Earlier this year, I preached about the Trinity at a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the United States of America. My sermon was a variation of a message I have preached in churches in Australia over the past two decades. We at Life Ministries believe the doctrine of the Trinity to be of such pressing importance that we have decided to publish the text of my message below:
I want to thank your pastor and your elders and your Missions Committee for inviting me to preach to you here at Grace Evangelical Free Church. I am very conscious of the fact that the church leaders have entrusted the pulpit to me this morning and I hope that my message will vindicate their trust.
God willing, I intend to preach to you on “The Triunity of God”—that is to say, the Trinity.
Now, I don’t expect you to remember this, but when I preached at Grace a little over three years ago, in February 2016, my subject was “The Unity of God”—the truth that God is single, solitary, unique: there are no other gods beside him. That message on the Unity of God* was a companion to this one on the Triunity of God.
God is triune. He is a Trinity. This is one of the splendid truths he has revealed about himself in his inerrant word, the Bible. As a major part of our worship this morning, we will consider the meaning, evidence and relevance of God’s triunity. Concerning this divine attribute, we want to discover: firstly, the theological meaning of it; secondly, the scriptural evidence of it; and thirdly, the practical relevance of it.
May the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures enlighten our minds to understand and cherish this deepest of truths about the God we worship.
Let’s begin with a definition. What do we mean by the “trinity” of God?
The word “trinity” means simply “a group of three” or “the state of being three”. When it is used in Christian theology, the word “trinity” refers to the union of three persons in one Godhead. It expresses the truth that within the unity of the divine essence there are three personal distinctions—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
One of the early church creeds, the Athanasian Creed, spells out the doctrine of the Trinity in these terms:
… we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Spirit. …
The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet there are not three eternals: but one eternal. …
So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty: and the Holy Spirit Almighty.
And yet there are not three Almighties: but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God: and the Holy Spirit is God.
And yet they are not three Gods: but one God. …
And in this Trinity none is before, or after the other: none is greater, or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal. …
There is one God. He exists eternally as three equal persons. These three persons are distinct from one another, yet they share without distinction the same, single, essential life and being. This is the doctrine of the Trinity. And it is a profound mystery.
In his book The Knowledge of the Holy, AW Tozer states:
Our sincerest effort to grasp the incomprehensible mystery of the Trinity must remain for ever futile, and only by deepest reverence can it be saved from actual presumption.
Some persons who reject all they cannot explain have denied that God is Trinity. Subjecting the Most High to their cold, level-eyed scrutiny, they conclude that it is impossible that He could be both One and Three. These forget that their whole life is enshrouded in mystery. They fail to consider that any real explanation of even the simplest phenomenon in nature lies hidden in obscurity and can no more be explained than can the mystery of the Godhead.
Every man lives by faith, the non-believer as well as the saint; the one by faith in natural laws and the other by faith in God. Every man throughout his entire life constantly accepts without understanding. …
The doctrine of the Trinity is truth for the heart. The spirit of man alone can enter through the veil and penetrate into the Holy of Holies. … Love and faith are at home in the mystery of the Godhead. Let reason keel in reverence outside.
While the Bible does not directly speak about the triunity of God, it compels us to recognise this fundamental fact about God’s nature by presenting two seemingly contradictory truths about God.
The first great truth is that there is only one God. The Bible is emphatic about this. So, for example, Moses exhorts in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD”. God himself proclaims in Isaiah 45:5: “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God”. Paul states in Galatians 3:20: “God is one.” In 1 Timothy 2:5 he confirms “there is one God”. And in 1 Corinthians 8:4 he reiterates, “there is no God but one.” This is the first great truth that has a bearing on the doctrine of the Trinity.
The second great truth is that three persons are God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all spoken of in Scripture as divine.
The deity of the Father is openly stated. It is plain throughout the gospels, for example, that Jesus means the Father when he speaks of God, and God when he speaks of the Father. In John 6:27 he uses the expression “God the Father”, while in John 20:17 he speaks of “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Paul opens many of his letters with the words: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (1 Corinthians 1:3, etc.). So, the scriptures plainly teach that the Father is God.
