The central Christian doctrine of God in three persons may also be viewed in terms of relation. God the Father is the God who permeates and yet transcends His Creation, whose essence – in holiness and perfection – cannot ultimately be grasped by our limited understanding. As Creator, He is in symbolic relation to His Creation only as He created it – holy and perfect – and not to an imperfect universe that evolved out of it through sin. We see our universe as cold and impersonal, vast and everchanging, always in flux, because nothing in it exists in relation to God; whatever we perceive we call into symbolic relation to our own selves so that everything is governed by relativity. God is in symbolic relation only to perfect beings because the imperfect and the perfect cannot be merged without corruption. This is why the God of the Old Testament was known abstractly through the law which revealed the nature of God but was incapable of being fulfilled by sinful man. To fulfill the law would be evidence of relation to God because fulfillment, remember, is a consequence of this relation, not a cause of it. Being in relation to other things, our lives in this world manifest much different consequences. The God of the law was abstract to most Jews, which is why they felt the need, time and again, to go after other gods and serve them, gods who seemed more relevant to their worldly concerns and natures, gods who did not demand perfection.
God the Son – God in the likeness of sinful flesh – is a much more approachable figure. We can relate to the Son first as a human being, not an abstract deity, one who has the same physical needs and limitations we do. As Hebrews (4:15) says, “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” We relate ourselves to God in the only way we know – to flesh and blood, to objects, to the physical world – to God Himself as flesh and blood. Being unspiritual in sin, we can’t relate to a spiritual God. We know God, personally and concretely, through Jesus Christ; He becomes real to us first through the flesh. In relating ourselves to the concrete reality of God as a human being, we must eventually go beyond this flesh-and-blood existence to the inner substance of the person to know Him, to know the transcendent Spirit of Christ, the character, essence, self of this man who was God. In Jesus Christ is the relation of God to all people, calling each and every one of us to repentance and salvation, to a new relationship with God.
The Holy Spirit is the relation of God only to believers; that is, the Holy Spirit is given only to those who believe in Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life manifests his or her salvation. Although all people are called to salvation, not all are saved. The sacrifice of Christ is the basis of Unlimited Atonement, that Christ died for the sins of all people, but grace – the gift of the Holy Spirit – depends on one’s response (faith) to this sacrifice. The relation of God to the believer is the basis of the doctrine of election – God selecting out of mankind those who are saved for all time. God foreknew those who would be saved (Rom 8:29) but foreknowledge is not mere perception. “To know” is a spiritual relation. More specifically or to the point (!), the relationship of God to believers for all time is in its fullest essence the Trinity: God as our Creator, as Jesus Christ who reconciles us to God, as the Holy Spirit who is the effector of this reconciliation. This Trinity is the basis of election.
Most people who believe in God believe in God the Creator and Sustainer of all life. But how is God defined? How is He known? Different monotheistic religions have different concepts of the one God. The Christian belief is that God is known (concretely and not abstractly) through the person of Jesus Christ; His true nature is revealed to us through our relationship with His Son who is of the same Spirit as the Father. Jesus died for the sins of all people but more personally he died for your sins and for my sins. I must have my own personal relationship with Jesus so that I can be open to receive his Spirit who has triumphed over my sin. I may rejoice that he died for all people but “the sins of all people” are an abstraction to me. I must know this salvation for myself. The experience of salvation – relation to God through the Holy Spirit – is entirely personal and individual; it can’t be shared with other people, passed on, transferred, or inherited. Your sins are yours; Christ died for your sins, for you. So although God can be known, so to speak, as Creator and Jesus Christ can be known as God in the concrete form of a human being, the Holy Spirit can only be known through one’s own personal spiritual experience of salvation. Therein culminates the human experience of God, inasmuch as God can be known by man.
Sin has necessitated the Trinity, the relation of God in three persons to man, yet God is one. If you believe in God and believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, yet remain in a state of sin, you don’t know God as One. God is One in the Trinity. God did not arbitrarily decide to present Himself to man as first Creator and then Lawgiver, then to take on human form and die, rise from the dead and be manifest again in the Spirit. The three persons of God are in accord with God’s relations to us under different covenants – the unspoken covenant with Adam and the rest of mankind, the later ones with Noah, Abraham and Moses, and the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. Sin and our need for redemption have made it necessary that God manifest Himself to us in different ways. While there is only one symbolic relation to God, only one that gives us our selves in image of God and that is through the Holy Spirit, yet because we are born into sin and need to be redeemed, we must know God in all three of His persons. To know God is to know God as One through the three persons of His relation to us.