Nature of God – How to Pass God’s Tests (Genesis 22) – Bible Scriptures – Existence of God – Trinity

Nature of God - How to Pass God’s Tests (Genesis 22) - Bible Scriptures - Existence of God - TrinityGod is Love God is Wrathful God is Immutable God is Omniscient God is Omnipotent God is Holy God is Sovereign1

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide… (Genesis 22)

Interpretation Question: What is the difference between a test (or a trial) and a temptation?

What are characteristics of God’s tests and how can we faithfully pass them?

As we study Abraham’s life, it is clear God brought him through many tests. In Genesis 12, he was called to leave his home and family to go to a land that God would show him. He was challenged with the family test. For many of us, leaving our family to do what God has called us to do, or doing what God has called us to do in spite of family is a difficult test.

Abraham arrived at the promised land only to find a famine. He lacked resources and had to decide whether to trust God or not. He had the famine test. In Genesis 13, Abraham’s herdsmen and Lot’s herdsmen had a conflict in the promised land. There he encountered the conflict test. In Genesis 14, he went to fight against the four armies of the east with his 300 men and a few alliances. Abraham had the warfare test.

While Abraham followed God, he faced many tests, and we will as well. James 1:2–3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”

God takes us through tests to try our faith and discern its composition. Is it genuine or false? Is it weak or strong? Furthermore, since God has great plans for each of his children, tests are preparation for greater works, just as tests in school. Believers go through tests to build and strengthen their faith. Without believing in God, nothing is possible. Therefore, tests are the lot of God’s children because they must be prepared for the things God desires them to accomplish.

In this narrative, Abraham encountered a very difficult test primarily because of the great call on his life. Abraham was called to be a great nation and through his seed all nations would be blessed. Essentially, the gospel was to come through Abraham and his family. In order to fulfill this, Abraham needed to be tested and built up, and so do we.

How do we pass God’s tests? In considering this, let’s clarify that God never tempts believers to sin. James 1:13–14 says,

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.

God does not tempt anyone because he is holy and perfect; however, he does test believers. God tests his children to make their faith strong, and Satan tempts them to make it weak. In fact, I would add that whenever God tests believers, Satan always comes behind to tempt them. God tested Adam and Eve in the garden. He said, “Do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and if you do, you will surely die.” Then Satan came and tempted them to fail the test.

In every trial God brings, we can be sure that Satan comes behind to tempt us with our own natural desires (cf. James 1:14). Maybe, he tempts us with our desire for safety, for pleasure, or to be known and esteemed. But, he tempts us to fail God’s tests by using our natural desires within us.

How can we pass God’s tests? In Genesis 22, we learn a great deal from Abraham about passing God’s tests.

Big Question: What can we learn about passing God’s tests from the Genesis 22 narrative?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Expect Them

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. (Genesis 22:1–3)

After God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Abraham did not question God or respond with shock or anger, he just went to bed and the next day obeyed. In contrast with previous narratives, Abraham often dialogued with God.

In Genesis 15:1, God showed up to Abraham and said, “I am your shield, your very great reward.” Abraham replied, “‘O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ … ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir’” (v. 2–3). This is not a man who is afraid to converse with God, especially when he doesn’t understand or agree.

In Genesis 17:18, when God told Abraham that he was going to have a son in his old age with Sarah, he responded by requesting a blessing over Ishmael. He said, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” Abraham essentially said, “What about Ishmael?”

In Genesis 18, when God told Abraham he was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot lived, Abraham immediately responded by questioning and petitioning God. Genesis 18:23–25 says,

Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

The word “approached” in Genesis 18:23 was used of a lawyer about to plead his case. Abraham went before God and pleaded Sodom and Gomorrah’s case. He, in humility, challenged the Lord’s righteousness. He essentially said, “Lord, you are righteous, you will not do such a thing.” However, when God called Abraham to sacrifice his own son, he said nothing.

I think he had learned to expect tests from God and also to trust him. Since Abraham began following God, he experienced many tests and for each one God showed himself faithful, even when Abraham wasn’t faithful. When Abraham lied to Pharaoh and Abimelech about his wife, each time God protected him and his wife. Abraham knew God was faithful, and he had learned to trust him.

With that said, one of things that we must learn if we are going to pass God’s tests is to expect them. As a general rule, if we take a test without knowing about it, we typically fail.

And, to be honest, many believers fail God’s tests, in part, by not expecting them. They get mad at God. They are shocked by the difficulty they encountered. Some even fall away from God when tests come.

In Matthew 13:20–21, the Parable of the Sower, Jesus describes people who receive the Word of God on stony ground. They receive it with joy, but when trouble or persecution comes they quickly fall away. The implication is that these people weren’t expecting it and, therefore, weren’t prepared.

Peter said this to Christians suffering for their faith in the Roman Empire: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet 4:12). He said don’t be surprised and don’t think it’s strange. Essentially, he says, “Expect it.”

James 1:2 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” James doesn’t say “if” you face trials of many kinds but “whenever” you face trials of many kinds. We should expect them.

The Christian life is a series of trials and tests because these reveal and strengthen our faith. If we are going to pass God’s tests, we must expect them. They are part of life.

Application Question: What is your typical response to a trial? How can you respond better?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand God Already Prepared Us

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genesis 22:1–2)

The next thing we must understand about passing God’s test is that God has already prepared us. Now, as we read this narrative on Abraham, we cannot but notice the similarity to what happened in the previous chapter. In Genesis 21, Isaac was a toddler, and the family celebrated his weaning. During this celebration, Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, stood at a distance and mocked Isaac. In Galatians 4:29, Paul actually says he “persecuted” him.

