It’s a great question, and we get it a lot: Can I only be saved if I comprehend the Trinity? And if so, how much of the Trinity must make sense to me? The complexity of the Trinity of course leads to this question from many listeners, including one named Paul. “Hello, Pastor John! What happens to the people who trust the finished work of Jesus Christ, but do not have a clear grasp of the Trinity? Are they saved? What degree of clarity in this life must one reach about the Trinity to affirm one’s true understanding of, and trust in, the God of the Bible?” Pastor John, what would you say to him, and to the many others asking this same question?
I think this is just a golden opportunity to help lots of folks who believe it and are not sure what they believe. So, I want to take the opportunity to provide a brief introduction to the biblical teaching that God exists as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, each of them a person, each of them God, but each of them comprising one divine essence — one God, not three gods.
Son of the Father
When Jesus was asked which is the most important commandment, he began his answer in Mark 12:29 by reaffirming the ancient Jewish belief in monotheism — one God, monotheism — from Deuteronomy 6:4. He said, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Those are the words of Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy. Christians are not, nor ever have been, polytheists: we don’t believe in multiple gods, like the ancient Greeks had their pantheon of gods; we’re not like that. As Jesus comes into the world, we have this revelation from him and from his apostles that goes like this:
John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Amazing — “with God” and “was God.”
John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” So, the word Word changes to Son. Now we know we’re talking about a divine Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.
And then he gets a name in John 1:17: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Oh my goodness, those are important words.
So, from the beginning, there was God and there was the Word, who became flesh in Jesus Christ. And from the beginning, that Word was God, and the Word was with God. Jesus Christ is the God-man, God in flesh, the one who was God and came into flesh. And though he was God from all eternity, he was also with God from all eternity.
“Though the Son was God from all eternity, he was also with God from all eternity.”
Now, these are the kinds of texts from which is built the doctrine of the Trinity. We have God the Father — and we call him that, the “Father,” because in John 1:14, it says that the Word became flesh as the “Son from the Father.” And we have the Word, coeternal with the Father, who is called the “Son.” So, right here in John 1:1–17, we have God the Father and God the Son, one God in two persons.
Giver of Life
Then we have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is called the “Spirit of God.” Matthew 3:16: “The Spirit of God [was] descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.” And he’s called “the Spirit of [God’s] Son” (Galatians 4:6).
So, if the Spirit is the Spirit of God, and the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son of God, and if God is God and the Son is God, then the Spirit is God — if the Spirit is a distinct person from the Father and the Son, which clearly he is in the way Jesus talks about him in John 14–15. For example:
John 14:26: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Or here’s John 15:26: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”
Now, that’s the way you talk about a person, not an influence. So, these are some of the biblical building blocks of the doctrine of the Trinity, and there are many, many more.
Confess and Believe
The question Paul is asking in this episode of Ask Pastor John is “What degree of clarity in this life must a person have about the Trinity to affirm their true understanding of, and trust in, the God of the Bible?”
Now, here’s the way I want to try to answer this question: let’s take 1 John, for example. What we can see in this letter is a backdrop of some heretical teachings that determine what aspects of Christ’s nature are required for the congregation to believe. That’s why it’s so relevant for Paul’s question. And it appears that what is being emphasized in 1 John is both the deity and the earthly incarnation of the deity, of the Son of God. Both are necessary, in other words, to believe, to know about, and to distance yourself from the false teachers who are disputing these things.
“Christians are not, nor ever have been, polytheists: we don’t believe in multiple gods.”
The point that I’m drawing out is that what we need to embrace about the Trinity — or any doctrine — what we need to embrace explicitly or reject explicitly about the nature of Christ is often determined by what is being denied in our milieu, in our church, in the neighborhood where we live, or what is being falsely affirmed around us. In other words, I don’t know of any way to describe in the abstract which precise contours of the Trinity one must be clear about in order to be saved.
Rather, it seems to me from 1 John, as an example, and elsewhere, that we need to be authentic enough in our grasp of Christ’s reality that when false things are said about him, the authenticity of our faith recognizes those things and pushes them away rather than embracing them. Let me give you examples from 1 John:
1 John 4:9: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”
1 John 4:15: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him.” So, you need to know that.
1 John 5:10: “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar.”
1 John 5:11: “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”
1 John 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”
So, it seems to me that all of those verses stress the necessity of knowing Jesus as the Son of God, which is John’s language for God the Son. And then you read this in 1 John 4:2: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”
There the emphasis shifts from the deity, the sonship of Christ, to his nitty-gritty, earthy coming in the flesh, his incarnation. So, in John’s situation, where these truths are being challenged, they have to be confessed and believed.
Here’s my suggestion: what 1 John shows us is that authentic saving faith is of such a nature that, when false views of Christ’s deity and false views of Christ’s humanity are taught in the church, authentic saving faith smells a rat, and will at least have a big question mark, and will go to the Scriptures and search out the truth and believe it.
The practical implication of this for our life and our teaching, our families, our churches, is that we not spend too much time trying to discern what is minimally necessary to believe about the Trinity, but rather devote a lot of our time to helping all believers have authentic, well-informed, biblically grounded faith in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, who are one God in three persons.