There is one God who is Father, Son and Spirit. Simple.
The concept of the trinity – one God in three persons – is both stunningly simple yet astoundingly complex. But more importantly, it is foundational (and I would argue that it is paramount, even) in terms of understanding anything about who God is and what he does.
There are many great books (Delighting in the trinity by Tim Chester, plus the relevant chapters in Doctrine by Mark Driscoll, Knowing God by JI Packer and Christian Beliefs by Wayne Grudem), web resources (such as the section on ‘Trinity’ at theResurgence.com) and other resources (listen to ‘Three in One’ from the God Unlimited album for something a bit lighter!) that we can turn to in order to engage with the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the best place to go to understand God is in his word, the Bible.
Trinity in the Bible
Although there are lots of passages you can turn to get hints, teaching and direction on the Trinity, I am convinced that the fundamental evidence for the existence of the trinity can be seen in three simple passages from Scripture, with one additional passage giving eyewitness testimony to the trinity’s existence and operation. This isn’t a definitive list, just the passages that I have found most useful in clearly and simply drawing out the doctrine of the Trinity.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
At the beginning of his gospel account, John spells out who he is writing about: the Word of God who is Jesus. John 1:1-2 leave us in no doubt as to who Jesus is: he is God and he is with God.
Jesus, the Son of God is God. Got it…? Good.
Jesus, the Son of God is not God the Father but is with God the Father. Right…? Great.
In one sense, I could write many paragraphs breaking this down, clarifying it, etc. But, in reality all I would be doing is stating the two lines above, but just using many varied, complicated and (sometimes) silly words to essentially communicate the same thing: Jesus is God, Jesus is with God.
[Jesus said,] “I and the Father are one.”
Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”
“We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”
Some people (such as the people who came up with the idea of red ink for Jesus’ actual words in some Bibles) might argue that this is John imposing on Jesus something that he did not say of himself. Aside from the fact that such people obviously have not considered or grasped the nature of biblical revelation, this is where our second passage comes in.
Jesus himself, in dialogue with the Jews, states clearly ‘I and the Father are one’. And, in case we are in any doubt as to what Jesus is getting at, the Jews affirm that Jesus is actually claiming to by one God with the Father by picking up stones ready to kill him for blasphemy.
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.”
Roll your sleeves up, time for some New Testament Greek. The word in the NIV ‘Counsellor’ is paraklēton, which I think would be better translated as ‘Advocate’. The reason why I think this is that the only place this word appears in exactly the same form in the New Testament is in 1 John 2:1-2, where Jesus is described as being our ‘advocate with the Father’ (ESV).
Jesus, talking about the Holy Spirit, describes him as another ‘Advocate’ – another one like Jesus, but not Jesus. Jesus is our Advocate who has returned to the Father (1 John 2:1-2) and the Holy Spirit is our Advocate who has come to be with us forever.
Drawing all this together, we get the doctrine of the Trinity. The LORD is the one true God. Jesus is God, and is1 with God. The Holy Spirit is another one like Jesus. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is God, and is with God. God the Father is God. Jesus the Son is God. The Spirit of God is God. Individually they are fully God, yet they are together fully God. Personally, I find it helpful to think about this in terms of mathematics, where this would be expressed 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.
In Mark 1:10-11 we see the eyewitness (most likely Peter, but there were many people there) testimony of the Trinity appearing at Jesus’ baptism:
As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
The voice from heaven is God the Father. God the Father declares Jesus to be his Son as the Spirit leaves heaven and descends on Jesus. Father, Son, Spirit. One God, three persons.
3 reasons why this is important
Some of you might be nodding in agreement at this point. Some might not be convinced. Yet others still might be thinking that it doesn’t matter anyway, or that it is just too difficult to grasp (and therefore give up). Whichever category you fall into, let me finish by explaining briefly why the Trinity matters (and therefore why it is important to persist in understanding it) and point out the main ways we might get the Trinity wrong. Again, this isn’t a definitive list of reasons, more some examples of ways in which the Trinity is essential for knowing God and knowing how we relate to him.
The trinity is a blessing for us
In one sense, the Trinity is simple and understandable. In another sense, it is complex and overwhelming. That is exactly how it should be.
