The Trinity: A Final Post

And so we reach the end. I hope these articles have been beneficial for you. If you’ve had trouble understanding the trinity in the past, I hope you’ve gotten a better grasp of this most central doctrine of the Christian faith. If you’ve heard all of this before, I hope you’ve been reminded of the beauty and wonder of this doctrine. In any case, I hope that meditation on the doctrine of the trinity has led you to glorify and worship God.


There is one last piece of the puzzle, though. Or more accurately one and a half pieces…


Three distinct persons


Did you know that it’s possible to be almost right, yet be completely wrong? That may seem like a strange way of putting it, but it’s true. The trinity is composed of three doctrines. (1) There is only one God. (2) There are three divine persons. (3) The three persons are co-equal and co-eternal. All three are necessary. Take any one of them out, get any one of them wrong…and you have heresy. The most common way to get the doctrine of the trinity wrong is to have an incorrect grasp of what it means for God to exist eternally as three divine persons.


Unfortunately, many of the analogies we use for young children tend to teach a misunderstanding of the three divine persons. For instance, I remember being in Sunday School as a child and hearing the teacher say something like, “Kids, did you know that an egg has three parts? There’s the yoke, the white, and the shell. And kids, did you know that God is three persons. There’s the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Now, am I saying that four-year-old and five-year-old children are in danger of heresy because the Sunday School teacher used an analogy, no. But kids grow up, and many of the analogies that have been used in the past have left American evangelicals with a misunderstanding of the Trinity.[1]


The easiest misunderstanding one can have about the trinity is, I think, a heresy called Modalism. Modalism teaches that, rather than there being three divine persons, there are merely three different ways (or modes) in which God has revealed himself. Someone accidentally confessing modalism might say something like this: “You see, the Father was determined to rid the world of sin. He couldn’t raise up a prophet to rid the world of sin because no mere human being could. The redeemer needed to be divine. Yet the redeemer also had to be human because humanity was in need of redemption. So, the Father decided he would go. He would come to us, pay the price for our sins so that we could be his children once more.”[2]


Did you catch the problem? If you aren’t paying attention, or if you haven’t been well catechized, you may miss it. Where was the Son? Where was Christ? According to the person speaking, the Father is Christ. And that is heresy. Modalism can be deceptive because it sounds so close. One God? Check. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Check. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal? Check. Yet when you look closer, you see that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all just different names for one person. Kind of like I am a pastor, but I’m also a husband, and I’m also a father.

Christians, God isn’t Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the way that I’m a pastor, a husband, and a father. Scripture teaches that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. For one thing, we see all three of them present at Christ’s baptism in Matthew 3:16-17. The Son is baptized. The Spirit descends like a dove and rests on him. The Father speaks from heaven. These are clearly three distinct persons.


And what about how Christ’s speaks of the Father and the Spirit? In John 4:34 Jesus tells the disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Again in John 5:30 and John 6:38 Jesus speaks of desiring not to do his own will, but the will of the one who sent him.[3] In Luke 22:42 Jesus prayed in the garden, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” In Luke 23:46 Jesus commits his spirit to the Father. In John 14:16 Jesus speaks of asking the Father to send the Spirit. In John 15:26 he says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” It’s clear that these three persons are distinct from one another.


Three Co-equal Persons


And yet the three persons are co-equal and co-eternal with one another. The Spirit was present at creation (Gen. 1:2), as was the Son (John 1:1-3). Worship is offered to the Father (John 4:23, προσκυνέω), the Son (Matt. 28:17, προσκυνέω), through the Spirit (Jude 20, ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ προσευχόμενοι). Through the Son, we have access to the Father, in the Spirit (Eph. 2:18). And just look at my second favorite benediction (blessing). Paul said in 2 Cor. 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God [the Father] and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” All three persons are listed. All three persons are equally necessary for the blessing.


Now, does this mean that all three persons are always listed. No. It is far more common to find the Father and the Son listed together. For instance, Paul’s common greeting was “Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”[4] This is because of the role of the Spirit. Christ tells us in John 15:26 that the Spirit will bear witness to the Son. In John 16:8 he says that the Spirit, “will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”


In other words, because the Spirit’s job is to show sinners their sins (thus reminding them of the Father who will judge them) and point them to the Son as their Savior, it makes sense that the New Testament, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would have more to say about the other two persons. Does this mean that the Spirit is any less divine than the Father and the Son? Absolutely not. Does this mean that the Spirit is less important than the Father and the Son? Absolutely not. All three persons are co-equal with one another. They take different roles, but that does not mean any of the persons are ontologically superior or inferior to the others.[5]


The Catholic Faith


Yes, you read that right. That is how the Athanasian Creed describes the doctrine of the trinity. It is the Christian faith. It is the faith that has been held by all Christians, in all times, and in all places (hence the creed calls it “catholic,” meaning “universal”). So I want to close this series of articles by simply quoting the Athanasian Creed’s articulation of this doctrine.


Whoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic[6] faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensibles, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy spirit almighty; and yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; And yet they are not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge every person by himself to be God and Lord; so we are forbidden by the catholic religion to say: There are three Gods or three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is afore, nor after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three persons are co-eternal, and co-equal. So that in all tings, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.




[1] Several years ago a YouTube channel called Lutheran Satire made an entire video about this called “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.” I highly recommend it.

[2] Just to make things abundantly clear. This statement is wrong. I wrote it from the standpoint of a fictitious heretic. Do not believe this statement.

[3] Which would be the basis of why we say that Christ has two wills, one human and one divine. Isn’t systematic theology fun?

[4] I’d list references for that, but honestly just open your Bible to a book written by Paul. You’ll find it.

[5] I tried to not use the word, “ontologically.” I apologize. What I’m trying to describe here is the difference between the “Ontological Trinity” and the “Economic Trinity.”

[6] That just means “universal,” not Roman Catholic.