GOD AND THE HOLY TRINITY
1 The Lord our God is the one and only living and true God.1
The doctrine of God begins with the assertion that God is. Like Scripture that starts simply, “In the beginning God,” we do not start by trying to prove his existence but by accepting it in faith as a fact. At their very best the traditional arguments for the existence of God can only point to his possible existence, and prove nothing to the one who is not open to Biblical truth.
His substance is in and of himself, he is infinite in being and perfection.2 His essence cannot be understood by any but himself.3
God, and God alone, is completely independent. His substance, who and what he is, is not derived from anything. There was no primal matter or preexistent being from which he descended, evolved or was formed. We not only need parents, we need food and water and much more to survive. God can and has existed without anything else. Before the beginning, there was only God, and in that state he was perfectly content.
Unlike the false gods of pagan religions, the God of Scripture has no limitations. He is infinite in his being and thus is equally present in all places at all times. He can act without strain on his person or power to bring rain to a desert in Africa and to answer the prayer of a child for his mother’s health in Brazil at the same moment. He is infinite in his perfections and thus his wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth are all without limit. He never acts in ignorance of the circumstances or what consequences will follow from his works. He never fails to act because what he desires exceeds his power to bring it about. He never thinks or acts apart from perfect holiness, justice and goodness. The very idea of a being without limitations of any sort is beyond our comprehension. Some are led on this basis to reject the God described in Scripture as absurd and unreasonable, but those who know him are led for the same reason to worship him.
He is an absolutely pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts
When we think of God as spirit we usually think first of the fact that he is immaterial. He has no body, no physical parts that can be touched, weighed or seen. It is this aspect of his essence that lies at the root of the prohibition against any attempt to make an image of God (Dt 4:15-16). Any attempt to fashion an image of God, no matter how beautiful or costly it might be, will produce a distortion of who God is and thus leads to idolatry, the worship of that which is not God at all.
There is more to the spirituality of God than just his immateriality. The spirit of man is more than the immaterial part of man, it is the part that makes him capable of reasoning, responding emotionally, and relating to God. To say that God is spirit is to say that he is a person, that he is will and is thus capable of determining what he is going to do. The gods of pantheism are often infinite, but they are impersonal. They are nothing more than a power or force at work in the world. The God revealed in Scripture though is a Person who acts, loves and calls us into fellowship with him. He speaks to men to reveal himself and we speak to him through prayer. Unlike the idols of stone, our God hears and cares about our concerns. God is infinite and thus present everywhere, but he is not to be identified as the sum of everything. As spirit he is personal and distinct not only from other persons, but also from the impersonal aspects of the universe.
When we say that God is without passions, we do not mean that he is without emotion. What we mean is that he is without those passions that cause us to react impulsively in out of control behavior. God is constant in character, the same yesterday, today and forever. In describing God as impassive, passionless, we must be careful not to picture God as detached from the world of men, untouched by their sorrows and joys. We can speak of God as apathetos, without passions or feelings, but only in a qualified sense. God is free of the feelings we experience in the sense that they do not come upon him as they do to us. “His are foreknown, willed and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside. In other words, he is never in reality the victim whom man makes to suffer” (in Reymond). If God was grieved that he had made mankind it was not because their sinfulness surprised him. If Nineveh was not destroyed despite Jonah’s warnings that it would be, it was not because he had no idea they would repent. Those passages that speak of God being grieved and changing his mind remind us of the truth that he has chosen to enter into personal relationship with people and cares deeply about what they do. His relationship to us does change, but it does so according to his immutable holy laws. He always acts the same way toward moral good and evil, hating what is evil and loving what is good. When we change our relation to him, he responds according to his unchanging character (cf Jer 18:7-10). This is not to deny that God sometimes intervenes on the basis of grace to do good for us before we turn to him, but is only to recognize the reality of the fact that God grieves when men turn away from him and rejoices when they are obedient.
He alone has immortality, living in light which no one can approach.4 He is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, in every way infinite,
God is unique among all the beings in existence, standing apart from the entire created order. One aspect of this uniqueness is that he alone possesses immortality as an inherent characteristic of his very nature. Our souls are immortal, but only because they are upheld and sustained by his power. Mortality carries with it not only the idea of being subject to death, but also tainted by the corruption that leads to death. Being immortal God is not only deathless, but also free from those changes that might ultimately lead to death. This changelessness means that there is no deterioration in any part of God’s nature. If God is infinite in his goodness as well as his power and justice, then to change would mean that he would become less wise, good, powerful or just. The unchangeableness (immutability) of God is thus related to his infinity. God is constant in character as well as in his being, the same yesterday, today and forever.
