Why Should I Care About the Trinity?
I don’t remember my birth parents. Although I was born into a post-Christian home to post-hippie parents, I grew up in a Christian home. No, my parents didn’t abandon me or leave another loving pair to adopt me. My mom and dad conceived me and bore me, and they raised me. They were just totally different people growing up than they had been when I was born. When I was two years old, Jesus interrupted my mom’s and dad’s post-Christian, post-hippie rhythms of living.
They had been born again. I don’t remember my post-hippie birth parents (I’ve only seen the pictures and heard some of the stories), because I was raised by fire-breathing, Spirit-filled, holy-rolling, Bible-learning and Bible-teaching Christians, in a Christian family, in a local church. They had been born again, and, before too long, I had been born again as well. My parents and my church trained me and taught me the basics of the Bible and Christian doctrine. They taught me about creation and sin, about Jesus and the cross, about the Holy Spirit and the Psalms.
And they taught me about the Trinity, “One God in three persons.” Everyone acknowledged that the Trinity is a mystery and ultimately impossible to really understand. Sometimes someone might describe it like an egg (shell, white, yolk) or three-leaf clover, or water as steam, ice, and liquid. No one ever tried to pass these analogies off as actually like the Trinity (which is good, because they aren’t really like the Trinity).
In some ways, decades of life in the church gave me a sense that the Trinity was non-negotiable while, ultimately, non-intelligible. The Trinity intrigued me, so I was happy when my first semester of seminary offered me the opportunity to take a class on the doctrine. At the end of the semester, the professor said we had barely scratched the surface of studying the Trinity.
He was one-hundred percent right.
After seminary, through nearly a decade of pastoring, I taught, preached, and read about the Trinity. I knew it was important, but I still didn’t comprehend how the Trinity centers everything we believe as Christians. The Trinity is not merely important. The Trinity is preeminent. The Trinity is the hub centering everything, in reality and in theology.
If you were to ask my wife or our church, they would probably tell you that I talk a lot about the Trinity. They’re right. I talk about the Trinity a lot, the doctrine of the Trinity has woven itself through my entire theological vision. Preachers tend to ride favored hobby horses. But that’s not why I talk about the Trinity so much. I talk about the Trinity because the Trinity is just that important, preeminent and central to reality and theology, to the world we live in and the truth we believe.
God has called me to use my life to communicate his truth through writing and speaking. There is nothing more true that the Trinity, so I write and talk about the Trinity, often. This is true when I expound the Bible to our church, because the Trinity stars as the main character in every part of the Bible. And this is especially true when I expound a section of Scripture that spotlights that star character like the gospel according to John. John might be the most explicitly and clearly trinnitarian book of the Bible. Discovering the Trinity in John is like looking for a needle in a needle-stack. It’s everywhere.
John sets his terms very clearly from his opening sentence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). From here, the entire Prologue, the first 18 verses of chapter 1, set the terms of John’s story. There is one, and only one, and only eternally one, God. And the Father is God and the Word is God.
What we call the Old Testament, John simply called “the Bible.” And John knew his Bible, backwards and forwards. From the first verses of the story of beginnings in the book of Genesis—“In the beginning God,” to Moses seeing the flaming bush and fire-seared mountains of the covenant, to the clear confession: “Listen, Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one” (Deuternomoy 6:4). John knew that there was one, only, eternally, one God. That God created the cosmos and covenanted with his creation, and told his people his name: Yahweh, the LORD. The God of creation and the God of covenant. John knew all of this. John believed all of this. John knew God. John believed God. John loved God.
