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Our Triune God

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Published: 18 October 2012 (GMT+10)
Our Triune God

Worshipping the true God requires at least minimal knowledge about who He is. And while none of us can understand God completely, He has revealed some truths about Himself in Scripture in a way we can understand. As Christians, we should want to understand God’s revelation of His own character as clearly as possible. The Trinity is at the heart of God’s self-revelation.

But the Trinity is one of the most easily misunderstood doctrines; even many Christians are uncertain of what the Trinity means. Many unwittingly hold to doctrines that have been condemned as either heresy or serious error throughout Church history. Others are aware of the heterodox nature of their beliefs, but insist it was the Church, not the heretics, who were mistaken. In an era where theological teaching is often underemphasized in the Church, it is not surprising that there are fewer today than in the past who can confidently say what the Bible teaches about the Trinity.

Is the Trinity present in Scripture?

Anti-Trinitarians will point out that the word ‘Trinity’ is not in the Bible anywhere—and they are correct. It is a technical term that arose later to communicate the entirety of the Bible’s teaching about the triune nature of God without having to spell it all out every time. But each facet of the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity is present in Scripture. These facets are:

  1. There is one God.
  2. The Father is God; The Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God.
  3. The three Persons are distinct, and each is equally God.

In the Bible, the Persons of the Trinity are differentiated both in their relation to each other and to the Creation, but they are all called ‘God’.

There is one God

The Bible is clear: there is one God, and we should worship and serve Him only. Deuteronomy 6:4, states, “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh1 our God, Yahweh is One.” In Isaiah 45:5–6, God says:

I am Yahweh, there is no other,
Besides me there is no God;
I gird you, though you do not know me,
that men may know, from the rising of the sun,
and from the west, that there is none besides me,
I am Yahweh, and there is no other.

And in 45:21–22 He says:

There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is none besides me.”

“Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.

The apostle Paul affirms that “God is one” (Romans 3:30). He says, “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). He writes elsewhere, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 2:5). James, the half-brother of Jesus, also acknowledges “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe and shudder!” (James 2:19). But even though James is speaking about the importance of having more than just doctrinal correctness, the people to whom he is writing “do well” to believe that God is one.

God is the only appropriate object of worship. Angels are not to be worshipped (Colossians 2:18), and the holy angels refuse worship (Revelation 19:10; 22:8–9). Neither are the sun, moon, or stars to be worshipped (Deuteronomy 17:3). Idols are not to be worshipped (Leviticus 19:4). People are not to be worshipped either; the apostles never permitted themselves to be worshipped (Acts 10:25–26; 14:13–18). Herod is struck down for the sin of accepting worship (Acts 12:20–24).

But as we will see below, it is not just God the Father that deserves to be worshipped. God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit also receive praise and worship in Scripture. So if the Bible presents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as appropriate objects of worship, they all must be God.

The plurality of the Godhead in the Old Testament

Even in Genesis, we see an indication of the plurality of the Godhead—meaning that God is made up of more than one Person. In Genesis 1:26 He says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” He is using a first-person plural pronoun (‘us’), but ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ are in the singular, suggesting a plurality in the Godhead, but also of absolutely the same nature. Likewise, in Genesis 3:22 He says, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.”

In Isaiah 6:8, God uses the first person singular and plural in the same sentence: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Other places in the Bible distinguish one person called “God” or “the Lord” or “Yahweh” from another called “God”. For example, in Psalm 110, a Davidic Psalm, says, “Yahweh says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” Incidentally, this Psalm is the single-most quoted Scripture in the New Testament, and Jesus is always said to be the One addressed by God in those references.

The Trinity revealed in the New Testament

The New Testament has even clearer references to the Trinity. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, and the Father’s voice spoke from Heaven—so all three of the members of the Trinity were clearly present (Matthew 3; Mark 1). Jesus commands believers to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

Paul’s letters are full of Trinitarian formulas. For instance, Romans 8:3–4 (emphases added)

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

This makes sense in light of the background in which it is given. Paul is not advocating three separate gods, but one God in three persons. God the Father sent God the son to take away sin, and God the Spirit helps us to live according to the forgiveness granted to us by God the Father, but only after the work of the Son was accepted. Thus, contrary to certain “Oneness” groups, the three Persons are distinct, not merely different modes or manifestations of one Person.

