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Podcast: Common Misconceptions about the Trinity (Fred Sanders)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Making Sense of a Mysterious Reality

In this episode, Fred Sanders discusses what it really means to say that God is a Trinity—three persons in one God. He explains why the doctrine of the Trinity is essential to the gospel even if it seems abstract or confusing, highlights why all analogies and metaphors are of limited value when thinking about the Godhead, and responds to the charge that the idea of three-in-one when it comes to the Trinity is inherently illogical or irrational.

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The Deep Things of God

Fred Sanders

A specialist on the doctrine of the Trinity explains how the gospel is inherently Trinitarian. Now updated with an accessible study guide to make it more user friendly for pastors, theologians, and laypeople alike.

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Full Transcript

1:23 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Thank you for joining us on The Crossway Podcast today, Dr. Sanders.

Fred Sanders
It’s good to be here.

1:27 - Elevator Answer about the Trinity

Matt Tully
I want you to imagine something me, if you would, for a minute. Imagine you’re on an elevator at a conference and you’re running late to speak in a session. So you step into the elevator, you have about a minute to get to your session, and then in walks in another guy who immediately notices the name badge that you’re wearing—Fred Sanders, Biola University—and then maybe even sees the book that you’re holding in your hand—The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything—and immediately turns to you and says, That looks like a really interesting book. What is the Trinity and how does it change everything? How would you respond in the one minute that you have before you need to run off to your session?

Fred Sanders
Yeah, that’s hard! I would say that the doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian doctrine of God. It answers the question of who God is on the basis of what God has done, and that the key to understanding the Trinity is to associate God with the gospel. That is to say, to take the gospel that the Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit to save fallen humanity. That goes with the doctrine of the Trinity.

Matt Tully
So you connect the gospel in the Trinity? You wouldn’t separate those in any way?

Fred Sanders
That’s right. The fundamental move here is an act of association—if someone hears the word Trinity, and their natural association is something like, That’s an incomprehensible mystery that we can’t even make any progress on understanding. It’s just a formula we memorize. Maybe it’s like shamrocks or icebergs or something else analogical. That’s probably what that’s like.

I’m arguing no. The association you ought to make is, Oh, the Trinity. That is the identity of God based on the gospel, since we know the Father sent the Son and the Holy Spirit for our salvation. Then we know that God is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. If you can get that associative connection made, then all sorts of other things fall into place and you can understand why it’s relevant.

3:36 - What the Trinity Is Not

Matt Tully
Yeah. I want to return to the inextricable connection between the Trinity and the gospel in a little bit. One of the things that we often do when we think of the Trinity, especially when we think of trying to explain the Trinity to someone else, or we’ve heard it explained to us, is we run to metaphors and illustrations. And I think you argue that sometimes those can do more harm than good. And so I want to play a little game. Complete the sentence: The Trinity is not like . . . And then explain why.

Fred Sanders
Yeah! Okay, I will say I’ve thought about writing a little book—something like Thirty-Three Things the Trinity Is Not Like.

Matt Tully
So this can be a jump start for you.

Fred Sanders
Okay, great.

Matt Tully
The Trinity is not like . . .

Fred Sanders
Well, the Trinity is not like a family or a group of people. The Trinity is not a committee. The Trinity is not like three people gathered together. And I think maybe we’re led into thinking that because the Trinity is three persons in relation. And so we think, Oh, people in a group. No, persons in relation is how we talk about the doctrine of the Trinity in that within the one God, God eternally exists as Father, Son, and Spirit—three persons in relation.

4:53 - Using the Right Language

Matt Tully
Yeah, it seems like in our language we use the word person and the only reference that we have in our day-to-day lives are other individual people around us. So why would we use that language if it seems to imply something that maybe isn’t correct?

Fred Sanders
Yeah. This is one of those problems that comes up from the blessing of the fact that this is a very ancient doctrine. English is a young language. So anytime you’re just criticizing ancient Christian doctrine in English, you have to remember you’re talking about something older than the language you’re speaking in. The word person was honed and refined in order to talk about what there are three of in God. I actually think it’s an advantage that when we talk about the Trinity we say three persons because in English—in colloquial English—that’s an awkward way of talking. Almost nobody says person, except maybe the Fire Marshal. You know, you go to a building that says, Not to be occupied by more than ninety persons. Who says that? We say people. That’s kind of a little reminder that we are not talking about three people in God.

