The following is my manuscript from a guest talk with Equip Campus Ministry.
“The mind of man cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. He who has tried to understand the mystery fully will lose his mind; but he who would deny the Trinity will lose his soul.” – Harold Lindsell and Charles J. Woodbridge, A Handbook of Christian Truth (Westwood, NJ: F. H. Revell), 1953, pp. 51-52
I think there’s really something to this quote. One the one hand it tells us we have to press into this subject. We have to say something about it and settle our minds and hearts on what the Bible clearly teaches about it. And yet, the quote also acknowledges that we can’t plum the depths of the subject.
So that’s my approach tonight – to say what little I can – acknowledging the depths I can’t reach.
Briefly, here’s what you probably already know. The Bible teaches that there is one and only one God, creator of all things. And yet, the Bible also teaches that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are three persons who are rightly called this one God. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, the Spirit is not the Son, nor the Father and so on. They are all called God and yet there is, clearly, only one God. So, how do we talk about this in 30-40 minutes in a helpful way?
I feel as if you’ve probably come here for a drink, but all I have to offer is the water from a fire hydrant. How do I quench your thirst without drowning you? Let’s start with two foundational assumptions.
Laying Some Groundwork
Job 38:1-2, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.”
In this great use of righteous sarcasm the LORD informs Job that Job is not God. God is God. This is the approach you have to take with the Trinity. You could call this a Presuppositional approach rather than an evidential approach. So, in other words, when I come to this subject I am presupposing not only the authority of the Bible on the Trinity I’m also assuming that the Bible is the authority on what is rational, reasonable, and real.
I’m taking this approach because I don’t want to try and teach about something like the Trinity in a way that would treat mankind as the final judge or authority on what makes sense. In other words, just because something doesn’t make sense to us, doesn’t mean it is senseless or impossible. And when we disbelieve things about God because they don’t make sense to us, it’s not God’s job to appear before our bench and explain himself. That would mean he’s not God – and you shouldn’t believe in a God who isn’t God.
That’s the first piece of groundwork. The second is this: I’m also assuming that the mystery and complexity of this doctrine actually makes it more likely to be true. Maybe none of you need to be convinced of its truthfulness, in which case, this is just frosting. In any case, the fact that the Trinity is mysterious and, incomprehensible at a certain level, makes it more likely to be true, not less likely to be true.
I’m indebted to C.S. Lewis on this point when he says in Mere Christianity that “It is the simple religions that are the made up ones.” Lewis has an extended section in Mere Christianity on the Trinity and that’s where this quote comes from. He goes on.
Quote: “If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we would make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.” – p. 165
So, complexity and mystery on these matters are a good thing – it means we are very likely dealing with fact. Now, having essentially copped to a couple assumptions – the most helpful thing I know how to do on the Trinity – is talk about the work of the Trinity in salvation.
The Trinity on Display and at Work in Salvation
The most worthwhile thing I can talk about when it comes to the Trinity is how the Trinity is on display and at work in the salvation of sinners. And I can’t think of a passage that is more grand and helpful on that subject than Ephesians 1:1-14
Let’s observe together how we see each person of the Trinity is at work in the work of salvation.
GOD THE FATHER
Generous in his blessings (3)
“3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…”
Notice that God is not stingy with his spiritual blessings – he gives every spiritual blessing to his children. Those blessings are listed through the rest of these 14 verses but, for now, simply notice that he is lavish and generous in providing them. He does not provide some spiritual blessings in relating to him. He provides every one of them because he is generous.
For an example of this, simply think back to the Garden of Eden. I’m fond of reminding my kids about God’s generosity by asking them: “now, how many trees could they eat from in the Garden of Eden? Just one?” My kids, who don’t quite get irony yet emphatically say, “NO! They could eat from all of them. It was just one that they couldn’t eat from.”
I ask them that way because I want them to see how ridiculous it is to accuse God of being stingy or miserly. He denied them the fruit of one tree, yes – but he gave them literally everything else. The garden was a treasure vault of “yes” and only one “no”. Because God is generous.
There’s an old stereotype (I think originally leveled at the Puritans) but it’s how many people mistakenly think of God today. They think of God as that old man in the clouds, looking down on mankind, extremely worried that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time. But this is the furthest thing from the truth.
Decisive in “Blessing” (4, 9, 11)
Next notice the Father is decisive in pouring out these blessings. He is willful. He is purposeful.
