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One God in Three Persons

by Dr. Bill Weinrich

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"Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever. Amen."

"Do you believe in God?" Has anyone ever asked you that question before? If so, you probably answered, "Yes, I do believe in God."

But, what is a person really asking with the question, "Do you believe in God?" And what are you really saying with the answer, "Yes, I do believe in God"?

Isn't such a question really asking something like this: "Do you believe that there is a mighty being who created the world?" or "Do you believe that there is a mighty supreme being who now somehow is controlling the world"? or perhaps "Do you believe that there is a being who has given to us absolute moral rules?"

And when you answer the question of belief in God with a "Yes," do you have such questions in mind? Very likely you do - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Nevertheless, there are many people who "believe in God" in the way the above questions suggest. People of the Jewish faith "believe in God;" people of the Islamic faith "believe in God." Indeed, many people of no specific religion at all "believe in God." Did you ever stop to think that people can "believe in god" without really believing in God at all?

But now let us ask this question: "Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?" or more simply, "Do you believe in the Trinity?" This question asks whether one believes in God as the Christians believe in Him. The view of the one God as a "trinity" is the distinctly Christian view of God. Why is this so? What is so Christian about the doctrine of the Trinity? What is so important about it for our Christian faith and life? Why is the idea of God as trinity more than just a difficult abstraction.

Often Christians think of the Trinity just as a strange and difficult idea which in the last analysis has little if any importance for our faith. However, the confession that God is a trinity has very definite relation to our confession that Jesus is Savior and Lord. We may even say that Christians confess that God is trinity because they confess that Jesus is Savior and Lord. God, precisely as the one God who is trinity, is the God of the Gospel.

"I believe in one God" (Nicene Creed). The Bible makes no more clear an affirmation but that there is one God. "Monotheism" is the term we use to refer to the belief that there is only one God. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament exhibit a strong monotheism. There is only one God who exists; everything else is a creature which exists only because the one God created it. Only the one God exists in Himself, that is, receives His existence and life from no other. The prophet Isaiah is typical of this central Biblical belief: "Thus says the Lord, the King and Redeemer of Israel, 'I am the First and the Last, there is no god other than me'" (Isaiah 44:6).

Since there is but one God, everything else which is worshiped as God is in fact an empty idol. Isaiah mercilessly satirizes the dead, powerIess idols of his pagan neighbors (Isaiah 44:9-20). Of course, in our day we usually do not have idols made of wood and of stone, and we do not pray to such things as though they were alive and heard us. Nonetheless, many people in our day do indeed place their trust and hope in material things and fall into despair if they should happen to Iose it all. It is not uncommon to find young people and adults as well who believe that health, physical vitality, and a successful, well-paying job are necessary ingredients for a happy life. We hear from time to time of those who lose their jobs and become so despondent that they even take their own lives. Such tragic and unhappy persons have fallen to an idolatry of things.

Equally destructive is the flight to alcohol or to drugs as an escape from the struggles of daily life. In these and in many other not so tragic ways, people in our own day place their trust and hope in things other than in the one God who alone can grant life's blessings and support. But the Bible says, "You shall have no ether gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3). Because we, too, are subject to the failures of life and to its disappointments, we should always pray that God keep us faithful to Himself and keep us free from the false and deceptive trust in false gods.

Why, is it so important that we confess one God and place our trust and hope only in Him? Three reasons immediately come to mind.
  1. As we have already noted the Bible repeatedly asserts that there is only one God. "The Lord He is God; there is no else beside Him” (Deut. 4:35). The New Testament witnesses to the same conviction (see 1 Cor. 8:6; James 2:19). Monotheism is, therefore, the basis of the Bible’s teaching concerning God.


  2. Often the Bible speaks of God as our Creator and our Redeemer (Isaiah 44:6, 24; Deut. 4:34-35). The Bible proclaims the true source of our life and indeed of all good things.

    If a friend of yours wanted to go to a special rock concert and you knew that only one radio station was selling tickets, you would not speak to your friend about other stations which could not help, but you would rather refer your friend to that one station which alone could supply the desired ticket.

    So also the proclamation that there is one God, the Creator and the Redeemer of the world. To trust in any other thing or in any other person will ultimately lead to frustration and disappointment. Only God can provide the necessities for a good and contented life and He alone can give us salvation and eternal life. No one else can give us these things, only God can. Belief in one God, therefore, points us realistically to the true source of our life and of all those things which will give us fullness and worth.


  3. The Bible also speaks of the one God as the God of promise (read Deut. 6:4-19). God promises that if we cling to Him in faith, He will indeed give us the fullness of His blessings. That there be one God, therefore, is related to our hope in God. That there is one God is the foundation of our hope that He who promised us eternal blessings can make good on His promise and do it.

