The doctrine of the Trinity, expressed seminally in Church creeds and continually defended in each generation’s own theological context, is a precious and glorious doctrine.  Yet, it is not enough for the doctrine of the Trinity to remain merely in the realm of creedal affirmations and theological nuance-no doctrine in the Bible was ever meant to be detached from the life and health of God’s people.  As Noel Due rightly observes,

[D]ebates about the person of Christ and the nature of the Trinity should not lull us into thinking that the transformation which Jesus came to bring was simply the liturgy and wording of public assemblies.  The New Testament expressions of Trinitarian framework are more organic than systematic.  They relate to the life of the people of God in their experience of community, more than to their life as an expression of the academy.[1]

In the following paragraphs, therefore, we will examine how we are to delight in the Trinity through our praise and prayer, and how we are called to display the glory of the Trinity in our relationships and in our churches.

Delighting in the Trinity: In Our Praise
Who is the object of our praise and delight?  This is an important question, since the Old Testament is replete with affirmations of God’s “oneness” and warnings against those who might be tempted to worship another god.[2] When we come to the New Testament, however, we are confronted with a Christ who is responsible for creation (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-18; Hebrews 1:1-4), who is equal to the Father (John 1:1; 5:23), and who is spoken of in terms reserved exclusively for deity (John 1:1; 8:58; I Corinthians 8:6; Philippians 2:9-11).  Even the Holy Spirit, who, in the Old Testament, appears to be an extension of God’s power[3], is presented in the New Testament as an individual Person who is referred to as God and who possesses the authority and prerogative of God.[4]

Yet, even while we are given a fuller depiction of God’s Triune nature in the New Testament, the roles of each member of the Trinity as to how each is to receive worship is also made clearer.  First, the unanimous testimony of the New Testament is that God the Father is the primary object of worship.  Philippians 2:9-11 seems to make this point most explicitly.  Here, Christ’s exaltation and worship as Lord of the universe is for the ultimate purpose of bringing glory to God the Father (2:11).  This appears to be the pattern throughout the New Testament. [5]

Yet, as soon as we affirm this truth, we must just as quickly affirm that it is both right and good to worship the Lord Jesus Christ.  In fact, to deny Jesus his due worship and to treat him with less honor than the Father, is to actually dishonor the Father (John 5:22-23).  Many New Testament texts establish that Christ is rightly the object of our worship and adoration (Luke 24:52; John 20:28, II Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:6, Revelation 5:12-13).  We should never feel as though we are stealing glory from God the Father by whole-heartedly singing to Jesus and praising him for all he is and all he has done.

But what about the Holy Spirit?  Is he to be our object of worship?  Certainly, by the nature of his deity, he is worthy of worship and praise and thanksgiving.  But it is important to understand that even though we affirm and rejoice in the reality that the Holy Spirit is equal in essence and glory with the Father and the Son, it would be to dishonor to the Spirit if we gave him primacy over the Father or the Son in our worship.  The Spirit’s desire and role is to empower God’s people to worship and glorify the Father and Son (John 4:24; 16:14; I Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 3:3).  Nowhere in the New Testament is the Holy Spirit said to be the direct object of praise and worship.  Instead, he is said to be the one through whom praise is given to the Father and the Son.

That is not to say, however, that it is wrong to praise and thank the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is responsible for our salvation (Titus 3:5), sanctification (Galatians 5:22-24), spiritual empowerment and spiritual instruction (I Corinthians 2:10-16).  To not praise and thank him for his work in our life does not seem fitting for the beneficiaries of such grace.  On the other hand, it is just as important to allow the New Testament’s silence on the issue of our direct worship and praise of the Holy Spirit guide us in understanding his role as the One who empowers worship more than One who receives worship.

Delighting in the Trinity: In Our Prayers
Our corporate prayer should also reflect the Triune nature of our God.  But how, specifically, is this manifested?  Again, similar to the question of worship, the New Testament seems to present God the Father as the primary object of our prayers (Romans 11:36; I Corinthians 15:12; II Corinthians 8:16; Colossians 3:17; Ephesians 1:3; Philippians 1:3).  Prayers of thanksgiving (Colossians 3:17; I Thessalonians 1:2), anxiety (I Peter 5:7), and spiritual enlightenment (Ephesians 3:14), are directed to God the Father.

