Tag Archives: Trinity

Saved by a Community for Community

We live in a world that’s becoming more and more connected. From Facebook to Twitter to texting, we are “closer” to each other than ever before. Smartphones and social networking provide instantaneous access to everyone from our neighbor across the street to the actor in Hollywood. But the dangerous irony is that this connectedness has also made us more isolated than ever before. Our garages allow us to drive directly into our houses without ever greeting our neighbor. Our Netflix subscriptions enable us to watch endless episodes of our favorite shows without ever going outside.

This troubling reality has infiltrated the church, too. But like fish who have been swimming in the waters of individualism for too long, we barely even notice it. It’s so easy to treat the church like a club where we show up once a week, get what we want, and then leave for lunch without reaching out to anyone.

God Is a Community 

Alone in a Crowd

At the heart of all reality is a God who exists as a community. Before the creation of the world, the triune God was infinitely happy in himself. We catch a glimpse of this relationship when Jesus prays, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5).

And this eternally divine community is also at work in our redemption. The Father lovingly sends the Son (John 3:16), the Son willingly bears our sin (John 10:18), and the Spirit effectively applies the Son’s work to our hearts (Eph. 1:13). We serve an infinitely glorious triune God.

The good news for you and me is that the community of the Trinity invites us in. Consider the apostle John’s testimony: “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). John summons his hearers into fellowship with the Godhead, a fellowship he himself already enjoys. When you first trusted Christ, you were welcomed into the very triune community that worked together to unleash unspeakable grace in your life—the fulfillment of a plan launched in eternity past (Eph. 1:4).

Saved for Community

So God has invited us personally into the community of the Trinity. But here’s the really mind-blowing thing: God intends us to experience this divine community in the fellowship of a local church (Eph. 3:18-19). He saves us as individuals, yes, but he also saves us into communities.

We need other believers to draw us back into the fold when we’ve gone astray. Other believers need us to encourage and spur them on (Heb. 10:24). If we examine all the orders we’re given in the New Testament, “one another” commands dominate the pages (Gal. 6:2; Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 5:11). Living in the community of the local church, then, is necessary—not optional—for your growth in grace. We simply cannot obey “one another” commands if we’re not around, well, one another.

The outside world needs to see this, too—a community of people living out Jesus’ commands despite their vastly different personalities, music preferences, backgrounds, skin colors, economic statuses, and even football allegiances.

Different Kind of Community

For all we hear about the need for unity in diversity in our culture, the world divides over all sorts of issues. All you have to do is walk into a high school lunchroom and you’ll see the world in miniature. Kids from the “right side of the tracks” sit in one place, while those from the “wrong side” sit elsewhere. Goths to the left, cheerleaders to the right. Blacks at one table, whites at another.

Yet in the Trinity we see immaculate unity in diversity. God exists as one being in three persons, each with a distinct role in redemption. And his church, too, ought to reflect this glorious unity in diversity: red, yellow, black, and white; rich, poor, and middle class; old and young, cool and uncool—all united under the blood-bought banner of our common King.

The world around us longs for community, and the false sense of connectedness created by Twitter and Facebook won’t fill the void. We need robust, life-on-life, in-the-trenches community. God didn’t merely “text us,” after all. He came. He walked with us, wept with us, rejoiced with us, and loved us in spite of ourselves. If we’re embodying this self-giving posture in our churches, then, it’ll draw the lonely world to us like a magnet. If this isn’t the reality you experience at church, though, you’re not alone.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The local church is messy. We’ve all experienced hurt and disappointment in it. And the head of the church understands, for he knows better than anyone the costliness of living in community. He entered this messy and broken world, and it killed him.

For us to embrace real community will entail crucifixion, too. It’ll mean dying to our desires, our preferences, our expectations. But on the other side of crucifixion, there’s resurrection. We die to self now in order to enjoy true life forever (Matt. 16:25).

So let’s radically love the brother in Sunday school who drives us crazy. Let’s invite into our homes the awkward sister no one else approaches. Let’s walk into the sanctuary seeking to engage the visitor in conversation. Let’s go beyond sports and weather and politics to discuss how the gospel intersects with our lives, our marriages, our families. The more this interaction happens in our churches, the more we will be drawn into the lavish love of the triune God.

Four Accounts, One Savior

If you have ever tried to read about the story of Jesus’ birth from one of the Gospels in the New Testament, you will have already discovered two things. First, no one Gospel tells you everything about the birth of Jesus. And second, some Gospels do not tell you anything about the birth of Jesus.

NativityWhat do we make of this reality?

One takeaway should be that the significance of Jesus’ birth is best understood in the totality of his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Whether you have just begun to consider Jesus or already consider yourself a believer in him, let me encourage you to read through the four Gospels this Advent season to gain a fuller appreciation for the significance of his birth.

Here’s a brief description of each Gospel’s unique contribution to our overall understanding of Jesus, followed by a calendar for reading through them this December.

Matthew: The story of Christmas is rooted in history.

Matthew’s account begins with a genealogy, demonstrating the birth of Jesus is not an isolated event but one rooted in history. In other words, the birth of Jesus is not the beginning of the story. To properly understand Jesus’ birth, one must understand the history from which he came.

If we were to consider the birth of Jesus as an isolated event, we could conclude that Jesus is powerful. Surely the virgin birth would require divine power. When we learn from Matthew that the virgin birth was rooted in history and anticipated in prophecy, we learn that Jesus is not only powerful, but also faithful to promises made in history.

Mark: The story of Christmas requires our repentance.

When you turn to Mark you notice that he begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, not the birth of Jesus. John’s ministry was a plea for Israel to repent. In Mark 1:14-15, we are told that John was arrested and Jesus began to preach the same message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent is the key word for Mark. John preached it, Jesus preached it, and Mark wants all of us to remember it. Why?

We cannot properly celebrate the birth of our Savior until we acknowledge the reality of our sin. Until we are willing to repent, all the details that surround Jesus’ birth and life are rendered inconsequential. Otherwise who cares if it was three wise men or wise men bearing three gifts? Or whether he was God incarnate or an angel in human form? Mark tells us news he believes can change our lives. So are we willing to be changed? Are we willing to acknowledge that we are not as we should be? According to Mark, we cannot properly celebrate the birth of our Savior until we acknowledge our need to be saved.

Luke: The story of Christmas invites our worship.

As you turn to Luke, you notice that he gives us the most details of any of the Gospel writers surrounding the birth of Jesus. When people announce that they will read the Christmas story, they are more often than not reading from the second chapter of Luke. It’s striking about Luke’s attention to detail how often he focuses on the worship that surrounded the birth of Jesus.

For example, in Luke 1:46, Luke could have simply said that Mary worshiped God. Instead he records for us details of how she expressed her worship in what we now commonly call the Magnificat. You will notice this detail again in verses 67-79 when Zechariah worshiped God. Then Luke tells us of the heavenly host praising God in 2:13-14 and the shepherds praising God in 2:20. When Jesus is presented in the temple, Luke tells us of Simeon’s worship. Before, during, and after the birth of Jesus there is worship!

Much like the Psalms of the Old Testament, the details of these expressions of worship are not given to simply inform us of past events, but to invite us to join in their expression. When all the facts are considered, as Luke claims to have compiled them, one discovers that the Christmas story is not only true but also glorious.

John: The story of Christmas restores our relationship.

John does not begin with the birth of Jesus, the ministry of John the Baptist, nor does he begin with the history of Israel. John writes, “In the beginning.” The beginning of what? The beginning of everything! According to John, Jesus was with God and was God from before time began. These verses are key the church’s understanding of the Trinity.

