The Love of the Trinity

Image by Daniel Wanke from Pixabay
Image by Daniel Wanke from Pixabay

And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Matthew 3:17

The idea of the Trinity is massively important. Did you notice the way the Father introduces the Son to the world at his baptism? “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” This is immensely important. It is important for the following reason: love cannot exist in a vacuum of fellowship. And that means that love cannot exist apart from a plurality of persons. This means that if God is unipersonal, he could not be loving in himself. It would mean that love is something God would only have discovered once he created the world, but that before the world was created, he was loveless. And that would mean that God is not love, contradicting 1 Jn. 4:8. Because God is a Trinity, love is not something God discovered, it is something that he is. He didn’t develop it once he created other beings, he has always been loving from eternity.

Now think about what it would mean for the other attributes of God if God could not identify himself in terms of love. Think about sovereignty unattached from love, holiness and justice and power separate from love, and you get a God that is severe, untouchable, frightening, austere. It would be hard to love such a God; in fact, it would be impossible.

Of course, love requires more than a plurality of persons. You can have a room full of people who hate each other. Additionally, there must be a bond of fellowship that unites. And this is the way the Trinity is revealed to us; not just in terms of a plurality of persons but also in terms of a fellowship of mutual love. For the gospel tells us by the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, God identifies himself to us primarily as a loving Father, and from eternity he is a Father first and foremost to his Son. When he introduces his Son to us at his baptism, it is as “my beloved Son,” and you cannot have a Son without a Father. When Jesus teaches us to pray, it is to “our Father” (Mt. 6:9). In fact, one of the main points of the Sermon on the Mount is that we are to relate to God as Father. And though it is not as clear in the OT, God identifies himself as a Father there, too (see Ex. 4:22; Deut. 1:31; 8:5; Ps. 103:13; Is. 1:2; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1).

But God did not begin to be a Father when the Son became incarnate. The Son is the eternal Son of the Father, for the Father sent the Son into the world; he did not send him to be the Son, but he sent him who already was the Son (Rom. 8:3). God the Father and God the Son have existed in an eternal fellowship of love. What was God doing before the foundation of the world? Jesus tells us: “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (Jn. 17:5). “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24). What was God the Father doing before the foundation of the world? He was loving the Son. They have always existed together in a holy fellowship of love and glory.

And the Spirit is the bond of that fellowship of love. You see it there at the baptism. How is it that the Father communicates his love to the Son? It is not only by declaring it, but also by sending the Spirit like a dove to rest upon his Son. Just as God communicates his love to us by the Spirit (Rom. 5:5), even so the Father communicates his love to the Son through the Holy Spirit: “In that same hour he [Jesus] rejoiced in the Holy Spirit, and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (Lk 10:21). Thus the apostle speaks of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14).

But this Spirit is not some impersonal force; rather he is a person in his own right: he can speak and send (Acts 13:2,4), choose (Acts 20:28), teach (Jn. 14:26), be lied to (Acts 5:3,9), resisted (Acts 7:51), grieved (Eph. 4:30), and blasphemed (Mt. 12:31). It is in the one Name that we are baptized; a name that is given by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

So you see, God did not become loving. He has always been loving. God’s works in creation and providence and salvation are acts of love because that is what God is. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:9-10). God overflows in love, first and foremost in the Trinity, and then outwards towards his creation. And we can know that God’s love is not some temporary blimp on the screen of his attributes because love is an eternal and necessary part of who God is. And it is important to see that it is the doctrine of the Trinity that guarantees this.

All this affects the way we relate to God. In Christ, we do not relate to God primarily as our Ruler, though he is that, nor as Almighty, though he is that. We relate to him primarily as our Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. The pattern in Scripture, the order, is this: by the Spirit, though the Son, we approach the Father.[1] “For through him [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18; cf. Rom. 8:14-17). It’s important that we see this, because sometimes we can think of God as the One Essence and the Persons as somehow existing alongside “God.” Rather, the one God is the Holy Trinity. We don’t approach the “Unoriginate,” as Arius called God.[2] After all, “With ‘The Unoriginate’ we are left scrambling for a dictionary in a philosophy lecture; with a Father things are familial. And if God is a Father, then he must be relational and life-giving, and that is the sort of God we could love.”[3]

Now by saying that we relate to God primarily as Father, I’m not saying that we believe that the Son or the Holy Spirit are lesser beings than God the Father – they are all properly God, equal in power and glory – yet there is an order in the Trinity. You will notice in the NT that almost always when “God” is used, the word refers to God the Father. This is not because the Son or the Spirit are not God. After all, John tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). In Acts 5, we learn that lying to the Holy Spirit is the same thing as lying to God. Rather, God almost always refers to the Father because there is a definite order in the Trinity. Paul mentions this order in 1 Cor. 11:3, when he writes, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” The Father loves the Son, and this eternal fellowship of love overflows in the sending of the Son to love the Church. The Father sends the Son; it is never the other way round. The Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son; it is never the Father or the Son proceeding from the Spirit. But what all this means for us is that the Son of God worked for us and the Spirit of God works in us in order that we might be able to approach God the Father as our Father. Thus Peter writes, “you call on him as Father” (1 Pet. 1:17). It’s why Jesus told Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17). It is precisely because of what Jesus has done for us that his Father becomes also our Father and this is a wonderful and amazing reality indeed.

Of course, some earthly fathers are mean and cruel. We must divorce all such notions from our minds when we think of God as Father. God is Father but he is not evil as we are (Mt. 6:11). He is good; the OT refrain remains true: “the steadfast love of the LORD endures forever.” The love that we are called to experience is the infinitely superior and pure love of the Trinity; it is not the selfish and overbearing and hurtful relationship that is sometimes expressed in broken and sinful families. It is the love that the Father has towards his own Son. There is nothing cruel or harsh or unkind or ugly about that love.

And it is this love that we are called to demonstrate in our lives. Why do you think that the first commandment is to love God and then to love our neighbor? It is because the only way you can relate to God is by love since he himself is love, and thus the only way we can imitate God is through love. The love that the Father has for the Son overflows in the Son’s love for the church, and that is to overflow in our hearts towards our spouses, our children, our friends and our neighbors. The Trinity is at the heart of everything; not only as an important doctrine but as the basis of our ethic as well, the foundation of all doctrine and duty.

So you should love the doctrine of the Trinity. But more than that, you should love the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit. For it is possible to love a doctrine and fail to love the God of the doctrine, and we don’t want to do that. We want to really love God; and to love God is to love the Father through the Son in the Spirit. It is to be included in the eternal fellowship of the holy Trinity through Christ our Savior. And there is no greater imaginable blessing than that.

[1] This point is repeatedly made in Robert Letham’s very helpful book, The Holy Trinity.

[2] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity, location 253.

[3] Ibid., loc. 253.

By: Jeremiah Bass