THE MYSTERY OF THE TRINITY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 13:14
3-1-64 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the 11:00 o’clock message entitled The Mystery of the Trinity. This is the second part of the sermon delivered last Sunday morning entitled, What God is Like. But as I attempted to deliver this message at the 8:15 hour I had to leave out two-thirds of it. So there will be another sermon on the deity of Christ.
And then, as you know, for months now I have been collecting, gathering a small library on the Holy Spirit. And in the days that lie ahead, if God gives us length of days and strength and wisdom, there will be a long series of sermons on the Holy Spirit of God. I have never made a study of the Holy Spirit. I look forward to it with deep earnest anticipation. My first reaction to this whole study is one of overwhelming, inexpressible amazement…God. I felt that I needed it for myself. So much of Christianity is veneer; it is peripheral; it is cheap; it is identified with “Be good, be good, be good.”
There is not an ethic in the world, there is not a philosophy in the world, there is not a system in the world, there is not a religion in the world, there is not anything from the time of creation to now that does not say “Be good.” Did you ever hear of a system that said, “Be evil”? Even the communists and even the Nazis who murdered and killed, did it for their reason that they are achieving a great good; “We are winning a great righteous battle.”
Christianity is not just a mouthing, just a “me-too-ism,” just a repetition of what has been said from time and eternity. There are great fundamentals that God has revealed of Himself, of us, of His church, of a thousand other profitable and marvelous things. And I am interested in them. If God has spoken, what does God say? I want to know. I am interested. And that is what these sermons concern.
Now I say, as I have come to the subject of what God is like, my first impression has been one of colossal, indescribable amazement and bewilderment. I am exactly as though a man were looking upon the New Jerusalem, the city of God [Revelation 21:9-21], and as he walks and observes the foundations and the height of the wall and the thousand five hundred mile height of the avenues of the city, he could not but be overwhelmed. That is what we are doing. We are examining the foundations of the Christian faith, and my reaction is one of overwhelming amazement. And that is why when I study and make these sermons, when I come up here to deliver them they are just fragments. There is not time to save. Well, God give us length of days and wisdom and understanding, the Holy Trinity, The Mystery of the Trinity.
There are two ways in which we are introduced to the tri-personality of God. One: we are introduced to the Trinity in the revelation of the Holy Scriptures. Second: we know God as three Persons in our spiritual experience. We know God as three in the Bible. We know God as three in our experience.
First, we know God as three in the Bible. The Old Testament Scriptures foreshadow the revelation of the Trinity that is clear and lucid and plainly presented in the New Covenant. But it is foreshadowed, its adumbration is found in the Old Covenant. For example, when I pick up my Bible and turn to the first leaf, I find here an amazing thing in the first sentence, “In the beginning God” [Genesis 1:1]. When I look at it in Hebrew, Elohim, why, that is an amazing and astonishing thing, “In the beginning Elohim.” You who read at all know that the plural in the Hebrew language is “im,” “i-m,” “im.” There is a cherub, there are cherubim; there is a seraph, there is seraphim, plural. The word in Hebrew for God is El, e-l, El. You have a word for God, God. They have a word for God, El.
Nathanael, the gift of God [John 1:45]. Samuel, asked of God [1 Samuel 1:20]. Elkanah, the flesh of God, he belongs to God [1 Samuel 1:1]. Elijah, Jehovah is God, El [1 Kings 17:1]. The plural of El is Elohim, and I am amazed, I am astonished. Read in the first sentence of the Holy Bible, “In the beginning God,” Elohim, plural, “God created the heaven and the earth” [Genesis 1:1]. And the plural use of that word El, Elohim, is throughout the entire Old Testament Scripture. I looked in an analytical concordance at the number of them and I could not count them. It took me too long, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds; God, plural, and always with a singular verb.
The great avowal of faith of Israel is this, Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord thy God is one God.” [Deuteronomy 6:4] But it is plural. “The Lord thy Elohim” is one. Elohim is one Lord, singular verb, but a plural subject, Elohim, all through the Word of God, like Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am Elohim,” plural, “God.”