As it relates to the Christmas story, we affirm that Jesus was sent from God. The Creator is the Redeemer; the Judge is the Savior. John’s account is similar to Mark’s in that he makes the story immediately personal. Jesus is the unique Son of God who came into the world, so that you and I could become children of God as well (John 1:12-13).

One Conclusion

Four different Gospel accounts and one conclusion—Jesus is sufficient. Intellectually, according to Matthew, the Christmas story is rooted in history. Morally, according to Mark, the Christmas story requires our repentance. Emotionally, according to Luke, the Christmas story invites our worship. And relationally, according to John, the Christmas story restores our relationship with God.

Read the story for yourself.


Advent Reading Plan

You Asked: Does Gethsemane Separate the Trinity?

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Daniel C. from London asks:

When Jesus says to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane, “not as I will, but as you will” (Mt.26:39), how should we think of this relationships within the Trinity? Did the Son have a different desire or will from the Father?

We posed the question to John McKinley, associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and author of Tempted for Us: Theological Models and the Practical Relevance of Christ’s Impeccability and Temptation.


The theological term that Jesus possesses two wills, one divine and one human, is Dyothelitism. God the Father and God the Son are distinct persons, but they share the same divine will. The difference of Jesus’ will from his Father’s will in Gethsemane is his human will. By incarnation, God the Son took up a second way of living as a man. He now possesses two natures. Each nature is complete, including a will for each. I define “will” as the spiritual capacity for desires and choice in the exercise of personal agency. But remember, these are mysterious operations (desiring, choosing) of mysterious realities (persons, wills, Trinity) that may leave us continuing to wonder even after thinking it all through as best we can.

We will consider briefly Jesus’ divine will, his human will, the situation of Gethsemane, and how this affects our thinking about the Trinity.

Jesus’ Divine Will

Before the incarnation, the Son of God is a divine person with a divine will. By this will, the Son loves his Father (John 14:31), obeyed his Father to become incarnate (John 8:42), sent the Holy Spirit to those who believed in him (John 15:26), and, in the future, will hand over the kingdom to his Father (1 Cor 15:28). What we are calling Jesus’ divine will should be understood as a mysterious personal operation of choice that he shares with his Father and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is one God, without division or separation. A shared use of desires and choice is the way the three persons of the Godhead love each other and fulfill personal inter-relationship as co-essential, co-equal, and inseparable persons.

Jesus’ Human Will

Through the incarnation, the Son of God entered into a true human life, complete with a created human will. This will includes his desires, decision-making process, and choices as a man. For his mission in salvation, he had to have a true human will, since God cannot be tempted to sin (James 1:13). The temptation of Jesus through his human will was necessary for him to succeed where Adam failed, and to obey God as a man for our righteousness (Rom 5:12-19). His human will was operative when he was a child obeying his parents (Luke 2:51). As an adult, Jesus showed his human will by voluntarily submitting to the Holy Spirit’s leading (Luke 4:1), and by submitting to instruction from the Father by the Spirit as to what to do (John 5:30; 15:10) and what to teach (John 7:16). This dependency is also why Jesus had to pray frequently. Other examples of his human choices were to love his people (John 13:1) and to submit voluntarily to his Father’s plan that he surrender himself and go to the cross (John 10:17-18).

In Gethsemane 

In Gethsemane, we can see that Jesus prays from within his life as a man, as a creature under God. He pleads to his Father because he is motivated by his natural human desires to avoid the pain of hell. He sees it, and he strongly desires to avoid it (Heb 5:7). Jesus is the Son of God embedded in a human struggle between obeying God and self-preservation. This is the culmination of many temptations to sin that Hebrews 2:17-18 and 4:15-16 report: Jesus suffered because of his total solidarity with sinners. The development of his human will shows in Hebrews 5:8 that he learned obedience through his suffering, and thereby became perfect as our priest (Heb 2:10). Jesus is here leading his people to rescue them, struggling as they struggle, on our behalf, as the last Adam constructing a new humanity. Jesus is also wrestling authentically as our model, the demonstration of the painful path for them to follow him (Rom 8:17; 1 Peter 2:21-25). Jesus had to make the choice as a man to deny himself, surrender his desires for self-preservation, and embrace his God’s call and will that he suffer hell. This is the same situation for the believer who follows Jesus. These things are impossible someone who possesses only a divine will.

Thinking about Trinity

The idea of two wills in Christ seems weird to us. We expect that true and real persons in the Godhead must have opposable wills, and one person cannot have more than one will. The unity and coherence of being one person who is divine and human, with two wills, may be understood by starting with the eternal, pre-incarnate life of the Son and the Trinity. The Son of God obeys his Father in all things, as shows in the voluntary response of becoming incarnate according to the Father’s command (John 3:16; Gal 4:4). His obedience as the Son of Man, according to his human will, is an extension of his eternal obedience, that he has come to do his Father’s will (John 6:38). His earthly obedience is a parallel of his divine response to become incarnate.

The Son’s obedience to become a man is like other prior commitments that people make in life. People repent and surrender to God, enter marriage with another person, and commit to contracts. Each example has an initial, comprehensive commitment, followed by incremental choices to fulfill that pledge by daily choices. The Son’s response to become incarnate and obey as a man does not remove the validity of his individual struggles and choices taken on a daily basis as a man. The Son of God chose as God to become a man, and, as a man, he chose to obey to the point of suffering hell for others (Phil 2:8). We can also point to the analogy of a human father and son who work together as boss and employee—they live in two modes of relationship that run parallel in the order of authority and submission. One mode is family, and the other mode is economic.

As difficult as this is for us to imagine, we are not alone since the church has strenuously considered this question at several points in the early centuries, culminating in the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681-682 (Constantinople III). Earlier councils had declared orthodoxy that Jesus has a human body and a human soul (Constantinople I, 381; Chalcedon, 451; Constantinople II, 553). The sixth council directly considered the alternate proposal of one will and operation in Christ (Monothelitism). As with all the ecumenical councils, political factors in the unraveling Roman Empire motivated the circumstances of calling a formal debate. In this case, politicians had earlier sought to heal divisions by theological formulas of unity. At the council, theological factors prevailed in a careful review and refutation of Monothelitism, and produced a consensus affirmation of Dyothelitism. Since then, Eastern and Western churches and theologians (Roman Catholic and Protestant) have repeatedly confirmed that consensus.

One major argument used at the council for Dyothelitism is the unity of the Trinity. If the will is a component or property of the three persons separately and individually (as Monothelitism held), then that meant three wills in God, with potential conflict that undermined the oneness of God. Instead of three wills, we can think of three mutually constitutive persons, inseparable in personal operation and sharing their existence as the one God, including one divine will. This is mysterious, and a deeper union than what humans, who possess distinct and opposable wills, can ever experience. The Trinity unveils a vision of deep harmony and union for our relationship of surrender to God, after Jesus’ pattern as a man submitted to God. Only in this way, with a true, created human will like us, does Jesus fulfill humanity by a true trial of our existence (Rom 8:3). He is truly the firstborn of the new humanity who are just like him, body and soul.

4 Lessons I’m Learning as a Soon-to-Be Dad

Within two years of marriage, my wife and I found out that she was pregnant with our first child. While joyful about the news, we were flooded with questions and concerns. The initial shock exhausted us as we began to anticipate the many necessary skills we do not have. As they say, you’re never really “ready” to be a parent. As a husband, it’s no small thing to learn to live with and lead my wife, but she can do most things for herself. It’s quite another challenge to steward the life of a baby who can do almost nothing on his or her own. 

For us, this first pregnancy has been fun, tiring, exciting, terrifying, and everything in between. As a man, the revelation that I am called by God to lead my family is weighty. In fact, Paul tells Timothy that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). I do not take these implications lightly. It is an absolute privilege for God to entrust a family to me.

