The Father Saves, The Son Suffers, The Spirit Speaks: Seeing the Trinity in Ephesians 1–3

bibleAs to the divine works, the Father is the source
from which every operation emanates (ex ou),
the Son is the the medium through which (di’ ou) it is performed,
and the Holy Ghost is the executive by which (ev ō) it is carried into effect.
— George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 4 —

When the Bible says that salvation belongs to the Lord (Psalm 3:8; Jonah 2:9), I wonder if we have a bad habit of thinking that God is a singular actor in salvation? That is, when we say (rightly) salvation is monergistic, do we remember how the Father, Son, and Spirit each work inseparably? Or does our mind’s eye see salvation as a thing given by God, but without regard for how each member of the Trinity works?

Rightly, salvation is no way the result of man’s cooperation with God (see Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8–9). But in the truest sense salvation is the indivisible work of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And unless we think of the three persons working together as one (because they are, in fact, one, indivisible God), I fear we may miss the monergistic nature of salvation—the very point conveyed in the testimony, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

In other words, when we fail to remember the triune nature of God in salvation, we are liable to conceive of salvation in synergistic terms—God provides; we respond, with emphasis on our response. The result, though perhaps unintentional, is a failure to see how the Father, Son, and Spirit work respectively to plan, procure, and provide salvation such that is remains God’s work, and salvation remains entirely gracious.

To get a handle on this idea, that salvation is a work of the triune God, we could examine many passages of Scripture, but few are more naturally trinitarian than the first three chapters of Ephesians.

The Trinity in Ephesians: 7 Triads

In Ephesians, the careful reader is immediately introduced to the Father and the Son twice in the opening salutation. As Paul writes to the church at Ephesus (or churches — if Ephesians is a circular letter), he greets them in the name of the Father and the Son.

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Paul’s letters theos (God) is usually a word used for God the Father and kurios (Lord) is given to God the Son. This is evidenced here and it reflects the way in which Paul affirmed the deity and unity of the Father and the Son (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6). No specific mention of the Spirit is given here, but for a host of reasons we can assume the presence of the Spirit. From the man writing the letter who was empowered “by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:5), to the letter he is writing which he prays will give strength from the Spirit (Ephesians 3:16), to the words of grace (v. 2) which are found in this letter, it is evident that the trinitarian nature of God is not far from Paul’s mind.

In fact, in short order we can list six other passages where the Father, Son, and the Spirit occur in the first four chapters of Ephesians. That is, before Paul gets to giving instructions to the Ephesian church—there is only 1 imperative before Ephesians 4:25—he spends three and a half chapters detailing what the Father, Son, and Spirit did to save sinners and construct a dwelling place where he—the triune God—could dwell with his saints.

It is worth our time to see that the Trinity is not a secondary consideration in these chapters but a primary reality that should inform our reading. Because I want to focus on actions of the Father, Son, and Spirit in chapters 1, 2, and 3, I’m only going to list the six triads—seven total when we include Ephesians 1:1–2. Mentions of each person will be bolded (Father), italicized (Son), and underlined (Spirit).

Triad #2 — Ephesians 1:3

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

Triad #3 — Ephesians 1:4–14

4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Triad #4 — Ephesians 1:17

17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,

Triad #5 — Ephesians 2:18

18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Triad #6 — Ephesians 3:6

6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

** This verse is the most obscure, but in context I believe the three “blessings” correlate to the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father gives us an inheritance because he has adopted us; we are members of Christ’s body; and the promise God has given us is the Spirit. See more below.

Triad #7 — Ephesians 4:4–6

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Even without an exegetical discussion of these passages, it should be apparent that the atmosphere of Ephesians 1–4 is filled with trinitarian considerations.

The Father Saves, The Son Suffers, The Spirit Speaks

With these seven triads, it is clear the triune work of God is on the mind of Paul and in the water of his Spirit-inspired words. Therefore, it make sense that in these four chapters, we not only have mentions of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but we also have explanations of their working.

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

First, in Ephesians 1:3–14, we see that Paul praises God for all that he has done to bring salvation to his people. In fact, in one long, run-on sentence he offers the triple refrain:

v. 6 — to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

v. 12 — so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.

v. 14 — to the praise of his glory.

This refrain reveals the arrangement of Paul’s praise and focuses our eyes on the unique role of the Father, Son, and Spirit in salvation—what is sometimes known appropriation. Indeed, while achieving the same salvation, for the same people, each member has an appropriated role–before creation, the Father plans salvation; in his incarnation, death, and resurrection, the Son procures salvation; and now through the gospel, the Spirit perfects and applies the work of the Father and the Son. In these verses, then, we find a clear exposition of God’s invisible work of salvation. But attention to each member of the Godhead does not end there; it follows in Ephesians 2 and 3.

The Father

In Ephesians 2:1–10 we see the work of the Father. In verses 1–3, Paul reminds the Ephesians (and all of us) what their condition was before salvation—dead in sin, enslaved to Satan, and willingly rebelling against God. Verse 4 is the turning point, where Paul identifies God as the means of the Ephesians’ salvation. He writes,

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved . . . (vv. 4–5)

In this verse and following, Paul states how of salvation lies outside of man; it is not self-generated. As verses 8–9 state, we are not saved by our works, but by grace alone. Still, as Paul specifies, this grace comes from the Father. The Father, being rich in mercy, because of his great love, saves us in Christ. In Ephesians 2:4, therefore, Paul identifies salvation as a work of the Father, and we can say that most of the focus in these verses are given to the Father, even as everything the Father does is in and through the Son.

