Towards an Understanding of the Trinity

I want to introduce to you the most basic doctrine of the Christian faith. The Doctrine of the Trinity.

If you have been around Christianity for any amount of time at all then this has come up and has possibly confused you. The confusion comes up because of an apparent contradiction –and it is important that we say APPARENT contradiction in the formulation of the Doctrine of the Trinity-because it isn’t truly a contradiction it is merely a complication. The question normally comes up like this “How can God be three persons, yet one God?” How can we be told in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 “Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is ONE….” But then in Matthew 28:19, we are told, “Therefore, Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How do we reconcile these sorts of statements which seem to be made really all throughout Scripture? How can we say Christianity is a monotheistic religion meaning a religion that believes there is only One God while at the same time we have Scriptures like 1 Peter 1:2 which says “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:  may grace and peace be multiplied to you…” Doesn’t that sound like Peter is referring to God but as three different persons? And that is only one example of this kind of language.

What do we do with Old Testament language even like Genesis 1 where God says “Let us make man in OUR image….” Who is God talking to? And in whose image did He make man if He is using a pronoun that refers to more than one person? How are we to interpret Isaiah 48 when we are told that God’s Son says “And now the Lord God has sent me AND His Spirit…” Well, if this is the voice of Jesus-God’s Son then this obviously has Trinitarian implications.

Or what do we do with in the Gospels when Jesus gets baptized and we are told that the voice of God the Father came from the heavens declaring “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased?” But then, we see God the Spirit in the form of a dove descending upon and touching and empowering Jesus for ministry. So here we have all three persons of the Trinity at the same time but they are all doing different things-God the Father speaking-God the Son being baptized-and God the Spirit empowering the Son… We just celebrated Christmas a few months ago and one of the most commonly used Christmas texts is John 1 where it says “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” Then it goes on to say, “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us….” What does this mean-it sounds like the apostle John is trying to say someone is The word-who is Jesus, but this Jesus was with God in the beginning – referring to creation-and that this Jesus was Himself God—how is this possible though if there is only one God?

Well, three statements clearly summarize the entire biblical teaching on who God is

  1. God is three persons
  2. Each person is fully God
  3. There is one God

And pretty much all false teachings ever on who God is in His Triune nature are based off of a denial of one of these three statements.

So maybe you are a cynic so you are saying or thinking to yourself, “this is basic stuff Brandon everybody knows God is three in one we don’t need to go over this…” Well, if you are thinking this then let me just go ahead and give you the reason right off the bat why this is so important. Throughout history nobody has really denied God the Father is God. Some people have denied God the Holy Spirit is God, but most people who have denied the Trinity have done so on the grounds that Jesus is a human and not God. The reason why people have bled and died to defend the Trinity is because if Jesus is not God then you and I are not saved from our trespasses and sins against God, but are instead still not atoned for, because there was never a fully God and fully human being who put our sins to death and suffered for us, yet died for us as a perfect sacrifice. To deny Jesus is God is to deny substitutionary atonement where Jesus went to the cross for us as the perfect sacrifice who substitutes for us who deserve a death sentence for our sin against God, but instead are given Jesus’ perfect righteousness because God the Holy Spirit applies it to us when we come to believe in Jesus as Savior-so in other words, to deny Jesus is God-to deny the Trinity-is to deny the Gospel- and then it makes Christianity USELESS and POWERLESS!

You say, well “nobody is really denying the Trinity though anymore…” Well, I say “not so fast!” I agree that typically people do not deny the Trinity intentionally; however, there are some more common denials of the Trinity that often times people hold without even realizing they are holding these heretical views. Here are three-

1.   Unitarianism- which believes God the Father is the creator-they believe the Son is merely a creature (so Jehovah’s Witnesses could fall into this category as well)-and the Holy Spirit is an impersonal being-so their view of the Holy Spirit is sort of new agey.

2.   Sabellianism- which teaches that God the Father was in the OT God the Son in the NT and nowadays God the Spirit acts. This is false teaching- God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit have always co-existed with one another, and have always been united in action whether it be during the OT times, NT times, or today even if their functions are unique.

3.   Tritheism- this is a belief most people who hold it don’t even know they hold it! It is a misunderstanding of the Trinity which claims there are three separate gods-the Father god the Son god and the Holy Spirit god-this amounts to a form of paganism.

So, now here are three thoughts which need addressed in a topical study of the Trinity.

