The Three-in-One God

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 28:19
2 Corinthians 13:13

The doctrine of the trinity is simply the early church’s way of coming to grips with the New Testament’s witness to the saving acts of God in Christ. It’s the best way of understanding who God really is if you believe that Jesus Christ is really God.

Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus commissioned his followers to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). At the end of his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul closes with words that have become the most familiar of Christian benedictions:

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 13:13

So from the very beginning, Christians have both baptized and blessed in the triune name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Apostles’ Creed itself reflects this three-fold structure. As I mentioned in an earlier program, the creed grew out of the early church’s baptismal ceremony, specifically, out of the questions asked of converts who presented themselves for baptism following a period of instruction in the Christian faith.

“Do you believe in God?” the leader would ask. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” the candidate for baptism would reply.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.”

“Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Authentic Christian faith has always been trinitarian, and the Apostles’ Creed shows this in its very outline.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the way orthodox Christianity describes and attempts to explain the nature of God as it is revealed in the Bible. Though the word trinity doesn’t appear on the pages of the New Testament, the truths that give rise to the doctrine are found everywhere throughout it. The Trinity is not the product of airy speculations about the unknowable workings of the inner life of God. It wasn’t generated by the sort of theologians and philosophers who like to sit around debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It wasn’t invented at a council of bishops three or four hundred years after Christ and then imposed by force on an unsuspecting church.

On the contrary, the doctrine of the trinity is simply the early church’s way of coming to grips with the New Testament’s witness to the saving acts of God in Christ. It’s the best way of understanding who God really is if you believe that Jesus Christ is really God.

God Is One; God Is Three

Let’s begin where the apostles began. Jesus’ first disciples were all Jews, and like every devout Jew they had grown up believing in just one God. In contrast to the pagans who surrounded them, the Jewish people were strongly, even fiercely, monotheistic. They had been called by God to be his chosen people for the very purpose of conveying to the world the revelation that there is only one real God.

From earliest childhood Jesus’ followers had been taught to confess their faith in the words of Israel’s greatest creed, the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;” “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4, and alternate translation). So we start with the fact that the very people who became convinced that Jesus Christ was the divine Son of God — that is, his disciples, his apostles — were all raised with the bedrock conviction that there was only one true God. And, perhaps even more startling, after they became convinced that Jesus was really and truly God, they continued to believe that God is One.

Listen to some of the New Testament’s apostolic testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul, writing to the Colossians, says that Christ is:

“the image of the invisible God,” that all things were created by him and for him and through him, that “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” that “in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell,” and “in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily.

Colossians 1:15, 16, 17, 19; 2:9

The writer to the Hebrews testifies that Christ “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Doubting Thomas, in the Upper Room, when he was finally confronted with irrefutable evidence that the same Jesus who died on the cross had then risen from the dead, fell at his feet crying, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

But the Bible’s fullest statement of the deity of Christ comes in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John. John’s memorable prologue culminates in the 14th verse which expresses the heart of the matter in words of beauty and power:

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Earlier, in the opening verse, John wrote about this Word who became flesh in Jesus Christ:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Here three great truths about the Word or Son of God are affirmed. First, his eternal existence: “In the beginning was the Word.” Notice that John doesn’t say in the beginning the Word came into being; he says in the beginning the Word was. When all things began in the beginning, the Word already was; he already existed. He always did. He is eternal and uncreated. There never was a time when he was not, when God existed but not the Word, the Father without the Son. “This beginning,” said St. Augustine, “has no beginning.”

Second, John stresses the Word’s eternal communion with God: “the Word was with God.” From before all time the Word and God, the Son and the Father, enjoy a perfect communion of fellowship, so that in some way they are distinct from each other without being separated from one another. From all eternity the Persons of the Godhead are not mingled or confused, but neither are they separate or divided; not two (or three) gods, but one God eternally existing as a fellowship of Persons.

Third, the apostle reveals the Word’s eternal identity as God: “the Word was God.” While in some ways the Word is distinguishable from God, the Son from the Father, yet he is identical to God in nature, himself being the living, true and eternal God, in essence, power and life identical with the Father. Yet the Word is not another God, not a second God.

In addition to God the Father and God the Son, Christians have always believed and confessed our faith in God the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. In fact, Paul calls him both those things in the very same verse, Romans 8:9. The Spirit is a person, a divine Person — a “he” not an “it.” As God, the Spirit can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30), or obeyed (Galatians 5:16), or blasphemed and sinned against (Matthew 12:31).

So while God is unquestionably one, he is also, according to the clear teaching of the New Testament, three. How can this possibly be? How can we try to grasp or understand it? “It is rashness to search too far into [this truth],” said the great medieval spiritual writer Bernard of Clairvaux. But, he added, “It is piety to believe it, and it is eternal life to know it.”

How to Talk about the Trinity

Despite the great saint’s caution, we do want to search into the deep mystery of God’s being, at least a little ways. Though God as he exists in himself is utterly beyond our comprehension, nevertheless we do have a real knowledge of him because he has revealed something of his real nature to us. Though we cannot know God fully or completely, yet we can know God truly, as he truly is. Though we don’t understand the mystery of God’s triune nature, of his three-in-oneness and one-in-threeness, yet we can still talk about the Trinity. In fact, we must talk about the Trinity. Jesus, you remember, commanded us to love God with all our minds, as well as our hearts and souls. And that means trying to understand as much as we can about what God has told us about himself.

Through long and difficult experience, the Christian church has learned the best ways of describing the Trinity. Mostly the church has learned how not to talk about the Trinity, that is, which terms and expressions and explanations get closest to the truth and which ones lead us away from a fully Christian and biblical understanding of God’s nature.

The most basic and important way of describing the triune nature of God is to say that God eternally exists as three Persons — that is, three distinct ways of being — all of whom share the one eternal, same, identical divine nature. These three Persons are all the same in substance; none of them is lower somehow in being than the others. They are all equally eternal; none has a beginning or an end. God has always existed. He isn’t sometimes Father and sometimes Son and sometimes Spirit. He does not change from one Person into another.

How can this be? I don’t understand it, obviously. As St. Augustine said, “Whoever denies the Trinity is in danger of losing his salvation; whoever tries to understand the Trinity is in danger of losing his mind!” But I know this truth about the nature of God is infinitely important because this is who God really is. And if God is really like this — if in his very nature he is a communion of Persons, a community of love — that helps me begin to see what I’m supposed to be too, in my very own nature.