Is the Trinity biblical? - 1 Corinthians 8:1-6
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me read you something: ‘The Bible does not teach the Trinity doctrine. Rather, it says that there is only one true and eternal God. “Jehovah our God is one Jehovah” (Deuteronomy 6:4) He is the Creator- eternal, almighty, without equal. Jesus is not Almighty God. Jesus lived on earth as a perfect man and died for imperfect mankind. God kindly accepted the life of Jesus as a ransom, and thus through him is the salvation of the faithful. This is God’s will.’ So reads a tract from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, entitled ‘Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses?’ So it is obvious that if you were to ask the question we are asking this morning of a JW, ‘Is the Trinity Biblical?’ the answer given would be a resounding ‘no’. But there is a sense in which that statement from the Jehovah’s Witnesses is actually correct. Strictly speaking, the Bible does not teach the Trinity doctrine, in such a way that you can turn to a passage which is the equivalent to the statement of faith from Deuteronomy 6:4, ‘‘Here O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’, so we might read something along the lines of, ‘The LORD your God is one God who in his godness exists as three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ It would be more accurate to say that the Bible reflects and expresses the Trinity doctrine, and it does so in a variety of ways as we shall see. It is not just a matter of picking out certain proof texts, (although there are passages which cannot be understood in any other way except on the basis that God is three persons in one being), rather, it is that the Biblical revelation in general and the New Testament in particular proceeds according to the belief that God is Triune. There is the ‘une’- -unity or oneness of God, and the ‘tri’ –the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit- three distinct persons, but co-equally and co-eternally Yahweh God. But what is so striking is that this belief permeates the whole of the New Testament and is assumed by the first Christians without them feeling they had to give arguments or reasons to back up their belief. This in itself is very impressive because most of these folk were Jews, and the one thing which marked out the Jews from any other race on earth was that they were passionately monotheistic- believing in only one God. Similarly, the first Christians were passionate about that belief too and would have given no quarter to, for example, the view of the Romans that there were many gods. And so we find the apostle Paul writing to Christians in pagan Corinth, ‘So, then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.’ –Pure monotheism, but then in the next breath he goes on to say, ‘Yet for us there is but one God, the Father from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord (and remember Lord in the OT is the name of God, Yahweh), Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live’ ( 1 Cor 8:4-6). One God- and yet he is at least Father and Son; Jesus is spoken of in exactly the same terms as God the Father- as our Creator and Sustainer. Now Paul is not stupid, someone who would easily get his sums wrong, he has been spoken of as one of the most intelligent and most influential men that has ever lived. Nor was he someone who was starting a new religion, he was a Jew of Jews, a ‘One God’ man all the way to the death if needs be. And yet, without batting an eyelid or any sense of awkwardness, Paul speaks of Jesus as being equally God with the Father as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Now, why? How did it happen? We shall see why and how in a moment.
However, before we do let me make a few preliminary remarks:
First, belief in the Trinity is a matter of revelation and not speculation. Contrary to what the JW’s teach, this was not something dreamt up by speculative theologians in the 4th century, it is something which is part of the very fabric of the revelation we have of God’s plan of redemption in the Bible. Sure, later theologians tried to carefully put that belief together in words which would preserve and clearly express the Bible’s revelation, but they didn’t invent it- they expounded it.
Secondly, the whole notion of the Trinity is unique because God is unique. You can’t point to anything else in creation and say, ‘Look the Trinity is like that’, because God as Trinity is not like anything or anyone else. So while we may sometimes use illustrations to get over some aspect of the Trinity, like, water can be found in three states- liquid, gas and solid, yet all are composed of water, that illustration breaks down when applied to God, because he is not like that. Trinity is in a class all by itself, which is why it makes it difficult, but not impossible, for us to get our heads around it. What is more, talk of water, or shamrocks is to talk about things- things can’t love or relate-only persons can do that and that is what God is- persons in an ongoing eternal relationship of love which flows out to embrace people like you and me.
Which leads on to the third point, there is always going to be an element of mystery due to the limits of our imagination and the greatness of God. The question is not: ‘Can we fully understand it?’ But, ‘has God revealed it?’ And if he has, then we are to believe it because nothing less than a right view of God, and so a right view of salvation, depends upon it
What do I mean by that? Well, here is one theologian, John Calvin, ‘God so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly as three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.’ Let me put it this way: to worship anything or anyone other than God is idolatry- right? We must worship and serve the one true and living God, the Bible is quite clear about that. Well, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to worship God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. So, if we don’t do that, then we are not worshipping the true God and so would be guilty of idolatry. Do you see? We are left with, in the words of Calvin, only the ‘bare and empty name of God.’ Not the reality.
