The Trinity, Worship, and Prayer

Robert Letham

New Horizons: May 2006

The Trinity

Also in this issue

Communion with the Triune God

John Owen and the Trinity

Helps for Worship #8: The Call to Worship

God-centered worship must be shaped by who God is, and the high-water mark of God's self-revelation is that he is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet, while the liturgies of the Eastern Church are permeated with Trinitarian prayers and doxologies, in the West the Trinity has in practice been relegated to a minor role.

Standard works of systematic theology in the Reformed tradition plow through page after page on the existence, knowability, being, attributes, and names of God; the Trinity usually brings up the rear, almost as an afterthought. This bias in Western Christianity is in stark contrast with Gregory Nazianzen, who states, "When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."[1]

Examine any hymnbook and search for clearly Trinitarian compositions—you won't find many. Many of our hymns could be sung by Unitarians, orthodox Jews, or Muslims. We may bring Trinitarian assumptions to these texts, but explicit recognition of the Trinity is often missing in them.

Redemptive History and the Trinity

At each stage in covenant history, God revealed himself by name: in the Abrahamic covenant as God Almighty (Gen. 17:1), in the Mosaic covenant as "I am" and the Lord (Ex. 3:14; 6:3). At the apex of redemptive history, the founding of the new covenant (Matt. 26:28), Jesus gave instructions to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the one name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Jesus, the Son, named God as the one God who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is God's crowning revelation. Retrospectively, it casts light on all that led up to it.

The Trinitarian Basis for Worship

The church's worship is grounded on who God is and what he has done. The Father has sent the Son "for us and our salvation." In turn, the Father, together with the Son, has sent the Holy Spirit to indwell the church. The focus of the Spirit's ministry is to speak of Christ the Son. This is summarized in Galatians 4:4-6: "But when the fullness of time had come, God [the Father] sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' " Here we see the basic premise of all God's actions: from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. All three persons work together in harmonious indivisibility.

Our Response: Ephesians 2:18

Paul writes that "through him [Christ] we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one [Holy] Spirit to the Father." Access to God is ultimately access to the Father. This is through Christ, the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). The Spirit gives us life in place of death (Eph. 2:1), raises us in Christ (vs. 6), and graciously grants faith (vss. 8-10; cf. John 6:44). This is the reverse movement—by the Holy Spirit through Christ to the Father. It characterizes our response to God in worship and indeed our entire relationship with him.

From this it follows that prayer is distinctively Trinitarian. The church and the Christian live in an atmosphere saturated by the Trinity. The Holy Spirit creates a desire to pray and worship God, brings us to faith, and sustains us in a life of faithful obedience. In turn, our access to the Father is exclusively through his Son, Jesus Christ, for no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Now that he has offered the one perfect sacrifice for sins for all time, we have access to the Father (Heb. 10:19-20), and so can approach with confidence the throne of grace, knowing that our great high priest is there to intercede for us. He has fully experienced the struggles of human life in a fallen world and so can help us powerfully in our weakness (Heb. 4:14-16). Indeed, Jesus introduces us to the same relation he has with the Father. He is the Son by nature; we are children by grace. We now call on God as "our Father." Moreover, the Spirit brings us into his own intercession (Rom. 8:26-27), eliminating the distance between us and God, creating in us the same relation he has with the Father and the Son.[2] Prayer and worship is thus an exploration of the character of the Holy Trinity.

Our Response: John 4:23-24

The Samaritan woman asked whether the proper place of worship was at Jerusalem (as the Jews insisted) or on Mount Gerizim (where the Samaritans worshiped). Jesus supported Jerusalem. However, he added, the time had come when the distinction between Israel and Samaria would be superseded. True worshipers now worship the Father in spirit and in truth.

What does Jesus mean? This hardly refers merely to physical location. Nor is "spirit" a reference to the human spirit, as if true worship were purely inward. Instead, we recall John's extensive teaching on the Holy Spirit, concentrated later in chapters 14-16. Every reference to pneuma (spirit) in John, bar two, points to the Holy Spirit. Jesus means that true worship is offered to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In the words of Basil the Great:

It is an extraordinary statement, but it is nonetheless true, that the Spirit is frequently spoken of as the place of them that are being sanctified.... This is the special and peculiar place of true worship.... In what place do we offer it? In the Holy Spirit.... It follows that the Spirit is truly the place of the saints and the saint is the proper place for the Spirit, offering himself as he does for the indwelling of God, and called God's temple.[3]

As for "truth," need we look further than John's record of Jesus as the embodiment of truth (14:6), as the true light coming into the world (1:9), "full of grace and truth" (1:14), who as a result brought grace and truth into the world (1:17)? Is not Jesus pointing to himself, implying, as Paul does, that worship in the new covenant is Trinitarian? We worship the Father in the Holy Spirit and in the fullness of truth, his incarnate Son.[4]

Let us put it another way. From the side of God, the worship of the church is the communion of the Holy Trinity with us, his people. We tend to view worship as what we do, but if we follow our argument, it is first and foremost something the Trinity does, our actions being initiated and encompassed by his. Christ offered himself up unblemished to the Father "through the eternal Spirit," probably referring to the Holy Spirit (Heb. 9:14). Since our salvation is in union with Christ, what is his by nature is ours by grace. In his self-offering to the Father, he offers us, his people, in him. We are thereby enabled to share in the relation he has with the Father. (Thus we pray to "our Father in heaven." He is our Father by grace because he is Jesus' Father by nature.) Jesus, remember, ascended to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God (John 20:17).

Christ is, in reality, the one true worshiper.[5] Our worship is a participation in his. Further, our worship in Christ is by the Holy Spirit. This should reassure us, for, as John Owen reminds us, while "the love of God is like himself,—equal, constant, not capable of augmentation or diminution; our love is like ourselves,—unequal, increasing, waning, growing, declining."[6]

Christian worship is determined, initiated, and shaped by, and directed to, the Holy Trinity. Therefore, we worship the three with one undivided act of adoration. The Father was determined that his kingdom be established and advanced principally by the Son. Christ was exalted to the glory of the Father (Phil. 2:9-11). In turn, the Son, having glorified the Father, will hand the kingdom back to him (1 Cor. 15:24, 28). Again, the Holy Spirit works anonymously and invisibly, not speaking of himself, for he hears the Son and bears witness to him.

Gregory of Nyssa writes of a "revolving circle" of glory: "The Son is glorified by the Spirit; the Father is glorified by the Son; again the Son has His glory from the Father; and the Only-begotten thus becomes the glory of the Spirit.... In like manner, again, Faith completes the circle, and glorifies the Son by means of the Spirit, and the Father by means of the Son."[7] God is one indivisible being, three irreducibly distinct persons; three irreducibly distinct persons, one indivisible being. Our prayer and worship are to be shaped accordingly.


[1] Gregory Nazianzen, Oration on the Theophany, or Birthday of Christ, 38.8.

[2] See Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994"), 1:248-49.

[3] Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit, 26.62.

[4] See Athanasius, Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit, 1.33, for a similar explanation.

[5] A. M. Ramsay, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (London: Longmans, 1949), 91ff.

[6] John Owen, Of Communion with God, in Works, 2:29-30.

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 5:324.

The author is senior pastor of Emmanuel OPC in Wilmington, Del. He is the author of The Holy Trinity (P&R, 2004). Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2006.

New Horizons: May 2006

The Trinity

Also in this issue

Communion with the Triune God

John Owen and the Trinity

Helps for Worship #8: The Call to Worship

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