And so John wrote the story of his best friend Jesus. He calls Jesus the Word. Echoing the first sentence of the Bible, “In the beginning God,” John surprises us from the start: “In the beginning was the Word.” But lest we think that God is only the Word, he says, “and the Word was with God.” But lest we think that this means that the God is not the Word, he says, “and the Word was God.” He explains that “in the beginning,” before the creation, the Word was already there: “He was with God in the beginning” (1:2). He doesn’t say “it” was with God, but that he was with God. The Word, John tells us, is not a thing but a person. As if that weren’t enough to short-circuit our little brains, he explains that God who created is the Word: “All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created” (1:3). Lest we think that the Word being with God somehow means that the Word was created, John says, “No, don’t make that mistake. The Word is the Creator, not part of the creation. He’s on the God side of the canyon between Creator and creature.” John explains that God the Word became a human being, and lived among John and his friends, family, and neighbors: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14a). Then he explains that the Word is the glorious, only-begotten Son from the Father: “We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Finally, John explains the Word is his friend, Jesus, the Christ (1:17).
This prologue opens wide the way for John’s story to develop, and along that way he keeps cluing us in to who Jesus actually is, and who God the Trinity actually is. God is not merely, “God” in a generic sense. He’s not even merely “Yahweh” in the Old Testament. In the gospel and the New Testament Yahweh, the Creator and Covenant God, more fully reveals his name and his nature: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is a Trinity.
Jesus through John tells us this over and over again, like we just saw in John 1. He tell us this in John 5 that the Father and the Son do the same, identical work: “Jesus responded to them, ‘My Father is still working, and I am working also’” (5:17). The Father and the Son have the same, identical will: “And just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son also gives life to whom he wants” (5:21). The Father and the Son have the same, identical life: “For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he has granted to the Son to have life in himself” (5:26).
How can this be? How can the Father and the Son have the same work, will, and life? We don’t have anything in our lives to compare this to. We can do the same kind of work as someone, like at Christmas when my wife, Laura, and I wrap gifts together. We can wrap separate gifts at the same time. We can wrap the same gift, but in different ways or times. But we can’t wrap the same gift, in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time, because we are two different people. But, you ask, aren’t the Father and the Son two different persons like you and your wife? They are two persons, but not like Laura and me. We are two persons with two lives and two wills. The Father and the Son are two persons, but with one life, one will. Laura and I are two persons in two distinct natures. The Father and the Son are two persons in exactly the same nature.
That’s what Jesus says through John’s narrative in John 10:30: “I and the Father, we are one.” To really grasp the sense of this, let’s look at the whole paragraph of the words of Jesus. He’s answering the question from the religious leaders in Israel: “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (10:24). Jesus answers:
“I did tell you and you don’t believe,” Jesus answered them. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify about me. But you don’t believe because you are not of my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (10:25-30).
Jesus explains that these hearers don’t believe because of their spiritual deafness. Jesus has said and shown sufficient signs, but their hearts are hard. He explains, like he did in chapter 5, that he and the Father do the same work. Historically, theologians had a Latin phrase to explain this truth: opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt, “The works of the Trinity in the world are inseparable, undivided.” Because the Father and the Son and the Spirit have the same nature, they have the same will and the same work. It’s not as though the Father does something, then the Son copies him. No. They do the same work, from the same will, at the same time in the world, both in the work of creation and the work of redemption.
Jesus confronts the goats and comforts his sheep, his people with this truth. The people of God are an eternal, unreturnable gift of the Father to the Son in the covenant of redemption. The single hand of God, the hand of the Son and the hand of the Father, the hand of power and life, holds the people of God invincible, safe, and deeply loved. The basis for this security (for the believer) and this fearsome fact (for the unbeliever): the singular nature of the triune God.
Look again at verse 30. Jesus says: “I and the Father are one.” The authors of the New Testament authored their gospels and epistles in Greek. Without boring you, I can tell you that reading this in Greek helps us understand what Jesus is claiming. The way John wrote this down in Greek helps us, because we see here two critical things. First, he uses a first-person, plural verb—“we are.” Second, he uses a neuter adjective—“one.” In Greek, when an adjective like “one” or “the” is neuter, it implies the English translation “thing.” So, literally, we can translate this verse, “I and the Father, we are one thing.”
And in this we see the mystery of the Trinity. At the heart of reality, at the center of Being, is the God who is both “one” and “we.”