    But let us suppose for a moment that there is another god of equal strength and might. Were that the case, then the will of God to grant us His blessings might always be subject to the veto of the other. God’s will might always be hindered or even thwarted by the other god. Were there another god, the God of promise might, in fact, never be able to keep His promise. It would be like a heavenly tug-of-war between two equally strong men, each trying to pull the other into the ditch, yet because of the equal strength never being able to do so. We would have an eternal tie, no winner.

    But since we confess our belief in one God, we also hope in His promises and trust Him to make good on His promises. Since there is no other god to hinder or to thwart Him, the one God can do as He promised, and since His will to fulfill His promise cannot be countered, the one God will act on the promises He has made.
The Bible does not simply speak of God as 'one.' It speaks of God as a person. God is not like an abstract mathematical unit which is singular and stands by itself alone. We do not speak of God as an "it." We use a personal pronoun and speak of God as "He." The reason for this is that the Bible always speaks of God as a personal subject, as one who is in relation to another. God keeps His promises (Deut. 4:31). He is merciful. He sees and hears His people (Exodus 3:7-8). He speaks and teaches (Gen.1:1; Deut. 6:1). He loves (John 3:16). God can be angry (Deut. 6:15). God can be long-suffering and patient (1 Peter 3:20). "It's" are none of those things.

All of these things would be impossible were there not someone with whom God was relating. For example, one cannot be merciful unless there is someone else towards whom one is merciful. Or, one cannot be patient unless there is someone with whom one is patient. The Bible always presents God as one who is actively engaged with another, whether that be with His chosen people or whether that be with His enemies. The Bible never presents God as one who is uninterested and detached. God is not like an absentee landlord who simply owns some property but is never involved in its upkeep and improvement. The Bible always presents God as one who is speaking and acting, that is, as one who is actively engaged with someone else.

Now, since the Bible begins with the story of the creation of the world and with the story of mankind's fall into sin, the Bible usually presents God speaking and relating to the world, to men and women.

But now let us ask this question. What about before the world was created? Was God also personal then? Or did God only become personal when He created the world? If God only became personal and only began to relate to another when He created the world, that would mean that God was not personal before the world was created. God Himself apart from the world would not be a personal being.

However, that is not the picture of God which the Bible gives. It is a part of God's nature to always relate to another. A relationship with another is part of God's nature. But that implies that even before the creation of the world God was personal. Even before the creation of the world God was in relationship. But if there is but one only God, as we have seen, with whom was God relating before the world existed? With whom was God speaking before the creation of the world?

The answer to these questions is given already at the beginning of the Bible in the creation story. "And God said, 'Let us make man in our image"' (Gen. 1:26). God is Himself not singular and unitary. He is himself a community of persons who stand in relationship with one another.

The Bible designates this community of persons with the names "Father," "Son," and "Holy Spirit." Now, to be sure, the Trinitarian nature of God is a mystery and it is impossible to truly understand with our finite minds. Yet, that God is a community of persons is extremely important for our faith, for we are assured that when God speaks to us and when He relates to us it is not an 'unnatural' thing for Him to do. When God addressed mankind and comes into communion with mankind, God is acting in such a way that reveals God and makes Him known.

When we say that it is "natural" for God to speak to man, that it is "natural" for God to come into communion with man, we are saying something about God Himself. We are not saying that God simply chose to speak to man. He could just as simply not spoken to man. Rather we are saying that it is a part of God's own "nature" that He speak and commune with man. For this reason we confess God to be a community of persons. Moreover, this community of persons is characterized by Love, for as John says, "God is love" (1 John 4:8). It is "naturaI" to God that He speak to mankind in love and that He act for the benefit of mankind. Let us expand this thought a little.

Have you ever acted in such a way that others said to you, "You're not yourself today?' Perhaps you were tired, cranky, or just generally obnoxious. Your parents or friends remarked that something must have happened to make you behave differently than you normally behave. Of course, the opposite can also be the case. There are persons who are usually so unfriendly and quarrelsome that when they are nice we wonder, "What happened to make him (or her) so friendly today? Implied in both cases is the recognition that certain actions are "true" to the person who does them while other actions do not correspond to the real character or nature of the person who does them.

A person "is himself" or "is not himself." Furthermore, it is through those actions which are "true" to the person that we come to know that person. We know a person to be friendly because that person acts in a friendly way. We know a person to be trustworthy because that person acts in a trustworthy way. We never really come to know a person except in those ways in which a person presents himself to us. Therefore, a friend can say to us, "You are not yourself today" because that friend knows us.