Often, these prayers are given to God through Jesus Christ (Romans 1:8; 7:25; II Corinthians 1:5; Colossians 3:17).  But what does it mean to pray through Christ?  As we examine the use of the word, dia (“through,” in the genitive) in its relation to Christ throughout the New Testament, we find that it is often used to speak of Christ’s work on our behalf and the benefits we obtain from his death and resurrection (Romans 5:1-2; 5:9; 5:10, 11; 5:17, 21; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 7:25).  This indicates that our prayers to God the Father can only be accepted if we have received the benefits of Christ’s work.  To pray through Jesus Christ to God is to approach God in a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.  This is the only way we can draw near to God (Hebrews 7:25).[6] Again, however, this does not mean that we cannot or should not pray to Jesus Christ.  He is a living Savior with whom we can have intimate fellowship.  But the general practice of the New Testament and the model for our churches is private and corporate prayer to God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son.

The New Testament also speaks of the Holy Spirit having an active role in our praying.  First, we are told to pray “in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18; Jude 1:20).  But what does this mean?  Galatians 3:1-3 tells us that we receive the Holy Spirit by faith-by believing the promises of the gospel.  We also learn from the New Testament that the Holy Spirit’s desire and role is to glorify God and Christ according to the will of God.

The implications for our corporate prayers should be obvious: as a church, when we gather together to pray, we must pray in faith, trusting the promises of the gospel, and make requests that are primarily aimed at bringing glory to God; this is what it means to pray, “In the Spirit.”  Yet, we are also reminded that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we do not know how we should pray (Romans 8:26-27).  So even when we find ourselves weak in faith and even having difficulty with God-centered prayer, the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf so we might be brought back on course; this is a mighty encouragement of which our people must be constantly reminded.  It is very easy to begin to think that our praying is the ultimate reason why things do or do not happen.  The truth, however, is that we often do not even know how to pray and yet God’s will continues to be accomplished in the world.  This is both humbling and hope-giving.

Secondly, the Scripture indicates that we can enjoy fellowship with the Holy Spirit (II Corinthians 13:14).  This fellowship is the Holy Spirit’s teaching, comforting, enlightening, and sanctifying ministry in our lives.  But how should we instruct our people in seeking this fellowship?  Christ tells us the Father is willing to give His Holy Spirit to those who ask for Him (Luke 11:13).  Thus, though it is not wrong to ask the Holy Spirit himself to dwell near to us, the Biblical pattern presents the Father sending the Spirit (see also John 14:16-17).  Therefore, we should ask God the Father to grant us the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Reflecting the Trinity in Functional Subordinate Relationships
Within the structure of the Trinity there has been a hierarchical order from all eternity.  This is clear from texts that refer to the relationship between the Father and the Son prior to and after the incarnation.[7] The Son, though equal in glory and divine essence, has always been in submission to the Father.  The Spirit, likewise, has always been in submission to the Father and the Son (Luke 3:16; John 14:15; 16:12-15).  Thus, the design of the man and woman and their subsequent roles of headship and submission were neither arbitrary nor given as a result of the fall; they were the natural product of a God who has eternally existed in hierarchical relationship.[8] The same can be said for all other relationships as well: parent to child, pastor to people, king to subject, employer to employee, and so on.

Thus, we begin to understand why the refusal to fulfill God-given roles and to submit to the appropriate authorities in one’s life is such a serious offense[9]: it disregards the very nature of God Himself and mocks the design he has established.[10] So if our worship is to be truly Trinitarian, it must reflect, by and through our relationships, the loving and wise leadership of God the Father and the joyful submission of the Son and the Spirit.  Pastors who rule the Church in a hard and dictatorial manner, Christian employees who privately and publicly disrespect their employers, husbands who demean their wives, wives who chafe under the leadership of their husbands, and parents who do not exercise their God-given authority in the rearing of their children are not truly Trinitarian, no matter how many books they have read or how loudly they sing, Holy, Holy, Holy, on Sunday mornings.  In order for our worship to honor the Triune God of the universe, our relationships must first be in order, or else our singing may only be a sham.