It is an astonishing thing to find it in the Hebrew language, and that plurality you will find woven into the text. “And God said, and Elohim said, Let Us,” plural, Genesis 1:26, Let Us make man in Our, “plural,” image, after Our, “plural,” likeness.” An astonishing thing! I turn the page and after the transgression in Eden [Genesis 3:1-6], and the Lord, Elohim, God says, “Behold, the man has become as one of Us” [Genesis 3:22], plural, “Us,” plural. I turn the page, when the Tower of Babel is rising from the dust of the ground, as though a man could be God, the Lord said, “Go to, let Us go down, and confound their language” [Genesis 11:7]. Isaiah chapter 6, the incomparable vision of the Lord, high and lifted up [Isaiah 6:1], “And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom will I send, and who will go for Us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” [Isaiah 6:8]. “Who shall go for Us,” said the Lord; Elohim, an astonishing thing, an amazing thing!
The three are named here in the Old Testament Scriptures, “In the beginning God, God … And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” [Genesis 1:1-2]. In the first two verses the first two personalities of the Godhead, they are named in the Scriptures. And that’s why I am taking out two-thirds of the sermon, and I am going to dedicate a message to the deity of the Son of God. The third One is named in the Old Testament. And Nebuchadnezzar said, as he looked into that fiery furnace, “Behold, lo, I see four men walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” [Daniel 3:25]. It will be an interesting sermon, that is, to me, when we go through these Old Testament Scriptures and see Jesus, and see the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, from the beginning, from the beginning.
Now in the New Testament—and we must hasten—in the New Testament the Trinity of God is fully revealed. “Go ye therefore,” said our Lord in the Great Commission, “and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” [Matthew 28:19]. When the Lord was baptized, the Son was buried beneath the water and raised out of the water by John the Baptist, Jesus Christ the Son. And the Father’s voice heard from heaven, “This is My Son,” and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending upon Him [Matthew 3:16-17], the Trinity of God. In the beautiful, incomparabley beautiful and so often repeated benediction by which Paul closes his second letter to the church of Corinth, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen” [2 Corinthians 13:14]. Another instance, the beginning of the letter of Simon Peter to the Diaspora, the scattered-abroad children of God in the provinces of the eastern Roman Empire, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, to the sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you be multiplied” [1 Peter 1:2]. The three: God our Father, God our Savior, and God our Holy Comforter and keeper.
In the New Testament Scriptures all three are called God, all three of Them. There is often times in the New Testament, as you will find an instance in John 6:27, often times you will find the phrase “God the Father.” God the Father, “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed, sanctified, holy, reverent, Thy name,” God the Father [Matthew 6:9].
And Jesus is called God over and over again. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [John 1:1]. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” [John 1:14]. “The Word was God” [John 1:1]. The conclusion, the climactic conclusion of John’s Gospel, is the twentieth chapter. The twenty-first chapter is an addendum written a long time by John after he had composed his Gospel. And the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John rises to a recognition, an avowal, a confession of the deity of the Son of God. And Thomas, “Except I see those prints in His hands and put my finger in them, lest I see that scar and thrust my hand in it, I will not believe” [John 20:25]. Then the Lord, eight days later on a Sunday night, the next Sunday night after He was raised from the dead, that first Lord’s Day, appeared to the disciples, Thomas being with them [John 20:26]. And He turned to Thomas and said,
Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold My hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing.
And Thomas answered and said, My Lord, my Lord and my God.
This is the great climax of the Fourth Gospel. “My Lord, my Lord and my God, my God.” Now that is reiterated, and we haven’t time even but just to look at it. In this doxology of Paul in the ninth chapter of the Book of Romans, speaking of a glory he ascribes to Jesus Christ “who is over all, God blessed for ever,” Christ over all, God blessed forever; Christ, God [Romans 9:5].
Once again, here is a studied, calm, calling Jesus God: Titus 2:13, “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God, our Savior Jesus Christ.” Whom do we expect from heaven? God. Whom shall we worship in glory? God. To whom now do we belong? God. And what is His name? In the Old Testament it was Yahweh, Jehovah. In the New Testament, incarnate, His name is Jesus, God. This is the Trinity.
