When you think about the fellowship we have with God, do you also think of the fellowship that God has within Himself? The covenant communion we have with God is related to the communion of the three Persons in the triune God. It is the God who has fellowship within Himself that brings His people into fellowship with Him.
After a few articles on God’s covenant, we turn now to consider the doctrine of the Trinity and our fellowship with our covenant God. By His grace we have everlasting communion with God, the living God, the God who is three Persons in one Being.
The doctrine of the Trinity can be stated concisely, yet is beyond our full comprehension. By the Trinity we mean that there is only one divine Being and that in that divine Being there are three distinct Persons. In the Belgic Confession we confess: “We believe in one only God, who is one single essence, in which are three persons” (Art. 8). One Being or essence in which are three Persons. That is what is meant by the Trinity.
It is, of course, one thing to say that and another to understand what we are saying. What, for example, is the difference between essence and person? In the first few centuries after Christ, God’s people spent many years and had much discussion on this very subject. The saints knew there was only one God and that Jesus Himself was God. The problem was, if Jesus is God and the Father is God, in what sense are they different? They are one God, but two what? And how about the Holy Spirit?
The saints knew that the Spirit also is God. So if the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one God, in what sense are they three? They are one what and three what? After a considerable amount of debate, the church adopted the wording we confess today: They are three Persons in one essence.
That there is one essence of God is a bit easier to understand. The word essence comes from a verb that means to be. God’s essence, therefore, refers to who God is. When we talk about God as the Almighty God or the eternal God we are talking about God’s essence.
The unity of God’s essence is expressed in the Athanasian Creed. The first and somewhat lengthy section of this confession is on the Trinity. Speaking about the one essence, there are a number of statements like this: “The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.” And: “So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.”
When we refer to God as eternal or almighty (or His other attributes), we are talking about His essence. This is who God is. He is eternal. He is almighty. These are what we often call attributes or perfections of His essence.
That there are three Persons in God means that in the one Almighty there are three individuals: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We often say a person is one who says “I.” A person is the subject of one’s actions. That there are three Persons in God means that there are three that say “I” in the one God.
Already in Genesis 1 we read of a plurality of Persons in God. In more than one place we read of God speaking to Himself and saying “us”: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Gen. 3:22a). When God speaks to us, He says “I…”; but here, when He speaks to Himself, He says “us.”
This means there is communion within God. That would not be the case if there was only one Person. But there are three. God is one single essence in which are three Persons.
Antichristian denial of the Trinity
That there are three Persons in God means that the Son and the Holy Spirit are both Persons and that they are both God. That means that one who denies the deity of Christ or the deity of the Holy Spirit denies the Trinity.
Regarding the former, Scripture says that a denial of the deity of Christ, and thus a denial of the Trinity, is characteristic of the spirit of antichrist. When we think of what Scripture says the antichrist will do, it is important to remember that the spirit of antichrist denies the Trinity.
We read of this in I John 2:22, which speaks of antichrist denying the Father and the Son: “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father” (I John 2:22-23a).
A second passage speaks of the denial that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh: “And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (I John 4:3).
This second passage speaks of those who deny that Jesus Christ “is come” in the flesh. Jesus was certainly born. But this text says that He “came.” That Jesus “came” means that, before He was conceived and born, He was with the Father. This text, therefore, is proof that Jesus is very God. The Word was with the Father, and, while continuing to be God, He came in the flesh. Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ conception and birth was an act of His own. He willingly took upon Himself the human nature.
The spirit of antichrist denies this. The fact that both these passages speak of antichrist tells us that we should expect a denial of the deity of Christ, and thus a denial of the Trinity, to become more common in the last days.
Some subjects to consider
Having set forth a brief overview of the doctrine of the Trinity, the plan in future articles is to consider certain aspects of this doctrine in more detail. The intention will be not only to explain some Scripture references to this doctrine but also to apply this doctrine to our own experience.
It is interesting and perhaps easy to overlook that our Belgic Confession makes a specific reference to our experience when explaining the doctrine of the Trinity.
The ninth article of the Belgic Confession gives proof from Scripture that there is a trinity of Persons in the one God. The first sentence of that article also makes a specific reference to our experience: “All this we know, as well from the testimonies of Holy Writ as from their operations, and chiefly by those we feel in ourselves.” What does this sentence mean, and what does this have to do with our communing with the triune God? Lord willing, we will take a look at that.
It will be good to investigate what Scripture and our confessions say about both the oneness of God and the threeness of God. That God is one means that there is only one God and that He is a simple, spiritual Being. It may seem as though there is not much to say about the fact that there is only one God. But when we look to Scripture, it is interesting to note 1) what God points out as proof that He alone is God, and 2) how He has made this known very clearly to us, His covenant people.
Regarding the threeness of God, we will look at what our creeds refer to as the “incommunicable properties” of each of the three Persons. We will also consider a couple of errors regarding God’s threeness that were taught in the past and are still being taught today. There is the error known as as modalism, which teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three Persons but three modes in which the one divine person has manifested Himself. Secondly, there is the error of subordinationism, which teaches that within God the Son and the Holy Spirit are subordinate. In our own day this latter error is being promoted by some evangelicals.
It will also be important to consider how God guided the church to confess this truth in the early creeds. Fundamental doctrines concerning the Person and natures of Christ and concerning the deity, personality, and double procession of the Spirit were gradually expressed officially in creedal form. Lord willing, we will consider how the Spirit of Christ guided the church to do this.
It is with joy in our hearts that we meditate on what God tells us about Himself and what He has done for us. The triune God has fellowship within Himself and has brought us into communion with Him. What a joy to have covenant fellowship with the triune God! May we praise Him for His mercy, and walk humbly with Him, showing our gratitude to Him for the covenant blessings He has bestowed on us and all His people.