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The Doctrine of God
Sunday, 27 January 2008

The Trinity

I.  Introduction:

 Suppose that you and one of your good friends, who's not a Christian, are talking about the Bible one day.  He already knows that you attend Trinity Baptist Church, and so he starts to ask you some questions about the Trinity.  What does it mean?  How can God be both one and three?  Can you show me a place in the Bible where it talks about the Trinity?  You might find yourself fumbling for answers (I would), because those are not necessarily easy questions to answer, are they?

Let me reassure you, first of all, that you are not alone in your struggle to understand the Trinity.  The best theologians readily admit that the Trinity is a great mystery.  I think the difficulty of the subject lends itself to two different, almost opposite errors.  One mistake we can make is to not even try to think hard and think carefully about the Scriptures.  That’s always the wrong thing to do, whether our subject is the Trinity or something else.  The opposite mistake we can make is to take a purely intellectual approach to the subject.  We can analyze it and debate it and dissect it and try to articulate it, and in the process fail to grasp the profound significance of what we’re really doing.  In reality, we are not just discussing a doctrine; we are contemplating the very nature of God.  Do you hear that?  We—fallen, finite creatures—are straining to comprehend the infinite, immortal, uncreated God of the universe.

Since we are only finite creatures with finite minds, it should not surprise us that we struggle to comprehend the most infinitely complex and utterly unique being in the universe.  How could we not struggle?  We should actually expect there to be some things about God that we cannot know or understand or even adequately describe.

But I don’t want you to misunderstand me, and I think Brother William made this extremely clear last week—it’s not that we can't know or understand or describe God at all.  We can, because God is personal.  It is His nature to know and to be known.  He has made Himself known in many ways, and He continues to reveal Himself by His Spirit through the words and ideas contained in Scripture.  But we cannot know or understand or describe God fully or perfectly.  Listen to 1 Cor. 13.12:  “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  Even the apostle Paul knew that for now, at least, our understanding is limited.  “We see in a mirror dimly.”  Some things are not yet clear to us.  So there’s something right and good about recognizing our inadequacies and limitations as we contemplate the triune nature of God.

II.  The Baptist Faith and Message

 Once again, as we’ve seen each week, the BFM affirms this basic truth about God:  “The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.”  The three persons of the Trinity “have distinct personal attributes,” they are distinguishable from each other, yet “without division of nature, essence, or being.”  They are one.  Following that statement in the BFM are three sections, one each for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

III.  Scripture:

 A.  What does the Bible say about the Trinity?  The word Trinity isn’t found anywhere in the Bible, but I believe it’s a Biblical concept that naturally and unavoidably emerges from what is found in Scripture.  So we’re going to spend the next few minutes looking at just a few of the passages that shape our understanding of the Trinity.

We want to begin with three simple statements that summarize what we know about God’s nature from His word.  You’ll find these three statements in one form or another, sometimes expanded somewhat, in all systematic theologies.  These are taken directly from Wayne Grudem’s chapter on the Trinity in his systematic theology, and much of what follows is based on Grudem’s approach to understanding the Trinity:

1. God is three persons
2. Each person is fully God
3. Yet, there is only one God

Now, let’s look at some of the Biblical passages that under gird those three propositions.

 B.  I want to begin with the last point primarily because Brother William covered it two weeks ago, so we can just briefly review it tonight.  But I also want to begin there in order to strongly emphasize up front that the Trinity is not in any way a belief in three Gods.  I know that we all understand that, but that’s a common accusation that Muslims and other religious groups make against Christians.  So we say emphatically that there is only one God.  Let’s look at a couple of passages that make that clear, and then we’ll move on:

Deut. 6:4 (God is only one being, and there is only one like Him.)  Isa. 45:5-6 (There is one God, not three, and besides Him there is no other.)

You might wonder why the OT is so emphatic about the existence of only one God, but doesn’t seem to say anything about the triune nature of God, and that’s a legitimate question.  In an attempt to respond to it, we should probably keep at least two things in mind.