Now in this New Testament not only is the Father called God, not only is the Son called God, but the Holy Spirit is also called God. For example, in the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts, Peter said to Ananias, “Why hast Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” [Acts 5:3]. Then, skipping a verse, he says, “Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God,” the Holy Spirit, God [Acts 5:4]. You have a difficulty here in the King James Version of the Bible, out of which most of us read and certainly the most beautiful of all of the pieces of literature in human speech. “Likewise,” in the eighth chapter of Romans and the twenty-sixth verse, “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” [Romans 8:26].
And many, many times there is the tendency on the part of God’s people to refer to the Holy Spirit as an “it,” as an “it,” the Holy Spirit, “it.” Now the reason for that translation there is a very simple one. The King James Version was a translation seeking to place in English the exact equivalent of the language in the original Greek, just exactly as it is written in the original Greek, those translators in 1611 tried to write it out in English.
Now in the English language everything is sex, everything is. If it is a male it is always a he or a him. If it is a female it is always a she or a her. If it is neither male nor female, in the English language, it is an “it,” it is a neuter. Now that is our language and we are accustomed to it and don’t think anything other about it. But there are many, many languages that do not observe an actual gender but their language is built on what they call a grammatical gender.
Now German is that way. In the German language for example the name of a girl, a girl, a maiden, is a das Mädchen, however that umlaut is “urraach.” It is a das Mädchen, Mädchen, Mädchen, das Mädchen. It is a neuter gender. In the German language the word for girl, for maid, is neuter. Well, when you are first introduced to those languages, those things overwhelm you. It is a grammatical gender. It is the way the language runs.
Now Greek also is like that. It has a grammatical gender. And in the Greek language, pneuma, your word pneumatic, and pneumatic tire comes from that word breath, wind, spirit, pneuma, pneuma, and it is neuter. So when these translators took the neuter word, they translated it accurately. But, “the Spirit itself” [Romans 8:26], that is the way it is in Greek, auto, neuter, itself. But that is a grammatical language and not an actual delineation to us of the personality of the Spirit of God, for in the next verse the Spirit is called a He [Romans 8:27]. And throughout the Word of God, when the Spirit of God is referred to, it is always with that personal male pronoun, “He.” And the Holy Spirit of God is a Person; like Jesus is a Person; like God the Father is a Person.
And if we had time, and we shall do it in the days to come, you will see the personality of the Holy Spirit. He can be vexed [Isaiah 63:10]; He can be grieved [Ephesians 4:30]; He can be blasphemed [Matthew 12:31]; He can be resisted [Acts 7:51]. And the Holy Spirit can love, the love of the Spirit, God has shed abroad in our hearts [Romans 5:5]. This is the Spirit of God.
And when we have the Spirit of God—Jesus going away [John 16:7], we did not exchange one for the other—but having the Holy Spirit in our hearts we have Jesus in our hearts. We have all of Jesus in our hearts. We have all of God in our hearts, in the Holy Spirit [John 14:23, 26]. The three are God.
Now not only in the revelation of the Scriptures do we learn that God is three, but in experience we know God as a tri-personality. We know God, any man who is saved, regenerated, born again [John 3:5]; any Christian knows God in experience as His Father in heaven to whom we offer prayers and supplications, God our Father [Matthew 6:9]. And he knows in his experience God our Savior, on the basis of whose atonement and righteousness and grace and forgiveness, we who are vile sinners dare to approach the throne of a Holy God [Hebrews 4:14-16]. And we know the regenerating power, and we feel the presence of the Lord God in our hearts [Titus 3:5-6], the Holy Spirit who teaches us the way of the Lord [1 John 2:27]. That is the experience of any regenerated Christian. We come to God in the name of the Savior the Lord Jesus [John 14:13, 15:16, 16:23], being taught and trained by the Holy Spirit [John 14:26, 16:13], who maketh intercession with words that we cannot pronounce [Romans 8:26-27]. That is the experience of the Christian.
Now to begin with it is an admission on the part of every theologian and every one of us who has been saved, it is an admission that it is an inscrutable, it is a knowledge of complexity, it is an inscrutable mystery beyond any other mystery in the world or in the universe, the mystery of the tri-personality of God. Even before one of God’s attributes, the psalmist in 139, verse 6, says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it” [Psalm 139:6]. And the psalmist could say that about one of the attributes of God, what of us who stand in the presence of the great Lord God Almighty Himself? Oh, how finite, how small, how little, God in heaven, what a small infinitesimal minutiae is us, compared to the infinitude of the majesty and glory and mystery of the inscrutable, unfathomable, invisible Lord God.