However, the Bible also refers to Jesus Christ as God. Isaiah states that one of his names is “Mighty God” (9:6). John claims in John 1:1 that the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us as the man Jesus was with God in the beginning, “and the Word was God.” In his first letter, John declares that “He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Paul claims in Philippians 2:6 that before his incarnation, Jesus “was in the form of God” and possessed “equality with God”. In Colossians 2:9, Paul states that “the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily” in Jesus. And in Hebrews 1:8 God himself says of Jesus, his Son, “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever”. So, the scriptures plainly teach that the Son is God.
The Bible also refers to the Holy Spirit as God. Paul claims in 2 Corinthians 3:17 that “the Lord is the Spirit”. In Acts 5:3-4, Peter refers to the Holy Spirit and to God interchangeably. Peter said to Ananias, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit … You have not lied to men but to God.” So, the scriptures plainly teach that the Holy Spirit is God.
The Father, the Son, the Spirit—each one is expressly declared to be God in the Bible. Furthermore, each one is said to possess the attributes of God. For example, in Roman 16:26, the Father is said to be eternal; while in Hebrews 7:3, the Son is said to be eternal; and in Hebrews 9:14, the Spirit is said to be eternal. In the scriptures, other divine attributes, such as omniscience and truth and holiness, are ascribed equally to the Father, Son and Spirit, thereby indicating that each one is God.
God is one, yet three are God. There is only one God, yet the Father is God and the Son is God and the Spirit is God. This is the teaching of holy Scripture, and on the surface it seems contradictory. But the Bible does not contradict itself, so these two truths must fit together somehow. But how? How can the Scriptures maintain without contradiction that there is only one God and yet proclaim that three Persons are God? How can we reconcile the teaching about God’s oneness with the teaching about his threeness? The answer is the doctrine of the Trinity—the profound teaching that God is one in essence and three in person. In perfect harmony and equality with one another, Father, Son and Holy Spirit eternally share the same ground of being, the same divine essence, the same wellspring of life.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in scripture. Rather, it arises from an attempt to fit together two explicit teachings in scripture. Yet although it is not openly stated, God’s triunity is strongly suggested in many places. For example:
We see the involvement of the three Persons of the Godhead at the baptism of Jesus. Matthew states: “And when Jesus was baptised, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (3:16-17). The Son obeys, the Spirit descends, the Father speaks.
We see the relationship between the three Persons of the Godhead concerning our salvation. Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus told the disciples, “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16-17). The Son prays, the Father sends, the Spirit comes.
The three persons of the Godhead are also linked together by Paul in his benediction at the end of his second letter to the Corinthians (13:14): “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Again, the unity and the equality of the members of the Godhead is evident.
The three persons of the Godhead are also linked together in the Great Commission recorded at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Immediately before he ascended into heaven, the Lord Jesus commanded his followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In relation to the Trinity, there are four remarkable things about this statement. Firstly, the three persons of the Godhead are mentioned together, in the same breath, as it were. Secondly, the three persons of the Godhead are given equal emphasis—there is no hint of inferiority or superiority among them. Thirdly, the new believer by his baptism is paying homage and pledging allegiance to each of the three equally—he is committing himself to worship and serve without distinction the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Fourthly, the three persons of the Godhead are unified by Jesus’ use of the singular for “name”. Note that Jesus commands his disciples to baptise new believers in the name—not the names (plural), but the name (singular)—of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Grammatically, given that he is referring to three persons, Jesus ought to have said “baptising them in the names of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. But he does not say that. He breaks the logic of language because he has a deeper logic in mind—namely, the three-in-oneness of God.
I mentioned earlier that the doctrine of the trinity is not explicitly taught in scripture, but rather arises from the reconciliation of two explicit teachings in scripture—the teaching that there is only one God and the teaching that three Persons are God. However, I wish to note that Matthew 28:19 comes extremely close to an explicit teaching about the Trinity. Here Jesus reveals a new name for God, a name previously unknown to humanity. This new name for God is “Father and Son and Holy Spirit”, and it is a name that perfectly reveals God’s triune nature.
The passages we have just considered, and many others besides, imply a unity and an equality between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They support the Trinitarian view that the one true God consists of three distinct persons.
Now this brings us to the matter of relevance and application. What is the value of this teaching on the Trinity? What use is it?
We need to be careful when we ask such a question. We are living in a selfish, utilitarian age—an age in which people say, If I can’t see how this benefits me, I’m not interested in it. That isn’t a Christian attitude, is it? Far be it from us to be so self-centred and self-satisfied that we care nothing for what the scriptures teach except when we can see a benefit for ourselves! Nonetheless, it is legitimate to ask with humility, “What is the value of this teaching on the Trinity? How is it relevant to our daily lives?”