First, the nation of Israel was surrounded by nations who worshipped multiple gods.  So it was in the context of rampant idolatry that Yahweh repeatedly declared, and not only declared, but demonstrated that He alone was God.  There were no other gods—period.  The burden of God’s self-revelation, at that point in history, seems to have been to distinguish Himself from all other so-called gods; to unmistakably assert His identity as the One and only true God.

Second, God’s revelation of Himself was progressive.  There were many things that were initially not clear at all.  It’s tempting to think it would have been better if God had been more explicit about a lot of things.  But God works all things after the counsel of His own will, and for His own reasons He chose to reveal Himself only partially, most of the time giving only hints and shadows of what might come later.  That pattern of progressive revelation continued right up until Jesus appeared.  Only then did everything become clear, precisely because Jesus was the pinnacle of God’s revelation of Himself.

Having said that, though, there actually may have been hints along the way that God existed as more than one person.  Genesis 1:26 is a good example.  Let’s turn there.  “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”  Scholars say there are ancient Jewish writings indicating that they were puzzled by those expressions, and suggested various explanations of them; but as Wayne Grudem points out, “the best explanation is that already in the first chapter of Genesis we have an indication of a plurality of persons in God himself.”  Additional examples:  Gen. 3:22, 11:7; Isa. 6:8.

 C.  That leads to the next point we want to consider:  God is three persons.  For the sake of our discussion I want to expand that just a little to say:  God eternally exists in three distinct persons.  Theologians sometimes express this distinction by saying that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is not the Father, and so on and so on.  To see an example of this, let’s turn to John 1:1-2.  We’ll actually come back to this passage again later, when we look at the next statement, but for now, I want to make a simple observation.

These verses illustrate well the fact that there is both unity of nature and distinction of persons within the Godhead.  Even though Father and Son are both clearly referred to as God in this verse, the Son is also just as clearly distinct from the Father.  “The Word was with God (distinction of persons), and the Word was God (unity of nature).”  There are a number of other passages that illuminate the same principle.  One you’re familiar with is The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.  Let’s turn there.  Here again we see both unity—there is only one name, not “names”—and yet a distinction between three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The distinction between persons is also obvious in other ways.  For instance, turn to 1 John 2:1.  A clear distinction is made between God the Father and Jesus Christ our advocate.  Jesus is not the Father.  The same is true in Heb. 7:25.  Christ must be distinct from the Father in order to make intercession for us to the Father.  Now look at John 14:26.  Here Jesus makes a distinction between Himself, the Father, and the Spirit, whom the Father was going to send.  Jesus is not the Father, and Jesus is not the Spirit.  And we can see that the Spirit is not the Father in a passage like Rom. 8:27, where the Spirit intercedes for us to God.  There’s a distinction between the Spirit and the Father (one intercedes to the other), yet they’re perfectly united—the Spirit always intercedes for us according to God’s will.  Those are just a few of the passages that make a clear distinction between the three persons we know as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 D.  The third point we want to consider is that each of these three persons is fully God. First, the Father is God.  I don’t think anyone would argue with that.  It’s self-evident all the way from the very first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation, and it almost seems unnecessary to give an example, but let’s look at one anyway.  You don’t have to turn there, but listen to Rom. 1:7b.  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul opens every one of his letters with virtually the same greeting, calling the Father “God” in every instance.  The Father is fully God.

Second, the Son is God.  I want to return to John 1:1-3.  Let’s read that.  There is a clear, intentional connection between the first line of John's gospel and the first line of the Bible, and we don’t want to miss the staggering implications of that connection.  Most of you can quote the first few words of each book.  Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning, God…” John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word…” The identity of the Word in John 1 is unmistakable, because John tells us in verse 14 that the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us.  The Word is Jesus.  So we have, in Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning, God” and in John 1:1, “In the beginning, Jesus.”

So the first three words of John's gospel make a bold connection between the eternal existence of God the Father, and the eternal existence of the Son of God—in the same sense that God always existed, in the beginning, before anything was made, Jesus always existed, in the beginning, before anything was made.  And if the implication of verse one isn’t sufficient, verse 2 makes it explicit.  Jesus the Word was—Jesus existed—in the beginning with God.  Verse one tells us in no uncertain terms how that was possible—the Word was God.