Now I have several comments to make about it, and we will just make them until we have to stop. First, though it is inscrutable and though it is inexplicable, it is not self-contradictory. If we were to stand up here to assert and say three is one and one is three, then that would be certainly inanity and self-contradiction. But we do not assert that. God is not one in the numerical sense that He is three. And God is not three in the numerical sense that He is one.
What we are asserting from the Bible and from our Christian experience is this: that the great God, who with reference to His essence or substance, if I could use the word substance to describe an invisible spirit, God who with reference to His essence, to the substance of God, to the morphē of God, the form of God, whatever form God is, God who with reference to His essence is one, that same one God with reference to His modes of being, to the distinction in that essence, is three.
Now having said it, you are still in the same inscrutable mystery. How is that, the great one essence of God could be three in modes of being in revelation, in personality? Well, you stand again in that same overwhelming, inexplicable wonder. But when you get to thinking you will find that, that mystery unfathomable, unfathomable mystery, unknowableness, you will find that to be a hallmark of the presence and work of God anywhere, everywhere in the whole universe. If it is of God, if it is of God, it is inscrutable and mysterious and inexplicable. The only person in this universe to whom there are no mysteries is the Lord God Himself. He knows everything. But for a man, a human man, to try to be God—for a man, for example, to be indignant or arrogant or proud because he does not understand, is to be indignant and proud and arrogant because he is not God. No man in this earth understands anything that pertains to the work or the presence of God. If it is of God it is an inscrutable mystery.
Well, what are you talking about? Well, let me illustrate it. You, look at you. Just sit down here with yourself. Now here I am. What am I? Am I a unity? Am I plurality? Why, I am the most amazing combination of pluralism that mind could imagine, and I do not understand it. How is it that a man, an individual you, can be mind and matter as dissimilar as those two things are? You, how can you be soul and body? You, how is it that invisible spirit you, and corporeal body you, make one?
To begin with, just explaining human existence, you don’t speak of unity but you immediately begin to speak of plurality. Here is a man’s mind. Here is a man’s soul. Here is a man’s body. And how those dissimilar elements can be combined in a unity is beyond what a man can understand. Don’t you ever persuade yourself there shall ever be, as there never has been—there shall never be, as there never has been, there has never been, there shall never be a philosopher, a theologian, or a scientist that can explain how mind acts upon matter. You don’t know, yet you live and breathe and talk and move and think and love and act every day and every minute of your life, but it is an inexplicable mystery because God did it.
Now I am not going to take time to descend to the ordinary common facts of nature, all of which are inexplicable to a man’s mind, all of them, all of them. The commonest facts of nature, all of them, are inexplicable. For example, your growth, your human growth. You eat the same thing, you eat the same thing, hamburgers, ingerns, mustard, dill pickles, potato chips, ketchup, Tabasco sauce. The reason I think about that is I can’t do that anymore, and I miss it. All right, we all eat the same thing; all eat the same thing. Sit down and to eat and eat and eat and eat. Some of it makes toenails. If you have got any bunions, some of it makes bunions. If you have got any corns, some of it makes corns. Got any hair? Some of it makes hair, except in instances where it doesn’t. But some of it makes hair. Some of it makes teeth. Some of it makes eyes. Some of it makes stomach. Some of it makes bone, muscle, mind, matter! Oh, what is this? God’s work!
Why, there is not a man in the world, all he does is just look at it, and he writes it down in his book, and he calls it a book of science. And when a fellow eats, why, it is digested, and we don’t understand that; and it is assimilated, and we don’t understand that; and it becomes nutritional for the body, and we don’t understand that. And some of it makes these things, and I do not understand that, but we just write it out. That is all that a man can ever do, ever, ever. That is why I say when you stand and look at the foundations of God’s world, you are filled with mystery and bewilderment and amazement at what God has done!