When Sarah saw this, she became angry and told Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out, for the son of the slave woman would not share the inheritance of her son, Isaac. The text said this greatly distressed Abraham (Gen 21:11). He loved his son. However, God spoke to Abraham and comforted him. He told Abraham to let him go, that God’s presence would be with Ishmael, and that Ishmael would become a nation (v. 12–13). Therefore, Abraham let his son go.

Now only a chapter later, God asks for Abraham’s other son. With Ishmael, Abraham could send him away because he knew that God was faithful and that he would provide for him. And now, in this narrative, probably well over ten years later, Abraham had watched God’s faithfulness with his son Ishmael. He married and God was prospering him, which only further confirmed Abraham’s faith. Abraham had been trained, not only because of that test, but because of many previous tests.

This is true for us, as well. God never takes us through a test that he has not prepared us for. That wouldn’t be fair. Why give his children tests they couldn’t pass? He only gives what we can handle by his grace. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:13,

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

God is faithful; he will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear and with the temptation he always provides away to “stand up” or bear it. I cannot but think of the disciples right before Christ went to the cross. John 18:7–9 describes the events:

Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I told you that I am he,” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.” (John 18:7–9)

Why did Christ ask the soldiers who they wanted? It was because he was protecting his disciples. They were not yet ready to be martyrs, and he was making sure none of them would ultimately turn away from him. He was keeping their faith.

God does the same with us. He only puts us into trials he has prepared us for. Now, we still have to make use of that preparation. We must use the resources God gave us in the church—godly counsel and mentors. We must continually discipline ourselves unto godliness by studying Scripture, prayer, and serving (cf. 1 Tim 4:7). We must also flee from all appearance of evil as he has taught us (1 Thess 5:22). In doing this, we put on the armor of God to stand against spiritual attacks (Eph 6:10–13). If we fail the test, it is not for lack of preparation or resources. God has given us everything needed for life and godliness (cf. 2 Pet 1:3).

The trial may seem like too much, but if we look back over previous tests encountered and teachings received, he has prepared us to faithfully stand. We must take comfort in this, as we go through tests. He is a loving father who never allows us to encounter something we are unprepared for.

Application Question: As you consider the various tests you’ve encountered, how can you see God’s faithful preparation for these tests?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand They Will Often Seem Illogical

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genesis 22:1–2)

As we consider the Lord’s command, it must have seemed illogical to Abraham, as it may to us. God promised Abraham that Isaac would become a great nation and all nations would be blessed through him (cf. Gen 12:1–3, 21:12). How could this happen if Abraham sacrificed Isaac?

Interestingly, “to an ancient Middle Easterner, ‘burnt offering’ suggested a process: first cutting the offering’s throat, then dismemberment, and then a sacrifice by fire in which the body parts were completely consumed on the altar.”1 How could Abraham even bare this image? And, how could this fit with the Lord’s previous promises? It must have clearly sounded illogical to Abraham.

No doubt, many times in our lives, the tests God allowed us to go through, at least at first, didn’t make any sense. We asked ourselves these types of questions, “Why would God allow me to go through this?” “Why did this happen to my friend or my family member?” God’s tests often are confusing.

For Abraham, sacrificing one’s son to a deity was not foreign to his worldview. This was common to the Canaanite religions. The people sacrificed children to appease their gods (cf. Lev 18:21, 24). Maybe, Abraham reasoned to himself, “If the pagan gods are worthy of such affection, then most certainly it must be true of my God.” We can only speculate.

Abraham did not have the benefit of the progressive revelation that God has given us in Scripture. In the Mosaic law, human sacrifice was clearly forbidden. Again, this must have been very confusing and difficult for Abraham, as it is for us to understand. I’m not sure one can give a fully satisfying answer to the morality of God’s command. However, with that said, we can say that God is all wise and all just. Therefore, his will is always perfect. Secondly, we can also, unequivocally, say that this is nothing God would ever require today. It is clearly forbidden throughout Scripture.

But the point remains the same; many times God’s tests will be a logical struggle for us. We must take comfort in the fact that God is infinite and that we are finite. He knows all things and our insight is limited at best. Consider what God said in Isaiah 55:8–10:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. His thoughts and ways are higher than ours, and we must take great comfort in this. And for that reason, we must, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

We must trust him with all our heart because our understanding is flawed and there is no better guide or leader than him. Unless we do that, God’s tests and trials will lead us to bitterness, anger, frustration, and confusion, instead of a deeper trust in his faithfulness. Lord, we trust you.

Application Question: Have you ever experienced or witnessed a test that seemed illogical, at least at first? How can we trust God at those times?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand They Often Involve Our Greatest Treasures

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genesis 22:1–2)

Next, we must notice that God’s test potentially involved Abraham’s greatest treasure—his only son. As a father, I can say that the most sensitive and vulnerable area in my life is my daughter. I remember when she was a toddler, I would often go to bed at night praying over her feet, toes, and head. I wanted God to protect every part of her body. I got scared when seeing doors. Just the reality that her finger could get caught in a door frightened me. It is very common for children to take this special place in a parent’s heart.

In fact, I cannot but wonder if Abraham’s affection for his son took a dangerous place in his heart. He wanted a child with Sarah, probably, ever since he was married. His previous name, Abram, meant “exalted father.” As he started to age, the snickers around him probably increased. His name meant exalted father, but he had no children. And for a time, after God named him “Abraham,” meaning “father of a nation,” at ninety-nine years old, maybe the snickers turned into roars. People probably said, “You’re changing your name to what? Why? Sarah, your wife is barren!”

