By Joseph Tkach and Neil Earle
“My name is Michael Anthony and I have a gift for you. One million dollars, tax free.”
Decades before “Millionaire” there was “The Millionaire.”
Older readers will remember the famous line from the 1950s television series wherein every week a fabulously wealthy – but unknown – benefactor would send his accountant Michael J. Anthony to deliver a check to someone in dire straits.
Invariably the intended recipient would tend to dismiss the million dollar offer as a joke, a hoax or something worse.
Well, hold on because we’ve got some almost unbelievable good news for you.
You have an enormously rich benefactor in the heavenly realms who has much more than a million dollars to offer. Your unseen benefactor is offering you nothing less than peace, righteousness and eternal life with joy and abundance forever (Romans 5:1-5).
And guess what? There are no strings attached, there is nothing you really have to “do” and – best of all – your sins will not be the determining factor. Your heavenly benefactor is the true God and the gift he wants to confer upon you is already yours. There are no strings attached because he has been planning this from all eternity. The gift flows out of his innermost nature, out of what he really is in his essence and not because of who we are or what we have done or will do. Let’s try to explain that.
To mention God in His essence – what He really is in contrast to what He is like – is to approach the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is a way of explaining who and what God is which makes sense of a great Bible mystery – the mystery of how God is one and yet in some marvelous way is actually three. “The threeness is not lost in the oneness neither is the oneness lost in the threeness,” to rephrase an older Christian formula. Many are puzzled by this seeming paradox, yet – paradoxically – almost every Christian has been baptized, sprinkled or “confirmed” in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (Matthew 28:19-20).
The Apostle Paul confirmed this teaching when he ended his second letter to the Corinthians with “may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
Exactly how all this works out is not easy to understand. But then why should we expect the Great God, the most magnificient being we can conceive, why should he be easy to understand? How about our husbands or wives? Are they always east to understand? Our teenagers? Historians tell us that President Abraham Lincoln is a puzzle. Yes, sometimes we have to admit, we even find ourselves hard to understand.
But thanks be to God. He has revealed enough of himself to help us understand his inner nature, and that nature is actually the key to our redemption. The Christian thinker Eugene Peterson recently stated: “Our Trinitarian theology in the evangelical church is thin.” J.I. Packer admitted that the Trinity is usually considered a fairly un-useful piece of theological lumber that no-one pays much attention to. Unfortunately that is all too true.
Yet this blind spot allows us to miss the relationships that exist among the members of the Trinity and this means we miss gaining insight into the most important relationship of all. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God beings yet they relate to each other in a way that is so close, intimate and personal that they are in fact one! The Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath explains it this way: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three isolated and diverging compartments of a Godhead, like three subsidiary components of an international corporation. Rather they are differentiations within the Godhead, which become evident within the [working out] of salvation and the human experience of redemption and grace” (Christian Theology: An Introduction, page 298).
The early Greek fathers of the church had a word for this relationship. They described it as a mutual indwelling of each person in the Godhead, so close that each shares in the life of the other two. The Greeks had a word for that. They called it perichoresis. Perichoresis may sound like a theological mouthful but it comes from two words, peri “around” (as in periscope), and choretic (“moving,” or dancing”) from which we get choreography.
Pastors who have taught this subject put it in more folksy terms. “You could say in today’s street parlance that the members of the Godhead are really ‘into’ each other,” says one. Christian author and therapist Larry Crabbe summarizes it this way: “God is in eternal community, a radically other-centered relationship where the Father is always saying, Isn’t my Son something?! The Son’s always saying, Look at the Father. And the Spirit is always saying, Look at Jesus.”
This helps us understand some rather mystical-sounding verses in John’s Gospel. Jesus taught that the Father is glorified in the Son, the Son is glorified because of the Father, that “my Father and I are one.” That describes a closeness that yearns towards intimacy and unity. Though perichoresis is not a Biblical word John’s Gospel and many of Paul’s statements is flooded with this concept. They express a loving, supportive, mutually adoring and communitarian relationship, an intimacy of harmony that holds the Godhead together.
“Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?...Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10-11).
“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20).
