The Triunity of God


The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

2 Corinthians 13:14 ESV

John 8 is a rather large inconvenience for any who would deny that Jesus ever claimed to be God. As an extended dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees, Christ begins by calling Himself “the light of the world” and that those who follow Him no longer walk in darkness (which, of course, implied that the Pharisees walked in darkness by not following Him). Eventually, the Pharisees defend themselves by reminding Jesus that they are descendants of Abraham and do not need to be rescued by Jesus. Christ, instead, calls them the children of the devil, and notes that “your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (v. 56). Their follow-up question, therefore, was entirely logical: “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham” (v. 57)? Jesus’ answer is astounding: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58).

After referencing God’s revelation of His name to Moses in Exodus 3 several times now, we should not be surprised that the Pharisees immediately attempted to stone Jesus to death. His seemingly simple declaration I am placed before Abraham’s was could only be taken as a blatant declaration of divinity. Before the first patriarch of Israel lived (which was thousands of years before Jesus’ day), Christ is. He applied the divine name to Himself.

Jesus claimed to be God. We, therefore, must call His claim either truth or blasphemy.

ONE OR THREE?

Although each attribute of God is worth an eternity of meditation and study, I have particularly dreaded having to write so briefly about two: His triunity and His holiness. We will keep our time manageable by speaking directly upon the concept of God’s triunity. For further discussion of each person of the Trinity and for a brief explanation as to why we believe that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are both God but also distinct from the Father, you may read my three sermons on the Father, Son, and Spirit while preaching through the Apostles’ Creed.

When we speak of the triunity of God (of His triune nature), we of course are referring to God as Trinity. To describe the Trinity, few can do better than the Athanasian Creed, which is typically upheld as the basic definition of orthodoxy on this doctrine:

We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being. For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Spirit is still another. But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty. What the Father is, the Son is, and so is the Holy Spirit. Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son; uncreated is the Spirit. The Father is infinite; the Son is infinite; the Holy Spirit is infinite. Eternal is the Father; eternal is the Son; eternal is the Spirit: And yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; as there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited. Almighty is the Father; almighty is the Son; almighty is the Spirit: And yet there are not three almighty beings, but one who is almighty. Thus the Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God: And yet there are not three gods, but one God. Thus the Father is Lord; the Son is Lord; the Holy Spirit is Lord: And yet there are not three lords, but one Lord.

As Christian truth compels us to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so catholic religion forbids us to say that there are three gods or lords. The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten; the Son was neither made nor created, but was alone begotten of the Father; the Spirit was neither made nor created, but is proceeding from the Father and the Son. Thus there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three spirits. And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal; and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three persons. Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.

A popular argument against the Trinity is that the very word is extrabiblical, as is the doctrine. They claim that Deuteronomy 6:4 makes God’s unity quite explicit, and regardless of whether we call it a mystery or not, God cannot be three persons while still being one. The doctrine of the Trinity, they say, is a twisting of the Scriptures by later theologians or even of the Old Testament God by the New Testament writers.

We, of course, readily acknowledge that the word Trinity is nowhere to be found in Scripture; it was introduced later by early Christian apologist Tertullian. And while it is clearly present within the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, the explicit definition within the Athanasian Creed only came during the 4th or 5th Century. Robert Letham, however, notes that “we must distinguish between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Trinity itself.”[1] By this, he means that God is eternally the Trinity; however, our understanding of the Trinity came by progressive revelation throughout history. When Abraham spoke face-to-face with the Angel of the LORD (who many believe to be the preincarnate Christ), there is no indication that he understood this doctrine. Likewise, John points to Moses’ account of creation in Genesis 1:1-3 as displaying the triune God (the Father creating in verse 1, the Spirit hovering over the deep in verse 2, and Jesus as God’s Word through whom He created all things in verse 3), yet Moses himself did not possess this knowledge. These facts, however, do not discount the validity of the doctrine.

The Trinity is a mystery in the modern sense by all means, but it is also a mystery in the Pauline sense of the word. Writing to the Ephesians, Paul noted that “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit… is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:4-6). The mystery of the Gentiles’ inclusion among God’s people was once hidden but has now been revealed. The Trinity is a similar mystery. The triune nature of God was displayed in bits and pieces throughout the Old Testament, but the whole only became clear in light of the New Testament. The Trinity, like the Great Commission, is not an extrabiblical concept.

Given our previous discussion, we may also question how God can be three persons but still retain His simplicity. We are now in the realm of mystery in the present sense. The definition of the Trinity within the Athanasian Creed may sound overly repetitive, but such emphatic repetition is necessary when attempting to communicate a reality that lies beyond our finite comprehension. God’s triunity does not negate His simplicity because He is not composed of three persons. He is three persons, yet He is still one God.

We, therefore, must guard ourselves from subtly dipping into heretical understandings like modalism and partialism. By affirming that Jesus is God, we do not mean that He is a part of God nor a form of God. Rather, Jesus is in Himself the fullness of God, as is the Father and the Spirit. They do not add to one another’s divinity. For this reason, Jesus declared, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). He is not denying the distinctiveness between Himself and the Father; rather, He is blatantly declaring that knowing one person of the Trinity means knowing the fullness of God. To look, therefore, upon the face of Christ is also to behold the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:6). Although we certainly could ponder the wonder of the incarnation of Christ in making the triune God known to us, we will wait until next week’s study over the spirituality of God to do so.

A MOST PRACTICAL DOCTRINE

Because God’s triunity is a mystery that will forever elude our full comprehension, many Christians avoid thinking about it at all. They know that it is a necessary belief, but they hope to avoid its complexities by leaving it alone and pursuing more practical matters of the faith. The Trinity, however, is by no means an impractical doctrine.

Our very belief in Jesus as Lord, which is in many ways the foundational confession of the Christian faith, is rooted in the Trinity. At His baptism (in inauguration of His ministry), the Father spoke, and the Holy Spirit descended as a dove upon Him.

The mission of Christ’s church, which is now His earthly body, is to make more disciples of Jesus throughout every nation upon the earth. These disciples are declared to belong to Jesus’ church through the sign of being baptized in the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Throughout the letter of Ephesians particularly, Paul explicitly teaches the necessity of the Trinity for our very salvation. We were predestined for adoption by the Father, redeemed and forgiven through Christ, and now sealed and secured by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Father ordained, Jesus accomplished, and the Spirit applies our salvation. Or as Paul notes, “For through him [Jesus] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).

Even our very prayers can only be Trinitarian. As Jesus taught us, we primarily pray to the Father, yet our access to the Almighty can only come through the person and work of Jesus, who has reconciled us in Himself to God. Through Jesus alone as our high priest and mediator, we have been adopted by the Father and are now able to pray to Him as His children. Furthermore, our prayers are brought through Christ to the throne of God by the power of the Spirit who dwells within us. By Christ, we are made children of God, but “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). Paul calls us to pray “at all times in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18) because we are utterly dependent upon the Spirit to enable us to truly pray.

Our belief in Christ, the call to make disciples, our salvation, and our prayers are all rooted in the triune nature of God. The Trinity, brothers and sisters, is not a doctrine to be left to the theologians for scholarly discussion. It is the nature of our great God and Savior, and it is infinitely practical to us as we strive in all things to know and love Him more deeply through His Word.

I leave you now with the Trinitarian benediction of Paul: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How would you summarize the definition of the Trinity as described in the Athanasian Creed?
  • Why is it important to distinguish between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Trinity itself?
  • Do you tend to view the Trinity as a practical or impractical doctrine?

[1] Systematic Theology, 66.

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