The Center of the Good News
As evangelicals, we tend to have a vague sense that the Trinity matters but are not quite sure why. As a doctrine, it seems overly speculative and void of practical benefits, and we'd rather get down to the business of getting more people saved. Questions about its coherence haunt pastors and Sunday school teachers, who often give weak-kneed answers that take more cues from eggs and water than from the revelation of Scripture.
Fred Sanders, professor at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University (and a former teacher of mine), argues in The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway) that even though we continue to treat the doctrine of the Trinity as an "awkward guest in the evangelical household," it is the necessary backdrop for everything evangelicals emphasize. As he puts it, "The gospel is Trinitarian, and the Trinity is the gospel." His goal is to help evangelicals "embrace the doctrine of the Trinity wholeheartedly and without reserve, as a central concern to evangelical Christianity."
If Sanders accomplished only that, The Deep Things of God would be a notable contribution to the burgeoning literature aimed at helping evangelicals become more thoroughly Trinitarian. But he goes a step further, arguing not only that evangelicals need the Trinity to make sense of the gospel, but that we need it to make sense of ourselves as well. Our current evangelical milieu notwithstanding, Sanders writes that "evangelical Christians have been in reality the most thoroughly Trinitarian Christians in the history of the church."
The claim is a strong one, but Sanders is not capricious. While he acknowledges that the broader tradition of Christian theology has influenced him, Sanders limits himself to specifically evangelical sources to argue that evangelicals' emphases on a personal relationship with Jesus, devotional Bible reading, and conversational prayer are grounded in tacit Trinitarian commitments. Sanders deploys a surprising collage of sources to make his point. He unpacks the Trinitarian commitments of usual evangelical suspects John Piper, Billy Graham, and Francis Schaeffer, but he also incorporates evangelical outliers like Nicky Cruz, the gang leader turned pastor and author of Run, Baby, Run, and reaches back to lesser-known evangelicals, like A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
This charitable and optimistic reading of the evangelical tradition is a refreshing contrast to the constant barrage of criticisms and complaints that evangelicals have grown accustomed to. Sanders is not naïve about evangelical shallowness (indeed, his analysis of evangelicalism's decadence is worth the price of the book alone). Yet the main problem is our alienation from our Trinitarian roots, which extend "not just into the history of the movement, but into the reality of who we are in Christ."
This double dynamic is what makes The Deep Things of God a unique contribution to the ongoing discussion about the shape of the gospel. There is a temptation in the current debate to focus exclusively on whether the gospel includes social justice or not, to ask only who or what God has redeemed, rather than reflect about the nature of the God who redeems. Sanders's contribution is a welcome reminder that regardless of whether the gospel is for society or individuals, its primary purpose is to draw us into the inner life of God. As he puts it, the gospel "not only meets our deepest needs but comes from God's deepest self."