Why Must God be a Trinity?

Yesterday I did my best to briefly summarize why Jesus must be God. Today, I want to do the same with the question, Why must God be a Trinity? 

If we are honest, the Trinity seems, at best, a math problem or a religious puzzle to solve. At worst, it is a man-made construction not supported in the Scriptures, as many in history, and still today, have proposed. But before trying to figure out how God is one-yet-three and three-yet-one (and you won’t figure that out!), I suggest we ask why God must be a Trinity.

The easiest way to summarize the answer is this: God must be a Trinity if he is to be a God who is love. I have heard it said, “The Trinity is the good news that God is love.” God does not just love (a verb), though he does do that! But he is more than doing. God’s very essence is love (a noun). God can love because he is love—Father, Son, and Spirit, who exist in perfect loving relationship with each other. This loving community of persons are united in their being and purpose, yet diverse in their roles, responsibilities, and functions. The Trinity is a diverse unity of three. If God is merely one—monolithic, as it were—he can be many things. But he cannot be love. To be love and to love, by very definition, requires relationship with someone other than yourself. The alternative is called vanity.

Allah, the god of Islam, for example, can be many things, but he cannot be love. If love is not a god’s essence, it can be created and destroyed. If love is not a god’s essence, then something else must and will be. This is not good news.

If we reflect further on why God must be a Trinity, there are numerous applications:

  • Human beings are made in God’s image. Thus to be human means we are communal beings designed to live in loving relationship with each other.
  • Marriage between a man and a woman reflects the Trinity’s diverse unity. Man and woman become “one flesh,” are equal in their worth before God, and share a united purpose, yet they have different, complementary (not competing) roles and responsibilities.
  • The church is to be a diverse unity of persons, who together have a common faith, identity, and mission, yet individually have differing gifts, roles, functions, and activities.

Ultimately, because God is a Trinity—because he is love—the Father can, out of his great love for us, send his Son to atone for our sin and appease his holy wrath. The Father pours out his wrath on his own Son on the cross. The Son completely satisfies God’s wrath, paying the debt we owe with his blood. And in his resurrection, he conquers death so that all who repent of their sin and trust in the Son, are welcomed by the Father into this loving, harmonious, diversity unity of three through his giving us his Spirit. Do you see what this is? It is a Family working in unity, with complementary roles, to rescue lost, rebel orphans and bring them into the Family.

And this is good news. For you, for me, and for the world.

Scriptures to consider: Genesis 1:1, 26-27; Psalm 110; Matthew 28:19-20; John 15-17 (esp. John 17); 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Ephesians 4:1-7; 1 John 4:7-21

God’s Glory-Sharing

Two Sundays ago, I preached a sermon called “Jesus’ Missionary Prayer” from John 17. Here’s a snippet:

So because God is complete in his Trinitarian love and glory-sharing, the reason we exist cannot be because God needs us to love and glorify him. The reason for mission cannot be that he needs us to find more people to love him, as if he lacked love. He already has that in himself. The only possibility is that God wants to share his glory with men and women so that we might be filled and complete as we behold his glory. Carly and I did not want to have children to fill a void in our marriage. We wanted to have children to share the love we have for each other. We didn’t need more love, we wanted to spread love so that our kids might know something of it. Listen to Jesus in vv. 22-24:

22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 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. 24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

So, again, let me reiterate that the great goal of mission is that people will behold and experience the glory of God.

But there’s a problem. We have exchanged the glory of God for lesser glories. Money, relationships, power, control, recognition, achievement, or a thousand other things. We want glory in places where glory is menial and temporal.

So we have no right to this glorious divine community—unless, of course, one of the members of the community is cast out to make room for us. And that’s what happened to Jesus on the cross. The cross was his mission—that’s the whole context of this prayer. In v. 1 when he says that his “hour has come,” it’s a term Jesus uses repeatedly throughout John to refer to his appointment with death. The crucifixion has arrived, and Jesus is going to put his glory aside and, in a sense, revolve around us. He is going to willingly step out of sweet fellowship with the Father so that we might be welcomed in and share in God’s glory. But not because God needs us, but because we will never be complete without God.

Listen to the whole sermon.

Is Community a Spiritual Discipline?

Most of the resources I come across that emphasize “spiritual formation” or “spiritual disciplines” focus on how I can grow my personal relationship with God. Things like reading the Bible, going to church, journaling, prayer, fasting, giving, and solitude make the list. These are good things. These things simply serve as instruments, or means, of God’s grace in my life. They are essential to my progress in the faith.

Very rarely, however, do I see “community” emphasized in these spiritual formation discussions. On a few occasions, I actually see community or fellowship listed as a “spiritual discipline.” I ran across something like the latter today and it got me thinking: is community a spiritual discipline?

My answer is that community (or fellowship or whatever you want to call it) is not a spiritual discipline. It is not merely one of the things that Christians do in order to become more like Jesus. Why do I say that? We get zero indication from the New Testament writers that community is an item on a checklist. We get very little indication that Christianity is overtly individual and so “community” must be considered an important aspect of my faith. Rather, the picture we get is that community permeates and transcends all the spiritual disciplines. Community is what Christianity, by its very nature, is at its core. Christianity is, of course, personal and individual. Make no mistake. My dad, in another context, always told me, “We don’t go to heaven in pairs.” Yes, but at the same time, Christianity is so much more than personal and individual.

