How Is the Trinity Vital for My Christian Life?
Back in 2005, Rick Warren—then hailed as "America's New People's Pastor" by Time magazine—made a revealing statement on his understanding of theology and doctrine:
“The first Reformation was about doctrine; the second one needs to be about behavior. We need a reformation not of creeds but deeds. It’s time to stop debating the Bible and start doing it... This is the new reformation I’m praying for.”
Sadly, what used to be a hallmark attitude of Protestant liberalism has since become a fit-for-Hallmark platitude of many so-called Bible-believing evangelicals. This stance is precisely what J. Gresham Machen so masterfully refuted in his classic, Christianity and Liberalism. To pit doctrine against duty, theology against community, or faith against life is unbiblical. For example, Paul spoke of "the truth, which accords with godliness" (Titus 1:1). This is why our forefathers defined theology as theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi, “Theology is the doctrine of living to God” (William Ames, Medulla Theologica, 1.1).
What is more, the false dichotomy between doctrine and duty is profoundly unhelpful. How are we to live for God unless we know God? We can easily recognize that every healthy relationship requires some level of knowledge. How can a husband and wife live and love unless they know each other? How can friends have a deep bond unless they know each other?
We can see this particularly when it comes to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. So often we are willing to affirm that God is Three, yet in the next breath we say this truth is not “practical.” How can the Trinity be of any use to me in my daily struggles in the Christian life? As Dorothy Sayers once lamented the attitude of her time concerning the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible” [“The Dogma is the Drama,” p. 25].
Yet despite our misconceptions, the Holy Trinity is vital for Christian faith and life. To see how, let's take a look at the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q & A 9-10:
Q. 9. How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A. There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.
Q. 10. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?
A. It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.
Adoring God’s Mystery
The Trinity is vital for me first and foremost because it brings me back to the basic Christian posture of adoring God’s mystery. We so often think, speak, and act as if we know God so well that we can then get busy with other things. The Triune nature of God reminds us that just to think of God’s oneness and his threeness is to enter into the deepest of Christian mysteries. When we think of the One, we are led to think of the Three; and when we think of the Three ,we are led to think of the One. This leads to adoration: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3); “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev. 4:8).
The one “Godhead” is Three, and these Three are One. Historically we have called this the “Trinity,” which comes from a Latin word, trinitas, meaning, “threeness.” The Trinity is a mystery in both senses of the word. It is a mystery because it is an incomprehensible, transcendent truth that only God himself knows fully. It is a mystery in the biblical sense of a truth that was hidden in shadows in the Old Testament, but is now exposed to the light of Jesus Christ in the New. This is why Augustine said, “In the Old [Testament] the New [Testament] is concealed, and in the New [Testament] the Old [Testament] is revealed (In Vetere Novum latet, et in Novo Vetus patet) [Augustine, Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, 2.73].
The adorable mystery of our Triune God led the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson to say, “This is a divine riddle, where one makes three, and three makes one. Our narrow thoughts can no more comprehend the Trinity in Unity, than a nut-shell will hold all the water in a sea” [Watson, A Body of Divinity, 109].
Knowing God’s Story
The vitality of the Trinity is also seen because it helps us in knowing God’s story. In reading and meditating on the Word of God, we come to know who God is in eternity and how he has acted in human history.
We come to know something of his own personal story in terms of how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another as the one true God. In the Larger Catechism we are asked, “What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead? ” The answer is that “it is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity” (Q&A 10). God reveals himself to us in human terms—all the while communicating eternal realities and relationships—so that we earthly creatures can know him.
We also come to know in the Word his story in terms of how he relates to us. We confess with our forefathers in the wilderness that God is one: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). This one God’s name is placed upon us in Christian baptism, with mention of each of the persons: “Baptizing them in the name [oneness] of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (threeness) (Matt. 28:19).
Participating in God’s Community
This leads to another way in which the Trinity is vital for us. When we adore the Triune God and come to know him more in his Word, we are participating in God’s community. What does this mean?
First, because God is a Trinity fellowship with God is possible (John 10:14–15). We place personal faith in a personal God, who has fellowship within the Godhead, and amazingly, with us.
Second, because God is a Trinity, worship is enjoying fellowship with a Trinitarian God (Matt. 28:19; Rev 4–5). Because there is one God, we the people of that God are to worship him alone. And when we worship the one God, we worship each Person of the Godhead equally.
Third, because God is a Trinity we share in fellowship with him as a community. The “let us make man” language of Genesis 1:26–27 resulted in those whom God created as being social beings. Besides fellowship with God, what higher fellowship can we have in this life than with our brothers and sisters in Christ?
This leads us back to where we began. Do we need a new Reformation? Yes, but what kind of Reformation do we need? Is it to be one not of doctrine but of behavior? Is it to be one not of creeds but deeds?
What the church in our time needs most of all is an ever-deepening knowledge in head and heart of our classic doctrines so that we might live for the glory of God with more passion. Meditating on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity leads us to a vital relationship with each Person, which is ultimately our only hope for true obedience and lasting happiness. In pursuing "the truth, which accords with godliness," the ancient Christian dictum will prove to be true: Theologia a Deo docetur, Deum docet, et ad Deum ducit, “theology is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God.”
Daniel Hyde is pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, CA. He is the author of many books, including God in Our Midst and Welcome to a Reformed Church.
The Holy Trinity: Revised and Expanded by Robert Letham
Podcast: "Unmanipulated Trinity"
"Hilary's View of the Trinity" by Todd Rester
"William Perkins on Keeping It Catholic" by Derrick Brite
Experiencing the Trinity by Joe Thorn
Augustine, Quaestiones in Heptateuchum.
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Whimsical Christian (1969; repr., New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1978), 25.
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2000).
Note: This article was originally published on Meet the Puritans in March 2016