Why the Doctrine of the Trinity Is Crucial for the Christian Life
This post is adapted from Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ by Matthew Barrett and Michael A. G. Haykin.
God Is Triune, or He Is Not God at All
The great Puritan theologian John Owen once wrote:
There was no more glorious mystery brought to light in and by Jesus Christ than that of the holy Trinity, or the subsistence of the three persons in the unity of the same divine nature . . . . And this revelation is made unto us, not that our minds might be possessed with the notions of it, but that we may know aright how to place our trust in him, how to obey him and live unto him, how to obtain and exercise communion with him, until we come to the enjoyment of him.
If we, either intentionally or unintentionally, dispense with the doctrine of the Trinity, then we cannot, in any Christian sense, know God. Or as Owen says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our Communion with God, and comfortable Dependence upon him.” Owen, in other words, draws a direct line from the Trinity to the Christian life, a line that cannot be broken. To know God, to have fellowship with him, to commune with him, is to converse with the three members of the Godhead in their proper order and role.
Both Knowing and Experiencing
In his exposition on Psalm 130, John Owen says that “the nature of all gospel truths” is that they are “experienced by a believing soul.” And what gospel truth is “so high, glorious, and mysterious as the doctrine of the ever-blessed Trinity”?
The Trinity, therefore, is a doctrine that is to be not only believed but also experienced by the believer. In other words, to know God is to have fellowship with each person in the Godhead. In this fellowship, one comes to understand the Trinity in a way that is far greater than someone who merely understands the Trinity in his mind, without it penetrating into the depths of his soul.
Today, however, evangelicalism struggles with the opposite temptation. We desire to experience God but have no intention to know him as he has made himself known. In other words, we have the tendency to bypass knowing God so that we can go directly to experiencing God.
Owen, looking to Scripture itself, counters such contemporary spirituality. We cannot fully experience God unless we have a proper knowledge of who he is and what he has done.
Therefore, both extremes must be avoided. We should not be deceived into thinking God is content with our having a mere cognitive knowledge of him. No, that knowledge must move from our head to our heart, impacting our affections for God and one another. Likewise, zeal without knowledge will not do either, lest we run the risk of basking ourselves in an experience not rooted in truth.
Our heartfelt affections must be grounded in right doctrine as we worship God for who he truly is rather than create a deity after our own imagination.
Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is tutor in systematic theology and church history at Oak Hill Theological College in London, and the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of The Grace of Godliness and Salvation by Grace. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have two daughters.
Michael A. G. Haykin (ThD, University of Toronto) is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He has authored or edited more than twenty-five books, including Rediscovering the Church Fathers and Eight Women of Faith.
Originally published at www.crossway.org on May 19, 2016.