In the second century, Polycarp prayed, “I glorify you, though the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom to you, with humanoid the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and for the ages to come.” We should not expect to understand the nature of the triune God perfectly. We are creation not the Creator. We are human not divine. However, that limited availability of understanding does not nullify our responsibility and opportunity to try to know God. As we study the nature of God, we force ourselves to grow and better appreciate the indescribable gift of salvation.
Although understanding the nature of God is a life-long pursuit, we must pursue it. God said, “without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing to unto him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him” (Hebrews 11:6 ASV). Jesus said, “Except ye believe that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Developing and understanding of the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit will aid in our understanding of the unity God expects among his people. Understanding the unity God enjoys will help marriages to enjoy being united together as one. The unity of God is reflected in the unity of the church. If we better understand the nature of God’s unity, perhaps we can better understand and practice better unity in our own congregations.
Perhaps we should begin with evidence for facts of the Father, Son, and Spirit being three instead of one. Matthew 3:13-17 records the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. It also presents the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in three separate locations. First we see Jesus in the water, the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and the Father speaking from Heaven. There are three. In Matthew 4 we see Jesus distinguished from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is said to have led Jesus out into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1). Furthermore, in John 16:5 Jesus said, “I am going to the one who sent me.” Naturally, the disciples were saddened by this news, but they were encouraged of a better future to come. Jesus said he would send the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-8). Again we have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit featured as distinct beings. Jesus is described as being he eternal “Word” distinct from the Father in John 1:1-3, 14. Jesus prayed to the Father in John 17:1.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share in the divine nature. The Holy Spirt is described as God in Acts 5:3-5. The Jews sought to kill Jesus because “not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). So the three share in divinity. We also see the three joined as one in authority. The Great Commission is to be carried out based upon the name or authority of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20). We also see all three joined in the carrying out the work of salvation. Peter wrote how salvation occurs “according to the foreknoweldge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1 :2). Titus 3:4-5 says, “When the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.” It is the Father’s great mercy which “has caused us to be born again to al giving hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
Now that we have seen that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct, how can we understand that they are one? Deuteronomy 6:4, which is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22:34-48, says, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Isaiah 45:5 records “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.” If he is “one” how do we reconcile the other evidence? How do we understand that the one eternal God exists in three distinct and perfectly equal persons?
Perhaps is it best to begin by understanding God as one against the backdrop of paganism. The ancient peoples were surrounded by a plethora of supposed deities. This pagan deities were always imagined as fighting against one another, giving birth to one another, and killing one another. Their disunity helps to highlight the perfect unity of the true God.
We should also understand that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share in perfect equality. They are perfectly equal in every facet of the divine nature. This truth is represented in passages, such as the Great Commission, which mentions the three together on the same level. Hence we are told to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). If there was not a divine equality, this would not be possible. We are not baptized into the name of Paul or any other man (1 Corinthians 1:13) because they are not the same quality as the triune God. The Bible continues to equate the members of the Trinity in various ways. Frequently, passages group the members of Deity together. In Revelation 1:4-5 – “John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace to you, and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before the throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.” 2 Corinthians 13:14 says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.”
So how do we understand the triunity of the Godhead? Augustine described it as the psychological unity of one’s memory, affections, and will. Perhaps we could look at the Trinity in terms of a tree having a root, a trunk, and branches while yet being one tree. However, that description divides too much the unity of the Trinity. All our illustrations will ultimately break down because our physical minds are inadequate in understanding the full nature of God. This should be expected since we are the creature rather than the Creator.
Perhaps it would be helpful to understand what the Trinity is not. Arianism is the belief that Jesus emanated from the Father. He, therefore, is regarded as being between God and man in nature or essence. Arianism teaches that Jesus is not consubstantial with the Father. In the early church Jesus was described as being homoousios (of the same nature or essence) as the Father. Arianism teaches that Jesus is a lesser deity.
The battle over Arianism is one of the main issues discussed in the famed Council of Nicea in 325 AD. In 325 the men decided on the following description of Jesus:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ , the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousion) with the Father; by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
However, this was updated in the 381 “Constantinopolitan Creed” to say:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ , the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), 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 Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
These are given only for descriptive purposes. It helps us to see the discussion which has been before us so that we may better understand the Sacred Text in our hands.
The doctrine of the Trinity is one most difficult to understand. Perhaps it is best to accept it and continue striving for understanding. Roger Olson rightly said,
“While it is true that no passage of Scripture spells out the doctrine of the Trinity, it is also true that the whole of Scripture’s witness to who God is and who Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are makes no sense at all without the model of the Trinity and that all alternative concepts end up doing violence to some essential aspect of revelation, Christian experience and possibly even reason itself,” ( The Mosaic of Christian Belief, p. 139).
When studying the nature of the Trinity, we should exercise caution and great humility while refusing to dishonor any member of the Godhead by lessening their inherent essence.
While it is difficult, the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be avoided.
“To illustrate the significance of the Trinity of our faith, consider just briefly the relation of the doctrine of the Trinity to the Christian understanding of salvation. In order for us sinners to be saved, one must see God at one and the same time as the one judging our sin (the Father), the one making payment of infinite value for our sin (the divine Son), and the one empowering and directing the incarnate—human—Son so that he lives and obeys the Father, going to the cross as a substitute for us (the Holy Spirit). The Christian God, to be savior, must then be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is, our salvation comes as the Father judges our sin in his Son, who became incarnate and lived his life in the power of the Spirit as the perfect and sinless God-man, and accomplished his perfect obedience to the Father through the power of the Spirit. Disregard the Trinity and you necessarily undermine salvation.”
If the doctrine of the Triune God is neglected, then one will never appreciate the great work of salvation accomplished by the cooperative efforts of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The doctrine of the Triune God also helps to drive the church (local and universal) to unity. The nature of the Triune God also helps us to understand the importance of marriage as we are to model the same unity enjoyed by the Godhead in our marriages.
- Why is important to study and know what can be known about the Trinity?
- What are some false doctrines concerning the nature of Jesus and the Holy Spirit?
- How does the unity of the Godhead compel us to be unified with Christians?
- How does the unity of the Godhead shape your marriage?