Previously: God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity
What is the most important doctrine of the Christian faith?
Many Protestants, I suspect, would say justification by faith alone. Certainly that was major in the Reformation. Others might say God’s love, forgiveness, or something like that. I could understand others asserting the doctrines of grace as the (5) most important.
I believe that the most important doctrine of the Christian faith is the Trinity as it set the foundations for all other important doctrines… Lose the Trinity, and all is lost.
Now, some questions for you.
What place does the Trinity have in your Christian experience? Is it prominent, or in the background? In your understanding of your faith, how important is it? Is it an essential, or more of an appendix? Could you do without it? How often do you meditate on the doctrine of the Trinity?
In your church, what kind of attention does the Trinity get? Is it emphasized in the preaching and discipleship of the church? Is it a focus of the songs you sing? Is the Trinity clear in the prayers of the church?
How much study have you dedicated to it? How well can you articulate it? Are you familiar with the ecumenical formulation of the Trinity throughout church history? What books or resources have you used to better understand the Trinity? Can you defend this doctrine, to those who don’t believe it? Is the Trinity essential in apologetics?
And finally, is the Trinity a make-it-or-break-it belief? Can someone deny the Trinity, and be a true Christian?
Of all the doctrines of the Christian faith honored in name and neglected in practice by evangelicals, the Trinity probably has no rival. Ask any evangelical if he believes in the Trinity, and you will almost certainly receive a strongly affirmative answer. Ask what difference the doctrine makes, and you might well be greeted by embarrassing silence.
—Carl R. Trueman, “Trinitarianism 101: Evangelical Confusion and Problems“
There’s nothing more fundamental than the doctrine of God. Make no mistake: it is no “generic” idea of God. It is the full, complete self-revelation of God given in the Scriptures. The one living and true God. And God is Triune. Understand, there’s not some idea of God that lies “behind” the doctrine of the Trinity. God is Trinity. The Scriptures reveal one true God, and that God is three distinct persons, co-equal and co-eternal. God cannot be reduced down to anything less than the Trinity. There is no general monotheism, and then Trinitarian Christianity (consequently, what does that mean for apologetics?). The Bible presents the Trinity, not a vague monotheism. Christianity by definition is Trinitarian. As G. T. Shedd said,
It is the foundation of theology. Christianity, in the last analysis, is Trinitarianism.
When we present Christianity to people, we are not arguing for some general idea of God and then trying to get them to the Trinity, afterward. Rather, we present God in the fullness of his revelation to us: the Triune God. There simply is no other God but the God who is Trinity.
Without an understanding of God as Triume, you don’t have a Christian understanding of God. You just don’t. Period.
—K. Scott Oliphint
Naturally then, you can see how fundamental this doctrine is to the Christian faith. If the Triune God is the source of “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (the Trinity itself being one of those beliefs), then the Trinity is not an appendix. Take it away, and everything is ruined. You would no longer be believing the real God, and you would no longer be serving the real God.
It is baffling how so many professing Christians could understand so little of this essential tenant. I’m speaking from experience, here. Don’t think I’m pretending to have always understood the importance of the Trinity. No doubt those raised in a church that responsibly catechized them began with the Trinity (as our Standards do) and grew up into fuller understanding. Me? Most of my life has been lived with insufficient appreciation of this doctrine. I distinctly remember asking myself what difference the Trinity makes to Christianity. Why does it matter? Is it just some eccentric feature that makes Christianity different from every other theistic religion? Must be. That was me, forever.
Until, as providence would have it, it was pointed out to me how the Trinity controls and impacts every other doctrine. That was Michael Horton, via Pilgrim Theology. My mind was sufficiently blown, and my understanding of Christianity changed forever. I remember my exact location when it happened. That’s how profound an illumination it was.
There is nothing more basic! This should be among the first things taught to those within the church. Notice the location of the doctrine of God in the Westminster Standards. It’s chapter 2 of the Confession of Faith, the Trinity in section 3. Where is it in the instructional documents? In the Shorter Catechism, questions 4-5, the Trinity in 6; in the Larger Catechism questions 6-8, the Trinity in 9-11.
And yet, how often is such theology put off, sometimes indefinitely, in the instruction of Christians? Assuming of course, there is any instruction. If our Standards are any witness, clearly the doctrine of the Triune God belongs right up front, in the beginning. It provides the foundation for everything that follows! Look for the persons of the Trinity throughout the rest of the doctrines. It’s no problem that there is no chapter on the Holy Spirit in the original version of the Confession. He’s simply woven all over the place throughout the Confession!
Our theology is Trinitarian theology, simply because the Scriptures are Trinitarian.
