I thought I’d do something different for the next few weeks and instead of preaching through a book of the Bible, as I normally do, I’ll do a series of talks on the attributes of God to answer the question: ‘What is God like?’ Some of the attributes will be fairly familiar to you, such as God’s omnipotence which means he can do all things; and God’s omnipresence which means he is present everywhere all at once. Some might be less familiar to you, such as God’s aseity or independence and his simplicity which means God cannot be divided up into parts. And the reason we should study God’s attributes and what he’s like is so that we may know him more and love him more and therefore praise him more. As people sometimes say: theology leads to doxology. That is, theology leads to praise and worship of our God.
However, I thought I’d start today, not so much with one of God’s attributes — which tell us what God is like — but instead we’d think about who God is. And who is God? He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In other words, today we’re going to be thinking about the Trinity.
The Christian church has always believed in the Trinity. Take the Apostles’ Creed, for instance, that ancient summary of what all Christians have always believed about God. The Apostles’ Creed is trinitarian, because when we say it, we confess: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’ and ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son’ and ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’. That’s the Apostles’ Creed.
Then in our own church’s Confession of Faith, the second chapter is on the One and Triune God. And in it we confess that there is but one, and only one, living and true God and that in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power and eternity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
And our church’s Shorter Catechism is trinitarian in its structure, because the questions and answers in our Catechism deal with God the Father who carries out his decrees in the works of creation and providence; and with God the Son who came into the world to deliver us from our sin and misery; and with God the Holy Spirit who enables us to share in the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work. And so, the Christian church has always believed in the Trinity.
But why do we believe that God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? Why do we believe he is a triune God? We believe it because God has revealed it to us by the things he has done; and he has revealed it to us in his Word which records for us what he has done. God’s revelation to us in deed and in word is the reason we believe in the triune God. And, as the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck says, he has revealed himself to us as a triune God because he exists in that way. That’s who he is. That’s who he has always been. That’s who he will always be. He is the triune God.
Old Testament Times
Now, in Old Testament times God emphasised his oneness. He made clear that he is the one, true and living God. Bavinck suggests this was necessary, because after the fall sinful men and women began to suppress the knowledge of the true God and they began to believe in other gods and in many gods. And so, it was necessary to make clear to the world that there is only one God and every other god is a false god and only an idol that can do nothing. And so, God revealed that he alone made the heavens and the earth. He then made himself known to Abraham as God Almighty and he made himself know to Moses and the people of Israel as the LORD. And the LORD revealed himself to them as their Saviour, because he delivered them from out of their bondage in Egypt and he led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Again and again the people were tempted to forsake the LORD and to worship the gods of the nations, but the LORD sent his prophets to remind him that he alone is God and he alone is their Saviour.
And so, in Old Testament times, the emphasis was on God’s oneness. And the Israelites therefore confessed:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
There is only one God. And since there is only one God, we are duty-bound to worship him and him alone.
That’s how God revealed himself in Old Testament times. However, when the time was right, God sent his only begotten Son into the world as one of us. And after his Son’s resurrection and ascension to heaven, God sent his Spirit into the world to enable us to believe. And by sending his Son and Spirit into the world, God revealed that the one, true and living God is also three, because there’s the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
And all three work together for our salvation. And so, the Father sent the Son into the world to save us; and the Son was conceived in Mary by means of the Holy Spirit. And at the time of his baptism, God the Father referred to the Lord Jesus as his beloved Son; and he anointed him with the Holy Spirit to equip him for his work. And the Lord Jesus made clear that he had come to do what his Father told him to do; and he accomplished all his works by the power of the Holy Spirit. When the Lord Jesus died on the cross, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins to God the Father through the eternal Spirit. And after he died and was buried, he was raised by the Father and vindicated by the Spirit, as Paul puts it in 1 Timothy. And after the Son ascended to the Father, he received the Holy Spirit and poured him out on the church at Pentecost. And through the preaching of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son is extending his kingdom through the world and reconciling sinners to God the Father.
By the things he has done to save us from our sin and misery, the one, true and living God has revealed that the one God we worship is also three. And the teaching of the Lord Jesus in the gospels and of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament confirms that this is the case, because the Lord Jesus spoke very clearly of the Father, who sent him into the world to save us; and he taught very clearly about the Holy Spirit, whom he was going to send into the world as our Counsellor. And the New Testament letters are also clear that there’s God the Father who loved us so much that he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for our salvation; and he has sealed us with his Spirit who also intercedes for us.