You can even say there’s a difference between relation and a relationship. If we say relationship, it’s not technically wrong to say Father, Son, and Spirit are in a relationship, but it comes loaded with all kinds of sort of post-1960s therapeutic psychology . . . it suggests a history of intimate exchanges in which we grow closer to each other. So there’s just something a little off about saying three people in a relationship as opposed to something more austere. The biblical doctrine of the one God is that it’s three persons in relation.

6:35 - The Egg Metaphor

Matt Tully
What would you say to the metaphor of the egg? That seems like it’s another common one. In what ways is the Trinity not like an egg?

Fred Sanders
I think the egg analogy is answering the question, How can three be one? And How can three be one? is just not a prominent question that arises in the biblical witness. John and Paul—the apostles—were pretty smart and you never see them kind of pulling back and saying, Now how can three be one exactly? If you decide to pose that pretty abstract question, you can think of a lot of things that are unities composed of three parts. And an egg is that kind of unity. It’s got a shell, and a yolk, and an egg white. Those are three distinct parts that are not each other, but that are one egg. Of course, the way that’s not like the Trinity is that the Trinity is not made of one third that is Father, one third that is the Son, and another third that is the Holy Spirit to add up to one.

Matt Tully
Why isn’t that a right way to think about?

Fred Sanders
Because if that were true, Jesus wouldn’t be God. Jesus would be exactly one third of God incarnate. And so then you’d realize, *Oh! I must have divided by zero because I was trying to affirm that Jesus is God. Then when I put together a bad doctrine of the Trinity I ended up with Jesus being one third of God. And a third of God is probably not a coherent concept. Like, I don’t know what that is—it’s like infinity divided by three. It seems plausible, but the more you think about it, the less plausible it seems.

8:08 - Doctrine above Logic

Matt Tully
So you would resist the claim that the Trinity, as a doctrine, is illogical.

Fred Sanders
It doesn’t contradict logic. It’s above logic—but I don’t want to make it sound like I just said nonsense.

Matt Tully
Yeah, because wouldn't the claim that it’s beyond logic sort of just be seen as a dodge? Like, It doesn’t make sense, but we’re just we’re going to say he doesn’t need to make sense.

Fred Sanders
Yes. Yes. I admit that’s the kind of thing you would say if you believe nonsense. And so Christian theology has to come up with a way to signal and clarify that we’re not just trying to come up with defenses of nonsense. So for instance, to say that God is three persons in one being is not a violation of the law of non-contradiction. It’s not, for instance, saying, God is a square circle. Because it’s actually impossible to be a square circle. Right? In fact, if your eternal destiny depended on you believing in a square circle, you still couldn’t do it. You can say the words square circle. You can put that adjective in front of that noun, but you actually can’t form a mental idea to correspond to it. It’s a circle, but it has four corners.

9:24 - Being vs. Essence

Matt Tully
So that would also apply to the Trinity if we were saying that God is three gods in one God. But we’re not saying that. We’re saying he’s three persons in one God, or with one essence. Is that right?

Fred Sanders
Or in one being, right.

Matt Tully
So that’s where those two different words—persons versus being or essence—come into play?

Fred Sanders
Right. And this is also why the analogies or metaphors don’t work. Because if I tell you, Here’s the thing with God: the one God eternally exist as Father, Son, and Spirit—three persons. And you say, Interesting. Now, could you give me several examples of that? Well, no, I can’t give you several examples of that. There’s one example of that. It’s a little bit like if I said, God made heaven and earth out of nothing, and you said, Cool. Give me some examples of that.* I can’t.

If you’re talking about getting conceptual clarity just so you know that we’re making a claim that we can talk about, I could say, Well, what is creation ex nihilo like? Creation out of nothing is kind of like earlier this week I made myself a sandwich. First there was no sandwich. Then I did something and there was a sandwich. That’s a little bit like God making heaven and earth. Now if I say that, both of us immediately know that it’s not very much like that, is it? Because you just assembled materials and that’s not what we’re talking about with God. We’re sort of in a safe zone there because almost nobody is going to mistake my making a sandwich with God making heaven and earth out of nothing. We get into trouble if I say, The Trinity is a little bit like an egg, or a group of people, or a mind knowing itself and loving itself. It’s kind of like that. As long as you are well aware the whole time that God’s not very much like that, great.