Here are four things that I’m learning and hope to continue to learn with the Trinity as my blueprint.

1. God created this life.

The verse that came to mind when my wife happily surprised me with the news was Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Amazing! As a go-getter, problem solver, and perpetual thinker, I needed to hear this word. In some spheres of life, these pioneering traits are good and beneficial. But I must remember that I cannot control his or her life any more than I can determine the rising and setting of the sun. A pastor friend—who has raised both a pastor and also a prodigal son—recommended that I simply be faithful to God in my character as a man, husband, and father while leaving the reins in God’s hands. This child is ultimately God’s, not mine. This is piercing to my pride but a treasure chest of truth. I need the constant reminder of God’s sovereignty to both humble and also comfort me.

2. The Father shows me how to be a father.

I have been reading insightful articles and books on parenting in an attempt to lay some groundwork. But I will find no greater illustration than the Father’s love for his children. He is willing to sacrifice greatly for their good (John 3:16-17) and train and discipline them for righteousness (Heb. 12:5-11). My own father did a phenomenal job of showing me what covenantal love looks like. He was consistently tender, compassionate, and even corrective much like God the Father is with each of his own. Indeed, everything done by the Father is for our greater good (Rom. 8:28), whether we recognize it or not. As I point my child to him who freely gives all things (James 1:5), I want to reflect those pure intentions as much as I can.

3. The Son shows me how to be a husband.

My wife now needs me in ways that she hasn’t before. I want to serve my now-pregnant wife properly, so I shared concerns about my lack of knowledge with a few older women in my family. I received nearly the exact same response: I can’t be Mr. Fix It. I have no clue what she is going through, and I shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Instead, I must look to Jesus’s love for his bride, the church. He says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29). Though it is Jesus’s yoke that my wife must take upon her, the more I look like him, the better I can help her. I will more fully represent him the more willing I am to lay down my own life for her, just as he did on the cross (Eph. 5:25).

4. The Holy Spirit is my guide.

I have the tendency to become self-reliant and bitter when things spin out of my control. A friend with four wonderful kids recently suggested that I drown my family in prayer. The purpose, he said, is two-fold: to give this situation to God and to remind myself to desperately depend on the Spirit. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit for a reason, and I should not ignore him.

This was perhaps the greatest instruction of all. How could I possibly seek the aforementioned characteristics without the supernatural work of the Spirit? The beautiful news is that I, filled with and empowered by the Spirit, can escape the temptation to dodge responsibility (1 Cor. 10:13) while being constantly reminded of God’s perfect will for me and my family (John 14:26). Without him forging my path, I am helpless.

That’s what I’ve been learning so far in this new stage of life. For all the dads out there far more experienced than I am, what tips would you add?

You Asked: Does the Father’s Wrath Upon the Son Sever the Unity of the Trinity?

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Thomas A. from Birmingham, Alabama, asks:

How do I explain the wrath of God toward Jesus and his separation during this time of suffering for our sin and not separate the Godhead?

We posed the question to Matt Jenson, associate professor of theology at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.


What a fantastic question! Really, it’s a question that already begins its own answer. That is, however we explain what’s happening in the death of Jesus, we need to do so in such a way that upholds and honors the triune God who redeemed us.

Tom McCall has recently written a short book that is about as good you can get on this topic. In my review of it, I wrote of the need to hold together,

(1) the triune God’s perfect, loving unity in (2) his radically self-giving gift which entails (3) the eternal Son’s profound suffering in the flesh for us and our salvation. If we only have (1) and not (2) and (3), we end up in a triumphalism foreign to the victory of the cross. If (3) doesn’t entail strife between Father and Son, it still entails deeper suffering than I have ever known-possibly deeper suffering than anyone has ever known.

The trick here is to seek analytic clarity without plucking out the mystery of the cross. “We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth wrote. Woe to us if we perform the same procedure on the mystery of our salvation.

In the first few centuries, the theological battle lines were drawn with reference to the deity of Christ. Just how was he related to the God of Israel? What was the church doing when he worshiped him and baptized and prayed in his name? In the last couple centuries, attention has turned to the humanity of Christ. If, with Gregory Nazienzen, we confess that “the unassumed is the unredeemed,” we need to confess the Son’s assumption of humanity and all that it implies.

Why Forsaken?

That’s the context. Now apply that context to Jesus’ anguished cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34) Let’s take Jesus at his word; he is forsaken by God at the cross. It’s true that these are the first words of Psalm 22, in which the speaker entrusts himself and his cause to God; and Jesus could have spoken or implied the entire psalm. Maybe, that is, he is uttering a faithful prayer of trust in dire circumstances. Or maybe he is speaking in his role of representative, taking on words that surely fit the sinful people of Israel, and indeed all of sinful humanity.

Then again, Jesus said other things from the cross. Only Matthew and Mark record the cry of dereliction. Luke tells of his intercession for those who crucified him (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”) and his committing his spirit to the Father (Lk. 23:35, 46). In John, Jesus gives his mother into the care of one of his disciples, says he is thirsty, and utters his final words: “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30).

All of these angles on the crucifixion offer us a Jesus faithful to the end. Still, there’s that part about being forsaken. What can he mean? Here’s what we know: The eternal Son, whose life in the Trinity is happy beyond imagining, became incarnate, subject to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and outlandish sinners. He was mocked, misunderstood, manhandled, and mangled. His family didn’t get him, and his closest friends sold him out. Despite his perfect faithfulness to his Father and God, he ended up being nailed to a cross to suffer public humiliation and death.

God didn’t make him do this. The Father sent the Son (Jn. 3:16), and the Son gave his life freely (Jn. 10:17-18). So the cross is at once the low point and the high point of Israel’s history—and indeed, of human history. It is the low point as the final outcome of sin, wherein the Creator of the universe suffers a shameful death at the hands of, for the sake of, and instead of his creation. It is the high point as the perfection of human obedience, with Jesus being found faithful unto death, even death on a cross. His moment of greatest humiliation is his moment of glorification.

King and Lord

A few verses after Matthew records Jesus’ cry of forsakenness, he records the centurion’s response to Jesus’ death: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54) Here the centurion gives witness to Jesus as King and Lord, one closely tied in to the ways of God with the world. Despite, or perhaps in light of having seen the wrath of God poured out on Jesus, the centurion responds that Jesus is God’s Son. Maybe the simplest answer to the question of how the Trinity is not broken at the cross is to recall that the Father sent his Son and the Son laid down his own life freely—that is, that both Father and Son gave all for the world at the cross.

Consider God’s wrath poured out on Christ as the deepest display of Trinitarian love the world has ever known. The God who is love (1 Jn. 4:8) is only ever loving in himself and in relation to his creation. His anger, then, is the form his love takes when it runs into sin. In his wrath, God fights sin and judges sinners. But how does he fight sin? By taking the place of the very sinners he judges. As Karl Barth put it, Jesus is the Judge judged in our place.

Note that, too—Jesus is the Judge. If we read the crucifixion as a bit of good cop/bad cop and ascribe those roles to the Son and the Father respectively, we drastically confuse the issue. We have to be much more careful when we parse this in Trinitarian terms. While Jesus does suffer the wrath of God in taking our place and submitting to the painful consequences of sin, he embodies God’s wrath against sin in cleansing the temple and promises to come again on the last day as judge of the living and the dead. Nor is the Father the stern disciplinarian; can you possibly imagine a greater, more costly gift than giving up your Son to save your enemies? God didn’t even make Abraham do that.

