Content modified from The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything by Fred Sanders
The doctrine of the Trinity has a peculiar place in the minds and hearts of evangelical Christians. How has it come about that so many evangelicals today are cold toward the doctrine of the Trinity, confused about its meaning, or noncommittal about its importance? Even though solid biblical and theological teaching on the subject is available, the doctrine of the Trinity continues to be treated as an awkward guest in the evangelical household.
What is the Trinity for?
The first and clearest answer has to be that the Trinity isn’t ultimately for anything, any more than God is for the purpose of anything. Just as you wouldn’t ask what purpose God serves or what function he fulfills, it makes no sense to ask what the point of the Trinity is or what purpose the Trinity serves. The Trinity isn’t for anything beyond itself, because the Trinity is God. God is God in this way: God’s way of being God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously from all eternity, perfectly complete in a triune fellowship of love. If we don’t take this as our starting point, everything we say about the practical relevance of the Trinity could lead us to one colossal misunderstanding: thinking of God the Trinity as a means to some other end, as if God were the Trinity in order to make himself useful. But God the Trinity is the end, the goal, the telos, the omega. In himself and without any reference to a created world or the plan of salvation, God is that being who exists as the triune love of the Father for the Son in the unity of the Spirit. The boundless life that God lives in himself, at home, within the happy land of the Trinity above all worlds, is perfect. It is complete, inexhaustibly full, and infinitely blessed.
A Gospel that Starts Outside of You
The good news is that God the Father saved us by sending the Son and the Holy Spirit. But we have also said that the eternal life of God in himself is something “even better than the good news,” if it is possible to say so reverently. What we mean by this is that God’s eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a thing of infinite blessedness and perfection. There is a blessed God at the core of the glorious gospel. God in himself is perfect, and perfectly happy. This vision of a God with no unmet needs is a glimpse of the depths of the living God and the fund out of which he spends himself so freely in the economy of salvation.
The good news, in other words, starts far outside of us, in the life of the blessed Trinity which is complete in itself and suffers from no lack. This is not a cold abstraction, but a great thing worth praising God for. John Piper has worked hard to remind Christians that “God’s glory consists much in the fact that he is happy beyond our wildest imagination.” His 1986 book Desiring God is mostly devoted to the way “Christian hedonism,” or living to enjoy God, works its way out in every area of the Christian life (Scripture, prayer, money, missions, marriage, suffering, etc.). But Piper builds all these practical points, necessarily, on the solid foundation of “the happiness of God” as an eternal Trinitarian event of the Father and the Son rejoicing in each others presence. While he admits that “we stand at the foothills of mystery in all these things,” Piper also affirms that “the Scriptures have given us some glimpses of the heights.”30 Those heights are Trinitarian:
Within the triune Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), God has been uppermost in his own affections for all eternity. This belongs to his very nature, for he has begotten and loved the Son from all eternity. Therefore God has been supremely and eternally happy in the fellowship of the Trinity.31
It may seem counter-intuitive to start so far back in the divine mystery of God’s own being, if the goal is to change lives. The cry in our day always seems to be for a practical doctrine of the Trinity, for relevance, application, and experiential payoff. Indeed, it is true that the doctrine of the Trinity changes everything about Christian life. But the wisest Christian teachers have always known that shortcuts to relevance are self-defeating. In bypassing the deep sources of reality, they not only miss the truth but ultimately deliver less practical benefit. When it comes to the difference that the doctrine of the Trinity can make in our lives, it is crucially important that we begin with a recognition of God in himself before moving on to God for us. What we need to begin with is a profoundly impractical doctrine of the Trinity. With that in place, we can really get something done.
- 30. John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1986), 32.
- 31. Ibid., 33. Piper is developing ideas from Jonathan Edwards throughout this section.