Understanding the Trinity
We Christians are monotheists. Monotheism is the belief that there is only One God.
The people of God have always been monotheists. This is what made the nation of Israel stand out so greatly among its pagan neighbors who were polytheists, meaning, they believed in multiple gods.
This belief is supported numerous times all throughout the Bible.
Deut. 6:4 — Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Isaiah 43:10–11 — “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior.
So far so good, right? We understand that we serve one God, and we have always believed that. There is no true Christian who does not believe that.
Now, the issue with this comes when we begin to look at how the One God operates, as seen in scripture. In scripture, it is clear that there is One God who exists in Three Persons: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God is eternal, and all the persons of God are completely eternal. Each Person is equally distinct and equally God.
A lot of times, Christians’ beliefs about there being one God who exists in three persons is confused with polytheism. However, this is based on a large misconception about the doctrine of the Trinity. No Christian denies the fact that there is One God. We just believe that the One Being of God exists in three Persons of God, who are distinct in their personhood and one in their Godship.
We must not fall into the trap that says that God is divided up into three parts and that the Father is only ⅓ of the Trinity, and the Son and Spirit are likewise. All three persons are completely God. All three persons have every aspect of the other persons.
Wayne Grudem: “When we speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together we are not speaking of any greater being than when we speak of the Father alone, the Son alone, or the Holy Spirit alone.”
It is hard to come up with accurate examples for how the Trinity works. Any example we can come up with will break down somewhere in its logic. Some people will say the Trinity is like the head, arms, and legs of a person. Although they are different, they are apart of the same body. However, this isn’t the best example because it diminishes the distinction between the three Persons. There are other examples we will look at later in the discussion.
The Trinity in Scripture
It is important that we recognize the truth of the union and fellowship of the Godhead. There are a few instances in Scripture where we see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit at work all at the same time (e.g. 1 Peter 1:1–2). Right now, I want to look at three examples:
Genesis 1:1–2 says: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Look at 1:2 — “The Spirit of God” — the Holy Spirit is present here.
Compare these verses with Isiah 45:12, referring to God the Father: I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.
Further, compare this to John 1:2–3, referring to God the Son: He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
The Baptism of Jesus
Look at Matthew 3:16–17 — And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Here we see Jesus (Son) being baptized, the Spirit descending on Him, and a voice (The Father) calling out to Him.
The Salvation of the Believer
Salvation is even a trinitarian work. As we know, Jesus is our mediator (1 Tim. 2:5) and the One who is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2). The Father is the one who draws us unto Jesus (John 6:44) and the Holy Spirit who renews and regenerates us, basically meaning that He is the One who makes Christ’s sacrifice effective in your life (Titus 3:5).
Now, let’s take a few moments to look at the Persons of the Trinity individually.
What is interesting is that Christians are the only faith group that refers to God as their Father.
The Father is the one we often think about when we see or hear the word, God. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jesus commonly referred to the Father as God.
Look at Matthew 4:4 — “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God”.
Jesus is called the “Son of God”, which would refer to the Father. There are even instances when Jesus uses “Father” and “God” interchangeably.
In Matthew 6:26, when Jesus is talking about the birds, He says “your heavenly Father feeds them”. Then, He goes on to talk about the lilies of the field, and He says “But if God clothes the grass of the field…”. Here we see the two titles used referring to the same Member of the Trinity.
The Father’s Role in Salvation
Scripture teaches that The Father is the planner. He is the One who initiated the Creation (Isaiah 45:7), the One who planned to send the Son to save sinners (1 John 4:14), the One who elects a people for Himself, the One who draws those people unto Himself, etc.
Look at Romans 8:28–30– And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
The Father is the decisive cause for your salvation. He is the one who foreknew and predestined you to be saved. He chose you to be in His family (Eph. 1:3–5). He is the initiator of our salvation (John 6:44). He is the one who takes your sin and lays it upon Jesus (Isa. 53:6). And He is the one who gives Jesus the power to transform your lowly body into a glorified one on the final day (Phil. 3:20–21).
Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, which means that He is, always has been, and always will be fully God.
