Theology: Questions and Answers About Trinitarian Theology
Let’s address several questions and objections.
Are you saying there is no difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?
No. We are saying that because of who Jesus is and what he has done, all humans—believers and non-believers—are joined to God in and through Jesus, through his human nature. As a result, God is reconciled to all people. All have been adopted as his dearly loved children. All, in and through Jesus, are included in the Triune love and life of God: Father, Son and Spirit.
However, not all people acknowledge who Christ is and therefore the truth of who they are in Christ. Those who have not yet repented and put their trust exclusively in Christ are not believers. They are not living in relationship with him and receiving the abundant life he gives.
One way to speak of the distinction between believers and non-believers is to say that all people are included in Christ (objectively) but only believers are actively participating in that inclusion.
We see these distinctions throughout the New Testament, and they are important. However, we must not take these distinctions too far, creating some kind of separation or opposition, and think of non-believers as not accepted by and not loved by God. To see them in this way would be to overlook the great truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he has already done for all humanity. It would be to turn the “good news” into “bad news.”
When we see all humanity joined to Christ, some of the categories we might have held in our thinking fall away. We no longer see non-believers as “outsiders” but as children of God in need of personally acknowledging how much their Father loves them, likes them, and wants them. We approach them as brothers and sisters. Do they know who they are in Christ? Do they live in personal communion with Christ, No—and it is our privilege to tell them of God’s love for them that they might do so.
If all are reconciled already to God in Christ, why does Scripture say so much about repentance and faith?
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “repentance” is metanoia, which means “change of mind.” All humanity is invited and enabled by the Spirit to experience a radical change of mind away from sinful egoistic self-centeredness and toward God and his love experienced in union with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Notice Peter’s invitation to this change of mind in Acts 2:38-39:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.
God does not forgive people in exchange for their repentance and belief. As Scripture proclaims, forgiveness is an unconditional free gift that is entirely of grace. It is a reality that exists for us even before we enter into it in our experience. We repent because we are forgiven.
The gospel truth—the truth about Jesus and about all humanity joined with God in Jesus—is that God has already forgiven all humanity with a forgiveness that is unconditional and free: “Therefore,” invites Peter, “repent and believe this truth—and be baptized by the Spirit with the mind of Jesus—which involves supernatural assurance that we truly are the children of God.”
Repentance is a change of mind and heart; it involves coming to acknowledge who Jesus is for us and who we are in him, apart from anything we have done or will yet do. Through repentance, which is God’s gift to us through the Spirit, our minds are renewed in Jesus and we turn to him and begin to trust him.
The Spirit moves us to repent because our forgiveness has already been accomplished in Christ, not in order to be forgiven. We repent because we know that, in Jesus, our sins have already been forgiven, and that, in Jesus, we are already a new creation. In this repentance, we turn away from the alienation within us as the Spirit baptizes our minds in Jesus’ acceptance and in the assurance that comes with it.
Why does Paul say that if you don’t have the Spirit, you don’t belong to Christ?
Romans 8:9 says, “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.”
The sentence “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ” is not meant to be lifted out of context and turned into a proof that some people do not belong to God. In the context of this passage, Paul is addressing believers; he is not making a statement here about non-believers. He is warning disobedient believers who are refusing to submit to the Holy Spirit in their lives. In effect, he is saying, “You say that the Spirit of God is in you, and you are right. However, your life should be reflecting the presence of the Spirit of Christ. Your actions do not demonstrate that you really do belong to Christ as you claim to. I don’t dispute that you belong to Christ. But if you do, then on that very basis act in accordance with that reality.”
As Paul says to believers in verse 12, “We have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh…” We have an obligation to live in the light of who Christ has made us be.
If the world is reconciled, why would Jesus say that he doesn’t pray for the world?
In John 17:9, Jesus says: “I pray for them [his disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.”
Just because Jesus said in one instance that he was not praying for the world, but instead for his disciples, does not imply that he never prayed for the world. It is just that right then, his emphasis was on his disciples. He is praying in particular for them, focusing on them.
