What is the Trinity? (and why is it important?)

Michelangelo's depiction of God
Michelangelo’s depiction of God

A tortoise was making his way across the lawn when all of a sudden he was nastily mugged by a ruthless gang of snails.  Later, when the tortoise reported the crime at the police station, the officer asked him if he could describe any of his attackers.  The tortoise replied, “Oh officer, it all happened so fast!” You see it all boils down to perspective!  And more than anything else we need a right perspective or doctrine of God.

 

Trinity

God has revealed himself as Trinity or Three in One; this is sound doctrine, the right perspective and an essential truth all Christians should believe in.  The word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, but the concept or notion of Trinity certainly does.

Definitions

Our denomination’s statement of faith says:

“There is only one living and true God…In the unity of this one true God there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who are one in being, power and eternity”. (Article 1 of the 39 Articles of Religion)

 Another classic definition of the Trinity is:

“There is One God who exists eternally in three persons, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, each fully and equally God.  Yet there is one God, not three.”

We might not understand the Trinity fully, but it’s core truths may be summed up as:

(1) God is three Persons

God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is a distinct Person from the Father and the Son.

(2) Each Person is fully God

The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.

(3) There is one God, not three

Christians are not polytheists or tri-theists, we believe in one God.

Heresy

All major heresies deny one of the above three truths.  One of the first heretics in the Church was Arius, born in about 256 AD.  He became a very popular minister with much influence in the church.  In 318 AD Arius clashed with Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria.   Alexander rightly believed that Jesus was eternal with God the Father – as the Bible teaches.  Arius believed that the Jesus was created by God.  Arius taught that the Son was the only direct creation of the Father and thus unique among all creation as the first and greatest created being.  Alexander tried to fire Arius for being a false teacher, but Arius appealed to the other bishops.   The first Christian council, the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) was called to decide on the matter.  At the council, made up of church leaders, Arius’ teachings were formally condemned.

Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed came out of Council of Nicaea and affirms the Biblical truth of the Trinity.  The creed includes the words:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth…

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father…

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

Jehovah Witnesses

Arius denied the deity, the God-ness, of Christ.  In modern times there are many groups that do the same.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses have followed Arius’ heresy by teaching that Jesus is not God, nor the Holy Spirit.   Jesus, they say, is a created being and therefore not eternal and definitely not God.  To avoid the clear teaching of Scripture on the Trinity they have their own translation of the Bible

Adoptionism

The false teaching of Adoptionism says that Jesus was an ordinary man and at his baptism God adopted Jesus as his so-called son.

Modalism

Modalism that teaches that God is one Person and simply appears or manifests himself as Father, Son or Holy Spirit.

Post-Christian thinking

In fact, the entire post-Christian world that sees Jesus simply as a good man, a wise teacher or a great example is guilty of Arius’ heresy.

Islam

Muslims deny the deity of Christ and believe that Jesus was simply a prophet, like Muhammad – the greatest prophet.

Mormonism

The Church of the Latter Day Saints hold to a form of tri-theism.  Mormons believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  Yet Mormon doctrine teaches that these three persons are not part of one, triune God; but three distinct Gods acting in one purpose.   False teaching notions of the Trinity abound.

Christians hold that a correct view of the Trinity is crucial and essential.  One’s view of the Trinity distinguishes true churches from cults peddling false doctrines.

Trinity on the Old Testament

Genesis 1 teaches that God created universe.  Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God”. God is eternal and self-existing.  In Genesis 1:26 God says to himself, “Let us make man”; God does not say, “Let me”.  In Genesis 11:7, after the building of the Tower of Babel, God says to himself, “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language.”  In Isaiah 6:8, Isaiah hears the voice of God that says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”   In the Old Testament we see that there is plurality (more than oneness) in the one God.

Trinity in the New Testament

Jesus said in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name (singular, not plural!) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Three Persons, one God.

The Father is God

God the Father is eternal.   He created the universe by his powerful word.  God the Fathers sends Jesus into the world.  Jesus himself prayed to God the Father and said that Christians should pray like this:

Our Father in Heaven

Hallowed be your name!

Jesus recognised God the Father as God.  According to the Bible, the Father is certainly God.