Therefore, when God gave him a miracle child at the age of 100, maybe his affection grew too deep, bordering on idolatry. And the depth of his affection, no doubt, grew as he dealt with the pain of Ishmael’s leaving. Quite possibly, he dealt with his hurt by loving Isaac even more.

This is the reason that when we start following Christ, he calls us to hate our father, mother, wife, children, brother, sister, and even our own life to be his disciple (Luke 14:26). Our love for anything else, including family, must look like hate in comparison to our love for God. The greatest command is to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul. God will not have any rivals for our love.

Perhaps, this is why God asked for his son. Maybe, his love progressed to the brink of idolatry. But, we must hear and understand that this is common for God’s test. God often tests us where our affections are strongest.

Do you find your identity in work, studies, hobbies, friends, family, or a significant other? Then have no doubt that is where God will test you. Where ever our heart is, God will test us.

When God tests our most vulnerable areas, the tests are meant to help loosen our grip on these things and make our hearts cling more to God.

Application Question: How should we respond to this reality of God testing us in the areas of our greatest treasures?

  1. It should deliver us from surprise when encountering such tests.
  2. It should warn us against idolizing anything.
  3. It should challenge us to make God our focus.

Are you guarding and protecting your heart (Prov 4:23)? God must always be first.

Application Question: What areas of your life are you most prone to idolize? How have you experienced God’s tests in your most sensitive areas, your treasures? How can we protect our hearts from loving gifts over the Giver?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Practice Immediate Obedience

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. (Genesis 22:3)

Interpretation Question: What can we discern from the fact that in the morning Abraham got up, saddled the donkey, took two servants and Isaac, cut the wood, and then set out for the place God called him to?

After God spoke to Abraham, presumably at night, the narrator tells us that the next morning Abraham saddled the donkey, gathered two servants and Isaac, cut the wood, and set out for the place God called him to go. He immediately obeyed.

Now certainly this wasn’t easy. In fact, some commentators have noted the fact that Abraham saddled his donkey before he cut the wood, which doesn’t make any sense.2 Normally, one would cut the wood and then saddle the donkey. Maybe, he was a little disoriented after a night without sleep. However, he still immediately obeyed God. This must be true of us as well. We must practice immediate obedience when we encounter God’s tests.

Application Question: What happens if we practice delayed obedience or rebellion in response to God’s test?

When we do not practice immediate obedience, it opens the door for the enemy to tempt us. He will try to draw us into questioning God. He will lead us to depression, discouragement, and ultimately sin. To sin in God’s test only leads to repeating the test. Like Israel, we end up spending years going around the same mountain in the wilderness. To practice disobedience, only brings God’s discipline and a repetition of the test. In addition, the repeated test only gets harder because our hearts become even more attached to whatever sin we struggle with.

Application Question: What happens when we practice immediate obedience?

When practicing immediate obedience to God’s tests, instead of receiving his discipline, we experience God’s blessing. James 1:25 says, “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.”

The doer of God’s Word receives his blessings. God’s blessing may manifest as joy in the trial. While being disobedient in God’s tests, we often experience discouragement and depression (cf. Ps 32), but while being faithful, God enables us to find joy even in hard times. God’s blessing also gives us strength to persevere and be faithful. No doubt, Abraham experienced many of these blessings as he immediately obeyed God. If he had stayed at home and delayed obedience, the enemy of our souls and his would have tempted and tormented him.

Are you practicing immediate obedience in your trial? Or are you practicing procrastination and disobedience?

Application Question: Why is immediate obedience in trials so important? What are some of the consequences of delayed obedience or disobedience to God in trials?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Have the Right Attitude

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:4–5)

The trip took about three days to get to the region of Moriah (v. 4), which is where Jerusalem is today.3 Many believe Abraham, his servants, and his son ascended Golgotha, the same mountain Christ was crucified on, outside the gate of Jerusalem.

When they saw the place in the distance, Abraham told his servants to stay while he and the boy went up the mountain to “worship.” What stands out about this is Abraham’s view of this test. He called the sacrifice of his son worship to God.

I don’t think Abraham was lying or being deceptive. It was indeed worship to God. He was on his way to sacrifice to the Lord, and he saw it as worship.

This must be true of us as well when going through God’s tests. We must see them as our reasonable worship. Romans 12:1 says: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”

Paul said that we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God, as an act of worship. Sacrifice is never easy. Sacrifice has the connotation of pain, and pain is not enjoyable. However, sacrifice can be worship to God if offered and given with the right attitude. And that is how Abraham saw his life and sacrifice, as worship to God.

The very reason many of us get angry at God, when going through trials, is because we see our life as worship to us. If a trial brings pain or discomfort, we get upset, because our lives are often more about ourselves than God. Our lives are about our success and happiness and anything that hinders those goals creates anger or animosity in us.

However, when we see our lives as sacrificial worship to God, it will change our response to tests and trials. Romans 5:3–4 says, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

We rejoice in trials because they ultimately lead us to hope in God. Trials take our hopes off our jobs, hobbies, family, friends, and dreams, and help us place our hopes, where they belong—with God. That is why going through tests and trials can cause rejoicing. It can only cause rejoicing when the purpose of our life is really God. We rejoice because trials help us ultimately know and trust God more.

Our attitude is very important in trials. If we have the wrong attitude, if we are complainers and whiners, then we will fail the test and bring God’s discipline on our lives. Philippians 2:14 says, “Do all things without complaining and arguing.” First Thessalonians 5:18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances because this is God’s will for our lives.”

