Dr. Richard L. Strauss
April 20, 1980
The typical non-believer probably thinks the doctrine of the trinity is about the most ridiculous thing he has ever heard. He is convinced that Christians must be out of their minds to accept it. God is one, yet God is three? That's absurd! One plus one plus one equals one? That's nonsense, a blatant contradiction of simple, self-evident arithmetic. It stretches the credulity of reasonable people. "Three in One" may make a good name for a sewing machine oil, but as a description of God, it is gibberish to the unbeliever.
Where did such an idea ever come from? It is so utterly outlandish by human standards, it would seem unlikely that any man could have ever dreamed it up. That leads us to suspect that it just might be true, and that God Himself might have revealed it.
That is exactly what we find when we open the Word of God. While the word trinity is not actually found in the Bible, the idea expressed by the word permeates the pages of Scripture from beginning to end. There is no question about it—the doctrine of the trinity is divinely revealed Biblical truth.
That is not to say that the authors of the Bible understood it clearly at first. I don't think they did. When Peter and John and the other disciples first saw Jesus, they didn't say, "Oh, look, there goes God in the flesh, the second Person of the holy trinity." Yet as they heard Him claim to be the revelation of the Father with the prerogatives of deity, and as they watched Him perform the works of deity, they came to the convinced persuasion that He was God the Son.
Likewise, they probably gave very little thought at first to the Holy Spirit being the third Person of the eternal Godhead. But they remembered Christ's promise to send Him. And when the events of the day of Pentecost had ended, it was obvious to them that the power they had witnessed working in them and through them was not their own. It was the power of God. The Spirit who indwelled them was none other than God Himself. So then led by that same divine Spirit, they revealed to us in their writings the tri-unity of the eternal God.
Many people—including some who claim to be Christians—object to this doctrine and flatly deny it, but their objections arise primarily because they seek to understand the Creator in terms of the creature. They see God as merely a bigger and better version of man, when in reality He is a totally different kind of being, an infinite being whom our finite minds can never fully comprehend. We believe the doctrine of the trinity not because we understand it, but because God has revealed it.
I have to tell you today that I don't fully understand it myself. I'm going to try to explain to you something I don't fully understand. All I understand is what the Bible says, and it doesn't explain it fully. But I believe it. There is not one shred of doubt in my mind that this is what the Scripture teaches.
I have to say that I'm sorry that this is the second to the last message in the series on God's attributes. I don't know why that is. If I had it to do over again I'd have put this message not at the end but at the beginning. It is not an incidental doctrine that we can tack on to the end of our study of God's attributes. Before this I never really thought of the trinity as being an attribute of God, but this is who God is. It is the mode of His existence. It is the very essence of His being, the way He is. And it is necessary, if we hope to grow in our understanding of His nature and perfections, that we know God exists as three Persons.
What then does it mean that God exists in tri-unity?
1. An Explanation of the Triune God
You cannot understand the tri-unity of God without first understanding His unity. It is a basis tenant of Biblical faith that there is but one God.
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The unity of the Godhead cannot be questioned. God does not consist of parts, so He cannot be divided into parts. He is one.
Polytheism is sinful man's feeble attempt to break God down into parts—into lesser gods and so weaken Him to get rid of that one supreme, sovereign ruler, whose will is absolute. If there is one God, then we must answer only to Him and do what He says. But that's not necessarily if we break God into parts, making Him out to be multiple gods.
There is one God, undivided and indivisible, who has one mind, one plan, one purpose and one ultimate goal. And we can be thankful for that. Trying to please many gods leads to mental confusion and turmoil. Submitting to the will of one God brings wholeness and unity of purpose to life.
But the Bible reveals, at the same time, that there are in that one divine essence—three eternal distinctions.
Let me say that again. I read that somewhere and it's the best explanation I know. In that one divine essence, there are three eternal distinctions. Those distinctions seem best described as persons, known as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. All three have identical attributes, however, and therefore then are one—not merely one in purpose, but one in substance, in essence, in nature.
Three persons with identical sovereignty, for example, would be one sovereign. Three persons with identical omnipotence would be one omnipotent being. We humans may have characteristics similar to other people, but not identical to them. The three persons of the Godhead possesses identical attributes, they are one in substance and one in essence, and therefore, they are one God.
