Reformation Bible College
The Trinity’s Influence on the American Church and Its Gospel
Doctrine of God
The American church is not presently known for its theological prowess. Mega-churches attract “seekers” with doctrine that the apostle Paul would consider “ear tickling” (2 Tim. 4:3) and by centering their worship service not around worshiping God but evangelizing unbelievers. Recently, a pastor named T.D. Jakes participated in the Elephant Room with several other pastors who claim to be Calvinists. The event was intended as a gathering of Christian pastors to discuss and debate their theological and methodological differences. Jakes’ presence caused a controversy, not only because he is a proponent of the prosperity gospel, but for his modalistic understanding of the Trinity. While American Christians would likely condemn Jakes’ understanding of the Trinity once it was explained, many unwittingly ascribe to a very similar view themselves, or alternatively to a tri-theistic understanding of the Trinity. This is in large measure a result of pastors not preaching on the Trinity and expressing its importance from the pulpit. The Trinity has been treated like an anomaly, a side issue, yet the Trinity is essential to what and who God is. Consequently, the American church’s failure to understand and worship God as triune has resulted in a disjointed understanding of who God is and what His will is, especially regarding the atonement.
Even in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Trinity does not show up until question six, and the extent of the explanation of the Godhead is, “There are three persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” This may indicate the devaluing of the Trinity’s importance in the Western church’s mind. Christians often think they do well to simply avoid worshiping other gods, keeping the first commandment , but the second commandment forbids worshiping God wrongly. To not understand who God is in His triune nature is to break the second commandment, because having a basic grasp of the Trinity is necessary in order to have a fundamental understanding of God’s nature, how He acts, and why He acts the way that He does. It should come as no great surprise then that many church services across America do not reflect a reverent, accurate worship of God. Jesus Christ is often seen in stark contrast to God the Father because many do not realize that Jesus was involved in the creation process with God the Father in Genesis (John 1:1-5), and that He and the Father agree with one another perfectly, and indeed are one in essence (John 10:30). Some do not realize that Christ is pre-existent, with God the Father in heaven as God the Son before He took on flesh as a man. This misunderstanding has led to various Trinitarian errors throughout church history and is still believed by some today.
When we understand, however, that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have always existed in harmonious relationship with one another, we will grasp the unity within the will of the Trinity. In fact, there is no variance from God the Father, the Son, or the Spirit regarding their willing. Jesus as a man came to do the will of the Father who sent Him (John 6:38), and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to glorify them (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7,14). All three mutually glorify and indwell one another, and thus when one acts, all three in some capacity act, which is referred to as perichoresis. The Trinity has never had a disagreement, because the Godhead is triune, three in persons but one in essence. If this was understood, Christians would see that the difficult passages of God commanding the Israelites to destroy opposing nations in the Old Testament was just as much the will of God the Son as it was God the Father. Yet this unity between the Father and Son is not realized, and many believe that Jesus died on the cross to pacify an out of control, raging Father, and even had to persuade the Father to let Him die for man.
The disunity between the Father and the Son can be seen in America through R.C. Sproul’s book The Holiness of God. Sproul refers to what he calls a second “born again” experience, of being converted to God the Father after he seemed to only understand and be converted to God the Son. Sproul soon realized God was a holy God, and that Christ came as man to be the exact representation of the Father (Heb. 1:3). Indeed, Jonathan Edwards in his essay on the Trinity says that Jesus exists eternally as the express image of the Father. Again, we see there is no dissension in the Godhead; they do not act independently of one another, but together.
The good news is that there is no need to parse the words of Christ from the words of the Father or from the work of the Spirit. They represent each other and speak for one another. This is best seen in Scripture at Christ’s baptism, when the Spirit appears like a dove and the voice of God the Father is heard approving His Son (Mat. 3:16-17). This is crucial to understanding the sinless life Christ lived and the atonement. In His life, Christ fulfilled perfect obedience to the law through the power of the Spirit, and in like manner, Christians are to live by the power of the Spirit to resist temptation (Rom. 5:5). At the cross, God the Father poured out His wrath on His Son, Jesus Christ (Is. 53:10-11). Christ as a man died, but God the Son did not die, for God is immutable and immortal. Because man sinned, a man had to atone for the sin. Christ, as the perfect, sinless substitute of infinite value, did this on behalf of man, gaining glory as a man for Himself. This was the Godhead’s plan from the beginning, and is the epicenter of history as Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17 indicates. Note that the Spirit was involved, enabling Christ to fulfill all righteousness. Again, each member of the Godhead is acting in unity.
