Theology Simplified

The Doctrine of the Trinity

The term “trinity” doesn’t appear in Scripture—many theological terms don’t—but what is meant by such is often translated as “Godhead.” The word translated as “Godhead” appears in Acts 17:29; Romans 1:20 and Colossians 2:9. Some translations give us “divine nature” or “deity” in the place of “Godhead.” Nevertheless, it speaks to the nature of God. When we think about God, our minds usually think immediately of the Father, sometimes relegating the Son and Spirit to lesser forms of God. Scripture is clear that God is one in various passages (e.g., Exod. 20:2–3; Deut. 6:4; Gal. 3:20; James 2:19). Even Christ rebuked Satan and said that God alone was to be served (Matt. 4:10). Thomas referred to Jesus as his Lord and God (John 20:28). Stephen prayed to Christ (Acts 7:59), as did Paul (1 Cor. 16:22). Did these worship or serve another god? Not at all.

Jesus is depicted as a deity, God Himself (Phil. 2:5–11; Heb. 1). What’s fascinating is the language of Hebrews 1: Christ is the exact imprint of God (1:3). When you look upon Jesus, you’re looking at God. In Hebrews 1:8, God is quoted from Psalm 45:6, and there He addressed Jesus as “God” and in verse ten—a quotation from Psalm 102:25—as “Lord.” God the Father addresses even the Son as God and Lord. Jesus’ preaching similarly garnered Him charges of blasphemy for this very reason (John 8:53–59). The Pharisees and other religious leaders didn’t understand that Jesus God was before them, nor could they conceive of it. We barely understand it ourselves because it’s one of those profound mysteries. The Holy Spirit is also addressed as “God.” When Ananias lied about the proceeds of sold land, Peter told him that by lying to the Holy Spirit he had lied to God (Acts 5:3–4). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord (Acts 5:9) and God (1 Thess. 4:8). Often do we read about the work of the Holy Spirit included in praises to God (Acts 4:24–25; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb. 3:7–11).

Fascinating to add to this is the fact that the Great Commission commands that disciples be baptized into the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How interesting it is that three names are listed when Christ commands a single invocation. All three are present at Christ’s baptism (Matt. 3:16–17), and they are mentioned in a few verses in the New Testament (e.g., Gal. 4:6). Deity is worthy of worship (Ps. 18:3), and Jesus even taught that the Son should be honored as the Father (John 5:23).  While more questions may arise than can be answered, this is one of the most profound doctrines of Christianity.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation

Since God created humanity in his image (Gen. 1:26–27) and since Christ took on the flesh in which the image of God resided (Phil. 2:5–8), the model was manifested as God initially intended for mortal man through Christ’s incarnation—His taking on flesh. Furthermore, because of Christ, humanity can once again return to commune with God through Him and live the truly human (Christian) life. Paul wrote that Christ was made to know sin so that in him Christians might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). Though Christ was rich, he became poor for humanity’s sake so that through his poverty Christians might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus validated humanity by taking on flesh and being made lower than the angels.

A few centuries after Christ, a skeptic of Christianity rebutted the very doctrine of the Incarnation: Celsus believed that the incarnation implied a change in the deity, and he used a quote from Plato when Plato had said that it was hard to find out the maker and father of the universe. Origen, one of the earliest Christian theologians was explaining that if God wanted to be known, he would make himself known. The incarnation, to Origen, was how God made himself known to the world, and Origen argued that Plato would have rejected all gods to worship the true God had he lived to see him. For humanity to know God, humanity could not rely solely on nature, as many philosophers had done in antiquity. The divine revelation gave what was lacking, and for humanity to understand God fully, humanity must have needed to encounter God in a way that he could comprehend the Divine. The incarnation, in addition to nature and scripture, was a source of knowledge used to explain God. Since understanding God is no easy task, God made the job easier by appearing in the flesh like Christ. 

Years after Origen, theologian John Chrysostom contended that for God to associate with people meant that God did not diminish his honor but raised people from their disgrace to glory. Christ’s incarnation gave humanity the opportunity to rise above the reality of the carnal nature saturated with the shame of sin. John the Apostle wrote, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). When man’s knowledge of God grew to such a degree, he could receive God incarnate and thus become born of God and be worthy of being called God’s child through faith.     

