What is God like? It’s hard to imagine a more important question.
Different faiths answer this question differently. Is God the same as nature? Is God found inside every person? Is God one, all-powerful, and distant?
At the heart of Christianity stands a triune God.
For what makes Christianity absolutely distinct is the identity of our God. Which God we worship: that is the article of faith that stands before all others. The bedrock of our faith is nothing less than God himself, and every aspect of the gospel—creation, revelation, salvation—is only Christian insofar as it is the creation, revelation, and salvation of this God, the triune God. (Delighting in the Trinity, pp.15,16)
In reading Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves, I saw how vital God’s nature is to Christianity. It affects everything! If we begin elsewhere, we simply do not end up with biblical Christianity.
The Path to the Trinity
Most cultural discussions about God begin with (or assume) the foundation of God as creator. But is this the best starting place? Is God’s primary identity his role as Creator?
Michael Reeves says no.
First of all, if God’s very identity is to be The Creator, The Ruler, then he needs a creation to rule in order to be who he is. For all his cosmic power, then, this God turns out to be pitifully weak: he needs us. (Reeves, p.19)
Reeves goes on to show that the salvation a primarily-Creator God can offer is unsatisfying and, ultimately, self-contradictory. He writes that our relationship with such a god is similar to our relationship to the police.
If, as never happens, some fine cop were to catch me speeding and so breaking the rules, I would be punished; if, as never happens, he failed to spot me or I managed to shake him off after an exciting car chase, I would be relieved. But in neither case would I love him. And even if, like God, he chose to let me off the hook for my law-breaking, I still would not love him. I might feel grateful, and that gratitude might be deep, but that is not at all the same thing as love. And so it is with the divine policeman: if salvation simply means him letting me off and counting me as a law-abiding citizen, then gratitude (not love) is all I have. In other words, I can never really love the God who is essentially just The Ruler. And that, ironically, means I can never keep the greatest command: to love the Lord my God. (Reeves, p.20)
An alternative way to think about God is simply this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The fact that Jesus is a Son means that he has a Father. “That is who God has revealed himself to be: not first and foremost Creator or Ruler, but Father.” (Reeves, p.21)
This starting place is not merely philosophical, it is Jesus’s own stance. In John 17:24 Jesus says that the Father loved him (Jesus) before the foundation of the world. Before there was any created matter, with nothing to rule, God was a Father loving his Son.
The biblical faith is a Trinitarian faith, and the biblical calls to faith are thoroughly Trinitarian .
John wrote his gospel, he tells us, so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). But even that most basic call to believe in the Son of God is an invitation to a Trinitarian faith. Jesus is described as the Son of God. God is his Father. And he is the Christ, the one anointed with the Spirit. When you start with the Jesus of the Bible, it is a triune God that you get. (Reeves, p.37)
I’m late to the party on Delighting in the Trinity. The book was published in 2012 and appeared on several best-of lists that year. But the truths in this book are timeless, and Reeves writes with such clarity, cheer, and care that this was easily the best book I read in 2016. My socks, as they say, were knocked clear off.
Throughout the book, Reeves contrasts the Trinity with a single-person god. More than just a philosophical exercise, this strategy shows just how different the God of the Bible is and how dramatically his trinitarian nature affects everything.
Take creation—would a single-person god create?
Single-person gods, having spent eternity alone, are inevitably self-centered beings, and so it becomes hard to see why they would ever cause anything else to exist. Wouldn’t the existence of a universe be an irritating distraction for the god whose greatest pleasure is looking in a mirror? Creating just looks like a deeply unnatural thing for such a god to do. And if such gods do create, they always seem to do so out of an essential neediness or desire to use what they create merely for their own self-gratification. (Reeves, p.41)
Following Karl Barth, Reeves explains why creating is natural for the Christian God.
Since God the Father has eternally loved his Son, it is entirely characteristic of him to turn and create others that he might also love them. Now Barth is absolutely not saying that God the Son was created or is in any way less than fully God. It is that the Father has always enjoyed loving another, and so the act of creation by which he creates others to love seems utterly appropriate for him. (42)
Reeves explains that the fellowship and love within the Trinity overflows in creation. Our God is not primarily aloof and alone, but he enjoys loving, blessing, and declaring creation “good.”