So I’m all for a very limited use of analogies. For instance, how is the Son from the father? Oh kind of like heat and light come from the solar disk. You know, they they come from it without leaving it. Okay in a very limited way that shows you one part of what’s going on in the doctrine of the Trinity.

11:26 - Use of Analogies

Matt Tully
So it’s not necessarily wrong to use analogies at times, but you would just want to caution us not to take them too far or not to over-rely on them when it comes to thinking about these things?

Fred Sanders
Yeah. And fundamentally, I think this gets back to the idea of what we associate the doctrine of the Trinity with. If you associate the doctrine of the Trinity with the problem of how three can be one, then of course you’re going to ask, Why does that matter? Can you give me another argument for why this matters or makes any difference? And that’s where the analogies come in—Maybe it matters because an analogy explains it to me, and then I can somehow apply that to my life. But if when I say Trinity you think the Father sent the Son and the Spirit, if you associate Trinity with gospel, then the last thing on your mind is going to be to ask, Why does that matter? Because I just explained that the Trinity goes with the gospel. And so that inherently matters.

12:17 - Is This Doctrine in the Bible?

Matt Tully
Yeah, that’s good. What would you say to someone who says that since the word Trinity isn’t found in the Bible, therefore it’s a doctrine that is mostly a theological construct that Christians can debate or maybe even not hold to, or hold a different view of. How would you respond to that?

Fred Sanders
Yeah. So it’s true that the word Trinity is not in the Bible. So if you say, Is the Trinity in the Bible? and you’re asking about the word, then we can solve that quickly with a concordance, right? Or with the search function on your app.

The real question, though, is whether the content of the doctrine of the Trinity is taught in Scripture. And that’s where I would say you read the whole Bible left to right and ask yourself the question, What’s the main point here? And according to what happened here, who is God? If you ask Who is God? on the basis of what’s revealed in Scripture, then I think you’re going to have to say that God is one, and that one God eternally exists as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Sometimes I even push back on the idea that the word Trinity isn’t in the Bible. There’s an obvious sense in which that’s true. But if all Trinity means is three-ness, and of course that is trinitas, the Latin word for three-ness. It’s not triunitas or triune, which are words we invented to describe this thing. It really is just saying that in God there is a three-ness. Well, if you’ve ever read the end of the Gospel of Matthew and you know that we baptize in the name—the one name—of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, you can count to three. If I were being pushy I’d say, Am I allowed to count to three? Is is three in Matthew 28 or isn’t it? I think it is, though the word three is not there. You’d have to be a pretty obstinate kind of verbalist to insist that three-ness isn’t in Matthew.

Now that doesn’t solve the whole problem. Obviously we need to have a discussion about what three-ness is. Because a modalist would say it’s a three-ness of different modes that the one personal God has. Or a subordinationist would say it’s three, but one of them is God, one of them is a creature, and one of them is a force. We’re going to disagree about what three-ness is there. I think maybe we get tricked by the sound of the word Trinity. Yeah, and I’ll admit I grew up in a very low church setting and I’m very comfortable in a low church setting where we don’t use large, elaborate words. And every now and then I hear the word Trinity and still think, That sounds Latin, or Catholic, or mathematical, or abstract, or something.

14:45 - Thinking about God’s Fullness

Matt Tully
So when we think about God in our day-to-day lives, when we go through our lives and God pops in all the time as we think about things we’re going to do, or things we have done, things we’re going to say, think about the Bible. Is it important that we consciously think about him as a Trinity when we think about him? Do you know what I mean? It seems like often when I think of God, I just think of a singular type of being. Would you say it’s important to train our minds to think of him as a Trinity?

Fred Sanders
Yeah, thats a good question and it’s hard to know the right thing to say about that phenomenologically, you know, in our experience. I think I’m professionally obsessed with the Trinity. I think about it as a doctrine all of the time, spiritually, doctrinally, theologically—my thoughts about God are Trinitarian thoughts.

