This is a tricky topic for Christians to discuss. It is a tough topic for me to write about. I have been developing this article off and on for quite some time. I started it nearly three years ago. There is something I need to say. I feel compelled to help my brothers and sisters to better understand the idea of the Trinity, and more importantly, to be able to apply this understanding in their walk.
I am hoping that you will trust me enough to dive a little bit deeper into this challenging topic. I want to address just a couple of ideas which may radically alter the way you think, feel, and relate to those who are the subject of the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy”: God in three persons; blessed Trinity.
An observation about contemporary Christian music
I listen to a lot of contemporary Christian music on the radio and I have sung modern praise songs in local churches or Army chapels. I have seen a somewhat disturbing trend over the last decade or two. At times, it seems that emotion has overshadowed Christian doctrine. Let me explain.
Many well-meaning songwriters have not been careful to distinguish between God the Father and God the Son. In our attempts to express our understanding of the doctrine of Jesus, or Christology (which asserts correctly that Jesus is fully man and fully divine), we often say, “Jesus is God”. This statement, if used out of context, might cause a songwriter to use God and Jesus interchangeably in their lyrics. I believe this is inherently confusing and is a major misunderstanding of the Trinity.
For example, notice the line from this popular worship song shown above. This song is about the beautiful name of Jesus. Then, without warning, this line pops up on the screen: “Now and forever God you reign.” The first time we sang it in church I could not sing it. It just did not seem right.
There is another popular song by a group I truly enjoy listening to. It is about two of the names of Jesus. It brings together the biblical imagery from the book of Revelation, where Jesus is depicted as the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world and also the Lion of Judah. However, when we get to the chorus, I cringe every time the words come up: “Our God is the Lion . . . Our God is the Lamb . . . For who can stop the Lord Almighty.” The Lord Almighty is a special name of God that is found in the Old Testament. As such, I am not sure it is accurate to call Jesus by that name.
Now that I have ruined a couple of perfectly good worship songs, I had better jump to the Scriptures for a little help.
Jesus came to reveal the Father, not replace Him
I have to admit. I do struggle a bit myself to fully understand and apply this mysterious doctrine where One is Three and the Three are One; distinct in persons, and yet unified in substance.
However, I know that Jesus did not come to replace God the Father. He came to reveal Him. The reason Jesus came to us so that we could come to God the Father. A believer who only relates to Jesus but not to the Father has an incomplete understanding of faith and the doctrine of God.
In John 14:6, after Jesus tells His disciples that He was the way, the truth, and the life, He states, “no one comes to the Father except through me.” What Jesus meant was that believing in Him is the only way that anyone can come to the Father. All who approach God must come by faith in Jesus alone. However, Jesus never intended for His followers to merely come to Him and then stop there.
Moreover, Paul points out in Rom. 5:1 that we have been justified through faith in Christ, which results in “peace with God”. This is not the peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7). This refers to a radical change in status from being God’s enemy to becoming His child. The writer of Hebrews exhorts Christians to “draw near to God” because we have “confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19-22). We have been given a rare gift that the OT believers did not have – direct access to God. Drawing near to God was why Jesus died for you and me. His clear intent that we would enjoy a living, loving relationship with His Father, just as He did.
One in essence, three in Persons
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology articulates the doctrine of the Trinity quite simply: “God is one in being or essence who exists eternally in three distinct co-equal ‘persons’.”
The Apostle Paul, who is consistently Christ-centered in his theology, often refers to both Father and Son. In 1 Cor. 8:6, he offers this balanced view of the Trinity for our consideration: “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, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” This statement emphasizes Paul’s understanding of the distinct roles between God the Father and Jesus the Son.
Jesus stated in John 10:30 that He and the Father are one, meaning that they are unified and of the same essence. He clearly could not have meant they are one and the same person. The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father. This was evident at the Lord’s baptism. When Jesus is getting baptized, the voice of the Father is heard, and the Holy Spirit descends as a dove (Matt. 3:16-17).
John 5:17-23 helps us understand how Jesus saw his relationship with His Father. Jesus stated that His Father always works, and so does He (v. 17). The Jewish leaders understood the ramifications of this powerful statement. They were angry to the point of wanting to kill Jesus, not only for breaking the Sabbath, but because He was “calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (v. 18). Note the term John uses. They said that Jesus was making Himself equal with God. Not identical to, interchangeable with, or one and the same, but equal in terms of their divine essence.
In the next verse, Jesus describes His motivation to “do only what he sees his Father doing” (v. 19). The Father raises people from the dead and so does the Son (v. 21). When Jesus was declared as God’s representative on earth as the Son of God and Son of Man, God the Father assigned Jesus to be the judge of all (v. 22). On Judgment Day, all people will honor Jesus as Lord of Lords and King of Kings, just as they have honored the Father (v. 23). The Apostle Paul confirms this, stating that on that Day, “every knee shall bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord” (Phil. 2:9-10).
How to speak of the Trinity with precision
Yes, I believe that Jesus is 100% man and 100% divine. But I am careful not to say “Jesus is God” without qualifying my statement. I prefer to say that He is the Word of God, the image of God the Father, or that He is the Son of God. (See also John 1:1-3, Col. 1:15, and Heb. 1:3). Let me explain.
It is my simple observation, with several notable exceptions of course, that most of the time that the New Testament writers use the word “God”, they are almost always referring to God the Father.
It is true that an orthodox understanding of the Trinity, based on the Scriptures and the historic creeds of the Christian faith teaches us to believe that “The Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God”. I do believe that myself. However, when we import this understanding into a Bible passage whenever we read the word “God”, thinking that “God” means any or all three of the members of the Godhead, we are not interpreting Scripture correctly. This seems to be bad hermeneutics.
In closing, let me share one of several benedictions that the Apostle Paul gives at the end of his epistles, which again demonstrates his balanced understanding and careful identification of the Trinity as three distinct persons:
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:14).
You see, I think Paul understood the distinctions and the roles of the three divine and equal persons of the Trinity. He had a personal relationship with each one of the members of the Godhead in the way the Bible describes. We would be wise to do the same.
About the author:
Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 110 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.