When Israel complained while being tested in the wilderness, God disciplined them (1 Cor 10:10). The wilderness was not worship to them, because it took away their comfort. But if their true desire was to know and trust God more, the wilderness could have become their greatest joy.

Paul said this in 2 Corinthians 12:9–10:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul’s trials became the subject of his boast because it was when he was weak that Christ’s power rested on him. For Paul the tests were worship, as it was with Abraham. Tests drew them both closer to God which was their ultimate desire. This should be true for us as well.

What is your attitude while going through tests?

Application Question: What is your typical attitude when God’s tests you? How can we learn to be thankful instead of bitter in our tests?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Have Faith

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. (Genesis 22:4–8)

Interpretation Question: Why did Abraham tell his servants that he and Isaac would go up the mountain and then come back? What was his reasoning?

We also must notice how Abraham not only shares that he and his son were going to worship but also that he said, “we will come back to you.” Now, was Abraham lying? We know Abraham had a tendency to stretch the truth. However, it seems Abraham was responding in faith. Hebrews 11:17–19 says:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

The author of Hebrews says the reason Abraham offered his son was because he reasoned that God could raise the dead. When Abraham said, “we will come back to you,” it was because he believed that if he sacrificed his son, God would raise him from the dead. This was great faith, especially since up to this point in biblical history there were no previous resurrections.

Abraham throughout his journey learned that God was trustworthy and that he could not tell a lie. If God said it was through Isaac that his offspring would be reckoned, then it made sense that God would indeed raise him from the dead.

We also see his faith in how he responded to Isaac when asked about the lamb. Abraham responded, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). Abraham didn’t exactly know how, but he knew that God would provide.

This must be true of us as well, when going through God’s test. We must have faith. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” In order to please God in a test, we must believe in him. We must believe in his goodness and his faithfulness to his people. We may not fully understand why or how, but we must trust him. The writer of Hebrews says that God rewards those who come to him with faith.

Are you trusting God in your trial? Faith is necessary to please God and to pass the test.

Application Question: Why should we trust God when going through trials? How can we increase our faith as we go through them?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Depend on Others

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. (Genesis 22:9–10)

When they reached the place God told Abraham to go, Abraham built an altar, arranged the wood on it, and then bound Isaac and placed him on the altar. The narrator mentions nothing about a struggle. Abraham was probably at least 116 years old at this time. We can guess this by the fact that the same Hebrew word for “boy” used of Isaac in this text was used of Ishmael in Genesis 21, who was sixteen at the time.4 Abraham was an old man. Isaac was stronger and faster at sixteen years old, and therefore, it would have been very difficult for Abraham to bind and place him on the altar without his cooperation.

The implication is that Isaac cooperated with Abraham. Maybe, while on top of the mountain, Abraham shared God’s command to sacrifice him and, at the same time, assured him of God’s faithfulness. No doubt, Abraham taught Isaac many times that a great nation would come through him, and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. It is clear that not only did Abraham have great faith, but so did his son.

With that said, one of the principles we can learn from this about passing God’s tests is that we will also commonly need the cooperation and support of other believers to pass God’s tests. The Christian life was never meant to be walked alone. We need brothers and sisters supporting us and helping us get through.

In fact, if God calls us to any great work or to go through any great test, one of the right answers to the test will be, “Phone a friend”—get help. Scripture teaches that as Christians we are part of the body of Christ. One person is the hand, another is an eye, another is the liver, and another is a leg. In order for me to accomplish anything with my body, I need the cooperation of other parts. My leg cannot function without my hip, knees, and muscles doing their part.

Is it any surprise that this reality also applies to us when going through tests? We need the wisdom, the insight, the prayers, and support of others to be faithful in tests. Consider what Paul said about him being a prisoner in Rome and his eventual deliverance in Philippians 1:19: “for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”

Paul was convinced that the prayers of a tiny congregation in Philippi were enough to thwart the plans of the Roman Empire. That is how confident he was in their prayers. It also showed his dependence upon them to receive deliverance.

What are you seeking deliverance from? Is it unforgiveness, anger, discord, depression, or some other sin? You can be confident that much of the grace of God needed to pass that test will come through the body of Christ. If you neglect the body of Christ, if you are not integrated into the life of a church, you will find yourself spiritually impoverished and failing most tests you go through.

We need one another. In order for Abraham to offer his son in obedience to God, he needed his son’s cooperation and faith as well.

Application Question: In what ways have you received grace through God’s body to pass tests or trials? How has God revealed your need to depend on brothers and sisters in Christ?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand His Purpose of Revealing What Is in Our Hearts

Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:11–12)

As Abraham was about to slay his son, the angel of the Lord commanded him to not lay a hand on the boy. The angel of the Lord was a theophany—a temporary appearance of God in order to reveal himself to his people. Many believe this was a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. The angel of the Lord said, “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (v. 12).

We can discern from the angel’s words one of God’s purposes in Abraham’s trial. It revealed what was in Abraham’s heart. He said, “Now I know that you fear God.” The test revealed that Abraham feared God even more than losing his son. He truly did hate his mother, father, wife, children, brother, sister and even his own life for the Lord’s sake (cf. Luke 14:26–27), as we each are called to do.

In the same way, one of God’s purposes in trials is to reveal what is in our hearts. Consider what Peter said to the Christians suffering in the Roman Empire in 1 Peter 1:6–7:

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Peter said the trials these Christians were encountering were to prove their faith genuine. The Greek word for “proved” was used of a metallurgist purifying or testing a metal to see if it was genuine.