Well, I believe teaching on the Trinity is deeply valuable for at least six reasons.
Firstly, teaching on the Trinity is valuable because it is teaching—profound teaching—about God himself. Dear people, the prophet Hosea exhorts, “let us press on to know the Lord” (6:3). It is our highest duty and our deepest desire to know God more intimately and more extensively. This quest for the knowledge of God must include a knowledge of the Trinity—for God’s triune nature is at the very heart of his being, at the very heart of who he is. We will never know God accurately or intimately if we do not know him as the Trinity.
Secondly, teaching on the Trinity is valuable because it explains the love of God. Scripture teaches that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). It also teaches that God is eternally changeless (cf Malachi 3:6; James 1:7; Hebrews 13:8). So, if God is love, and if he does not change, then he must have been loving and full of love from all eternity. But how could this be, if he was originally alone? In the beginning God was entirely by himself. He existed before all things and everything that now exists has come into existence because at some point he made it (cf Genesis 1:1; Jude 25; Colossians 1:17). In the beginning, there was God and God alone. So, who did he love then? Who did he love in the beginning when he was alone? This is an important question, because love cannot exist in the abstract. It cannot exist in the absence of an object to love. If I were to come up to you and say, “I love.” You would wait politely for me to finish my sentence. You might even encourage me, “Yes, go on. What do you love?” But if I simply repeated, “I love”, you would think that I was nuts, loopy, two bricks short of a load! You see, love must have an object. I can’t just love: I have to love something. “I love my wife!” “I love my children!” “I love books!” “I love the Lord Jesus!” The same is true for God. He could not be love without having an object to love. But because he is three, he has the object of his love within himself. The three persons of the Godhead have loved one another from all eternity. The reason why God is eternal, immutable Love is because he is three-in-one.
Thirdly, the doctrine of the Trinity is valuable because it helps us to understand not only the love of God in itself, but also the love of God for us.
You know, in human experience love is often mingled with need. When a particular man loves a particular woman, for example, it is partly because he finds his heart drawn to her and partly because he has a need for companionship and physical affection and practical support and many other things beside. For human beings, love and need go hand in hand.
But there is no need mixed in with God’s love for us. God doesn’t love us because he needs someone to love: he gives all the love he “needs” to give within the Godhead. Furthermore, God does not love us because he needs someone to love him in return: he receives all the love he “needs” to receive within the Godhead. The Father has the Son and the Spirit to love and to be loved by. The Son has the Father and the Spirit to love and to be loved by. The Spirit has the Father and the Son to love and to be loved by. Neither humans nor angels are necessary so far as God’s love is concerned.
Now, in one sense, this is a sobering truth. It well and truly destroys the idea that God created us because he was lonely, or because he was somehow at a loss without us. The hard fact is that God is complete in himself. In himself he is an eternal, triune fellowship of love. He does not need us to love or to be loved by.
If I stopped now, I guess you might feel a little flat, a little depressed: God doesn’t need to love me and he doesn’t need my love! Thanks, pastor, for the pick-me-up! That’s just the sort of encouragement I wanted to hear from the pulpit this morning!
But wait a minute: There is a wonder and a blessedness here! Think about it. God does not need to love me, but he does love me just the same. He loves me freely, without compulsion. He loves me because he wants to love me—and he wants to love me because that is his nature—and that is his nature because he is three persons in one being!
Oh, the wonder of it! If God loves me freely, without the slightest necessity to do so, then it means that he loves me truly. He loves me from a position of purity and strength. There are no hidden motives in his love. There are no lurking needs. His love for me is a true love, a pure love, a love unadulterated by any self-interest. It is a strong, strong love that flows abundantly from his triune nature, not for his gain, but for my good—and your good, too, dear people.
Fourthly, the doctrine of the Trinity is important because it helps us to understand why God values relationships so highly. Have you noticed that the scriptures are all about relationships—our relationship with God and our relationships with one another? Jesus said, that the “first and greatest commandment” is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” and the second greatest is, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”—upon these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets! Fellowship with God and fellowship with other people—that’s the essence of what scripture, and life, is all about. God places a premium on loving relationships. And the reason he desires us to form close relationships with himself and with other people is because intimate relationship is the foundation of his existence. He requires us to live in harmony with one another because the three members of the Godhead live in harmony with one another. At the heart of all reality there is a Fellowship of Love, therefore all reality ought to reflect that fellowship.