Let’s look again at what John 1:1–3 says about Jesus. (Before that, I want to note that the purpose John had for writing his gospel account. Look at John 20:30–31. He wrote this gospel account to try to persuade people to believe in Jesus.) — In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
If we look down to verse 14, we see that the “Word” here is referring to Jesus Christ, who according to verses 1–3 has always existed as God with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
His Eternal Glory
Jesus has always existed as God and had all aspects of divinity for all eternity. Jesus even mentions in John 17:5 that He had glory with the Father before the incarnation: And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
Jesus always existed as God, and the glory He is referring to is the same glory that God the Father has also had for all eternity. The significance of knowing that Jesus had an infinite amount of glory before He came to the earth makes the incarnation look infinitely great (Philippians 2:5–11).
Jesus did not earn His position as God by coming to earth and accomplishing salvation. He already was God who came to the earth to accomplish a mission to receive and save His chosen people. This is why we can marvel at the phrase: God became a man.
Coming to Earth
Phil. 2:6–7 — who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
By “form of God”, Paul isn’t saying that Jesus was like God as if he was making a comparison between the two. Being in the form of God means that Jesus shared in all the glory and radiance of God. He was in the form of God because He is God. The humility of Jesus is expressed in Him freely deciding to go from this highest point of glory to the lowest, rock bottom of shame; namely dwelling among us.
“Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”
Although Jesus was totally God here on earth, He did not always use that fact to His advantage. For example: He did not call down fire from Heaven when people spit on Him, He asked questions, He was hungry, He was able to be killed, He was able to be looked at, etc.
“but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”
Again, it is important to stress that Jesus did not cease to be God on the earth. His emptying of Himself was not an emptying of His deity.
Emptying Himself means He chose not to utilize all of His power on earth. It doesn’t mean that He stopped being God, but that He concealed His divinity underneath a human flesh. In other words, He didn’t use His divinity to His advantage.
Although He was/is fully God, Jesus chose to be humble. And unlike us, He had the right not to be humble. But He chose to do it because His humility unto death was the only way to save His people.
The gospel hinges on the virgin birth because without it, Jesus could not have been born sinless. Sin is passes down to future generations through the seed of our fathers (this is called “inherited sin” — see Romans 5:12), so the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit to cause Mary to become pregnant without natural procreation with a man allowed a way for Jesus to dodge that.
Now, unlike some cults believe (e.g Mormons), and unlike many Muslims accuse us of believing, Christians have never traditionally believed that God actually had sex with Mary. This was simply a miracle, not an actual impregnation through intercourse.
Life and Death
After Jesus’ birth, He grew up just like we all did.
Luke 2:52 — Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor of both God and men.
Jesus lived for 30 years before He began His public ministry, which began at His baptism. Jesus lived every single day completely sinless, even though we know that He is able to sympathize with all of our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15).
The importance of Jesus’ sinless life is that He had to be the perfect sacrifice for us — a spotless lamb (1 Peter 1:19). If He was going to atone for the sins of His people, He could not have any sins Himself. If He sinned even once, He, Himself, would have needed a Savior!
Phil. 2:8 — And being found in human form, he humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
God became a man, which is amazing enough, but then God died in the place of His people.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit, unfortunately, is often forgotten by many Christians. However, there isn’t enough room here for us to describe all the practical ways the Holy Spirit works in our lives.
Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit, God Himself, actually begins to dwell within us at the moment we are saved.
Romans 8:9–11 — “You, however, are not in the flesh (sin) but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”
Before Jesus ascended back to Heaven, He promised to send the Holy Spirit to live within the hearts of His followers.
John 16:7 — “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you.”
Although Jesus is not with us in bodily form, He has sent the Holy Spirit to us to work in our lives in several different ways. Here are a couple:
Convicts Us of Sin
Right after Jesus says what we just read, He goes on to say — “And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”
The Holy Spirit came into the world to help people like you and me realize that we are sinners in need of God’s grace. Do you remember that first moment you realized that you had sinned against God and you needed to repent? That was the Holy Spirit convicting your heart for the first time! Without the Holy Spirit, we would have never known we were sinners in the first place.
But His convicting work in our lives doesn’t end after we get saved. The Holy Spirit continues to convict us of sin for the rest of our lives (John 16:8). You know that feeling you get when you do or say something you know is sinful? That gut-wrenching feeling of sadness, knowing that you have just done something God has commanded you not to do? That is the work of the Holy Spirit in your life! He convicts our hearts of our sin so that we can turn back toward Christ and turn away from our sin.