Verse 4, “even as he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world…”
Again, in verse 9, “making knownto us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ…”
Then, again in verse 11, “11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…”
Before anyone did anything good or bad God decided what he was going to do – decided on the blessings he was going to shower on his people. He was not a reactive God, constantly scrambling under the burden of unforeseen chaos, attempting to buy back our loyalty with spiritual treats. He chose, he decided, he planned, purposed before the foundation of the world.
He is not a reactive parent – like I am. To deal with my children’s chaos I am strongly tempted to control them by putting them in front of a movie or threaten them or guilt them into whatever behavior I want to see. But not this Father. He decides to bless, to redeem, to save, to transform and to win people’s hearts in advance.
Motivated by Love
And notice lastly on this point: he does it out of love.
End of verse 4/beginning of verse 5, “In love he predestined us.”
God is not simply choosing to choose – he’s choosing to love.
He desires to call us children: Verse 5, “he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ…”
The love he has for us is familial love and catch this – this I really only noticed here recently. Listen to Paul’s train of thought in vv. 5-6:
“In love 5he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
Now, the Beloved, of course, is Jesus Christ. The Father, loves Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is his beloved Son. And now just let this settle on you. God the Father, generously, and decisively, and willfully wanted to be able to say about you – the very same thing he says about his own Son: my beloved. It’s staggering if you think about it. This love is sheer grace. Paul calls it glorious grace in v. 6. It is grace that is heavy and thick. It’s got real weight to it. In Christ, the Father regards me as he regards his own beloved Son.
Perhaps you’ve grown up or been in enough Christian circles to sometimes hear this phrase or idea of God’s unconditional love – God’s love is unconditional. But that’s not actually what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that the Father’s loves comes to us by grace – which means, actually, that God’s love is contra-conditional. In other words, God doesn’t simply love us even though we haven’t earned his love. He loves us even though we’ve earned the opposite of his love.
You see, when you and I love something or when we look for something to love we look for beautiful things, things that attract us. Our standard of beauty is beside the point – the point is that when we look for something to love we are looking for what attracts us by the beauty that is in the object of our love.
The Father is not that way. His motive for loving is in himself – not in the objects of his love. Martin Luther said it this way: “The love of God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it.”
That’s the Father. Now, let’s shift to the Son.
2. God the Son
As you take the passage all together, the picture you get is that all these wonderful blessings from the Father come to us through Jesus Christ. The blessings, the love, the grace, the adoption, the choosing, the forgiveness, the redemption the Father delights to give – all come to us through Jesus Christ.
Now, the most obvious way this is done and described in the passage is through his death on the cross.
Verse 7: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…”
Notice what he’s saying here when he says, “through his blood”. This is substitutionary sacrifice language. It’s like what the author of Hebrews talks about in 9:12 when he says that Christ, “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. In another place (1 Corinthians 5:7), Paul will refer to Jesus as our “Passover Lamb”.
Here’s what Paul is saying: Jesus is not a Hallmark Savior. We don’t make Lifetime movies about what Jesus did. We don’t write Young Adult fiction about Jesus on the cross. Why?
Because, he was not crucified simply to inspire us to do better. He was not brutally executed so that we would feel guilted into accepting Christianity with our chins on our chests – or with our hands firmly on our boot straps – ready to pull ourselves up because of His example. No. Jesus took our place. He took our punishment. As one song has it, “In my place, condemned he stood.”
Now, that’s the most obvious and famous role of Christ in salvation. But Paul also shows us something here that’s talked about less and it’s just as important.
It’s the truth that the Christian has true and real unity with Jesus.
Notice the recurring idea:
v. 4, “even as he chose us in him…”
v. 6, “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
v. 7, “In him we have redemption…”
v. 11, “In him we have obtained an inheritance…”
v. 13, “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.
All of these “in hims” refer to Christ. By faith we are truly, really, spiritually united to Jesus Christ and this explains why the Father can go on regarding us as children, as righteous. We have been not only covered by Christ – we have been joined to Christ and share in his sonship.
It’s as if you and Jesus were in the same calculus class and you both took the same test. And you failed – you know you failed and now you have to bring your test to the front. But before you can put that test on the teachers desk – Christ takes your test, puts his name on it and then puts your name on his and then turns them both in. You get his perfect score and he gets your failing grade.
So, God the generous and loving Father, sends the Son to live and die and rise as our substitute, uniting us to himself by Faith so that we can be brought to the Father.
As Peter says in his first letter, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” (1 Peter 3:18)
3. God the Holy Spirit
Notice how Paul starts this letter like many other New Testament greetings and benedictions.