The Doctrine of Atonement

“Atonement” is a word that means “reconciliation.” From the time of humanity’s fall, measures were enacted to reconcile humanity to God. For Adam and Eve, they constructed leaves to cover themselves, but this was inadequate. God would provide them with garments of skin, requiring the first ever sacrifice in the Bible (Gen. 3:21). We see two important truths in this: 1) humanity can never adequately cover the shame of their sins, and 2) God requires blood sacrifice in order to accomplish our atonement. Thereafter, sacrifices became a part of Israel’s history after the Exodus. Each of the sacrifices would eventually lead to the offering of Jesus on the cross. His blood has atoned for our sins and when we clothe ourselves with Him (Gal. 3:27), we are then reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Just as Adam and Even needed to be clothed to cover their sins, so we too need the same, and God provides the garment (metaphorically speaking) in Jesus (cf. Isaiah 61:10).

The means of accomplishing our atonement have often been debated, but one thing Scripture is clear about is that legal terms surround the doctrine. “Transgression” is one way to refer to our sinning before God, and it had to do with crossing over a legal border. Judgment is what all will face in the end, which gives us the visual of a courtroom. Jesus Himself is our advocate (1 John 2:1), pleading our case. I’m always hesitant to say that Jesus died to satisfy the wrath of God, because that makes God sound like one of the Greek gods who must be appeased. However, God’s system of justice is perfect, so sin demands a penalty to be paid.

I much prefer to look at atonement through the incarnation, something we discussed in last week’s article. When we look at the incarnation, we conclude that God took on flesh in the form of His beloved Son. God then took upon Himself the crucifixion and all it entailed for our salvation. Rather than seeing it as a Son having to suffer to appease His angry Father, we can view atonement as God becoming something He’s not to suffer for us so that we wouldn’t have to suffer. He quite literally took our place to satisfy the holiness and justice of God.

The Doctrine of the Resurrection

In churches of Christ, we typically hear end-times sermons through the guise of judgment, so that verses such as Hebrews 9:27 are the subject of preaching, and the order of death and judgment are paramount. However, there’s much more to the story of what God has in store for humanity than just death and judgment—thought those are rather prominent. Before a judgment occurs, there is the resurrection.

Tucked in an elongated passage in 1 Corinthians 15:35–55 is a robust theology of resurrection. Corroborating passages detail that all the dead will be raised (Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15), but those who’ve done well to life and those who’ve done evil to condemnation (John 5:28–29). We also read about the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23; Phil. 3:20–21).  What we know about these is not only what Paul wrote, but by looking at Christ’s resurrection, we have a few clues about our bodies. In Matthew, Jesus is recognized and touched (Matt. 28:9–10, 17); in Mark, Christ appears in another form (Mark 16:12); in Luke Jesus is unrecognizable (Luke 24:15–16), but then recognized and vanishes (Luke 24:30–31). He is also mistaken as a spirit (Luke 24:37) but eats in front of His disciples (Luke 24:43). In John, He is recognized and touched (John 20:15–17, 27) but at another point is unrecognizable (John 21:4).

Paul, however, presents a picture of contrasts between what we are now and what we shall be at the resurrection: corruption versus incorruption (1 Cor. 15:42), dishonor versus glory (v. 43), weakness versus power (v. 43), and natural versus spiritual (v. 44). There’s also living versus life-giving (v. 45), earthly versus heavenly (vv. 47–48), and mortal versus immortal (v. 54). On the whole, our future existence in our resurrected bodies is far higher than how we now exist.

In the order of the end things, our resurrection would come before judgment, but for those who’ve already died, they somewhat have a clue as to what their judgment will be (cf. Luke 16:19–31). Paul goes so far as to say that we seek a resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:2). If we are so clothed with it we aren’t naked (1 Cor. 15:3). We do not want to be unclothed (disembodied) but covered with the heavenly bodies God has for us. If, when we die, we go to Paradise, Abraham’s Bosom, Heaven, why isn’t that good enough? Why the resurrection body? There appears to be some difference that they understood between being a spirit without a body and having the heavenly body. The key may be that being a disembodied spirit still is death, but the resurrection body is actual life (v. 4b). Paul doesn’t speak of the bliss of the soul without a body, but of the union of the soul with the glorified body.

The Doctrine of Scripture

At the base of Mt. Sinai, Moses spoke all the words of the law to Israel after which he wrote the words of the LORD, offered sacrifices, and read, once more, the book of the covenant in the hearing of all the people (Exod. 24:4–8). This inaugurated the first covenant God had made with Israel, so from the beginning, Scripture has played a central role in the life of God’s people. We could expect no less as God’s people of the new covenant. So vital was Scripture to God’s people that Moses invoked a seven-year cycle at the end of which the law was to have been read before all the people (Deut. 31:10–13).