The doctrine of the Trinity — God as one in essence and three in person — shapes and structures Christian faith and practice in every way, distinguishing it from all world religions.
—Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology loc. 1615
If you are going to start right, you start with the Trinity.
I was talking with a new believer just the other night. Even he understood that the doctrine of the Trinity is the most fundamental doctrine, and if you get the Trinity wrong you get everything else wrong.
Look at the subtitle to James White’s book, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief (it’s a great book, by the way). White calls the Trinity the heart of Christian belief. And indeed it is.
the Trinity is the highest revelation God has made of himself to His people. It is the capstone, the summit, the brightest star in the firmament of divine truths.
—James White, The Forgotten Trinity pg. 14
To demonstrate the fundamental nature of the Trinity to the Christian faith, let’s look at God’s plan of redemption.
Notice the Trinity here:
As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
The Father elects. Jesus himself said this. Who gave Jesus his sheep? God the Father. Christ said he would lose non that the Father had given him. We see a distinction of persons, here. The Father has not only chosen the people, and the ultimate destiny, but also the means. The means and the ends are foreordained.
How are the elect redeemed? By Christ, God the Son, the 2nd Person of the Trinity. The 2nd Person of the Trinity is one who became man, taking unto himself human nature, to live, suffer, and die for the elect. His work is what reconciles sinners to the Father. And (though not mentioned above) the Son of God continues to intercede for us before the Father, even now.
Finally, the elect are regenerated, called to faith in Jesus Christ by the 3rd Person of the Trinity: God the Holy Spirit. In due time, the Holy Spirit applies the redemptive work of Christ to the individual, who was chosen by the Father since eternity past.
The Father sends the Son to become incarnate, and live and die for the sins of the elect, to reconcile them to the Father. Jesus Christ reveals the Father, and testifies that it is good for him to depart so that a 3rd Divine Person, the Holy Spirit, can come. Christ dies and resurrects, ascends to the right hand of the Father. Then the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit upon the church. The Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work to those the Father has chosen, those for whom Christ died. And the Holy Spirit continually sanctifies believers, and in the end will raise up our bodies. Jesus Christ continually intercedes for us, and in the last day will return bodily to earth.
The plan of redemption is clearly Trinitarian. Now, let’s remove the Trinity, for the sake of argument, and see what happens. Can the plan of salvation remain intact if God is only one person, instead of three?
Who then does the electing? A unipersonal god. He would then naturally give these sheep. But wait, who is he giving them to? Uh oh. We’ve run out of persons. The Son cannot be given anything by the Father, if they are in fact the same person. That doesn’t work.
Who sends the Son? Either the Father or the Son is no longer part of the plan. The Son can be in no way “sent,” he can in no way be doing his Father’s work. It’s just him. All alone. Who is the Father rewarding and exalting? Himself? Ridiculous.
How can Christ’s work be reconciliation, if the Father and the Son are not distinct persons? Is Jesus merely reconciling people to himself? How can Christ be a mediator, a go-between, if he’s not actually between two parties? If the Son is identified with the Father, then he’s not a Mediator, anymore. There should be someone between him and the elect, then! Christ can’t be the only way to the Father if there is no distinction between them. How can Christ intercede for us, if there’s not a distinct person that he intercedes to? It’s just us and a unipersonal god, with no mediator or intercessor in between.
How can the Holy Spirit be “sent” if there is only one person in the Godhead? Same problem. How can the Holy Spirit be said to intercede for us? Same problem. Why did the Son of God have to ascend to heaven, if he is identical with the Holy Spirit? That’s a bit strange. The unipersonal god was already around. How could it be true that Jesus needed to truly leave so that another helper could come? That would not be true, if they were in fact the same person. The Spirit effectually calls the elect to put their faith in who? Not himself, but a distinct person: Christ. Oh, and how can the elect be “adopted” without the Father and Son being distinct, also? Being united to Christ, made co-heirs with him, and being therefore adopted sons of God. But if there’s just one person, all of that is out.
Needless to say, redemption collapses apart from the Trinity. Who’s doing the sending, or being sent? Who’s doing the electing, the dying, and the applying? Who exactly are we reconciled to, and why do we need a mediator? All of these things are left hanging, if God is not three persons.
Christianity stands or falls with the doctrine of the Trinity. The Bible represents the plan of salvation as a compact or covenant among the persons of the Trinity. Where the doctrine of the Trinity is abandoned, the whole Bible teaching about the plan of salvation must go with it.
—J.G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary loc. 540
That is probably the clear case example to show that the Trinity is the most important doctrine of the Christian faith. Without the Trinity, the plan of redemption given in Scripture doesn’t make sense. Lose the Trinity, and you lose salvation.