It is often assumed that the God of biblical revelation – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – is the same God that both contemporary Jews and Muslims worship. After all, these three great religions are all monotheistic, believing in one deity and one alone.
But is this really true? Do Jews, Muslims, and Christians worship the same God? Careful examination of the Bible will reveal a very significant contrast between the concept of God among Jews today, and that taught in Holy Scripture. The same is true of Islam’s deity.
Their God is a ‘monad’ like you and me – he is one person. There is no personal complexity in Allah or in Judaism’s God. But the God of biblical revelation is not like that at all.
In order to see this more clearly, let us approach this subject in two ways. First, let us examine the work of the three persons of the Trinity; then we will consider the ‘personhood’ of God.
In 1995 the American Bible Society produced a new translation of the Bible (the Contemporary English Version) that confuses the work of the three persons of the Godhead.
It renders Ephesians 1:5 as follows: ‘God was kind and decided that Christ would choose us to be God’s own adopted children’. A comparison with the Authorized Version, the RSV, the NASV, NKJV, NIV and the ESV will quickly convince you (even if you do not read Greek) that the CEV has a very unusual translation.
When I called the editorial board of the CEV to complain about the inaccuracy of this rendering, the translator assigned to talk with me clearly did not understand my complaint. He did not seem to think that there was any substantial difference between saying that the Father chose us, or Jesus Christ did so.
In fact, to render Ephesians 1:5 in this way is to misunderstand an important distinction concerning the saving activities of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Father chose
According to the apostle Paul, the electing work of God is specifically ascribed to the Father – who chose a people for himself and did so according to the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1:3, 6).
Moreover, Paul tells us that this reveals the love the Father had for those who would be saved by Christ. Because of this love, we were predestined to be adopted into God’s very family (Ephesians 1:4-5).
Thus we may say that the Father chose us in love, and did so before the creation of the universe, angels, or men. We are given a glimpse into the eternal counsels of God.
The Father having chosen his people, the Son consequently accomplished their salvation – bringing them ‘redemption through his blood’ (Ephesians 1:7). Christ Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world to die in the place of undeserving sinners.
Thus the redeeming work of the Son has been brought to pass in human history – but the Father’s was an eternal work.
The work of the Spirit
And what may we say of the Holy Spirit? Is it not that God’s Spirit comes to us, in our own experience, to apply what the Father purposed in eternity and what the Son accomplished in time?
God’s own Spirit comes to us bringing the new birth. He finds us lying dead in trespasses and sins and brings sinners to newness of life (Ephesians 2:4-5).
We see Christ as our only hope, and we place our faith in him. All this, including the gifts of repentance and faith, is the work of God’s Holy Spirit (Acts 11:18).
So salvation is the work of the triune God. God has done it all. The Father purposed it in eternity; the Son accomplished it in history (dying in our place on the cross and being raised to new life for our justification; Romans 4:25); and the Holy Spirit implements it in our experience – making all the works of God effective in us.
These are distinct works of grace. For example, the Father did not die on the cross, nor did the Holy Spirit. It was the Son who was given that work to do.
Clearly, all this was decided in the eternal counsel of God, and there can be no disagreement between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. There is a unity of purpose here, but different works are accomplished by different persons.
The triune God
Given that Scripture reveals what God has done in a tri-personal way to save us, what can we say about this ‘threeness’ in God – and about the clear teaching of the Bible that we do not worship three gods but only the one true God?
God is one. He alone is God. He is the living God, as opposed to the various idols that men fashion for themselves. But we have already seen that the work of God in saving men reveals his triune character.
There are other passages of Scripture which also help us. For example, just before the Lord Jesus returned to heaven he told his disciples, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name [singular] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19).
Again, the language of Genesis 1:26 makes it evident that there is a plurality in the Godhead: ‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”.’
Why is the name of God threefold?
What troubles us?
The threefold plurality of the Godhead manifests itself in the progressive revelation given in the Scriptures. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods but only one.
It should not surprise us that God is unlike us in a fundamental way. As human beings, we know what it means to be one person. But we have no conception from our experience of what it means to be three persons at the same time.
How can we understand this doctrine of God as triune – as three persons and yet only one God? What troubles us the most?
Is it the idea that there are three persons in the Godhead? Or is it the teaching that, even though there are three persons, there is only one God? Let us consider both these problems.
What is most clearly revealed in Scripture? It is that there are three persons in the Godhead. Some might reply that the teaching that God is one is clear from the express statements of the Bible. That is true. But we see the ‘threeness’ in God most clearly in the fact that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all presented to us in ways that show that each is fully divine.
Jesus is Jehovah
An inductive study of the Bible demonstrates this fact. Our Lord Jesus Christ, for instance, is portrayed as Jehovah (God’s holy name in the Old Testament).
Both Matthew and Luke quote an Old Testament prophecy that Jehovah (the Lord) would come to earth in order to save his people (Isaiah 4:1, 5), and both apply that prophecy to Jesus Christ (Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4).
In other words, both of these New Testament writers regarded our Lord Jesus Christ as Jehovah. They believed him to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Again, John calls Christ the ‘Word of God’, and he tells us that ‘the Word was God’ (John 1:1). The writer of Hebrews also ascribes deity to Christ in the first chapter of that epistle (Hebrews 1:8,10).
What of the Holy Spirit? Would anyone argue that he is not God? It was the Holy Spirit of God who hovered over the emptiness of earth in anticipation of the words: ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:2, 3).
It was God who came to his people on the Day of Pentecost.
The perfection of love
That there are three persons in the Godhead is clear enough. The difficulty lies in understanding how the three can be one. How can they have such unity of essence that we must confess that there is only one God?
What binds the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together in such a way that, in order to be true to the facts, we must say that they are one?
One clue to understanding more about the unity of God is that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:6). Love caused the Father to send the Son into the world (John 3:16). The self-sacrificing love of Christ revealed by his cross further demonstrates the nature of God (John 15:9). The fruit of the Spirit, again, is love (Galatians 5:22).
But all love (apart from self-love) requires the interaction of persons. Yet God could be ‘love’ before creation.
He did not need to create men or angels. He needed no one else for companionship – because a triune God is neither lonely nor alone! Our God is, within himself, the perfection of love and relationship.
If that is so, is it not humbling to know that the triune God, who needed none of us, nevertheless created us – even though he knew we would rebel against him and spurn his love?
And not only did he create us, but he planned to save us – even though he knew we would be undeserving sinners, at enmity with his righteous will.
The doctrine of the Trinity is extremely mysterious because it takes us to the very heart of God’s being. He is infinite; we are finite. There will always be questions we cannot answer.
At the boundaries of our finiteness, we come to the end of our ability to understand. We glimpse something of what God is like, but can go no further. Only God can fully understand himself (1 Corinthians 2:11).