The nature of the atonement is misunderstood by many because they do not grasp the triune, perichoretic nature of the Godhead. Some atheists, and even some Christians, deny penal substitutionary atonement precisely because they think this would make God guilty of cosmic child abuse. A proper understanding of the Trinity illustrates, far from being cosmic child abuse, that this was the agreed upon plan of the Godhead to glorify one another, sending God the Son to die for sinners. This was God the Father’s way of making His Son the hero of history: Christ purchases His bride and saves her from sin; it also makes Him king over all creation in His humanity, redeeming it from the corruption it groans under (Rom. 8:22). The Son was eager to do this, not reluctant. He did not have to be talked into it by His Father, nor did He have to talk His Father into letting Him do this. Beyond showing us the unity in the Godhead once more, this demonstrates that God does everything for Himself, for His glory. The three exist in relationship, enjoying one another’s company by glorifying one another. The Godhead sovereignly orchestrated Creation and all history to glorify one another, extending this glory to the Creation. Through the Creation, the Father, Son, and Spirit are glorified through displaying wrath and grace, justice and mercy, hate and love.
Man, too, was created in the image of God to glorify God by joyful obedience and enjoyment of His presence and glory. This cannot be rightly understood, however, if the Trinity is not properly understood. Our sinfulness, even as Christians, leads us to believe that God would not create man solely to glorify Himself. We somehow think that that makes God an egomaniac. The truth is that it does, but this is in fact a good thing. The question is whether or not we believe Scripture when it says that God is worthy of all the glory, honor, and praise, forever and ever. If He is, then it would be wrong for God not to make all things to glorify Himself, because He would be denying Himself. Further, since God is worthy of all the glory, honor, and praise, it means that man is not, and so to be created for the one who is infinitely worthy is infinitely better than being created to live for oneself, who is infinitely unworthy of living for in comparison. The American church has forgotten this, and as a result we see many churches that preach a health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, or a gospel that says God is all about you, making you happy and giving you what you want like a magic genie in a bottle that is at your beckoning and call. This sounds good to many in America because America does not understand how much more glorious the Creator of man is than man is, and much of God’s glory is wrapped up in the doctrine of the Trinity. When the church forgets the Trinity, it often begins preaching a message that says man was worth saving, indeed that God had to save man because He somehow needed them. Then man becomes the center of the universe, the most glorious and praiseworthy being. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly in this fallen, sinful world where man reigns only in wickedness.
The American church needs to discover the God who is, and that starts with a correct understanding of the Trinity. This needs to be taught in the Bible colleges, seminaries, and especially from the pulpit on Sundays and in Sunday school. It is only when the Father, Son, and Spirit are seen acting as one without disunity that all of Scripture can be harmonized and seen as the glorious unveiling of God’s story from first to last, all according to God’s sovereign, impeccable plan. The focal point of God’s plan is the gospel, that salvation has come through the righteous life of Christ and His atoning death, but until the Trinity is firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of American churchgoers, the full weight of the gospel will not be felt, and the sinful hearts of man will only be affected to the degree that the truth of the gospel is weighty to them.
 Eryn Sun, “T.d. Jakes Linked to James Macdonald's Resignation from Gospel Coalition,” The Christian Post, http://www.christianpost.com/news/t-d-jakes-connection-to-james-macdonalds-resignation-from-the-gospel-coalition-67881/ (accessed May 1, 2012).
 R.C. Sproul Jr., “Doctrine of God Lecture Notes” (lecture, Reformation Bible College, Sanford, FL, January 25, 2012).
 Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2004), 264
 R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 25th Anniversary Edition ed. (Carol Stream: Ligonier Ministries, 2010), 6
 Jonathan Edwards, “An Unpublished Essay On the Trinity,” Monergism, http://www.monergism.com/Edwards,%20Jonathan%20-%20An%20Unpublished%20Essay%20on%20the%20Tr.pdf (accessed May 1, 2012)
 R.C. Sproul Jr., “Doctrine of God Lecture Notes” (lecture, Reformation Bible College, Sanford, FL, February 1, 2012).
 John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, 25th anniversary reference ed. (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah Books, 2011), 22