When the Father turned his wrath on the One who bore the sin of many at Golgotha, the Son was crushed for our iniquities; and it is by his wounds that we are healed (Is. 53:5). Far from being the scene, then, of the Trinity’s dissolution, the cross is the Trinity’s demonstration. We find Father, Son, and Spirit working in concert for the salvation of the world. We find the Father so loving the world that he gave his only-begotten Son to death, even death of the cross. We find the Son freely giving his life away, drinking the dregs of sin and death in loving solidarity with a sinful, suffering world and, wonder of wonders, holding all things together even as he lay lifeless in the tomb. And we find the Spirit, the one who hovered over the waters at creation and over Mary’s womb at Jesus’ conception, the one who signaled the Father’s good pleasure at Jesus’ baptism and empowered Jesus for ministry, sustaining him in his last breath and in his death.

You Asked: Can I Pray to Jesus?

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

David Z. from East Asia asks:

I heard someone say we should never pray to Jesus since that’s not the way it’s done in the Bible. Is this true?

We posed the question to Graham Cole, prolific author and professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.


Many Christians pray to Jesus. But are they right to do so? It’s certainly a good question. I believe there are at least two sound reasons to pray to Jesus—one theological and one scriptural.

The theological reason is that prayer is talking to God. And if Jesus is, as the Scriptures present him, the one person who is truly God and truly human—the second person of the Trinity now incarnate—then how could praying to this Jesus be wrong in principle? Great ones of the past and present have so argued (e.g., John Owen in the 17th century and J. I. Packer today). The same argument applies to praying to the Holy Spirit.

The scriptural reason is that there are biblical precedents for praying to Jesus. Think of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. In Acts 7, while being stoned to death, he sees the risen Christ standing at the right of the Father in the stance of an advocate (v. 55). Others-centered to the end, Stephen asks his Lord to forgive those killing him (v. 60): “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” The parallels between the way Stephen dies and Jesus himself are not be missed (e.g., compare Acts 7:60 and Luke 23:34). There is further evidence provided in 1 Corinthians, where Paul describes Christians as those who call on the Lord’s name: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). Jesus is explicitly in view here. Indeed, the letter concludes with an appeal to Jesus: “Our Lord, come (maranatha)!” (1 Cor. 16:22) In fact, the biblical canon ends on the very same note: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

The writer to the Hebrews adds to this picture in depicting Jesus as our great high priest who represents us to God and God to us. It is to Jesus in this office or role that we can go to find help, and prayer is the means by which we can so approach him: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Interestingly, though, there are no prayers addressed to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, which underlines his ministry of pointing away from himself to Christ (John 14-16).

Weight of Emphasis

Even though there are sound reasons for praying to Jesus, a caveat is needed. This qualification arises from carefully reading Scripture from Genesis to Revelation to discern where the accents fall. My wife is a fashion designer and tells me you need to listen to the fabric talk. For example, you don’t sew leather with an ordinary needle. Leather is tough material, so you need a special needle; otherwise, the needle will break. The responsible Bible reader listens to the Scriptures talk and talk in its own terms as its storyline unfolds from beginning to end. What does such listening reveal?

By the time we’ve finished listening to the entire story we find that Jesus is the one mediator between God and ourselves. He’s the go-between in God’s plan. Paul captures this idea well in his first letter to Timothy: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). As we saw above, the Book of Hebrews captures this same idea in presenting Jesus as our great high priest set over the household of God.

It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus taught his disciples to pray to the Father in his name: “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). In praying to the Father, Paul, too, adopts the protocol that befits the presence of great majesty: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father” (Eph. 3:14). He was mindful, though, that this can only happen through the Son and with the enablement of the Holy Spirit: “For through him [Jesus] we both [Jew and Gentile believers] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). The Holy Spirit’s role is to give us such an affection for the Father and the Son that we’re motivated to approach the Godhead in this way. Prayer to the Father, it must be acknowledged, is where the weight of emphasis falls in the New Testament revelation.

If the fundamental blessing of the gospel is our justification, then the preeminent one is our adoption. We are children of God and joint heirs with Christ. Paul puts it magnificently: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:4-7). Abba, a word Jesus himself used in his own prayer life (Mark 14:36), is intimate but reverent. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Christian as a child of God is caught up in the communion of the Son with the Father.

We see two important truths, then, in prayer to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. First, Christian praying is Trinitarian praying. This is deeply important, for much Christian praying in my experience is Unitarian: “Dear God. . . . Amen.” Unitarian praying makes it hard to see why there’s any real difference in praying to the God of the Bible as opposed to praying to the God of, say, the Qur’an. Second, Christian praying exhibits the very structure of the gospel. Jesus stands at the center as the mediator, the Father as the addressee, and the Spirit as the enabler.

So can you pray to Jesus? Of course you can. But let me suggest if this is the predominant way we pray we may lose something of enormous importance. We may lose sight of the glorious gospel with the Father as the architect of our salvation, the Son as the achiever, and the Spirit as the applier.

The Joyful Pursuit of Multi-ethnic Churches

Forming multi-ethnic churches seems to be appealing at first, but unless believers grasp the profound joy of pursuing diversity, the challenges of this type of ministry will quickly deflate them.

Churches that desire a more multi-ethnic membership desire a good thing, but it’s not easy. Some churches are located in areas with virtually no ethnic diversity. Other churches across the spectrum still have leadership or laity who actively fight against any mixing ethnicities in their congregation. Still more churches may have the desire but lack the resources to effectively pursue multi-ethnicity.

While these problems are real, the right motivation can help churches persist in the call to multi-ethnicity. But people often have the wrong motivations. Guilt can be a motivation—this is especially true for people in the racial majority. The argument goes: “Whites have marginalized and oppressed blacks for so long, churches need to make it right by ‘reaching out’ to different races and ethnicities.” While guilt has its place, this emotion will hardly give churches the determination they need to persevere through the difficulties of becoming multi-ethnic.

Another common motivation is fear. Christians fear lots of things about being in a mono-ethnic church. We fear that as neighborhood demographics change we will lose people. We fear that we will become irrelevant in the community. We fear being racist, or classist, or elitist. Fear, too, has its place. But that won’t keep churches moving toward a multi-ethnic vision.

We need to be reminded of the joy of diversity. We need to keep that joy before us so it can motivate us for the marathon that is multi-ethnicity ministry. Here are six joys of pursuing a multi-ethnic make-up in churches.

1. You become more racially, ethnically, and culturally savvy.

In a healthy multi-ethnic church it becomes acceptable to talk about differences in race, ethnicity, and culture. Continual interactions with people different from you makes you into a person who is more sensitive and aware of culture and ethnicity. You make fewer missteps and feel less awkward when engaging people across racial and cultural gaps.

2. Your church becomes a safe haven for lots of different people.

Regardless of one’s ethnicity, everyone wants to worship in a place that feels “safe.” As an African American who longs for biblical teaching and preaching I do not feel at home in church that has erroneous theology but is more culturally familiar. Nor do I feel comfortable in a church with sound theology but is culturally distant. A multi-ethnic church becomes a place where I can get both sound doctrine and an accessible cultural experience. What is true along racial lines is also true along economic, linguistic, and other lines. Multi-ethnic churches communicate that it’s all right to be different, and then lots of different people start coming.

3. You begin to understand what is primary and what is preference.

In a multi-ethnic church you have to constantly work to address the diverse needs of several ethnic groups. So you start having lots of conversations about what elements of worship are primary and which ones are preference. Churches that do this well begin to hone in on the essential truths of the gospel and communicate them more clearly while at the same time demonstrating flexibility and wisdom regarding culturally conditioned opinions about worship.