1. A Brief history lesson on the doctrine of the Trinity (THIS SECTION HAS BEEN ADDRESSED IN A BLOG POST FROM FEBRUARY 7TH TITLED “GUEST BLOG! ON THE TRINITY.”) Click below to read-

2. The Doctrine of the Trinity articulated

3. Why does this matter so much?

So, how do we articulate the Doctrine of the trinity? Well, friends this is why we have Christian creeds and confessions that have been adopted by elders and church leaders for centuries. It is so we don’t have to always come up with this sort of stuff on our own but we can stand on the backs of those who went before us. The Westminster Confession states of God and the Holy Trinity: 

  • We believe “In the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity:  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

There is a theologian called Chad Van Dixhoorn who helpfully says, “God’s unity is like none other, for it is a tri-unity, or trinity. These three are one in the most profound sense. It is because they are one, that when we behold the glory of the Son we find ourselves beholding the glory of the Father; the one cannot help but reveal and declare the  other (John 1:14, 18)”

This means that in their unity they exist in perfect community with one another since before creation and before time. They are united in substance-they are united in their character and in their power. This means one is not more powerful than the other.

However, the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct in that they perform unique functions. The Father is not begotten by anyone, however, in a mysterious way the Son is always begotten by the Father-eternally. We are told that both the Father and the Son send the Spirit. Jesus says in John 15:26, ‘when the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.’ And Van Dixhoorn says of the Spirit, “He is the executor of the will of the Father and the Son; he knows the mind of God, as Paul says in Romans 8. And in equal power and eternity with the Father and the Son, he is sent to put their will into action.”

  • So to simplify the Westminster Confession into a very memorable confession we can articulate the Doctrine of the Trinity by saying three statements about God…

1.         God is three persons

2.         Each person is fully God

3.         There is one God

Grudem very helpfully sums it up like this… “When the universe was created God the Father spoke the powerful creative words that brought it into being, God the Son was the divine agent who carried out these words, and God the Holy Spirit was active ‘moving over the face of the waters.’ So it is as we would expect:  if all three members of the Trinity are equally and fully divine, then they have all three existed for all eternity, and God has eternally existed as a Trinity. Moreover, God cannot be other than he is, for he is unchanging. Therefore it seems right to conclude that God necessarily exists as a Trinity—he cannot be other than he is.”

– So can we fully understand this mysterious Tri-Unity-NO! Is it a contradiction-NO!

But, so what? Why does this matter so much? Let me close by kind of giving a list of reasons why this matters…

  1. Because God saves us and each person of the Godhead plays their part in this salvation. The second letter to the Corinthians ends with these words. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Undeserved grace is provided for us by the work of Jesus Christ on the basis of the love of God the Father for us and we are brought into this fellowship with the Godhead by the work of the Holy Spirit. If you deny the Trinity you can’t have an understanding of this reality.
  2. It helps us to understand that the monotheistic Jews were confronted by the in-breaking into time and space of God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Think about it-the Jews were in the dark about the reality of the Trinity during OT times-there were clues-but the progressive revelation of God means the fullness of this truth was not actually revealed until the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. So, the fact they embraced a Trinitarian View of God after Jesus’ Gospel actions shows us just how Christ-centered the bible truly is and it elevates Jesus to His supreme status seated at the right hand of God the Father.
  3. The Doctrine of the Trinity is so radically different from any other religious belief in our day and age. We are dealing with the pluralism today of New Age philosophies, radical monotheism of Islam, and misunderstandings of Jesus held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism. We need to understand the doctrine of the Trinity so we can be effective evangelists to these groups of people who have wildly different views on God. We also need to understand the doctrine of the Trinity so we are not led astray by empty theologies claiming to be orthodox, but are anything but orthodox.
  4. It is important for us to understand that God is communal by nature-and this is why we can be in personal relationship with Him. God exists eternally in a personal relationship with Himself-and so it is His very character to be in a personal relationship which is why He longs to have a relationship with us His created beings.
  5. So, let me now wrap this up with a great quote from J.I. Packer,

“The gospel says that there was in God from eternity mutuality of love and joy (John 1:1; 17:5; 24); that men were made to share this fellowship; that when sin had made this impossible, God came in person-the second Person, sent by the first person and empowered by the third person-to save us; that God-made-flesh died for us, lives for us, united us to Himself, brings us to God the Father now and will take us one day to share His glory; that a divine Guest, the Holy Spirit, indwells each Christian to prompt prayer and transform our fallen nature, and that Jesus Christ is companion and friend to every single believer, giving him or her constant and undistracted attention. It is surely obvious that none of these marvelous, almost fantastic things could be said save on the supposition that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are God-in other words, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who deny the Trinity have to scale down the gospel-and do.”

  • Another theologian famously said… “In the confession of the Trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion:  every error results from, or upon deeper reflection may be traced to, a wrong view of this doctrine.”
  • I think this pretty much sums it up.

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