“If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).
“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20-21).
These texts reveal an interacting harmony of unity within the Trinity that is almost playful in its implications. This means that love, light, unity, harmony, and delight in community existed from the beginning. It existed in the mind and life and activity of God before the creation of the world.
But did you notice something else in those passages?
This life and activity and joyfulness in community also includes us – us, we sinning human beings. We also can be caught up in the divine embrace of community that is the Trinity. The Good News is really Good – that mutual relationship of God with his creatures is exactly what the Father intended from the beginning. Even more so: Redemption starts with God’s nature, not with human sin. Through Christ we are all included in the all-embracing love of God. God did not create us so Jesus could die for our sins – as pivotal as that was – rather, the Father created us to be adopted as his children.
This message is strongly rooted in Paul’s teaching to the Athenians that all human beings are the offspring of God. We are all his children through the creation (Acts 17:24-29). We are all made of one blood. But the Holy Spirit also reveals through John’s Gospel the profound implications of perichoretic union. It means nothing less than the fact that the human race is destined to be included in the divine community, a community of which God Himself is the model. “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:4-6).
Through the merits of the Son, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit can present us to the Father as already forgiven, reconciled and saved. Yes, the human race has been saved already, divine amnesty has been proclaimed, except they don’t know it yet. Paul outlined this in his teaching on “the two humanities” in Romans 5:12-21 which concludes with the great thought of how Jesus more than atoned for Adam’s sin. “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (verse 18).
John Calvin said it well, “Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin.”
Does this mean that all will be saved?
No but that is certainly God’s hope (1 Timothy 2:4) and it should be ours as well.
Let’s think about it this way. Great Christian thinker across the centuries developed many ways to think of the relationship between God and his creation. There is the idea of redemption – God had to buy us back from sin and Satan, a theme borrowed from the world of commerce. There is the teaching on justification, very popular at the time of the Reformation—that Jesus paid the penalty of our sins to cancel out our debts before God. There is the idea of propitiation, of Christ’s death diverting God’s wrath from us. There is expiation – the cleansing made possible through Christ. All these ideas have merit and value and can all be preached from Scripture.
At a time when we can routinely view the world from outer space, at a time when our daily news reports fills us with an almost universal yearning for reconciliation and peace – for true community – it is inspiring to focus anew on the subject of divine inclusion. This should not be too surprising. From the beginning human beings were made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). We are all “the offspring of God” (Acts 17:28-29). What Paul explained to the philosophers on Mars Hill was a message flowing out of God’s very nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our adoption flows from the vital and intense relationship that exists within the Godhead, a relationship that was always intended to reach out and include us – all of us!.
The Plan of God revolves around the adoption of the human race in to God’s Family. They are already saved in Christ because they all died when Christ died. But Jesus had reconciled us to the Father so the plan through adoption could proceed. As the Second Adam, he took our redemption back to heaven with him. The “problem” is that the human race doesn’t realize this fact. Christians do. We understand that we “were buried with him in baptism” but through God the Holy Spirit we were raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6).
The church is the forerunner Giver of life, the marvelous Holy Spirit is able to present all human beings to the Father. Divine amnesty has been proclaimed. Christ has effected the salvation of the human race only they haven’t all claimed it yet.
This is what Paul means when he concludes his thoughts with the father’s intention “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
The Church is made up of the first-fruits – those who have already come to see this marvelous plan which begins and ends in Christ. But that redemption applies to all. The gap has been bridged. The price has been paid. It’s time for the human race – like the prodigal son in the parable – to come home.
Knowing the perichoretic relationship that exists within the Godhead means that the Good News is very good indeed. God has not created fallible human beings, exposed them to Satan’s wiles and then blamed them for their mistakes. No. God’s purposes through adoption still stand. We do not start with human sin and failure in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, but with his plan to adopt us from the beginning. Jesus Christ “has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
Salvation, in other words, flows from the nature of God not from a desperate attempt to repair damages.
That nature is indescribable love, unity, warmth, cooperation, and communion in the most intense form of these words. We as Christians are called to be heralds of that good tidings – “I have a gift for you…”