It is important to understand how John uses the word “world” (kosmos in Greek) in the flow of his Gospel. At times the word can refer to all people (who are all loved by God; see John 3:16) while at other times it can refer to the worldly “system” that is fallen and hostile toward God.
It is apparently this system that Jesus has in mind in John 17. Since this fallen system or world resists God, Jesus’ prayer does not include it. He is not praying for the world in its current fallen form, rather, he is praying for a group of people whom he can use to declare his love in this fallen world.
Later on in his prayer, Jesus turns his attention to those who are not yet his disciples. He prays “also for those who will believe in me through their message.” He prays for them that they, along with those who are already believing, “may be one, Father…so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). This aligns with the Gospel of John’s message (3:16): God loves the whole world and wants to save everyone.
If all are reconciled already to God, why does Scripture speak of hell?
Scripture speaks of hell because it is the natural consequence of rebellion against God. When we cut ourselves off from God and refuse his mercy, grace and forgiveness, we are rejecting communion with him and cutting ourselves off from the very source of our life. Christ came to prevent that from happening. Grace enters in and disrupts the natural course of a fallen creation. Being created for personal communion with God means we must be receptive to what he has done for us in Christ. All are included in what Christ intends for everyone, but we can refuse our inclusion. We are reconciled to the Father, but we can refuse to receive that reconciliation and live as if God had not reconciled us to himself.
However, such refusal does not negate what God has done for all humanity in Christ.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis wrote:
There are only two kinds of people in the end; those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
Why does the Bible talk about people whose names are not in the book of life?
Revelation 13:8 says, “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.”
Revelation 17:8 says, “The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast.”
We need to consider the literary context of these statements in Revelation. John writes using a literary genre (style) known as apocalyptic. This genre, which was commonly used by Jewish writers in John’s day, is highly symbolic. There is not a literal “book of life.” The “book of life” is a figure of speech, a symbolic way of referring to those who are in allegiance with the Lamb. These verses in Revelation refer to people who reject the new life that Christ has already secured for them.
Why does Peter say it is hard to be saved?
First Peter 4:17-18 says: “It is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’”
The point of verses 17-18 is found in verse 19: “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
Peter has been encouraging persecuted believers to live in accord with their identity as children of God and not like those who live in debauchery and idolatry (verses 1-5). The difficulty is not in Jesus’ power to save but for those believing to live faithfully through times of the suffering of persecution. The difficulties involved in being saved call for perseverance. Peter does not say that salvation is impossible for anyone. (See also Mark 10:25-27, where Jesus replies to his disciples’ query as to how anyone could be saved if it was difficult for the wealthy. Jesus answered, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible,” NRSV).
As part of his argument, he points out that persecution is participation in the suffering of Christ, and therefore if believers are to suffer, they should suffer for their faith and godly behavior instead of suffering for sinful and ungodly behavior (verses 12-16). His point is that believers, who know that Jesus, the Savior, is the merciful Judge of all, should not be living in the same base and evil ways as those who oppose Christ even under the threat of persecution.
It is actually impossible for anyone to be saved—were it not for Christ. Christ has done what is impossible for humans to do for themselves. But those who reject Christ are not participating in Christ’s suffering; they participate in their own suffering as they reap what they sow. That experience is a far more difficult path to be on than the narrow one of those who know Christ and can have fellowship with him even in their sufferings.
What is everlasting contempt and destruction?
Daniel 12:2 reads, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
2 Thessalonians 1:6-9 says,
God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
Both of these passages refer to the time of the final judgment when Jesus is “revealed” (sometimes referred to as the Second Coming or Jesus’ “return in glory”). All humans will then see clearly who Jesus is and thus who they are because of who he is and what he has done. This “revealing” presents to them a choice—will they say “yes” to their belonging to Christ, or will they say “no”?