Often the Bible, especially the Psalms, includes prayers that ask God to act in such and such a way. Some of these prayers speak of God's mercy and love, that is, of God and Savior: "O Lord, do not withhold Your mercy from me, Let Your steadfast love and your faithfulness ever preserve me (Ps. 40:11); "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1); 'Save me, O God, by Your Name, and vindicate me by Your might" (Ps. 54:1); "Show us Your steadfast Love, O Lord, and grant us Your salvation" (Ps. 85:7). On other occasions, however, the Bible speaks of God's anger and judgment: "Break, O Lord, the arm of the wicked and evildoer; seek out his wickedness till you find none" (Ps. 10:15); "Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil" (Ps. 59:5); "O Lord of Hosts, how long will You be angry with Your people's prayers?" (Ps. 80:4).

Now, how do you think God would prefer to deal with people? In love? Or in condemning? Both salvation and judgment are, of course, works of God. God can and does save; and He can and does condemn. But in which action is He more like Himself? And in which is God acting because something happened to make Him act that way? Let us take a look at Psalm 53.
God looks down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek after God. Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. There they were, overwhelmed with dread where there was nothing to dread. For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them. (verses 2,3, 5, RSV)
Clearly, it is because men have rejected God that God punishes and condemns them. Repeatedly in the Psalms, in the prophets, indeed, throughout the Bible man's sin is shown to be the cause of God's judgment and wrath. Thus, for example, Ezekiel prophecies that "because of the blood which the people shed in the land and because of the idols with which they had defiled the land" God poured out His wrath upon the people and scattered them among the nations (Ezek. 36:18f). We might think also of the story of man's fall into sin because Adam and Eve sinned, God put them out of Eden.

"God Is love" (1 John 4:8). When God acts in anger and wrath as the Judge, therefore, He is not acting in a way "true" to Himself. He is angry because of man's sin and evil. The cause of God's anger originates outside of God. God is not, by nature, an angry god.

What, then, about God's acting in mercy and love? Let us look at Psalm 85:
Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away Your indignation toward us! Will You be angry with us forever? Will you prolong Your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You? Show us Your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us Your salvation. (v. 4-7)
The Psalmist appeals for God's steadfast love for he knows that God's indignation and anger are not the way God would like to act. Rather, the Psalmist asks God to "be compassionate" towards His people: "Show us Your steadfast love." So also in Psalm 86 the Psalmist says, "But You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." (v. 15)

It is characteristic of God to be merciful, to love. The cause of God's love and mercy does not originate outside of God. Rather, God is Himself the cause of His mercy and love. In fact, when the Bible speaks of God acting "righteously," it often means that God is acting in accordance with Himself, according to His own nature. God is righteous when He is "being Himself." And for that reason, God's righteousness is often connected with His Gospel: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation .... For in it the righteousness of God is revealed” (Rom. 1:16f).

Also, because it is God's nature to be merciful and to love, we say that we are saved by the grace of God without any merit in us. God's love and mercy have their cause in God Himself. Nothing outside of God causes God to be merciful or to love. When God acts in love and mercy, He is acting by grace, out of Himself alone.

According to the New Testament, it is Jesus of Nazareth who is the complete and true reply to the prayer of the Psalmist, "Show us Your steadfast love." Jesus is the very expression of the love of God: "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:9-10). God is Himself in the life and death of Jesus. In Jesus we come to know God as He is.

In his life and death, Jesus reveals the God who is love. But reflect for a moment on the words of the Apostle John: "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through hi" (1 John 4:9). It does not say that God's love began with the sending of the Son. It says that God's love was shown to us in Christ. His love is revealed in Jesus. This implies that God's love existed before the sending of the Son.

Now earlier we noted that to be personal meant to be in relation to another. So also with love. One cannot love unless there is a recipient of that love. If, as John says, God is love (1 John 4:8), that means that within God there is a relationship of love, a Lover and a Beloved. And indeed that is what Jesus is talking about when he spoke of the Father's love for man before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).

God did not first begin to love when the world and mankind were created. Mankind was not the first object of God's affection. No, God's Son was the object of the Father's love. And since the Father is God who is eternal and since the Son is God who is eternal, this love of the Father for the Son is not simply an action, a happening, a temporary affection within God. This love of the Father for the Son is of God; it is eternal and characterizes God Himself.
 
It is also important to understand that the love of God is not simply an emotion. Rather, divine love is the giving of one self to another self for the purpose and goal of communion and unity. Love demands a relationship between persons. It is this movement of the Father to the Son and the return movement of the Son toward the Father, it is this mutual finding of oneself in the other that is in mind when we say "God is love." "He who has seen me has seen the Father; ... Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?" (John 14:9f).