God not only stands apart from creation, he also stands above it. He is transcendent. His glory is like a light so bright as to be unapproachable. Though Christ is the light of the world, the light of his nature is still such that we can never know him fully. We can never peer into the very heart of God, that brilliant light, so as to understand everything about him. Not only now in our state of corruption, but also in eternity God will ever remain great beyond ability to grasp for we will always be finite attempting to comprehend the infinite. But all this does not mean that we cannot see or know anything about God for he is immense beyond our conception. Wherever we turn we can see his power and wisdom, as well as his justice and righteousness if we but have eyes to see. After building God’s dwelling place on earth Solomon noted, ‘The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you’ (1 Ki 8:27). Our Lord is at the same time too far above us to comprehend and too near us to ignore except by willingly closing our eyes to him.
perfectly holy, perfectly wise, absolutely free, completely absolute.5
The transcendence of God is perhaps expressed best by the term holy. The primary meaning of this word refers to the separation between God and all his creatures. The seraphs that flew around God crying out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” covered their faces in humility even though they are sinless creatures. It is not sin that separates them from God, but their creatureliness. Even among the pure God is still uniquely set apart. We add though that his holiness does include his separation from sin. There is not even the slightest taint of evil desire or impure motive in any aspect of his character, thought or actions.
God is most wise, not limited by either time or place in his knowledge. From the number of hairs on a man’s head to the outcome of a war hundreds of years in the future he knows everything. While we are constrained in our actions by our lack of knowledge, as well as our sinful natures and our limited power, God is free to choose and do anything he desires to do. He is bound to keep his covenants, but he was not under any compulsion to makes those promises. God acts on the basis of the “good pleasure of his will” (Eph 1:5), and not because man or Satan or anything else in the created order forces him to act.
His transcendence is likewise seen in his absolute being. Unlike all his creatures, God is completely self-sufficient. He needed nothing to bring him into being, needs nothing to sustain himself and requires nothing else to live in perfect contentment and satisfaction. God lives in relationship with his creation, but that relationship is not necessary. Before anything was created he lived in perfect wholeness and joy.
He works all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and entirely righteous will for his own glory.6
As the transcendent God his will is not dependent on what men do or anything thing else that might happen. His work is based solely on his will, and that will can never change since his character does not change and there is nothing that will ever happen that he was not aware of when he made his plans. It ought to be of comfort to us that what he does is unfailingly the right thing because it flows from his righteous will that could never conceive of anything other than what is good and virtuous. And while the outworking of his will brings good to us, the ultimate goal his own glory. His wisdom is the source of all things, his power the means of carrying them out, and his glory their proper end.
He is perfectly loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth; he forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.7 He is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him,
When we talk about God only as holy and righteous, absolute and immutable we can get a picture of a cold, distant Lord. As we read in Scripture how God relates to men, of his covenant faithfulness to faithless Israel and his merciful dealings with those who break his law we come to realize that he is not at all distant and cold. He is not merely kind, but abounds in goodness “showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:6). His grace towards sinful man is seen preeminently in his plan to bring forgiveness of sin to those who could do nothing to escape his just and terrible judgment. Though they can never earn his favor by anything they do, he nevertheless binds himself to reward those who seek him in accordance with his will revealed finally in Christ Jesus.
yet at the same time he is entirely just and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and he will by no means clear the guilty.8
His plan is wise and righteous, he is gracious and loving, but he still hates sin and will not forgive those who do not take advantage of the means he has provided for their salvation. He has a right to demand our obedience and is perfectly just in executing judgment against those lawbreakers who reject his grace found in Jesus Christ. We do not know the God of Scripture if we choose to ignore his hatred of sin and the consequences, eternal and otherwise, that has for those who refuse his salvation.
2God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness in and of himself; he is unique in being, all-sufficient in and to himself, not standing in need of any creature which he has made, nor deriving any glory from them,
Every part of God’s creation is dependent. Nothing can exist on its own. We need other people and things in creation for our health, happiness and our very existence. God needs nothing or no one other than himself for either life or what makes life worth living. The Scripture writers understood this very well (Job 22:2-3, Ps 50:8-13). If there is life anywhere, it has its source in him. If there is glory, it belongs to him. Where there is goodness, it is rooted in him. Put negatively, apart from God there is no life, no goodness and no blessedness. God could have lived eternally in perfect blessedness and contentment without ever creating anything. Because he is all-sufficient man can do nothing to add to or subtract from his glory. He is not in any sense lacking in love or wholeness or purpose in such a way that creation can supply what he lacks.
but rather demonstrating his own glory in them, through them, to them, and upon them. He alone is the source of all being, from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things;9
The creature cannot do anything to add to the glory of God but can only serve to reflect the glory of his Creator. From the reflection of our image in a mirror we may learn much about ourselves: the color of our hair, the shape of our face, the length of our legs. The image in the mirror has those qualities though only so long as we are standing there. Once we step away, all those qualities disappear. In a similar fashion, if God were to “step away” from us we would have no glory at all. Whatever glory we have is simply his reflected in us. God can gain nothing from us because he is the source of all things. Man cannot say he has taken what God gave and done something with it to add to God’s glory because all things work through his power according to his plan. The goal or purpose of all things is God. They exist to bring him glory. This means that God is the ultimate meaning for all that exists and that apart from him life is meaningless.