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Nearly every New Testament author will say something almost exactly like this in their greetings or benedictions. And reading these introductions and conclusions – especially here in a very Trinitarian passage – you might ask, “Why is there no mention of the Spirit? Isn’t he kinda important? Why doesn’t he get included in this grand salutations?”
Well, I have been persuaded, that he is mentioned. I’m indebted to the brotherly help of Jonathan Edwards on this – who pointed out that the Spirit is the “grace and peace” from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The grace and peace from The Father and the Son, come to us in a person, not in an abstract force, not in a philosophy, not in a self-help book with a toothy preacher on the cover. The grace and peace come to us in an actual person who pours himself into our hearts with all the love and grace and peace of God himself.
Now, for the sake of time, I’m not actually going to try and prove this – but I would commend to you a thoughtful and repetitive reading of 1 John 4:8-13. And, if you want your head to spin – you could read Jonathan Edwards, unpublished essay on the Trinity.
Now, other than describing the Holy Spirit as the grace and peace of God himself to us – Paul also explicitly describes the role of the Holy Spirit in vv. 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, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
So, what does he mean by the idea that the Holy Spirit “seals” us?
He uses the phrase again in 4:30 when he says, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
I think between these two verses we see a repeated theme: this expectation that, because of the Spirit’s work, we really will reach the finish line. We’ll come into the inheritance, we will reach that day “of redemption” where sin and death will be no more. Every tear will be wiped away. We’ll see the Father’s face and we’ll hear the Savior say, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
In other words, God pours himself in all his love and all his grace into our hearts by the Holy Spirit – not only to believe Him – but to continue believing in Him – to continue walking with Him – obeying Him – and growing more and more to be like Him and that’s how we cross the finish line.
So, salvation as it’s talked about here is not an intellectual assent to a set of doctrines – and it’s not a white-knuckled morality or ethic that we know we have to keep even though we don’t really want to. Salvation is transformation, through the good news of substitution, that brings us to God the Father.
If I were to borrow an analogy (Doug Wilson’s to be precise) to sum up and explain what Paul teaches us about how the Trinity works for our salvation it would be this: Salvation as a road trip.
So, if salvation were a road trip: The Father would be the destination. He would be where we are going. He’s the goal. He’s the end. He’s the destination. We want to get to the Father.
The Son then would be the road. There’s no way to get to the Father without the Son. If we want to reach the destination of the Father we have to take the road of the Son. There’s no other way to reach him.
And this would make the Holy Spirit the car. And you need all three to do their work in order to take this trip. You need the car to get on the road and you need the road to get to the destination AND it’s not a sight-seeing tour where the point of the trip is to take the trip. No. The point is to get to the destination. The Father is the goal. He’s the glory. He’s the good news.
We were made to dwell with the Father, he brings us to himself through Christ, and he keeps us and transforms us daily by the power of his Holy Spirit having poured himself into us by His Spirit.
Application: The application is, essentially, this: Be Trinitarians. In other words, make the nature of the Triune God be the roots of the way you think and live.
Let me give you some examples:
On The Trinitarian Church
What does the Trinity tell us about how I should think about and treat the local church?
A couple things: First, the Trinity teaches us that before the foundation the world God was ONE and yet, he wasn’t alone. The Trinity is a relationship, a fellowship. Granted, this is mysterious but the Trinity tells us that, as image bearers of God we were made for relationship.
Which tells the Christian that we are not meant to live the Christian life alone. The Trinity shows us that, as image bearers of God, we are meant for more than private bible-learning. We are not meant to forsake the assembly of each other.
Hebrews 10:24 says,
“24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
The author here is being Trinitarian in his thinking. He says you can’t be encouraged the way God wants you to be, you can’t be stirred up to love and good works the way God wants you to be, if you’re doing this alone.
But let’s push this further. Let’s say you know all that perfectly well and your church attendance is stellar. How could we apply this further?
Think about it this way: If the Spirit is essentially the peace and the love that the Father and Son have between each other which is then poured into the hearts of believers what does that tell us about our church relationships?
It tells us that just as the love between Father and Son is poured out by the Spirit so the love between God and the Christian should be poured out on other people.
