If you received a measure of Christian education while growing up, you would have learnt about the unique view of God held by Christians. You would have understood that this is a foundational doctrine which you can’t deny and remain a Christian. But like many others (including me), you may not really grasp why it is such a crucial idea.
Of course, I knew what the doctrine was about. It is the seemingly contradicting statement that there is one God, yet there is within this being a distinction of persons. We have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Here’s how the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it in its answer to Question 6:
How many persons are there in the godhead?
Answer: There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.
The New City Catechism, a beautiful modern harmonization of Westminster and some older catechisms, also describes the doctrine thus:
There are three persons in the one true and living God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are the same in substance, equal in power and glory.
And I have had various authors to help examine both the contours of the doctrine, and the scriptural basis. These have included Louis Berkhof, B. B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, among others. But it was probably not until I read Michael Reeves’s delightful volume, Delighting in the Trinity, did the beauty and necessity of the doctrine really become clear.
According to Reeves, how we see God matters. And that is why the doctrine of the Trinity matters. It is not an addendum to a general notion of ‘God’. We must always see God as triune otherwise we would have false notions of him. He notes:
What makes Christianity absolutely distinct is the identity of our God. Which God we worship: that is the article of faith that stands before all others. The bedrock of our faith is nothing less than God himself, and every aspect of the gospel—creation, revelation, salvation—is only Christian insofar as it is the creation, revelation and salvation of this God, the triune God.
A Loving Father
The scriptures teach us to see God as eternally existing as Father, and it teaches us that God is love (1 John 4:8). Both are possible only because God is triune.
Jesus repeatedly describes God as father, and this is a relation they have maintained from eternity (John 5:17; 6:38-40; 10:30; 14:9). The opening verses in John’s gospel also point to their co-existence from eternity (John 1:1-3). While the Old Testament sometimes indicate a father-children relationship between God and the Israelites (Psalm 103:13; Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:8-9), Jesus taught his fatherhood in a unique way. He asserted his equality with him and thus emphasized his own authority. This was not possible unless God exists as a trinity.
As believers, we enjoy this same intimate relationship with God because he is our Redeemer, and he has adopted us in Christ (Galatians 4:6-7). Jesus himself encouraged us to see God as Father when he taught us to pray in Matthew 6:9,
Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name.
This is a tremendous privilege. In the words of Gerald Bray:
The relationship that the Son has given us with God the Father is analogous to his own. In the Son, we have become heirs of the Father’s kingdom, co-rulers with him and even judges of the angels (1 Corinthians 6:3).
We can only relate thus with God as Father because he has been father from all eternity.
But why is this significant?
It means that our primary image of God is not even as Creator but as Father. Writing on this, Reeves remarked:
Before creation, before all things, we saw, the Father was loving and begetting his Son. For eternity, that was what the Father was doing. He did not become Father at some point; rather, his very identity is to be the one who begets the Son. That is who he is. (p.34)
A primarily creator God is powerful and wise but may not be loving and kind. But before God ever created the universe, he was father. And as father, he is kind and loving. So we can come with certainty that we are approaching a God with a loving heart.
A single person god cannot essentially be a father, neither can his very nature be love as the Bible teaches. For you can only be these in relation to someone else. The Father has loved the Son before the foundation of the world. And out of this outflow of love, he has brought the universe itself into existence. He is not dependent on the universe in order to love and communicate.
Writing on this, Francis Schaeffer also observed:
[Without the distinctions of persons in the trinity], we would have had a God who needed to create in order to love and communicate. In such a case, God would have needed the universe as much as the universe needed God. But God did not need to create; God does not need the universe as the universe needs Him. Why? Because we have a full and true Trinity. The Persons of the Trinity communicated with each other and loved each other before the creation of the world. (He Is There and He Is Not Silent: The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy, p.288)
A Loving Response
God’s essential nature as a loving father also shows the appropriate response to him. For such a being, our response must be nothing less than love, or better still, delight. No wonder the greatest commandment is to love God with our whole being (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:36-40). At the heart of the Christian life is not an attempt to obey precepts and instructions but to love and delight in a Person, or rather a community of Persons.
We find this self-giving nature displayed at the cross as God the Son freely gave himself to redeem his people. The atonement was not a father callously subjecting his son to pain but the eternal Son extending that love which he had enjoyed with the Father to finite creatures.
Still in line with his self-giving nature, he gives himself to dwell in us. Hence the coming of the Holy Spirit. By giving us the Spirit, the triune God draws us to himself, just as Jesus promised (John 14:17-18).
To quote Reeves again:
The Spirit shares the triune life of God by bringing God’s children into the mutual delight of the Father and the Son—and there we become like our God: fruitful and life-giving. (p.107)
With God being a community of persons living in self-giving love, we see that community and loving relationships are foundational to life. Since God eternally exists as a community, he made humanity to exist in a likewise fashion with the community of the family at the centre and marriage as the doorway. And the love shared by the members of the Trinity becomes the model for all other earthly or human relationships. Without the trinity, we lack a true basis for human society and community.
Loving it Out
So where do we go from here?
For one, we must abandon the idolatry of having an image of a God who isn’t triune. Such a God doesn’t exist. The scriptures present to us a God who is at once great and intimate, holy and loving, a King and also a Father. And all these because he is triune. Anything less is not worthy of the name.
This revelation of God calls for admiration, delight, and trust. Look to this God in his manifold nature and rest in him. Are you worried about your future? Rest in the electing love of the Father. Are you troubled by some secret sin which no one else knows you are struggling with? Cling to the atoning grace offered in the shed blood of the incarnate Son. Are you perplexed by your present situation? He promises believers the comfort of the Spirit. In whatever state we are in, God, the triune God, is our present help.
Michael Reeves poses some closing thoughts for our consideration:
The choice remains: Which God will we have? Which God will we proclaim? Without Jesus the Son, we cannot know that God is truly a loving Father. Without Jesus the Son, we cannot know him as our loving Father. But as Luther discovered, through Jesus we may know that God is a Father, and “we may look into His fatherly heart and sense how boundlessly He loves us. That would warm our hearts, setting them aglow.” Yes it would, and more: it would bring about reformation. (p.130)