IMPORTANCE OF THIS DOCTRINE
INTRODUCING GOD TO THOSE WHO KNOW HIM
Why should we devote our time and attention to a study of the Trinity? While many answers can be given, and several will be provided later in this chapter, I’ll begin with one primary answer: would God have chosen to reveal himself to us as the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, unless he knew that this would be important to our understanding of him and of our faith? Must it not be the case that God cares greatly that we “get it,” that we see him for who he is? And must it not matter to our own lives whether or not we understand him as the triune God that he is?
By analogy, what would a husband think if his wife said to him, “You know, there’s something about me that is very near and dear to my heart that you don’t know, something that I’ve tried to tell you in the past but you just haven’t gotten it; you haven’t paid attention or listened when I’ve talked about it. And it really matters both to me and to our relationship that you understand this. But it isn’t the easiest thing to understand. I’m asking you, ‘Will you listen? Will you let me share with you something very, very important to understanding who I am, something that can make a big difference in the quality of our relationship with each other?’”
Perhaps God would say something similar about his revelation of his triune nature. He might say, “There is something about me that I’ve told you, but it is something that you’ve just not been interested in understanding. To be sure, it isn’t the easiest thing to understand, but it matters, and I really care that you see this. I am one God, but I am also three. I am one God only as I am Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and this makes a difference in how you see me and how we relate with one another. This matters in terms of how I do my work, who I am eternally, and how I have made you. I’ve told you about this in my Word, but you haven’t yet seen the beauty and wonder of what I’ve said. So now, will you listen to something I care about very dearly and deeply, and will you take it to heart?”
It is my hope and prayer that, through this study, we will be able to hear the voice of the Lord helping us to understand the beauty and glory of the God whom we already know as God. But do we know him as we should? Do we know him as he truly is? We will explore, then, what he has to tell us about his triune nature; his eternal existence; his work in his created order; the way he manifests himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and what this means for our lives. I trust that this will be a rich and deeply rewarding study, and that we will see how relevant and applicable the doctrine of the Trinity is to our own lives. Yes, our understanding of who God really is, and our understanding of how this affects our lives and ministries— both of these areas can be greatly enlarged through looking more carefully at something God cares much about: that he is the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The focus of our study of the Trinity will be to examine especially the ways in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another, how they relate to us, and what difference this makes in our lives. If you’ve shied away from this doctrine, fearing that it is just too complicated or mysterious, I would encourage you to look again. Without question, there are aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity that are beyond our comprehension, but since God has deemed it good and right to reveal to us what he has about how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate and work, we must endeavor to understand what he’s told us. And the glorious thing is that as we look more carefully at this triune nature and see better how the Persons of the Godhead relate within the Trinity and with us, we will discover a whole new vista of practical application that has the potential of greatly enriching our own lives. So for the sake of understanding God as he is, and for the sake of experiencing the richness of these truths in application to our lives and ministries, I propose that we see what we can learn about the triune God.
Here are ten additional reasons why understanding the Trinity is important and beneficial to our lives as Christians. As we consider these, I believe we’ll see both the deepened understandings that await us, and the growth in our relationships with God and others that can occur by seeing God better for who he is—the one God who is only one as he is also the three Persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
TEN REASONS TO FOCUS ON THE WONDER OF THE TRINITY
Why should we devote the time and effort needed to think carefully about the triune nature of God? Consider these ten reasons, and marvel at the glory of God manifested as triune.
1. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most important distinguishing doctrines of the Christian faith and therefore is deserving of our careful study, passionate embrace, and thoughtful application.
As one considers the distinctiveness of Christianity compared to other religious traditions and ideas, clearly the doctrine of the Trinity not only distinguishes the Christian faith from all others, it also establishes the basis for all that we hold dear as Christian believers. This doctrine shows us in essential and glorious ways what it is to be “Christian.” To know the Christian faith, and to know what it means to be a Christian, one must see more clearly what it means for God to be triune.
