The Christian life is incomprehensible apart from the Trinity. From day one, all believers are immersed in the life of the triune God, whether or not they are conscious of this fact. To “get saved” (to use a familiar term in evangelical circles) is to encounter God in Christ through the Spirit. The Trinity, then, is more than one of many doctrines that we confess by faith. It is more than a theory, a puzzle, or an enigma—more than an intellectual problem to amuse ivory-tower theologians. The Trinity is for the church. In him, we live and move and have our being.
Consider the first few weeks in the life of a new believer. You don’t have to look far to see that he or she is quickly encompassed in trinitarian life and worship. For the sake of thought, imagine a young woman—let’s call her Olivia—who is not raised in church and has very little knowledge of God before coming to faith. Let’s walk with her through belief, baptism, worship, and discipleship, while reflecting on our own life in Christ.
Entering Into the Triune Life Through Belief and Baptism
In the breakroom at lunchtime, a Christian coworker tells Olivia that the Father sent his only begotten Son to reconcile her to God. Later that evening, Olivia feels troubled and begins to pray. She believes the gospel and, receiving Christ by faith, is born again by the Spirit. She knows that something has changed, but she understands very little about her experience. Her coworker explains that the Holy Spirit now indwells her, uniting her to the Father and the Son—that it is the work of the Spirit to apply the redemption which Christ has accomplished. The gospel she hears is thoroughly trinitarian.
All Christians are shaped by the Trinity from day one—then day by day and with each passing moment.
Olivia is invited to the local church that her coworker attends. Having confessed that Jesus is Lord and discussed her conversion with a pastor, she is soon baptized. Her new pastor explains that the baptismal waters are a symbol of the Holy Spirit and that through baptism she participates in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The climax of Olivia’s baptism is when the triune name is spoken over her (Mt. 28:19). Living (running) water is used, though allowance is made in the Didache, the earliest summary of the apostle’s teachings, to “pour water three times on the head ‘in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.’” Her baptism, too, is trinitarian. It seals her baptism into the triune life.
Being Immersed in the Church’s Trinitarian Worship
Through belief and baptism in the triune name, Olivia is told that she now belongs to the covenant community, the church of the triune God. She begins to regularly gather with other believers on the first day of each week. There, she learns to pray the prayer that Jesus taught: “Our Father who is in heaven….” And she is told to pray “in the name of Jesus,” in the power of the Spirit. Sometimes she hears her pastor pray directly to each person in the Godhead: “Father, help us.” “Jesus, save us.” “Spirit, fill us.” Her prayers are markedly trinitarian. And as in many faith traditions, her church regularly recites the Gloria Patri, an ancient Christian prayer of praise:
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Olivia’s favorite part of each service is congregational singing. During prelude, she flips through the Sing to the Lord hymnal that her church uses. Olivia notices the arrangement of the hymns:
2–16: The Trinity
17–107: God Our Father
108–289: Jesus Our Savior
290–318: Holy Spirit
The congregational singing is also trinitarian. Each song references the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit—or all three, sometimes in the same stanza. Olivia’s favorite hymn, one that she enjoys for its majesty and mystery, makes this explicit:
Holy, holy, holy!
Merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons,
As members of one holy, catholic, apostolic church, Olivia’s church is grounded in the apostolic doctrine. In the Apostles’ Creed, she confesses, “I believe in God, the Father almighty,” “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” and “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” In the Nicene Creed, which her pastor says it the greatest of all the creeds, she learns to confess also that the Son is eternally begotten by the Father and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, …
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; …
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified. ….
Her whole faith is comprehended in the Trinity. It is the summary doctrine of all that she now believes. This is explicitly stated in the Athanasian Creed, which her church recites on occasion:
The catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. …
Encountering the Trinity in Word and Sacrament
As a true church, Olivia’s congregation is marked by the pure preaching of the gospel: the good news that God’s saving reign has come through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. Through weekly sermons, her faith is strengthened. The pastor’s task is to reveal Christ in the word which God has inspired by his Spirit.
Worship that is not trinitarian is not Christian.
On her fourth Sunday at the church, her pastor begins a series on the Book of Ephesians. She learns that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:3) has planned our redemption and “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5); that the Father “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3), and that it is the Son who has purchased our redemption, for “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1:7); and that having believed in him, we “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:13–14). The opening chapter, like so much of Scripture, is implicitly trinitarian: three persons; three times, “Blessed” (Eph. 1:3a, 1:3b, 1:6); three times, “to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12; cf. 1:14; 1:6). And so the preaching, too, is marked by the Trinity.
In addition to the teaching of God’s word in her church, Olivia begins to read her Bible. Her pastor recommends that she begin in the New Testament, so she opens to Matthew’s Gospel. In Chapter 1, she reads that Christ is conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:20), and that Christ is God with us (Mt. 1:23), the one who reveals the Father. In Chapter 2, she reads that Christ is God’s son called out of Egypt (Mt. 2:15). In Chapter 3, she reads that Christ will baptize his people with the Holy Spirit (Mt. 3:11). Then, as Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends, and the Father speaks out of heaven: “This is my beloved Son” (Mt. 3:17). In Chapter 4, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where Satan tempts him to prove that he is the Son of God (Mt. 4:1, 3), the Son of the Father. God the Father, Son, and Spirit are present everywhere. And when she reaches the end of Matthew, she will read about the triune name that was spoken over her at her baptism: “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” (Mt. 28:19).
