321 is a an explanation of the Christian faith in three parts.
3 focuses on Trinity.
2 focuses on Adam and Christ.
1 focuses on union (or one-ness) with Christ.
321 is not structured around the gospel events. Instead it unfolds the doctrines that explain those gospel events. Without these doctrines, the events will be misunderstood and the goodness of the good news will be lost.
Last time we considered how 321 interacts with the event of Creation.
Without trinity, creation will be considered as the needy manufacture of a unitarian (and therefore taking) God – not the overflow of a trinitarian (and therefore Giving) God.
Without Adam and Christ, creation won’t be seen as part of the unified movement of creation-and-salvation, but a free-floating project. Instead, with Adam and Christ, we see how very anchored the living God is to His handiwork.
Without union with Christ, we’ll think of creation in terms of distance and separation, rather than as something destined to participate in God’s own life.
Now we’re going to consider the fall.
How does 3 shape our understanding of the fall
Imagine that God was not Three Persons. Imagine instead that for all eternity there was a solitary Individual. If this unitary being brings anything else into existence, his deity would only be preserved by maintaining his absolute supremacy. For creatures to correspond rightly to this god can only mean their being infinitely “other than” and “less than” a god who is defined over against his world. If such a being creates then the creation has only one way to relate – it must submit.
What, therefore, is sin? With a unitarian god, sin is not submitting to the power of the Sovereign. (Perhaps you’re aware that “Islam” means “submission”).
But with a trinitarian God, what is sin? Well in eternity this God has not been defined by supremacy but by sharing. Having others alongside is not a threat to this God – it’s the very definition of His deity. This God wants to share – to give us of Himself and to draw us in.
Therefore what is sin? It’s refusing to receive from the generous God.
With a unitarian god, being distant is almost the definition of godliness. With the trinitarian God, refusing His fellowship is the essence of sin. And that sets a trinitarian gospel on a very different footing. The problem with humanity is not, fundamentally, lack of obedience but lack of dependence.
Think of Jesus’ definition of sin in John 16:9: “that people do not believe in me.” Our great sin is not receiving Jesus (remember that to believe and to receive Jesus is parallel, John 1:12).
Think of Paul’s definition of sin in Romans 14:23: “everything not of faith is sin.” Again, sin is about not trusting the generous God. He has given us His Son to be received by faith. Instead we mistrust Him. We close ourselves off from the giving God and now must handle life out of our own resources.
Flowing from this mistrust, we may then become mutinous rebels “shaking our fist at God”. Sure, that might be one manifestation. But we might also be meek self-haters, looking for love in all the wrong places. We might be “trying to sit on the throne of our lives.” Or we might be abandoning rule of our lives to all sorts of cruel masters. Whichever way we turn, our sin is, first and foremost, our mistrust of God. And it’s important to set up our gospel presentation in this way. Because whatever we identify as the ‘problem’, it will decisively shape the ‘solution’ we offer.
If the ‘problem’ is “not obeying God” we have already implied the ‘solution. Surely the solution will be “to start obeying God again.” But no, the problem is that we don’t receive the Gift of God (Jesus). For that, we are “condemned already.” (John 3:18). But the solution is implied in the problem: “Believe in the name of God’s One and Only Son” (John 3:18).
How does 2 and 1 shape our understanding of the fall
When Augustine and Pelagius went toe-to-toe on the issue of our gracious salvation, Adam and Christ was at the heart of the debate. For Pelagius, we are not born in sin, we are born neutral. We just use our freedom badly. We choose sinful things, copying Adam’s bad example.
Now if this was the problem for Pelagius, you can guess what his ‘solution’ was. Salvation was all about us using our freedom well. We need to choose righteous things, copying Jesus’ good example.
Augustine saw this as a foul error – it denigrates Christ and exalts ourselves. No – look at Romans 5:12-21. We are born in Adam apart from any of our bad choices. We are born again in Jesus apart from any of our good choices. Our works just do not come into the equation. Our second Adam has done it all – reconstituting damned sinners in Himself.
But in evangelism, Pelagius forces his way right back into our preaching. We are reticent to speak of our union with Adam – it sounds anti-science, anti-reason and unfair. (It’s none of those things by the way, I just don’t have time to address those questions now). But in modern evangelism we neglect the bondage of the will and put our choices right back at the heart of the gospel. We tell people that their bad decisions and deeds have separated them from God. We might then tell of the work of Christ on the cross, but what we’ll really major on is the Decision which the sinner needs to make. That’s where all the emphasis will lie.
And the sinner will be addressed as a free agent – they are Hercules at the cross-roads (pictured above), virtue lies in one direction and vice in the other, but it’s all down to them. Whatever else we might have said about sinners being “lost” and “bound” and “blind” – we’ll forget that now. Whatever else we might have said about Christ and His work being decisive, we’ve now moved on to the business end of proceedings. The spotlight is unmistakably on the sinner. It’s down to them. They must refuse vice and choose virtue. This is where salvation happens.
Does that kind of preaching sound familiar?
Why? Why is there such a focus on decision-theology in modern evangelism? Partly I think it’s because of the way we’ve set up the “problem”. We’ve made the fall about behaviour (rather than being). And we’ve located the problem within reach of the sinner.
But if it’s about deeds and decisions and if it’s about me then… how is Jesus the solution? Perhaps Jesus can give me a really good talking to and perhaps He can persuade me to “Make a Decision”. But at the end of the day, that kind of salvation happens in me, not in Him.
The true gospel is so much better than that. The problem is far deeper than my behaviour, it’s about my very being. It’s also “above my pay grade”. The problem is out of my hands – it’s in a humanity in which I am culpably complicit. But I can’t remake myself. I can’t solve human nature. The problem is deeper than I can handle and it’s also way over my head.
But then, so is the solution. Just as I was caught up in something bigger than me, so now in Jesus I’m caught up in something bigger still. The problem was out of my hands but so is the solution. And that’s good news, because if it was down to me I’d spoil it.
Hear the gospel according to Adam and Christ: In Adam, though you’d done nothing bad, you were disconnected from God and cursed. In Jesus, though you’ve done nothing good, you are reconnected to God and blessed.
This is the gracious gospel according to Paul, according to Augustine, and according to centuries orthodox Christian theology of virtually every stripe (…except, I’m tempted to say, evangelists!) But if we deny this teaching our understanding of ourselves becomes shallow, the human will becomes sovereign, Jesus and His work becomes incidental and the gospel becomes an ultimatum.
Let’s get the problem right. Only then will we have a solution that’s truly good news.
Next time we’ll consider the work of Christ according to 321…