Fred Sanders is associate professor of theology at the Torrey Honors Institute, a Christian great books program at Biola University.
In this book, Sanders seeks to help evangelicals re-learn the doctrine of the Trinity. His argument is that there is an intimate relationship between the Trinity and the evangelical heritage with its gospel-centered piety. He writes:
“Nothing we do as evangelicals makes sense if it is divorced from a strong experiential and doctrinal grasp of the coordinated work of Jesus and the Spirit, worked out against the horizon of the Father’s love. Personal evangelism, conversational prayer, devotional Bible study, authoritative preaching, world missions, and assurance of salvation all presuppose that life in the gospel is life in communion with the Trinity ... The central argument of this book is that the doctrine of the Trinity inherently belongs to the gospel itself ... Because the gospel is Trinitarian, evangelicals as gospel people are by definition Trinity people” (pp. 9-10).
However, Sanders is concerned that evangelicals have forgotten the deep Trinitarian background of the gospel that was of central importance to an earlier generation of evangelicals. Therefore, one of his goals in this book is to introduce us to the writings of earlier evangelicals to show their Trinitarian understanding of the gospel. He quotes authors from both the Puritan/Reformed branch and the Wesleyan/Holiness branch of the evangelical movement, low church and high church, great theologians and revivalist preachers. He quotes John Calvin on one page and Oswald Chambers on the next, Jonathan Edwards and Billy Graham, John Owen and G. Campbell Morgan, Thomas Goodwin and Dwight L. Moody – not to mention others like Andrew Murray, Francis Schaeffer, Henry Scougal, Spurgeon, John and Charles Wesley, and the Heidelberg Catechism! Quite a mish-mash, but one calculated to make his point that a robust Trinitarian theology has always played a central role in evangelical piety.
Here are brief summaries and quotes from each chapter:
Chapter 1: “Compassed About By Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Or, How Evangelicals Are Profoundly Trinitarian Whether They Know It or Not).” Sanders’s point in this chapter is that even if evangelicals today may not be fully aware of it, there is a “tacit Trinitarianism” already implicit in everything we do. “It is the deep grammar of all the central Christian affirmations” (p. 46).
Chapter 2: “Within the Happy Land of the Trinity (Or, God in Himself).” This chapter deals with what theologians call “the immanent Trinity,” that is, the Trinity without reference to creation or redemption, that is, without reference to us. “Simply knowing that the life of God in itself is the liveliest of all lives is a medicinal correction to our sick, self-centered thinking” (p. 81). “The cry in our day always seems to be for a practical doctrine of the Trinity, for relevance, application, and experiential payoff ... But the wisest Christian teachers have always known that shortcuts to relevance are self-defeating ... What we need to begin with is a profoundly impractical doctrine of the Trinity. With that in place, we can really get something done” (p. 95).
Chapter 3: “So Great Salvation (Or, The Depth of the Gospel).” In this chapter, Sanders does not move immediately from the immanent to the economic Trinity (that will come in Chapter 4). Rather, his concern here is to continue to hammer the point that even in salvation, it is more about God than about us. Riffing on the popular book Your God Is Too Small (1952) by J. B. Phillips, Sanders argues that our gospel is too small because our God is too small. To give us a sense of the greatness of the gospel, Sanders expounds Ephesians 1:3-14, pointing out the Trinitarian shape of the gospel, “from the electing and adopting Father, through the redeeming and revealing Son, to the promised and sealing Spirit” (p. 100). What we discover, in the end, is that ultimately in saving us God gives us himself. He quotes Thomas Goodwin: “Not only God doth bless with all other good things, but above all by communicating himself and his own blessedness unto them” (p. 103). “He does not dispense blessings, but himself” (p. 124). Sanders calls this “the depth of the gospel.”
Chapter 4: “The Shape of the Gospel (Or, The Tacit Trinitarianism of Evangelical Salvation).” In this important chapter, Sanders finally moves to the economic Trinity, showing that each person of the Trinity has a role to play in the economy of salvation. The role of the Son is to accomplish our redemption, and the role of the Spirit is to apply that accomplished redemption to us by regenerating us and living in us. Sanders also shows how these two missions (the economic Trinity) are rooted in the two processions, that of the Son who is begotten of the Father and that of the Spirit who proceeds from the Father (the immanent Trinity). Sanders calls this “the shape of the gospel.”
Chapter 5: “Into the Saving Life of Christ (Or, What’s Trinitarian about a Personal Relationship with Jesus).” Sanders brilliantly shows that what evangelicals like to call “having a personal relationship with Jesus” must be broadened so that our relationship with Jesus is not “Father-forgetful” or “Spirit-ignoring” (p. 171). He makes the excellent point that Jesus is not our Father; rather, the New Testament teaches that the Father of Jesus is our Father (p. 169). Essentially, rather than speaking of having a personal relationship with Jesus, we should focus on the biblical doctrine of adoption, which is itself a Trinitarian concept (Gal 4:4-7).
The last two chapters are self-explanatory from their titles:
Chapter 6: “Hearing the Voice of God in Scripture (Or, The Tacit Trinitarianism of Evangelical Bible Reading).”
Chapter 7: “Praying with the Grain (Or, The Tacit Trinitarianism of All Christian Prayer).”
I really enjoyed this book and strongly recommend it. I think that Sanders has a real gift for explaining doctrine in a way that is clear, understandable, and biblical. At the same time, his use of a wide range of authors anchors his teaching in the best of the evangelical tradition and shows how far we have drifted from our roots. This book would make a great devotional book to work through.