He has absolute sovereign dominion over all creatures, to do through them, for them, or to them whatever he pleases.10
The Lord is not like the God of the Deists who created the world and then left it to go its own way. He continues to rule over all he has created according to his plan and purpose without any need to ask permission from them for anything he does. He uses them and makes from them whatever he pleases and when he has done so the creature has no right to question what he has done (cf Rom 9:21). In arguing for man’s free will some forget that God’s will is perfectly free and he can do whatever he chooses with his creation.
In his sight all things are open and plain, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent of created beings, so for him nothing is contingent or uncertain.11
For any of God’s creatures to claim such sovereign authority would not only be sacrilege, it would be arrogant foolishness. Our limited knowledge of the true nature of things, how they work, and how one choice will affect the future means that even our best thought out plans can sometimes misfire. God’s knowledge is not like ours though. We look on the surface of things, but he understands the heart of a matter. He understands not just the broad sweep of events, but knows and understands the smallest of details. What he wants to happen cannot fail to materialize because events turned out one way instead of another since all things unfold exactly as he has planned them. His knowledge is certain because he has decreed what will happen and by his sovereign power causes them to unfold in just that way. Things simply cannot happen in a way he has not ordained them.
He is perfectly holy in all his plans, in all his works, and in all his commands.12
Sovereign power like God’s in the hands of a sinful man would be a terrifying thing. Even with perfect knowledge a man might order things simply to fulfill his own sinful desires. The Lord, however, in every single thing he decrees is most holy. There is not the slightest taint of sin in anything he sovereignly orders and thus all that he ordains is good. We need never fear that God’s purposes will lead to anything but what is good and right. We can follow his will without fear that someday we will regret what we have done.
Angels and human beings owe him, as creatures to the Creator, worship, service, and obedience, and whatever else he is pleased to require of them.13
The worship of the Creator is natural as the many passages of Scripture in which sing his praises indicate. Whether we think of his power to stretch out the heavens (Job 9:8), his wisdom in ordering it (Job 28:23-27), his glory declared in his works (Ps 19:1-4), his owner’s rights over what he made (Ps 24:1-2), the enduring quality of his work (Ps 104:5) or the praise that is due him simply because he created (Ps 148:5), we recognize that it is natural and right for the creature to worship the Creator. Because we can have or do nothing without him, we owe God whatever he may ask from us.
3 In this divine and infinite Being there are three persons, the Father, the Son (or the Word) and the Holy Spirit.14 They are one in substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet this essence is undivided.15
The doctrine of the Trinity is not one that came about through rigorous debate and theological speculation, but is one that arose as a result of God’s redemptive work in our world. He made himself known as the Redeemer who set his people free from Egyptian bondage, the first and the last apart from whom there is no other God (Is 44:7). He declared himself to be the Savior apart from whom there was no Savior (Is 43:11). He was the covenant God who promised to write his law on his people’s hearts and forgive their sins (Jer 31:33-34). Then one day the Lord revealed to a man named Joseph that the child his betrothed was carrying was to be called Jesus because he would save his people from their sins (Mt 1:21). When he grew into manhood he not only exercised absolute control over nature (e.g. feeding 5000 from next to nothing, walking on water, ordering storms to cease), he also forgave sins (Mt 9:1-6). After he had conquered death he proclaimed himself to be the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last (Rev 22:13). He did things only God can do. After Jesus ascended into heaven the Holy Spirit was sent to impart new life, to convict men of sin and to teach them, that is, to effect the promises of the covenant in the lives of men. It is his work to bring about regeneration, that change of heart promised in the new covenant. As the church considered how God had revealed himself, especially in his work of redemption, they could not help but conclude that he was three and yet one.
The truth conveyed by the redemptive work of God has been set down by the church in three simple statements. First, there is but one living and true God. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Dt 6:4) is as much a NT teaching as it is an OT one (cf. 1 Cor 8:4,6; 1 Tim 2:5-6).