But if I’m driving and I see an accident starting to happen, I just immediately say, God, protect protect those people. I just say God and if you were to freeze frame and kind of thin slice that and ask what I meant by God there, I would have to say that consciously, what’s going on in my mind is just the thought of God. Now, unconsciously or at the level of implied meaning in the web of everything I believe, obviously it’s the Trinity. But what’s actually at the front of my consciousness is simply the thought of the one God. Which is not false, God is one. This shows up a lot in our prayers as well, right? Trinitarian prayer can mean a lot of different things. One thing it can mean is consciously calling to mind the doctrine of the Trinity and having it in the front of our attention as we pray to the Trinity.

16:09 - Relating to a Sometimes-Intimidating Doctrine

Matt Tully
So it seems like, as I think about my own history and I think about my friends, and my church, and people that I know, people that I love who are solid Christians, it does seem like the Trinity is one of those doctrines that often feels very intimidating to Christians. It feels hard to understand. It feels abstract and even a bit distant, ironically. It feels like it is disconnected from everyday life. Given how important you view it as being for the Christian life and even the gospel itself, why do you think we often have that association that it’s far off and hard to understand?

Fred Sanders
I called the book The Deep Things of God because there is a depth element to this that you need to sort of get beneath the surface to experience and we don’t always dwell in those deeps. We have to live on the surface a lot of the time. If you call to mind the reality of what you’re involved in and notice that some of the shorthand ways we phrase things, for example I got saved because I believed in God. Well, there’s a lot more under that and when you pause to reflect on it you can see the big picture.

That’s what I’m excited about as a teacher of Trinitarian theology. It’s not when I can come in and someone is a blank slate, they’ve never heard of any of this, and I just get to write good doctrine on that blank slate. I mean, that sounds cool, too. But Christians—Bible-believing Christians connected to the realities of the Gospel—they get this at some level. They’ve got all the parts they need, and if I get to I say, You see how this part over here fits with that part? And you know that other thing you believe . . . ? And you can call it all to their mind at one time, there’s something really exciting when all the things they already know snap together into a gestalt—it wasn’t a picture, now it is a picture. Things suddenly cohere. I thought it was an eye over here, and an eye over there, and a nose, and somewhere a mouth; and then suddenly bang! It snaps into place and you see that it’s a face. To me, that’s the exciting thing about teaching the doctrine of the Trinity.

18:18 - Created vs. Chosen

Matt Tully
Sometime in the past year an organization did a survey of evangelicals and asked some questions about theology, trying to kind of get a sense for where people were at. One of the questions was related to the Trinity, about the Son and what his relation to the Godhead was. The wording was something like created being, the first and greatest created being. And the results in the survey indicated that a lot of evangelicals—a majority of them—viewed him as chosen. That he was some kind of created being. When you hear things like that—whether from stats or just in your own conversations with Christians—do you feel concerned that there is widespread heresy related to this doctrine? Is that a bothersome thing to you? Or do you think a lot of it is because we don’t necessarily know the language to use but—as you were saying—we do kind of believe the right things?

Fred Sanders
Yeah. That particular survey, if I remember that question, it was something like they were asked to affirm the statement “the Son of God is the first and greatest creature.” If you think about how people are going to respond to a question, they hear “the Son of God is the first and greatest” and they probably quit listening. They probably think, Yeah! Amen! Yay, Jesus!

Because the word creature is kind of a weird word. You could accidentally say, You know, of all the creatures isn’t God the greatest? And then catch yourself and go, Wait. Creature means . . . no. That can’t apply to God. I think that’s probably what was going on there.

However, I do think that there’s some doctrinal disarray in the churches. I think there’s a real need for what J. I. Packer has called catechetical theology, where Christians are taught the basics—not in a boring way, not in a childish way—in a way appropriate to their level of education and insight so that it grows as they grow; but it doesn’t grow into more topics, it grows into a greater understanding more integrated with the full scope of Biblical teaching and their spiritual experience. Yeah, there’s a problem and a lot of teaching needs to happen.

