“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
These words, attributed to Albert Einstein, should be tattooed on the inside of every evangelist’s eyelids. Simple is good. But there are simplifications that subtract and subvert. And our modern inclination to mute or sidestep the Trinity is one such “simplification.” It abandons the very gospel it seeks to proclaim.
Historically, the church's “simple” explanations of the gospel have been explicitly triune (think of the creeds and “rules of faith”). Today, however, we’re bemused if an evangelist “complicates” his message with the Trinity. Perhaps we look back condescendingly at St. Patrick and his unfortunate shamrock analogy. Yet shouldn’t we admire his goal? Patrick’s intention was to introduce Ireland to God. And not just any God—the Christian God, the Trinitarian God. Where are today’s Patricks—concerned to preach Father, Son, and Spirit to the nations?
My plea is for a return to Trinitarian evangelism. Before I unpack what that means, let me clarify what I don’t mean.
What Trinitarian Evangelism Is Not
1. It’s not about particular language.
The word “Trinity” and the conceptual language of Nicaea is, of course, unnecessary in evangelism. Jesus and the apostles got on fine without these words and phrases.
2. It’s not an exposition of the creeds.
We don’t have to walk unbelievers through the Athanasian Creed. Creeds are like a recipe; we’re called to serve up the food of the gospel, not the ingredient list.
3. It’s not a meditation on “threeness.”
Our image of the triune God is not a heavenly group hug or an eastern icon—it’s Jesus (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4). Proclaiming the Trinity is not a description of the divine “round dance” or the concept of “threeness” (though occasionally that may have a place). Truly Trinitarian evangelism is earthed in the Son of God and in his gospel activity.
4. It’s not about analogies.
Analogies of the Trinity are rarely helpful, but the one thing worse than the analogies themselves is our perceived need for them. The simplicity and centrality of the gospel story, not analogies, is our window into God’s life.
What Trinitarian Evangelism Is
Trinitarian evangelism—like Trinitarian theology—is all about Jesus. The Trinity is the doctrine you get when you come to know God in the face of Christ.
In Trinitarian evangelism, then, the God we proclaim is the Father of Jesus who has eternally loved his Son (John 17:24). And this eternal Son is filled with the very life and love of God—the eternal Spirit (John 3:34ff). He joins the children of Adam in his incarnation and, through his cross, reconciles hell-bound sinners to his Father (2 Cor. 5:19–21). He rises again to new life, and all who receive him in repentance and faith become children in the same family. We get his Father as our adoptive Father and his Spirit as our indwelling Spirit (John 1:12; Matt. 3:11). This is the good news and it is irreducibly triune.
If we fail to be Trinitarian, the results are disastrous. A sub-Trinitarian gospel will distort the good news in at least four ways.
Four Common Distortions
1. The being of God.
Evangelism must, of course, be God-centered. The question is always which God are we centered on? Our “God-talk” cannot be vague. We must proclaim the God of Jesus—the Father of the Son. And as we center on him, the implications are cosmic. This God is not simply a supreme power; he is a life-giving Father seeking to adopt many children in his firstborn Son (Rom. 8:29). Because this God is love, his gospel unfolds in an utterly unique way.
2. The person of Jesus.
If you begin with a non-Trinitarian “God,” how will you bring in Jesus? Will Jesus be different from the “God” you began with, thus making him other than “God” (Arianism or tritheism)? Or will you insist he simply is the “God” you began with, and so preach modalism? Either way, if you’re not Trinitarian you cannot rightly preach Christ.
3. The cross of Christ.
In his classic book The Cross of Christ, John Stott writes powerfully about the “self-substitution” of God. He urges us not to make Christ a third party, thrust in between God and us. All our caricatures of the cross (e.g., “cosmic child abuse”) stem from sub-Trinitarian thinking. As Stott observes, “The love, the holiness, and the will of the Father are identical to the love, the holiness, and the will of the Son.” If we want to preach Christ and him crucified, we must be Trinitarian.
4. The goal of the gospel.
Some gospel presentations offer satisfaction and wholeness, others escape from hell. In both cases, the goal is to give you things. The true gospel—the Trinitarian gospel—gives you God. The Father’s Son, filled with the Spirit, is given to you. In receiving him you are owned by the Son, filled with the Spirit, and brought to the Father to share in their love forever.
Without the Trinity all you could hope for would be submission to a king, orders from a master, or acquittal before a judge. With the Trinity you can enjoy adoption in the eternal life of God.
Don’t strip the heart of the gospel from your message. Be Trinitarian. Be explicit about the triunity of God and the triune shape of his good news.
The Trinity does not needlessly complicate; when proclaimed rightly, it clarifies, compels, and captivates. May it do so again in our generation.
Editors’ note: If you’d like to see what this might look like in evangelism, see Glen Scrivener’s gospel outline called 321. You can watch it in three minutes, read the book, or do the course over three weeks.