Second, the Father, Son and the Spirit are each fully and equally God. There is practically no argument about whether the Father is called God, and thus the need for defending this statement lies primarily with the second and third elements. We learn from John that the Word is God (Jn 1:1) and from Paul that in his essential nature Jesus is God (Phil 2:6). Thomas confesses Jesus not only as his Lord, but also as God (Jn 20:28). In several places our older translations do not give a good, consistent translation and thus miss clear references to the deity of Christ. Paul in Rom 9:5 and Tit 2:13 calls Christ God as does Peter in 2 Pt 1:1. The fact that Jesus shares in the glory of the Father (Jn 17:5) which God said he shares with no one (Is 42:8) shows us that he is God. Likewise the sharing of names that in the OT can apply only to Yahweh demonstrate the divinity of Jesus (e.g. the first and the last).
The evidence for the deity of the Holy Spirit is more sparse, but sufficient nevertheless. In the story of Ananias and Sapphira lying to the Holy Spirit is equated with lying to God (Acts 5:3-4). The Spirit does what only God can do, he gives spiritual life to men (Jn 3:8). In the baptismal formula given in Matthew the Holy Spirit is put on an equal plane with the Father and the Son. Jesus does not say there that people are to be baptized into the names of the Father, Son and Spirit, but into the name, indicating a oneness among them. Many other passages could be included, but these are sufficient to show that each member of the Trinity is God.
The third statement which must be included in any statement of the doctrine of the Trinity is that each member is a distinct Person. Throughout Christian history there have been some who have tried to teach that the Father is the Son and the Son is the Spirit. These are all considered to be nothing more than different names for the same Person. This is the teaching today of the United (“Jesus only”) Pentecostal church and the Local Church, a small sect led by Witness Lee. The prayers of Jesus to his Father, the sending of the Spirit by Jesus, the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus in the form of a dove all speak of this distinction.
The Father is not derived from anyone, he is neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.16
The distinctions we speak of in the Trinity are not mere conventions without any substance. The Father, Son and Spirit are equal, but that does not mean that they are the same in every way. Their very names imply distinction and order in the Trinity. Calvin has described these distinctions as follows: “to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity” (Institutes, 1:13:18). When we say that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father we mean that the relationship of the Father as Father to the Son, and the Son as Son to the Father, is not something that began at Bethlehem. As the Son of the Father we rightly think of the Second Person of the Trinity as coming forth from the Father while at the same time, as God, his eternity is the same eternity as the Father has. When we say the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son we mean that each has a role in sending him out (Jn 15:26). For this reason he is as naturally and properly called the Spirit of God (Rom 8:9, 14) as he is the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9). His work is the expression of the will of the Father and the wisdom of Christ and as such strongly attests to the unity of all three Persons.
Calvin rejected the use of the terms “eternal generation” and “eternal procession” as “of little profit” and unnecessarily “burdensome” though he readily acknowledged the distinctions and order they were used to affirm. If we use these terms we must be careful to guard the essential equality of the three Persons while maintaining their distinctions. We must not allow “eternal generation” to be misinterpreted to mean that the deity of the Second Person is a derived deity, that is, that there was a point somewhere when the Father brought it into being. If we reject these terms we must be careful to retain the reality of the relationships within the Trinity. We cannot allow Father and Son to be taken as mere conventions that do not describe who God truly is and always has been. Since the terms “Father” and “Son” are Biblically based, to reject them is to deprive us of knowledge of an aspect of the eternal God as he has chosen to reveal himself. To deny the eternal nature of God as Father and Son and Spirit is to deny his everlasting love for us in which he decided from eternity to send his beloved only-begotten to die for our sins and they together sent the Spirit to apply the benefits of that death to the elect.
All three are infinite, without beginning, and therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being. Yet they are distinguished by several distinctive characteristics and personal relations.
When the name of God is mentioned without reference to one of the three Persons, the Son and the Spirit are as much meant as the Father. They are one God. We may distinguish the Persons because that is what Scripture teaches us to do, but we cannot divide them and say that there is something in the nature of one that the others do not have. The distinctions we make are derived from their personal relations with one another (e.g. one is Father of the Son). Secondly, we distinguish among the Persons of the Trinity when we consider the work that is special to each. While each Person plays a part in all that God does in the world, the Father is thought of especially as the Creator, the Son as Redeemer and the Spirit as Sanctifier.
This doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our fellowship with God, and of the comfort of our dependence on him.
We close our discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity with the recognition that it is more than an interesting subject. The Trinity is not one of those matters that is fine for theologians to argue about, but which has no practical benefit. Indeed, our eternal salvation as it is revealed in Scripture is wholly dependent on this doctrine. If Jesus was not truly God, the Second Person of the Trinity, then the one who died on the cross cannot be our Savior because his life is not sufficiently valuable to cover the sins of so many people in so many ages. If the Spirit is not truly God, then the One who seals us for the day of redemption cannot be trusted to make our salvation sure. Our hope and comfort for today and for eternity rests on whether all Three are truly One, that all Three are truly God.