Their decision neither creates nor destroys their inclusion, but it does determine their attitude toward it—whether they will accept God’s love for them and enter the joy of the Lord, or continue in alienation and frustration (and thus in shame and everlasting contempt and destruction). The destruction is a self-destruction as they refuse the purpose for which they have been made, and the redemption that has already been given to them. They refuse to submit to God’s righteousness through repentance and so refuse to receive his life, effectively cutting themselves off from it.
In the Judgment, everyone will face Jesus, the Judge who died for all, and they will have to decide whether they will trust him and count on his being judged in their place. Those who trust their Savior agree with the judgment of God as to what is evil and must be done away with. They humbly receive the joy of the life God has given them in Christ. Those who reject him continue in their hostility and the hell that goes with denying the truth and reality of their sin and Christ’s salvation for them.
What about the “narrow gate”?
Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Jesus describing what is happing in the present. A clearer translation is: “many are entering” and “only a few are finding it.” In his day, at that time, most were living on the “broad road” of destruction. What Jesus offers here is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not say what Jesus wants nor what God intends. This is a warning, and warnings are given to prevent the negative outcome from occurring. No parent says to their child, “Watch out, a car is coming!” because they hope the child gets run over! Jesus gives the reason for the need to be warned: under fallen conditions the way to destruction is wide, inviting and easy to follow, or we can simply be swept along into it. The narrow way to life can be easy to miss, may seem difficult to follow and takes our being deliberate and intentional. There were only a “few” who had at that time embraced the truth that is in Jesus—and it is he who is “the narrow gate.” But Jesus wants to turn that around so that there are many, not a few, who enter into the life that Jesus has for them. So he gives this warning out of his love for them.
Jesus addresses a similar issue in Matthew 7:21-23:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
These people have done miracles, and in doing so have deceived many. They claim to know Jesus. Although Jesus knows them (he is omniscient), he does not see himself in them with regard to their actual faith or behavior, and so he proclaims, “I never knew you.” That is, I don’t recognize you as a follower of mine. We haven’t been in relationship, in communion with one another despite what you were doing.
Don’t we become God’s children only at the point of belief?
John 1:12-13 says, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born neither of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
We have seen in Scripture that God has provided for everyone in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. When he died, we all died; when he rose, we rose. Our human natures have been regenerated in him. Therefore all humans are, from God’s perspective, already adopted into his family. In Jesus, God gives people that “right” long before they accept it and live in it. They have an inheritance, as Paul puts it.
If we say that we don’t have a right to become the children of God until after and unless we believe, then we end up denying what John goes on to say: that it doesn’t come from natural descent or from human decision. Such an understanding would make our having the right depend on our decision!
Those who believe in and accept Jesus as their Lord and elder brother enter into and begin to experience the new life as children of God. But that place in God’s family has been theirs all along. It is the new life that has been “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). In other words, what has been objectively true for them all along in Jesus, becomes subjectively and personally experienced by them when they become believers. They begin taking up their right and living as the children of God.
Is this universalism?
No, not in the sense that every person ultimately will be saved (or enter into or receive their salvation) regardless of whether they ever trust in Christ. There is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). Those who absolutely refuse to enter into their salvation, or to receive it by repentance and faith in what Christ their Savior has done for them, have refused the benefits of their salvation, refused their inheritance, and repudiated the “hope laid up for [them] in heaven” (Colossians 1:5).
Jesus’ atonement has universal intent (Romans 5:18). He died for all and he was raised for all because God so loved the world. He is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Scripture shows that God, in Christ, has reconciled all humans to himself (Colossians 1:20; 2 Corinthians 5:19), but he will never force any person to embrace that reconciliation. Love cannot be coerced.
A relationship of love as the children of God could never be the result of a cause-effect mechanism. God wants sons and daughters who love him out of a joyful response to his love, not people who have no mind or choice of their own. As has been revealed in Jesus Christ, God is love in his innermost being, and in God the Persons of the Trinity relate to one another in the truth and freedom of love. That same love is extended to us in Christ that we might share in it, and in nothing less.
