Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Trinity, Part 1

This past Sunday, we began a new series at Life Bible Fellowship Church on the Trinity. The goal of the series is not to solve the puzzle of the Trinity, but rather to draw near to the relational God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you want to check out the first sermon in the series, here is the link to it.
There were a lot of good conversations after the services, and a lot of people were excited to seek to know God in a deeper way.
Because the Trinity is the most profound mystery in all of Christianity, I recognize that our three-week series will be no means cover everything that can be said. So I thought it would be good to accompany the series with some posts in order to answer some questions and go a bit deeper. In this post I will address three questions that, in some way came up after the message.

Is the Water Illustration Helpful?
In the sermon, I was fairly dismissive of a couple of Trinity illustrations that sometimes make an appearance.
Some people say that the Trinity is like an egg. An egg has a shell, a white, and a yolk. There are three, but there is only one egg. This illustration is bad, to be blunt. It pictures God as either three gods, or a God with three parts. While each of those parts make up a full egg, none are fully an egg. The shell by itself is not "fully egg," while the Son by himself is fully God. The egg illustration is not one that is helpful.
But more people asked me if the water illustration is not helpful. The analogy is that H20 was be liquid, can be solid, and can be gas. Once again, I was pretty dismissive of this analogy. Just so that you can know that I am not simply off on my own in thinking the analogy is faulty, here is a quotation from Wayne Grudem in his book Bible Doctrine:
"The analogy of the three forms of water (steam, water, and ice) is also inadequate because (a) no quantity of water is ever all three of these at the same time, (b) they have different properties or characteristics, (c) the analogy has nothing that corresponds to the fact that there is only one God (there is no such thing as 'one water' or 'all the water in the universe'), and (d) the element of intelligent personality is lacking."
On top of this, the water analogy is, for all intents and purposes, modalism, a heresy condemned by the church. Modalism is the teaching that there is one God who wears three different masks. Sometimes he appears to us as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Spirit. This is biblically inaccurate for several different reasons (just check out Matthew 3:16-17 to see how the baptism of Jesus shows that modalism is nonsense).
Trinitarian theologian Collin Hansen writes in a Christianity Today article, "One common but mistaken analogy of the orthodox Trinity depicts modalism. The same bucket of water may appear as ice, liquid, or steam. But that water cannot simultaneously exist in every mode. God, on the other hand, exists simultaneously as Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
Many analogies of the Trinity are helpful in illustrating one point of truth. But both the water and the egg analogy lead us in very wrong directions.

Is the Holy Spirit a Person or a Force?
In the sermon, I focused on the fact that the persons of the Trinity are presented in relational terms. There is an eternal relationship at the heart of the Godhead. Scripturally, it can be easy to see the relationship between the Father and the Son, but a bit more difficult to see the Spirit interacting in that relationship. This causes some to wonder if the Spirit is really personal, as opposed to being a force.
The Holy Spirit is a person, not simply a force or a power. He relates to us personally, just as the Father and the Son do. This is why it is so amazing and significant that the Spirit himself dwells within us. In the Bible, we learn that the Spirit can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30). Forces are not grieved; persons are grieved. On top of this, the Spirit prays for us (Romans 8:26-27). On top of this, Peter rebukes Ananias for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). You don't lie to a force, but to a person. The Spirit empowers, sanctifies, reminds, and teaches us. He is fully personal, just like the Father and the Son!
Quick note on the Spirit. Some people remark that he is often the forgotten member of the Trinity. In many ways this is tragic because of his prominent role in our lives (2 Corinthians 3). At the same time, it is worth remembering that the Spirit is not clawing for attention. He brings glory to the Son and reminds of us of the words of the Son (John 14-16). If we are focused on Jesus, we are listening to the voice of the Spirit. The Trinity exists in perfect harmony, not jockeying for position, but rather honoring and glorifying one another.

Is a Right Understanding of the Trinity a Salvation Issue?
The doctrine of the Trinity is not a small matter. It is not like end-times beliefs or positions on sign-gifts. As a Christian, you cannot take or leave the Trinity. Over the history of the church, it has been considered a test for orthodoxy. Part of this is because it is so directly tied to the deity of Jesus. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are not Christian denominations. They are cults. The reason for this is that they do not believe that Jesus, the Son, is fully God, and therefore they also do not believe in the Trinity.
None of this should cause us to take on an attitude of superiority, but it is important so that we recognize that if people have embraced these cults, we need to tell them to truth and urge them to embrace the true gospel of Jesus and not the cheap substitute that they have embraced.
Now, a person could read this and ask, "So, I must believe accurately about the Trinity in order to be a Christian? Does this mean that I was not a Christian if I just found out that my understanding of the Trinity for the past ten years was in fact incorrect?" It is a fair question.
If you had embraced the water analogy or thought that the Trinity means that God wears different masks at different times, this does not mean that you have not been a Christian. It means that you have had a faulty understanding of something really important. You now have an opportunity to be corrected by God's Word, and to embrace a more accurate (and, frankly, much more exciting and beautiful) picture of the Godhead. We all need to be careful about what we believe, but we also need to recognize that we all fall into error. This even happens with significant doctrines. Those who really embrace Jesus allow themselves to be corrected by his Word. Those who willingly embrace false doctrines do so to their own peril.
Frankly, there are probably many true believers in our churches who have a wildly misdirected understanding of the Trinity. This is partly the fault of many of us who are pastors and teachers and have not more faithfully and pro-actively taught these core doctrines.
So, if you find out that your understanding has been wrong, don't panic. Simply embrace the truth with which you have been presented. Joyfully embrace the truth about God, and draw near to the Trinitarian God who has drawn near to you.

More to come on this. If you can follow-up questions or comments, feel free to comment on this post, send me an email, or hit me up on facebook.

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