The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
The Doctrine of the Trinity as the Summary of the Gospel
We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.... and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:1-5).
The doctrine of the Trinity is a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ–it cannot be understood apart from this gospel, and the gospel cannot be fully understood apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.
According to the witness of scripture, God’s love comes to us in a threefold way: God loved the world and gave the Son for our salvation (Jn 3:16); Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, loved us and gave his life for us (Gal 2:20); the gift of God’s love in Christ has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 1:22). The church’s confession and praise of the triune God is rooted in the threefold self revelation of the one God who is our creator, our redeemer, and our sanctifier.
Even before the election of Israel and the coming of Christ, God’s creation of the world expressed overflowing love. The abundance and diversity of creatures display the majestic beauty of creation. Yet all creation groans for redemption, even as every human heart hungers for the fullness of life that only God can give (Rom 8:22-23). As sinful creatures, we know the triune God reliably neither by our observation of the world nor by our exploration of the marvels of our creaturely existence. Rather, we know the great love of the God who is three-in-one and one-in-three truly, tangibly, and decisively only through God’s own self-gift in the person and work of Jesus Christ and in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
In continuity with God’s mighty acts among the people of Israel, but also with surprising newness, the Word of God was with us and for us uniquely in the person of Jesus who as an infant cried in the arms of Mary, who was baptized by John and received the Holy Spirit, who broke bread with sinners and tax collectors, who forgave and healed the paralytic in Capernaum, whose power flowed to the hemorrhaging woman, who taught with authority, who blessed the children, who prayed in agony at Gethsemane, who endured torture and death on the cross at Golgotha, who was raised bodily and in victory on Easter morning.
Active in the history of Israel and singularly at work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God continues to be present and active in and among us as the Spirit, who filled the believers at Pentecost, who empowered the apostles to do signs and miracles, who called Philip to evangelize and baptize the Ethiopian eunuch, who gave a variety of gifts to the church and formed the body of Christ, who has inspired faith, love, and hope in the church across the ages, and who continues to call women and men to all ministries of the church.
The church’s confession of the triune God is embedded not only in the biblical witness but also in the early church’s prayer and practice. Christians are baptized (Mt 28:19) and blessed (2 Cor 13:14) in the name of the triune God. The apostle Paul describes common Christian prayer to God in trinitarian terms: “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ...” (Rom 8:15b-17a). The overflowing love of God comes to us through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The work of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the foundation of all confessional statements about God, humanity, and the world (Confession of 1967, BC, 9.07).
The love of the triune God made known to us in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit is plentiful beyond measure (Rom 5:20). It is given freely and extravagantly, utterly unmerited and unexpected. It is always greater than we can imagine or conceive. Like a gushing fountain, God’s love overflows toward us. (Jer 2:13; Jn 4:14). It freely pours forth in an inexhaustible stream, never diminished in the giving, never drying up. It is constant and trustworthy. It is more powerful than all the forces of sin and evil that deny and resist the gift and call of the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ and shared with us by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 8:6-7).
Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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 8:38-39).
The trinitarian understanding of God has been at the heart of the church’s message and prayer since its beginnings. Far from an ivory tower doctrine, it is a doctrine concerned with the truth of God and the reality of our salvation. Only God can save us and sanctify us. When we speak of the three distinct but inseparable persons of the Trinity, they are not to be understood, as modalism teaches, as mere masks or temporary roles that hide God’s deepest reality. Nor are Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit secondary deities or mere creatures of a supposedly solitary supreme God, as subordinationism teaches. The trinitarian faith of the church rejects both these views because they deny that God is truly present as our savior in Jesus Christ and truly present among and in us as the life-giving Spirit. Against the views of modalism and subordinationism the church declares in its doctrine of the Trinity that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are, together with God the Father, fully and eternally God. As the Nicene Creed affirms, Jesus Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” and the Holy Spirit is to be worshiped and glorified as “the Lord, the giver of life” (Nicene Creed, BC, 1.1-3).