And verse 16:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

These Trinitarian formulas are even more apparent when we realize that the Father is often designated with the Greek theos (God), and the Son with kyrios (Lord), as in 1 Corinthians 12:4–6:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.

Note the use of the word “Lord” (kyrios) instead of “Son” (huios) or Christ, as in the passages above.

These formulas often appear in the benedictions to the letters. For instance, in 2 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.

And this isn’t unique to Paul. The author of Hebrews states (2:3–4):

How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord (kyrios, an obvious reference to Jesus), and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

And (9:13–14):

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Peter uses this formula (1 Peter 1:2)

According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.

John says (1 John 4:13–14)

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.

Jude exhorts (1:20):

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in the most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

Even though the word ‘Trinity’ is never used in the New Testament, the teaching is clearly there,3 so much so that a non-Trinitarian doctrine would substantially alter the message of the Bible itself.

So “God is one” and “God is a Trinity”. But some people are confused about how the Persons of the Godhead relate to each other. The Bible teaches that each Person is fully God and shares all the attributes of deity.

The Father is God

This is perhaps the least contested point—all the historical heresies affirmed that the Father is God, but err in how they saw the relationship between the Persons of the Godhead, or in the identity of the other Persons. The Father is the one who speaks things into being in Genesis 1. He sent the Son in the Incarnation (John 8:42). And the Father sends the Spirit (John 14:26). The Father is clearly an appropriate object of worship (John 4:21–23).

The Son is God

Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Humans are created in the ‘image and likeness’ of God, meaning that we are like God in some ways, but far more than that is attributed to the Son. The Greek translated “exact imprint of his nature” is χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ, (charactēr tēs hypostaseōs autou), and means basically that Jesus is exactly identical to the Father—there is no attribute of the Father that the Son does not have in equal measure. There is no way in which Jesus does not resemble the Father. Jesus teaches the same thing when He said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and Paul says, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). The writer of Hebrews reinforces this a few verses later when he quotes God himself, “But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,” (Hebrews 1:8), showing that God addresses the Son also as God.

Jesus, unlike mere human beings, existed before His birth. Speaking of Jesus the Son, the Gospel of John starts out with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He is called “the one and only (μονογενῆς, monogenēs) God who is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18).

Paul says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:15–16). Anti-Trinitarians point to this verse to claim that Jesus was only a created being, even if He was exalted. But this same verse says “by him all things were created,” meaning that Jesus Himself could not have been created, or else He would come under ‘all things’.4 ‘Firstborn’ in this instance simply means that Jesus has the privilege of the firstborn, something that was very meaningful in a time when the firstborn expected to receive a double portion of the inheritance. So in this case ‘firstborn’ (Greek prototokos) does not mean ‘first created’ (Greek protoktisis), but simply denotes His superior position.

In many places, characteristics that only God can have are attributed to Jesus. Hebrews 13:8 says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” In John 5:26, Jesus claims, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in Himself.” But only God is self-existent.

Jesus is also viewed as a proper recipient of worship in the New Testament. After the Resurrection, Thomas calls Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). A righteous person who received praise due only to God would deflect it immediately (see how Paul and Barnabas reacted in Acts 14:8 ff.)—but Jesus didn’t, indicating that he thought it was proper. He even says, in effect, “You finally believe in me!” Titus 2:13 calls Jesus “our great God and Savior”, as does 1 Peter 1:1. Paul refers to “Christ, who is God over all” (Romans 9:5). Every time Jesus is worshipped in Scripture, it is cited with approval. Indeed, He demands equal honour with the Father:

… that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. (John 5:23).

The Holy Spirit is God

Some think of the Holy Spirit as a sort of impersonal, nebulous ‘force’—and many people think of spirits as ghostly ethereal beings. But the Holy Spirit is clearly a Person in Scripture (so a ‘Him’, not an ‘it’).