Now the reality is that God doesn’t need to know what is in our hearts; we need to know what is in our hearts. God already knows everything.

For some professing Christians, trials essentially prove if God is their Lord at all. Remember in Matthew 13:21, the stony ground received the seed of the Word of God, but when trials came, the plant withered because it lacked deep roots. For many going through various trials with church, work, or family instead of drawing them to God, the trials push them away—never to return. They fall away proving that their faith was shallow and not genuine, as Christ taught. Maybe, it was more centered on the church rather than God, and therefore when the church failed them, they fell away. Or, following Christ was more focused on their prosperity, and therefore, when they experienced sickness or difficulty, they left God.

Trials come to reveal what is in our hearts. God said this to the Israelites while they were in the wilderness in Deuteronomy 8:2: “Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.”

God took them through the desert (or the wilderness) to test them and see what was in their hearts. As you know, while the Israelites were in the wilderness, trials revealed complaining, idol worship, sexual immorality, and rebellion. It revealed that “Egypt” was still in their hearts.

This is how many Christians are. When God brings them into a trial, it reveals that the world really rules their hearts. They complain, get drunk, commit sexual immorality, and rebel against authority, just like the Israelites did.

Sometimes people blame their actions on a certain situation or relationship; however, the blame is misdirected. They may say, “I only act this way when I’m around this person.” They say this to relieve blame from themselves. However, the situation or difficult person is really like a fire that brings all the impurities to the surface. It brings anger, lust, bitterness, and lack of faith; it shows what is already in the heart. The person or situation is not the cause—our heart is. The person or situation only revealed the sin already in our heart, which needed to be removed.

I remember stepping down from my pastoral ministry in Chicago and moving back to Texas with my parents, as I applied for new ministry positions. While waiting, I started struggling with my identity. I stepped down from my job in December and wasn’t hired to a new position until June. During that time, I realized that at some point while in ministry, I stopped seeing myself as, “God’s child.” I had become, “Pastor Greg, God’s child.” My identity started to come from my ministry position and not simply my identity in Christ. The trial of waiting revealed what was in my heart.

During that season of waiting, I really drew near God by being in his Word and prayer—to restore my identity as his child. Trials reveal what is in our hearts. That is part of the reason God allows them.

Again, for Abraham, the trial revealed that he feared God, even more than the loss of his son. What do your trials and tests reveal about your heart? Does it reveal anger, pride, lack of faith, or worldliness? Does “Egypt” come out of your heart, as it did with the Israelites while in the wilderness?

One of the reasons God allows tests and trials is to help us know our hearts, so we can repent and be transformed. In the midst of a test, it is good to pray, “Lord, what are you trying to show me about my heart, and how can I change?”

Application Question: What has God revealed about your heart through tests and trials? How has God called you to work on those issues?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Depend on God

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:13–14)

After the Lord stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son, God provided a ram to sacrifice instead. In response to this, Abraham named the place, “The LORD Will Provide,” Jehovah Jireh. Literally, it can be translated, “The Lord Will See to It.”5

To pass God’s tests not only do we need others’ cooperation and support, but we need God’s. God is the one who provides us with grace to make it through trials or to escape them. Remember 1 Corinthians 10:13 says,

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

With every trial or temptation, God always provides a way out or the ability to persevere through the trial.

It is for this reason that we must draw near God in trials (James 4:8). God provides wisdom, strength, and endurance for us to be faithful in it. James said that in every trial we should ask God for wisdom since he provides liberally (James 1:5). Again, Paul said this in Philippians 1:19, “for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”

Not only was Paul confident of deliverance because of the saint’s prayers but the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Paul knew Christ was faithful. He would carry him through. And, Christ will do the same for us during trials. In fact, it is during trials that we will find his grace abundant. Paul said in his weakness, God’s power was made perfect (cf. 2 Cor 12:9).

One of the ways we depend on God and experience his grace in the trials is by abiding in him. Jesus said: “‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Whatever fruit needed to pass God’s test grows as we make our home in him. We abide in him through worship, prayer, time in the Word, and fellowship with saints. It was in the midst of Abraham’s worship that God provided a ram, and he will often do the same for us as well.

Are you bearing God’s fruit through abiding in him during trials? God is Jehovah Jireh—our Provider.

He will see to it. He will make sure we have everything needed.

Application Question: In what ways have you seen God miraculously meet your needs or provide grace for you in a trial? What do we have to do in order to receive his grace and provisions?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand His Purpose of Revealing More of Himself to Us

So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:14)

Not only must we notice that God met Abraham’s needs, but also that Abraham came to know God in a new and deeper way. This is the first time Abraham called God, Jehovah Jireh. As we walked through Abraham’s story, we saw God reveal himself in special ways through each test or trial. When God called Abraham to leave his family and home, he was YAHWEH the covenant God, in Genesis 12:1. When God empowered Abraham to defeat the four armies from the east, God revealed himself as his shield—his very great reward—in Genesis 15:1. In Genesis 17:1, when God told Abraham he was going to have a child in his old age through Sarah, he revealed himself as God Almighty, El Shaddai.

In each trial, we get to know God’s character and person more deeply. In many ways, it is like any close relationship. Our deepest and most intimate relationships typically are formed by going through hard times together. It is in those hard times, we learn to trust them more, and we learn more about their character. That is just what God desires to do with us through trials. He wants to reveal himself in a deeper and more intimate way.