Jesus the Son is God

John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  V14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  Jesus did not start existing when he was born, but rather the eternal Word took on human form.  Jesus was fully human and fully God.

Jesus said to some Jewish people in John 8:58, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  The Jewish people understood exactly what Jesus meant and in the next verse picked up rocks to stone him for claiming to be God.  In John 10:33 the religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus for blasphemy, they said “because you, being a man, make yourself God.”  Jesus demonstrated all the characteristics of God and did things only God can do. Jesus controlled creation, was sinless, forgave sin, healed sick and paralysed people, raised dead people to life and was himself resurrected to life from being a crucified corpse.   Titus 2:13 refers to Jesus as, “Our great God and Saviour.”  According to the Bible, Jesus is certainly God.

Misunderstanding

The Jehovah Witnesses misunderstand Colossians 1:15 which says, “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.   “Ah!” the JW’s say, “Jesus was the first one born, that means he didn’t exist eternally and is a created being!”  What this verse refers to are the rights, privileges and authority of a firstborn son in that culture.  The verse is not saying that Jesus was created, but rather that he has authority over the entire created order.

The Holy Spirit is a Person and God

Bible refers to the Holy Spirit as “He”, not “it”. According to Bible, the Holy Spirit can be grieved and insulted.   One cannot insult electricity or grieve a force like gravity.  The Holy Spirit is a Person, not a force or an influence.  In Acts 5 we have the account of Ananias and Saphira who lied to the church leadership about money.  Note Peter’s words to Ananias in v3, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and then Peter says in v4, “You have not lied to man but to God.”  According to the Bible, the Holy Spirit is God.

Why make such a big deal about this doctrine?

Our salvation is at stake

The startling truth, if we are Christians, is that all three Persons of the Triune God are involved in achieving our eternal salvation.   According to the Bible, God the Father has chosen us before the creation of the world; God the son has died to pay the price for rebellion against God – God the son accomplished our salvation; and God the Spirit draws us to God and applies that salvation to us when we believe the gospel.  The Triune God has acted and acts in history to save us – its not just Jesus who saves us (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14).  If one of the Persons of the Trinity were not God, we could not be saved.

The atonement is at stake

If Jesus were merely a created being, how could he bear the full wrath of God for all the sins of all God’s people through all the generations?  If Jesus was merely a man, he could only bear the punishment for his own sins.  But because Jesus was fully God and fully human he could bear all the sins of all God’s people of all the generations to atone for all God’s anger.   In Jesus, God himself gave himself to save us from himself.  Your atonement – your being counted right with God on account of Jesus’ death – depends on the fact that Jesus is God.  Jesus cannot simply be an angel, a prophet, a good teacher, or a great example; but must be God in order for you to be saved.

Worship is at stake

As Christians we worship Jesus.  The symbol of Christianity is a cross after all.  Of course we also worship Father and Holy Spirit as God.  But if Jesus were not God, we would be idolaters and therefore unfit for heaven.  The doctrine of the Trinity is massively important.

Practical heretics

Not many will deny the doctrine of the Trinity intellectually, but many will deny it practically by the way they live.  Many may say that Jesus is God, but then live as if he is not.  Many people  live as if they are God.  They decide for themselves how to live, how to conducts themselves and their own ultimate priorities.   These people, maybe even you, might not be like Arius theologically, but practically they will deny the Lordship of Christ – which is just as bad.

Jesus is Lord

One of the earliest definitions of a Christian was someone who could say, “Jesus is Lord”.  In other words, Caesar is not Lord, I am not Lord, Mother Nature is not Lord, Allah is not Lord, but “Jesus is Lord”.  Becoming a Christians means that you put your confidence in Jesus as Lord and God.  That means you stop trusting in your good works to save you, you turn from your rebellion against God, and you trust in Jesus’ death to forgive your sins.  Then as a Christian you live in obedience to Jesus as Lord.  Many don’t deny the Trinity academically, but they deny it de facto by the way they live.

You are not Lord

The Bible teaches that we are not gods.  God is God.  Three Persons; yet one, powerful, majestic, holy and good God.  We are commanded to submit to him.