And the New Testament is full of trinitarian patterns. And so, the Lord Jesus commanded that we should be baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In Romans 1, Paul tells us that he is an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God (the Father), concerning his Son, who was declared to be Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness. According to Romans 5, because of our salvation, we have peace with God (the Father) through our Lord Jesus Christ and God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul refers in verses 4 to 6 to the Spirit, and to the Lord (that is, the Lord Jesus), and to God (that is, God the Father). Paul concludes 2 Corinthians with the threefold benediction: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ; and the love of God (the Father); and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 4, he says that in the fullness of time, God the Father sent forth his Son to redeem his people; and he sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. In Ephesians 4, he tells us that there is one Spirit, one Lord, and one God and Father of all. And I could probably go on, but there’s not enough time.
In case there’s any doubt, I should add that the testimony of the Scriptures is that the Spirit is a person like the Father and the Son, and not just a force. That is, the Spirit is a ‘he’ and not an ‘it’. An impersonal force cannot grieve or intercede for us, but that’s what the Holy Spirit does: he can be grieved by what we do and he can intercede for us.
And so, by deed and by word, God has revealed himself to be a trinity of three persons. And now that we have God’s fuller revelation of himself in the New Testament, we’re able to notice hints of this in the Old Testament. For instance, when God created the heavens and the earth, the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And, of course, God made the world by speaking. That is, he created all things by his Word. The New Testament reveals that the Word is another title for God the Son. One of the words for God in the Old Testament is Elohim, which is a plural word and suggests that there’s a plurality in God. And in Genesis 1:26, God said: ‘Let us make man in our image.’ That is, he didn’t say ‘Let me make man’, but ‘Let us make man’. And in the Old Testament, we sometimes read about the Angel of the Lord, who is sometimes depicted as identical with God and who is sometimes depicted as someone distinct from God. That is, he’s someone who was God and who was with God. In Proverbs, we read about Wisdom who is depicted as a person and who was with God in the beginning when he created the world. And throughout the Old Testament we read about God’s Spirit, who is active in the world. And so, once we have God’s fuller revelation of himself in the New Testament, we’re able to discern these hints in the Old Testament that the one, true and living God is a triune God.
One Essence and Three Persons
Various conflicts in the early church helped the church to come to a clearer understanding of these things. On the one hand there was a teaching called Arianism, which taught that the Father alone was the eternal and true God, and the Son and Spirit were created by him. On the other hand there was a teaching called modalism, or Sabellianism, which taught that the one God appeared successively as Father, then as Son and then as Holy Spirit. The modalists taught that these are really only names for one God.
In responding to these heresies and other heresies, the church settled on the language of essence or substance to signify God’s oneness and on person to signify his threeness. So, God is one in essence or one in substance; and, in this one God, there are three persons. We can’t say there are three gods, because all three persons possess the same divine essence. However, we can’t say that the one God is a single, solitary being, because the one God exists in three persons.
And since the three persons possess the one divine essence, then they are the same. So, we say that God is infinite and eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. But since the three persons possess the one divine essence, we can say that the Father is infinite and eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. And we can say the same about the Son and we can say the same about the Spirit.
If that’s the case, what distinguishes the Father and the Son and the Spirit? What makes them different from one another? The answer is that they differ from one another in the way they’re related to each other. And so, the Father alone is unbegotten. The Son alone is begotten from the Father. And the Holy Spirit alone proceeds from the Father and the Son.
And so — according to John 3:16 — who did God the Father send into the world to keep us from perishing? He sent his only begotten Son. And who — according to John 15:26 — is the Helper the Lord Jesus promises to send to his people? The Helper is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father. And this is from all eternity: the Son is eternally begotten from the Father; and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. And so, although the Father and the Son and the Spirit are the same, because all three possess the same divine essence, they are distinguished from one another in this way.
This is our God, the one we’re to trust and the one we’re to worship. There are people who say that all religions are the same, because basically we’re all worshipping the same god, but in different ways. But this is not true, because Christians alone believe in the Trinity. And we alone say that the Father is God and the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet there are not three gods, but only one God.
And we owe everything to this triune God, because God the Father is the one who made and who sustains all things; and he does it through his Son and by his Spirit. And God the Father is the one who saves us and gives us eternal life; and he does it through his Son and by his Spirit. And by his Spirit and through his Son we offer our worship to God the Father and give thanks to him.