So, how does the Bible reflect the truth about the Trinity? Well, let’s be Trinitarian and look at three ways in which it does so.
First, we see the Trinity in the devotion or worship of the first Christians. We have already seen that the early Christians were dyed in the wool monotheists- one God people. And yet, they offer worship to God as Father, God as Son and God as Holy Spirit. And there are little phrases which we take for granted but which are packed with theological dynamite which reflect this.
In the first place we have the greetings such as 1 Thessalonians 1:1, ‘To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ You can see how this group of Christians might have some mystical union with God, but how can they be ‘in’ a mere man- Jesus Christ? Well, they can’t if he is a mere man, but they can if he is God too. What Paul is doing is putting the two together, or as we would say, God the Father and God the Son, as if to say, ‘these two who are God, are one God and so the only God who exists.’
In the second place we have the blessings- for example, 2 Corinthians 13:14, ‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ Jews knew were grace came from- God. They knew were love came from- God. They also knew were fellowship came from- God. Yet, there was only one God, and he is the source of all three blessings- how? Because God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Notice too, how Jesus is placed before God the Father in this Trinitarian blessing, underscoring his equality with the Father, and we may also add the Spirit.
But then we have the praises, as we find in what could be a kind of ‘hymn’ in Ephesians 1:1-11. Here Paul traces all the blessings of salvation to the Father, who chose us; to Christ who redeemed us by his blood; and to the Holy Spirit who seals our final inheritance. ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… he (Father) chose us in him before the creation of the world….in (Christ) we have redemption through his blood…..having believed you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.’ Paul is overflowing with praise- not so some vague idea of ‘God’- a mere name, but to a God who is personally known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So the next big question is: where did these first believers- who were Jews, having imbibed with their mother’s milk the belief that there is only one God and to worship so called other gods is idolatry- where did they get their belief and practice from to worship God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Well, let me say that they didn’t sit down and form a committee to come up with the idea. The most obvious source for their ‘Trinitarian consciousness’ is none other than Jesus himself, their experience of him and his teaching. And that is exactly what we find to be the case.
Let’s take the experience of Jesus for example and look at one episode which pinpoints this- his baptism. This is what we read in Luke’s account, ‘When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:21-22). Right at the beginning of Jesus public ministry we have the three persons of the Godhead present. This only makes sense if faith in Christ is also a response to the Father who speaks from heaven, and an expectation of the power of the Spirit, represented symbolically as a dove. So we can only know Christ fully if we also know the Father who sent him and we receive the Spirit of truth, sent by Jesus after his death and resurrection. As we come to Jesus as God the Son, then we come to know God the Father, believing, because God the Spirit has come into our hearts to enable us to have saving trust. Do you see?
And as far as the teaching of Jesus is concerned there are plenty of places you could turn to, John chapters 15-17 for instance, but we will take a look at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and chapter 28:19ff. This is often called the ‘Great Commission’ when the disciples received their marching orders from Jesus. He says that followers are to be made from all nations and baptised into ‘the name (singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ and that wording is very precise. Jesus doesn’t say into the ‘names of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ That would mean there are three gods. Neither does he say, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ ’ that would give us only one God appearing in three different guises- sometimes he appears as Son, sometimes as Father and sometimes as Spirit. No, there is the name (and ‘the name’ to Jews meant the name of Yahweh, a name a pious Jew would not utter) - emphasising that there is only one God, and yet this is the God who is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, so maintaining their distinctiveness. They share the one name- Yahweh- LORD, the ‘godness’ if you like, and yet remain three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That is what the Trinity is and Jesus implicitly taught it, and the early Christians simply assumed it and believed it. And we are to do the same.