More personally, I believe that many Christian people will one day stand before the Lord aware as never before that they spent too little time getting to know the depth and the wonder of who God really is—including his revelation of himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one God over all. If we are to know God rightly, we must know him as he is, as he has revealed himself. And this means knowing him as the one God who is the triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Christians down through the ages who have known God testify of the beauty, glory, and wonder that they have come to see in him as the triune God. How enriched our lives can be, and how much more joyful our experience and fruitful our service, when informed by an intimate knowledge of who God is. Let us press on, then, to know with greater clarity the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This distinguishing doctrine of our faith is crucial to the Christian faith itself, and it is rich, wondrous, and fully deserving of our careful attention and joyful embrace.
2. The doctrine of the Trinity is both central and necessary for the Christian faith to be what it is. Remove the Trinity, and the whole Christian faith disintegrates.
Can the Christian faith survive, as it were, if the doctrine of the Trinity is omitted? Are we aware of just how crucial this doctrine is to all else we believe as Christians? As one ponders this question, it becomes clear that the work of God (e.g., creation, redemption, consummation) can be rightly understood only as the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified in the purpose of the work but distinct in the participation and contribution of each member. To illustrate the significance of the Trinity to our faith, consider just briefly the relation of the doctrine of the Trinity to the Christian understanding of salvation. In order for us sinners to be saved, one must see God at one and the same time as the one judging our sin (the Father), the one making the payment of infinite value for our sin (the divine Son), and the one empowering and directing the incarnate—human—Son so that he lives and obeys the Father, going to the cross as the substitute for us (the Holy Spirit). The Christian God, to be savior, must then be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is, our salvation comes as the Father judges our sin in his Son, who became incarnate and lived his life in the power of the Spirit as the perfect and sinless God-man, and accomplished his perfect obedience to the Father through the power of the Spirit. Disregard the Trinity and you necessarily undermine salvation. More can be said, but this example is sufficient to demonstrate how crucial this doctrine is to the whole of our faith as Christians.
3. Worship of the true and living God consciously acknowledges the relationship and roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As Paul demonstrates in Ephesians 1:3-14, the whole of God’s work is accomplished in a trinitarian framework, and hence the worship of this God—the true and living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—necessarily requires a conscious understanding and honoring of the Trinity. The very opening of Paul’s praise of God here sets out Christian worship in trinitarian terms. He begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”1 In light of verses 13 and 14, where Paul focuses on the gift of the Spirit, who mediates to us the blessings of Christ’s work, it seems clear that the “spiritual blessings” of verse 3 are really blessings of the Spirit, given to us by the Father, in his Son. Paul is saying that praise to God must be given to God the Father, through the Son, in light of his blessings being mediated to us by his Spirit. So here we have in one verse the praise of God, who is none other than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christian worship recognizes this reality and order. Thus Christian worship is inherently trinitarian.
4. The Christian’s life of prayer must rightly acknowledge the roles of Father, Son, and Spirit as we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit.
Recall for a moment the opening line of Jesus’ instruction regarding how we should pray. “Pray then like this,” he said. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” May I suggest something both clear and radical? If Jesus taught us to pray to the Father, then we ought to do this. For one reason or another, we sometimes follow a different practice. We may encourage our children, especially, to open their prayers with, “Dear Jesus,” despite the fact that Jesus said to pray “Our Father in heaven . . .” Perhaps we do not think about prayer as we should because we do not understand the doctrine of the Trinity. As Jesus taught us, we should pray to the Father through the Son. Jesus Christ is the mediator. He is the one through whom we address the Father. He is the one who brings us access to the Father. Our prayers bring spiritual benefit only when we pray in his name. And prayers that bring fruit in the kingdom are those offered in the power of the Spirit. We pray as the Spirit prompts and urges us to pray. So prayer rightly understood—Christian prayer— is prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. To pray aright, we need a deep appreciation for the doctrine of the Trinity.
5. The Christian’s growth in Christlikeness or sanctification is rightly understood and enriched when seen as the work of the triune God.