4. You want to invite people to church.

How many times have you hesitated to invite a person to church out of concern that the person wouldn’t “fit in”? In many churches there is an unspoken expectation that people will wear a certain type of clothes, speak a certain way, know certain songs, have a certain background, and the like. Multi-ethnic churches make it easier for different people—folks with purple hair and earrings in their eyebrows, folks who can’t afford a suit and tie, folks who have never been to church and don’t know how to pray, folks of a different color—to feel at home. This, in turn, makes you bolder and more confident to invite people to church.

5. Your church becomes an authentic witness in your community.

Ethnically diverse churches authentically witness the gospel’s power to reconcile people to God and each other. In a society shredded by sectarian interests—political, ideological, racial, you name it—churches that demonstrate unity in diversity attract attention. Multi-ethnic churches demonstrate that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

6. You get a glimpse of God’s kingdom come.

Revelation 7:9 gives a concise depiction of the heavenly kingdom: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” Scripture teaches that an essential aspect of the heavenly congregation is racial and ethnic diversity—Christ is calling people from all nations to himself. Multi-ethnic churches excite God’s people because they truly reflect God’s people.

The Joy of Unity in Diversity

We delight in multi-ethnic churches because they reflect the essential nature of God himself. God reveals himself in the three persons of the godhead–God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Yet these three are one. The Trinity gloriously displays the unity and diversity of God. And God has so ordered the congregation of his people to reflect his three-in-oneness.

Although imperfect and incomplete, we can truly enjoy this reflection in our churches. The joy we feel in a multi-ethnic gathering of worshipers is the joy of feeling God’s pleasure as we glorify him in his triune being. May God’s church joyfully pursue diversity through our unified faith in Christ.

Jealous for the Holy Spirit

At this year’s TGC Council Colloquium in Louisville, as Don Carson and Tim Keller and John Piper discussed the Trinity, there was one particularly striking moment. I carried that moment away with me, have pondered it, and now am reminded of it by the recently released video. It was the moment when John Piper said he was feeling “jealous for the Holy Spirit.”

In one sense, it seems appropriate that we focus more explicitly on the Father and the Son when discussing the Trinity. The Spirit does not point to himself but rather illumines, pours out the essence of the Father and the Son through the Word and into our hearts.

And yet, perhaps we aren’t thankful enough for the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives as believers. Right now the Father and the Son are invisible to us, and we must depend explicitly on the Spirit to reveal them through the Word. Recently, Revelation’s pictures of the Holy Spirit have invaded my imagination: those seven torches of fire before the heavenly throne (Rev.  4:5), and the slain Lamb’s seven eyes, “which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6). These pictures communicate a live, potent, brilliant presence of God, emanating directly from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

So when we read, for example, in the book of Ephesians that we are sealed with this Spirit, that according to the riches of God’s glory the Father strengthens us with power through his Spirit in our inner being, that Christ actually dwells in our hearts through faith, that we may indeed by God’s grace be filled with all the fullness of God . . . when we read these things, we should perhaps marvel more at the gift of the Holy Spirit, with his fire and his eyes, who actually comes to live in us.

No Longer Alone, No Longer Impotent

One specific outworking of more conscious marveling at the Holy Spirit might involve our understanding of sanctification. The whole current debate on justification and sanctification is so crucial and so complicated. John Piper and Tim Keller’s recent discussion is helpful and clarifying. I find myself needing to get straight again and again both the truth of Christ’s utterly sufficient work of justification on my behalf, and the truth of Scripture’s call for my sword-wielding, hard-working, putting-off-and-putting-on progress in holiness. Thanking God for the Holy Spirit is helping me to hold those truths together in my mind and heart. The Spirit is the one who accomplishes in us the washing of regeneration and renewal, this Spirit whom God “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6).

As a believer, the “I” called to work hard in the process of sanctification is an “I” no longer the same, no longer alone, no longer impotent. God has poured out in us the gift that not only motivates us but also empowers us in our sanctification. I don’t need to be afraid to say I must work out my salvation with fear and trembling, for indeed it is God who works in me (Phil. 2:12). He does that through the powerful presence of his Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus to his disciples before he died, and delivered to his people after his resurrection. How wonderful is the fullness of seven torches and seven eyes: no one of us in the body of Christ is alone in receiving this gift or in living out its power.

As the Spirit applies the living and active Word to our new hearts, we grow into the likeness of Christ—of course not perfectly until the end, when we will see him face to face. In the meantime, I suppose there’s no other way for us to keep truths like justification and sanctification together than for all of us to keep reading and studying all of Scripture, all of it, again and again—for the Word keeps telling us and telling us about Christ’s work of justification for us and the working out of holiness that follows. Thank God for the Holy Spirit through whom God pours himself out to make all of this happen.

Only the Triune God Is Love

We’re tempted to take the doctrine of the Trinity for granted. But there is scarcely any belief unaffected when we get the Trinity wrong.

So argue Don Carson, John Piper, and Tim Keller in this new video discussion recorded at a recent meeting of The Gospel Coalition’s Council. Pull the thread of the Trinity and the universe unravels. Without the Trinity, grace and glory disappear. So does church unity. And we lose a powerful opportunity to share with unbelievers how the Trinity distinguishes the gospel as the source of love for the world.

Stay tuned to hear Piper’s practical application along with Keller’s reflections on the social Trinity and egalitarian relationships.


Only the Triune God Is Love from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.


Carson and Keller on Jakes and the Elephant Room

Controversy customarily generates its share of purple prose. It is very easy to read everything an opponent says as negatively as possible—in malam partem, as the Latins say, “in a bad sense,” while taking what our friends say in bonam partem, “in a good sense.” Such debate tends to generate polarities—and God knows that sometimes what we most need are clear-sighted polarities. Some of these polarities, however, quickly take on the flavor of party spirit and predictable responses, without any powerful effort to encourage a meeting of minds, even where we end up in disagreement.

But controversy can also provide a teaching moment, not least because the interest of many people is focused on the disputed issues. It is hard to deny that such a moment has arrived. We would like to offer some theological reflections on six conceptual pairings. We have learned over the past few decades that clear thought about the six pairings we are about to comment on is not easy. Others may be able to improve upon our musings, or even correct them. Still, we hope that the following theological reflections will clarify at least a few issues for some people.

1. Persons and Manifestations

What is at stake in the distinction? Toward the end of the second century and right through the third century, a number of thinkers defended a modal Trinity: the one God disclosed in three modes or manifestations. These people were variously called Unitarians, Patripassians (because they believed the Father suffered), or Sabellians (after Sabellius, a presbyter in Ptolemais, c. AD 250). They defended the deity of Christ (and on this one point aligned with historic Christian belief), but they denied personal distinctions in the Godhead. In their view, the one and the same person is simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These labels express the different relations that God sustains with the world and the church, just as do other labels (e.g., Creator, King, Sustainer). But one cannot say that God the Creator addresses God the King: there is only one person. So on this view, the one person, God, has revealed himself in various manifestations or modes (hence this view is sometimes called modalism); we are not dealing with one God who has disclosed himself to be three persons, each of whom can and does address the other. It was not long before the church roundly condemned modalism, not least because Scripture is replete with passages in which, for instance, the Father addresses the Son, and the Son the Father.

When orthodox believers sought language to summarize the idea that each person of the Godhead is a self-conscious agent (the Latin category is suppositum intelligens), in the Greek part of the ancient world they first settled on prosōpon (“face”). But the Sabellians understood the same word to mean something like “aspect,” and they defended the view that God revealed himself under a threefold aspect. Eventually the orthodox settled on hypostasis. Among the Latin speakers, Christians settled on substantia or persona—and hence our English word “person.” (See chart below.) Christian thinkers have argued for centuries exactly how we should understand persona in Latin and “person” in English, but the very least that had to be affirmed was the deeply entrenched biblical reality that the “persons” of the Godhead interact with one another, address one another, love one another, in a “personal” way.

