John 14-16; 2 Corinthians 13:14
The Doctrine of the Trinity: The Bedrock of the Christian Faith
My guess is that most Christians understand that they are supposed to believe in what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity. They understand that since the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and since, of course, the Father is God, then God must be three in some mysterious way. But they also know that there is only one God. Most Christians don’t lose sleep over this mystery; they simply say they believe it (which I’m sure they do), and move on.
I would like to take this devotion on Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost, as is fitting since all three persons of the Triune God are now revealed to us) to show you that the doctrine of the Trinity is not some esoteric teaching that only the initiated can understand. I want to show you that this doctrine is actually very practical and is the very foundation of our faith – which means we need to understand it. Bear in mind, we do not mean that we can understand the doctrine to the point that we exhaust its meaning; of course not. We mean only that we grasp of it what God has revealed to us. (Indeed, if you take the time to read the passages above and seek the Trinitarian references in them, you will go a long way towards understanding matters all by yourself.)
Before I proceed with each member of the holy Trinity, I would like to explain a few things about the doctrine as a whole. For starters, what is the best illustration we can use to help us understand how God can be three in one? There is nothing that will be a perfect illustration because we simply have nothing in our experience or world that approximates God. But the best I have ever heard comes from an ancient theologian, St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), who compared God’s triune self to the human mind. His argument went like this: A person only has one mind; however, within that mind, we can distinguish three operations: a memory, an understanding, and a will. We cannot separate or divide them. For example, one cannot understand something without using one’s memory (take mathematical concepts, for instance), nor can one use one’s understanding or memory without willing to do so, even though one is not aware of willing to do so when one is willing it. This is the case for all three: we can never use one without the other two. We can distinguish the three operations but never separate them. However, we are still aware that one of the three is the primary one we are using most in a particular moment. For example, if I am trying to memorize my lines for a church drama, the primary operation my mind is using at that moment is my memory, but of course, not without my understanding or my will.
So it is with God when He works in the world. As one God, all three persons are involved in the action. For example, the Father creates the world, but in conjunction with the Son (Proverbs 8:22-31; John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16-17) and the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:2). Still, we think of the Father as the primary actor in creation. Likewise, the Son was the primary actor in redemption, not the only actor, as the Father sent him, and the Spirit prepared his body from the Virgin, but, still, it was the Son who was incarnated and crucified, not the Father or Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is the primary actor in the application of Christ’s redemption to us. So this is how we understand our God’s three-in-oneness: the three are distinguishable but not separable, always working as one God in the world, but with one of the three “playing the lead role,” so to speak, in some activity.
So how does the Bible define the role and tasks of each one of the three:
First, the Father:
1) The Father is the Origin, the Fount, the Beginning of the Son and the Holy Spirit. We do not mean by that that there was ever a time when the Son or Holy Spirit was not; we only mean that in some mysterious way, which we shall never fully understand, the Son was begotten of the Father, while the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father – from all eternity. He is also the Father who initiates everything that the Triune God does in the world, be it creation itself or the plan of salvation. So the Father is the beginning of all things within the world, and even within the holy Trinity itself.
2) He is the Sender or the One who sends. He sent the Son in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), and He and the Son together sent the Holy Spirit ten days after the Son’s ascension into heaven on the day of Pentecost (John 14:16, 26; 16:7; Acts 2).
3) The virtue we associate with the Father is love (John 3:16; 16:27; 2 Corinthians 13:14).
Second, the Son:
1) The Son is the Mediator, the go-between, between us and the Father (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15). His special task is as the agent of redemption sent by the Father. The Son accomplished the plan of redemption which the Father initiated by sending him, through his life, death, and resurrection.
2) The virtue we associate with the Son is grace (2 Corinthians 13:14; Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:18; and almost all of Paul’s letters, especially his greetings and closings).
Third, the Holy Spirit:
1) The primary task of the Holy Spirit is the application of the redemption that was accomplished by the Son (John 16:7; Romans 8:1-39; Titus 3:5; 1 John 4:13). There are many tasks that the Spirit does, the primary being birthing us anew in Christ (John 3:5-8), the next in importance being leading us into all truth through the Spirit-breathed sacred Scriptures (John 14:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-16).
2) And the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us is always that of the Son (John 16:12-14); that is, the Spirit does not speak on his own but of the Son, just as the Son spoke not on his own but of the Father (John 5:19-47). This is why the Spirit is sent from both the Father and the Son – to bind the Spirit to the Son as the Son is bound to the Father. When people divorce the Spirit from the Son, who is himself the Word of God, whose words are recorded in all the Scriptures, and not only the gospels but also in the words of the apostles and the prophets, they invariably fall into false teaching. In sum, the Spirit speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures, and never apart from them – this is vital to understand and practice.
3) The virtue we associate with the Holy Spirit is power (Romans 15:13, 19).
This order must always be kept: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lest we confuse the three with one another and mix their essential roles and operations. It is the order of the plan of redemption: the Father who initiates the plan, the Son who accomplishes the plan, and the Holy Spirit who applies the plan. This is how they work in the world.
As to their own relations with one another, we only know that the Father is the Unbegotten, the Son is the one Begotten of the Father, and the Spirit is the one who Proceeds from the Father and the Son. That is all we can know of God in His essence. We can describe Him as infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, etc., but none of those descriptions tell us who He is in and of Himself. That, we shall never comprehend fully – and getting to know God and worshiping Him as God will make heaven all that it is supposed to be for His redeemed people who will have no other desire in heaven but this: To know God and enjoy Him forever.
And so I hope you see how fundamental and eminently practical is this doctrine of the holy Trinity.