This week we come to Question 3 of the New City Catechism, found in Part 1 of the catechism (questions 1-20), which focuses on God, creation and the fall, and the law.
Question 3: How many persons are there in God?
Answer: There are three persons in the one true and living God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are the same in substance, equal in power and glory.
The doctrine of the Trinity stands at the heart of the Christian faith. It can be summarized in the following six propositions:
(1) There is one God.
(2) The Father is God.
(3) The Son is God.
(4) The Holy Spirit is God.
(5) The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit.
(6) The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
From the early centuries of the church, two major false teachings arose on either side of the doctrine of the Trinity. One of those was Arianism, the heresy that denied points 3 and 4 above, claiming instead that the Son and the Spirit are not fully God, equal to the Father in essence. Jehovah’s Witnesses are modern day Arians. The other heresy was Modalism, which denied points 5-6 above, claiming instead that the one God simply reveals himself in three different “modes” or “masks” of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but behind each mask is the same Person.
Briefly, here is why both heresies compromise the gospel:
By denying the deity of Jesus Christ, Arianism destroys his ability to be the one mediator between God and man. As a created being, Jesus Christ could not reveal the Father to us (contrary to his statement in John 14:9), nor could his atonement have been of infinite value to wipe away our sins and the infinite punishment they deserve. It is only by virtue of his infinite dignity of his divine personhood that God the Son was able to offer a sacrifice sufficient to remove the penalty of Hell from us. On top of that, consider the ramifications of saying that the Holy Spirit is not fully God either: that means that, in the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within us and among us, we are not really connected to God. The church cannot rightly be regarded as a temple unless we are the habitation of God himself, and that means the Spirit must be God among us and within us (see 1 Cor. 3:16).
By denying the distinctions between the Persons, Modalism destroys our ability to know God. Think about it: if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not Persons of the Godhead but simply “masks” God puts on as distinct ways of revealing himself, then we don’t ever come to know the true God behind the masks. And the goal of the gospel is to bring us into true, personal, intimate union with God. The Persons of the Trinity cannot be mere revelations of a hidden God who remains forever hidden. God himself is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no hidden God behind the Trinity. And that is glorious news for us.
Here is a link to a great (and funny!) video that gives basic teaching about the Trinity and about these Trinitarian heresies.
Suggested passage for family or personal reading: Matthew 3:13-17. Do you see the three Persons of the Trinity in this passage? How do we see the three Persons united in one purpose here?