To hope that all people will finally come to Christ is not universalism—it is simply Christian and reflects the heart of God (1 Timothy 2:3-6; 2 Peter 3:9). If God calls us to love our enemies, does God himself do less? If God desires that all turn and be saved, can we do anything less?
This does not mean we can proclaim that every person will finally come to faith and receive their salvation. However, it means that, given who God is and what he has done for us in Christ, we ought to be more surprised that some may somehow come to reject the truth and reality of their salvation than to find many in the end turning to Christ to receive his forgiveness and eternal life as his beloved children.
If we are reconciled already, why struggle to live the Christian life?
Some people do not like the idea that others who do not work as hard as they do will end up with the same reward as they (see parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Matthew 20:12-15). But this concern overlooks the truth that no one, no matter how hard they work, deserves salvation. That is why it is, for everyone, a free gift.
However, in Scripture we learn that is why God doesn’t want us to live that way. Consider the following passages:
No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. People reap what they sow. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8)
We are joined to Christ in order to live in fellowship with Christ. We are united to Christ in order to participate with him in all he does. It makes no more sense to say that since we belong to Christ there is no point in living the Christian life, than to say, since a man and woman are married, there is no point to them living together. No. They are married in order to live together. We are joined to Christ in order to live with him. Similarly, it makes no sense to say that we want to experience the life of Christ in eternity if we refuse to experience it now.
How do we explain John 6:44?
John 6:44 says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.”
The Jewish religious leaders were seeking to deflect Jesus’ seemingly outrageous claim: “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven” (John 6:41). This statement was practically the same thing as claiming divine status.
Jesus’ reply to the Jewish leaders’ complaint concerning this claim was that they “stop grumbling” (verse 43) and realize that “no one can come to me [the bread of heaven] unless the Father who sent me draws them…” (verse 44). Jesus’ point is that the people would not be responding to him, except that God was making it possible for them to do so. If they really knew God, they should recognize that people were coming to the Son according to the will and purpose of the Father. What they see happening in Jesus’ ministry is not evidence that Jesus is a blasphemer, disobeying the will of God, but rather that God the Father is accomplishing his will through Jesus, his faithful Son.
In this passage, Jesus is not limiting the number of people who are drawn to him; he is showing that he is doing the Father’s work. Elsewhere he says: “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Since Jesus does only what his Father wants, John 12:32 shows that the Father indeed draws all people to Jesus.
How does this theology compare to Calvinism and Arminianism?
In comparing and contrasting Christian theologies, we are talking about different approaches or understandings among Christian brothers and sisters who seek to serve the same Lord and thus share the same faith. Thus, our discussion should reflect respect and gentleness, not arrogance or hostility.
Calvinism is a theology that developed from the teachings of the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God’s will in election and salvation. Most Calvinists define God’s “elect” as a subset of the human race; Christ died for only some people (“limited” or “particular” atonement”). Those elect for whom he did die were truly and effectively saved in the finished work of Christ, long before they became aware of it and accepted it. According to Calvinist doctrine, it is inevitable that those Christ died for will come to faith in him at some point. This is called “irresistible grace.”
Trinitarian theology’s main disagreement with Calvinism is over the scope of reconciliation. Its objection is based on the fundamental fact of who Jesus is and that he is one in will, purpose, mind, authority and act with the Father in the Spirit. The whole God is Savior, and Jesus is the new Adam who died for all. The Bible asserts that Christ made atonement “not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). While Trinitarian theology rejects the restrictive extent of “limited atonement” and the determinism of “irresistible grace,” it agrees with Calvinism that forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, justification, etc. were all accomplished effectively by what Christ did, and these gospel truths have been secured for us irrespective of our response to them.