That the Trinity is simple and understandable affirms the fact that God has revealed himself to us in a deeply intimate and personal way – he has revealed to us who he is in his identity (he is the Lord), his character (he is holy) and his being (he is Trinity). God could have left the Trinity as a mystery (something not fully revealed). But the fact that he has revealed it to us in full shows us that he wants us to know him fully, and that demonstrates he is a deeply personal and relational God.
That the Trinity is complex and overwhelming should rightly humble us and lead us to deepen our faith in God. No matter how deep we delve into the complexities of the Trinity, there will always come a point where we have to admit that we don’t get it. At that point, if we are seeking to be rightly humble before our God, we have to understand the Trinity by faith. That is, we affirm that we truly believe that God is one God in three persons, even though complete understanding of every detail is simply beyond us. This demonstrates that God is far higher and more wonderful than us in every way, especially in his being.
God is not (and never has been) lonely
Why did God create the universe? One answer to this question I have heard errs on the side of making God out to be a sad looser kicking his heels in the infinities of eternity with no one to play with. The Trinity makes it clear that God did not need to create anyone or anything. He was not lonely because he is in perfect relationship within himself in eternity.
Yet, in his grace, God did make the universe. Why? To show the whole universe, by means of the church, just how great and wonderful he is (Ephesians 3:10-11), that’s why.
In the Trinity we see true equality and diversity existing in unity
Currently in the UK, there is a great tension between equality and diversity. Some people argue that all people are equal and should be treated equally in all regards. However, this completely overlooks that fact that we are not entirely equal; there is diversity in gender, appearance, skills, abilities, health, philosophies, beliefs, and so on. Some people overemphasise diversity and consequently ascribe hierarchies based on diversities; women are better than men, white skin is purer than black skin, an educated person is more valuable than a non-educated person, etc.
In the trinity we see true equality: the Father, the Son and the Spirit are equally God. There is no competition, there is no conflict. However, there is also true diversity: the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. Here’s the key: their unity is worked out in both their equality and diversity, but this is done in different ways.
Each person of the Trinity is united in their equality because all three exist equally as one God in terms of who they are.
Each person of the trinity is united in their diversity because all three operate distinctly yet with the same goal in terms of how they function.
God the Father does not atone for the sin of his people, God the Son does that. God the Son does not indwell and empower his people, that’s the function of the Spirit. God the Son and God the Spirit do not claim to have any authority in and of themselves, only God the Father does that. Yet, in all this, God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit are God.
2 ways we get the Trinity wrong
Overemphasis on unity or diversity
Over the years many people (including myself) have got the Trinity wrong, in one way or another. These include asserting that God is one God who became the Son and then became the Spirit, that God is one God with three faces or masks that interchange, or that there are three Gods who operate as one.
In essence we either overemphasise God’s unity as one God, or his diversity as three persons. Therefore, in order to make sure we keep ourselves within the realms of biblical truth and sound doctrine God’s unity must be held in check by his diversity, and vice versa.
Not seeing the trinity as important
The other main way we get the Trinity wrong is by downgrading its importance and significance. Either we find it too hard to grasp, or we can’t be bothered to even try – it’s just not that important to us.
But I would argue it is of utmost importance. The world is full of counterfeit gods. Without a proper grasp of the Trinity we will be unable to defend ourselves from the claims that God is ‘just another God like Allah, Buddha…’ etc. No, there is not one God masquerading as many Gods – there is one God in three persons.
Likewise, without a proper grasp of the Trinity we will not be able to articulate how the God of the Bible is different from the gods of Hinduism or other Polytheistic beliefs. There are not three Gods of the Father, Son and Spirit – there is just one God in three persons.
Remember: One God three persons
There is so much more that could be said on the Trinity (and that is quite an understatement!). Whatever you read, whatever you study, however you challenge your thinking and sharpen your understanding, do not forget that infinitely straightforward truth of the Trinity: one God in three persons.
1. John 1:1-2 says ‘the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ However, the context is talking about time since ‘the beginning’. If the context was talking about present day, as opposed to the beginning of time, it would say ‘the Word is with God, and the Word is God.’