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How Does the Trinity Work?

Exploring how God's three-fold nature was uncovered by human experience
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Thorns in the Flesh". See series.


I want to begin our discussion of this difficult question about the Trinity not with intellectual speculation about how God is three and yet one, but rather with human experience. The only reason we know anything at all about the God of heaven and Earth is because this God revealed himself to human beings just like us. Abraham had an experience of God calling him to leave his home and go to a foreign land. This God became known as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because these individuals experienced this God's messages, his blessings, and his presence in their lives.

That is why the Old Testament is not a bunch of philosophical explorations, like the Greeks Plato and Aristotle speculated about the Prime Mover, for example. Rather, the Old Testament is a collection of stories—stories of how this God revealed himself in human affairs. The greatest story of all was the hundreds of thousands of Israelites experiencing firsthand the miracle of God leading them out of slavery in Egypt and into their promised land. Forever after, when they referred to God in their scriptures, God was not an object of philosophy but, "the God who delivered us out of Egypt."

Now, fast forward many centuries. A man walked the dusty roads of Galilee saying things like, "I and the Father are one." As a result, "The Jews picked up stones to stone him …." They said things like, "We are stoning you for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God" (John 10:30-33).

When Jesus spoke, he spoke with the authority of God; he claimed God's power and prerogative to forgive sins; he judged as God judges. People began to realize that, when they looked on the face of Jesus, they saw none other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "I and the Father are one."

Yet Jesus never claimed that he and the Father were identical. On the contrary, he regularly prays to God, speaks about God as someone other than himself and, on the cross, says to God, "into your hands I commend my spirit." The more emphatic the early church became that Jesus Christ was in fact God incarnate—God in the flesh—the more pressure grew to clarify their relationship.

Again, let me remind you, this was not an ivory tower head-trip for the philosophically minded who had nothing better to think about—it was a need to make sense of their own undeniable experience that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh. Many answers were given. An influential thinker named Marcion around 140AD suggested that there were actually two gods—a creator god seen in the Old Testament that was completely different from the saving god described in the New Testament. That solved the problem, but ignored the repeatedly declared biblical premise that God is one: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deut. 6:4).

The situation was made even more complicated by the fact that these early Christians were also experiencing God in another way. On the day of Pentecost, just as Jesus promised, the Spirit of God flowed into them in a truly miraculous way. And from that day forward, Christians knew that God was not only out there, but also inside them. "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ" (Romans 8:9). So the Holy Spirit is also involved in human beings' experience of God, without being identical to either the Father or Jesus.

The doctrine of the Trinity was uncovered, not invented.

The answer to the question, "How did the Trinity come to be when we never find that word in the Bible?" is clearly answered in a phrase from Oxford theologian Alister McGrath: "The doctrine of the Trinity wasn't invented—it was uncovered. The doctrine of the Trinity … is not some arbitrary and outdated dictate handed down by some confused council—it is the inevitable result of wrestling with the richness and complexity of the Christian experience of God."

Uncovering the Trinity is like human explorers experiencing a new country and drawing maps for future travelers. The features of the landscape—the hills, the valleys—were already there. The map simply describes them for those who will follow. Humans first experienced a God who created the world, and whose glory can be seen reflected in the wonder of nature. They experienced a God who saved humans from ultimate darkness and death, whose tender love can be seen in the face of Jesus Christ. And they experienced a God who is personally present and active in the lives of believers. These experiences finally led to the conclusion that God has revealed his one being in these three unique ways.

The Trinity is a mystery.

We're wise to remember St. Augustine, who pointed out back in the 4th century: "If you can comprehend it, it is not God." Clearly, with the Trinity, we stand before a mystery. And it is a good mystery—a mystery that preserves God's majesty and holiness against those who would carelessly carve God down into something the human mind can comprehend. Here's the spirit we might adopt from Leonardo Boff: "Seeing mystery in this perspective enables us to understand how it provokes reverence, the only possible attitude to what is supreme and final in our lives. It is not a mystery that leaves us dumb and terrified, but one that leaves us happy, singing, and giving thanks. Mystery is like a cliff; we may not be able to scale it, but we can stand at the foot of it, touch it, praise its beauty. So it is with the mystery of the Trinity."

