The Centrality of the Trinity in the Hope of Humanity


Too often in evangelical Christian circles salvation is thought of as a pit stop rather than as an invitation into a relationship with the Triune God; the Bible is quite clear that humanity has salvation from Christ on the cross, who died in order to open a way for humans to be adopted by God. Paul lays out an incredible summary of salvation in Galatians 4:3-7. Paul’s summary shows that without Christ both natural revelation and written revelation were inadequate to open a relationship to God. All either revelation did was open humanity up to condemnation. However, since humanity’s sins were committed against God, He sent His Son to become a human, live under the human curse, and serve as a sacrifice. Once Christ raised from the grave, God then sent His Spirit to indwell the new believers, not so that they would be robots, but instead that they would act like children of God. Paul’s intention in Galatians is to show that salvation is much more than saying a prayer (though a prayer is a beginning), but rather salvation is an invitation into a family.

Paul’s summarization of the Christian faith, found in Galatians 4:3-7, reads as such:

In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 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.[1]

In order to understand the passage, one must first understand the immediate context of the passage in the book of Galatians. Paul was writing to a diverse group composed of both Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. Galatians stands out as almost unique among the epistles as it was written to an eclectic congregation made up of both Jewish converts and former pagan.[2] The main theme of Galatians, however, was to combat some who were saying that Christians had to be circumcised in order to truly be saved. These false teachers were saying that one had to obey the Law of Moses even after one came to Christ. Galatians 4 serves to combat the belief that the Law was still necessary for salvation, with Paul using imagery of slavery and sonship, indicating that those under the Law are slaves while those under grace are adopted sons of God.

Paul’s concern for the Galatians is found in the first chapter of Galatians, where he expresses how upset he is that some in the church were already turning away (Galatians 1:3). The entire first chapter of Galatians speaks of the dangers of pursuing a Gospel other than the one taught by the Apostles. He follows his teaching by relating a story in the second chapter of how the Apostles had given him the charge to go to the gentiles. What is interesting is that he points out that when Peter and other prominent Christians began to act superior to the gentiles, Paul chastised them for justifying themselves by works rather than by faith. In the third chapter, Paul puts an emphasis on the fact that Christians are saved by faith and not by the works of the Law, with the fourth chapter serving to show more of the dangers of following the Law. Both the fifth and sixth chapters of Galatians state that Christians live in liberty and that though they struggle against their sinful desires, they should still seek to please God by loving Him, avoiding sin, and doing good to others.

The Hopeless State of Humanity

Though the immediate context of Galatians 4:3-7 provides a decent understanding of the text, what is most interesting about this specific passage is that it actually draws in the greater historical text of human history. In the third verse, Paul states that before each member received Christ, they were subjected to the elements of the world. Many of the Galatian believers were former pagans who took the physical aspects of the world and worshiped them as gods or as the result of gods. Such an observation provides a broader context for Galatians 4 than the immediate context allows.

Paul is drawing upon the pagan ideas and philosophies that had defined Greek culture, as well as the man-made traditions found within Judaism, when he says “elements of the world.” The Orthodox Study Bible explains the “elements of the world” as, “…philosophies and traditions developed by humanity without regard to God.”[3] The formerly pagan believers would have come from a myriad of philosophies. Some could have been Platonic or Aristotelian, believing that God was so far above humanity that humans could never relate to Him. Others could have been Epicureans, believing that if God existed, He was merely material. Others could have been pagans, buying into the Roman gods and worshiping them. The Jews, alternatively, would have relied upon the Law as their way to connect with God.

The problem with the “elements of the world” is that they left little hope of connecting with God. As Peter Kreeft wrote, “No pagan ever suspected the possibility of such intimacy, even with their finite, anthropomorphic gods…And therefore no pagan ever understood the deeper meaning and terror of ‘sin’ either, for sin is the breaking of that relationship. Sin is to faith what infidelity is to marriage.”[4] The pagan background excluded intimacy with God because no matter what the belief was, it would not allow for a close relationship with God.