Attempts have been made to illustrate the doctrine of the trinity through the years, but all seem to fall short. I have never heard one that adequately explains it. In fact, if you try to teach about the doctrine of the trinity by illustration, you almost always end up speaking heresy.
There is the explanation of a three leaf clover; an egg with its yolk, white, and shell; H2O which can be either water, ice, or steam; the sun, which embodies in it heat, light, and time. I think the best one I've heard—but it still doesn't do it—is the space in a cube, which is one entity, yet composed of length, breadth, and height, each equal to the other and part of the other. But in the final analysis, every illustration breaks down somewhere. There is not an illustration we understand on a human level that can explain what is happening at the infinite divine level. We cannot truly understand it. We simply believe it because God has revealed it. Our one God exists in three Persons.
It seems to have been a man named Theophilus of Antioch who first applied the term trinity to this Biblical concept, as early as 181 A.D. That's pretty early. But it was the Anathasian Creed, completed sometime in the fifth century, that stated it most clearly: "We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor separating the substance."
2. The Evidence for a Triune God
It is one thing to say it, but something altogether different to prove it. What is the Biblical evidence for the doctrine of the trinity? I can't share all of it in the short time we have together today, but I can give you some of it. While the primary emphasis of the Old Testament is the unity of God, the indications of His tri-unity are clearly seen. We need not read very far to find the first one:
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).
While the verb create is singular in Hebrew and thus should have a singular subject. But Moses, when he was inspired by God to write Genesis, chose the Hebrew name for God, Elohim, which is plural. That doesn't make any sense unless God is one being with multiple persons. It may not prove the trinity, but it definitely points to plurality of persons. There was no other logical reason to make the name plural. Some have maintained that it is a plural of majesty, but that projects something to the ancient Hebrew mind that it never thought of. They knew no such thing as a plural of majesty. They addressed their kings in the singular. As startling as it may seem, the first time we meet God in the Old Testament, there is evidence of personal distinctions in Him. His name, Elohim, is plural.
We are not surprised, then, to read a short time later:
"Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness'" (Genesis 1:26a).
There is no reason that Moses should have chosen plural pronouns unless God exists in more than one Person. The plural pronouns could not refer to angels because they were never associated with God in His creative activity. There is no evidence in the Bible that suggests angels helped in creation. But more than one divine person was evidently involved. The plural pronouns make no sense unless there is plurality in the Godhead (see also Genesis 3:22; 11:7).
There are other indications of plurality in the Godhead in the Old Testament, such as references to the Angel of Jehovah. You can study that one on your own. Sometimes He is identified with Jehovah and other times distinguished from Him. So we've got the Angel of Jehovah who is Jehovah and yet He's separate from Jehovah, which means sometimes Jehovah means the Father and sometimes it means the Son. The only way to explain all the references to the Angel of Jehovah in the Old Testament is that Jehovah God exists in more than one Person.
One of the clearest statements was recorded by the prophet Isaiah. The Lord was speaking, the one who calls Himself the first and last (Isaiah 48:12). Isaiah is not speaking; he is merely quoting the words of God. And here is what God says:
"Come near Me and listen to this: 'From the first announcement I have not spoken in secret; at the time it happens, I am there.' And now the Sovereign Lord has sent Me, endowed with His Spirit" (Isaiah 48:16).
The Lord said that the Lord God and His Spirit sent Him. It looks very much like our one God exists in three Persons. God says God and His Spirit has sent Me.
That's the trinity in the Old Testament. It looks very much like our God exists in three Persons.
a. The Father is God
The unanswerable Biblical testimony to the trinity is simply that all three Persons are referred to as divine.
The Father is called God. He is referred to as "God the Father" or "God our Father," or "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (e.g., Galatians 1:1, 3; Ephesians 1:2, 3). God the Father's deity is unquestioned.
b. The Son is God
It's usually the deity of the Son that is questioned, but the Son is likewise referred to as God. He possesses the attributes of deity, such as eternity, immutability, omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. He bears the names of deity, such as Jehovah, Lord, Immanuel (which means "God with us"), the Word. He even allowed Thomas to call Him his Lord and God (John 20:28). He exercises the prerogatives of deity, such as forgiving sins, raising the dead, and judging all men. Only God has those rights. And He accepts worship reserved only for God.