Reflecting the Trinity By Cultivating “Others-Centeredness” In our Relationships
Also within this hierarchical structure of the Trinity we find a breathtaking “others-centeredness,” that rarely finds analogy in the world today.  Often, where relationships of authority and submission exist, abuse of power, disrespect, selfishness and self-interest are characteristics most common among either respective party.  Yet Scripture gives us a picture of a God in whom each member seeks the glory of the other.  The Father, who designed and initiated the creation and salvation of man (Ephesians 1:3-14), did so for the glory of His Son (John 9:54; Philippians 2:9-11).  Yet the Son poured himself out in perfect, unflinching, joyful obedience for the glory of the Father (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; Philippians 2:8).  The Spirit is never found in the New Testament exalting himself; his aim is to always exalt the Father and the Son (John 4:24; 16:14; I Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 3:3).  What beauty!  In a God who is matchless in glory, majesty, grandeur, power and worth, we find genuine humility and love among each member of the Trinity.

As we begin to comprehend this wonderful aspect of the Trinity, we can start to see the grounds for many of the New Testament commands.  We are commanded to reflect the nature of God in seeking the interests of others rather than our own interests (Philippians 2:4); we are told to seek to honor others rather than ourselves (Romans 12:10); we are instructed to genuinely rejoice in the success of others (Romans 12:15); our lives should be set on doing what is best for our neighbors (Romans 15:2).  When we claim the name of Christ and live selfishly and self-centeredly, we are, by our actions, speaking a lie about who God is.  A church that is truly Trinitarian is a church where people not only worship the Triune God in song, but who also display the character of God in loving, joyful, sacrificial service to others.  It is a church where, like the Father, leaders exercise their authority for the good and glory of others.  It is a church where, like the Son, men and women sacrificially lay down their lives for the benefit of their brothers and sisters.  It is a church where, like the Holy Spirit, people choose to work quietly, unnoticed, and secretly for the glory and success of others; who shy away from any kind of recognition, and who are wholly satisfied to see others exalted and acknowledged.

Reflecting the Trinity By Celebrating and Encouraging Unity and Diversity in Our Churches[11]
Within the Trinity, there is the glorious and perfect blend of unity and diversity: God is united in his essence and glory, yet he is diverse in his personhood: the Father is the Father and not the Son or the Holy Spirit; the Son is the Son and not the Father nor the Spirit, and the Spirit is the Spirit and neither the Father nor the Son.  Thus, the Trinity beautifully displays, “a unity that is not redundancy, and a diversity that is not discord.”[12] Though they are one, they are each different; and though they are different, they each exist in perfect harmony with the others.

As we begin to comprehend this aspect of our Triune God, we are enabled to see how our churches should reflect such unity and diversity, and how texts like I Corinthians 12:4-31 fit into the entire scheme of Biblical revelation regarding the Trinity.  In I Corinthians 12:4-31, we find Paul using the human body as an illustration to explain to a church rife with competition and envy, why differences in spiritual gifting exist in a place where there is supposed to be unity.  The body is one entity, but it is has many members; each member is important, and cannot be disregarded based on its function within the body.  Without an eye or an arm or a liver or a lung, the body is disfigured and impoverished.

Although the analogy of the human body breaks down when we attempt to relate it directly to the Trinity (“the nose” is not fully “the body” as the Son is fully God), the principle behind the analogy corresponds perfectly when we apply it to the diversity of men and women within the Church: within one universal Church, consisting of men and women of equal human essence, there are host of different members equipped with a multitude of various spiritual gifts.  All this glorious variety is unified under God Himself, who is to be the Church’s object of worship (I Corinthians 10:31).

