Essay / Theology

Trinitarian Salvation according to Francis Schaeffer

In 1951, Francis Schaeffer had an encounter with the Trinity that revolutionized his life. I wrote about that discovery in a previous post. It sparked the phase of his ministry that we all remember him for, and put him in touch with a sense of spiritual reality he had lacked before: “a moment-by-moment, increasing, experiential relationship to Christ and to the whole Trinity. We are to be in a relationship with the whole Trinity.”

But when this change came over him, he didn’t sit down and write a treatise on the Trinity; instead, he famously started writing about everything else under the sun. As a result, if you want the details of Schaeffer’s trinitarian view of salvation (his soteriology), you have to piece it together from a few places scattered around his writings. The most programmatic statement of Schaeffer’s Trinitarian soteriology is in his book True Spirituality (also reprinted in Vol. III of the Collected Works, p. 270-271). He connects the dots this way:

…the Holy Spirit indwelling the individual Christian is not only the agent of Christ, but he is also the agent of the Father. Consequently, when I accept Christ as my Savior, my guilt is gone, I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and I am in communication with the Father and the Son, as well as of the Holy Spirit –the entire Trinity. Thus now, in the present life, if I am justified, I am in a personal relationship with each of the members of the Trinity. God the Father is my Father; I am in union with the Son; and I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is not just meant to be doctrine; it is what I have now. (True Spirituality; Works III:271)

If you want even more detail on trinitarian salvation, you have to follow Schaeffer into the land of direct, personal Bible study. His basic course in Bible knowledge has been published as the series Basic Bible Studies (found in the Collected Works, Vol. II, pp. 325ff). The striking simplicity of these studies is underlined by the direct appeal Schaeffer makes to the reader:

It would be my advice that each time you do these studies, you speak to God and ask Him to give you understanding through the use of the bible and the study together. If someone pursues these studies who does not believe that God exists, I would suggest that you say aloud in the quietness of your room: “O God, if there is a God, I want to know whether You exist. And I ask You that I may be willing to bow before You if You do exist.” (Works, II:323)

What else would you expect from a Christian writer whose message was summed up in the affirmation, “He is there, and He is not silent”?

“Have Clearly In Mind the Facts Concerning the Trinity”

According to Schaeffer, every Christian who wanted to understand salvation and the Christian life was obligated to come to grips with the biblical revelation on the subject: “It is central and important to our Christian faith to have clearly in mind the facts concerning the Trinity.” His Basic Bible Studies were designed to deliver those facts.

The first point in Schaeffer’s Bible study on the Trinity is that the God of the Bible is personal: God has plans which he considers in advance and then carries out with purpose (Eph. 1:4). Not only does he think but he takes action, real action in space and time (Gen. 1:1). And not only does he think and act, but he feels. He loves the world (John 3:16). “Love is an emotion. Thus the God who exists is personal. He thinks, acts, and feels, three distinguishing marks of personality. He is not an impersonal force, nor an all-inclusive everything. He is personal. When He speaks to us, He says “I” and we can answer Him “You.””

One of Schaeffer’s favorite phrases for the personhood of God was that he was “personal on the high order of Trinity,” and the next step in his basic trinitarian Bible study is to state all the biblical evidence about unity and diversity in the God of the Bible. The Old Testament teaches, and the New Testament reaffirms, that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; James 2:19). “But,” Schaeffer goes on, “the Bible also teaches that this one God exists in three distinct persons.” His first line of evidence for this claim is the divine plurals used in the language of the Old Testament: “Who will go for us” (Isa. 6:8), “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26), “Let us go down and confuse their language” (Gen. 11:7). “In this verse, as in in 1:26, the persons of the Trinity are in communication with each other.”

These Old Testament plurals, it seems to me, would not be enough to prove the Triunity of the one God all by themselves. They are odd enough to require some explanation: Why would a consistently monotheistic revelation use words like we, us, and ours? And they might point to a certain fullness or richness of God’s inner life. But solid trinitarianism has to wait until the Son and the Spirit are directly revealed in the events of the New Testament. What Schaeffer primarily wants us to learn from these passages, however, is not triunity itself but the fact that it pre-exists creation. Combined with a few New Testament insights (“you loved me before the foundation of the world,” said Jesus to his Father in John 17:24), these plurals show that “Communication and love existed between the persons of the Trinity before the creation.” And that matters a lot to Schaeffer, because it means that when God reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit, he is revealing who has always been.

