MAY 28, 2021 | FRED SANDERS; THE GOSPEL COALITION
MORE BY FRED SANDERS
There is no more straightforward way of describing the Christian life than to call it discipleship. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is the core, the focus, and the form of what it means to be a Christian. Answering Jesus’s call to be his disciple is what gives the Christian life its simple, life-shaping power. It makes all the difference between reading the four Gospels as episodes from Bible story time and reading them as the reality of knowing Jesus by following him as a modern disciple.
But sometimes, captivated by the simplicity of this relationship, Christians can be tempted to contrast it with the more complex-sounding affirmation of believing and serving the triune God. Anti-trinitarians, of course, portray this as an absolute contrast: rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, they claim to simply follow Jesus. But even Christians with sound doctrine can still feel the tension between simple Christ-following and complex Trinity-worshiping.
In reality, the two belong together, and always have. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity provides the deep foundation for what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Transposing Discipleship into a New Key
Think about the nature of discipleship. When Jesus called the first disciples to follow him, he meant “follow” in a direct and literal way. He was walking down the road and they were to walk along with him. He went to the next town, and so did they. The point was “that they would be with him” (Mark 3:13) to hear what he said and see what he did, so they could in turn be sent out in his name.
But the gospel story that starts with that call also ends with Jesus’s ascension to the right hand of God. To put it bluntly, following an ascended, enthroned Lord is bound to look different from following an itinerant, pedestrian Master. The whole theme of discipleship, even for the first disciples, had to be transposed into a new key. And that new key was trinitarian.
Jesus put discipleship into trinitarian perspective when he taught that he would ascend to the right hand of the Father, from which he and the Father would send the Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7). It was the Spirit who would enable these first followers to complete their discipleship to an ascended Lord—precisely because, as Jesus promised, “he will not speak on his own authority,” but “he will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:13–14).
The intimacy of direct, personal discipleship is completed in this threefold movement. All that the Father has belongs to the Son, and all that belongs to the Son is declared to us by the Holy Spirit. The unity of these three is so profound that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as being shuttled back and forth between three different heavenly committee members, but as being ever more fully at home in the reality of the Son’s identity precisely because of the involvement of the Spirit. The Spirit explains to us all that belongs to the Son and the Father (who is the principle and source of all that the Son has). What the disciples had in personal fellowship with Jesus, they came to have even more fully by having it in the Father and by the Spirit.
All the trinitarian substructure of discipleship becomes gloriously apparent at this point in salvation history. To mark its meaning, the Christian calendar places Trinity Sunday immediately after celebrating the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Spirit (Pentecost Sunday). These events mark the consummating work of the Son who has gone to the Father, and the Spirit who is sent from them. Disciples are Christ-followers not just because of the Son, but because of the Father and the Spirit. Jesus meant it when he said, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7).
On the basis of this great fulfilment, we should take a moment to notice two more things.
Revealing What Was Always There
First, seeing discipleship fulfilled and completed in the coming of the Spirit reveals to us that discipleship was a trinitarian reality all along. The dramatic events of Christ’s ascent and the Spirit’s descent changed the way those first followers experienced discipleship from that moment on, but also revealed the trinitarian structure of the discipleship they had already been living. None of them had come to Jesus without being drawn by the Father, and none called Jesus Lord except by the Holy Spirit (John 6:44; 1 Cor. 12:3).
Once you notice this, you begin to see that the Gospels are full of moments when Jesus’s teaching about the Father and the Spirit soars right over the heads of his followers. The evangelists, writing after Pentecost, can tell readers “they did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father” (John 8:27), or “this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). Discipleship always was and always will be trinitarian all the way down.
Encountering the Whole Trinity through Jesus
The other thing to notice about discipleship’s trinitarian fulfillment goes even deeper, and reaches back even further.
The ultimate reason that the Father and the Spirit are not distractions from the Son, or displacements of Jesus from his central place in our lives, is that God is one. The unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a deeper, stronger, more intimate union than anything in creation. It’s simply not possible to know one person of the Trinity without the others. Any experience of Father, Son, or Holy Spirit is strongly, inwardly bound to the fullness of triune deity. In that perfect triune oneness above all worlds, which would have eternally been itself in divine blessedness whether disciples existed or not, the Son is never without his Father and their Holy Spirit.
This is why, when we live as disciples of Christ, we can focus our attention on Jesus and in that very event encounter the Father and Spirit. This is why, if you follow Jesus, you follow him to his Father by the Spirit.
Fred Sanders teaches in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He has written and contributed to a number of books, including The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 2nd ed. (Crossway, 2017), The Triune God (Zondervan, 2016), and The Image of the Immanent Trinity: Rahner’s Rule and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture(Peter Lang, 2004).