20:36 - Eternal Generation of the Son

Matt Tully
So one of the doctrines related to the Trinity that I think many Christians, when they first hear it—much less hear it explained—they find it surprising: the Eternal Generation of the Son. I would imagine a lot of listeners hearing me say that just think it sounds a little foreign, a little bit mystical, or not even Christian perhaps. Why do you think that is? Have you experienced that in your own teaching? And then why do you think that facet of our Trinitarian doctrine is often misunderstood?

Fred Sanders
Yeah, the eternal begetting or eternal generation of the sun is a crucial component of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is the clear teaching of the Christian church down through the ages. It’s well-grounded, biblically. I coedited a book partially to make that case. I don’t know why it came to seem very implausible to moderns sometime in the 1700s. Something happened culturally. We crossed some kind of invisible marker where from then on people are going to scratch their heads and say, That sounds weird. No new information surfaced or anything, it just somehow floated free of the plausibility structures of how Christians think.

Matt Tully
Can you briefly just define what that doctrine states?

Fred Sanders
Oh, yeah. It’s that the Son always stands in a relationship of from-ness to the Father. That the Father and the Son are distinct persons and that they are eternally related in a certain way, and that that relationship is sonship, or origin, or from-ness. But it’s eternal. So it’s the same kind of move. We do this all the time in Biblical teaching. So Jesus teaches us to pray to “Our Father in heaven.” And what we’re saying there is, “God in heaven is like my father. But he’s in heaven, so he’s not like my father. He’s my heavenly father.” So Jesus gives us something with one hand and kind of removes it with the other hand, right? Heavenly Father sounds too too fancy to call itself deconstructing. But it’s got this tension built into it: Father. But Heavenly Father. Heavenly, but my father. Eternal generation is like that. The Son is from the Father. Wait, you mean the Father used to just be the father? No, he’s eternally from the Father. He is eternally begotten or eternally generated.

Matt Tully
So even that language is not Scriptural language necessarily, but it’s been designed to hold us in tension on these things and not go too far one way or the other.

Fred Sanders
Yeah, the great tradition of Christian interpretation has been trying to say what the word Son means. So if you ask, When we say Jesus is the son of God, what do we mean? Do we mean he’s younger than God? No. Do we mean he has a mom? He has a father, he has a mom, right? Well, not divinely speaking. You see, we list all these things we don’t mean when the Bible calls Jesus the Son, and what you’re left with is from the Father. He’s of the same substance and he stands in a relation of generation to the Father. Now that’s not subordination. He’s not less than the Father. That’s the whole point of this. It’s really from the Nicene theology of the fourth century. The whole point of saying it this way is to rule out all subordination. God makes everything else, but he generates the Son. The Father brings forth the Son from his own being.

23:12 - Jesus’s Will and the Father’s Will

Matt Tully
What you just said about the lack of subordination—how should we square that with statements that Jesus makes in the New Testament? Specifically in the garden he says, Take this cup from me, Father, but not my will rather your will be done. He seems to be explicitly drawing a contrast between his own will and the will of the Father. How would we understand that?

Fred Sanders
Yeah. So almost everything you’re going to get in the New Testament is necessarily a statement of the sent Son, who is incarnate. Let me put it this way: What’s the difference between the Father and the Son? And if you say, Well, the Son’s incarnate. And I could say, It is true that the Son is incarnate and the Father is not, but why is the Son incarnate? Before the Son became incarnate, what was the difference between the Father and the Son? You could say, Well, the Father made everything through the Son and then the Son became incarnate. Okay, good answer. You pushed it back a long way, but you didn’t push it all the way back into the being of God. You pushed it from redemption and incarnation back to creation, but you got to go back behind creation or you’re not doing the doctrine of who God is. You’re just doing the doctrine of what God does. And our statements about who the Son of God is can’t just be statements about what God does. They have to actually be statements about who God is.

Matt Tully
So you would say that when Jesus submits his will to the will of the Father as the incarnate man, Jesus, that is a function of his earthly mission as the incarnate Son on earth? It doesn’t speak to his being in relation to the Father?

Fred Sanders
Yeah, the submitting of one will to another will is a relationship between the divine and the human. It’s not a relationship within God. Because within God—this is kind of a mind-blowing way to end the conversation—there are not three different people with three different wills that have to be adjusted to each other. There is one divine will of the one God who exists in three persons. So the kind of person-to-person submission and obedience is not something that is part of the very being of God.

