursuing the evangelistic task; it also provides the ongoing confidence in the missionary's own secure position in the favor of God. The Spirit is sent to seal and guarantee the final salvation of all who have once come to Christ (e.g. Romans 8:11-17; Ephesians 1:13-14); and without that constant witness and encouragement, the missionary is apt to despair at his own condition, especially when his circumstances grow difficult.

    So then, an understanding of the inter-trinitarian roles in the work of redemption is a necessary foundation for the Christian missionary, shaping the message he has to take, clarifying to whom he has to take it, and providing inexhaustible hope and encouragement along the way. But there is also another way in which the doctrine of the trinity serves as the means of Christian evangelism; and that is, it is only as the trinitarian nature of God is displayed in the lives of Christians that unbelievers will come into a relationship with this triune God.

    In his last discourse, Christ revealed to his disciples the means by which the world of unbelievers would recognize that they were truly followers of Christ: and that means was nothing other than the love they had for each other, which is reflective of the inter-trinitarian love of the persons of the Godhead (see John 13:34-35). When believers are brought into a covenantal relationship of love which is reflective of the eternal trinitarian covenant of love, people take notice. Mankind was created to display the image of God, and until he does so, he is living a life devoid of ultimate purpose. Mankind was created to know and enjoy God; and when he gets a glimpse of God's nature, in the lives of believers, he realizes that he wants something like that, but he does not yet have it. This is why, in John 17:21, Jesus prayed that the disciples would be one even as he and the Father were one – so that the world would believe that the Father had sent him! When the world sees the blessed trinity reflected in the lives of the disciples, it is only then that they will believe in the actual trinity, the Father and the Son whom he sent. So then, the shaping element of the doctrine of the trinity for the means of the Christian mission goes even beyond the fact that the knowledge of the redemptive work of the Godhead is a necessary foundation for taking the message to the world; in fact, the display of the inter-trinitarian relationships in the lives of the disciples constitutes a necessary means through which the gospel message may be understood and desired.

    The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Source of the Christian Mission

    Finally, we must notice that the doctrine of the trinity is the source from which the Christian mission flows. We have already observed that mankind was created to show forth the image of the triune God, as a diverse and yet unified covenant people, reflective of the diverse and complementary persons of the trinity. But just as our ontological existence as the people of God has its source in the nature of the ontological trinity, so our economical function as the people who are responsible to fulfill the Great Commission has its source in the economical trinity, by which the various persons of the Godhead undertook to accomplish the work of redemption.

    In his high priestly prayer, Jesus explicitly relates the mission of the disciples to the mission that he himself had undertaken in pursuit of our redemption. Just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus has sent us. Just as the Son sanctified himself for his own mission, so he sanctifies us for our mission (see John 17:18-19). In other words, the economical functioning of the trinity is the source of the economical functioning of the Church of Christ, as she pursues the fulfillment of the Great Commission. This understanding may be fleshed out with a couple of further observations.

    First, the redemptive role of the Son is the pattern for the economical functioning of the Church. Just as Christ suffered in his physical body to accomplish redemption, so now he is suffering in his mystical body to spread the effects of that redemption. In Colossians 1:24, Paul makes the stunning statement, “I am filling up in my flesh that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, in behalf of his body, which is the Church.” Just as Christ had to suffer in the flesh for the purchase of redemption, so now it remains for his mystical body to suffer for the spread of redemption. According to Paul, there is something lacking in the sufferings of Christ: it cannot be that any more sufferings are necessary to provide redemption; but there are more sufferings necessary to apply the redemption which has already been bought. It is necessary for the mystical body of Christ to suffer, or else redemption will not spread to all the people whom the Father has chosen.

    This is because the sufferings of the believer are a necessary part of their witness, and so a necessary means for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The proclamation of the gospel is the verbal testimony that tends toward the calling out of the elect; and suffering joyfully for righteousness' sake, in the example of the Savior, is the dramatic representation of the gospel that tends toward the calling out of the elect. Both of these elements are necessary for the Christian mission. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Tertullian). It is only as the Church re-enacts the sufferings of Christ that the gospel will be powerful to spread throughout the earth. And so, in a very real sense, the functioning of the economical trinity is the necessary source for the advancement of the economical mission of the Church, that is, for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

    The second way in which the economical trinity is the source of the Christian mission is that, the same source by which the Son was guided in the accomplishment of his redemptive mission is now guiding the Church as she pursues her redemptive mission. Christ was sent out to accomplish the will of God, and it was the word of God that ever directed him as he he pursued his task. He did not reveal anything of himself, but brought the word of God to the men whom the Father had chosen. “The words you gave to me, I gave to them” (John 17:8); “I have given to them your word, and the world hated them” (John 17:14). Similarly, the Spirit was sent to bring the word of God to his people (John 16:13). In the same way, the Church is set apart for her mission by the word of God. “Sanctify them through your truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). In the economical trinity, Jesus was set apart for the mission of bringing the word of God to the people chosen by the Father, and the Spirit was likewise sent to bring the word of God to those people; but in the same way, the Church is now set apart for her mission by the word of God, and with the purpose of bringing that word to the world. The source which governed the redemptive tasks of the Son and the Spirit now govern the Church's redemptive task of evangelization.

    And not only is the source of direction the same in the economical trinity and the economical Church, but the source of sustenance and provision is likewise the same. Jesus, in the accomplishment of his redemptive task, was always guided and strengthened by the Spirit (e.g. Luke 4:1, 14, 18-21); and he was always sustained by prayer and fellowship with the Father (e.g. Luke 5:15-16). In the same way, the Church is accomplishing her mission only by the empowerment of the Spirit, and is sustained along the way through fellowship with the Father and prayer. Thus, the economical trinity, in particular the redemptive role of the Son, is the pattern, the source of direction, and the source of sustenance for the Christian mission today.


    It is widely acknowledged that the doctrine of the trinity is foundational for Christian theology; it is less widely understood that the doctrine of the trinity is also foundational for Christian mission. It is my hope that this article will prove something of a first step in thinking through the ramifications of trinitarian theology on the goal, means, and source of the mission with which Christ left the Church, to take the gospel to the world.

    Posted by Nathan on December 22, 2007 01:59 PM


    Nathan, thank you so much for this article. I have long argued, with some controversy, that trinitarianism is inherent to the Gospel message. It is refreshing to read your article.


    I like what I see here and would like you to come take a gander at my blog. I think we may have a united mission.


    wow, deep, not easy reading here; are you related to John Owens? :)


    would I be correct in stating that the reference to the "Spirit" in Genesis 1:2 is the Holy Ghost, of the Trinity and the same "Spirit" who we read exercised His "will" in Acts 13?



    Yes, I believe you're correct: Gen.1:2 and Acts 13 both refer to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

    No, as far as I know, I'm not related to John Owen, but I consider the question the best compliment I've had in a long time. :)


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