The Jewish background provided a more moralistic religion than paganism and certainly provided a greater revelation of God, but even it came up short in establishing a relationship with God. For the ancient Jew, sin was breaking rules, not violating a relationship. One did not have fellowship with God, but rather was a slave to His Law.

Of course, both the Jewish and pagan worlds had an idea of who God was through natural revelation and special revelation. The pagans knew that, in some form, someone higher than the rest of humanity existed. The evidence of God is found within nature (Psalm 19:1). However, nature failed to enlighten humanity as to what type of God He was. Such a failure was not done on the part of God, but rather upon humans who chose to turn to sin and in so doing blocked their minds from seeing His majesty (Romans 1:18-32). The situation of the pagans was that they knew God was there, but due to their own sin they did not know what type of God He was, and so knowing of His existence they still did not know Him.

The Jews faired much better than the pagans, but still faced an incomplete revelation. God had revealed Himself to the Jews and so they saw God as He wanted to be seen. However, even this revelation was done through prophets and the writings of these prophets, which made Judaism abstract.[5] Though God was inviting Israel to a relationship with Him out of His love, such love seemed far off as God was immaterial while humans were material.

Thus, before Christ, the believers in Galatia were subject to the “elements of this world.” They had been trapped in some pagan philosophy or religion where God was either transcended, or they worshiped many gods. Others in the Church had known who God was, but were enslaved to the Law in their desire to be holy. In both situations, God was known, but not in a complete manner. It was only through the person of Christ that God’s revelation was made complete.[6]

The Origin of Fellowship

After reminding the Galatians of their hopeless state prior to conversion of Christ, Paul goes on to state that, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His son…” Paul said that God, in His providence, sent His Son at the perfect moment. Such a sending indicates the close relationship between Father and Son. By calling Christ the “Son of God,” Paul is stating that God finalized His revelation by sending His Word into the lost world.

Jesus was present both at the creation of the world and the fall of humanity. He chose to come at the appointed time out of obedient love for His Father. The appointed time was chosen because fellowship between God and humanity had been broken. Even the ancient Jews had an understanding that God created humans for fellowship (Wisdom of Solomon 11:24-26).  Sin, therefore, was a disruption of the fellowship between God and man.

The “appointed time” came about because humans had sinned against God. Paul explains that all humans are guilty of committing sin in Romans 5:12, where he writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all have sinned…“ God is holy and good, therefore to do an act that is unholy or not good is to violate who God is; since all humans have done this, all humans are guilty of sin and therefore owe God. By sinning against God we commit an offense that we must pay back to Him, or as Richard Swinburne states:

When I have deprived you of a service I owe you, I must perform the service and compensate you for the delay. But what needs to be dealt with is not merely the effects of wrongdoing; there is also the fact of wrongdoing – that I have sought to hurt you…We wrong him [God] directly when we fail to pay him proper worship. Deep reverence and gratitude is owed to the holy source of our existence. We wrong him indirectly when we wrong any of his creatures, the humans and animals whom he has created.”[7]

Since God is good, it follows that God is also just. Thus, when He has been sinned against He must act in a just manner toward that sin and seek to punish such sin.  This indicates that we are guilty before God; not some emotional guilt, but rather that we are violators of God’s good graces, we are guilty as a criminal is found guilty.[8] If one keeps Romans 1 in mind when considering the guiltiness of humanity, it is easy to see that no one, regardless of background, is without an excuse. Whether one is white or back, Jew or Gentile, Muslim or Zoroastrian, all stand guilty before God. All humans should know who God is, but instead choose to rebel against Him.

God’s Solution in the Life of Christ

Though men sinned against God, He sent His Son at the appointed time, indicating that God would withhold His justice long enough for His love to be revealed. Sending Christ into the world was not a “Plan B” for God and this is evidenced by both Paul’s use of the term “appointed time” and Genesis 3:15. In Genesis 3:15, after Adam and Eve had rebelled against God, God says to the serpent (Satan), who tempted Adam and Eve, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” From before creation, God knew He would send His Son and appointed the time when this would occur.