In Christian sanctification, the full work of the triune Persons is involved, together in harmonious unity, but each with his distinctive contribution. First, the Father ordains and secures our holiness. As noted above in Ephesians 1, we are to give praise first and foremost to the Father, since “he chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4). This ordained plan then moves toward becoming a reality in the lives of sinners as the Son lives the pattern after which we are to be remade, and then dies to pay for and defeat our sin (vv. 7-10). The Father sent his Son into the world precisely to accomplish the saving work necessary for those whom he had chosen to be made holy. But even with the plan of the Father and the saving work of the Son, we are not declared holy or remade as holy until we put our faith in Christ. Then, by faith, we begin the life-long process of conformity into his likeness, and here the Spirit directs us to the Son and his work in opening our eyes to see the glory of the Son (2 Cor. 4:6) and in making us like Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). So our sanctification is done by the triune God, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each participating in different but complementary ways. How wonderful is the unity and diversity of the trinitarian Persons. Rich harmony is heard from heaven as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each sing their respective parts of one glorious and intricately unified composition.
6. The triune relationships of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cause us to marvel at the unity of the triune God.
The three persons are never in conflict of purpose, never jealous over another’s position or specific work, never prideful over one’s own position or work, and they are always sharing fully the delight in being the one God and accomplishing the unified purpose of God. Here is a unity of differentiation, where love abounds and where neither jealousy nor pride is known. Each divine Person accepts his role, each in proper relation to the others, and each works together with the others for one unified, common purpose. It is nothing short of astonishing to contemplate the fundamental and pervasive unity within the Trinity, given the eternal differentiation that exists in the three Persons.
7. The triune relationships of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cause us to marvel at the diversity within the triune God.
The three Persons of the Godhead exhibit distinct roles in relation to one another. Distinct tasks and activities in accomplishing their common plan characterize nearly all of the work that the true and living God undertakes. Yet all the while, they carry out this work in complete harmony of activity and unity of purpose. As amazing as the fundamental unity of God is, so too is his fundamental “division of labor.” The Father is the eternal Father, the Son the eternal Son, and the Spirit eternally distinct from both Father and Son. This diversity speaks of the richness of God, while never allowing the richness of differentiation to lead to discord. As we rightly marvel at the unity of God, we also rightly marvel at how the eternal relations among the triune Persons constitute an eternal yet harmonious differentiation within the one God.
8. The triune relationships of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cause us to wonder at the social relationality of the triune God.
God is never “alone.” He never experiences, whether with or without the world he has made, a sense of individual isolation and “loneliness.” He never has been lonely or alone, in this sense, nor could he ever be, even in principle. The one God is three! He is by very nature both a unity of Being while also existing eternally as a society of Persons. God’s tri-Personal reality is intrinsic to his existence as the one God who alone is God. He is a socially related being within himself. In this tri-Personal relationship the three Persons love one another, support one another, assist one another, team with one another, honor one another, communicate with one another, and in everything respect and enjoy one another. They are in need of nothing but each other throughout all eternity. Such is the richness and the fullness and the completion of the social relationship that exists in the Trinity.
9. The triune relationships of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cause us to marvel at the authority-submission structure that exists eternally in the three Persons in the Godhead, each of whom is equally and fully God.
An authority-submission structure marks the very nature of the eternal Being of the one who is three. In this authority-submission structure, the three Persons understand the rightful place each has. The Father possesses the place of supreme authority, and the Son is the eternal Son of the eternal Father. As such, the Son submits to the Father just as the Father, as eternal Father of the eternal Son, exercises authority over the Son. And the Spirit submits to both the Father and the Son. This hierarchical structure of authority exists in the eternal Godhead even though it is also eternally true that each Person is fully equal to each other in their commonly possessed essence. The implications are both manifold and wondrous as we ponder this authority-submission structure which not only is accepted but is honored, cherished, and upheld within the Godhead.
10. The doctrine of the Trinity—one God existing in three Persons in the ways we have described—provides one of the most important and neglected patterns for how human life and human relationships are to be conducted.
In the end, the doctrine of the Trinity is eminently practical, and the church can benefit much from understanding and modeling its own life, work, and relationships after the Trinity. As we understand better the nature of the Trinity—the unity and diversity in the ways God has revealed himself to us—we have the opportunity to pattern what we do after God’s design. We are made in the image of God, and so we can live rightly and best only when we mirror in our relationships the relationships true of the eternal God himself. Yes, we are called to be like God in character, but we also are created to be like God in relationship with one another. To miss this is to miss part of the wonder of human life, and it stems from failing to see something more of the wonder of God himself. May we see in the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, how their relationships are expressed, and may we learn from this something better about how our relationships and work ought to be lived out, for our good and for the glory of his great and triune name.