When he turns to the New Testament, Schaeffer highlights the baptism of Christ (Matt. 3:16-17) because of the clarity with which each of the three persons is shown there. He also points to a few of the passages where all three persons are named in a single verse: Matt. 28:19; John 15:26; I Peter 1:2.

With this biblical doctrine of God as his foundation, Schaeffer’s soteriology is explicitly trinitarian. Under the heading of salvation, the Trinity is not the very first thing Schaeffer teaches. That priority is reserved for a classic Protestant statement of the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. But from that all-important point of entry, the very next thing Schaeffer wants to say is that what this justification introduces us into is a new relationship, or web of relationships, to the Triune God:

This new relationship with the triune God is, then, the second of the blessings of salvation, justification being the first. This new relationship, as we have seen, is threefold:
1. God the Father is the Christian’s Father.
2. The only begotten Son of God is our Savior and Lord, our prophet, priest and king. We are identified and united with Him.
3. The Holy Spirit lives in us and deals with us. He communicates to us the manifold benefits of redemption.

In summary, commenting on 2 Cor 13:14, Schaeffer says “The work of each of the three persons is important to us. Jesus died to save us, the Father draws us to Himself and loves us, and the Holy Spirit deals with us.”

Moment by Moment Christian Experience
After the believer is placed in a saving relationship with the persons of the Triune God, three consequences follow: (1) Relationship to brothers and sisters in the church, (2) assurance of salvation, and (3) a Christian life characterized by the process of sanctification. In these studies, Schaeffer devotes several sections to sanctification, equipping his readers with a good survey of the things they will need to know to live an intelligent Christian life. He highlights the difference between the event of justification and the process of sanctification, which is “a flowing stream involving the past…, the present, and into the future.” Salvation, as he had said In True Spirituality, “is a single piece, and yet a flowing stream.” Schaeffer also rounds out his teaching on sanctification with a great deal of practical advice about how Christians are to deal with sin, and an introduction to the basic spiritual disciplines.

True to trinitarian form, though, one of the main things Schaeffer wants to say is that sanctification is a project of the entire Trinity, and he does so by surveying the way each of the three persons is related to Christian holiness:

God the Father is active in our sanctification as the one who will accomplish it, and who sets the standard of it: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you” and “equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you what is pleasing in his sight.” (I Thess. 5:23; Hebrews 13:20-21). Elsewhere (in True Spirituality, Works III:275) Schaeffer says, “When we accept Christ as our Savior, we are immediately in a new relationship with God the Father. … but, of course, if this is so, we should be experiencing in this life the Father’s fatherliness.”

God the Son is involved in our sanctification in that it is the purpose for which he died: “Christ gave himself for the church, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word… gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Ephesians 5:25-26; Titus 2:11-14)

God the Spirit is the holy one who makes us holy: “you were washed, you were sanctified…by the Spirit of our God… and are being transformed from glory to glory… by the Lord who is the Spirit … and we are saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (I Cor 6:11; II Cor 3:18; II Thess 2:13)

“Never Mechanical and Not Primarily Legal”

Most of this richly trinitarian understanding of salvation recedes into the background of Schaeffer’s writing. Outside of the Basic Bible Studies, he does not often work through the details of trinitarian soteriology. But Schaeffer always spoke from a depth of insight that flowed from his 1951 experience of the reality of the Trinity in salvation. He wrote and spoke with a sense of God’s presence that was deeply personal, and which he did manage to communicate to sympathetic listeners in all that he taught after 1951. Schaeffer’s trinitarian awakening left its mark on his work in the strong sense of the personhood of God that colored all his expressions. It may be hard for evangelical Christians to hear the phrase “a relationship with God” as a radically trinitarian claim, but that is how the language functioned for Schaeffer. Whenever he said “relationship,” you can bet there was trinitarianism ringing in his ears: “Our relationship is never mechanical and not primarily legal. It is personal and vital. God the Father is my Father; I am united and identified with God the Son; God the Holy Spirit dwells within me. The Bible tells us that this threefold relationship is a present fact, just as it tells us that justification and Heaven are facts.”

Of course, as the story of Schaeffer’s 1951 trinitarian awakening makes clear, not every Christian is aware of the trinitarian depths waiting beneath their spiritual lives. “It is,” Schaeffer warned, “possible to be a Christian and yet not take advantage of what our vital relationship with the three persons of the Trinity should mean in living a Christian life. We must first intellectually realize the fact of our vital relationship with the triune God and then in faith begin to act upon that realization.” And immediately after this warning, he invited his readers to review the Basic Bible Study on the three new relationships that constitute the Christian life.

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