Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dowling Devotions: The Trinitarian God

The Shield of the Trinity

For many Christians, “doxology” brings to mind the following short verse of worship and praise:
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Praise him, all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
In the Roman Catholic Tradition, the “doxology” takes on a form known by many as the Gloria Patri:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
What does it mean then that so much in our worship, and in Christian worship around world in a variety of traditions, is conducted in the triune name of God—in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Why do we do that? Why do we, for example, baptize new converts into the triune name of God—in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Well, the answer is because it reflects the essential nature of who God is.

In fact, we do things so often in our worship and in the life of the church in the Trinitarian name of God because it reflects the fact that God is a Tri-Unity…God is One in Three…the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And these three are one God. The same in substance, equal in power and glory.

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. 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, what evidence do we have that God exists as three persons?

Turning to the Bible, we note that sometimes people think the doctrine of the Trinity is found only in the New Testament, not in the Old Testament. This, however, is not true, and although the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly found in the Old Testament, several passages suggest or even imply that God exists as more than one person.

For instance, according to Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” What do the plural verb (“let us”) and the plural pronoun (“our”) mean? The best explanation is that already in the first chapter of Genesis we have an indication of a plurality of persons in God himself. Granted, we are not told how many persons, and we have nothing approaching a complete doctrine of the Trinity, but it is implied that more than one person is involved. The same can be said of Genesis 3:22 (“Behold, the man has become like one of us knowing good and evil”), Genesis 11:7 (“Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language”), and Isaiah 6:8 (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”).

Moreover, there are passages where one person is called “God” or “the Lord” and is distinguished from another person who is also said to be God. In Psalm 45:6–7 (NIV), the psalmist says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever … You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” Here the psalm passes beyond describing anything that could be true of an earthly king and calls the king “God” (v. 6), whose throne will last “forever and ever.” But then, still speaking to the person called “God,” the author says that “God, your God, has set you above your companions” (v. 7). So two separate persons are called “God” in this passage. In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews quotes this passage and applies it to Christ: “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever” (Heb. 1:8).

Similarly, in Psalm 110:1, David says, “The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” ’ (NIV). Jesus rightly understands that David is referring to two separate persons as “Lord” (Matt. 22:41–46), because who is David’s “Lord” if not God himself? And who could be saying to God, “Sit at my right hand” except someone else who is also fully God? From a New Testament perspective, we can paraphrase this verse: “God the Father said to God the Son, “Sit at my right hand.” ’ We are told that when Jesus asked the Pharisees for an explanation of this passage, “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions” (Matt. 22:46). Unless they are willing to admit a plurality of persons in one God, Jewish interpreters of Scripture to this day will have no more satisfactory explanation of Psalm 110:1 (or of Gen. 1:26, or other passages) than they did in Jesus day.

Isaiah 63:10 says that God’s people “rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit” (NIV), apparently suggesting both that the Holy Spirit is distinct from God himself (it is “his Holy Spirit”), and that this Holy Spirit can be “grieved,” thus suggesting emotional capabilities characteristic of a distinct person.

And in Isaiah 48:16, the speaker (apparently the servant of the Lord) says, “And now the Lord God has sent me and his Spirit.” Here the Spirit of the Lord, like the servant of the Lord, has been “sent” by the Lord GOD on a particular mission. The parallel between the two objects of sending (“me” and “his Spirit”) would be consistent with seeing them both as distinct persons: it seems to mean more than simply “the Lord has sent me and his power.”6 In fact, from a full New Testament perspective (which recognizes Jesus the Messiah to be the true servant of the Lord predicted in Isaiah’s prophecies), Isaiah 48:16 has trinitarian implications: “And now the Lord God has sent me and his Spirit,” if spoken by Jesus the Son of God, refers to all three persons of the Trinity.

When the New Testament opens, we enter into the history of the coming of the Son of God to earth. It is to be expected that this great event would be accompanied by more explicit teaching about the trinitarian nature of God, and that is in fact what we find.

For example, when Jesus was baptized, “the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” ’ (Matt. 3:16–17). Here at one moment we have three members of the Trinity performing three distinct activities. God the Father is speaking from heaven; God the Son is being baptized and is then spoken to from heaven by God the Father; and God the Holy Spirit is descending from heaven to rest upon and empower Jesus for his ministry.

Or consider the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, when he tells the disciples that they should go “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). The very names “Father” and “Son,” drawn as they are from the family, the most familiar of human institutions, indicate very strongly the distinct personhood of both the Father and the Son. When “the Holy Spirit” is put in the same expression and on the same level as the other two persons, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is also viewed as a person and of equal standing with the Father and the Son.

Similarly, the last verse of 2 Corinthians is trinitarian in its expression: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).

All three persons of the Trinity are mentioned together in the opening sentence of 1 Peter: “According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with his blood” (1 Peter 1:2 NASB).