Terms Expressing God’s Oneness and Threeness





ousia, physis substantia, essentia being, substance, essence, nature


hypostaseis, prosōpa personae persons, subsistences, modes of subsistence


(This chart is from John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, A Theology of Lordship [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002], 697; see pp. 696-705.) Of course, the doctrine of the Trinity is much richer than these few lines suggest. As Christians in the third and fourth century studied the biblical evidence, they insisted that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit express necessary, internal, and eternal relations in the Godhead. Today, of course, we sometimes quickly summarize the doctrine of the Trinity: the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and there is but one God. That is true as far as it goes, but it does not guard very well against modalism. The early church taught “that the Father eternally, necessarily, and incomprehensibly communicates the divine essence to the Son without division or change so that the Son shares an equality of nature with the Father yet is also distinct from the Father” (this is the careful summary of Keith E. Johnson, “Augustine, Eternal Generation, and Evangelical Trinitarianism,” TrinJ 32 [2011]: 141-163). The language of “communication” was judged crucial: the essence is absolute and communicable, and the early church fathers spoke of this communication in terms of the eternal generation of the Son, while the person is incommunicable, i.e., it cannot be shared. So while one joyfully confesses that the Son is God and the Father is God, the church throughout its history has equally insisted that the Son is not the Father and the Father is not the Son. The church needs a robust Trinitarianism to avoid modalism on the one hand and tritheism on the other.

Had we the space and time, it would be delightful to justify this synthesis by providing the exegesis of many passages, and then extend the discussion from Father and Son to the Spirit. Someone might ask, “But what does it matter?” The answer is twofold: (1) If this summary accurately captures at least some of the glorious truth of the nature of the Godhead, to abandon it is to abandon a true understanding of God. If we are to worship God aright, we must worship him as he is, as he has disclosed himself to us. The only alternative is to worship a god who is progressively false as our understanding skews away from the truth. (2) Various truths connected with the gospel itself become incoherent if one abandons robust Trinitarianism. The Father sends the Son; the Son demonstrates his love for the Father by obeying him all the way to the cross; the Son addresses his Father in the anguished cry, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”; the Father gives the elect to the Son; in the plan of God, the Son propitiates the wrath of God and expiates sin; in the wake of his ascension and session at the Father’s right hand, the Son reigns as the Father’s mediatorial king until he has crushed all opponents, when he will turn the entire scope over to his Father; indeed, when the Son “offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death . . . he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb 5:7). None of these relational displays—and there are many others in the drama of redemption—is coherent under modalism. These relations are tied up with the nature of the Godhead. It is not surprising that those who adopt modalism habitually slide toward a diminished gospel.

In his Institutes, John Calvin sums it up: “Say that in the one essence of God there is a trinity of persons: you will say in one word what Scripture says, and cut short empty talkativeness.” He then adds that, in his experience, those who “persistently quarrel” over these words “nurse a secret poison” (I.13.5).

2. Biblicism One and Biblicism Two

In the recent Elephant Room (hereafter ER2), T. D. Jakes says that he affirms that God is three persons, but he prefers to speak of three manifestations—and then he provides a text to justify this conclusion: “God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim 3:16 KJV). As Pastor Jakes points out, that is what Paul says, and surely we do not want to write Paul off as a modalist, do we? Isn’t Pastor Jakes making a biblical argument? Don’t Christians want to defend such committed biblicism?

It is important to untangle this argument in two steps.

First, Pastor Jakes says that he affirms that God is three persons. In ER2, he affirms it again, somewhat laconically, when asked the question directly. We are delighted to hear it. Moreover, he states that some Oneness Pentecostals now think him a heretic because of it. Of course, the Oneness Pentecostal movement has various strands. Some think of him as a heretic, while others in the movement think he is acceptable, even heroic, because at the same time he says he prefers to speak of three manifestations. That must be very reassuring to “soft” Oneness Pentecostals. But the response is deeply disturbing. What does Pastor Jakes mean?

He might mean one of several things. We’ll mention three. (a) He may mean, “Words don’t matter very much; I can go with ‘persons’ or ‘manifestations,’ and I prefer the latter.” As one commentator has put it, “It’s just semantics.” But words do matter, because they are used to express truth and falsehood. In our first pairing, we tried to show that our very understanding of God is bound up with these words, and with it the gospel. Historically, the expressions have not meant the same thing. If Pastor Jakes can use either expression, which one does he mean? (b) He might mean that he is a Trinitarian, but that he prefers the language of manifestations. But why does he prefer the latter terminology? Because he is unaware of the historic debates and their doctrinal significance? Because he wants to appeal to the “soft” Oneness folk? And if the latter, how is he weaning them away from false doctrine if he continues to use the terminology that is associated in their minds with Oneness theology? (c) Or is he really a modalist who concedes “person” language now and then, even though he prefers “manifestations,” in order to be acceptable in a wider circle?

The short answer is, we don’t know.

In a much-quoted statement deriving from 2000, Pastor Jakes says he believes that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have “distinct and separate functions. . . . [E]ach has individual attributes.” Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for a moment. It would be good to ask him some other questions, such as, “Do you think the Son existed, as the Son, before he was sent by his Father into the world [John 3:17]?” Just when our sense of charity hopes that Pastor Jakes really is Trinitarian in his thought but sadly untaught, he adds (in that same 2000 interview) that the discussion is guilty of “splitting hairs” and “semantics”: no one is dying for lack of theology—they die for lack of love. Suddenly all our questions surface again. Of course people can die for lack of love; but they can also die for lack of theology. If our theology of God is very wide of the mark, we are believing in a false god. And Paul knows that a “gospel” that is no gospel at all is dangerous, and even dares to pronounce an anathema on those who preach a false gospel (Gal 1:8-9). We no more dare excuse bad or slippery theology in the name of love than we dare excuse brittle lovelessness in the name of orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, we remain uncertain if Pastor Jakes holds to a robust Trinitarianism or not. Sometimes he seems to, as when he observes, quite rightly, that the Father addresses the Son at his baptism. But then again, he prefers to speak of manifestations.

That brings us to the second step: his appeal to 1 Timothy 3:16. “God was manifest in the flesh” (KJV): apparently Pastor Jakes, not to mention some of his post-ER2 supporters, thinks this line supports his preference for three manifestations rather than three persons. It does no such thing; this is scandalously bad exegesis. Note: (a) For this verse to support the preference for manifestations terminology, it would have to support the proposition that God was manifest in the Father, God was manifest in the Son, and God was manifest in the Spirit—for that is what the “manifestations” terminology, applied to the Godhead, is all about. (b) In other words, the “manifest” verb in 1 Timothy 3:16 is not a technical expression justifying three “manifestations,” but common language that means God displayed himself in the flesh or expressed himself in the flesh or appeared in the flesh. That is why the NIV renders the passage, “He appeared in the flesh.” Should we conclude that this rendering, perfectly accurate, justifies a theory of three appearances?

Now we are getting to the nub of the issue in this second pairing. There is a kind of appeal to Scripture, a kind of biblicism—let’s call it Biblicism One—that seems to bow to what Scripture says but does not listen to the text very closely and is almost entirely uninformed by how thoughtful Christians have wrestled with these same texts for centuries. There is another kind of biblicism—let’s call it Biblicism Two—that understands the final authority in divine revelation to lie in Scripture traceable to the God who has given it, but understands also that accurate understanding of that Scripture is never supported by bad exegesis and always enriched by the work of Christian thinkers who have gone before.