The triune nature of God also makes sense of our sin and salvation.
The nature of the triune God makes all the difference in the world to understanding what went wrong when Adam and Eve fell. It means something happened deeper than rule-breaking and misbehavior: we perverted love and rejected him, the one who made us to love and be loved by him. (Reeves, p.68)
If God is trinitarian and made us in his image, then “we are created to delight in harmonious relationship, to love God, to love each other.” (Reeves, p.65) Our sin is fundamentally a lack of love or a turning of our love.
So, why did Jesus come? Why did God want to restore relationship with us?
Without the cross, we could never have imagined the depth and seriousness of what it means to say that God is love. […] Jesus’ self-giving love is entirely unconstrained and free. It comes, not from any necessity, but entirely out of who he is, the glory of his Father. Through the cross we see a God who delights to give himself. […][T]he Father sent his son to make himself known—meaning not that he wanted simply to download some information about himself, but that the love the Father eternally had for the Son might be in those who believe in him, and that we might enjoy the Son as the Father always has. (Reeves, p.69)
This underlines the uniqueness of the trinitarian nature of God.
Here, then, is a salvation no single-person God would offer even if they wanted to: the Father so delights in his eternal love for the Son that he desires to share it with all who will believe. Ultimately, the Father sent the Son because the Father so loved the Son—and wanted to share that love and fellowship. His love for the world is the overflow of his almighty love for his Son. (Reeves, p.69–70)
The result of the salvation Jesus accomplished is therefore also trinitarian.
The Father so loves that he desires to catch us up into that loving fellowship he enjoys with the Son. And that means I can know God as he truly is: as Father. In fact, I can know the Father as my Father. (Reeves, p.71)
Clearly the salvation of this God is better even than forgiveness, and certainly more secure. Other gods might offer forgiveness, but this God welcomes and embraces us as his children, never to send us away. (For children do not get disowned for being naughty.) (Reeves, p.76)
How would salvation look different with a single-person God?
If God was not a Father, he could never give us the right to be his children. If he did not enjoy eternal fellowship with his Son, one has to wonder if he would have any fellowship to share with us, or if he would even know what fellowship looks like. […] If the Son himself had never been close to the Father, how could he bring us close? (Reeves, p.77)
The triune nature of God affects everything: creation, salvation, and so much more. Here’s just a sample.
Because God is triune, the church is a family.
But the triune God’s delight in family still stands. And so the Father sends the Son, not only to reconcile us to himself, but to reconcile us to each other in order that the world might be a place of harmony, reflecting their harmony. […] The Spirit wins male and female, black and white, Jew and Gentile all to the same uniting love of God which spills over into a heartfelt love of one another. He unites us to the Son so that together we cry “Abba” and begin to know each other truly as brothers and sisters. For the new humanity is a new family; it is the spreading family of the Father. (Reeves, p.103)
Because God is triune, missions are about the nature of God.
For it is not, then, that God lounges back in heaven, simply phoning in his order that we get on with evangelism so that he might get more servants. If that were the case, evangelism would take a lot of self-motivation—and you can always tell when the church thinks like that, for that’s when evangelism gets left to the more adrenaline-stoked salespeople/professionals. But the reality is so different. The truth is that God is already on mission: in love, the Father has sent his Son and his Spirit. It is the outworking of his very nature. (Reeves, p.105)
Reeves goes on to show how the biblical picture of God informs many of the words we use about God, like holiness, wrath, and glory.
Because the Trinity affects everything, there’s more to ponder. For example, how does the Trinity affect apologetics? Reeves argues that:
It is crucially important, then, that Christians be clear and specific about which God we believe in. We must not be heard to believe in just any “God,” but in this God. Today that seems especially vital. (Reeves, p.112)
How should we talk about God with unbelievers? Should we introduce the Trinity right away, or should we establish some common ground first?
This is a short book, and so it cannot and should not cover everything. But it covers so much, so well. The glorious, loving truth of the triune nature of God will probably take a lifetime (and then some) to unpack, but I’m glad I’ve started the journey. If you’d like to begin a similar hike, I can’t recommend Delighting in the Trinity more highly.
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Photo Credit: InterVarsity Press