This is because God is, by his very nature, a community of persons, existing eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not a loner, he is a tri-unity, a Trinity. It’s because God sent his Son to purchase a people for himself and bring them into the community of God through the gospel. Christians are called to image God individually and corporately. The only way an individual can image God, who exists in community, is to exist in community. Bible reading, prayer, worship, service, fasting, and a host of other traditional “spiritual disciplines” are all for naught if they are done in isolation. In fact, done that way, they can breed self-righteousness, legalism, elitism (i.e. varsity and junior varsity Christians). On the other hand, spiritual disciplines are all nurtured and empowered when done in Christian community.

Because I am an American, my environment cultivates individualism. America is home to John Wayne or Lone Ranger spirituality: “I am all I need and I can get the job done.” “Spiritual formation” resources about my relationship with God are therefore appealing, and, to be sure, ego-boosting. They feed the lie inside that says, “I can do this on my own!” Lately, I have been personally challenged and convicted by this. I am not a professional at corporate spirituality. I do not have biblical, gospel-centered community all figured out. But I desire it, I want to grow in it, and I need others to do it with me (I can’t do community alone!). The old cliché, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is true for Christianity, too. As someone has said before, the Christian life is a “community project.” That’s anti-American. But it’s not anti-God or anti-gospel.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now  you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:10).

Maundy Thursday and Trinitarian Love

Today is Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means mandate or command. On Thursday night before his Friday crucifixion during his final meal with the disciples, Jesus gave them a new mandate, a “new commandment,” to love as he had loved them (John 17:31-35).

Sometime after the meal and this newly given command, Jesus prays something profound for his disciples. Like the rest of the prayer, he says it is meant for future disciples as well: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).

Jesus says the remarkable and unthinkable: he has glorified us with the glory God gave him. He tells us why he has done this: so that we may be one just as the Father and Son are one. Then he tells us what the purpose of this oneness is: so that the world will know the Father sent the Son, and that the Son loved his church with the love of the Father. This is stunning.

Why does Jesus say all this? Jesus prays this so that the Christian community will be a living testimony to the Trinitarian nature of God. Though God is Father, Son, and Spirit, he is yet one. In the same way, though the church is many (i.e. made up of different individuals, personalities, nations, ethnicities, ages, denominations, etc.) she is yet one. One how? One in the fact that they have the same Lord, same faith, same baptism, even the same Father (Eph. 4:5-6). This separates Christianity from other religions or belief systems. Christianity has a common confession, yet many cultural expressions. Because God is a diverse unity of persons, Christianity can reject blanket uniformity while maintaining unity.

But the purpose of this oneness, as Jesus says, is not an end in itself. Oneness exists to deflect glory and honor back to God. Oneness will show the world that the Father sent the Son and that the Son loved his own as the Father loved him. In other words, the church is also a living testimony of the Trinitarian love of God. How? Just as Jesus submits to the Father and the Members defer to and glorify each other (John 16:14; 17:1, 4), so Christians serve, defer to, and glorify (i.e. make much of) each other. This is love, and love is God’s very essence (1 John 4:8). The church then reflects this–a community of persons who are self-giving lovers.

Do we reflect this Trinitarian God perfectly? Of course not, so we are not welcomed in by birth or religious activity or our moral effort. Even as a Christian, struggle to serve and defer to others. I struggle to love Christians who are different than me. If we do not reflect this God perfectly, then we do not deserve him. We have spit on his love rather than bask in it. You may be saying, “This sounds so good though! I want to know a God who gives love and defers and shares. The gods I serve only steal from me. How can we be welcomed by this God and enter this community?”

Just hours after his prayer, on Friday, on a hill called Golgotha, on a Roman cross, the Son was cast away. The Father removed his loving gaze from the Son and poured his wrath on him–the wrath you and I deserved as enemies of the Trinitarian God. The simple yet mind-boggling truth is that Jesus was cut off so you and I would be brought in. The Father did this so that all who trust in the Son’s finished work on the cross–not their own works–would be given the Spirit in order to be brought into this community as a true child and share in this eternal love.

We marvel. We wonder. We praise. We tremble. We sing,

What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

This wondrous love could only be Trinitarian love. O what love it is!

Be Careful How You Intercede in Prayer

Don Carson reminds us not to go to the extreme of believing we can so influence God in prayer that we turn him into a genie of our own making:

The…extreme begins with the slogan, “Prayer changes things.” Petitionary prayer is everything. This means that if people die and go to hell, it is because you or I or someone has neglected to pray. Does not Scripture say, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2)? Worship and confession must of course be allotted an appropriate part, but they can reduce to mere self-gratification: it can be fun to worship, a relief to confess your sins. Real work for God, however, demands that we wrestle with God, and cry, with Jacob, “I will not let you go until  you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). Not to intercede is to flee your responsibilities as a Christian. Far from being an insult to God, petitionary prayer honors him because he is a God who likes to give his blessings in response to the intercession for his people. In fact, if you agonize in your prayers, fast much, plead the name of Jesus, and spend untold hours at this business of intercession, you cannot help but call down from heaven a vast array of blessings. Of course, if a Christian adopts this line, he or she is in danger of treating prayer much like magic: the right incantations produce the desire effect.

-D.A. Carson, “Lessons from the School of Prayer,” in A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1992), p. 30.