I grew up learning that the Trinity is like water. Water can be liquid, solid, or gas, but it’s always the same substance. So also, God can be Father, Son, and Spirit, and yet still one God! Little did I know, this neat picture of something familiar and simple, meant to help children understand a complex matter, is actually a third century heresy for which men and women of the early church were excommunicated. (That is to say: No, the Trinity is not like water.)
Without intending to, we often water down important doctrines because we want our children or new Christians or those to whom we’re evangelizing to be able to grasp hold of these great mysteries without becoming discouraged by their perplexity. This is a dangerous course. And yet, kids have to be told something. So—without accidentally spoon-feeding our children heresies—what do we say when they ask, “What is the Trinity?”
Follow the Precedent of the Church
The good news is that we’re not without help. In the first four hundred years after Christ, the church wrestled with this very question. Men like Athanasius and Augustine spent the better part of their lives helping the church to understand the doctrine of the Triune God. Those doctrines were then solidified by the church into creeds in the fourth and fifth centuries—you’d probably recognize several of them, since we still read them in our churches today. Why put their efforts to waste? If you want to explain the Trinity to your child, go to the creeds!
The Nicene Creed clearly and simply defines each member of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
It says of God the Father, he is, “the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” A child can understand that!
Of Jesus, it says, he is the only-begotten son of God—begotten, not made!—”born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” He is equal to God the Father and of the same substance.
And lastly, of the Holy Spirit, the creed reads: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Those are beautiful words: Lord and giver of life. What a way to understand the Holy Spirit!
If this explanation of the Trinity has been sufficient for the church throughout the ages, it’s sufficient for us.
God Is Incomprehensible
“All humanity has seen it; mortals gaze on it from afar.How great is God—beyond our understanding!” (Job 36:25-26, emphasis added).
As we seek to know God, we have to remember that although we can know God, we’ll never be able to comprehend God. He’s the divine creator, the almighty Ancient of Days—how could we, finite creatures, possibly wrap our minds around an eternal, omnipotent, invisible God? It’s important to keep this perspective in mind as we seek him: it is okay to not fully understand the secret things. After all, “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?” (Job 11:7)
Use Biblically Provided Analogies
We get into trouble when we start making up our own analogies for God. He’s not like us. Even our words can’t perfectly describe him. His anger isn’t exactly like our anger. His love isn’t exactly like our love. And yet, even though words fall short, he has given us words to use to help us understand what he’s revealed to us about himself (Deut. 29:29). He has told us that he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He has told us that he is One (Deut. 6:4; John 10:30). We know that God the Father is the creator (Deut. 32:6) and judge (Heb. 12:22–23); that God the Son is the shepherd (Heb. 13:20) and mediator (Heb. 12:22–24); and we know that God the Holy Spirit is helper (John 14:16–17) and intercessor (Rom. 8:26–27). God gives us these terms so that we can understand—in part—who he is to us.
What to Tell Your Child
The basics of the Trinity—which do not explain the mystery of God’s triune nature but provide its biblical truths—are three.
Firstly, the premise of the Trinity is that God is three persons but one God. He’s all three persons at the same time, but each person is separate and distinct.
Secondly, all the persons of the Trinity are equal. The Father isn’t greater than the Son. The Son isn’t greater than the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, the persons of the Trinity work together in redemption. The Father made you and chose you for life (Rom. 8:28–30). The Son is Jesus Christ who died to save you (Rom. 5:8) and is your advocate before God the Father (1 John 2:1–2). The Spirit works in your heart to make you more like Christ (Gal. 5:16–18).
It’s a great blessing as well as a great wonder to ponder these mysteries—and how sweet to ponder them with your children! Let’s praise a God who is so far beyond our understanding. Let’s contemplate the great mystery that God condescended to reveal himself at all, and that in doing so he also provided for us salvation and hope and an eternal inheritance as his sons and daughters.