John chapter 5 is a great passage on the deity of Christ. Jesus called God His Father in a very unique sense and the Jews went wildly insane about it. They tried to kill Him in verse 18 because Jesus made Himself equal with God. If that were me and I really wasn't God, I would have said, "Hey, wait a minute, don't throw those stones! You got it all wrong. I'm really not God." But Jesus didn't do that.
You know what He did? He went on to claim the prerogatives of God: to raise the dead, to judge all men, and to give life. Nobody can deny that He was claiming equality with the Father when He said:
"That all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent Him" (John 5:23).
This is an incredible verse. Jesus said, "I deserve the same honor, the same worship, the same adoration that the Father does." Friend, if that's not making Himself equal with the Father, I don't know what it is. Did Jesus claim to be God? He most certainly did.
Even God the Father addressed Jesus as God. Did you know that? You're going to talk to people who claim to be Christians who don't believe in the deity of Christ, and then you're going to wish you had a few verses to show them.
"But about the Son He says, 'Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever'" (Hebrews 1:8a).
Who is "He" in this verse? Look up at verse 5. It's God the Father talking. He says, "I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son" (Hebrews 1:5b). Then in verse 8 God the Father says to the Son, "Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever."
I don't know how any person can say he believes the Bible, read that verse, and not believe Jesus the Son is not God.
The prologue to John's gospel tells us one reason He came to earth. It was to make the Father known, to reveal God to man (John 1:18). We can know more of what God is like by examining the Person of Jesus Christ, and by reading about what those who were with Him said about Him. Jesus was God in flesh.
c. The Spirit is God
The Holy Spirit is also called God. His name is the Spirit of God (Genesis 1:2). He too possesses the attributes of deity and performs the works of deity. And while He is the Spirit who proceeds from the Father (John 15:26), He is at the same time the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). He is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. And He is co-equal with both the Father and the Son.
The Apostle Peter viewed the Holy Spirit as God when he said to Ananias, "Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit...? You have not lied to men but to God" (Acts 5:3-4, NASB). Could anyone read those verses and deny that the Holy Spirit is God?
If the Father, Son, and Spirit are all called God, then there is no alternative but to acknowledge that our one God exists in three Persons.
3. The Ministry of the Triune God
People who deny the trinity like to say that it is nowhere found in the Bible. But the Scripture links the three persons of the Godhead together so closely in so many divine activities, it would be foolish to deny that any one of them is God. Let's examine some of those activities. There are many of these. I've chosen 10 but there are others.
a. Creating the World (Genesis 1:1, 2; John 1:3)
All three persons of the Godhead were involved in creation.
No one denies that the Father is the Creator:
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).
But the Bible also says the Son was the Creator. Speaking of God the Son, John says:
"Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. ...He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him" (John 1:3, 10).
Again, speaking of Jesus, Paul wrote to the Colossians:"For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:16-17).
The Holy Spirit is also the Creator.
"The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:2b).
"When You send Your Spirit, they are created, and You renew the face of the ground" (Psalm 104:30).
Who created? God the Father. God the Son. God the Spirit. It looks as though our one Creator God must exist in three Persons. They are all involved in creation.
b. Sending the Son (Luke 1:35)
All the members of the trinity were active in the incarnation. The virgin Mary questioned the angel about how it could possibly come about that she should bear a divine being.
"The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God'" (Luke 1:35).
The power of the Father, ministered through the agency of the Spirit, resulted in the birth of the Son into the world. Their association together in the birth of the Savior would be further indication of their oneness.
c. Identifying the Messiah (Matthew 3:16-17)
I want to talk more about this next Sunday night when we discuss the meaning of John's baptism. For now, I'll say that in Matthew chapter 3, it was the precisely proper moment to reveal Jesus to Israel as their Messiah. John the Baptist was the chosen instrument and the act of baptism was the chosen means.
"After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased" (Matthew 3:16-17, NASB)
As the Spirit comes upon the Son, the Father's voice is heard from heaven expressing His approval. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit. It was a powerful testimony to the eternal triune Godhead.
d. Providing Redemption (Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:2)
Two central passages bring the three members of the Godhead together in providing for man's eternal salvation.
"How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" (Hebrews 9:14).
When you read "God" in the Scriptures, it can refer to the trinity as a whole, but it usually refers to the Father, especially when contrasted with the Son. Sometimes it also refers to the Son and sometimes to the Spirit. Here you have the offering of the Son, to the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
"Who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance" (1 Peter 1:2).
