My problem today is simple: to explain a doctrine that all Christians believe but no one really understands - and I have to do it in 30 minutes! So let’s start at the very beginning. All Christians believe the doctrine of the Trinity. If you do not believe this - if you have come to a settled conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity is not true - you are not a Christian at all. Christians in every land unite in proclaiming that our God eternally exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who deny that truth place themselves outside the reach of Christian orthodoxy. Having said that, I admit that no one fully understands it. It is a mystery and a paradox. Yet I believe it is true. I can think of at least 3 reasons for believing in the Trinity:
A. The Bible teaches this doctrine.
B. Christians everywhere have always believed it.
C. No other explanation makes sense.
Someone said - If you try to explain the Trinity, you will lose your mind. But if you deny it, you will lose your soul.
1. The Doctrine Defined
Many places we go to find a suitable definition. Any of the great creeds would serve us well in this regard. “We believe in 1 living and true God who is the Creator of heaven and earth; who is eternal, almighty, unchangeable, infinitely powerful, wise, just and holy. We believe that the 1 God eternally exists in 3 Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and that these 3 are 1 God, co-equal and co-eternal, having precisely the same nature and attributes, and worthy of precisely the same worship, confidence, and obedience.” Matthew 3: 16, 17; 28: 19, 20; Mark 12: 29; John 1: 14; Acts 5: 3, 4; 2 Corinthians 13: 14. I am sure that this statement is biblically accurate, but I also understand that it can seem very intimidating. Let’s break it down into 6 smaller statements:
One God and One Only
Exists in Three Persons
Equal and Eternal
Worthy of Equal Praise and Worship
Distinct Yet Acting in Unity
Constituting the One True God of the Bible
As you might imagine, the early church struggled mightily over this doctrine. They eventually reduced their belief in the Trinity to 2 short statements. They concluded that –
God is …One in Essence - Three in Person.
When we say these things we mean that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, but they are not 3 gods but only 1 God. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father, but each is God individually and yet they are together the one true God of the Bible.
We use the word “Godhead” to refer to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as 3 divine Persons in 1 God.
At this point we should look at the chief objection to the doctrine of the Trinity. Sometimes the Jehovah’s Witnesses (who deny the Trinity) ridicule it with this little equation: 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. In their minds Christians worship 3 Gods, not 1. The answer is quite simple. The doctrine of the Trinity is not absurd if that’s what the Bible teaches. Furthermore, there is more than one way to play with equations. You could also say it this way: 1 x 1 x 1 = 1!
2. The Doctrine Explained
Let’s start with the negative and work toward the positive.
A. What we don’t mean
Christians don’t believe in 3 Gods - heresy called Tritheism. We don’t believe that the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are 3 “forms” of God—like steam, water and ice - heresy called Modalism. We don’t believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are “parts” of God. That would imply that Jesus is 1/3rd God, the Father is 1/3rd God, and the Holy Spirit is 1/3rd God.
B. Where do we find this doctrine in the Bible?
The Trinity is taught in both the OT and the NT. It is taught by implication in the Old and by direct statement in the New.
The Bible contains numerous clear statements regarding the unity of God: Deuteronomy 6: 4 - “the Lord is one.” 1 Corinthians 8: 4 - “there is no God but one.” 1 Timothy 2: 5 -“there is one God.” All Christians heartily affirm this truth.
The Bible also contains clear statements regarding diversity within that unity. The very first verse of the Bible – Genesis 1: 1 - “In the beginning God.” Hebrew word – elohim - plural form of the word el. In other contexts is sometimes translated as “gods,” referring to heathen gods. Later in the same chapter - one of the most striking statements of diversity-in-unity: Then God said, ‘‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1: 26, 27. Notice the shift in pronouns. “Let us … in our image … So God created man in his own image. … He created him.”
Isaiah 48: 16 - explicitly refers to all 3 Persons of the Trinity: “And now the Sovereign LORD (the Father) has sent me (the Son), with his Spirit (the Holy Spirit).” I’m not suggesting that Isaiah fully understood the Trinity or that the Jewish readers would have understood what it meant, but I do think that in the light of the NT, we can say that this seems to be a clear statement of the Trinity in the OT.
Consider this evidence. All 3 Persons are called God in different places in the Bible. Father — Galatians 1: 1, Son — John 20: 28, Spirit — Acts 5: 3, 4. How could the Son and the Spirit be called God unless they somehow share in God’s essence? But if they share in God’s essence, they are God alongside the Father.
All 3 Persons are associated together on an equal basis - Jesus’ baptism—Matthew 3: 13 - 17 (voice of the Father, Son baptized, Spirit descending like a dove). Salvation—1 Peter 1: 2 (chosen by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, sprinkled with the blood of Jesus). Sanctification—2 Corinthians 13: 14 (grace of the Lord Jesus, love of God, fellowship of the Holy Spirit). Christian Baptism—Matthew 28: 19 (baptized in one name, yet 3 Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Prayer—Ephesians 3: 14 - 21 (strengthened by his Spirit, know the love of Christ, filled with the fullness of God).