When we read in John's Gospel that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16), or when we read in Ephesians that "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ" (Eph. 2:4f), perhaps we can now begin to see the full depth of what is being said.

The love which God has for the world in Christ is, if you will, the external expression of the eternal love which the Father has for the Son. "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him." "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my Love" (John 15:9).

Therefore, when we are "in Christ," as Paul often puts it, we are ourselves the objects of the Father's eternal love. Jesus says it this way: "I in them and You in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:23).

Therefore, the Gospel of Jesus is the Gospel of the self-giving love of God. The Gospel is not rooted in a temporary decision of the divine will nor in history. It is not rooted in ourselves or in anything which is changeable and temporary. Rather, the Gospel of Jesus is rooted in God Himself, and what He is: "Love-from-Person-to-Person."

When the proclamation, therefore, comes, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved," it says in effect "You can stake your life and destiny on Jesus, for He is himself God from God. What He did on the cross for you is the very outpouring of the Father's eternal love for the Son. Clinging fast in faith, trust, and hope to Jesus, the incarnate Son of the Father, we have the Father's own eternal love. In the Son we have communion with the Father!" Our salvation is as sure and firm as God Himself is sure and firm. "For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38f, RSV).

The Love of Jesus for the sinner is the expression of the Father's eternal love for the Son. This love of the eternal Father for the eternal Son is then itself eternal and will never pass away.

The coming of Jesus into the flesh, and his ministry of love even unto death, brings us into the eternal relationship of love between the Father and the Son. Being with the Father in Christ, by grace we are given and participate in the divine life. This "life" is not just unending existence; it is participation in the unity of love between Father and Son, in the unity of God's love. John speaks of our love for one another as God's love among us: "If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected among us" (1 John 4:12).

Until now, we have mentioned only the Father and the Son, because in as simple and direct a way as possible we wanted to indicate that God is a unity of persons. However, the Bible repeatedly mentions a third divine person along with the Father and Son, namely, the Holy Spirit. At creation, the Spirit is "moving over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2). According to Ezekiel, the Spirit is the guiding presence of God bringing about a holy and obedient people (Ezek. 36:27). Jesus receives the Holy Spirit at His baptism (Matt 3:16) and is nurtured by the Spirit during His temptation (Matt 4:1).

The Holy Spirit is source and power of our new life in Christ (Rom. 8:2-11). As the Pentecost story tells us, the Holy Spirit is the power of the life of all the Church (Acts 2:1ff). Often the Bible simply mentions the Holy Spirit along with the Father and the Son. One thinks especially of Matt 28:19 which tells us to "baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." But we could refer as well to such passages as 1 Cor 12:4 - 11; Eph 4:1 - 7; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 John 4:13.

A great thinker and saint of the Church, St. Augustine once said: "If God is love and if we want (as we do) to understand this love as the life of God, as 'making up' what God is, then there must be three divine persons - the Lover (Father), the Beloved (Son), and the Love itself (Holy Spirit)."

In some ways, the Holy Spirit can seem the most difficult part of the doctrine of the Trinity. But let us recall again that it is through the works of God that God reveals Himself. God's work is not only the sending of the Son. God's work also includes giving us the new life in Christ, creating a new heart in us; leading us into a new way of obedience, and uniting us in communion with God and with our fellow Christians. This giving and new living in love is God Himself working His way in us and through us.

The Holy Spirit is God giving to us the gift of God the Son who is given to us by God the Father.

Thus Paul can write, "For through him (Christ) we have access in one Spirit to the Father" (Eph. 2:18). Similarly, the unity of mutual love and peace which Christians experience among themselves and for which they pray to be among themselves is the binding work of the Holy Spirit in whom we participate in the love of Father and Son. As John puts it, "By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His own Spirit" (1 John 4:13). And Paul can exhort us "be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:2b - 3).

The Christian confesses God to be Trinity because the new life in Christ involves a life with others in mutual self-giving love. This life is one life shared with others. And this is not our life. We do not have this life in ourselves or from ourselves. This life of love with others is a gift; it is the gracious gift of God "being Himself" for us, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


This article was first published in WINGS OF FAITH: The Doctrine of the Lutheran Church for Teens. Edited by Terry K. Dittmer. Copyright 1988 by the Board for Youth Services (Now District and Congregational Services - Youth Ministry), the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Currently published as GOD WORDS: Intro to Classic Christian Theology (Copyright 2004 by DCS Youth Ministry, published by Concordia Publishing House). Used with permission.