“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater.
For this is the witness of God which He hath testified of His Son.”
— I John 5:9
Without controversy or question, the Scripture doctrine of the Holy Trinity is absolutely incomprehensible to the human mind. On the one hand, in both the Old and the New Testaments, the Bible teaches that God is one in essence or being. In Deuteronomy 6 verse 4, for example, Moses declared as the Lord’s spokesman: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, is one Lord.” And, as if in echo of this testimony of God’s unity, St. Paul writes in I Corinthians 8 verse 4: “There is none other God but one.” And Holy Scripture rings throughout, from Genesis to Revelation, with this very same theme, according to which we profess one undivided and indivisible God.
At the same time, we confess that there are three distinct persons in God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost —existing co-equally and co-eternally without dividing the substance, so that each person is the entire God with all of God’s attributes, as St. Paul says of Jesus, for example, in Colossians 2 verse 9: “In Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” This doctrine of the three persons is also taught in Scripture from beginning to end in both the Old and New Testaments. The simplest reference in the Old Testament to this plurality of persons we find in Genesis 1:26 where “God said [“God” being a plural noun in Hebrew and the verb “said” a singular form], ‘Let US make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness.’” And the simplest reference in the New Testament is the Savior’s words in His “Great Commission,” “baptizing them in the name [singular] of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
Moreover, the same holy, inerrant, verbally-inspired Word of God teaches that those three persons are not to be “confounded” or mixed together, as if they were just three different “energies” or manifestations of the same person (Unitarianism)! For when the Son became incarnate and was “born of the Virgin Mary,” He alone became man, not the Father nor the Holy Ghost; and when the Son suffered and died, He alone suffered and died, not the Father nor the Holy Ghost. The Son was begotten of the Father in eternity —not the other way around; and the Holy Ghost proceeds from both the Father and the Son from all eternity. And yet no one person is inferior to nor superior to any other (Cf. Athanasian Creed, TLH, p. 53).
This doctrine is truly beyond reason —beyond human capability to understand; for human reason cannot accept both the Trinity and the unity of God; they seem to be contradictory concepts. And yet we know that there is no contradiction in God OR in God’s precious Word. “God is not a man that He should lie!” (Numbers 23:19). Consequently, we confess in the Athanasian Creed: “The catholic [that is, the universal Christian] faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance…which faith, except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”
Now we might rightfully ask in connection with this statement in the Athanasian Creed: “What does the doctrine of the Trinity have to do with eternal salvation? Can’t a person deny the Trinity and still believe in Jesus as his Savior?? Does antitrinitarianism really militate against the Gospel?” The title-text above, including the apostle’s entire discussion concerning the Trinity (vv. 7-11) answers these questions with crystal clarity, as it presents “the sure and certain testimony of the Gospel” as a matter of eternal record in heaven in the Holy Trinity, as attested to here on earth through the Means of Grace, and as confirmed to every believer by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.
What is “the record that God gave of His Son” —the record that we are to believe in order to be saved? Verse 11 of John’s God-inspired testimony is really its summary: “This is the record: That God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” “This is the record,” namely, the precious Gospel (or “good news”) of our salvation in Jesus Christ, that everlasting life in heaven is “the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) to unworthy, wretched and miserable sinners; that salvation was purchased and won by Christ for all mankind, when, as man’s Substitute, He perfectly kept God’s Law to earn righteousness for every soul of man and paid the penalty of every sinner’s guilt (Romans 5:19; Isaiah 53; Hebrews 10:14); and that this salvation is received by faith in this precious Gospel (Mark 1:15), in God’s “Word of Reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:19), by childlike confidence only in God’s mercy for Christ’s sake, totally apart from the works of the Law (Romans 3:28).
This sure and certain testimony of the Gospel is a matter of divine record in heaven, John tells us, as the Triune God devised and decreed it in eternity. “There are three that bear record in heaven: The Father, the Word [that is the eternal Son of God (cf. John 1:1)], and the Holy Ghost. And these three are one” (I John 5:7). The Scriptures teach that, in eternity already, “before the foundation of the world,” Peter writes in his First Epistle (1:20), the only-begotten Son of God “was foreordained” to be a sacrificial “lamb without blemish and without spot” (v. 19), whose holy, precious blood would purchase salvation for sinful mankind. This “decree of redemption” was the eternal act of God, in which all three persons of the Trinity concurred —an act of divine goodness, grace and mercy toward the whole human race (which God had not yet created), whose fall into sin He had foreseen in His omniscience, but whose disobedience He had neither desired nor willed.