So, how do we summarize all this teaching? Well, in one sense the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery that we will never be able to understand fully. However, we can understand something of its truth by summarizing the teaching of Scripture in three statements:

1. God is three persons.

2. Each person is fully God.

3. There is one God.

Let’s think about these three statements for a moment:

1. God Is Three Persons. The fact that God is three persons means that the Father is not the Son; they are distinct persons. It also means that the Father is not the Holy Spirit, but that they are distinct persons. And it means that the Son is not the Holy Spirit. These distinctions are seen in a number of the passages in the bible.

For example, John 1:1–2 tells us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The fact that the “Word” (who is seen to be Christ in vv. 9–18) is “with” God shows distinction from God the Father. In John 17:24, Jesus speaks to God the Father about “my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world,” thus showing distinction of persons, sharing of glory, and a relationship of love between the Father and the Son before the world was created.

We are told that Jesus continues as our High Priest and Advocate before God the Father: “If any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Christ is the one who “is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Yet in order to intercede for us before God the Father, it is necessary that Christ be a person distinct from the Father.

Moreover, the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit. They are distinguished in several verses. Jesus says, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit also prays or “intercedes” for us (Rom. 8:27), indicating a distinction between the Holy Spirit and God the Father to whom the intercession is made.

Finally, the fact that the Son is not the Holy Spirit is also indicated in the several trinitarian passages mentioned earlier, such as the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19), and in passages that indicate that Christ went back to heaven and then sent the Holy Spirit to the church. Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). 

So, God is three Persons.

2. Next, we affirm that each Person Is Fully God.

First, God the Father is clearly God. This is evident from the first verse of the Bible, where God created the heaven and the earth. It is evident through the Old and New Testaments, where God the Father is clearly viewed as sovereign Lord over all and where Jesus prays to his Father in heaven.

Next, the Son is fully God. John 1:1–4 clearly affirms the full deity of Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Here Christ is referred to as “the Word,” and John says both that he was “with God” and that he “was God.” The Greek text echoes the opening words of Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning …”) and reminds us that John is talking about something that was true before the world was made. God the Son was always fully God.

Other passages speaking of Jesus as fully divine include Hebrews 1, where the author says that Christ is the “exact representation” of the nature or being of God—meaning that God the Son exactly duplicates the being or nature of God the Father in every way: whatever attributes or power God the Father has, God the Son has them as well. As Paul says in Colossians 2:9, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”

Next, the Holy Spirit is also fully God. 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. Believers throughout all ages can only be baptized into the name (and thus into a “taking on” of the character) of God himself.

In Acts 5:3–4, Peter asks Ananias, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit …? You have not lied to men but to God.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” God’s temple is the place where God himself dwells, which Paul explains by the fact that “God’s Spirit” dwells in it, thus apparently equating God’s Spirit with God himself.

This passage (and many others) give us another indication that the Holy Spirit is fully God.

Now, up to this point we have two conclusions, both abundantly taught throughout Scripture:

1. God is three persons.

2. Each person is fully God.

If the Bible taught only these two facts, there would be no logical problem at all in fitting them together, for the obvious solution would be that there are three Gods. The Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Holy Spirit is fully God. What we would have simply, would be a system where there are three equally divine beings. Such a system of belief would be called polytheism—or, more specifically, “tritheism,” or belief in three Gods. But that is far from what the Bible teaches.

3. The Bible teaches that there Is One God. In fact, Scripture is abundantly clear that there is one and only one God. The bible teaches that the three different persons of the Trinity are one not only in purpose and in agreement on what they think, but they are one in essence, one in their essential nature. In other words, God is only one being. There are not three Gods. There is only one God.

One of the most familiar passages of the Old Testament is Deuteronomy 6:4–5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

When God speaks, he repeatedly makes it clear that he is the only true God; the idea that there are three Gods to be worshiped rather than one would be unthinkable in the light of these extremely strong statements. He says (Isa. 45:5-6):

“I am the Lord, and 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 the Lord, and there is no other.”

The New Testament also affirms that there is one God. Paul writes, “For there is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). James acknowledges that even demons recognize that there is one God, even though their intellectual assent to that fact is not enough to save them: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19). But clearly James affirms that one “does well” to believe that “God is one.”

So we now have three statements, all of which are taught in Scripture: 

1. God is three persons.

2. Each person is fully God.

3. There is one God.

What do we do with them? Well, we affirm what the church has affirmed for two millennia: that God is One in Three…the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And these three are one God. The same in substance, equal in power and glory.

The Nicene Creed is the most famous and influential creed in the history of the church, as it was the product of a theological controversy concerning the deity of Jesus Christ. It is the first creed to obtain universal authority in the church, and, unlike the Apostles’ Creed, it included a specific statement regarding the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed began as a baptismal confession.

As a creed recited in many churches every Sunday, many Christians are very familiar with its contents. While significant as an historical document, the Nicene Creed encapsulates the entire good news of the gospel into a short and rich summary. It describes the Triune God, who turns toward humanity in the person of Jesus, the God-man who suffered, died, rose again, and ascended. Additionally, the Creed goes on to express our future hope, which is a motivating factor in the Christian life.


“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”