Helps Us Kill Sin
Not only does the Holy Spirit cause us to realize when we sin, He also helps us kill sin.
Romans 8:13–14 says — “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
Living “according to the flesh” means living without any conviction to stop sinning. If someone claims to be a Christian but has no desire to turn away from his sins and live a God-honoring life, then he is not truly a Christian (1 John 1:6). When the Holy Spirit dwells within someone, that person will be convicted of their sin, and will desire to kill indwelling sin.
Only by the Holy Spirit can we have to power to “put to death the deeds of the body,” which are the sinful desires we all have. Whether that be desire to give into lust, lash out in anger, abuse some kind of substance, gossip about someone else, take things that aren’t ours, lie to someone to save face, or use words we know we shouldn’t use — all of these desires can be put to death by the power of the Holy Spirit in us.
Understand this doesn’t mean that you’ll be perfect (1 John 1:10). There will be many, many times in your life when the “desires of the flesh” will creep up and cause you to stumble. Struggling with sin is a sign that the Holy Spirit truly dwells in you because without the Holy Spirit there would be no struggle. As long as we are living on the earth, we will have to fight sin. It’s unavoidable. So as long as we are alive, we will kill our sin by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Produces Unity in the Church
Ephesians 4:1–4 — “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call…”
There is a special kind of love Christians share with one another. This love transcends racial, national, and cultural differences. It is a love that endures through times of trial, suffering, and conflict, and makes us willing to lay down our lives for one another. Christian love is a unique and amazing kind of love that is produced by the Holy Spirit.
The unity that causes Christians in the United States, Belgium, and Thailand to stand united with one another is a unity that can only come from the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. As Christians, we are one body, saved by the gospel of Jesus, and unified by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18–22).
Gives Us Assurance of Salvation
Something many of us will face in our walk with Christ is doubting our salvation. Maybe there is so much sin that you are struggling with that you begin to doubt that you ever got saved in the first place. If these doubts enter your mind, don’t panic. Instead, lean in all the more closely to the Holy Spirit, the One who gives assurance that we belong to Jesus.
Romans 8:16–17 — “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”
The Holy Spirit gives assurance to us that we are “children of God.”
Something the Enemy loves to do to the people of God is accuse us of our sin. After all, Satan’s name literally means, “the Accuser”. He will throw your sin in your face as often as he can: “You lied to your friend. Christians don’t lie. You aren’t a Christian,” “Do you really think that a true Christian would say what you just said? You’re such a fake,” “Look at how holy all those people at church are. You aren’t nearly as good as them. You’re probably not even saved.” If you have ever felt any of those phrases enter your mind, that it's the Accuser trying to destroy your assurance of salvation.
However, the Holy Spirit speaks to us differently. He tells us, “Trust in my unfailing love (Psalm 52:8),” “Cast all your anxieties upon me, because I care for you (1 Peter 5:7),” “If you confess your sin, the Father is faithful and just to forgive you (1 John 1:9), “You aren’t justified by your works, but only through faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16).” The Holy Spirit wants you to live knowing that you are a child of God, so He will give you assurance when Satan’s attacks are strong. However, remember that the Holy Spirit gives you assurance through His Word. If we aren’t in the Scriptures, His voice will seem faint to us.
The Seal of our Salvation
Ephesians 1:13–14 — “In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.”
The Holy Spirit dwelling in us acts as a “seal” that guarantees our status as children of God. The Holy Spirit will protect you from falling away from the faith and turning back to your sin. He will preserve you as a child of God until you are taken home to Heaven to be with Him. We can be assured that God will keep all of His promises to us, and that His love will never leave us, because the Holy Spirit guarantees we will always have it. Because the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we belong to Christ forever.
This is a longer article, but still a very brief introduction into the Trinity and the Persons who comprise it. I recommend getting a good systematic theology book (Wayne Grudem’s or John Frame’s are good recommendations), which will help you understand this subject in more detail.
Knowing the one God who exists in three Persons is essential to knowing and loving God rightly. As the old hymn says:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God, Almighty
Early in the morning, our song shall rise to Thee
Holy, Holy, Holy, merciful and mighty
God in three persons, blessed Trinity