So, you might see it play out this way: A small group of Christians may be really plugged in to their church – into Christian community. And they really like each other. They really like encouraging one another. They spend a ton of time together and could be happy with each other forever. BUT if they’re being truly Trinitarian they’ll start to think to themselves, “Man, how can we invite more people into this community and fellowship and grace and peace and love that we experience between each other? What we’ve got here is so good and it’s so sweet and we could do this forever but – we want other people to have this too and so even though it might inconvenience us and even though it might throw off our dynamic, even though it might mean a season of awkwardness who can we include in our little circle here that could really benefit from being included?”
God would have been right to just enjoy fellowship with himself for all of eternity – but he didn’t and we should think the same way and invite people into the grace and peace that we get to share as the body of Christ.
On Trinitarian Fatherhood
Another area of application that I think is really important for our day is in the area of Fatherhood. Many, if not all of the guys here, will one day be fathers. So, what does the Fatherhood of God tell us that our fatherhood should be like?
The answer to this question that has stuck with me over the years came from someone pointing out to me just how much the account of Jesus’ baptism is a passage on Trinitarian Fatherhood. You may have heard the story – Jesus comes to John the Baptist to essentially inaugurate his earthly ministry and in that moment the Father speaks from heaven and the Spirit descends and remains on Jesus.
What do we see about the Fatherhood of God at Jesus baptism that should shape our fatherhood down here?
One author points out three things:
1. First – God the Father was there. He was present. Dads need to be there for their sons and daughters as well. A dad is just as influential in his absence as he is in his presence. His absence speaks just as loudly as his presence and so as future dads – decide you will be there for your kids before you will “be there” for your phone or your favorite pass time or your career.
2. Second – the Father was pleased with His Son. When the Father spoke he spoke about his pleasure in Christ. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” We see that the major note of the relationship between the Father and the Son is pleasure. The Father is happy to be the Father of Jesus. And so, dads must not ever see fatherhood as a burden. None of us should want to punch the clock at bed time and quit being dads while the kids are asleep so that we can watch our favorite shows in peace or whatever. Dads are to be pleased to be dads because the Father is pleased to be the Father of Christ and he has pleasure in his Son.
3. Third – he makes that pleasure known. He speaks it. He tells His Son he is pleased to be His Father and he loves His Son. Far too many dads leave their pleasure in their sons unspoken, unexpressed and this is devastating and anti-Trinitarian. I imagine it’s possible that some of the men here may have never even heard those words from your fathers. I would encourage you to take a different path and follow the example of your heavenly Father when you have children of your own. Take pleasure in your children and make it known that they delight you and you love them.
On this point as well I would encourage all of us – none of us have fathers that perfectly reflect God the Father. In fact, some of us have fathers that do not reflect him in any discernible way. But we can be Trinitarian in these relationships also – we can be patient and forgiving toward our fathers remembering that they are, in fact, not God and we are definitely not Jesus. So, don’t sabotage your own parenting now, by harboring un-forgiveness and bitterness toward your earthly father for his failures.
Trust your heavenly Father and take comfort that in Christ your Father in heaven is pleased to have you as his own.
Finally, it would be a huge oversight not to apply this to marriage. Many if not all of you are going to be married someday and whether you are the husband or the wife – you are meant to be trinitarian in your marriage by looking to Christ as your model.
It really shouldn’t surprise us that if Paul would start his letter with a grand statement of the Triune work of salvation that he would essentially conclude the same letter with an extended treatment of how husbands and wives might both reflect Christ in their marriages.
He calls on husband to reflect Christ as the sacrificial leader and he calls wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. But it could also just as easily be said that this call to submission is a call that Christ answers as well when he submits to the Father.
Scripture is abundantly clear that Christ, in no way, needed to grasp at divinity. He is equal with the Father. He has all the Father’s glory. He has the Father’s nature. They are co-equal, co-eternal, one in dignity and glory and yet, for the joy set before Him Jesus submitted to his Father. Not because he was inferior but because together they had a mission to accomplish.
Without every taking a class on the subject it is very likely that you will enter marriage having been trained to use your spouse to your own ends. Trained to think of your marriage like a contract – “I do for you if you do for me and if you don’t do for me I don’t do for you.” You will be too smart to ever admit this is what is in your heart but that is how you will have been trained if you are trained for marriage outside of the frame of the Trinity.
The portrait of the Trinity is that authority and submission are a beautiful, willing, and sacrificial reality that God has used to bring about the salvation of the world – and that kind of thinking also saves marriages before they even start.
Reading List on Trinitarian Themes:
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
In My Place, Condemned He Stood by J.I. Packer and Mark Dever
What is the Trinity by R.C. Sproul