25:33 - Pastoral Advice

Matt Tully
If you were to speak to pastors right now and offer some advice or encouragement as a professor—someone who’s devoted his life to not only studying these doctrines, but also teaching them to students—what what encouragement would you offer pastors who want to do a better job, perhaps, of teaching their flock about doctrines in general, and the Trinity in particular?

Fred Sanders
I would encourage them to—in addition to the serious pastoral task of making sure that the church is an informed, educated congregation on things that matter—emphasize that theology is fun. They know it, and their people know it. I think sometimes we get in this mode—if we’ve been through seminary, we’ve been through years of careful graduate study of this stuff—we’re sort of self aware that we have these nerd moments where we’re digging through the Greek, looking at the textual tradition in the footnote of our critical edition of the Greek New Testament thinking, I’m really doing some nerdy scholarship now! This is fun for me, but that’s because I’m that kind of person—I’m not going to unleash this sort of stuff on my congregation. Well good. That’s a true instinct. We need to catch ourselves before we decide to treat everyone like they’re a third-year seminary student. That’s not what most Christians need most of the time.

But there’s also the fact that theology is just a blast! And everybody knows it. It’s fun to think rightly about God, to see deeper into the things that he’s revealed, to see how it all goes together. Christian people love that. And so, in measured doses and without indulging in nerdiness about it, you can put some big doctrines out there. People are coming to church to hear a well-prepared message about things that they sort of know, but are looking for a little bit of help with. Theology is fun and people want it.

27:11 - Advice to Parents

Matt Tully
What advice would you offer parents? I have kids and they’re young, and sometimes it’s hard to know how to explain certain doctrines, and the Trinity looms large in that regard. Kids are not known for being abstract thinkers, and yet the doctrine of the Trinity seems like an inherently abstract doctrine because there are no physical analogs that we can point to and say, It’s just like this thing that you can hold. What encouragement or advice would you give to someone who wants to help their young children start to understand rightly who God is?

Fred Sanders
Yeah. Tell the big picture of the main story that in the fullness of time the Father sent the Son and the Holy Spirit. Make sure that if kids are asked what the main point of the Bible is, they don’t get all confused with like, Well, Samson killed some people, but he was kind of a bad-good guy. You know, just kind of get in the weeds about it really quickly. If they just know that the main thing is all about Jesus and the Spirit coming on the mission of the Father. The other thing that’s great about young children is that they are great memorizers, so it’s a perfect time to get key Bible passages about this: Matthew 28, the last verse in 2 Corinthians about the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and then also something like the Apostles’ Creed or even the Nicene Creed. Kids can just commit that stuff to memory and when they are making mud pies in the backyard with their mind wandering, well-formed phrases will float through their minds and they will do the work of meaning-making.
I’m not trained in child development, I’m not a cognitive psychologist, but there are experts in this stuff, and you should listen to them talk about what kind of abstract thinking kids are capable of at which age. I believe all that stuff. But here’s where I dissent: To say that God is Father, Son, and Spirit and then this apple has three parts and the apple is kind of like God, that’s not what I’m talking about. I find that very abstract, you know, to change the subject from God to an apple, or an egg, or an iceberg, or a shamrock, and then expect the kid to connect how those two things are related. I find that to be abstract thinking.

So I think we do object lessons and we do age-appropriate things that don’t require kids to think abstractly. I just think God is like an apple is extremely abstract. So there’s been a lot of really bad teaching in kids sermons and object lessons because it’s asking them to do the very thing that we’re not thinking they’re able to do. I think telling the story of the Father sending the Son and the Holy Spirit and then memorizing the key phrases about it is probably the best teaching. Kids are fast. I think we might have video somewhere from when my kids were little and they are talking to me while I’m trying to weed the garden and they’re saying, “Jesus is God.” “No, he’s the Son of God.” “No, that’s the same thing.” And this goes by in like two seconds and I got a PhD on the Trinity and I could not intervene fast enough to clarify that. They were going to churn through material and they were going to do the job of meaning-making. We just need to make sure to give them a rich set of things to work with.

30:29 - Closing

Matt Tully
Fred, thank you so much for joining us on The Crossway Podcast.

Fred Sanders
Thanks for having me. It was good to be here.


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