This post is the beginning of a series of posts on the Triune Gospel. For the last number of years I’ve been working on these ideas and working to flesh them out into a framework of thinking about the gospel that I’ve found to be really fruitful for myself and for the people I’ve shared it with. In this series of posts (denoted by the [TGS] in the title, and each linked to each other at the bottom of the posts) I’m planning to lay out the Triune Gospel framework and show how it threads together and integrates a number of distinct ideas that we often call “the gospel”, and how the integration actually leads to some powerful forward steps in understanding how the gospel is transformative in our lives, and how it gives us some additional tools for sharing our faith.
Now before we go any further, I realize that even broaching the idea of “new teaching” when it comes to Christianity may leave many feeling skiddish, and for good reason. There have been many “new teachings” that aren’t sound or biblical, and we are wise to weigh anything we haven’t heard before to discern whether it is truly Scriptural and beneficial to our walk of faith. To that end, I’ve laid out the criteria for weighing new teachings that I use and why the Triune Gospel is something we need to at least explore and not dismiss out-of-hand. If you’re asking this question, I’d refer you to that article; in this one I’m going to proceed with exploring the topic.
The Gospel’s Anchor Point
To begin our discussion, I want to observe this critical point:
The Gospel is relational before it is doctrinal.
This is is such an important point and must feed into any articulation of our faith. What do I mean by this statement? Let’s consider two hypothetical people:
The first is someone who has perfect doctrine. They’ve spent their whole life carefully reading and studying the Bible - often in original languages, and they have a comprehensive and accurate understanding of what it says. On nearly any question they can bring up a host of passages of Scripture and articulate the range of views possible, including their own. They are the model theologian…the only problem is that they don’t actually know Jesus. Hey have flawless doctrine - and no relationship. The whole of what they have studied has resulted in incredible knowledge about God, but somehow not actually knowing God himself.
The second person is the inverse: they have a genuine and profound relationship with Jesus. They commune with him in prayer and live a life truly marked by his presence and fruit. He or she shares a heart connection with Jesus and they interact with him on the many issues they face in life. People who interact with them often walk away with the sense that they have been with someone who has been with God. Only downside is, this person is completely confused about who God is! Their theology is completely topsy-turvy. When interacted with on a range of issues, their responses range from nonsensical to flat-out incorrect. They have invested their life into knowing Jesus, but they have nearly no accurate knowledge they can articulate.
Here is the critical question. Suppose both of these people pass away: which one do we anticipate seeing in the afterlife? The one with the perfect doctrine and no relationship, or the one with a powerful relationship but laughable doctrine? I suspect you would agree with me that it is the person who actually knows Jesus, even if they are confused about what he’s like. That’s the person we believe to see in eternity.
This is what I mean by the statement above; that when push comes to shove between the two things that we value both of (relationship & doctrine), relationship is the one that is primary. Relationship without doctrine is worth infinitely more than doctrine without relationship.
The Gospel is about...what?
So this brings us to an interesting observation. What, precisely, is the topic of the gospel? What is it about? Take a moment and think about how you would articulate the gospel to someone who was asking you what it is you believe. There tend to be a few different approaches (Jesus died for my sins / Jesus is taking authority back from Satan), but the general gist is this: we usually frame the gospel as “this is how God is solving what is wrong in the world.” Nothing wrong with that at all - in fact this is actually following a general storyline structure: initial setup, problem, resolution. A great way to communicate.
What this interesting leaves out though, is any direct connection to the most important question: what does it mean to know God? If relationship is the critical element to our faith, why is it that the way we think about the gospel structured nearly entirely about doctrine? Sure, I understand that the gospel narrative is designed to bring people to the point of making a relational decision, but I find it striking that there is very little in the story itself that gives me any handle on knowing God.
When we look directly at it, the way we conceive of the gospel isn’t engineered around knowing God, it's engineered around understanding our problem and how God solves it. This results in a kind of nebulous understanding of the most critical element of our faith. Okay, so Jesus forgave my sins and I can have relationship with God again...and that's....good? At this point, I have a load of questions. Why is relationship with God good? What should I expect that relationship to look like? What should that relationship do in my life? Unfortunately, many of these questions are largely unaddressed in the gospel itself, which leaves many of us stumbling through our faith, uncertain what it's supposed to look like. Are we living our faith well? It's hard to answer that question with confidence if we have no idea what the target is.
A more Relational Story
So the question all of this prompts for me is this: what would it look like to have the gospel be more relational in nature? If the relationship with God is the foundational element, what could it look like to start with relationship with God as the foundational piece, not my own problems. In fact...if I were to push in a little farther, what would it look like to make the gospel more about God and less about me? Why is solving the problems in my world the focal point of the gospel story? It seems strange to me that the great cosmic news is so focused on my life. Shouldn't the gospel be a lot more about who God is than who I am?
This is the direction we aim to take with the Triune Gospel. We will, of course, still deal with what is wrong in the world, and by extension our lives, and what God is doing to fix that, but as we will see, that solution will be much more closely tied to what it means to know God and what our relationship with God actually does. So our starting question is this: who is this God that we can know? And to answer that question, we need to turn to one of the long treasured teachings of the Christian faith: the Trinity. That will be what we turn to next (after that brief detour into weighing new teachings).