Here is where the distinction becomes interesting. Neither the terminology of “manifestations” preferred by Oneness Pentecostals and other modalists nor the terminology of “persons” supported by historic creeds is directly used in Scripture. Where does it come from? It comes from thinkers two or three centuries after the New Testament was written who were doing their best to summarize large tracks of biblical themes and texts in faithful, accurate summaries, even if the terminology was not directly dependent on the terminology of a specific verse or two. History has shown, for the reasons briefly set forth in our first pairing, that the terminology of “manifestations” was soundly trounced and declared heretical: it simply could not be squared with what the Bible says. The “persons” terminology prevailed (along with words like “subsistence”) not because it derived directly from usage in the biblical documents themselves, but because it could be shown that this terminology did a great job of summarizing what the Bible actually says.

If you don’t like this example, it is easy to find others. The doctrine of justification, for example, was not invented in Reformation times. Tom Oden (The Justification Reader [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002]) has amply demonstrated how justification was discussed in the patristic period. Nevertheless, in God’s providence the disputes of sixteenth-century Europe provided much more intense study of these matters than what was undertaken in previous centuries. The result was much more exegetical rigor and theological synthesis. Just as the Christological and Trinitarian disputes of the third and fourth centuries generated syntheses that were actually grounded in the Bible and designed to reject false teaching, so the justification debates did something analogous in the sixteenth century. Just as the Christological debates generated theological terms like “essence” and “person,” belonging to the domain of systematic theology yet actually reflecting faithful biblical synthesis, so the justification debates generated theological terms that analyzed “faith” under rubrics like notitia (the content of faith), assensus (confidence that this faith-content is true), and fiducia (trust in the true content of faith such that it changes how you live).

To attempt theological interpretation without reference to such developments is part and parcel of Biblicism One; to attempt theological interpretation that is self-consciously aware of such developments and takes them into account is part and parcel of Biblicism Two. We hasten to add that both Biblicism One and Biblicism Two insist that final authority rests with the Bible. All the theological syntheses are in principle revisible. Yet the best of these creeds and confessions have been grounded in such widespread study, discussion, debate, and testing against Scripture that to ignore them tends to cut oneself off from the entire history of Christian confessionalism. The Bible remains theoretically authoritative (Biblicism One), but in fact it is being manipulated and pummeled by private interpretations cut off from the common heritage of all Christians.

Some months ago, James MacDonald wrote:

I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as I find it in Scripture. I believe it is clearly presented but not detailed or nuanced. I believe God is very happy with His Word as given to us and does not wish to update or clarify anything that He has purposefully left opaque. Somethings [sic] are stark and immensely clear, such as the deity of Jesus Christ; others are taught but shrouded in mystery, such as the Trinity. I do not trace my beliefs to creedal statements that seek clarity on things the Bible clouds with mystery. I do not require T. D. Jakes or anyone else to define the details of Trinitarianism the way that I might. His [Jakes’s] website states clearly that he believes God has existed eternally in three manifestations.

This, of course, is Biblicism One. As a statement about the location of final authority, it is as admirable as Biblicism Two. The thing to note is that it uses the language of “three manifestations,” which is not found in Scripture, so while claiming the authority of Biblicism One it is nevertheless sanctioning post-biblical categories. We simply cannot escape the fact that our linguistic labels are shaped by prior discussion. But if the statement had taken into account the detailed discussions about “manifestations” that have informed Christian reflection since the fourth century, the author would have insisted that “manifestations” is not an acceptable way to talk about the Godhead, and that there are detailed reasons for preferring “persons”—reasons that are grounded not in arbitrary or personal semantic preference, but in words that have been used to summarize large swaths of Christian teaching about God and which are faithful to this synthesis.

Several Christians challenged James on these matters, and James accepted the correction with humility and grace, and soon came down off that ledge. We want to give him full credit for that. Not all Christian leaders could have accepted the correction as well, and we are only bringing it up as an instructive example. Yet that is the ledge on which T. D. Jakes seems currently to be perched. His commitment to Biblicism One does not mean that he is, in the best sense, “biblical,” and his handling of 1 Timothy 3:16 on a topic of this importance is not reassuring.

3. Prosperity Gospel and Empowerment

ER2 addressed many pastorally interesting and useful topics. Quite a number of commentators, however, have expressed disappointment that no one pushed T. D. Jakes on his apparent support for the prosperity gospel.

Pastor Jakes prefers to think that what he is preaching is a kind of empowerment to oppressed people rather than a prosperity gospel. The distinction is an important one. The Bible supports a certain kind of empowerment; indeed, one and the same gospel tends to build up the oppressed and slap down the haughty. On the one hand, James 1:9 says, “Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.” Believers who are dirt poor, ill, dismissed as nothing in society, are nevertheless already children of the King of kings, and will, with Lazarus, one day lie on Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:19-37). On the other hand, James 1:10-11 says, “But the rich should take pride in their humiliation [Isn’t that a delightful phrase, worthy of much reflection?]—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.” At least some applications of the gospel will be a little different where there is a congregation of broken, indigent people as compared with where there is a congregation of wealthy, successful people.

Yet it is easy to hide a prosperity gospel under the much more acceptable banner of merely empowering the broken. There are two ways to tell. First, discover whether the eternal and universal realities of the gospel “once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3)—not just some of them—lie at the center of what is being preached. Second, find out how much of the “empowerment” focuses on material health and prosperity in this life. Since his breakthrough book, Woman, Thou Art Loosed, Pastor Jakes has left an impressive trail of books and downloads to enable you to assess such matters for yourself. Moreover, the 9Marks website offers penetrating and careful reviews of most the books that Pastor Jakes has written. As far as the evidence goes, we do not see how it is unfair to characterize the burden of much of his ministry as a combination of prosperity gospel and moralizing personal improvement.

4. Love and Truth

A fair bit has been posted on the lovelessness of TGC in general and of some of its members in particular. We cannot help but notice that there are two categories of charges that contradict each other somewhat. On the one hand, we love issues more than people; we should be reconcilers, not haters; we are called to love one another, and we are failing in this regard. On the other hand, quite a few bloggers have criticized TGC for being too silent: in a word, we are cowards instead of standing up for the truth, caving in to megachurch pastors instead of speaking the truth.

We are not above reproach in either direction. All of us will answer to God on the last day; on a much shorter scale, the Council of the Coalition will certainly weigh very carefully at our May meeting what we have and have not done. What we are quite certain of, however, is that the apostle who so movingly writes 1 Corinthians 13 also writes many things about the non-negotiability of the truth of the gospel. He can be surprisingly patient with preachers with bad motives provided that what they preach is the gospel (Phil 1), but when the Jesus who is being preached is “a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached,” Paul can label the preachers “false apostles” who are “masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11) and insist that the Corinthians expel them.

What that means, of course, is that Christian leaders are charged with discerning when and how the tough line must be taken. Even when discipline is demanded, it should never be vituperative. But to appeal to the many passages that exhort us to love without simultaneously thinking through the many passages that bind us to uphold the truth is not only one-sided, it is in danger of being manipulative: if you do not agree with me, you are unloving. Of course, the manipulation can run the other way: if you do not reject this person or this position, you do not care for the truth.

The most recent biography Iain Murray has written is the life of Archibald Brown, one of the successors of Charles Spurgeon. Murray gives us a thumb-nail sketch of the Downgrade controversy (something he filled out in more detail in his earlier volume, The Forgotten Spurgeon). Spurgeon, Brown, and others were increasingly concerned by the effect of German rationalism on Baptist churches in England. What is so striking is how often their opponents charged Spurgeon and his friends with lovelessness, arrogance, old-fashioned small-mindedness—often in a singularly unloving way—without ever engaging the matters of substance. Here, for example, is the Nonconformist and Independent for 17 November, 1887: “Mr Spurgeon and those who follow him seem to be intent upon accentuating the differences of Nonconformists, instead of seeking to draw nearer to each other by unity with their Lord.” So the issue Spurgeon thought important is not taken up, but Spurgeon himself is divisive. It is easy to multiply historical examples of this sort.