God is “One”: The Divine Nature
A nature is the defining characteristics of a thing. A tree by nature roots itself into the soil, grows a thick section in the middle (a trunk), and smaller branches from that trunk. A horse by nature has four legs, a tail, a neck, and a head. A human by nature has two arms, two legs, a brain, a heart, a mind and a soul. God by nature is perfect life, love, eternity, power, wisdom, and all of the attributes or “perfections” of God. God by nature is one; for God to be God is for God to be one, only, singular Being.
The Old Testament witnesses so clearly to this fact that the church never considered becoming polytheistic, never considering for a moment the possibility of worshipping two or three co-equal, different gods. There is only one God. It could only ever be this way, because God defines goodness, greatness, and glory. David sings his testimony in Psalm 16:2, “I said to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord, and I have nothing good besides you.” If God was not one, God could not be the greatest good. God would be some greater thing called “good” by which the two or three things are measured. But God is simply, eternally, self-sufficiently good, life, and love.
God is Being. God, simply, is.
God is one.
God is “We”: The Divine Persons
But God is also “we.” God is also three. He is not three, however, in the same way that he is one. He is one in nature, essence, being. He is three in terms of relations or persons. Long ago, Augustine explained the significance of this: “He does not say, I am the Father, or I and the Father is one. But when he said, ‘I and the Father are one,’ hear both ‘one thing’ and ‘we are,’ and you will be free of both Charybdis and Scylla. In these two words, the word ‘one thing’ [unum] frees you from the Arian, and the word ‘we are’ [sumus] frees you from the Sabellian. If ‘one thing,’ then not different; if ‘we are,’ then both the Father and the Son” (Augustine, Tractates on John, 36.9).
Charybdis and Scylla were characters from ancient Greek mythology that described the dangers of sea travel. On the one side was Scylla the rocks that could shred a ship to string and on the other side the Charybdis was a whirling pool that could suck a ship to the seafloor. These two dangers required careful sailing to preserve the lives of those aboard the ship. Augustine points out two historic dangers of the sea-voyage of Christian faith and the doctrine of the Trinity. On one side is the heresy of Sabellius, who taught that God is one in nature and in person, that the Father and the Son are the same person in different manifestations at different times. We can also call this error “modalism,” because it says that the Father and the Son are only different modes of the same person. On the other hand is the heresy of Arius. Arius reacted to Sabellius by teaching that the Father was the true God, and the Son was a second created being of slightly lesser status. We can also call this error “subordinationism,” because it says that the Son is not equal with the Father.
Instead, the Bible points us to the truth of the Trinity. God is one being in three persons. The Bible pulls back the curtain on this beautiful, profound mystery and glimpses the way that God can be three persons in one divine nature. Theologians call this biblical teaching “eternal relations of origin.” The Father and the Son and the Spirit are not randomly assembled as the one God. They are related to each other in specific ways.
The Father eternally begets or generates the Son, and the Father and Son simultaneously as one breathe out or spirate the Holy Spirit.
The Father gives, the Son receives, and the Spirit is the bond of the Gift between them.
The Father loves, the Son is beloved, and the Spirit is the bond of Love between them.
The Bible shows us this all over the place.
“You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). The Bible describes the Son as the “only-begotten” Son as the one who has life in himself by receiving life from the Father. We can’t wrap our minds around this. Human generation happens in space and time, because humans are bound by space and time. Divine generation happens eternally, because God is eternal. There was never a time when the Father was not giving life and love to his Son and spirating the Spirit.
The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son: “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26). The sending of the Son and the Spirit reveal the eternal nature of God. The Father sends the Son because the Father eternally begets the the Son. The Father and the Son send the Spirit because they eternally breathe out the Spirit.
Remember, Jesus through John does not explain the deep things of the Trinity in an abstract theological lecture. He explains it because it matters. Why should you care about the Trinity? Because only the triune God is real. Because only the triune God is life. Only the triune God is love. Only the triune God saves us from the constant and real danger of the flesh, world, and the devil.
Why should you care about the Trinity? Because, as the kids sometimes say on social media: this is everything.