by Shane Scott
The foundational doctrine of the Bible is that there is one true and living God. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This prayer, called the Shema (from the Hebrew word for “hear”), was the central confession of Israel.
But just as surely as the Bible teaches there is one God, it also teaches that there is a three-ness to God – that God is the Father, Son, and Spirit. Astonishingly, one of the primary proof texts for this claim is Israel’s ancient creed in Deuteronomy 6:4. In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, the apostle Paul says:
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
According to Paul, the “LORD our God” refers to the Father (“one God”) and also to Jesus Christ (“one LORD”). This elaboration of the Shema is profound. It says that the one LORD who is God that Israel has always worshiped is the Father and the Son.
And just a few verses earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul asks, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Temples were dwelling places of god in the ancient world. By describing the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, Paul is clearly identifying the Holy Spirit as God. Putting the two passages together, Paul is saying that the Lord God is the Father, Son, and Spirit.
What is so striking about this is that the context of these passages is pagan worship – temple prostitution in chapter six, and idolatry in chapter eight. Yet within a context in which Paul is determined to reject the idolatrous practices of ancient polytheism and assert the primacy of the one true God, he at the same time identifies that God as Father, Son, and Spirit. For the apostle Paul, jealousy for the oneness of God and adoration of the Father, Son, and Spirit as God were not mutually exclusive, but necessarily inclusive.
So what word can we use to describe this one God who exists as Father, Son, and Spirit? How can we encapsulate this threefold nature of the Lord God? If only we have a word that meant something like “three-ness”! Well, we do – it is the word Trinity (from the Latin trinitas, “state of being threefold”).
I have sometimes heard well-meaning Christians express skepticism about using the term Trinity. After all, the word is not found in the Bible, and we should “speak as the Bible speaks.” I’ve even seen editions of the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy that remove the phrase “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.”
But these same earnest believers frequently use terms and phrases that are not explicitly found in Scripture (like “speak as the Bible speaks”) because they believe such terminology expresses biblical teaching. So the real issue is, does the biblical teaching about God reveal a three-ness about Him? And the answer to that question is clearly affirmative. And since that is the case, Trinity is as good a word as any to convey a richly biblical idea.
When I was younger, I used to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as a riddle to be solved. “Okay Shane, here’s a doctrine – there is one God in three persons. Now, go find a prooftext to demonstrate it!” But that is not at all how the subject should be approached. Instead, the doctrine of the Trinity is itself the solution to a biblical riddle. How can God work “through” God, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:6? How can God be sent “from God”, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19? The only way to make sense of these passages (and many others) is that within the life of the one God there is a three-ness, Father, Son, and Spirit.
To a lot of people, the very term, Trinity, evokes images of medieval monks chanting in Latin. Perhaps it doesn’t seem like a very practical subject to spend much time thinking about. But I believe the biblical teaching that God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is vitally important. And here are three simple reasons why:
1. The Trinity is important because Jesus is important.
John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Just a few verses later we are told that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This is an amazing claim! Jesus of Nazareth was more than just a man – He was the “Son from the Father” who existed with God in the beginning and through whom God made the world.
But John also says, “the Word was God.” Wait – I thought he said the Word was “with God.” So how can the Word be with God, and at the same time be God? This is not how relationships work with human beings. I am with my wife, but I am not my wife. Yet somehow, the Word can stand in relation to God while at the same time being identified as God.
The doctrine of the Trinity solves this riddle by explaining that within the life of the one God there are relationships such as Father and Son. And thus the Son can be “with God” and yet also be God. This is the inevitable conclusion we must reach because of the New Testament witness to the identity of Jesus. And so, the Trinity matters because Jesus matters.
2. The Trinity is important because the love of God is important.
First John 4:8 says that “God is love.” But before creation, who was God loving? If God was just the Father, without the Son and the Spirit, could He rightly be said to love anyone? Or for that matter, without the Son, could He even be properly called “Father”?
But Jesus tells us that before there was a world, He shared in a loving relationship with the Father. “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24). God did not suddenly start loving when He created the world. Because God is Father, Son, and Spirit, God dwelled in mutual, eternal, indescribable love before there was a universe. It is inherent in the very nature of God to love. And God invites us into that eternal love story.
So the Trinity matters because the love of God matters.
3. The Trinity is important because the Gospel is important.
The gospel is the proclamation that Jesus is King, the Savior sent by God to free us from our sins and redeem us into new life in the Spirit (Romans 1:1-4). It is hard to find any summary of the gospel that does not mention the Father, Son, and Spirit together. Consider this passage:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4-6).
There is a good reason for this trinitarian shape to the gospel. After all, the reason we need a savior is because we have sinned. We have ruptured our relationship with God. So we stand in need of someone who can reconcile us to God. That’s what the Bible teaches Jesus did for us on the cross. But who is able to make things right with God? Only God is! God came to reconcile us to God (2 Corinthians 5:18). How is that possible? Because God is Father, Son, and Spirit.
So the Trinity matters because the gospel matters.
The biblical teaching regarding the Trinity is the doctrinal glue that holds together the most basic elements of Christianity, such as the incarnation and the atonement. It is what distinguishes the Christian concept of God from other world religions, including Judaism and Islam. And it is the very essence of the gospel itself. It is the “revelation of God’s own heart” (Fred Sanders, The Triune God, p. 240).