Fred Sanders, Adoption and Prayer in the Trinity

Fred Sanders is professor of theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, La Mirada, CA. He received a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA) in 2001.

Dr. Sanders discusses his book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.

Edited transcript

MM: Fred, thank you for joining us again. We’d like to continue the discussion about the Trinity that we had earlier. I wanted to explore a little further with you about something you wrote in your book Deep Things of God—that God being a Trinity is inviting us into the life of the Trinity. Could you explain that in a little more detail as to how we are invited into his life?

FS: I used that kind of language, invited into the life of God, to set the standard high for what salvation is, while knowing that I’m flirting with or skirting on mystical sounding territory, which I don’t mean to affirm, but just because some people have made extravagant claims for the amount of assimilation to God that is possible for creatures, I don’t want to have to back off a high view of salvation because of that.

Here’s what I mean by invited into the life of God: I mean that in the eternal being of God, there is a Father-Son relationship that takes place in the Spirit, and that Christian salvation is participation in that Father-Son relationship. There are lots of ways we could talk about being saved, being redeemed and forgiven, a lot of language we can get from Scripture about that, but this really central metaphor of being adopted by God the Father, to become sons of God, gets talked about in different ways in Scripture.

John has a particular theology of sonship, and Paul has a particular theology of sonship. They don’t contradict each other. They harmonize at a higher level, but there’s wonderful agreement there that what’s happening is we are adopted as sons. We go from a position of not being the children of God to being the children of God in the biblical sense of being adult male heirs. It’s not we’re God’s cute little babies. It’s that biblical usage: We are the ones who can inherit from God, who stand in that inheriting relationship. The reason that we are adopted sons is because the incarnate Son went from being the eternal Son to the incarnate Son to make possible our inclusion as adopted sons.

MM: You talk about inheriting. What are we inheriting?

FS: That is a great question. What’s a good classical answer? We are inheriting the blessings that are Christ. All the riches of salvation have been heaped up in Christ and stored there, and that our inclusion in Christ means that those are all made over to us, so justification, blessedness, peace with God, all of those.

MM: Normally an inheritance requires the death of someone. In this case, it’s a metaphor for receiving something.

FS: Yes. Biblical thought is never thinking about the death of the Father, so it’s never going straightforward with that metaphor, and even where Hebrews gets interested in that question, it will talk about the death of the testator, pointing to the death of Christ, because, at no point, is the idea of inheritance the idea of the passing away of the Father and the passing on of that stuff into the possession of the offspring.

MM: Part of that, also, is our relationship that we are adopted as children of God. What kind of relationship do we have with God?

FS: Our relationship as saved, our relationship by faith with God, is a relationship of sonship. That’s an intimate relationship that the Bible wants to make known to us. It’s more than what you would reasonably expect the relationship between a Creator and his creation to be. Just in the abstract, an almighty Creator who produces a creation is going to stand in a lordship or mastery relationship to whatever is created, so you could make a list of things that we intelligent creatures owe God by nature and by the nature of our createdness, and it would be appropriate to talk about all those things in language of being subjects of a master. The New Testament, with great excitement, announces something beyond that and says all of that is still true. We still stand in a relation of creatures to a Creator, but we’re also taken into something more intimate and something that we would not have the right to expect just by deducing it from our createdness.

There used to be a fight… Maybe the old fundamentalists fought about this with the liberals — is everyone a child of God, or are just the redeemed the children of God? I’m sympathetic to the straightforward answer that is easy to construct from Scripture, that sonship to God is a category of redemption in Scripture, and so to be a son of God is to be saved, and, therefore, those who are not saved are not sons of God in the way that the Bible is talking about it.

MM: Right. Ancient Israel was called the children of God, but in a different sense than Christians are.

FS: Yeah, I think so.

MM: One of the things that we seem to inherit or we’re participating in God’s nature is what Second Peter talks about, that we’ve become participants of the divine nature [2 Peter 1:4]. What are we participating in?

FS: I want to emphasize that we are participating in the relationship of Father to Son in the Spirit. It’s always hard to get the Holy Spirit in there in a clear way. The Spirit’s the least analogically clear person, but as long as you insist that you can’t have that Father-Son relationship without the Spirit relationship in there somehow, that’s what I want to emphasize that we’re into.