How has God revealed himself to you in the past? Has he shown himself as YAHWEH—the God you are in covenant with? Has he revealed himself as El Shaddai—the God who does miracles? Has he revealed himself as Jehovah Jireh—the one who provides all your needs?

God has many names/character traits he wants to reveal to you. He wants to reveal that he is Jehovah Sabaoth, “The LORD of Hosts.” He is the Lord of the armies of heaven who fights your battles. He wants to reveal that he is Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals you. He wants to reveal that he is Jehovah Roi, the Shepherd who leads you. He wants to reveal that he is Jehovah Shalom, the Lord who gives you peace, even in the midst of storms.

That is one of the greatest things that God does in our lives through tests. He reveals more of who he is to us. Lord, make yourself known. We want to see your glory.

Application Question: What characteristic of God is he revealing to you at this stage of your life?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Focus on God’s Reward

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:15–18)

Observation Question: What blessings did God give Abraham after he passed the test?

After God provided the ram for Abraham to sacrifice, he pronounced a blessing on Abraham. He reassured Abraham of his promise to make his descendants like the stars in the sky and the sand of the seashore. But he also gave a further promise of the messiah coming through Abraham’s lineage. He said, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (v. 18). In Galatians 3:16, Paul teaches that the word “offspring” is singular—referring to Christ.

The reward for being faithful in the test was reassurance and the privilege of the messiah coming through his lineage. It is no different for us. Faithfully navigating the trials of life opens the door for greater rewards from God. Understanding this, helps encourage us to be faithful.

After Job faithfully persevered through his trials, God rewarded him with a double blessing. Paul said this in 2 Corinthians 1:3–4 about the trials God allowed him and his associates to go through:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

God comforted them in their trials so that they could comfort those in “any trouble” with the comfort they received. When God comforts a believer in a trial, he enables them to comfort others going through various trials, not just the same one. Through trials God equips believers for ministry and expands their outreach.

Have you experienced this before? Sometimes God equips and expands our ministry through trials by giving us not only comfort but compassion. This happened to me. Before going through a battle with depression in college, I had problems crying. I had been hardened by life. But when God took me through a season of struggle, I began to weep—not only for myself, but for others. I began to develop empathy—I could feel the pain of others. He prepared me for ministry through struggle. He enabled me not just to feel but to comfort others with the comfort he gave me.

One of the greatest encouragements to pass God’s test is looking at his reward. James 1:12 says, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” There is reward on earth, as God matures us and opens doors for further ministry, but there is also great reward in heaven (cf. 2 Cor 4:17–18).

Application Question: In what ways have you experienced God’s reward by faithfully going through his tests? In what ways has he expanded your ministry and your ability to minister?

To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Seek to Magnify Christ

Observation Question: How does Isaac resemble Christ in this text?

As we consider this text, it is almost impossible to miss Isaac’s resemblance to Christ. We see this in many ways:

  1. Like Isaac, Jesus was the only begotten of the Father, whom the Father loved.
  2. Like Isaac, Jesus carried his cross up the hill to the place he would be sacrificed.
  3. Like Isaac, Jesus offered himself willingly. He said, “Father, take this cup from me, nevertheless your will be done.”
  4. Like Isaac, Jesus was crucified on a hill in Jerusalem.
  5. Like Isaac, Jesus was delivered from death on the third day.

The parallels are impossible to miss.

But the reality is this is God’s purpose in every trial and circumstance we encounter in life. Romans 8:28–29 says,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

God works everything for the purpose of conforming us to Christ’s image and that includes both blessings and trials. They all are for the purpose of making us like Jesus. Therefore, our primary purpose in trials must be becoming like Christ. If we had this mindset in the midst of difficulty, instead of primarily seeking to lessen pain or embarrassment, then we would pass our tests.

It’s a lot easier to pass an exam or a paper if we know what the professor is looking for. God’s purpose in trials is to make us look just like himself. In this text, Abraham looks just like God the Father, and Isaac looks like Jesus the Son. Paul said this about his imprisonment and possible death sentence in Rome:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:20–21)

What was his expectation, his hope in his trial? It wasn’t to be delivered from death. That was not Paul’s focus. His focus was Christ being exalted in his body whether by life or death. If he lived, he wanted Christ exalted, and if he died, he wanted Christ exalted. That was all that mattered.

The word “exalted” can also be translated “magnified.” He wanted to display the magnificence of Christ in his trial. In the midst of his test, he wanted his body to be a theater where all could clearly see Christ.

Is that your desire when going through a trial or test? Is it that Christ be magnified, both so you could see him more clearly and others as well? Or is it simply to escape the trial? Resembling and glorifying Christ must be our goal in every aspect of life, including our trials.

And for that reason, while going through tests, we must ask ourselves and God, “How can I glorify Christ best?” This is something we must ask because that question leads us to the right answers to pass God’s test.

Application Question: How can we develop a mindset of seeking to glorify Christ in every test or trial? Why is this mindset so difficult to maintain?

Conclusion

How can we pass God’s tests?

  1. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Expect Them
  2. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand God Already Prepared Us
  3. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand They Often Seem Illogical
  4. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand They Often Involve Our Greatest Treasures
  5. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Practice Immediate Obedience
  6. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Have the Right Attitude
  7. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Have Faith
  8. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Depend on Others
  9. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand His Purpose of Revealing What Is in Our Hearts
  10. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Depend on God
  11. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Understand His Purpose of Revealing More of Himself to Us
  12. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Focus on God’s Reward
  13. To Pass God’s Tests, We Must Seek to Magnify Christ

Copyright © 2017 Gregory Brown

The primary Scriptures used are New International Version (1984) unless otherwise noted. Other versions include English Standard Version, New Living Translation, New American Standard Bible, and King James Version.