Christian Growth—2 Thessalonians 2: 13 (chosen by God, loved by the Lord, sanctified by the Spirit).
Shows how easily the writers of Scripture passed from one Person of the Trinity to another, doing so in a way that assumes their equal nature while preserving their distinct personhood. If the doctrine of the Trinity is not true, it would seem to be blasphemy to speak so freely of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in one and the same breath.
3. The Doctrine Examined
Some of the common questions about the Trinity.
A. Where in the Bible do you find the word Trinity?
The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. The issue is not the word, but the concept or the idea. We don’t believe in the Trinity because of the word, but because of what the Bible teaches.
B. Is there another word we could use?
Theologians sometimes speak of the Tri-Unity of God. That’s a good word—even though it sounds odd to our ears—because it combines the 2 ideas of unity and diversity in one word. Sometimes we speak of the “Triune” God. That’s also another word that means the same thing as Trinity.
C. How can we illustrate the Trinity?
Number of illustrations - all are useful as long as you remember they are only illustrations. Water can exist as solid, liquid, or steam. That’s okay, but usually water only exists in one state at a time. An egg is made up of a shell, the white and the yolk. All 3 are needed for an egg to be complete. One of the more interesting illustrations - the different roles a person can play - I am a father, a son and a husband at one and the same time. Yet I am only 1 person. A husband and wife are 2 persons yet in God’s eyes they are “1 flesh.” Add children and then you have the family as a miniature (and very imperfect) version of the Trinity. Important to remember that all illustrations fail eventually. They don’t “prove” the Trinity, they simply help us understand the concept.
4. The Doctrine Applied
Many Christians think this doctrine has no practical value. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter to them. That simply isn’t true. Let me suggest 5 important ramifications of this truth.
A. The Trinity helps us answer the question, “What was God doing before he created the universe?”
The Trinity teaches us that before the foundation of the world, God was having fellowship within his own being. That’s why the Bible tells us that the Father loves the Son. In some sense we can never understand that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have forever communicated and loved each other.
This is where the human desire for intimacy and communication comes from. We were made to communicate. That design is part of the image of God within each of us. It also teaches us that God is never “lonely.” He didn’t create us because he “needed” us. God could have existed forever without us. That he made us at all is a statement of his great love and the wisdom of his plan.
B. The Trinity sets the limits on human speculation about the nature of God.
There is so much we would like to know about God, but our finite minds cannot comprehend it. We are not free to create God in our own image. The Trinity sets the limits for human speculation. God is more than the Trinity, but he is not less than that.
C. The Trinity teaches us that God is beyond all human comprehension.
If we could explain God, he wouldn’t be God. I have no doubt that God is much more than “1 in essence, 3 in Person,” but since I can’t even understand those simple phrases, I don’t worry at all about what else might be true about God. The greatest minds of history have stood in amazement before a God so great that he cannot be contained by our puny explanations.
D. The Trinity exalts the Son and the Spirit.
We all know that God the Father is to be worshiped. But what about Jesus Christ? If he is God, should we not also worship him? The answer of course is yes. That truth leads us back to the Trinity. He is not merely the Son of God but also God the Son. The same thing may be said about the Holy Spirit. He is not just a “force” but a Divine Person. Not an “influence” or some vague power, but the Third Person of the Trinity.
Since all 3 Persons of the Trinity are equally God, we may pray to any member of the Trinity. Many Christians simply do not feel comfortable praying to the Spirit even though we often sing songs that are prayers to the Spirit, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.” Surely if we may sing to the Spirit, we may also pray to him. If he is God, our prayers may be directed to him.
I agree that Christian prayers will normally be made to the Father (The Lord’s Prayer). But let us not imagine that the Father is offended if we direct our prayers to the Son or to the Spirit, according to the need of the moment. There is no jealousy among the members of the Trinity nor could there ever be.
E. The Trinity helps us understand what really happened at the Cross.
At the climax of Jesus’ suffering, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What do those strange, tortured words mean? We have a hint of the answer in that every other time Jesus prayed, he used the term “Father.” But at that moment, when he bore the full weight of the sins of the world, when all that is evil was poured out upon him, in some way we cannot begin to fathom, God—who cannot look upon sin—turned his back on his own Son. Instead of “Father,” Jesus cries out, “My God, my God!” It is God speaking to God. The eternal Son cries out to the Father at the moment when the penalty of sin has been laid upon him. How could one man pay for the sins of the entire race? We find the answer in the doctrine of the Trinity. Only an infinite God could bear the sins of the world!
A Doctrine that Unites and Divides
This doctrine unites all true Christians and separates us from those who are not Christian. The Trinity is a doctrine that all Christians believe but no one really understands. The Trinity should cause us to bow in humble adoration before a God who is greater than our minds could ever comprehend. Let us rejoice that we have a Triune God who has provided salvation. The Father gave the Son, the Son offered himself on the Cross and the Holy Spirit brought us to Jesus. We were so lost that it took every member of the Godhead to save us. Indeed it is a mystery, and with all the saints we bend the knee in worship before our great God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.