Interview with Ryan M. McGraw, author of KNOWING THE TRINITY: PRACTICAL THOUGHTS FOR DAILY LIFE

Published on July 17, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 2017 | 142 pages

We all agree that that doctrine of the Trinity is a Christian essential. Absolutely. But our question today has to do with the bearing an understanding of this doctrine has – or ought to have – on the Christian life.
Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, and we’re talking today to Dr. Ryan McGraw about his new book, Knowing the Trinity: Practical Thoughts for Daily Life.
Ryan, welcome! Good to have you with us.

Ryan McGraw:
Thank you, Fred, it’s a joy to be with you today.

 

Fred Zaspel:
What’s the goal of your book, for whom are you writing, and what is the contribution you are hoping to make?

McGraw:
Well, the primary goal that I have with this book is really to help awaken believers to the Trinitarian backdrop of the whole New Testament. What I mean by that, is that the New Testament often explains the Gospel to us, particularly, in relation to the work of the Father, the work of the Son, and the work of the Spirit. And at least it’s been my experience that for myself as a young believer previously and for many Christians I’ve met, the Trinity is something of an obscure doctrine or a difficulty that we face theologically, that we have this vague idea – we realize it’s important, but we really don’t know why. And so, what I’m trying to do, is bring out a lot of the teaching in the New Testament itself to show how the glory of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit actually stands at the heart of the Gospel and Christian experience.
My audience is really as broad as it could be; and I would really like to aim through this, or have aimed through this, to take this material out of a merely academic and esoteric setting and aim at the average Christian to increase devotion and godliness. So, basically, I think that is the niche or the hole that’s been missing in a lot of the Trinitarian writing. To that end, the chapters are actually very short, as well, about three or four pages each; and each has study questions to promote good conversation about these topics.

 

Zaspel:
Take a minute here if you need, and sketch out for us the work of the Trinity with regard to our salvation and how that, in turn, should shape our devotion.

McGraw:
Well, maybe one place to begin is, I remember being struck, poignantly, reading the second part of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, many years ago, when his wife goes into Interpreter’s house and Prudence catechizes her youngest child. The first question that she asks the child is, “How does the Father save you?” And then she asks, “How does the Son save you?” and, “How does the Spirit save you?” What struck me many years ago is, I was convicted that I didn’t tend to think about the Gospel in those terms.
I think what you find in the New Testament, is not just with our redemption, but in everything that God does – first of all, all three Persons of the Trinity work simultaneously, but they also work in a way that reflects their personal distinctions and interrelationship. So, for example, the Father is, you could say, the originating principal of all of the divine works; the Son brings them to pass or effects them, and then the Spirit completes or perfects them. So, creation is by the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Or, in our redemption in Ephesians 1, you have the Father choosing us to salvation, the Son purchasing our salvation, and the Spirit applying our salvation. And then in Ephesians 2:18, “through Christ we come to the Father by one Spirit.” And so basically, when we think about the work of the Trinity in our salvation, we need to depend upon and love each of the divine Persons as they work simultaneously in saving us.

 

Zaspel:
Tell us how Ephesians 2:18 captures your subject and how it has factored in your own experience toward the development of this book.

McGraw:
One thing that strikes me about passages like Ephesians 2:18, which I alluded to just a moment ago, is how they function in the New Testament. In this case, what Paul is addressing is the unity of Jews and Gentiles in one church. And as Paul addresses the fact that Christ himself is our peace and the one who reconciles us to God as well as people to one another, he brings us to this great Trinitarian statement that through Him we come to the Father by one Spirit. I’ve often asked people in churches, recently, “If you had to choose two particular means of addressing disunity in the church or fostering unity in the church, what would you pick?” Well, I’m convinced the two Paul picked more than any other were the Trinity and Baptism. Which is quite interesting, because those probably aren’t the things that jump to the forefront of our minds. But what this does here in Ephesians 2:18, is it really gives us a paradigm for living a life in loving fellowship with the triune God, and also reflecting this fellowship we have with God and self through Christ and by the Spirit in the church as well. So, our love to Christ and our love to the Father, in dependence upon the Spirit through Him, also foster our devotional life with other believers. So, there’s a personal and a corporate aspect to our piety, and all of it grows out of this fellowship with God.

 

Zaspel:
All this about Trinitarian-shaped devotion may well be a generally neglected aspect of Christian devotion today, but our Reformed heritage teaches us better, doesn’t it.

McGraw:
I think in many respects it does; although you’ll even find there that treatments can be a bit uneven.

 

Zaspel:
I’m thinking of John Owen.

McGraw:
John Owen tends to stand out for sure. It’s actually Owen who first helped me see a lot of these themes in the Bible, myself. And so, I’m very grateful to how the Lord has used Owen, and encourage others to read Communion With God, to read his treatises on Christ, in particular, and the Holy Spirit – volumes one through four in particular.
In terms of the depth of his Trinitarian devotion, what I’ve often found that’s interesting, is that most older authors where I find similar emphases, I find them in their Latin theological works, rather than English-speaking devotional works. Which is an interesting thing, because Owen seems to be taking what these authors are writing into their theology and really relating the persons of the Trinity to every part of our system and now he’s trying to bring it to the people in the pew.
So, even there, there does need to be more of that, and Puritans in some ways are just like us today. They have a common theology, but every pastor has his own interests and even hobby horses sometimes and personality differences that reflect how we emphasize things. So, definitely, I recommend Owen; Thomas Manton’s sermons are excellent in this regard, too. So, there’s some diversity there, more in the systematic theology. There’s a Trinitarian emphasis, but sadly, this material is just not accessible to so many because of the Latin language.

