Perhaps the most distinguishing doctrine of the Christian faith is the belief in God as Trinity. Sadly, it is also one of the most neglected of Christian doctrines; indeed, it is lamentable that so many Christians do not have a basic understanding of Who God is as Trinity. Because of this, many end up worshiping a generic deity whom they call “God”, and who has nothing to do with the God Who Is – He Who has revealed Himself in the written Word of the Old and New Testaments. God is Who He has revealed Himself to be – God in Trinity – and thus, when we pray we must be cautious that we are addressing Him as He is, or else we’re idolaters.
Another great danger arises when people have just enough knowledge of the Trinity to misrepresent God. In my experience, this is most often heard in the way people pray. Take this example prayer and ask yourself if you’ve ever heard (or prayed) a prayer like it before:
Father God, I thank You for dying on the cross for me. Jesus, You are my God and Father, and I love You so much! And I know that this love is the Holy Spirit; I am thankful for it, too! In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I would like to say that this prayer is an exaggeration; sadly, it isn’t. And the fact that some who read it might be asking themselves, “What’s wrong with that prayer?” only reinforces my point. But, since you ask, let us examine this prayer and point out the very serious errors to be found in it.
1. Father God, I thank You for dying on the cross for me. Contained in this sentence is a heresy known as Patripassianism, the teaching that it was God the Father Who died on the cross. This teaching comes under the wider umbrella of what is called Modalism (or Modalistic Monarchianism), the teaching that there are not three persons of the Trinity, but only three modes in which the One God manifests Himself at a given time. The Trinitarian teaching is that there are not three modes, but three distinct Persons Who share a single substance or essence. In this particular instance, the Scriptures teach us that it was not the person of the Father Who assumed a human nature and died on our behalf on the cross, but the person of the Son. Thus, if we are understanding the nature and work of the Trinity correctly, we might correctly pray: Father God, I thank You for sending Your only and eternal Son to take on our humanity and to die as our Substitute on the cross. Again, the Father did not die on the cross; the Father sent the Son Who in our flesh obediently gave His life at Calvary as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
2. Jesus, You are my God and Father, and I love you so much! Again, we see in this sentence a mixing up of the distinct persons of the Trinity. The person praying is correct in proclaiming that Jesus is her God – Jesus is the eternal God (read John 1), God the Son! She is also right in expressing her deep affection for Jesus; we are to love the Trinity and to express our love in worship and praise toward each distinct person as well as the inseparable Godhead! As each person of the Trinity is fully God, “the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.6), each person is fully worthy of our praise in themselves and because of their works. The problem in this sentence is the same, though reversed, as the problem in the first sentence; in this instance, the person praying isn’t saying the Father is the Son, but the Son is the Father. The Son is not the Father. Rather, He is eternally-begotten of the Father. We may say that Jesus is the Lord, God, Eternal, Almighty, etc., but we can never say that Jesus is the same person as God the Father. A correction of this prayer would be something like: Jesus, You are my God, my Lord and Savior, and I love you because of Who You are and because of what You have done on my behalf in taking on a human nature and being condemned in my place and for my sins!
3. And I know that this love is the Holy Spirit; I am thankful for it, too! The most neglected person of the Trinity in the church today is the Holy Spirit. Why is this? I’m not really sure of a sufficient answer other than sin and ignorance. Not only this, but those who do tend to speak much about the Holy Spirit, do not understand Him as He is revealed in the Scriptures. For many, the Holy Spirit is nothing more than God’s impersonal power, or even an impersonal expression of His love. But, the Scriptures teach us that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person (e.g., John 14:26, Acts 2:32-33) and is also fully God (e.g., Acts 13:2, 5:3-4). How different is this teaching than the nonsensical idol of the “health and wealth” teachers of our day who seek to use the Spirit as though He was “the Force” from Star Wars, or the demonic magic of a tribal shaman! I firmly believe that our misunderstanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit is one of the key factors of the decline of spiritual vigor in our churches today, and also a key factor in the deadness of our prayer lives! The Nicene Creed calls the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of life”; do you know the life-giving Holy Spirit? Do you commune with Him? Or have you, like so many others, neglected and misrepresented Him to your own detriment and the dishonor of God? Let’s correct this line of the prayer: My Lord Holy Spirit, I am thankful for You; You have given me life, have united me to Christ through faith, have created in me a new and clean heart; You are sanctifying me, conforming me to the image of Christ; by You I call out to God the Father as “Abba! Father!”; even now You are within me and praying through me, interceding for me according to the perfect will of the Triune God!