Some people would take the word nature there in Second Peter in a very direct way to say that we participate in the… would you even say… the being of God, the divine nature itself. I can’t square that kind of reading of the word nature there with the high view of the divine nature that I think is presupposed in the rest of Scripture.

MM: Right. God is God and we’re not.

FS: We never overcome the Creator-creature distinction, even when we’re brought into something more intimate than you could expect from the Creator-creature distinction.

MM: One aspect of our personal relation with God is prayer. How is the Trinity involved, or our understanding of the Trinity involved, in how we pray?

FS: Nice distinction you made there: how is the Trinity involved, and how is our understanding of the Trinity involved, because those can run on very different tracks. As a theologian, I’ve lifted the hood and looked at how things work under the hood, I can say the Trinity is completely involved in prayer. Nothing works in Christian prayer, Christian prayer can’t even be defined as distinctively Christian, unless it’s approaching the Father, in the name of the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray, and he started them in this school of prayer with the language, “Our Father,” so every time we approach God as Christians and say, “Father in heaven,” it would be reasonable for God to object, like to interrupt our prayer and say, “Oh, I’m your Father? Does that mean you act like a son, that you reproduce my character in filial fashion?” There’s a commentary that William Tyndale wrote on the Lord’s Prayer, where he puts in God’s mouth this kind of argument, and the person praying has to immediately respond, “No, I’m not saying I’m your son. I’m saying I have his password, because he gave it to me, and I have been instructed to approach in this Christian way with filial boldness.”

MM: We have no right on our own.

FS: Yeah. That little tag, “in Jesus’ name,” that evangelicals at least habitually end prayers with, is not just the right formula, or the sealed with a kiss, or however you’re supposed to end a prayer to know that you’ve ended it. That little tag is really the key to the whole thing: praying to God the Father has to happen in Jesus’ name. That’s what is going on when we approach God that way. All of this is only in the Spirit, by the power of the Spirit, the Spirit of sonship, the Spirit of adoption, the one who makes this prayer to the Father possible.

That’s what’s going on under the hood. Now, most of us don’t think much about internal combustion and what’s actually happening to motivate our vehicle as we go. The question of how our understanding of the Trinity influences our prayer is a trickier question, and individual results vary.

I always try to present prayer to the Trinity as an invitation to go deeper into something that we’re already experiencing, because I teach in lots of different churches on the Trinity, and I don’t want to do a “drive by” and harm people’s prayer lives by saying something for 30 minutes in the pulpit, because a lot of us are praying. We’re Trinitarian Christians, and we’re praying simply to God, “God,” and not having a Trinitarian thought in our head in the moment of the prayer. If I teach a little bit on the Trinity, people could accidentally get the impression that they haven’t been addressing their prayer envelopes properly, and they’re going to a dead letter office of some kind, that they just write something to God and it hits the post office in heaven, and Father, Son and Holy Spirit stand around going, “It’s not addressed to me. I’m not opening it.”

That is not what’s going on, but the more that you are successfully praying as a Trinitarian believer to the triune God, a deeper understanding, a closer attention to the biblical New Testament patterns of prayer, leads you deeper into something that you’re already experiencing.

MM: What’s the difference between praying to the Trinity and praying to the Father?

FS: That’s good. Praying to the Father is biblical, and praying to the Trinity just barely is, so if you’re trying to stay low to the ground and follow the biblical patterns of prayer… I used to be very cautious about this, too. I didn’t want to make anyone’s prayer life get messed up just on the basis of a little bit of teaching I did. A little learning is a dangerous thing. If you take the whole course, I think we’ll come out okay.

I used to say, “However you’re praying is fine. There are no secret formulas. You don’t have to hold your hands a certain way to get the prayer to go through.” But then I started saying, “But there is a way to get an A on the theology test and to pray in line with clear biblical guidance, and that is to pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s the A on the theology test. Then you’re not going to be surprised by biblical patterns of prayer that you see. You’re not going to read Paul and think, “Why does he bend his knee to the Father in heaven? Why doesn’t he pray to Jesus? Why doesn’t he pray to the Trinity?” We know God is Trinity.