 

Zaspel:
Do the Church’s Confessions reflect much of this?

McGraw:
Well, certainly, I think one aspect that I found people easily overlook in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Savoy, and the London Baptist Confession, and others derived from Westminster, is that in most of the paragraphs in the Confession, there actually is an appeal to all three Persons of the Trinity. But, usually, we don’t see it, because we are not looking for it. And that does mediate some of those theological emphases that I’m getting at from the 17th century.

 

Zaspel:
Give us an overview of the book, so readers can know what to expect.

McGraw:
Basically, what I have is 20 chapters in the book; and each of the chapters, with I think one exception, revolves around a specific passage of the New Testament where all three Persons of the Trinity are mentioned. What I am attempting to do is basically begin with the issue of the need for developing a Trinitarian piety; and then establishing the doctrine itself from Scripture; and then moving from Creation through Christology and Redemption all the way through the doctrine of the Church, and some Eschatology. And, so, from beginning to end, I’m basically trying to let the New Testament speak for itself. Especially in the devotional aspects, I try to follow Owen’s example in drawing a lot of parallels between the work of the Spirit in the incarnate Christ, and then the work of the Spirit in the believer.
Then, in the close of the book, I have an Appendix that brings out just about all of these Trinitarian passages in the New Testament. I won’t say that I didn’t miss any, but I did try to get them. That way, at least when readers are going through the end, they can see at a glance something of the spectrum of what’s there, and learn to take these principles with them through the rest of the Bible.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, understanding the doctrine is one thing. Allowing it to shape our devotion is another. Give us a brief summary: What does a Trinitarian-shaped piety look like?

McGraw:
Ultimately, we recognize, as our forefathers liked to say, that theology is not just a theoretical discipline, but a practical one; and the primary practical outworking of theology is knowing God. This has implications, of course, for every area of life. So, for example, in my marriage, I am to reflect Christ’s love to me as I love my wife in the Lord; and then in my child-rearing, I am to reflect God as my father in depending upon the Spirit to rear my children. And I could keep adding every aspect of life. Everything that touches us in this world is going to be, in some way or another, a reflection of our own communion with God.
When we’re thinking about the Trinity actually being at the heart of our piety and Christian living and spiritual affections, is that we have a very God-centered Gospel. And, at the end of the day, the only thing that makes our lives of any significance or worth living, is not the outcome of all of our labors, but doing them in loving communion with God himself. And the better we know God, and love God, and glorify God, the more effectively we live lives before him. And the more we grow, not only in our communion with the triune God, but in helping others to do so.
Maybe in capping that off, appealing to Ephesians 4, Thomas Manton said in one place, that as individual Christians we are imitators of God as dearly beloved children; but in terms of the Trinity, it’s only as a church that we can imitate the Trinity. What he means is, God is Unity and Diversity in one Godhead. So, in our mutual communion with God, but also in our diversity of gifts, we actually reflect our communion with the one God and Father of all, as we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and call on one Lord Jesus Christ. And, again, he’s taking that from Ephesians 4. So, basically the whole Christian life ends up coming under the glory of God, which directs us to God as Triune, and then permeates our private and corporate life.

 

Zaspel:
How ought all this shape our prayer life specifically?

McGraw:
I often get the question in this regard, “Is it appropriate to pray to any of the Persons of the Trinity?” In other words, not just the Father, but the Son, directly, and the Spirit, directly. My initial answer is that, because each of the Persons are fully God, and equal in power and glory, each is the object of worship, and so, as an object of worship we could pray to any or all three Persons. But, in relation to your question, it’s significant, I believe, that the Bible teaches us to pray to the Father in the name of Christ and in dependence upon the Spirit. Because, in doing so, when we address God as our Father, we are really expressing the height of our privileges as Christians in calling God our God and our Father. When we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, we’re not just sprinkling his name upon our prayers, but we are actively worshiping Jesus Christ and depending upon his work of mediation to bring us to God. Likewise, when we pray in the Spirit, which I believe refers to all prayer, because all prayer depends on the Spirit, we are recognizing that we wouldn’t know what, for whom, or how to pray apart from the Spirit renewing our minds and working new affections within us, and, even then, interceding within us beyond what we could ask or think.
We not only pray in the Spirit, but Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel that when we pray, the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. Which seems to be a synonym for Matthew’s, “the Father will give us good things.” Every good thing we have from the Father, comes to us through his Son, and by his Spirit. The beauty of this simple model for biblical prayer is, we are worshiping all three Persons, and we are depending upon them; and maybe many Christians, on their knees, express a better Trinitarian devotion and piety than they often realize, just by praying in a biblical way.

 

Zaspel:
You’ve evidently prepared this book for use in group studies too, right?

McGraw:
Yes. I would hope that this would be a useful way to talk over some of the things that are present; and I’ve provided between 3 to 5 questions per chapter.

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Dr. Ryan McGraw, Professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Seminary and author of the new Knowing the Trinity: Practical Thoughts for Daily Life. Trinitarian devotion may well be one of the most neglected areas of your devotional life, and we encourage you to check out his book.
Ryan, thanks so much for talking to us today.

McGraw:
Thank you, Fred.

 

Buy the books

Knowing the Trinity: Practical Thoughts for Daily Life

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 2017 | 142 pages