I took the kind of phone call recently that I usually don’t, but I’m glad I did. Last Friday, I was preparing for Sunday’s message when I got a call from a blocked number. “No Caller ID” my phone said. Like most people, I think, I don’t usually answer those, but I thought, “I’m ahead in my prep. Why not?”
I was greeted by a man calling himself Nelson. He said he was taking a break at work and had a Bible question for me. I thought, “How cool?” but quickly learned this was a set up. Nelson calls pastors who believe the Trinity and tries to show them they’re not just wrong, but heretical liars promoting an idol in the name of Jesus.
His question to me was basically “In John 17:3, Jesus called God the ‘one, true God.’ Why does Jesus say there’s only one true God, but you teach the Trinity? Can you give me one verse in the Bible that teaches the Trinity?” (I wish I would’ve remembered that 1 John 5:20 calls Jesus “the true God” but oh well)
I was completely taken off guard having spent the past few weeks studying with the Bible says about marriage for our current series. However, 1 Peter 3:15 says I should always be ready to give a defense for what I believe, so I tried, but I was too flustered by his tone and convoluted logic.
I gave Ephesians 2:18 as my first answer to his question, but while it has all 3 Persons of the Trinity in one verse, it doesn’t teach the Trinity. After he took that apart, I gave him Matthew 28:19, where Jesus teaches “one name” identifies “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” There’s oneness and threeness in the same verse: one divine Name and three Persons equally identified by that divine Name.
Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield wrote that Israel had worshipped the one true God under the name Yahweh; followers of Jesus are now to worship the same God under the Name “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Works 2:155). I’d even say Jesus could not have made a more forceful proclamation of His own deity and that of the Holy Spirit than He does here by listing both He and the Spirit alongside the Father on a level of equality, something no angel or religious Jew would ever think of doing.
Nelson’s response was “name” means “power and authority,” which in some contexts it does (like praying “in the name of Jesus”). I disputed him on this assertion in Matt 28:19, but got nowhere. What I should’ve said was even if I grant that Jesus meant “power and authority” in His use of “name,” isn’t it blasphemous for Him to claim to have the same authority as God Himself if He’s not, in fact, God. Just like it would be blasphemous for Him to claim to be another Savior alongside God in Nelson's verse, John 17:3, when Isa 43:11, 45:21 and Hosea 13:4 all say there is no other Savior alongside God.
After ignoring a few other things I said (like John 8:24 says unless you believe Jesus is divine you will die in your sins), Nelson asked me if God is a He or a they. I said He, but he thought I said they so he went on a tirade about Genesis 1:27 saying “God created man in HIS image, in the image of God HE created him, male and female HE created them.” I told him to look at the previous verse where it says “God said, ‘Let US make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness,” but he was yelling so much at this point that he didn’t even acknowledge what I’d said.
Now, to be fair, Gen 1:26 doesn’t teach the doctrine of the Trinity, but it does hint at something more going on than with the God of the Bible than strict monotheism, something later verses in the OT hint at too (see Gen 1:26, 3:22, 11:7 and Isa 6:8 where God uses plural pronouns and verbs when referring to Himself) and something the New Testament clarifies with the equal deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
At this point, a good friend of mine knocked on my office door so I tried to talk to him while Nelson was yelling at me. He didn’t like this. He heard me whispering to my friend and started mocking me. Then, he unleashed a verbal avalanche of “You're a liar!” on repeat and hung up on me.
Two things. First, false teachers are out there. Nelson is one of them. They’ll be happy with any victories, but their primary target is Christians who are a mile wide in their experience of Christianity, and only an inch deep theologically. Is that you? Do you know what you believe? Do you know why you believe it? Could you have done a better job than I did with Nelson? I’d love to help you with this. Let me know by responding to this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second, though Matthew 28:19 gets the closest, the Trinity is not really proved by one verse (I took the bait on that when shouldn’t have). The Trinity is the idea that “God eternally exists as three persons—Father, Son & Holy Spirit—and each person is fully God, [yet] there is one God” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 226). This is a summary statement of three ideas the Bible teaches clearly:
- There is Only One God (Deut 4:35, 39; Deut 6:4; Isa 43:10, 45:5-6; Mk 12:29; 1 Cor 8:4, 6; Eph 4:6; 1 Tim 2:5; James 2:19).
- Three Persons—the Father (Matt 6:26-32; John 17:3; 1 Cor 8:6, 15:24; Eph 5:20; Phil 2:11; James 1:27; 1 Pet 1:3), the Son (John 1:1-3, 5:18, 20:28; Acts 20:28; Col 2:9; Titus 2:13; Heb 1:8-9; 2 Pet 1:1) and the Holy Spirit (See Acts 5:3-4, 1 Cor 3:16, 2 Cor 3:17-18)—are Each Identified as God.
- The Three Persons Are Not the Same Person, but Three Distinct Persons (Matt 3:16-17; John 1:1-2, 14:26, 15:26, 17:24; Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 12:3-6; 1 John 2:1).
Now for the most difficult paragraph in this blog post. The Trinity seeks to summarize these three strands of God’s revelation without logical contradiction. It does this by saying oneness refers to God’s nature—there is one being called God—while threeness refers to persons. God is one in a different way than He is three. When Christians say, “There is one God,” we are referring to what God is. When Christians say, “Three are called God,” we are referring to who God is. One “what” and three “who’s” means no contradiction. The Father, Son and Spirit are distinguished from each other, and yet these distinctions do NOT lead to a division in the one Being that is God.
In the end, while I hope recounting this exchange was interesting and helpful, I’m really writing this to you, Nelson. Come out; come out wherever you are! I hope this blog post finds you well and wanting to talk again. In the end, I care about you and one of us is going to find out he’s wrong on Judgment Day. Only a Jesus who is the Second Person of the Trinity can rescue you from dying in your sins.