How I talk to people about the Trinity

It was the first evangelistic course that I had ever run. I had just finished my presentation on the authority of Jesus in Mark 1-2 and opened up for question time. The first question, right off the bat, was…

“So, what’s the deal with the Trinity?”

Since then I have found that of all the questions I get asked, this is the most common one. Perhaps that simply reflects the religious area that I live in, though I suspect that it is a question that most people have, both inside and outside the church. It is a question we should know the answer to and be able to explain clearly and succinctly. So… here is how I talk to people about the Trinity.

Establish Revelation
Here I set the ground rules for the conversation. I’m not offering a philosophical defence of the Trinity or vague and slightly heretical analogies about water, clovers, or eggs. In short, this isn’t about me and what I think. That will get you nowhere.
This is about what God has revealed about himself.

I explain that if we want to know who God is and what he is like, we need to let him introduce himself. We don’t like it when other people assume that they know us and what we are like, and we shouldn’t treat God like that. I can’t tell God who he must be or what he must be like. I need God to reveal himself to me.

Start with Jesus
Jesus is the one who introduces God to us (John 1:18), so we start with Jesus. Remember, it’s not about me and my best argument, philosophy or analogy. It’s about Jesus and what he has revealed to us about God.
So let them know that you are starting with Jesus and why—that the way that you have come to know God and what he is like is through Jesus, and so you want to start by looking at Jesus.

Jesus is God
I want to first establish that Jesus is God. If you get interrupted with questions like, “Yeah, but who is Jesus talking to when he prays to his Father?”, reassure them that you will get to that question next.

Jesus proved himself to be God in two ways: his claims and his miracles.

1. His claims
I usually use John’s Gospel for this whole discussion (it’s just easier to stick in one book, and John is by far the most explicit). I want people to see that Jesus made himself equal with God (John 5:18), that he claimed to pre-exist Abraham and used God’s name “I am” (John 8:58), and that he claimed to be one with the Father (John 10:30, 14:9). I also will point out that the religious leaders of the day knew exactly what Jesus was claiming and tried to kill him for it (John 10:33). Finally, I take them to Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God” and point out that far from rebuking Thomas for calling him God, Jesus confirms that only now Thomas has believed (John 20:28-29).

I want to establish that at the very least Jesus thought and taught that he was God.

2. His miracles
Any nutjob can claim to be God. Not many can bring a man back from the dead (John 11:43-44). The point of Jesus’ miracles is that they confirm or prove his claims. Jesus tells his opponents and disciples that if they don’t believe him based on his claims, they should believe him because of his miracles (John 10:37-38; 14:11). Jesus’ miracles prove his claim of divinity in two ways.

First, they confirm that Jesus is a prophet from God. This is important to understand. Jesus’ miracles do not in themselves prove that Jesus is God. Many prophets in the Old Testament performed miracles, even including bringing people back from the dead (1 Kgs 17:20-22; 2 Kgs 4:32-35). Many Muslims will tell you that Jesus was an important prophet from God—a messenger even who brought God’s words to us—but not God. But here is the point: if Jesus is a true prophet, you should listen to him. And what does Jesus say? That he is God.

This is exactly the logic that is used in John’s Gospel.

The man born blind is convinced that Jesus is a prophet because he could make him see (John 9:30-33). But he ends up believing that Jesus is the Son of Man and worships him. Why? Because Jesus says he is the Son of Man (John 9:35-38). And if Jesus is a prophet, he must be telling the truth.

Secondly, we could also argue that Jesus’ miracles are so special that they show that he is far more than an ordinary prophet. While Elijah and Elisha bring people back from the dead, they need to pray to God each time in order for this to happen. The point being that it is clearly God and not them who is powerfully at work. In contrast Jesus can heal, drive out demons, calm storms and raise the dead through the power of his own word. His miracles prove that he has life in himself (John 1:4; 5:26) and that he can do everything that the Father is able to do (John 5:19). That is why Jesus tells his opponents that if they don’t believe that he and the Father are one on account of his claims, they should believe on account of his miracles (John 10:37-38).

So this is the first step: establish that Jesus is God. The next step is to show that Jesus teaches that there is one God who exists as three persons.

Jesus tells us that the Father and the Spirit are God.

So we’ve seen that Jesus is God—but Jesus also talks a lot about his Father. It is clear that he considers his Father to be God, and yet they are not two separate gods, but rather one (John 5:19-23). However, Jesus also makes it clear that he is not his Father, but rather is in relationship with him. He shows this by praying to him regularly and publicly (John 11:41).

What is Jesus doing? He is revealing to us what God is like. God is introducing himself! We see from Jesus that both he and the Father are the one God, and yet they are distinct persons within the Godhead.

And then Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit. Jesus makes it clear that he is one with the Holy Spirit, since he promises that he will dwell in believers when he sends the Holy Spirit to live in them (John 14:16-18). And yet in the same verse Jesus also teaches that the Spirit is not simply a force or attribute of God, referring to him as a distinct person who lives in us.

Point them to Jesus
The key thing to remember is to keep pointing them to Jesus. You don’t have the answers—how could you? If it is simply your (strange-sounding) opinion of God versus theirs, why should they believe you? But there is one who is qualified to reveal God to us: God himself, who entered into the world,

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)