The Son

Next, in Ephesians 2:13 Paul complements the Father’s work with that of the Son. Addressing the Gentiles, he uses the same grammatical construction as in Ephesians 2:4. He writes,

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

In other words, as Paul begins to outline the work of Christ on the cross (2:14–18) which results in the construction of the temple (2:19–22), he uses language that brings the Son’s work in parallel to that of the Father.

But God, . . . made us alive together with Christ

But now in Christ Jesus you . . . have been brought near by the blood of Christ

In other words, these two verses identify the indivisible work of the Father and the Son. Just as Jesus describes in John 5:19 (“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”), so here Paul describes how the Son does the same work as the Father, only he does it as the Son, not the Father. In history, the son’s work focuses on the cross. But the Sons’ work does not end there. As verse 17 speaks of the Son’s “preaching peace,” we see how the Son now works through the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

As observed above, we already have seven instances where the Spirit is identified with the Father and the Son, but there is also good reason for seeing Paul explain what the Spirit does in salvation. Or better, because he is inspired by the Spirit who is sent to glorify the Son (see John 15:26; 16:14), he speaks of how the Spirit’s work will complete and magnify the work of the Son.

First of all, the Spirit is directly mentioned in Ephesians 2:18 and 2:22. In v. 18, he is the means by which Christ’s reconciled people are brought to the Father. That is, in this age where we live on earth and the Father dwells in heaven, we find that our access to the Father comes by the Spirit. Likewise, verse 22 says that the church is made God’s dwelling place by the Spirit.

Taken together, it seems best to see that Christ is speaking to his people today (v. 17) through the Spirit, and that practically, he is preaching through Spirit-filled apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. In other words, as Ephesians 4 teaches, the Son gives apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers to the church for the equipping of the saints. In these Spirit-filled gifts, the church is built up and becomes a dwelling place for God’s Spirit. Thus, Ephesians 3–4 explain how the Spirit who gives us access builds up the church today.

In all of this, the Spirit brings us to the Father by giving us the gospel of the Son (see 1:13–14). Even more, because the Spirit completes the work of Christ, he works in the church to shape and mold the saints who are being fitted together in the temple that Christ is building by the Spirit. This work of the Spirit, therefore, seems to be reflected in all that follows in Ephesians—e.g., “Do not get drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit” (5:18).

Going further with regards to the work of the Spirit and his completion of Christ’s work, we can see in Ephesians 3:1–13 how God has revealed himself to Paul and the other apostles (v. 6). Verse 5 says explicitly this revelation has come by the Spirit. And thus, it is this ministry of revelation that highlights the work of the Spirit. He is not doing something else; he is perfecting the work of Son, ordained by the Father.

Importantly, Paul who received this insight from the Spirit, prays that the Father would give this same Spiritual insight to the church. In fact, in both prayers (1:15–23 and 3:14–21), Paul prays for the Spirit to give revelation to the church. He writes,

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, (1:16–17)

I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, (3:14–16)

In these prayers, Paul reveals what the Spirit’s ministry is—it is to make known Father, through the work of the Son.

Therefore, in Ephesians 1–3, we see how Paul conceives of the Spirit’s work in salvation. As the Father sent the Son to save sinners by his Son’s bloodshed (1:7; 2;13–18), so the Father now sends the Spirit to open the eyes of the church, so that we might see (more of) the Son and come to know and love the Father. Accordingly, Paul prays that the Spirit would give knowledge of the Son (1:17) and that he would enable the church to know the love of God (3:16ff.).

Seeing the (Economic) Trinity in Ephesians

In truth, all that Paul says in Ephesians 1–3 continues to swirl around this fact—the triune God is ever present in the church today to bring into effect all that Christ accomplished in redemptive history, which is the very same plan the Father predestined before the world began. In technical terms, Ephesians paints a glorious picture of the economic trinity—the triune God who has revealed himself in creation and redemption. (The immanent or ontological trinity is who God is in himself, with no respect to creation).

All in all, for us who read Ephesians, we should pay keen attention to what Paul says about the trinity. By seeing the Father, Son, and the Spirit, we will better understand God’s plan for world, to unite all things in Christ (1:10). Likewise, we will see how Christ is the prism by which we come to know the Father and the Spirit. In other words, because the Father planned for the Son to be at the center of salvation, and the Spirit is given to lead people to the Son, we who care deeply about the trinity will be the most Christ-centered. For to be Christ-centered is to be overwhelmingly trinitarian. In fact, to pit Christ-centeredness against the Trinity, as some have done recently, is to misunderstand the triune work of God in redemptive history and the way Christ reveals the whole Godhead.

Thankfully, Paul gives us clarity on this point, as he spends ample time explaining what each member of the trinity has done, how they relate to one another, and how Christ stands as the key to unlocking the mystery of how God is (cf. Hebrews 1:1–3). In this way, and specifically in Christ, we see the wisdom of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

One thought on “The Father Saves, The Son Suffers, The Spirit Speaks: Seeing the Trinity in Ephesians 1–3

  1. Pingback: Prayer That Works: Praying to the Father, for the Spirit, to Fill the Church with Christ’s Manifold Love (Ephesians 3:14–21) | Via Emmaus

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