The seven-year reading would not only serve as a covenant renewal for God’s people, but it also was to remind them of their duty to God and His to them. When Ai fell during the conquest, Joshua renewed the covenant by having the law read (Josh. 8:34–35). Archaeologists and scholars date the conquest to around 1400 BC, and the Bible next records a public reading of the law in the reign of King Josiah which was in the second half of the seventh century (640–608 BC). For nearly eight hundred years, the seven-year reading appears to have been neglected. This is an argument from silence, so one could easily rebut this premise, but when we observe the generation after Joshua’s (cf. Judg. 2:10) until Josiah’s, there’s more unfaithfulness to God than there is faithfulness thus demonstrating the importance of Scripture in the life of God’s people. The neglect of the Scriptures resulted in practices that parted from God’s covenant and resulted in expulsion from the promised land, sadly.

After God’s people returned to the promised land to rebuild, we observe a reading of Scripture to Israel in Nehemiah 8. From then until the time of Jesus there was more fidelity than not and that sets the stage for the importance of Scripture in the life of the church. The New Testament reveals that as new writings surfaced by the hand of the apostles, they attained a status of Scripture (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Peter 3:15–16). One can only presume that since the first covenant entailed Scripture that the second would too. These letters were circulated among the churches of Christ thus giving them a universal acceptance as Scripture (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Peter 3:15–16; Rev. 1:4).

What makes Scripture holy and not just a writing? It’s that the Holy Spirit so moved the authors to records the words contained therein (2 Peter 1:20–21). This makes them, therefore, divine writings rather than human inventions, because Scripture is literally “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). We who are Christians accept this by faith and look to the Scriptures alone as our only rule of faith and practice, just as the earliest Christians did.

The Doctrine of Grace

Whenever we think about grace, a simple definition comes to mind: “unmerited favor.” In the Bible, grace is often juxtaposed to works (Eph. 2:8); however, we’re informed that we cannot be saved apart from works (James 2:14–26). The way that Paul and James defined “works” differs: the former would have had in mind the definition of “things we do to earn salvation.” The latter would have defined works as “things we do because we are saved.” They didn’t disagree but were writing to different audiences and in different contexts. We cannot earn our salvation, because it’s a gift from God. However, because we have faith that Jesus is Lord and God’s Son, we are moved to respond because of that faith.

In the religions of the ancient world, many were ritualistic based. There were certain prayers to pray, rites to perform, and a lifestyle that accompanied the mysteries of the cult. Judaism and Christianity came along and taught something contrary to that, but Judaism was influenced by that mindset. Many of the Jews didn’t view the Law of Moses as a way through which God graced them so that they could be clean and holy to Him, but as rituals to perform that earned them the privilege. Christianity can be treated similarly if we aren’t careful. Whenever Christians impose upon one another a rule book, they negate God’s grace. We do as Christians have commands we are to follow and observations to hold, but this doesn’t earn us salvation. If anything, it’s a response to God’s grace because we have faith.

God has chosen to work through various mediums according to His justice. For the Israelites, the medium was the Law which consisted of rites and sacrifices, like most other religions in the ancient world. What differed from them was that in the ancient religions, worshippers performed the rites to appease the gods. In Judaism, the rites were performed because God wanted to be close to His people. However, because He is holy, sin separates humanity from Him, so the rites of the Law of Moses were the avenue through which humanity could be close to God and He could dwell in their midst.

It all began with grace. God’s act of creating the world was an act of grace, because He knew the fall would occur and that atonement would be necessary. God took the first step when He sacrificed an animal to provide clothing of skins for Adam and Eve. Still, humanity in our pride wanders from Him, yet He still pursues us by acting first. Our response never negates His grace but is appropriate to it.         

The Doctrine of Faith

Understanding the context in which “faith” arose better helps one to comprehend what exactly it was and, therefore, is. Christianity, unlike the pagan rites, was focused on faith. Paganism mostly had no truths to affirm or tenets to believe in, because all one had to do in the pagan religions was to perform the proper cultic act(s) that accompanied the worship of whichever deity. Christianity has such actions (e.g., the Lord’s Supper), but the religion of Christ was mainly about faith—“the substance of things hope for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

Things unseen were associated with what was eternal and heavenly to ancient people, whereas today, what’s invisible is dismissed as some wish. An element of the unseen was also what was to happen, as in Noah’s anticipation of the flood by divine revelation (Heb. 11:7). Because Noah had faith in God’s word, he constructed an ark. Noah’s belief and subsequent actions based on that belief were not divorced from one another. Some people today tend to want to view faith only as a mental assent to facts without any action to follow. The ancient people would have questioned such a definition of faith. Noah, because he believed what was told to him by God, took the necessary actions relative to the facts of the oncoming flood as so directed by God. His mental assent and actions were his faith, and the same is true for us today as well.