Through reading God’s word and hearing it preached in her local church, Olivia will soon learn about God’s great purpose for her life: that the Father has “predestined [her] to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 6:29) through the power of the Spirit. Olivia’s journey has not reached its end; it has just begun. She must learn to please God; to be like Jesus; to walk in the Spirit. Holiness is God’s will for her life; holiness is summarized in Christlikeness; and Christlikeness is the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Olivia’s lifelong sanctification is likewise trinitarian. Living like Jesus includes being on mission: as the Father has sent the Son and the Spirit, we have been sent, and Jesus has prayed for the Father to send us his Spirit for power to accomplish this task.
As a true church, Olivia’s congregation is also marked by the right administration of the sacraments. First, baptism in the triune name, as we have stressed. Second, to those who have been baptized, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist is given. This Supper, her pastor tells her, is nothing less than communion with the triune God and with his people. The Spirit is present in the celebration of what God has done through Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. Her church takes its cues from the earliest extra-biblical account of Christian worship, Justin Martyr’s First Apology, where we read that after prayer and greetings, “There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” While our explicit emphasis in the Supper is on the blood and body of Christ, communion is a thoroughly trinitarian celebration.
After communion is carefully and joyfully administered, Olivia’s congregation closes with “The Doxology,” as do thousands of churches around the globe:
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host:
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
Daily Saturation in the Triune God
We could go on and on, showing how every aspect of the Christian life is thoroughly trinitarian. It’s worth adding that in addition to the Scriptures, most faith traditions still supply new believers with resources to aid in the process of discipleship. These resources are formative in the lives of millions of believers.
In the Anglican (and sometimes Methodist) tradition, this includes the Book of Common Prayer. Wesley used the BCP, and I highly recommend it for the consideration of every believer. Millions of Christians have learned the language of prayer and worship through this book. There, we read prayers such as this:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of thy Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee that thou wouldest keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see thee in thy one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Many Christians also receive and come to rely on a catechism: a series of questions and answers on the Christian faith. The most famous of these is the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Wesley required his ministers to read this (with a few revisions). It is one of the first books that I stumbled upon and read as a new Christian. There we read as early as Questions 5 and 6, “There is but One only, the living and true God,” and “There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”
Through works such as this, the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary Christians have been saturated with trinitarian doctrine. Fred Sanders reports that “a Unitarian theologian once lamented the fact that it was nearly impossible to turn Anglican churches against the doctrine of the Trinity as long as they kept using the Prayer Book.” I’m reminded of the morning trinitarian prayer of John Stott, which reflects on a man whose daily life was shaped by the knowledge of the three-in-one God:
Good morning heavenly Father,
Good morning Lord Jesus,
Good morning Holy Spirit.
Heavenly Father, I worship you as the creator and sustainer of the universe.
Lord Jesus, I worship you, Savior and Lord of the world.
Holy Spirit, I worship you, sanctifier of the people of God.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence
and please you more and more.
Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.
Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life:
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God,
have mercy upon me. Amen.
While not all Christians are equally conscious of the trinitarian life in which they live, and move, and have their being, all Christians are shaped by the Trinity from day one—then day by day and with each passing moment. From the moment of our new birth, we are spiritually united to the triune God by faith. And when we encounter the true church, we are immersed also in trinitarian worship. The church, as Christ’s body, is the image of the Trinity, and all its worship is trinitarian. Worship that is not trinitarian is not Christian.
“The holiness and happiness of the first Christians depended on the experiential knowledge of the mystery of the holy trinity; or of God manifested in their souls as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; or as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” (John Fletcher)
John Wesley taught that “the happy and holy communion which the faithful have with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” is the foundation of faith and of “all inward and outward holiness.” Christians are happy “in the constant communion with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ; then, in all the heavenly tempers which he hath wrought in us by his Spirit.” John Fletcher likewise recognized that “the holiness and happiness of the first Christians depended on the experiential knowledge of the mystery of the holy trinity; or of God manifested in their souls as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; or as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”
The pressing question for every Christian is, “Will I intentionally go deeper in the knowledge of the Trinity?” Understanding that we are already immersed in the triune life is the proper place from which to study this central Christian doctrine. Fred Sanders explains, “We need to see and feel that we are surrounded by the Trinity, compassed about on all sides by the presence and the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. From that point, truly productive teaching can begin.” Pastors, teachers, Sunday school teachers, and all who are active in the work of discipleship can benefit from his advice:
The doctrine of the Trinity is not, in the first instance, something to be constructed by argument from texts. At best, that method will lead to mental acknowledgment that “the Trinitarian theory” best accounts for the evidence marshaled. The first step on the way to the heart of the Trinitarian mystery is to recognize that as Christians we find ourselves already deeply involved in the triune life and need only to reflect rightly on that present reality.
When we hear of “the Trinity,” we should not think of “that theological concept that I really ought to study more but probably won’t because it’s super confusing.” We should think, “That’s my God. That’s my all in all.” To study the Trinity is certain to enrich every aspect of our Christian life, since there is nothing that is untouched by him. The more that we can understand about the Trinity, the more we will be able to make sense of every aspect of our Christian life. Going forward in our study of the trinitrian doctrine is “unpacking a comprehensive reality in which we already find ourselves as Christians.” There is no greater study for the Christian to undertake. It is our holiness and happiness to go deeper in the knowledge of the triune God.