That’s the main thing. The biblical pattern of prayer is not to say, “Oh, Trinity,” but to say, “Father, in the name of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Praying to the Trinity would be praying objectively to the Trinity out there. It’s not heretical. It’s not wrong. I suppose it works. But the biblical pattern of Trinitarian prayer is to pray more from within the Trinity, to the Father, in the name of the Son, as one who is caught up in the middle of that relationship between Father and Son, in the power of the Spirit.

In congregational prayers or open prayers that we overhear from each other in the church, I do my best not to be critical of those. When people begin thinking about the wonders of the Trinity, they’ll start praying to one person of the Trinity, then their mind will go on a little journey, and they’ll say things to another person of the Trinity, and they don’t always edit the sentences as they’re going. It’s extemporaneous prayer. You’ll hear terrible things like, “Father, thank you for dying on the cross,” or, “Jesus, thank you for sending your son,” and the theologian in me wants to get up and immediately censor everything, something like, “No more praying until you get your doctrine right.”

But I don’t think what I’m hearing is really heresy, and I won’t interrupt somebody. They have thoughts about the Father, thoughts about the Son, and thoughts about the Holy Spirit, and in the freedom of prayer, they go on a little mental spiritual itinerary. They move from the glory of the Father, to the glory of the Son, and they just haven’t made the sentence right. Ideally, the sentence would also come out right, but I no longer think I’m hearing heresy in the act.

MM: Right. Just not well stated.

FS: If asked, I will say, “No, Jesus did not send his son. No, the Father did not die on the cross.” There are names for all of this in a catalog of heresies. Do not affirm those things.

MM: And those people would probably agree, when they heard back what they had said.

FS: That’s right, and if you ask them the right set of Socratic questions in the right order, they could get an A on the test.

MM: Right. As you were saying earlier, the prayers get through anyway. God looks on the intent, not the precise wording.

FS: Yeah. That’s why I love the opening question you asked, what does the Trinity have to do with prayer? Everything. What does our understanding of the Trinity have to do with prayer? Our understanding of the Trinity is an invitation to a deeper grasp and practice of what’s really happening in prayer. It rises and falls.

MM: Right. Much of Christian life can be lived without technical terminology about the Trinity.

FS: In Deep Things of God, one chapter is called “Praying with the Grain,” the idea being that there is a certain directionality, a mediation built into Christian prayer, and to know more about the Trinity and to pray more in line with, or alignment with, or with the grain of that mediation, is to turn every act of devotion into a little microcosm of the relationship to God that we have in Christ.

MM: It’s a reminder of the different roles that are involved there. Sometimes we need a reminder of the Spirit’s role in our life.

FS: Yeah. It’s a rehearsal of it, which is one of its strengths. I’m a big fan of extemporaneous prayer. I’m that kind of evangelical who is mainly into that kind of freedom of unscripted prayer, but one of the great benefits of scripted, traditional, liturgical prayer is that someone sat down and thought this all out, and you get to rehearse the right order, and if you do that enough, then even your extemporaneous prayer will fall into the right form, while still having the kind of freedom that I think is appropriate to the spiritual life.

MM: There is a big difference between some of the evangelical churches with extemporaneous prayer and this highly liturgical, scripted prayers. You’re saying there’s a place for both. You’re in the evangelical tradition and so am I. How can the scripted prayers help us expand our understanding of the Trinity?

FS: Well, depending on which scripted prayers you’re talking about, if you’re dealing with the ancient liturgies or their transformation in the Reformation period, through people like Cranmer and some of the Protestant liturgists, then what you’ve got is some really, thoughtful, careful, biblical exploration that repays close study. That’s different from the kind of expressive prayer you get in more extemporaneous settings.

It’s not like there are only two types. I’m a low-church evangelical by conviction rather than by accident, and in that setting, you do get these moments that are more scripted. There’s the congregational prayer offered by someone in leadership, an elder or a pastor, and while those should have elements of freedom appropriate to the rest of the worship service, they should also be more thoughtful. I am concerned if a pastor or an elder prays a poorly structured prayer that doesn’t do justice to Trinitarian theology that I know he knows.

MM: A part of the differences are simply a matter of training, experience? Different people have different levels of understanding of Trinitarian language and prayer itself?

