The doctrine of the Trinity is both one of the most important and one of the most confusing doctrines in Christianity. The prominent English pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said of the Trinity, “The doctrine of the Trinity is the differentiating doctrine of the Christian faith.” Likewise, Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote, “The doctrine of the Trinity beats the heart of the whole revelation of God for the redemption of humanity.”
There is no God like the God of Christianity, because the Christian God is both one and many. Last week we learned that there is only one living and true God. However, what makes the God of heaven and earth unique is the fact that there are three persons within the Godhead. Blogger and author Tim Challies puts it this way, “God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.”
The Trinity is the eternal essence of who God is. Baptist theologian Wayne Grudem writes, “To study the Bible’s teachings on the Trinity gives us great insight into the question that is at the center of all of our seeking after God: What is God like in himself?” So, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most important doctrines in Christianity. It may be the most fundamental.
However, this doctrine is also very confusing. Theologian John Frame once wrote concerning the study of the Trinity,
God has withheld much in this area that we would like to know. The mysteries before us here are especially intractable. But this study can be enormously rewarding. In sharing with us even a little of his triune existence, God has given the church a great blessing.
We have nothing to compare God to in this sense. We exist as one human being and as one person. God exists as three persons in one. How can God be both one and three? It appears that Christianity has three gods (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but the Bible again and again affirms that there is only one God.
If you find this hard to understand and dread teaching this, do not worry! The world’s greatest theologians and Bible scholars have never been able to fully understand this doctrine. And isn’t this encouraging? Not only can you identify with them and not feel inadequate, but also we have a God who is so far beyond us, so much greater than us that we cannot fully understand him. If we could fully understand everything about God, he would not be worthy of worship, we would! We can only go as far as our limited minds allow us in understanding an infinite God.
The Bible teaches that there is only one God and that this God exists as three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). This should be enough for us even when we struggle to understand. Believe this because God has revealed this about himself in his Word. Let this be enough for you. You cannot expect to understand all of the Bible. But you should expect to obey all of its teaching and doctrine, because it is the self-revelation of God.
There are a few important things to consider with regard to the Trinity. Think through each of these as you meditate on the Trinity.
God exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are coequal and coeternal. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Each person is fully God and there is one God. However, each of the persons of the Godhead is distinct in function. Simply put, each person with the Trinity has a unique role. We quickly tread into heresy when we do not affirm both of these truths about the Trinity—that each person of the Trinity is (1) equal in worth and (2) distinct in role.
There are a few passages that clearly teach that there are three persons in the one God. Take Jesus’ command for his followers to make disciples in Matthew 28 for instance. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matt. 28:19). Do you see how Jesus refers to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (three persons) as having one name? This shows us that these three persons exist as one God.
God the Father
The Father is God. The Father is eternal. He is the author of creation and redemption. He plans, orders, and sends. The Son and Holy Spirit willingly submit to him in role while they remain equal with him in deity (1 Cor. 8:6; 1 John 4:14).
God the Son
The Son (Jesus) is God. The Son is eternal. Jesus was not created. The Son fully and willingly obeys the Father. He accomplishes redemption and along with the Father sends the Holy Spirit to apply his redemptive work. He glorifies the Father in all things (Col. 1:15-20).
God the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is God. The Holy Spirit is eternal. The Holy Spirit completes the work of redemption that the Father planned and the Son accomplished. He glorifies the Son in all things (John 3:3-5; Gal. 5:22-23).
Experiencing the Trinity
Pracitcally, we can experience the Trinity on a daily basis. What a joy it is to join in the eternally joyful fellowship of our triune God! Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders picks up on this when he writes, “The good news of the gospel is that God has opened up the dynamics of his triune life and given us a share in that fellowship.” Similarly, Gerald Bray has written, “The Trinity belongs to the inner life of God, and can be known only by those who share in that life.”
By faith in Christ, we share in the triune life of the one true and living God. We experience this through prayer. When we pray we fellowship deeply and intimately with one God and three persons. We pray to the Father, in the Son, and through the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught us to pray to the Father (Matt. 6:1). We pray in the Son because his atoning sacrifice gave us access to God (Eph. 2:18; Heb. 7:23-28; 8:1-6; 9:1-14). As we pray, Jesus identifies with us in our weakness (Heb. 4:14-15). We pray through the Holy Spirit as he lives in us and even takes part with us and makes our weak prayers effective (Rom. 8:26-27). So, this is not a lofty doctrine that has nothing to do with your life. The Trinity is God and when you pray you intimately interact with this eternal God.
Bad Illustrations of the Trinity
Is it possible to illustrate the Trinity? When something is difficult to understand, sometimes we can use a story or picture or image of something more familiar to us to clarify things. With regard to the Trinity, there have been many illustrations or pictures given to try to make this confusing doctrine easier to understand. Many of these illustrations are poor attempts and are simply incorrect. If we use incorrect illustrations, we could believe something about God that is crucial to his being that is simply not true. Here are some examples of bad illustrations that should not be used to teach the Trinity.
- Three-Leaf Clover
Illustration: The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover because the clover has three parts yet remains one plant.
Error: Tritheism: denies that there is only one God and instead claims that there are three Gods.
Explanation: Each leaf is only part of the clover and cannot be the whole clover. In the Trinity, each person is fully God.
Illustration: The Trinity is like water because water can be solid (ice), vapor (steam), or liquid (water) and remain H2O.
Error: Modalism: a false teaching that claims God is one person who appears to us in three different forms or modes
Explanation: Water is never all three forms at the same time. In the Trinity, God is always and at all times each person.
Illustration: The Trinity is like a man who is at the same time a father, a son, and a husband. He is one man, but has three roles.
Explanation: Father, son, and husband describe functions or roles of one person. In the Trinity, God is three distinct persons rather than one person in three modes or roles.
One Good Illustration
I have only come across one illustration that comes close to capturing the essence of the Trinity. Theologian and professor Bruce Ware says,
The closest thing I’ve imagined to the Trinity is drawing one circle using three colored markers (perhaps red, blue, and green). If you draw the same circle three times, with each color overlapping exactly the previous one, you have one circle. But the red line is not the blue line, and the blue line is not the green line. Yet all three lines enclose only one circle. While this illustration may work in a very small part, the truth is that there simply is nothing in our experience that shows us exactly what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches.
Even though the Trinity is a confusing doctrine, it is the most glorious and important doctrines in Christianity. When we get the Trinity wrong, we miss God. When discussing the Trinity a humble attitude is necessary. Emphasize the worship that is due the Trinity. Pray with your child to the Father in the Son and through the Holy Spirit. Thank our Triune God for his work in creation and redemption. Praise God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit for being an eternally glorious God, the one true and living God.
Mathew Gilbert is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church East Bernstadt. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.