Paul refers to Christ as the “Son of God,” which properly understood indicates the deity of Christ.[9] For some, the idea that Christ is both the “Son of God” and “God” poses a problem; how could He be His own Son? However, the title “Son” indicates that the Father beget the Son, not at some point in time, but that He has eternally been begetting the Son. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus states:

“For a thing without a beginning is also eternal, but the eternal thing is not by all means without a beginning, as long as for its beginning it is referred to the Father…The sun is not older than its light. By some means they are without beginning in reference to time, even if you scare the simpler people, for the sources of time are not under time.”[10]

Just because Christ is begotten does not mean He cannot be eternal, but rather that He gains His essence from the Father. We cannot possibly hope to understand with any comprehension how such a process works, but this lack of comprehension does not mean that such a process is subsequently false.[11] Another way to look at such a complicated issue is to think about what it means for God to be love. If God is love, then there must be someone else for Him to love.[12] God’s eternal nature would require someone else for Him to love for all eternity. The problem is, if this “other” is eternal, then the “other” by definition is God. If one were to say that perhaps both were eternal, but still separate, then neither would be God, since God is perfect and to be perfect means to be whole. If neither were truly whole, than neither would be perfect, and, though eternal, neither would be God. Thus, since God is love, but also perfect and eternal, it follows that He would eternally beget the Son.

Paul goes on in verse four to say that Christ was “born of a woman,” indicating that Christ wasn’t just a deity come down as an apparition or with some celestial flesh, but rather that He was divine, but also fully human in all things (but without sin). It is clear that Paul viewed Christ as both God and a human being from his other writings. In 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul uses the term “…the man Christ Jesus…” indicating his belief that Christ was truly human. Paul was not alone in His belief as even after Christ’s resurrection, He is seen as human (albeit glorified) by the apostles (Luke 24:39). Even among the early Christians, there was an understanding that Christ came in human flesh so that humans could truly see God for who He is. As the anonymous author of the Epistle to Diognetus wrote:

“Before his advent, who among mankind had any notion at all of what God is?…but as soon as He disclosed it, through His beloved Son, and revealed what had been planned since the beginning, then straightway He poured out all the fullness of His bounty upon us, permitting us to share His benefactions and to see and know such blessings as none of us could have ever looked for.”[13]

In becoming human, the divine Son gave a complete revelation to humanity. Whereas natural revelation only lets us know that God exists and the revelation of the prophets only lets us know he is fallen, it is through the incarnation that God lets us know that we are loved. The incarnation shows humanity that God is not distant, nor is He some abstract idea located within the mind or imagination of humans. Rather, He is an active God who loves His creation dearly, so much so that He took on human flesh in order to save them.

God’s Solution in the Death of Christ

Simply becoming human to relate to humans is not enough and Paul indicates as much when he writes that Christ came into the world to those “…born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The Law displayed the justice and holiness of God. To those under the Law, there was one constant and that constant was that humans were always inadequate at following God. In sinning against God, the Law dictated that humanity must pay.

Paul shows that Christ lived under the Law and eventually died to free humanity from the Law. Such a point is important because if the pagans would have discovered Judaism, all they would have accomplished was further condemnation. Not only would they be lost in their pagan nature, they would be doubly lost by then realizing that they had not followed the Law, for the Law trapped people and enslaved them. If the pagans had discovered Judaism, they would have only succeeded in discovering that they were condemned by natural moral law and by God’s revealed law. Christ, however, freed humanity from the grip of the Law and instead sought to bring humanity into a relationship with Himself.

Leading a “good moral life”, however, does not satisfy the offense committed against God. As Swinburne was previously quoted, when humans sin against God, they owe Him for such a sin. Though the life of Christ brought about further and final revelation of God, it was the death of Christ that served as a way to absolve humanity of its sins. 1 John 4:10 states, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” This passage indicates two things, namely that (1) the sacrifice of Christ wasn’t done out of anger or some sadistic forgiveness ritual, but rather out of love for humanity, and (2) that Christ served as the bearer of human sin. John uses the word ἱλασμὸν (ilasmon) in describing Christ’s actions on the cross, which means to appease. Christ’s death on the cross appeased the justice of God, for the offenses of humanity had been placed on Christ.