This makes it clear that the early Christians symbolised that salvation was entirely from God by people being baptised into the name of the Trinity, which brings us to the second area which reflects the Trinity- salvation. It was the experience and revelation of God’s rescue plan itself- the Gospel- which demanded the belief in the Trinity. Three passages from the Bible underscore this. There is 2 Corinthians 5:19-21, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting men's sins against them.’ Not just part of God, or God and a mere man- but God in Christ. Then there is the classic passage of John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ If salvation is entirely the work of God, then the Son who is sent must be God too. It can’t be God and a man. But what of the Spirit does he have any part in this? Yes he does according to Hebrews 9:13-14. Contrasting Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross with the OT sacrificial system we read: ‘The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!’ The writer is saying that Jesus who was both priest and victim on the altar of the cross, offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins in the power of the Holy Spirit. And by the way, we know that the Holy Spirit is God because Paul spells that out for us in 2 Corinthians 3: 17: ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.’ In other words, the whole of the Godhead is actively involved in saving us. Don’t you find that moving-God is committed to us that much?
Let’s think about it negatively to show how we are totally lost if the JW’s are right.
If there is no Trinity, then Jesus who died on the cross is not God dying in our place, but a human being who dies to save us from God. Do you see the difference? If this is so, then we are not saved by God, but saved from God and then God is not our Saviour, but a mere man.
If there is no Trinity, then the work of salvation cannot be the work of God, because for it to be entirely of God, it requires God to be the priest who offers himself as the sacrifice; it requires God to be the one who receives the sacrifice and it must be God who applies the work of that sacrifice to our lives. In other words, you need God the Son who died on the cross to redeem us, God the Father who accepts the sacrifice and forgives us, and God the Holy Spirit to work within us. In short you need the Trinity in order to be saved.
And this was the experience of the first Christians when they embraced the Gospel. One writer puts it like this of what people find when they become Christians, ‘By means of this doctrine (the Christian believer) is able to think clearly and consequently of his threefold relation to the saving God, experiencing him as Fatherly love sending a redeemer, as redeeming love executing redemption, as saving love applying redemption; all manifestations in distinct methods and by distinct agencies of the one seeking and saving love of God.’ (B.B. Warfield).
Thirdly, we need the Trinity if we are going to experience communion, or fellowship- that is fellowship with God and with each other. How is the believer brought into a personal, spiritual relationship with God and so with each other as the Body of Christ? The answer: by the Trinity. And so Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 vv 4- 6: ‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord (Jesus). 6There are different kinds of working, but the same God (Father) works all of them in all men.’ There is one God but there are three persons within the Godhead, each person having a different function to perform within the overall economy of our salvation. The term ‘gifts’- charismata- tells us what God the Spirit gives- they are love gifts. The term ‘service’- diakonia- ministries- tells us what the Son gives them for- service for others. The term workings or energisings -energemata- tells us how God the Father brings them into operation in our lives-by his power. So, these gifts to the church which come from God the Holy Spirit are meant to enable us to express the servanthood of the Son by the enabling power of the God the Father. In other words, you would not have the church if there were no Trinity!
I hope by now that you are getting the message: no Trinity- no salvation, no Trinity-no church, no Trinity-no Christianity. But we do have the Trinity; there is a God who exists within the eternity of his own glorious being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You cannot have a truly Christian experience without the Trinity. Sure, some people believe in a so called ‘God’. But that is all it will remain- an idea, cold and distant, cerebral. But the Trinitarian God is alive, vibrant, overflowing with love and energy, wanting to catch each one of us up into his life, loved as the Father loves the Son, awash with the Spirit. That is the Christian experience friends.
But it has to be admitted that some Christians and some churches have too small a view of God because they focus on one person of the Trinity to neglect of the others. You see, a church which focuses on ‘the Father’ may have an unclear view of the Gospel and the need for a Saviour, for the emphasis is on the ‘Fatherhood of God’ which is vague and fluffy. A church which focuses on the Son may not have a proper value of creation and the good things in life given for us to manage and enjoy. A church which focuses on the Spirit may lack an awareness of the historical basis for our faith and slide into subjectivism-‘what feels good must be God’. But when we worship the God who is Trinity our experience is quite different. This is the way one writer puts it, which I found exciting and helpful: ‘Life caught up in God is more like relating to a loving community than it is like relating to a loving individual. We turn to the Father; and he gives up the Son and the Spirit; we turn to the Son, and he shows us the Father and breathes the Spirit upon us; we turn to the Spirit, and he shows us the Father and the Son.’ (Peter Adam). Friends this is the God we worship, this is the God we adore and this is the God who invites each one of us to enjoy him for evermore.
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