Those who take up important theological issues must do so in love, examining their own hearts, avoiding snarkiness and oneupmanship; those who appeal to love and unity need to actually engage with the issues, refusing to duck them.

5. Racism and Playing the Race Card

Doubtless this is the most delicate, sensitive, and complicated of the issues that have arisen, and we do not want to add to the confusion by saying too much or too little, or by writing with the wrong tone. But it would be irresponsible if we said nothing.

About three weeks ago the majority of the African American Council members of TGC made it clear that they felt the white members, not least the leadership, were more sensitive to white theological issues than to black theological issues. After all, TGC had mounted an informed, careful, and bold response to Rob Bell when the incipient universalism of his latest book started to receive national attention and threaten the truth of Scripture and the nature of the gospel. Our African American brothers pointed out, however, that Rob Bell is not perceived to be a great threat in African American circles. But these brothers felt pretty strongly that T. D. Jakes is a huge issue in their circles. On this issue, they thought, TGC was insensitive to what they thought of as a much greater threat.

There were about ten of us involved in those discussions. As soon as matters were articulated like that, the white men among us could not help but see that the charge was justified. Insensitivity on matters of race can be such a subtle thing. By and large, white Christian leaders tend to think that racism is no longer a huge issue, while black Christian leaders tend to think it remains a huge issue: even our perceptions of the significance of the problem are not on the same page. But in this case we caught a glimpse of something that we knew theoretically, but were now seeing up front: there is still a lot of hidden culpable insensitivity around until we are no less eager to engage the “other’s” concerns than our own.

Of course, the issue was complicated by at least two other factors. First, not all African American members saw things the same way. But why should that surprise us? Not all white Christians see things the same way, either. Still, the clear majority of our African American brothers on the Council let us know, rightly, that they were upset. And we judged we had clearly been in the wrong. Second, in one way, of course, this issue was different from Rob Bell’s book, in that there had been no member of the Council who was committed to exploring how acceptable Rob Bell’s theology might be within historic confessionalism, but there were some members of the Council who were committed to exploring T. D. Jakes in this way. But that meant, of course, that the racial insensitivity issue that the majority of our African American brothers on the Council brought up was linked with Jakes’s modalist heritage and his prosperity gospel, which in the words of a couple of them, was “ravaging” the black churches. From their perspective, some of them had paid considerable cost for publicly standing against Pastor Jakes. They had done so precisely because their minds and hearts had been captured by the glorious gospel of the blessed God—and when they needed the most support, the white brothers were letting them down. Suddenly all the theological “pairings” we have articulated in this blogpost were linked together.

Subtleties and ironies surfaced everywhere in the subsequent developments. Some wanted to give T. D. Jakes a pass on the ground that African American churches are more interested in redemption than creeds. That’s a bit like giving Jonathan Edwards a pass on slavery because he was a man of his own time and class. All of us must hold one another to the standard of God’s most holy Word. In fact, it is a kind of insult to Pastor Jakes to give him a pass because of his ethnicity.

It will serve no good purpose to provide a detailed step-by-step account of all that unfolded from that point on. But we must insist in the strongest terms that the white Council members acted not only out of doctrinal and pastoral concerns, but newly aware that we had flubbed the racism test and were trying to make things right. Equally, the African American Council members, far from kowtowing to white concerns, were themselves acting out of their deepest doctrinal and pastoral commitments—commitments for which some of them had already paid a considerable price. It does them—not to say historic Christian confessionalism—an enormous disservice to charge them with betraying their ethnicity. Historic Christian confessionalism is not the private playground of middle-aged white guys. Have we forgotten that the most brilliant and influential thinker in the fourth century when many of the Trinitarian controversies came to resolution was a North African by the name of Augustine?

6. Private and Public

For our purposes, this topic has at least three dimensions.

First, talking with T. D. Jakes in ER2 has been cast as listening to someone first before we say anything critical of him. Relationships precede evaluation. Anyone who ventures a critical evaluation of Pastor Jakes before ER2 is simply being judgmental. With respect, this argument does not hold up to either Scripture or reason. Pastor Jakes is not a private individual about whom some people might have heard a few negative things. If that were the case, it would be imperative to uncover the truth before passing on what would in that case be nothing more than gossip. Pastor Jakes, however, is a public individual. He himself publishes his views in various media; they circulate widely. He is read and heard around the world. Not long ago in a Christian bookshop in South Africa, one of the writers of this article discovered that the author with the greatest number of books on the shelf was T. D. Jakes. It is the responsibility of Christian pastors to become aware of such a preacher and teacher if his works are significantly influencing their own flocks. To imagine that no fair evaluation is possible before an ER2-type public event does not square with apostolic practice. When in 2 Corinthians 10-13 Paul learns of interlopers who are preaching another Jesus, he does not begin by arranging a fireside chat. The content and direction of the interlopers’ ministry is already public, and Paul confronts it.

Second, one might well ask, “But isn’t it different when someone seems to be leaving the camp of a demonstrably false theology, and becoming more orthodox? Isn’t this sort of public discussion in that case very helpful?” Perhaps. In our view, however, there is a better way. A quarter of a century ago, one of us was involved, with other Christian leaders, in several intense, probing discussions with leaders of a major cult. Neither side wanted these discussions to be public; they took place behind closed doors, without cameras or reporters. The cultists were wanting serious discussions with us because their own reading of Scripture was gradually bringing them around to historic confessional orthodoxy. In due course they went public on their own terms, and brought out many of their followers into evangelicalism. That development would not have taken place had the discussions been held in the open.

It is surely a wise and strategic thing to engage in probing conversations with many people with views very dissimilar to our own—not only Christians, but non-Christians, too. And many of our Council members are involved in such discussions, partly in function of normal human friendships, partly in function of Christian witness. Sometimes discussions take place with gifted orators whose theology is still a bit wonky: there is always a place for a Priscilla and an Aquila to teach an Apollos to understand the way of God a little better than he has understood it so far, and there is always a place for a Paul to reason with pagan philosophers in the Areopagus. Many of us are so involved. But that is a bit different from trying to reform another’s theology in a public setting where the trappings and attitudes largely suggest everyone is already on the same side.

Third, as useful as it is on so many fronts, the internet is not notable for fostering discretion in this arena. Bloggers who have no idea of how many hours have been spent in private conversation to win someone to a better way often write with instantaneous public appraisals and unfettered language. They invariably think they write with prophetic insight; sometimes, at least, the contempt displayed is simply sinful. A colleague recently reminded one of us how Calvin set up four organizations in Geneva: the Company of Preachers, the Congregation, the Ordinary Censure, and the Consistory, each with its own responsibilities and assignments. It is the third that is of interest here: the Ordinary Censure brought together the area pastors four times a year, behind closed doors, where they addressed one another with their perceptions of another’s false teaching, dealt with personality conflicts, and the like. The aim was to work things out, hold one another accountable, and bring correction and healing. Each of those four meetings was scheduled one week before the quarterly celebration of the Lord’s Table. The accountability was remarkable—and it was possible, at least in part, because of the regularity and privacy of the Ordinary Censure. This was not designed to skirt the biblical instruction that where there is public accusation against an elder that is found to be justified, the elder is to be reproved before everyone (1 Tim 5:19-20), but it was designed to be a mutually correcting and restorative venue before matters had progressed that far.

We conclude by reiterating what we said in the opening lines. The purpose of this post is not to provide a re-hash of recent events, still less to assign blame. It is to provide some theological and pastoral reflection on the interlocking issues with which we have been wrestling.