One of the key ideas of the Lausanne Covenant is “world evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world” (paragraph 6). Here, I wish to look into the meaning of the whole gospel in relation to the Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—and discuss important points for evangelical Christians and mission activists to ponder following the Lausanne III Congress in Cape Town (cf. The Cape Town Commitment, Part 1, Paragraphs 2 to 5 and 9).
Before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed in his high priestly prayer in John 17:1-5:
Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
According to Jesus, eternal life is to know the glory of the Father and the Son. In John’s Gospel, the Son is in dynamic fellowship and unity with the Father through the Spirit (3:34; 14:16-21). Therefore, to know the Father and the Son inevitably or implicitly involves knowing the Holy Spirit in their relationship. This important notion of knowing God intimately is not only found in John’s Gospel but also in Matthew (11:27) and Luke (10:22).
When We Leave Out a Member of the Trinity
If the good news is about the knowledge of God, then in sharing and living the whole gospel we ought to present holistically the Father and the Son in perpetual holy and loving communion through Holy Spirit—i.e., the Trinity—not just one or two persons of the Trinity. Leaving one or two persons of the Trinity out will result in a non-holistic gospel with unfortunate long-term consequences. The following are a few examples.
- A church with a Jesus only emphasis with scant reference to the Father or the Holy Spirit will neglect the precious notion of our sonship to the Father after the manner of the Son and may have less spontaneity in its worship (and in other areas).
- A church with an emphasis on Jesus and the Spirit suffers from the similar problem of forgetting our Father in heaven.1
- A church with an overemphasis on the Spirit at the expense of the objective revelation of the Father through the Son could lead to too much spontaneity, over-subjectivity, and possibly chaos and divisions in its life and mission.
- On the other hand, an overemphasis of the objective revelation of the Father through the Son in history at the expense of the spontaneous work of the Spirit in the here and now can lead to great orderliness in the church which in some cases can border on woodenness. There could also be insufficient awareness of the church’s need to depend upon the divine power of the Holy Spirit in its life and mission; the church can become over-dependent upon human capability. Also, it could manifest itself in the extreme form of cessationism—the view that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit had ceased after the New Testament period.
- In another case, the emphasis on the Father can be so great that the divinity of the Son and the Spirit is put into question. The heretic form of this is Arianism, which appeared in the third century and continues in different guises up to now.
- The treatment of the three divine Persons as separate without sufficient emphasis on their dynamic interpersonal fellowship/communion could weaken the importance of interpersonal fellowship/relationship in the church, which should be a paramount goal of all activities in the church, including evangelism.2
An additional challenge to evangelical ministers and preachers is the relationship between the life of Jesus and his death in their presentation of Jesus.
The Life and Ministry of Jesus
In 1996, N.T. Wright complained that conservative theologians and preachers, while emphasizing Jesus’ atoning death, did not put sufficient emphasis on the life and ministry of Jesus. He wrote,
It would not, then, be much of a caricature to say that orthodoxy, as represented by much popular preaching and writing, has had no clear idea of the purpose of Jesus’ ministry. For many conservative theologians it would have been sufficient if Jesus had been born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and risen again three days later…. His ministry and his death are thus loosely connected.3
If this caricature is combined with the lack of emphasis on the Father and the Spirit, then the presentation of God, the Triune God, is severely truncated down to the second Person of the Trinity, and that is narrowed down further to his last three days of his death and resurrection. Such an over-restrictive presentation is not a biblical presentation of the Triune God and will have its consequences.
One of the key points in the Lausanne Covenant is the relationship between evangelism/proclamation and social action. It is no coincidence that while liberal Christians prefer talking about the life of Jesus and engaging in social action, evangelicals Christians (at least before 1974) concentrate on the death of Jesus and proclamation; both do not grasp the whole gospel of Jesus and thereby holistic mission.
The key solution to this dichotomy lies in recovering the holistic picture of Jesus as given to us in the whole gospel story in the Bible (while maintaining in close sight his relationship with his Father through the Spirit).4
Regarding Wright’s complaint about the lack of emphasis on Jesus’ life and ministry, thankfully some remedy had already arrived in 1995, when Philip Yancey’s award-winning book, The Jesus I Never Knew, was first published. This book brought a breath of fresh air to the evangelical Church’s appreciation of Jesus because its content covered the whole span of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. Since then, a significant number of books on Jesus have followed the trail blazed by Yancey.
We ought to be thankful for each book which helps us to know Jesus better. However, it is still very difficult to find a book which tells the story of Jesus from the perspective of his relationship with his Father through the Spirit. Without this fundamental perspective, not only is our appreciation of the Father and the Spirit somewhat vague, but our appreciation of Jesus himself is truncated because we do not appreciate the foundation of his whole existence and mission on earth—i.e., his Sonship to the Father, which includes:
- his rest, his light burden and his trust in his Father (Matthew 11:28-30)
- his obedience to his Father
- his intimate loving communion with his Father, which is his dynamic unity with his Father through the Spirit.
Recovering a Holistic Picture of Jesus and the Trinity
These have much to teach us about our own relationship with the Father and true spirituality. How do we recover these along with a holistic picture of Jesus mentioned above?
My suggestion is that in the context within the Church and in the context of missions, we present the whole gospel by telling the whole story of Jesus from beginning to end from the holistic trinitarian perspective.5
Jesus’ unity with his Father through the Spirit is also the ground of missional unity of the Church (cf. Cape Town Commitment, Part 1, paragraph 9), as can be seen in his high priestly prayer in John 17:20-21: “… that all of them [believers] may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
More people are drawn into the Church by its holy and loving fellowship and witness in the Spirit—its missional unity (cf. the early church in Acts 2:42-47)—which is grounded on the unity of the Trinity. At the same time the united believers are drawn (by the Holy Spirit implicitly in the context of John 14-17) into the divine holy and loving communion within the Trinity (“May they also be in us”).
When through the Spirit of holiness such fellowship with believers and communion with God happens and is experienced, we worship God together in the splendour of his majestic holiness and in the power of his overwhelming love. In this spiritual experience of the presence of God, we as his people worship and glorify God in Spirit and in truth, which is the goal of the Church’s mission.
The divine spiritual presence experienced in the Church and in our communion with the Trinity—which invokes our spiritual worship to God—is both a means and the goal of our mission. This is not surprising since the Triune God is the ground, the means, and the goal of our mission, which is in that sense truly God’s mission (Missio Dei).
1. E.g., Smail, Thomas S. 2001. The Forgotten Father. Eugene, Oregon, USA: Wipf & Stock. Smail addressed charismatic Christians in the 1980s.
2. Here evangelism is understood as incorporating new members into the wholesome community of the Church, where believers living in loving fellowship with one another are themselves drawn and embraced into the divine communion of the Trinity (John 17:21).
3. 1996. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 14.
4. For a fuller discussion, see So, Damon. 2010. “The Missionary Journey of the Son of God into the Far Country.” In Holistic Mission: God’s Plan for God’s People. Eds. Brian Woolnough and Wonsuk Ma, 47-58. Oxford: Regnum.
5. The recently published book, The Forgotten Jesus and the Trinity You Never Knew, is my attempt to do so and is a useful resource for preachers and mission activists. For more details, visit www.jesus-trinity.co.uk.