Arminianism derives from the teachings of another Protestant reformer, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). Arminius insisted that Jesus died for all humanity, and that all people can be saved if they take personal action, which is enabled by the Spirit. This theology, while not ignoring God’s sovereignty, gives a more central or key role to human decision and free will. Its premise is that salvation, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, justification, etc., are not actually effective unless a person has faith. Only if God foresees a person using their free choice to receive Christ, does he then elect them. Those whom he foresees rejecting his salvation, he condemns. So like the Calvinist, in the end God wills the salvation of some and the condemnation of others.
Trinitarian theology differs from Arminianism over the effectiveness of the reconciliation. Atonement, or at-one-ment between God and humanity, is only a hypothetical possibility for Arminians; it does not become an actuality unless God foresees someone’s decision of faith. In this view, God, on the basis of his foreknowledge of an individual’s acceptance or rejection, then accepts or rejects that person. Trinitarian theology, however, teaches that the atonement and reconciliation represents the heart and mind of God towards all and is objectively true in Christ, even before it has been subjectively accepted and experienced. It remains true even if some deny it. God has one ultimate will or purpose for all, realized from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.
While Calvinism and Arminianism emphasize different aspects of salvation theology, Trinitarian theology has attempted, as did early church leaders Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Gregory, to maintain in harmony the wideness of God’s love emphasized by Arminians with the unconditioned faithfulness of God emphasized by Calvinists. The Incarnational and Trinitarian theology of GCI aligns neither with traditional Calvinism nor Arminianism. It emphasizes the sovereignty of God’s Triune holy love that calls for our response. His sovereign will is expressed in accord with God being a fellowship of holy love. Its center is the heart, mind, character and nature of God revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Savior and Redeemer. God’s sovereignty is most clearly and profoundly shown in Jesus Christ. The place and importance of human response to God’s grace is also shown in Jesus Christ, who makes a perfect and free response to God in our place and on our behalf as our Great High Priest. Our response then is a gift given by the Holy Spirit by which we share in Christ’s perfect response for us in our place and on our behalf.
What is perichoresis?
The eternal communion of love that Father, Son and Spirit share as the Trinity involves a mystery of inter-relationship and interpenetration of the divine Persons, a mutual indwelling without loss of personal identity. As Jesus said, “the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38). Early Greek-speaking Christian theologians described this relationship with the word perichoresis, which is derived from root words meaning “around” and “contain.” Each person of the Trinity is contained within the others; they dwell in one another, they envelop one another.
Tips on Biblical Exegesis
We have sought to address typical questions and objections that arise as people consider Trinitarian theology. No doubt, there are other verses that bring similar questions or objections. What we have sought to do in this booklet is to demonstrate a Trinitarian, Christ-centered approach to reading and interpreting all passages of Holy Scripture.
Some object to the idea of interpreting Scripture. They say, “I just let the Bible say what it means.” This idea, though admirable, is not accurate, nor possible. The act of reading is, necessarily, an act of interpretation. So the issue is not whether to interpret; it is this: What criteria do we use in interpreting as we read?
We always bring to Scripture certain ideas and advance assumptions. What we are urging here is that we come to Scripture with the truth of who Jesus Christ is as the beginning point and the ongoing criterion by which we read and interpret the Holy Scriptures. Jesus must be the “lens” through which all Scripture is read.
Therefore, in reading Scripture, we recommend thinking about the following questions:
- How does this passage line up with the gospel, which answers its central question, “Who is Jesus?”
- Is this passage referring to the universal, objective salvation of all humanity in Jesus, or is it referring to the personal, subjective experience of accepting or rejecting that salvation?
- What is the historical, cultural, and literary context?
- How is this passage worded in other translations? Other translations can sometimes help us see passages from different perspectives. It’s also helpful to check Greek lexicons and other translation helps, because some of the richness and subtleties of the Greek New Testament are lost in translations into other languages.
For a guide to biblical exegesis, you may find it helpful to consult How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart (Zondervan, 1981, 1993, 2014) or Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers, by Michael J. Gorman (Baker, 2010). See also the book A Guided Tour of the Bible by John Halford, Michael Morrison, and Gary Deddo (also on Amazon.com—click here).