When Ananias and Sapphira lied about the price of the field they sold, Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? … You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:4). So the Holy Spirit is equated with God. Later in the book, it’s even clearer, because the Holy Spirit uses two first person pronouns—thus there can be no doubt that He is a Person:

… the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2)

David attributes omnipresence to God’s Spirit when he says, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:7–8). Paul attributes omniscience to Him: “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10).

The Bible is clear that only God can give spiritual life (1 John 3:9), but Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5–6). If only God can give spiritual life, and the Spirit gives spiritual life, then the Spirit must be God.

Furthermore, when we understand the Father and the Son to be fully God, that the Spirit is equally divine follows from the Trinitarian verses cited below. As Wayne Grudem explains:

Once we understand God the Father and God the Son to be fully God, then the Trinitarian expressions in verses like Matthew 28:19 (“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) assume significance for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, because they show that the Holy Spirit is classified on an equal level with the Father and the Son. This can be seen if we recognize how unthinkable it would have been for Jesus to say something like, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the archangel Michael”—this would give to a created being a status entirely inappropriate even to an archangel.5

Some believe that since there isn’t a verse which straightforwardly says, “Worship the Spirit” that the Spirit is not a valid object of worship. But if God is worthy of worship, and the Spirit is God, then the Spirit is worthy of worship.

The Creator is a Trinity

At creation, the Father spoke the commands that caused things to come into existence.6 Jesus was the agent of that Creation (the Logos who John talks about in John 1; also Hebrews 1:2). Speaking of Jesus (cf. Colossians 1:13), Colossians 1:16–17 says:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Genesis also teaches that the Spirit of God was present and active in creation, hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). Ecclesiastes 12:1 uses the plural “Creators” although this is often masked in translation7 —it’s interpreted as a ‘plural of majesty’ by people who don’t see the Trinity in the Old Testament, but there are no other instances of ‘plurals of majesty’ other than places where the Trinity ‘has to be’ explained away.

The necessary doctrine of the Trinity

The various facets of the doctrine of the Trinity are taught clearly throughout Scripture, and the true believer will accept the doctrine of the Trinity. Throughout Church history, practically every other way of understanding the relationship between the Persons of the Godhead has been rejected as heresy. The doctrine is so interwoven with how salvation works that to reject the Trinity is tantamount to a rejection of the Gospel,8 because the alternatives violate the nature of God and/or the status of Jesus as God. So historically, those who do not believe in the Trinity have been rejected as not Christian. This is especially important to remember today, as various Trinity-rejecting sects are asking to be recognized as Christians.

Finally, it is important to understand why CMI as a creation ministry makes such a strong stand on this issue—it is because ultimately our ministry is not just about ‘design’ or about ‘a creator’, or attacking evolution. It is all about and for Jesus Christ, His glorious Gospel and the expansion of His Kingdom. And this issue of who God is, and particularly who Christ is, is inescapably vital and foundational to the Good News of salvation. Jesus said in John 8:24: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” The ‘he’ is missing from the Greek, so literally Jesus is saying (emphasis added): “Unless you believe that I am you will die in your sins.” This is a clear reference to the deity of Jesus, for he is directly equating himself to God the Father (Ex 3:14). If we wilfully reject Jesus’ claim to deity, we in effect nullify His saving grace. It could hardly be more serious.

References

  1. Here and following, the divine name יהוה is purposely left in its transliterated state; it is also rendered YHVH, YHWH, and the Lord. Return to text.
  2. See Grigg, R., Who really is the god of Genesis? Creation 27(3):37–39, 2005. Return to text.
  3. See Sarfati, J., Islam, testimony, and the Trinity, 27 May 2012. Return to text.
  4. One might say that Paul meant that all things were created through Christ, except Christ Himself. But if that were the case, we might expect Paul to clarify that, as he clarified in 1 Corinthians 15:27 that the Father is not part of the ‘all things’ that are put in Christ’s subjection. Return to text.
  5. Grudem, W. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 237. Return to text.
  6. Isaiah 42:5; 2 Corinthians 4:6, remembering that theos (God) is usually used for the Father. Return to text.
  7. But see Young Literal Translation’s rendering, “Remember also thy Creators in days of thy youth … ” Return to text.
  8. Of course, this is in the case of willful rejection of the doctrine, not a case of being in error because of ignorance. Return to text.

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