Experiencing God as Trinity

When the Nicene Creed was formulated in A.D. 325, the Holy Spirit was barely mentioned.  Later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Church saw the need to be more specific about the nature and worship of the Spirit of God.  It is instructive to read the Creed in its entirety:

I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.  And one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.[1]

We should note that the Church was careful not only to postulate the full deity of Father, Son, and Spirit, but also the ways by which they related to each other.  Thus the Father, as Father, begets the Son and the Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  We should see these descriptions (begotten, proceeding) as eternal acts by which the Persons in the Godhead are distinguished.  The Son was not begotten at some very distant point in time, but from eternity.  The Spirit did not begin to proceed from the Father and the Son at some point, but did so from eternity.  It is probably not wise to try to fully understand exactly what is going on by this divine begetting and proceeding; but it is helpful to maintain these distinctions because they remind us that the three Persons in the Godhead are not three undistinguishable Divine Triplets, but are actually distinguishable from one another.  The Father is not the Son nor is the Son the Father; neither would it ever do to call the Son the Father or vice versa.  Neither could the Spirit be called the Father or the Son.

If it is hard to understand how these acts of begetting and proceeding could be eternal, C. S. Lewis helps us out when he asks us to imagine the following:

Imagine two books lying on a table one on top of the other. Obviously the bottom book is keeping the other one up-supporting it. It is because of the underneath book that the top one is resting, say, two inches from the surface of the table instead of touching the table. Let us call the underneath book A and the top one B. The position of A is causing the position of B. That is clear? Now let us imagine-it could not really happen, of course, but it will do for an illustration-let us imagine that both books have been in that position for ever and ever. In that case B's position would always have been resulting from A's position. But all the same, A's position would not have existed before B's position. In other words the result does not come after the cause. Of course, results usually do: you eat the cucumber first and have the indigestion afterwards. But it is not so with all causes, and results.

Lewis goes on to say that

God is a Being which contains three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube contains six squares while remaining one body. But as soon as I begin trying to explain how these Persons are connected I have to use words which make it sound as if one of them was there before the others. The First Person is called the Father and the Second the Son. We say that the First begets or produces the second; we call it begetting, not making, because what He produces is of the same kind as Himself. In that way the word Father is the only word to use. But unfortunately it suggests that He is there first-just as a human father exists before his son. But that is not so. There is no before and after about it. And that is why I have spent some time trying to make clear how one thing can be the source, or cause, or origin, of another without being there before it. The Son exists because the Father exists: but there never was a tune before the Father produced the Son.[2]

This analogy could, of course, be applied equally to the relation of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.

Now the language of begetting and proceeding is not something that theologians cooked up; it is the language of Scripture.  If you have a Father, who have a Son who is begotten of the Father.  In other words, the names Father and Son don’t mean much apart from the ideas of begetting and being begotten.  This is important because not only is this language Scriptural, but it guards us from the false idea that the Son is created; he is begotten not created.  If he had been created like we are, he would not share the very nature of God, but since he is begotten not created, he is God from God, Light from Light, sharing the very substance of the Father.  To contrast, we may be made in God’s image and we may be adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God, but we do not share the nature of God as Christ does; we are made, not begotten.

What about the procession of the Spirit?  When we say that what distinguishes the Spirit from the Father and the Son is that he proceeds from the Father and the Son, we are using the language our Lord himself gave us in John 15:26, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”  The Spirit is sent from the Father through the Son (cf. Jn 14:26) precisely because he has always been the one who eternally proceeds from the Father.  As we have noted before, the Spirit is the bond of love and communion between the Father and the Son, and in redemption, the love of the Trinity overflows to include sinful men and women.

Now what’s the big deal about all this?  The big deal is that the way we see God affects how we relate to God.  Because God is a Trinity, we relate to him as a Trinity.  Our experience of God does in fact depend on our theological understanding of God.  But it is also true to say that the Church’s theology of God is a result of the Church’s experience and worship of God.  The Church has experienced God as Father, Son and Spirit, and therefore renders to each the worship due to God.  And since the Father, Son, and Spirit are all objects of the worship of the Church, they are seen to be equally and fully God. 

As we have already noted in a previous message, this experience is a product of the incarnation of the Son of God.  The purpose of the coming of the Son was to reconcile sinful men and women to God his Father, so that he becomes our Father also.  The one to whom we are reconciled is God – the Father is God.  But the Son of God, as the Son, shares the nature of the Father and so is fully God, equal with the Father in power and glory.  As such, he too is an object of the worship of the Church.  All throughout the NT, the Son is worshiped: our Lord himself said that “all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father.  Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father” (Jn. 5:23). 

Finally, the Spirit is to be honored as the Father and the Son are to be honored.  One of the clearest proofs of this is the fact that the unpardonable sin is a sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Mk. 3:29).  If all blasphemies against God (ver. 28) can be forgiven, but not the sin against the Spirit, then it seems clear that the Spirit must be himself God and ought therefore to receive the same honor and worship that is due the Father and the Son.