Even now, we Christians have faith in what’s unseen and lay ahead. Why? Why would we believe what we do not know and cannot necessarily prove? It’s because we have enough evidence to believe. Christianity grew because the message preached had a qualifier. The early Christians were to have had faith because what they couldn’t see was confirmed by miracles, and miracles largely contributed to the development of faith in the first century (Heb. 2:4). While we lack such today, we do have a testimony in Scripture that has withstood the test of time for many centuries. Of course, skeptics have come along and sought to undermine Scripture, but it still stands.

Since enough has occurred to either debunk or solidify our faith, we have enough ground on which to build our houses. The ancient pagan religions are a thing of the past. They no longer exist. Why? Because when they encountered the religion of Christianity, they were defeated. Now, the combatant to Christianity isn’t paganism, but atheism. Other religions still exist and will, but throughout the whole world, Christianity has overcome many pagan religions. We have faith because there’s enough reason to have it.

The Doctrine of Justification

The term “justification” itself is a bit unknown to many Christians because its definition is lost on many. One good brother defines justification as “just-if-I’d never sinned,” playing on “justified.” While this is clever indeed, I don’t typically see it as such myself because justification isn’t just as if we’d never sinned, but it’s despite we have sinned are we declared justified. What does the term mean?

“Justification” is defined from a Greek term that means “to be pronounced righteous.” It’s often used as a legal term in the ancient world, and it means “acquittal.” In common law, acquittal certifies that the person so accused is free from the charge of an offense, so when we think about justification, it isn’t that it’s as if we never sinned, but that we are not charged with the offenses even though we actually have. Justification is us having committed the crime of sin, and God declaring us innocent of the charges levied against us.

How is one justified? Biblically speaking, Paul says it’s by our faith and apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28). What’s important to note is when Paul says, “works of the law,” he had in mind the Law of Moses. We cannot perform any of those ordinances and be declared justified. Rather, we must believe, or trust unequivocally. However, if attached to the message taught there are commandments that accompany it, then our obedience is apart of having faith. Because we believe and trust God in what He promises us, we also are willing to obey. That’s not performing a work to earn us justification but is part and parcel of having faith (James 2:21–24).

 When Paul preached in Athens, he told his audience that God commands everyone to repent because of the impending judgment. This, He testified to by raising Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:30–31). The Athenians who believed the gospel of Jesus would have repented because they had faith, and their having repented did not at all negate the grace of God. The resurrection is a central part to our justification, because Jesus was raised up for our justification and because we would believe it, He will impute it to us (Rom. 4:24–25).

 The Doctrine of Sanctification

The popular definition of “sanctify” is “to set apart.” However, there’s more to sanctification than simply something being set apart. The word so translated as such is the same word translated, at various intervals, as “holy.” Ergo, to be sanctified is to be set apart and made holy, but how is this achieved? By the presence of God.

Because the temple was fashioned after the heavens, it was the dwelling place of God and by virtue was a holy precinct. It was capable of then making physical elements something more than what they actually were. When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, He urged that they not swear or make oaths by the things within the temple, such as the gold and gifts of the temple since it was the holy dwelling which made them sanctified (Matt. 23:17, 19). We see here that something physical—gold and gifts—were made holy when brought to God’s dwelling place.

Anything so associated with God was capable of sanctifying something else, but the whole point of the doctrine which we need to understand is how it applies to us. The truth of God makes us holy (John 17:17; 1 Tim. 4:5). Our faith in Jesus makes us holy (Acts 26:18). The Holy Spirit is able to make people holy (Rom. 15:16) as is Jesus (1 Cor. 1:2). The waters of baptism make us holy (1 Cor. 6:11).

What’s very important to understand is that sanctification is a three-fold process. We are made holy upon our conversion to Christ and baptism, we are in the process of being made holy through how we conform more and more to the likeness of Jesus, and when the end comes we will have been perfected in sanctification and the process will have ended (Heb. 2:11). The letter to the Hebrews is a rather robust treatise that partly focuses on sanctification, and when used in relation to humanity, it is used as both past tense and imperfect, present tense—the latter of which means that it’s an ongoing process.

A final point on this doctrine is that we are able to sanctify from our own will. Peter urged Christians to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15). Does God’s holiness depend upon our volition? Not at all. God will be holy whether or not we regard Him as such, but as His people, we are to regard Him as such to epitomize the life of Jesus in us as well as to appropriately face whatever life hands us. 

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