By Shawn McMullen
In The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. . . . For this reason, the gravest question before the church is always God himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.”
What comes into your mind when you think about God? For many of us, our thoughts about God lead to thoughts about the Trinity.
You’ve probably heard the common analogies used to help us conceptualize the Trinity. God is like H2O in its various forms: liquid (water), solid (ice), and vapor (steam). Or God is like an egg: a single, organic unit consisting of shell, white, and yolk. While we can appreciate such attempts to make the concept of Trinity more easily understood, none of these efforts gets to the heart of the matter.
Trinity and Personhood
While the word Trinity doesn’t appear in the Bible, it is used to convey the biblical concept of God as three persons who share the same essence. Let’s define a couple of terms to help us understand this description:
• Essence refers to “the properties or attributes by means of which something can be placed in its proper class or identified as being what it is” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).
• Persons refers to awareness and identity. Theologian Jack Cottrell explains it this way: “It is best to understand ‘person’ as a thinking, willing center of consciousness. That God is three persons means that within the one divine nature are three individual centers of consciousness. Each of the persons is fully conscious of himself as distinct from the other two and as existing in eternal interpersonal relationship with the other two. We call these three persons the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today).
One and Three
The Trinity is not an easy concept to grasp, but it’s certainly how the Bible describes God. That often leads people to ask, “How can God be one and yet three at the same time?”
Let’s start with the fact that there is only one God. Moses said to Israel, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In 1 Corinthians 8:4, the apostle Paul restated Moses’ words for the benefit of the church: “There is no God but one.” Within this framework, the Scriptures clearly identify three persons who share the same essence: God the Father (Philippians 1:2), God the Son (Titus 2:13), and God the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3, 4).
The concept of the Trinity, or the plurality of the Godhead, to use another term, appears throughout the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, for example, the name for God in the Hebrew language, Elohim, is in the plural form. During the act of creation, God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26, emphasis added).
In the New Testament the concept of the Trinity appears in the Great Commission where Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In this passage the Greek word translated name is singular. We don’t baptize people in the names (plural) of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but rather in the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Later the apostle Paul referred to the three persons of the Trinity when he wrote, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
The doctrine of the Trinity goes beyond providing three different ways to look at God, and it does more than help us understand three different roles fulfilled by God. It shows how the one, true God thinks and acts as three separate beings. The Father sent the Son into the world (John 3:16). The Son prayed to the Father (Luke 22:39-42). The Father and the Son sent the Spirit into the world (John 14:26; Acts 2:33).
While the concept of the Trinity appears in the Old Testament, it is far more prominent in the New Testament. We would expect this to be the case, in light of the activity of the Trinity in the new covenant.
God the Father
During his earthly ministry Jesus routinely referred to God as Father. In fact, his use of the term is recorded more than 150 times in the Gospels. Not only did the term describe God’s role within the Trinity, Jesus used it to describe the intimate relationship he shared with the Father, prefacing the title with the endearing term Abba (Mark 14:36), a term we are encouraged to use as well (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
Jesus’ frequent references to “my Father,” “your Father,” and “our Father” underscore the role God fulfills as Father in Jesus’ life and in ours. God was present as Father at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:16, 17), his transfiguration (17:1-5), his agony in the garden (26:36-42), and his crucifixion (27:46). He continues to fulfill his role as heavenly Father in our lives today, as John clearly explained: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).
God the Son
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). Jesus Christ came into the world as both God and Son of God. Paul corroborated this in Colossians 2:9 when he stated, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”
Writing to the church in Philippi, Paul explained that Jesus, who was “in very nature God,” willingly “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” and came to live among us (Philippians 2:5-11). While he walked the earth, Jesus prayed to, petitioned, cried to, and submitted to the Father (Hebrews 5:7).
God the Spirit
Like the Father and the Son, the Spirit is a distinct person in the Trinity. Unfortunately, even while the Spirit shares the same essence as God and Christ, he is often regarded in an impersonal way. (Have you ever heard someone refer to the Holy Spirit as “it” rather than “he”?) Scripture gives us a different perspective. The Holy Spirit thinks and deliberates (Acts 15:28). He possesses knowledge and reveals it (1 Corinthians 2:10, 11). He has a will and makes decisions (12:11). He provides fellowship (2 Corinthians 13:14). He has feelings (Ephesians 4:30). He speaks (Hebrews 3:7).
God the Holy Spirit is as real, as personal, and as active in our lives as is God the Father and God the Son.
The Trinity and Us
The doctrine of the Trinity has far-reaching implications for us. Think about salvation. We are saved because the Father acted as our redeemer. In his infinite mercy, he bought us back and restored us to a right standing with him. Peter wrote, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). This relationship is possible because the Son became our Savior, the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Paul reminded us, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). As a result, the “sanctifying work of the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13) brings us into a special relationship as members of God’s spiritual family. “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship” (Romans 8:15).
In a very real sense we owe our salvation to the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. Let’s remember the unique contribution of each, and let’s live gratefully and obediently.
Shawn McMullen is senior minister at LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and former editor of The Lookout.