God the Father chose us to salvation. God the Son paid for it by shedding His blood. And God the Spirit set us apart for the obedience of faith. Without each Person in the trinity doing His part, we would yet be in our sins.
e. Proclaiming Salvation (Hebrews 2:3-4)
"How shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will" (Hebrews 2:3-4).
In the early years of the church, God did some spectacular things to verify the gospel message which the apostles were preaching. It was the same message that was first spoken by the Son Himself; and when the apostles proclaimed it, the Father bore witness to its truthfulness by bestowing miraculous gifts through the Spirit. It was not only a powerful witness to the truth of the message, but another demonstration of the triune God at work.
f. Sending the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26; Galatians 4:6)
The three persons of the trinity are so interwoven in sending the Sprit into the world that it is difficult to distinguish between them.
"But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26).
Here the Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus' name, and the Spirit teaches about Christ.
"When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—He will testify about Me" (John 15:26).
The Son sends the Spirit from the Father.
"Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father'" (Galatians 4:6).
The Father sends the Spirit and calls Him the Spirit of His Son.
What a picture of unity—such perfect unity that the actions of one are considered to be the actions of the other. Orthodox Christian doctrine has long taught that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. But all three are vitally involved.
g. Indwelling Believers (John 14:15-23)
Jesus taught His disciples that both He and His Father would be with them.
"Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching. My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them." (John 14:23).
But their indwelling would be in the Person of the Comforter, the Spirit of truth.
"And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, for he lives with you and will be in you" (John 14:16-17).
As the Spirit of both the Father and the Son, His indwelling is the indwelling of the triune God. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit dwell in you in the Person of the Holy Spirit. That would be meaningless unless the three are one.
h. Baptizing Believers (Matthew 28:19)
In our Lord's commission to His disciples, He said:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19, NASB).
The unity of the Godhead is declared by combining them in one name (singular). And yet the distinctiveness of the persons is maintained by listing them separately. It is another link in the long chain of evidence that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one God.
i. Entering God's Presence (Ephesians 2:18)
All three members of the Godhead are intimately involved in the believer's access to God. Speaking of Christ, the Apostle Paul taught:
"For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit" (Ephesians 2:18).
How can we approach the God the Father? Certainly not through our own merit. Rather, both Jews and Gentiles can approach the Father, through the merits of the Son, with the help of the Spirit.
j. Blessing Believers (2 Corinthians 13:14)
In Paul's final remarks to the Corinthian Christians, he linked the three members of the Godhead together in a beautiful benediction.
"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14).
Unless the three are one, eternally and equally supreme, there would be no reason to put them together like this as an equal basis like this in a blessing. As a matter of fact, to do so would be blasphemous unless they are One.
I have heard people say that the trinity is nowhere taught in the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth!
What a blessing it is to know the triune God.
- We have a loving Father who has given us His eternal life, who provides our need and training us in productive and satisfying living
- We have a gracious Savior who became a man like us, who sympathizes with us in our weaknesses, feels with us in our sorrows, helps us in our trials, strengthens us in temptation, and intercede for us at the Father's right hand
- We have the Holy Spirit who indwells us, who binds us together in one body, comforts us, teaches us, guides us, and makes available to us all the resources of the eternal, omnipotent Godhead
How could we live the Christian life if any one of them were less than God? We would be far poorer for sure, and our lives would be less than complete. As it is, He is all we need—an almighty God in the heavens who rules and controls all things, a gracious triune God in our hearts who loves and cares for us and ministers to our needs. What more could we ask?
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
The triune God is ready to forgive and receive you. God the Father planned for your eternal salvation. God the Son paid the debt of your sin. And God the Spirit convinces you of your need and draws you to the Savior. Won't you respond to the triune God?
God provided salvation to you and to me. This great triune God made us for Himself. He loves us and cares for us, and longs to experience our fellowship throughout eternity. He paid the penalty for our sin: the one thing that needed to be done for us to be accepted by Him. But we must accept that gift. We must believe it; we must receive it.
Tell Him, "Lord, I'm a sinner. I believe Your Son died on that cross in my place and paid for my sins. God, I want to respond right now to the work of Your Spirit in my heart, and put my trust in Jesus Christ as my Savior from sin."
Father, we ask you that some would respond and open their hearts to Jesus Christ. In His name we pray. Amen.
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—He will testify about Me.
John 15:26 NIV
Continue to AT-24: The King of Glory