All three persons of the Trinity are at work in our praying:
- We pray to the Father. (Matt. 6:9). At least, this is the general mode of prayer. John Owen writes: “For the person of the Father – as the eternal fountain of power, grace, and mercy – is the formal object of our prayers, unto whom our supplications are directed.” (John Owen, The Person of Christ, The Works of John Owen, Vol.1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 112.) It is also sometimes appropriate to address another person of the Trinity. Owen notes that there are seasons in which invocation peculiar to the person of Christ is necessary for us (e.g., times of “great distresses in conscience through temptations and desertions” as when Paul prayed to Christ to remove the thorn in 2 Cor. 12:7-8, etc. ). Generally, however, our prayer is directed to the Father.
- We pray through the Son. The particular office of the Son is the office of Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). We come to the Father only through the Son (John 14:6). Only those who have been united to Christ through faith and have had His perfect righteousness imputed to them, are those who can confidently come to the Father through their Great High Priest, Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:14-16). This is precisely what we mean when we say “In Jesus’ name”. We’re recognizing that we come to the Father, not clothed in our own righteousness that is nothing more than soiled rags, but clothed in the righteousness of our Mediator and Redeemer. If the Son of God had not taken on flesh and acted in His peculiar role as Mediator, we would have no confidence of being heard of the Father.
- We pray by the Holy Spirit. I believe that it was George Whitefield who once asked the rhetorical question, “What can a dead man do?” Though it is rhetorical, at least one answer that might be given is that dead men can’t pray. The work of regeneration, the bringing to life and en-fleshing of the dead, dry bones, is a work of the Holy Spirit. What does this look like? Whole books could be (and have been) written on that very subject. For one, it means that those brought to life can pray because they have been given true faith as a gift from God by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:8); if you truly have a living faith in Christ, you can and will pray. Not only this, but the Spirit, Who is sanctifying us now, intercedes in and through us because we are still weak. “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings to deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26). Calvin writes: “To assist [our] weakness, God gives us the guidance of the Spirit in our prayers to dictate what is right and regulate our affections… For those who are truly exercised in prayer are not unaware that blind anxieties so restrain and perplex them, that they can scarcely find what it becomes them to utter; no, in attempting to lisp they halt and hesitate.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.XX.V.). Thus, “weary of our own heartlessness and sloth, we are to long for the aid of the Spirit.” (Ibid.). It is by the Spirit of Adoption that we call upon the Father as “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). I must intentionally cease here, or else end up writing one of those books I mentioned earlier!
Because prayer is direct communication with the Trinitarian God, it is of import that we know the Trinitarian nature of the God with Whom we are communicating. It is also important that we recognize that true Christian prayer, as it is described to us in the New Testament, is always a Trinitarian exercise that recognizes the distinct role of each person of the Trinity.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Communion With God by John Owen (vol. 2 of the Complete Works, or the excellent abridgement by R.J.K. Law in the Puritan Paperbacks series; both from Banner of Truth).
The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, particularly I.XIII. and III.XX. Found, respectively, at https://www.biblestudytools.com/history/calvin-institutes-christianity/book1/chapter-13.html and https://www.biblestudytools.com/history/calvin-institutes-christianity/book3/chapter-20.html
The Westminster Confession II.I-III.