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Beyond Shamrocks

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

The first thing I associate with St. Patrick’s Day hearkens back to elementary school where I quickly learned that by not wearing something green on this particular day, I was sure to be pinched by one of my classmates. The second thing I associate with St. Patrick’s Day goes back to the Marianist university from which I would earn my engineering degrees; where I would overhear students every seventeenth of March talk about their pilgrimage to the local pub to drink green beer. Neither connection is worthy of the fifth-century missionary who preached the gospel of Christ to the pagans of Ireland. Besides superstition and drunkenness, another image wrongly tied to Patrick is the legend that he used a shamrock as an analogy to teach the Trinity.

When many Christians are asked about the Trinity, their immediate reaction is to reach for an analogy. As author Fred Sanders explains in his excellent book The Deep Things of God, our habit is to mentally associate the Trinity with a logical problem, that is, the problem of reconciling three and one. While there may be some analogies that can offer some limited help in coming to terms with that problem, we must learn to associate “Trinity” with the incarnate Son and the outpoured Spirit, as seen in the gospel ordained by the Father. Before commenting further on Sanders’ main point of explaining the Trinity through the gospel, I believe it would be edifying to see the shortcomings of some typical analogies relating to the Trinity:

The Shamrock. This analogy suggests the Trinity is like a three-leaved clover whose three essential parts form a whole, single entity. This is the heresy of partialism which asserts that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not distinct Persons of the Godhead but are different parts of God, each composing one-third of the divine.

Three States of Water. This analogy suggests the Trinity is like the three states of water (liquid, solid, gas); the one substance H2O being seen in the three states of water, ice and steam. This is the heresy of modalism which espouses that God is not three distinct Persons but rather that he reveals himself in three different forms, or modes.

The Sun. This analogy suggests the Trinity is like the sun in which you have the star, light and heat. This is the heresy of Arianism which teaches that Christ and the Holy Spirit are creations of the Father and not one in nature with him, just as light and heat are not the star itself but rather creations of the star.

I do not believe any analogy can truly represent the triune God. However, the entire Trinity is at work in every aspect of salvation and therefore the way to best understand the Godhead is to see it expressed in the gospel. Or, as Sanders elucidates, the best way to come to understand the Trinity is to begin with “the clarity and concreteness of Jesus the Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit.”

If Christ is the center of our salvation, the Father is the source of it. The Father is the one who sends Christ on his mission of salvation and also sends the Holy Spirit to complete the work. The Son and the Spirit behave very distinctly in carrying out the work of salvation. The Son is the Son and acts like the Son, while the Spirit is the Spirit and acts like the Spirit. The Son of God became incarnate and died for us, but the Holy Spirit did not.

Sanders goes on to explain how the Son and the Spirit are both ways that God keeps his promise to be “God with us”. The Son is God with us in the direct, personal sense that he is the eternal Son in human nature. The Spirit, however, is God with us in that he is the eternal Spirit dwelling among us as in a temple. As such, an appropriate word to describe the Son’s work is incarnation whereas for the Spirit the descriptive word is indwelling. The Son of God took on human nature, personally taking on everything it means to be fully human. He was a divine Person who had always had a divine nature, and without ceasing to be that eternal Person with the divine nature he added to himself a complete human nature. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, did not take human nature into personal union with himself. He did not become human. Instead, he indwells people.

Furthermore, the Spirit did not die for our sins. As a propitiation for sin, the incarnate Son replaces us and bears the wrath of the first Person of the Trinity on our behalf. The Spirit, on the other hand, does not substitute for us but rather empowers us. In carrying out the great work of atonement, the Son completes the work once and for all in his death and resurrection, but the Holy Spirit takes that completed work and applies it to individual people.

And then there are many things we say about the Son of God that we would never say about the Spirit. We are to be conformed to the image of the Son, not the Spirit. We are told to be like Christ, but never to imitate the Holy Spirit. There is one mediator between God and men, and that is the man Christ Jesus, not the Holy Spirit. Christ the Son accomplishes redemption in his own (Spirit-created and Spirit-filled) work. The Holy Spirit applies that finished redemption to us in his own (Son-directed and Son-forming) work. The two works are held together by an inherent unity. The Son takes the lead in accomplishment and the Spirit takes the lead in application. As the Puritan John Owen said, by giving his Son for us and giving his Spirit to us, the Father manifested the glory of the whole blessed Trinity; which is the “utmost end of all the works of God.”

To conclude with Sanders in The Deep Things of God, and the proper way to think about the Trinity, he writes:

When we talk about Jesus, sent by the Father to work in the Spirit, we should know that we are talking about the Trinity. Our thoughts and affections should jump to the Gospels and the gospel, the story of Jesus and the present encounter with him rather than to shamrocks and steaming icebergs. The whole point is that the presence of the Son and the Spirit themselves, sent by the Father into the economy of salvation, is the Trinity. The eternal Trinity is the gospel Trinity… In the gospel we have God the Trinity.
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