But the celebration of unity and diversity extends beyond spiritual gifts to include all characteristics that make us distinct from each other.  We find hints of this throughout the entire New Testament: Christ is the redeemer of people from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9-10); the rich and poor are to be allowed into the Church without partiality (I Timothy 6:17-19; James 2:1-7); the young and old are equal recipients of salvation (Mark 10:13-16; I John 2:12-14); men and women are both Abraham’s offspring (Galatians 3:29); and slaves and masters are both accepted into the fold (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22).  Thus, our churches, as much as it is possible, should strive for and rejoice in diversity within their congregations, while bringing this diversity under the banner of a solitary vision: to worship God the Father, through the Son , by the power of His Spirit.

As precious and essential are the scholarly and creedal stones which provide the solid bedrock of our faith, they were never meant to become an end in and of themselves-as if one would be satisfied with only a foundation with no house built upon it.  No, the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed to us so that we might be profoundly and practically changed by it, especially in our praise, our prayers, and in our relationships within the Church.  May God be honored as we delight in and display his Triune glory.

[1] Noel Due, Created For Worship: From Genesis to Revelation to You, (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 150.  Sergius Bulgakov in The Orthodox Church, quoted in Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), page 407, gives a similar reminder, buttressing his comments from the study of church history: “The dogma of the Holy Trinity is not only a doctrinal form, but a living Christian experience which is constantly developing; it is a fact of the Christian life…There is no truly Christian life, apart from the knowledge of the Trinity; this is abundantly witness in Christian literature.”

[2] Exodus 20:3; II Kings 17:35; Jeremiah 25:6; 35:15; Isaiah 44:6; 44:9-11, 24; 45:22.

[3] T.S. Caulley, The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 568.

[4] See Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1; Acts 11:12; 13:4; 15:28; 16:6; 20:23; 20:28; 21:11; 28:25.

[5] See also Romans 11:36, 16:27; I Corinthians 15:12; II Corinthians 8:16; Ephesians 3:21; Philippians 4:20; I Peter 1:3, Jude 24, etc.  These are just a few of the many texts that mention God the Father as the object of praise and thanksgiving.

[6] This also relates to praying in Jesus’ name (John 14:13, 14, 16:23-26).  If we come to God in our name-that is, in ourselves-we deserve only condemnation.  But if we come to God in Jesus’ name, we are thereby qualified to receive help and blessing from the Father since we are united with His perfect Son.

[7] Prior to the incarnation: Psalm 2:7; Proverbs 30:4; John 3:17, 18, Romans 8:3, 29 32; Galatians 4:4; Ephesians 1:3-4; I John 4:4, 9, 10, 14.  After the incarnation:  Matthew 11:27, 17:25, 28:19;John 5:19; 6:38; Romans 1:9, 5:10, I Corinthians 15:28 Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 1:5.

[8] Interestingly, it appears to me that those who deny that the Son has been eternally subordinate to the Father do not have grounds by which to explain the existence of father and son relationships here on earth.  Where did such an idea come from?  I would say that this “invention” came from a God who has always existed in Father-Son relationship and has given this gift to mankind to enjoy.  For a thorough defense of the eternal roles of the Father, Son and Spirit, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 250-252 and John Frame, The Doctrine of God, (New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2002), 719-722.

[9] See Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9; Romans 13:1-7; I Peter 2:13-17; Hebrews 13:17.

[10] Ray Ortland Jr., in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 102, reminds us that we must not take offence at our subordinate roles: “The ranking within the Godhead is part of the sublime beauty and logic of true deity.  And if our Creator exists in this manner, should we be surprised and offended if His creaturely analog on earth exists in paradoxical form?”

[11] C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Problem of Pain, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), page 155, reminds us of how much less glory God would receive and how impoverished the church would be if we were all the same: “If all experienced God in the same way and returned to him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have not symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note.  Aristotle has told us that a city is a unity of unlikes, and St. Paul that a body is a unity of different members.”

[12] Bruce Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 135.

One thought on “The Awesome Three-In-One: How the Doctrine of the Trinity Affects our Worship

  1. Excellent article! It’s always refreshing to be reminded of what it means for God to be Three in One — the ways in which we see that pattern reflected in healthy human subordinate relationships and the ways in which the Trinity graciously functions for the benefit of the Church.

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