In serving as a sacrifice for human sin, Christ was forsaken by the Father. The idea of “God forsaking God” becomes one of the greatest paradoxes in the Scriptures, something that many theologians and philosophers have shied away from. What can be said is that it is possible for a person to reject a person even if the two persons are of the same being. However, one should not gloss over the fact that Christ became a sacrifice of the Law in order to free those under the Law. As all humans fail to live up to the standards set forth by the Law, all humans deserve to be forsaken by God; yet for human iniquities, Christ was forsaken by the Father, that is, He took on the forsakenness that was due to humanity (Isaiah 53:4-6, 10-11).

Christ’s also served as a ransom upon the cross, not just from sins, but also from the effects of human sins (Mark 10:45). Christ’s act on the cross serves as more than an act of appeasing an angry God, but also serves as the ultimate display of love. His actions on the cross promised a better life to those who suffer from the entrapments and hopeless pits of the world. As St. Clement of Rome stated, “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock…If the Lord humbled Himself in this way, what ought we to do, who through Him have come under the yoke of His grace?”[14] St. Clement shows that the Lord came for more than just “say a prayer and be saved” salvation, but rather to create a whole new lifestyle for His fallen creation.

Christ ultimately died on the cross to remove all that stood in the way between us and God forming a relationship. Sin and open rebellion, much like infidelity in a marriage, prevent a deep bond between God and ourselves. Christ, out of love, eradicated such an obstacle, or, as Peter Kreeft states, “Man’s metaphysical quest finds its final earthly fulfillment at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where the world saw the most dramatic event in history: Death and Life dueling in miraculous combat…Life conquered Death not by power but by love.”[15]

What is more amazing about Christ on the cross is that He was paying for a debt that was owed to Him and saving a creature that had rebelled against Him. Jesus, being God, was paying for offenses committed against Him. Yet, even though He knew this fact, out of love He remained on the cross. As the author of the Epistle to Diognetus eloquently states:

“In that hour, instead of hating us and rejecting us and remembering our wickedness against us, He showed how long-suffering He is. He bore with us, and in pity He took our sins upon Himself and gave His own Son as a ransom for us – the Holy for the wicked, the Sinless for the sinners, the Just for the unjust, the Incorrupt for the corrupt, the Immortal for the mortal. For was there, indeed, anything except His righteousness that could have availed to cover our sins? In whom could we, in our lawlessness and ungodliness, have been made holy, but in the Son of God alone?”[16]

Christ, in His love, refused to turn away from humanity, but instead took on human sin in the hopes of restoring fellowship to humans once again.

God’s Solution in the Resurrection of Christ

Paul states that Christ was sent into the world to redeem those under the Law, and while His death on the cross accomplished this redemption, death does not offer hope. After all, if Christ remained in the grave, then what hope would there be for humans? Ultimately their sins would be forgiven, but there would be no hope of escaping the grave. Likewise, God would be dead, so what would be the point in believing in Him?

Christ did not remain in the grave, but rather the power of the Spirit was displayed in the resurrection of Christ, the same Spirit that He and the Father had eternally loved from all creation. Just as the Father’s love requires that He eternally begets the Son, the love between Father and Son requires that the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father. The love between two, such as in a marriage, can sometimes open itself up to selfishness. After all, what good is it to love if two are not willing to share such a love (as a parent would with children)? It follows that the Spirit would also be in eternal relationship with the Father and Son, while also being God.

Paul points out that the because of Christ’s actions, the Spirit of God now resides within Christians and that this indicates their adoption by God. Galatians 4:6 echoes the sentiment of Romans 8:11, which reads, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” The fact that the Spirit indwells a believer indicates that, in a sense, the believer has been deified (not in nature or being, but in attributes).

Certainly the indwelling does not indicate that we can share being with God, but it does indicate that we undergo a significant change. Paul explains the change in a scandalous fashion by stating that those who are indwelt with the Spirit can call God “Abba.” Such a term was one of endearment, one that a child used with his father. Paul was writing this to show that just as a child is not a slave to the parent, so too the Christian is not a slave to God. Christians have God within them, thus they do not need to follow the Law in order to be holy, for they are already holy, not of their own deeds, but because of Who resides within them.