Fifthly, the doctrine of the Trinity helps us to understand the relationship between husbands and wives. It helps us to make sense of the roles of submission and headship that God ordained in marriage. Often, even Christian couples who accept these roles feel uneasy about them. They feel that the role of submission places the wife in an inferior position to her husband, and even portrays her as inferior in herself. But an appreciation of the Trinity clears up such misunderstandings.
The Holy Spirit declares through Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” As we have already noted, the Father and the Son share full equality. Yet here we see that the Son has a role of submission to the Father. Dare we say—dare we even think—that the Son is inferior to the Father because he willingly submits to the Father’s headship? No, never! And nor should we ever think that a woman is inferior to a man because she willingly submits to his headship in marriage.
It is truly liberating to learn that the pattern of submission and headship in marriage arises from a similar pattern in the Godhead. Within the Godhead itself, God the Son freely and gladly submits to God the Father. He does not do this because he is inferior to the Father, nor does he become inferior by doing it. In the same way, a wife is not inferior to her husband, nor does she become inferior by accepting his headship. As in the Godhead, so in marriage, there is a partnership of equals. But as in the Godhead, so in marriage, there is a pattern of submission and headship. In this pattern, the wife takes the role of Christ, the Son of God. This is a role of dignity and honour.
This brings me to the sixth and final application I wish to draw from the deep doctrine of the Trinity. To my mind, the most valuable and beautiful thing about the truth of the Trinity is what it shows us about our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. If God is a Trinity, then our Saviour is God. Thomas was right to fall at Jesus’ feet and cry in adoration and dread, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Jesus is not just a man: he is also the second person of the Godhead. No wonder he was able to make amends on the cross for the sins of the whole world. No wonder he is able to save forever those who put their trust in him! No wonder no one can snatch us out of his hand! What a powerful, perfect Saviour we have in Jesus, dear people. And it is the doctrine of the Trinity that reveals him in all his splendour. Fully man and fully God—that’s our Saviour, our Beloved!
You know, the doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine that is hated by virtually all false religions that claim a connection to Christianity. Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christodelphians—all object fiercely to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. And these religions almost always attack the Trinity of God by first attacking the deity of Jesus Christ our Lord. They all claim to revere Jesus and yet they all reduce him in some way or other. They all dismiss his deity and deny him his place in the Godhead. Muslims, for example, consider it an outrage to associate Jesus with God; and the Koran expressly denies that Jesus is God’s Son. Or consider the Jehovah’s Witnesses: They are so opposed to the deity of Jesus that they even falsify their translation of the Bible in their efforts to deny it.
Dear people, the hatred of the Christian teaching on the Trinity by the enemies of Christianity ought to alert us to its importance. And a major part of its importance lies in what it reveals about Jesus, our Saviour.
Let me conclude by returning to the Creed I quoted at the beginning of my message. The Athanasian Creed introduces its teaching on the Trinity with these words:
Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick [ie, universal] Faith.
Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity …
If you do not believe in the Trinity, the Creed claims, then you cannot be saved. Is this true? Unlike the Bible, the Creed is not infallible. So it could be wrong. But I am inclined to think that it is right. For you see, if you knowingly and wilfully deny the Trinity you deny the deity of Jesus Christ, thereby belittling and blaspheming him, and leaving yourself without a Saviour. You cannot claim Jesus as your Saviour unless you also claim him as your Lord and your God (John 20:28).
Now, of course, many people come to saving faith in Jesus without fully understanding the truth of his deity. But as they grow in the Faith, they come to this realisation with rejoicing. However, persons who come to this truth about the deity of Jesus (and by extension, the Trinity) and wilfully reject it reveal themselves to be outside the Faith.
The Godhead is comprised of three distinct but indivisible persons who share equally and eternally a single lifeforce and essence. God is three persons in one being. Hence, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God: and yet there are not three Gods, but one God. This is the doctrine of the Trinity. And belief in this lovely doctrine is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
May the Father, Son and Holy Spirit himself help each one of us to believe and live!
*An essay version of this message, “The supreme importance of the unity of God”, was published in Life News No 141 (July 2016), and can be found on the Life Ministries website at www.lifeministries.org.au/the-supreme-importance-of-the-unity-of-god/