How Can God be Three in One?

  • By: Jac Filer
  • Time to read: 6 min.

One unique aspect of Christianity is our understanding of God as a Trinity consisting of Father, Son, and Spirit. These are not three separate Gods. Yet, they are three separate persons existing together as one God.

For centuries Christians have struggled to understand and articulate this unique aspect of God’s nature. How can God be three in one?

The nature of the Trinity is beyond our full comprehension. But God has revealed Himself in a way that shows us three distinct persons of the Trinity, and a unique self-complete relational aspect among them.

The coronation of Mother Mary by the Holy Trinity.

One God, Three Persons

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

Deuteronomy 6:4

The notion that there is one God is pretty easy to grasp. When we think of one God, our minds likely default to the Father. Perhaps this is because He was the first to be revealed in scripture. Or perhaps it is because He is the one that we simply refer to as ‘God’ while addressing Jesus and the Holy Spirit with more specificity.

Yet, the Bible reveals that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are divine and equal to the Father:

  • Referring to the name that God gives Himself in Exodus 3:14, Jesus declares himself to be I AM (Yahweh): Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” – John 8:58
  • In his rebuke of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter equates their lying to the Holy Spirit with lying to God: Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? … You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” – Acts 5:3-4

Jesus also speaks of both the Father and the Spirit as intrinsically interrelated to himself and each other:

  • And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. – John 14:15-17
  • “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” – John 15:9
  • “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. John 15:26
  • “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” – John 17:20-21

Jesus consistently refers to both the Father and the Holy Spirit in the third person. He prays to the Father (not to himself), and he asks the Father to send another advocate—a person distinct from both the Father and the son.

Yet, Jesus’ words are simultaneously full of relationship. He speaks of the love that he and the Father share. He describes the Spirit as going out from the Father and testifying about Jesus.

From these excerpts, it is evident that Jesus is not simply referring to three distinct persons, but to three distinct persons with a wholly unique relationship.

As we explore other passages, we see each member of the Trinity doing things that can only be attributed to God—and doing them together!

The Trinity Revealed

In Creation

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made - John 1:1-3
 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. - Genesis 1:1-2

We often think of creation as the sole act of the Father. But even Genesis reveals the presence of the Spirit from the beginning, while John confirms that Jesus (the Word) was not only present but active in creation.

In Jesus’ Baptism

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” - Matthew 3:16-17

In this moment, which marks the commencement of Jesus’ earthly ministry, all three persons of the Trinity appear distinctly and each of them does different things.

In Our Baptisms

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. - Matthew 28:19

Just as Jesus’ own baptism included the Father and the Spirit (and not just as passive bystanders), he invokes the presence of all three persons of the Trinity in the continuing baptism of believers.

In Salvation

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared... He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. - Titus 3:4-6

Paul credits the Father, Son, and Spirit in the act of salvation. God’s mercy is poured out through Jesus and by the Spirit. This is the grace that we commemorate and profess when we are baptized, and the reason that we baptize one another in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

How are the Three Also One?

Having established that God is comprised of three distinct persons, how can they collectively be one God? This is the mystery that we struggle to answer and that—admittedly— we are not able to fully answer.

Before we try, let’s debunk two flawed attempts to explain away the mystery of the Trinity:

  • Unitarianism: Unitarianism dismisses the Trinity by placing all divinity on the Father. In doing so, Unitarians reduce Jesus to a human (though perhaps one with unique origins) and depersonalize the Holy Spirit.
  • Modalism: Modalism suggests that God manifests in three forms in succession. Modalism teaches that God appeared first as the Father (in the Old Testament), then as Jesus (in the gospels), then as the Holy Spirit (in the church age).

A plain reading of the texts that we have already reviewed shows that neither of these explanations holds up under Biblical scrutiny.

So, Biblically, only one option is left.

Accepting the Mystery

Although we cannot fully grasp the Trinity, God gave us one often-overlooked indicator to help us understand it to a degree: ourselves.

If you’ve read our piece about whether animals have souls, then you are familiar with the uniqueness of man as God’s image-bearers:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Genesis 1:26

God declared that He would make man in our image, not my image. As His image-bearers, He has given us eternal spirits and the capacity for reason. These are things that the animals don’t have, but that we have because they uniquely reflect God’s image within us.

God is Father, Son, and Spirit, and each of us is mind, body, and soul. Each aspect of our being is intrinsically related to the other yet with a distinct and identifiable function.

Admittedly, our own beings, with our finite and sinful nature, do not fully explain the mystery of the Trinity. But they give us enough to relate to God—in all His persons—in this life while we prepare for the answer to be fully revealed in eternity.

Until then,

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. - 2 Corinthians 13:14