Ah, we must hasten. We must hasten. We are limited by our ability to say a thing, to take the infinitude of God, the mystery of the invisible Spirit, and try to clothe it in analogies, and in comparisons and similes and metaphors and in human language that drags in the earth. It is an impossibility; you can’t do it. You can’t do it.
For example, I copied, oh, and how many there are—I copied the attempt of human men, human minds to find analogies to the Trinity, the tri-personality of God:
- Athanasius for example, used the term fountain, stream, and rivulet, the rivulet that run from the stream.
- Boardman used the analogy of cloud, rain, and rising mist.
- One of the members of our church wrote me a long letter years ago and referred to it as water, ice, and snow.
- And one of the members of our church came to me after the 8:15 service and said it is like an egg, it has shell, white albumen, and yoke.
- F.W. Robertson said it has color, shape, and size.
- Sabellius said, sun, light, and heat.
- Luther, holding a flower, said it has form, fragrance, and efficacy.
- When Patrick was preaching in Ireland and preaching the doctrine of the Trinity three in one, those heathens said, “Three in one? How could it be?” He picked up a shamrock, a cloverleaf, and said, “Look, three in one.”
- Joseph Cook: sunlight, rainbows, heat.
- Paul Krϋger, the phantom wick—the tallow of a wick, of a candle—the tallow, the wick, and the flame.
- Augustine, root, trunk, and branch of a tree.
- Augustine again, intellect, affections, and will.
- Geer: the qualities of length, breadth, and thickness.
- Hegel, the great German theologian: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
- Melanchthon: subject, object, and subject matter.
- And others: body, soul, and spirit.
- And still others, the three different notes that would make a chord.
But when you have studied it all, and gone through it all, you are as far below, describing the analogies, you are as far below describing the tri-personality of God, trying to put it in human speech, as if you have never started. Even our word “Person” is a condescension to the human language. “Father” and “Son” are explanations from our human level that grow out of the incarnation, but their spiritual meaning is far above their meaning in this earth and in this world. You can’t do it. You can’t do it.
I repeat, we just know by experience. I know God the Father when I kneel and pray. I know God the Savior when I ask for forgiveness of sins. And I know God as Holy Spirit when I feel the sanctifying, regenerating grace and presence in my heart.
Now I must conclude, I must conclude. There has never been a deviation from this commitment that I preach this morning. There has never been a deviation from that doctrine of the Triune God in the true church from the beginning to this present hour. For example at the Athanasian Creed reads, “The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Ghost is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God. The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Ghost is Lord, yet there are not three Lords but one Lord. For as we are compelled by Christian truth to acknowledge each Person by Himself to be God and Lord, so we are forbidden by the same truth to say that there are three Gods or three Lords.”
And in the first century—now this is in the 100s, in the first century the church of Jesus of Alexandria repeated together, “Only One is holy, the Father. Only One is holy, the Son. Only One is holy, the Spirit. One in explicably three. One in simplest unity.” And in every manual of a Baptist church, in the Articles of Faith today, two thousand years later, you will find this first article of the true God:
We believe that there is one and only one living true God, an infinite intelligent Spirit whose name is Jehovah, the Maker and Supreme Ruler of heaven and earth, inexpressibly glorious and holiness and worthy of all possible honor, confidence, and love; that in the unity of the Godhead there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, equal in divine perfection and executing distinct but harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.
“Holy, holy, holy,” sang in Trisagion the seraphim, when Isaiah saw the Lord high, and lifted up [Isaiah 6:1, 3].
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three persons, the blessed Trinity.
[“Holy, Holy, Holy,” by Reginald Heber]
May the Spirit teach us, give us grace to understand and faith to grow strong as the day shall come and go and we learn at the blessed feet of our Lord Jesus. [Matthew 11:29]
Now while we sing our hymn of appeal, to avow today your personal acceptance of the revelation of God in Jesus as your Savior [Romans 3:8-13], you come and stand by me. A family you, putting your life in the fellowship of the church [Hebrews 10:24-25], “Pastor, this is my wife, these are our children, all of us are coming today.” Make it now, make it now, one somebody you, a couple, as the Spirit of God shall open the door and lead in the way [Romans 8:14], make it now, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.