But again, though they are all three equally worthy of our worship and honor, yet we don’t relate to each Person in exactly the same way.  Over and over again in Scripture we see the following pattern: by the Spirit, through the Son, we approach the Father.  By the work of the Spirit in us, because of the work of Christ for us, we are able to approach God the Father as our Father.  We see this in the following passages.  “For through him [Jesus] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18).  “To those who are elect exiles . . . according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:1-2).  “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). 

Another way to put this is that the Father planned salvation, the Son purchased salvation, and the Spirit applies salvation.  “But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14, KJV).  And so the Father is the one who is the originator of the plan of salvation, the Son is the one who is the mediator of salvation, and the Spirit is the one who is the applicator of salvation.  This order in the way God saves us surely stems from the order that has eternally existed in the Trinity itself.  From eternity, the Son is the Word of God, the expression of the Father; the Spirit is the one who freely and joyfully executes the will of the Father and the Son.

How does this affect the way we relate to God?  Well, from our perspective, it means that our movement towards God the Father must begin with the work of God the Spirit in us.  According to Scripture, we are not born into the world as a tabula rosa, but as descendants of Adam, bend inwards towards ourselves and outwards away from God.  Or, another way to put it, we are born (not become) dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3).  It is fitting that it is the Spirit of God who undoes the work of spiritual death upon the soul since the Spirit is the original giver of life: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created” (Ps. 104:30).  The word for “Spirit” in the Bible is the same as “wind” or “breath” and so we should probably see a reference to the work of the Spirit in Gen. 2:7, “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living creature” – especially given the way the creation narrative begins: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2).  The Spirit created life originally, and he recreates the life, both physical and spiritual, that men lost when they rebelled against God.  He beautifies and brings order out of chaos; he does the same thing to the spiritual and moral chaos into which we have descended, bringing life and restoring the image of God in man.

Therefore, Paul writes, “You … are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Anyway who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9-10).  “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).  It’s important to emphasize, however, that we have life because we have the Spirit.  Without the Spirit there would be no life.  And he doesn’t just give us life, he gives us himself which results in life.

In fact, this giving of the Spirit results in more than life, life abundant, and this is because the Spirit doesn’t just give us spiritual gasoline to get us down the heavenly road, but he introduces us to something infinitely more valuable: the fellowship of the Father and the Son.  Thus, our Lord himself put it this way: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.  … In that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you.  Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.  And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn. 14:16, 17, 20, 21).  We can experience the love of the Father and the Son precisely because of the ministry of the Spirit in us.

Which, by the way, is another proof of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, for if he were less than God, or if he were just a force, it is hard to see how he could usher us into the very fellowship of the Godhead.

It also means that if we are truly indwelt by the Spirit, who is the bond of love between the Father and the Son, we too will truly love the Father and the Son and the Spirit.  And not in a merely intellectual manner, but in a way that produces holiness of life and conduct.  We will keep our Lord’s commandments, not because we have to but because we want to.  You become what you love, and if you love God you will become increasingly like God, which is the essence of godliness.

So what does this mean, practically?  Well, first of all, it means that if you would see the kingdom of God, you must be born again, which, according to our Lord, is the work of the Spirit (Jn. 3:3-8).  It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh profits nothing (Jn. 6:63).  We have to be washed by the regenerating and renewing influence of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5).  You don’t need bandaging, you need life.  You don’t need educating, you need to be recreated by the Spirit.  This is not the work of man, but the work of God.

But the Spirit doesn’t regenerate and then hand over the car keys.  The apostle Paul tells us that if we would have any power over sin, we must mortify it through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13).  All of sanctification, from beginning to end, is a work of the Spirit.  We cannot do it in our own strength.  We must look away from ourselves to God, specifically, to God the Spirit.  That doesn’t mean we don’t do anything, but it does mean that we recognize our absolute dependence upon the work of the Spirit in our hearts on a daily basis.  You and I will never outgrow our need for the indwelling and sanctifying influence of the Spirit of God.

This year, many of you have probably made at least a few resolutions.  If they will do your soul any lasting good, they will be aimed at increasing godliness in the coming year.  Well, the forgoing considerations ought to warn you against doing any of this in your own strength.  If you do so, you will eventually either wear out or wear thing.  Do it all in the power and grace of the Spirit.

But fellowship with God is not just a “spiritual” thing; it is impossible apart from the work of the Son of God.  In fact, the Spirit comes to us now as the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9-10); he mediates the presence of the risen Christ.  All that he does on earth, he does in the name of Christ and for his glory: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it unto you” (Jn. 16:13-14).  The Spirit is not out making a name for himself; he is out applying the work of Christ to the elect.