And on top of that, verse 3 further confirms Jesus’ deity.  Look at it.  “All things were made through Him.”  He had to exist before all things to create all things, and the creative power that he displayed belongs to God alone.  John 1:1-3, all by itself, declares the deity of Christ.

Next let’s turn to Heb. 1 and read the first 8 verses.  I want to look at a couple of things from this passage.  First, verse 3 says that Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature.  The words there mean “the exact duplicate of his being.” (Grudem)  So the nature of the Son is exactly like the nature of God the Father.  Then, in verse 4, the writer of Hebrews begins to point out the Son’s infinite superiority over angels.  Then, in verse 8a, something remarkable happens.  God the Father (“he”), speaking to His Son, calls Him “God”!  God the Father says to His Son, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever”.

The deity of Christ is portrayed in other ways, as well.  Think about this—does Scripture anywhere permit the worship of anyone but God?  No, in fact worship of angels is forbidden in Rev. 19:10, and worship of men is forbidden in Acts 10:26.  But there were several occasions while Jesus was on earth that he was worshipped.  How did he respond to that?  Let’s turn to one of those, in John 20:25-29.  Thomas not only worshipped Jesus, he called him God.  So if Jesus had been an angel, or even just a good man, he would have been morally bound to rebuke Thomas for his blasphemy.  But not only did he not rebuke Thomas, he said that everyone who believed in Him as Thomas did was blessed.

I want to read one more verse, and move on.  Col. 2:8-9.  Christ Jesus the Son is, beyond dispute, fully God.

Third, the Holy Spirit is God.  First, let’s look at Acts 5:3-4.  If you lie to me, you’re not lying to God, because I’m not God.  But Peter understands that lying to the Holy Spirit is lying to God, because the Holy Spirit is God.

I also need to point out that the Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Christ, who are both divine.  That would necessarily imply the deity of Spirit of God or the Spirit of Christ.  But perhaps the best way to demonstrate the deity of the Holy Spirit is to see that He exhibits the attributes and performs the actions of God throughout Scripture.

He was involved in the creation of the world (Gen. 1:2; Job 33:4; Ps. 104:30), which means both that he existed before creation, and that he displayed divine creative power as co-creator with the Father and the Son.

Furthermore, the Spirit is eternal (Heb. 9:14). He is omnipresent:  “Where shall I go from your Spirit?” (Ps. 139:7).  He is omniscient (see 1 Cor. 2:10, 11).  He searches and knows everything, even the thoughts of God!  The Spirit is eternal, omnipresent, and omniscient—those are all attributes of God alone.  The Holy Spirit is fully God.

IV.  Conclusion:

It would take us weeks to cover all of the passages that are relevant to our discussion, but I hope we’ve seen enough for every one of us to be able to say with absolute certainty that the three propositions we began with are thoroughly Biblical.  There is only one God; God is three persons; and each person is fully God.  We’re left with only one conclusion—the three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are the One God.

Near the end of his chapter on the Trinity, Wayne Grudem points out that there are some things we can know about the Trinity, and there are some things that we cannot know, and we would do well to take that word of wisdom to heart.  We can know that the three propositions we’ve considered are true, because God has revealed them to us in His Word.  But we can not know how those truths fit together.  We simply can’t understand it.  It’s beyond our grasp.  All of our analogies fall short of the awesome reality.

But I believe that thinking hard, meditating on the truth of God’s Word, even when it’s difficult (or probably even especially when it’s difficult), will always have a profound impact on our hearts and minds.  Listen to this exhortation by Charles Spurgeon:

“There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity....  No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God... But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe... The most excellent study for expanding the soul, is the science of Christ, and Him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity.”

That’s good.  And it’s right.  Meditating on the majesty and grandeur and complexity of our triune God will humble our hearts and minds, and at the same time enlarge them.  The doctrine of the Trinity affirms something we should have already known—God, in His essential nature, is utterly unlike any other being in the universe.  We are left standing in awe of the staggering greatness and glory and magnificence of our God.  Let us worship Him with all our hearts.

~ Barry Wallace ~

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 06 February 2008 )

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