The Father “gave His only-begotten Son,” we read in John 3 verse 16, and, “when the fullness of the time was come… sent [Him] forth…to redeem them that were under the Law,” Paul writes in Galatians 4:4-5. The Son “humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8) and thus “gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (I Timothy 2:6). And the Holy Ghost is the “Oil of Gladness” with which Christ was “anointed” by God to be the bonafide Savior of mankind (Psalm 45:7; Hebrews 1:9) —not anointed “by measure,” in a limited way as we are, but without measure (John 3:34) as the Spirit’s own testimony to the surety of this wonderful “decree of redemption”! “And these three […the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost…] are one,” John says in verse 7. Their unanimous, divine “record in heaven” is sure and certain for our sakes, as sure and certain as God is God; as sure and certain as “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; and yet they are not three Gods but one God,” as we confess in our Athanasian Creed.
“And there are three that bear witness in earth: The Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and these three agree in one,” John continues in verse 8. “Witness” is testimony, the communication of fact from mouth to ear, from act to eye. This is the divine testimony of the Means of Grace, of the Gospel and the Sacraments, whereby what is already from eternity “on the record” “in heaven” is communicated to us sinful mortals “[on] earth” for our comfort and assurance.
“The Spirit” is the written and spoken Word of God, the Gospel specifically (John 6:63b), by which the Holy Ghost calls or invites men to partake of the blessings of redemption, and through which He creates in us the faith to accept and receive the reconciliation won for us by Christ in His vicarious atonement, declared for all mankind by His Father, and proclaimed to all men as “the Word of reconciliation” by His Holy Spirit. “We speak…in the Words …which the Holy Ghost teacheth,” Paul writes to the Corinthians. —And even the Gospel proclaimed in Old Testament prophecy was “given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16) as “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:21).
And the other two witnesses “[on] earth,” by which we have God’s own sure and certain testimony of the Gospel, are “the water”—Holy Baptism, through which we are “buried into [Christ’s] death,” the “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5) which “doth also now save us” (I Peter 3:21) —“and the blood,” the precious blood of Christ, “given and shed for [us] for the remission of sins” (Matthew 28; Luke 22), received by us Christians in Holy Communion as a seal of our forgiveness and for strength to lead a holier life. “And these three agree in one,” John writes in our text. They all testify to one and the same thing: To the sure and certain “good news” of our salvation through the merits of Jesus Christ, our precious Redeemer!
Unfortunately, most people do not accept and believe the Gospel, thinking that it isn’t reliable; and yet they’ll believe what fallible men have to say about “unseen” things like atoms, radiation, electrical current, and lethal gases! And so John points out that “if we receive the witness of men [in such trivial earthly matters], the witness of God is greater! For this is the witness of God, which He hath testified of His Son.” This Gospel in the Holy Scriptures, together with the Holy Sacraments, is the “witness of God” Himself! And who would dare to call God a “liar” by not believing Him?? Yet, that is exactly what a person does, John says in verse 10, the verse right after our title-text, who “believeth not God because he believeth not the record that God gave of His Son,” the sure and certain testimony of the Gospel!
But we note yet briefly in the third place that this testimony is confirmed to every true believer by the internal witness of the Spirit. “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself,” John writes in our expanded title- text, v. 10. The believer’s own personal confidence in the mercy and grace of God to himself, a poor, lost and condemned sinner, is the testimony of the Holy Spirit within his heart that, by faith in Jesus and in His merits alone, everlasting life is his inheritance as a child of God! For, as St. Paul writes in Romans 5 verse 1: “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“This is the record” to which we must hold fast as the sure and certain testimony of good news to our quaking hearts when Satan assails us, when he holds our sin and guilt before our eyes, and when he threatens to devour us in everlasting damnation: “This is the record: That God hath given to US eternal life; and this life is in His Son.” “What comfort this sweet sentence gives!!” It is the sure and certain testimony of the Gospel of salvation —a matter of eternal record in heaven in the Holy Trinity, the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost having decreed it as one undivided Unity; —a matter attested to here on earth in the Means of Grace, the Gospel and the Sacraments, through which the Holy Spirit works, strengthens, and keeps saving faith in our hearts; and —a matter confirmed to us by the internal testimony of the Spirit, as we cling to that Holy Record in simple, childlike and yet firm confidence.
— D. T. M.