FS: Yeah. Then, there’s the distinction between common prayer and whatever the opposite of that is – private prayer, I suppose.

MM: One feature about the Father-Son relationship, as Jesus said in John 17, is the Father loved him from before the foundation of the world, and that seems to be a way in which God’s nature is very relevant to us. Has God simply told us to love one another, or is it because we are his children that there’s an organic connection as to how we are to relate with other people?

FS: I think it’s the latter – that what was made known in the Father sending the Son and the Spirit is…  If you imagine away salvation itself, and then keep imagining away all the conditions of it, creation itself, if you take that moment of abstraction and think, what if the world had never been made? What if creation wasn’t here, what would there be? There would just be God. This is a grand, strange thought experiment. It’s counterfactual, totally hypothetical. If there were only God, would there be love? The Trinitarian answer is yes, there would be love. God is love, and so God didn’t get tired of not being able to love and decide he’d better create a world. “I know I have all this potential in me to be loving. If only there were something to love.”

One of the points of the doctrine of the Trinity is it helps secure and fill out our understanding that God is self-sufficient, and ideally that doesn’t make us picture God as a stingy, “I take care of myself” great loner, but it magnifies grace by saying God, who not out of any need, not out of any greed, not out of any plan for self-actualization, or improvement, or growth, but purely out of grace, purely out of love choose to make a covenant partner.

MM: That magnifies his love. He’s not getting anything out of it. He doesn’t need this relationship. We do. Well, we didn’t exist. But once we existed…

FS: That’s how much we needed the relationship: Without it, we don’t exist. God’s not in that kind of trouble.

MM: That kind of love is brought to us through the Spirit. The Spirit’s been involved in love all along.

FS: Yeah. That’s right. The Spirit is hard to talk about, and there is a sinful way of ignoring the Spirit, and there is a theologically irresponsible way of leaving the Spirit out of your considerations, and so we should avoid that. However, there’s also a biblical reserve about speaking about the Holy Spirit that I think we violate if we draw a triangle with three points, and point to the third one and say, “Equal rights for the Holy Spirit,” and insist on talking equally, and talking with equal clarity sometimes about the Holy Spirit. I don’t think that does justice to the way that the Bible makes known the personhood and the deity of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t show up even in the Gospel of John very much until about chapter 14. John heavily invests in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Then there’s Father-Son language all over the place, a dense tangle of Father-Son language, and a few references to the Holy Spirit, but not much until the action of the ministry of Jesus is over. Then chapter 14 kicks in, and we’re taken into this inner space where Jesus begins discoursing about the Spirit, and he says some amazing things, and he talks a lot about the Spirit from then on.

There’s something biblical to bringing in the Spirit, not as an afterthought, but as a later introduced topic, where it’s made explicit.

MM: Jesus says the role of the Spirit is to point to Jesus. “He will bring all these things to your remembrance,” and there is no “fourth person of the Trinity” to point to the Spirit.

FS: Yeah. I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and one of the things we said in that church was the people who talk most about the Holy Spirit aren’t necessarily the ones who have the most Holy Spirit. The ones who are most in the power of the Spirit are the ones talking the most about Jesus — and that’s Pentecostal self-talk, right?

Having said that, there certainly is a way of ignoring, neglecting and having no ideas about the Holy Spirit that is wrong, and there’s a “Spirit forgetfulness” that needs to be overcome, but I’m not always worried about the Holy Spirit, and I don’t feel like I have to include an explicit mention of him in every reference I make to the Father and the Son. There’s biblical warrant for not doing it.

Similarly, this is not how I run my prayer life. To my knowledge, there’s no explicit prayer to the Holy Spirit in Scripture, so if you’re having that kind of “I want exact text on this subject,” there’s a sense in which it’s not biblical to pray to the Holy Spirit in a direct way. The rule is: you can pray to anyone who is God, so you’ve got three options. Four, if you include general prayers to God as being implicitly Trinitarian.

MM: Of course, they always pray in the Spirit.

FS: That’s right. That’s more biblical than loudly insisting on directing our prayers to the person of the Holy Spirit. That’s trying to be more interested in the Holy Spirit than the Bible is.

MM: Thank you very much for being with us. I’ve enjoyed it.

FS: It’s great to be here.

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Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2019, 3:38 PM