In our last article, we explored how the triune gospel changes the way we approach evangelism. In this article, we will explore the flip-side of the conversation, how the triune gospel frames discipleship and personal transformation. Before we get into that though, let’s recap where we’ve been thus far:
- We began by exploring how the gospel is relational and how that means the shape of (the Trinity) matches the shape of the gospel. (Along with an aside on how to weigh teachings).
- We explored the three-in-one structure of what I call the Triune Gospel.
- We unpacked each of the three journeys: The Relationship Journey, The Identity Journey, and The Destiny Journey.
- We discovered the triune gospel changes the way we approach evangelism (and gives us some critical tools in our 21st-century context).
With all of this background in mind, we turn now to the primary task of the great commission: discipleship.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18–20
Our Track Record Thus Far
Most leaders in the church in the West will acknowledge that on the whole, we have really struggled with discipleship, There are, to be sure, exceptions, but in general, the church has really struggled to make mature disciples: people who accurately display the Christ who dwells within them. This isn’t for lack of trying; there is a flood of approaches, materials, programs, patterns, and more. We believe it is important and we are trying to do better, but so far we haven’t hit our stride.
What is it that makes this difficult for us? Why is it that amidst all this effort and energy we aren’t succeeding? There has been a myriad of suggested roots: we are too program-oriented and not relational enough (probably true), we don’t hunger for the word enough (again, probably true), we are too focused on learning and not focused enough on obedience (guilty again). These legitimate observations being what they are, I still feel the real cause is a layer deeper. Each of these explanations assumes we know what the task of discipleship is, we just aren’t good at it: fix the broken part and we will be off and on our way. With how pervasive this weakness is, I think the issue isn’t just that we are missing an element or two.
I want to make a radical suggestion: the reason discipleship is broken in the west is because we don’t know what we should be aiming for. We don’t know what we’re trying to do with this whole discipleship thing on the whole, so we kind of randomly stumble into it at times and miss it plenty of other times. Because we don’t know the target to be aiming for, we hit it only randomly at best. Why do we not know what to aim for? We do not know what we’re aiming for with discipleship because our current understanding doesn’t link discipleship directly to the gospel.
Before we continue, stop and consider that point. Discipleship doesn’t naturally flow from our understanding of the gospel (at least pre-triune gospel). Our understanding of the gospel is entirely salvation-oriented: it drives people to the point of conversion, but then it largely leaves them hanging. The task of discipleship then, is largely a guessing game. We kind of make it up, guessing at what will produce maturity and growth, and very little of it has any real connection to that critical message we call “the gospel.”
I want to propose that ought to strike us as probably an indication we’re missing something. Shouldn’t discipleship flow naturally from the gospel? I mean if the great commission is a discipleship task, shouldn’t that be what the gospel provides for us? I believe that should be the case, and the triune gospel unlocks that for us.
Back to the Trinity…
A number of articles back, we explored the doctrine of the Trinity which is the launching pad for framing the gospel through the lens of a triune relational walk. It is time to revisit that discussion briefly and draw out one more aspect of theology about the trinity: what is called the economic subordination of the trinity.
At times in trinitarian doctrine, there is discussion using the terms “ontology” and “economy”. These are the theologian-shaped words to describe the fact that who the trinity is in being (ontological) is different from how the trinity acts together (economy). The trinity is ontologically unified; the Father, Son, and Spirit are one in being. This means they are all equally eternal, infinite, they all share in the same degree of glory, and so on. They all partake in the same degree of God-ness and they are all equally an eternally God. There is no hierarchy in the ontology of the trinity.
The language “economic trinity” refers to the distinct roles that the Father, Son, and Spirit have in redemption. They are different persons and they perform different functions. One could consider much of what we have laid out in the triune gospel an attempt to articulate the economy of the trinity in our personal lives. Here is a key observation to understand though: while there is no ontological hierarchy in the trinity, the Father, Son, and Spirit act as if there is a degree of hierarchy between them in the plan of redemption. This is called the “economic subordination of the trinity.” While Father, Son, and Spirit are all 100% equal in their being, they do not act 100% equal in their partnership.
This is why there is the language that we see in the Bible about the Son being “begotten” of the Father (John 3:16). This language is referring to the means of their partnership: the Father sends the Son. The Father/Son language has meaning to it; not in the meaning of one gave birth to another (that would be ontologically distinct), but in the sense that one acts as the sender and the other as the sent. The same is true of the Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son (or, if you are eastern orthodox, only from the Father). To revisit the Nicene Creed, we see this language clearly articulated:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father…
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
Both sides are made clear: the Son and the Spirit are “God from God”, “true God” and “worshipped and glorified” along with each other. The ontological unity is affirmed, and yet the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as well.
What does all of this mean as it comes to the gospel and to discipleship? Well, I believe that once again, a picture will make it more clear. If we were to revisit the Shield of the Trinity diagram and include this economic information, we can flesh it out more fully this way:
When we draw it this way, we see there is a kind of “firstness” of the Father, a kind of “secondaryness” of the Son, and a kind of “thirdness” of the Spirit. In other words, there is an order to the activity of the Trinity – and this makes all the difference when we are thinking about the process of the journeys we explore in the triune gospel.
The implication of the economic firstness/secondness/thirdness of the Father/Son/Spirit means that the journeys of the triune gospel come with an order to them. Put another way, they’re designed to layer on top of one another and empower one another. There is an orientation to how these journeys weave together in the work that God is doing in our lives:
These journeys build on top of each other and lead into each other. The identity journey is built upon the relationship story (we could even say “begotten” by it if we like). Without the relationship journey, we cannot walk the identity journey because our identity is formed in the context of the relationship: we are who God says we are. Identity is established in the context of relationship. Similarly, our destiny journey proceeds from both the relationship and identity journeys: it is only through hearing God’s voice (relationship) and the ability to believe in ourselves (identity) that we have the capability to step out and take the risks required to walk with the Holy Spirit.
This is the way the triune God works redemption into our lives: cycle-by-cycle bringing us through growth in Relationship-Identity-Destiny, each time adding another layer. Cycle by cycle, we spiral upwards into the things of the kingdom, transformed evermore into revealing the likeness of Jesus Christ. The triune gospel has a direct road to not only evangelism, but also to discipleship, and that gives me a lot of enthusiasm that we can do better. What is our discipleship task? It’s to partner with people and help them walk the adventure ahead for them as God layers these journeys in each of our lives, ministering to us and bringing us more and more into the redemption he has for us. This is the theological framework; in the next article, we’ll look at how this plays out in a more practical regard.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman