The doctrine of the Trinity has been with us for more than 1,600 years. Most Christians consider it to be one of the “givens” of their faith, and don’t give it much thought. Theologian J.I. Packer noted that the Trinity is usually considered a little-thought-about piece of “theological lumber” that no one pays much attention to.1
But whatever your level of understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, one thing you can know for sure: The Triune God is unchangeably committed to including you in the wonderful fellowship of the life of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that there are not three Gods, only one, and that God, the only true God, the God of the Bible, is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This has always been a concept that is difficult to put into words. But let’s try. The Father, Son and Spirit, we might say, mutually indwell one another, that is, the life they share is perfectly interpenetrating. In other words, there is no such thing as the Father apart from the Son and the Spirit. There is no such thing as the Son apart from the Father and the Spirit. And there is no Holy Spirit apart from the Father and the Son.
That means that when you are in Christ, you are included in the fellowship and joy of the life of the Triune God. It means the Father receives you and has fellowship with you as he does with Jesus. It means that the love that God once and for all demonstrated in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is no less than the love the Father has always had for you even before you were a believer, and he always will have that love for you.
It means that God has declared in Christ that you belong to him, that you are included, that you matter. That’s why the Christian life is all about love: God’s love for you and God’s love in you.
God did not make us to be alone. To be created in God’s image, as the Bible says humanity is (Genesis 1:27), is to be created for loving relationships, for communion with God and with one another. The systematic theologian Colin Gunton put it this way: “God is already ‘in advance’ of creation, a communion of persons existing in loving relations.”2
This union/communion of Father, Son and Spirit was referred to as perichoresis by the early Greek fathers of the church. They used the word in the sense of mutual indwelling.3
Why does this matter? Because that inner life of love in the Triune God is what God shares with us in Jesus Christ. Theologian Michael Jinkins describes it this way:
Through the self-giving of Jesus Christ, through God’s self-emptying assumption of our humanity, God shares God’s own inner life and being in communion with us, uniting us to himself by the Word through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus the God who is Love brings us into a real participation in the eternal life of God.4
Too “theological” sounding? Let’s make it simpler. Paul told the pagans at Athens that we all “live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28). The God in whom we live and have our being is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, each existing in the other in perfect communion and love. The Son became human so that we humans can join him in that perfect communion of love that he shares with the Father and the Spirit. We learn this from God’s perfect revelation of himself in Jesus Christ in the Scriptures:
- “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well” (John 14:6-7).
- “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?… Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10-11).
- “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20).
- “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:20-21).
- “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).
Salvation flows from God’s absolute love for and faithfulness to humanity, not from a desperate attempt to repair the damages of sin. God’s gracious purpose for humanity existed before sin ever entered the picture (Ephesians 1:4). God has assured our future – he has, as Jesus said, “been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Jesus has taken us with him where he is (Ephesians 2:6).
God has purposed to never be without us. “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). We often forget that, but God never does.
In his embrace
In Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit by the will of the Father, we mortal, sinning human beings, in spite of ourselves, are graciously and lovingly held in the divine embrace of the triune God. That is exactly what the Father intended for us from the beginning. “In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:5-6).
Redemption starts with God’s nature, his absolute and unquenchable love for humanity, not with human sin. Through the incarnation of the Son, his becoming one of us and making us one with him, God includes us humans in the all-embracing love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father. God made us for this very reason – so that in Christ we can be his beloved children. This has been God’s will for us from before creation:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves…. He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ…to bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ. (Ephesians 1:4-6, 9-10)
Through the atoning incarnation of the Son, humans are already forgiven, reconciled and saved in him. Divine amnesty has been proclaimed for all humanity in Christ. The sin that entered the human experience through Adam cannot hold a candle to the overwhelming flood of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. “Consequently,” the apostle Paul wrote, “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18).
So will everyone automatically – perhaps even against their will – enter into the joy of knowing and loving God? Such a thing is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction, because it is impossible for you to love someone against your will. God draws all humanity to himself (John 12:32), but he does not force anyone to come. God wants everyone to come to faith (1 Timothy 2:4), but he does not force anyone. God loves every person (John 3:16), but he doesn’t force anyone to love him – love has to be voluntary, freely given, or it is not love.
Contrary to the idea of universal salvation, only those who trust Jesus are able to love him and experience the joy of his salvation. Those who don’t trust him, who refuse his forgiveness or the salvation he has already won for them, whether because they don’t want it or simply because they don’t care, can’t love him and enjoy fellowship with him. For those who consider God their enemy, God’s constant love for them is grossly annoying. The more they are confronted with his love, the more they hate him. For those who hate God, life in God’s world is hell.
As C.S. Lewis put it, “The damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”5 Or as Robert Capon explained: “There is no sin you can commit that God in Jesus hasn’t forgiven already. The only way you can get yourself into permanent [trouble] is to refuse forgiveness. That’s hell.”6
Always on his mind
The doctrine of the Trinity is far more than a creed to be recited or words printed on a statement of faith. The central biblical truth that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit actually shapes our faith and our lives as Christians. The wonderful and beautiful fellowship shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit is the fellowship of love into which our Savior Jesus places us through his life, death, resurrection and ascension as God in the flesh (John 16:27; 1 John 1:2-3).
From before all time, the Triune God determined to bring humanity into the indescribable life and fellowship and joy that Father, Son and Holy Spirit share together as the one true God (Ephesians 1:4-10). In Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, we have been made acceptable to the Father, and in Jesus we are included in the fellowship and joy of the shared life of the Trinity (Ephesians 2:4-6). The church is made up of those who have already come to faith in Christ. But redemption applies to all (1 John 2:1-2). The gap has been bridged. The price has been paid. The way is open for the human race – like the prodigal son in the parable - to come home.
Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension are proof of the total and unwavering devotion of the Father to his loving purpose of including humanity in the joy and fellowship of the life of the Trinity. Jesus is the proof that the Father will never abandon us. In Jesus, the Father has adopted us and made us his beloved children, and he will never forsake his plans for us.
When we trust Jesus to be our all in all, it is not an empty trust. He is our all in all. In him, our sins are forgiven, our hearts are made new, and we are included in the life he shares with the Father and the Spirit.
Salvation is the result of the Father’s ever-faithful love and power, proven through Jesus Christ and ministered to us by the Holy Spirit. It’s not our faith that saves us. It’s God alone – Father, Son and Spirit – who saves us. God gives us faith as a gift to open our eyes to the truth of who he is – and who we are, as his beloved children.
1 James Packer, God’s Words (Baker, 1998), 44.
2 Colin Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Eerdmans, 1998), 9.
3 Other theological terms that describe this inner communion of the Father, Son and Spirit are coinherence, each existing within the other) and circumincessio (the Latin equivalent of perichoresis).
4 Michael Jinkins, Invitation to Theology (InterVarsity, 2001), 92.
5 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Collier, 1962), chapter 8, page 127).
6 Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ (Eerdmans, 1993), 10.
For further reading
Now that you’ve had an introduction to God, wouldn’t you like to know him better? We get to know God in several ways: through nature, through our experience with the Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures, through spiritual disciplines and through the words of other believers.
To learn more about God, read the Bible, especially the New Testament. Try a modern translation such as The Message, by Eugene Peterson, or The New Living Translation, published by Tyndale. For evidence of God’s existence, we recommend the following (easiest listed first):
- Paul Little, Know Why You Believe
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
- Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator
- Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics
- C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe?
- James Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All?
- William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith
- C.S. Lewis, Miracles
- Alister McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths
For discussions of the attributes of God:
- Max Anders, God: Knowing Our Creator
- Paul Little, Know What You Believe, chap. 2
- Gilbert Bilezekian, Christianity 101, chap. 2
- J.I. Packer, Knowing God
- Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, chapters 8-15
- Donald G. Bloesch, God the Almighty
Recommended theology books:
- Invitation to Theology, by Michael Jinkins
- The Mediation of Christ, by Thomas F. Torrance
- Dogmatics in Outline, by Karl Barth
- Worship, Community and The Triune God of Grace, by James Torrance
- The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, by Thomas F. Torrance
- The Trinitarian Faith, by Thomas F. Torrance
- Theology, Death and Dying and Judas and Jesus: Amazing Grace for the Wounded Soul, by Ray S. Anderson
- On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius
- The Christian Foundations Series, by Donald Bloesch (seven books)
- The One, the Three, and the Many, by Colin Gunton
- Across All Worlds and The Great Dance, by C. Baxter Kruger
- The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, by Elmer Colyer
- How To Read Thomas F. Torrance, by Elmer Colyer
- The Humanity of God, by Karl Barth
- Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
- The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
- Experiencing the Trinity, by Darrell Johnson
- The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, by Fred Sanders