However, as we stand before these lofty cliffs, some hints are given. Father, Son, and Spirit are not three departments in a corporation, each with different duties—like sales, research, and marketing. Each part of God is involved in every action of God. To take just one example, even though creation is associated with the Father, all were involved:

  • "In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth … and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:2).
  • "In the beginning was the Word (Jesus) … through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:3).

The fact that all of God is involved in all of God's works also answers some of those brainteaser questions like, "How could God be both in heaven as the Father and on earth as Jesus at the same time?" Those who ask that question are forgetting that God exists in eternity, outside all time and space, where time is meaningless and all is an eternal now. Of course, God could be in many places at once—in eternity as well as our space-time continuum—God is God.

When we speculate on what we have already admitted is a mystery, what often causes us to stumble first is the traditional description of the Father, Son, and Spirit as three "persons" who are nevertheless one God. This makes little sense in our world, where a "person" cannot be separated. But that formula was derived in the 3rd century, where the Latin word persona referred to the face masks actors wore in Roman drama. By changing persona (or masks), one actor could literally perform several different roles in the same play. By declaring that there is "one God in three persons," these ancient theologians were using an analogy common to their own culture to say that, while human beings experience each role in a different way, the same God is playing them all.

The Trinity must be experienced.

Finally, what does this doctrine of the Trinity mean to me? Christian faith is not so much believing ideas about God as it is trust in the person of God. The crucial point is not so much that we believe in the idea of trinity—which, after all, is not reality but a mental model of something we can't see, like a tinker-toy model of an atom—but that we believe in a Trinitarian way. In other words, that we experience God in a three-fold manner.

When all the speculation about the Trinity is ended, what is of more practical concern is how we experience God in each of these three ways. In revealing his nature to us in different ways, God is always seeking that we would grow to know him in different ways as well. When just one of these dimensions is neglected—or emphasized too much—we end up with an incomplete and skewed relationship to God.

  • What if we concentrate only on God the creator? Revelations of God in creation are experienced by many religions, not just Christians. This can lead to downplaying the unique revelation in Jesus Christ to embrace what we share in common with them—the route taken by the classic liberal movement, for example, in pushing the boundaries of biblical orthodoxy.

    But if we neglect God the creator, we cut ourselves off from the ways we see God at work in the world—through the discoveries of science, for example.
  • What if we stress only God the redeemer, whom we know as Jesus Christ? This often leads to a nasty dogmatism, where correct doctrine about Jesus becomes more important than a personal relationship with him. This can be seen, for example, in some forms of Christian fundamentalism.
  • Or what if we neglect God in us, the Holy Spirit? A preacher may talk about following Jesus as an exciting adventure, but without the Spirit empowering it, the Christian life is dull and boring. It feels like pushing a 100 pound rock up a hill—we quickly wear out, lose heart, and give up.

    Experiencing the power of God's Spirit living within us is a need for many of us—without the Spirit, living the challenges of the Christian lifestyle in our own human strength is a prescription for failure.


Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, puts everything I've tried to express today together in a memorable way:

The advantage of believing in the reality of the Trinity is not that we get an A from God for giving "the right answer." Remember, to believe something is to act as if it is so. To believe that two plus two equals four is to behave accordingly when trying to find out how many dollars or apples are in the house. The advantage of believing it is not that we can pass tests in arithmetic; it is that we can deal much more successfully with reality. Just try dealing with it as if two plus two equaled six.
Hence, the advantage of believing in the Trinity is that we then live as if the Trinity is real: as if the cosmos environing us actually is, beyond all else, a self-sufficing community of unspeakable, magnificent, personal beings of boundless love, knowledge, and power. And, thus believing, our lives naturally integrate themselves, through our actions, into the reality of such a universe, just as with two plus two equals four. In faith we rest ourselves upon the reality of the Trinity in action—and it graciously meets us. For it is there. And our lives are then enmeshed in the true world of God.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The doctrine of the Trinity was uncovered, not invented.

II. The Trinity is a mystery.

III. The Trinity must be experienced.