Holy Bible, New International Version ®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible.

All emphases in Scripture quotations have been added.


1 Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (p. 301). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

2 Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (p. 302). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

3 Guzik, David (2012-12-08). Genesis (Kindle Locations 3563–3564). Enduring Word Media. Kindle Edition.

4 Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (p. 301). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

5 Wiersbe, W. W. (1991). Be Obedient (p. 110). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

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The Surprising Origins of the Trinity Doctrine

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Most people assume that everything that bears the label “Christian” must have originated with Jesus Christ and His early followers. But this is definitely not the case. All we have to do is look at the words of Jesus Christ and His apostles to see that this is clearly not true.

The historical record shows that, just as Jesus and the New Testament writers foretold, various heretical ideas and teachers rose up from within the early Church and infiltrated it from without. Christ Himself warned His followers: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name . . . and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:4-5).

You can read many similar warnings in other passages (such as Matthew 24:11; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 2 Timothy 4:2-4; 2 Peter 2:1-2; 1 John 2:18-26; 1 John 4:1-3).

Barely two decades after Christ’s death and resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote that many believers were already “turning away . . . to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). He wrote that he was forced to contend with “false apostles, deceitful workers” who were fraudulently “transforming themselves into apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13). One of the major problems he had to deal with was “false brethren” (2 Corinthians 11:26).

By late in the first century, as we see from 3 John 9-10, conditions had grown so dire that false ministers openly refused to receive representatives of the apostle John and were excommunicating true Christians from the Church!

Of this troubling period Edward Gibbon, the famed historian, wrote in his classic work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire of a “dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church” (1821, Vol. 2, p. 111).

It wasn’t long before true servants of God became a marginalized and scattered minority among those calling themselves Christian. A very different religion, now compromised with many concepts and practices rooted in ancient paganism (such mixing of religious beliefs being known as syncretism, common in the Roman Empire at the time), took hold and transformed the faith founded by Jesus Christ.

Historian Jesse Hurlbut says of this time of transformation: “We name the last generation of the first century, from 68 to 100 A.D., ‘The Age of Shadows,’ partly because the gloom of persecution was over the church, but more especially because of all the periods in the [church’s] history, it is the one about which we know the least. We have no longer the clear light of the Book of Acts to guide us; and no author of that age has filled the blank in the history . . .

“For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” ( The Story of the Christian Church, 1970, p. 33).

This “very different” church would grow in power and influence, and within a few short centuries would come to dominate even the mighty Roman Empire!

By the second century, faithful members of the Church, Christ’s “little flock” (Luke 12:32), had largely been scattered by waves of deadly persecution. They held firmly to the biblical truth about Jesus Christ and God the Father, though they were persecuted by the Roman authorities as well as those who professed Christianity but were in reality teaching “another Jesus” and a “different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6-9).

Different ideas about Christ’s divinity lead to conflict

This was the setting in which the doctrine of the Trinity emerged. In those early decades after Jesus Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection, and spanning the next few centuries, various ideas sprang up as to His exact nature. Was He man? Was He God? Was He God appearing as a man? Was He an illusion? Was He a mere man who became God? Was He created by God the Father, or did He exist eternally with the Father?

All of these ideas had their proponents. The unity of belief of the original Church was lost as new beliefs, many borrowed or adapted from pagan religions, replaced the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

Let us be clear that when it comes to the intellectual and theological debates in those early centuries that led to the formulation of the Trinity, the true Church was largely absent from the scene, having been driven underground.

For this reason, in that stormy period we often see debates not between truth and error, but between one error and a different error— a fact seldom recognized by many modern scholars yet critical for our understanding.

A classic example of this was the dispute over the nature of Christ that led the Roman emperor Constantine the Great to convene the Council of Nicaea (in modern-day western Turkey) in A.D. 325.

Constantine, although held by many to be the first “Christian” Roman Emperor, was actually a sun-worshiper who was only baptized on his deathbed. During his reign he had his eldest son and his wife murdered. He was also vehemently anti-Semitic, referring in one of his edicts to “the detestable Jewish crowd” and “the customs of these most wicked men”—customs that were in fact rooted in the Bible and practiced by Jesus and the apostles.

As emperor in a period of great tumult within the Roman Empire, Constantine was challenged with keeping the empire unified. He recognized the value of religion in uniting his empire. This was, in fact, one of his primary motivations in accepting and sanctioning the “Christian” religion (which, by this time, had drifted far from the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles and was Christian in name only).

But now Constantine faced a new challenge. Religion researcher Karen Armstrong explains in A History of God that “one of the first problems that had to be solved was the doctrine of God . . . a new danger arose from within which split Christians into bitterly warring camps” (1993, p. 106).

Debate over the nature of God at the Council of Nicaea

Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 as much for political reasons—for unity in the empire—as religious ones. The primary issue at that time came to be known as the Arian controversy.

“In the hope of securing for his throne the support of the growing body of Christians he had shown them considerable favor and it was to his interest to have the church vigorous and united. The Arian controversy was threatening its unity and menacing its strength. He therefore undertook to put an end to the trouble. It was suggested to him, perhaps by the Spanish bishop Hosius, who was influential at court, that if a synod were to meet representing the whole church both east and west, it might be possible to restore harmony.

“Constantine himself of course neither knew nor cared anything about the matter in dispute but he was eager to bring the controversy to a close, and Hosius’ advice appealed to him as sound” (Arthur Cushman McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought, 1954, Vol. 1, p. 258).