We cannot relate to God in anyway except as enemies, unless we come to God through the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  As the apostles put it, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Or, as our Lord testified, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). 

Why is this?  Remember that we are dead in sins.  All our sin is a result of an inward aversion to the true and living God.  We may pet the dog, help the old lady across the street, and pay our taxes, but in our hearts we by nature hate God.  And because we hate God we have no chance to ever inherit eternal life in his presence.  As a result we have accrued a debt that no human being can pay.  Therefore, the only way we can have eternal life is if God himself takes our sins upon himself and purges them.  That is exactly what happened through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the God-Man who bore our sins upon the cross and suffered the punishment we deserve in order that all who believe might have eternal life. 

No mere man could do this.  But it requires a man to do  it.  Therefore, the only solution to our plight can only be found in the only God-Man to have ever walked this earth and accomplished redemption, Jesus Christ. 

How do we relate to God?  Through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  But how do we relate to Christ?  How do we make something that was done by another two thousand years ago my own?  The answer of Scripture (the word of the Spirit) is that we become connected to the saving benefits of Christ by faith: by surrendering ourselves completely and fully to Christ, by trusting in him, by resting alone in his grace and his forgiveness and his redeeming work.  The apostle Paul assures us, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). 

This is entirely counterintuitive to the way we think we should relate to God.  Most religions tell you that you can only relate to God through your good deeds, by effort.  But the gospel says that we relate to God, not through our deeds but through the death of another, Jesus.  We don’t do it by looking inwardly but by looking outwardly, away from ourselves and toward Christ.  We don’t do it by inspecting the balance of good to bad deeds, but by resting in the one who took all our bad deeds upon himself and gave us his righteousness instead.  We don’t do it by hiding our sins and covering them up but by confessing them: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). 

And the redemption is complete.  There is no sin that is not paid for, no guilt that is not covered, no past that can ever raise its head to haunt us again: “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).

Our Lord is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Lord.  But they are on a mission together.  The Spirit applies the work of Christ to those for whom he died.  We relate to God by the Spirit through the Son; by the Spirit as the one who brings us life; through the Son as the one who gave his life so that he would become to us the resurrection and the life.

And as we face a new year, the only way we should do so is as those who are the redeemed of the Lord.  We must learn to find our identity in Christ, not in our work or our accomplishments, but in Christ who has made us sons and daughters of God.  Because of what Christ has done, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater that the greatest of the sons of men.  Our past may not be what we wanted, and our future may be a big question mark, but in Christ everything is sure, we are justified and fully accepted before God. 

And so, through the work of the Son and Spirit, we are brought near to God the Father.  It is an amazing thing to be able to relate to the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God Almighty as our Father.  We no longer relate to him merely as a creature, though we will always be that.  We no longer relate to him only as Master and Sovereign, though he is that and we rejoice in this reality.  But more than all that, God is our Father and all the love that a father has for his children is but a faint shadow of the love that God has for those who belong to his Son.

It is important that you and I know how to relate to God the Father as Father, not just as an indefinable “Person” in the Trinity.   He is revealed to us as Father for a reason and one of the reasons is that you will take advantage of this relationship as a child of God.  It is important that we don’t come to him with the fear that a mere servant has, but with the love and affection and trust that children have for parents who truly care for their children.  Through Christ, we are not fulfilling the terms a contract but are enjoying community with the family of God and with God himself, Father, Son, and Spirit.

Do you struggle with the fear of inadequacy?  That you are not enough, that you don’t have what it takes to be a good parent or student or coworker?  That you cannot conquer those old habits and lusts?  Then come to God the Spirit and mortify your lusts through him.  Come to him for the power to live out the place in which God by his providence has put you.  He is full of power for those who are weak (Eph. 3:16).

Do you struggle with the fear of guilt and rejection?  Do you feel hopeless, that you can never measure up or be good enough, either before men or (especially) God?  Then come to God the Son and find your sins gone forever, never to be brought up or mentioned again.  Come to Christ and know that it doesn’t matter whether or not you are good enough because he has been good enough for you.  He is the perfect redeemer of the world.

Do you struggle with the fear of uncertainty?  Do you fear the unknown, the risks, the burden of an ambiguous future?  Then come to God the Father, and know that your Father already knows the future, and that he is completely sovereign over it.  He will exercise all his goodness and his wisdom and his power for your good and his glory (Rom. 8:28).  And this includes “bad” things.  Terrible as certain events might be, and which we might justly fear, they are not impediment to God, who will take those things and create beauty and joy and good that would never have existed without them. 

We need not fear, for our God is the God of the Bible, who reveals himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Rather, let us cast our cares upon him, for he cares for us.  “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

[1] This translation of the Creed is given in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), p. 1169.  The phrase “and the Son” was added later (filioque).
[2] This is from Lewis’ book Mere Christianity, Book 4, Chapter 4.


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