A Continual Resurrection

It is easy to get the idea that because we are free from the Law, we are suddenly free to perform any action and simply rely on the grace of God for forgiveness. However, such a viewpoint is inconsistent with the central message of Galatians and of the Bible; Christians are now adopted children of God and should act thusly so. A slave obeys the master out of obligation and fear of retribution. A child obeys her father out of a desire to please him and experience his love. Though there are boundaries that must be placed upon the child, the relationship between a father and a child is based on love and more organic than the relationship between master and slave. Though we are free from the Law, such freedom does not excuse a life of sin.

By having the Spirit within them, Christians participate in the resurrection of Christ on a daily basis. Though the resurrection of Christ took place in space and time, Christians follow the precedent set by Christ by dying to themselves daily and raising up in Him. Christians look to the example of Christ, who as Paul says was sent by God. They look to Him because He obeyed the Father not out of obligation, but out of love. Christians too should live as Christ did and obey God not out of obligation, but instead out of love.

While we are free from sin by being covered by the blood of Christ, we are also raised to victory and becomes an heir to God’s Kingdom. Such a status means that we are more than just, “saved from sins,” or “going to Heaven,” but that we are free from all oppression, no matter the our status in life. As the Paschal Homily of St. John of Chrysostom reads:

“If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness. For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention. Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!”[17]

Being an heir to God’s throne means a complete restoration. Such a restoration does begin with the absolution of one’s sins, but is culminated one day in glorification.

Conclusion

It should be noted that without the Trinity, Galatians 4 merely becomes empty rhetoric. Without the Trinity, Christ is not truly the Son of God – in that He shares being with God – but rather He is a created person, meaning the offenses were against God and not against Christ. If the offenses were not committed against Christ then in His sacrifice He becomes a third party in a dispute between God and man, making His contribution in adequate. Without the Trinity, Paul’s usage of the term “Son of God” indicates that Christ was an enlightened human or an angelic being; but either way, He would be inadequate to free humans from the Law.

The sacrifice of Christ can only be understood in terms of the Trinity. God, as one, is sinned against by humanity and His justice requires action. In His love, He provides His Son as the satisfaction for that justice, but then goes further and invites humanity to partake in His adoption. God does not just save us from sin, but instead brings us into fellowship with Himself. When looked at through a Trinitarian view, the central message of Galatians 4:3-7 is that being a child of God begins when one is prostrate before the cross and is culminated when one runs toward Him at the time of glorification and collapses into His arms.


[1] All passages are quoted from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[2] Introduction to Galatians. 2008. The ESV Study Bible, ed. Lane T. Dennis, 2241-2244. Wheaton, Grand Rapids.

[3] Galatians Commentary. 2008. The Orthodox Study Bible, ed. Fr. Jack Norman Sparks, p. 1593. Elk Grove; St. Athanasius’ Academy of Orthodox Theology.

[4] Peter Kreeft. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2007, p 17.

[5] Ibid. 17

[6] Philosohpy of Jesus, 24

[7] Richard Swinburne. Was Jesus God?. Oxford And New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, p 54-55.

[8] Schaeffer, Francis. True Spirituality: How to Live for Jesus Moment by Moment. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001, p 3.

[9] Orthodox Study Bible

[10] Gregory of Nazianzu. Gregory of Nazianzus’s Third Theological Oration. Translated by William G. Rusch. In The Trinitarian Controversy, William G. Rusch, 136. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.

[11] Ibid 136

[12] Was Jesus God? p 28-29

[13] Anonymous, . The Epistle to Diognetus. Translated by Maxwell Staniforth. In The Apostolic Fathers: Early Christian Writings, Andrew Louth, London: Penguin Books, 1987, 146-147.

[14] Clement of Rome. The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. Translated by Maxwell Staniforth. In The Apostolic Fathers: Early Christian Writings, Andrew Louth, London: Penguin Books, 1987, 29-30.

[15] Philosophy of Jesus, 23

[16] Epistle to Diognetus, 148

[17] St. John Chrysostom. Fordham University. Accessed April 8, 2010. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/chrysostom-easter.html

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