Arius, a priest from Alexandria, Egypt, taught that Christ, because He was the Son of God, must have had a beginning and therefore was a special creation of God. Further, if Jesus was the Son, the Father of necessity must be older.

Opposing the teachings of Arius was Athanasius, a deacon also from Alexandria. His view was an early form of Trinitarianism wherein the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were one but at the same time distinct from each other.

The decision as to which view the church council would accept was to a large extent arbitrary. Karen Armstrong explains in A History of God: “When the bishops gathered at Nicaea on May 20, 325, to resolve the crisis, very few would have shared Athanasius’s view of Christ. Most held a position midway between Athanasius and Arius” (p. 110).

As emperor, Constantine was in the unusual position of deciding church doctrine even though he was not really a Christian. (The following year is when he had both his wife and son murdered, as previously mentioned).

Historian Henry Chadwick attests, “Constantine, like his father, worshipped the Unconquered Sun” ( The Early Church, 1993, p. 122). As to the emperor’s embrace of Christianity, Chadwick admits, “His conversion should not be interpreted as an inward experience of grace . . . It was a military matter. His comprehension of Christian doctrine was never very clear” (p. 125).

Chadwick does say that Constantine’s deathbed baptism itself “implies no doubt about his Christian belief,” it being common for rulers to put off baptism to avoid accountability for things like torture and executing criminals (p. 127). But this justification doesn’t really help the case for the emperor’s conversion being genuine.

Norbert Brox, a professor of church history, confirms that Constantine was never actually a converted Christian: “Constantine did not experience any conversion; there are no signs of a change of faith in him. He never said of himself that he had turned to another god . . . At the time when he turned to Christianity, for him this was Sol Invictus (the victorious sun god)” ( A Concise History of the Early Church, 1996, p. 48).

When it came to the Nicene Council, The Encyclopaedia Britannica states: “Constantine himself presided, actively guiding the discussions, and personally proposed . . . the crucial formula expressing the relation of Christ to God in the creed issued by the council . . . Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination” (1971 edition, Vol. 6, “Constantine,” p. 386).

With the emperor’s approval, the Council rejected the minority view of Arius and, having nothing definitive with which to replace it, approved the view of Athanasius—also a minority view. The church was left in the odd position of officially supporting, from that point forward, the decision made at Nicaea to endorse a belief held by only a minority of those attending.

The groundwork for official acceptance of the Trinity was now laid—but it took more than three centuries after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for this unbiblical teaching to emerge!

Nicene decision didn’t end the debate

The Council of Nicaea did not end the controversy. Karen Armstrong explains: “Athanasius managed to impose his theology on the delegates . . . with the emperor breathing down their necks . . .

“The show of agreement pleased Constantine, who had no understanding of the theological issues, but in fact there was no unanimity at Nicaea. After the council, the bishops went on teaching as they had before, and the Arian crisis continued for another sixty years. Arius and his followers fought back and managed to regain imperial favor. Athanasius was exiled no fewer than five times. It was very difficult to make his creed stick” (pp. 110-111).

The ongoing disagreements were at times violent and bloody. Of the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea, noted historian Will Durant writes, “Probably more Christians were slaughtered by Christians in these two years (342-3) than by all the persecutions of Christians by pagans in the history of Rome” ( The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4: The Age of Faith, 1950, p. 8). Atrociously, while claiming to be Christian many believers fought and slaughtered one another over their differing views of God!

Of the following decades, Professor Harold Brown, cited earlier, writes: “During the middle decades of this century, from 340 to 380, the history of doctrine looks more like the history of court and church intrigues and social unrest . . . The central doctrines hammered out in this period often appear to have been put through by intrigue or mob violence rather than by the common consent of Christendom led by the Holy Spirit” (p. 119).

Debate shifts to the nature of the Holy Spirit

Disagreements soon centered around another issue, the nature of the Holy Spirit. In that regard, the statement issued at the Council of Nicaea said simply, “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” This “seemed to have been added to Athanasius’s creed almost as an afterthought,” writes Karen Armstrong. “People were confused about the Holy Spirit. Was it simply a synonym for God or was it something more?” (p. 115).

Professor Ryrie, also cited earlier,writes, “In the second half of the fourth century, three theologians from the province of Cappadocia in eastern Asia Minor [today central Turkey] gave definitive shape to the doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 65). They proposed an idea that was a step beyond Athanasius’ view—that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit were coequal and together in one being, yet also distinct from one another.

These men—Basil, bishop of Caesarea, his brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus—were all “trained in Greek philosophy” (Armstrong, p. 113), which no doubt affected their outlook and beliefs (see “Greek Philosophy’s Influence on the Trinity Doctrine,” beginning on page 14).

In their view, as Karen Armstrong explains, “the Trinity only made sense as a mystical or spiritual experience . . . It was not a logical or intellectual formulation but an imaginative paradigm that confounded reason. Gregory of Nazianzus made this clear when he explained that contemplation of the Three in One induced a profound and overwhelming emotion that confounded thought and intellectual clarity.

“ ‘No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Three than I am carried back into the One. When I think of any of the Three, I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me’ ” (p. 117). Little wonder that, as Armstrong concludes, “For many Western Christians . . . the Trinity is simply baffling” (ibid.).

Ongoing disputes lead to the Council of Constantinople

In the year 381, 44 years after Constantine’s death, Emperor Theodosius the Great convened the Council of Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey) to resolve these disputes. Gregory of Nazianzus, recently appointed as archbishop of Constantinople, presided over the council and urged the adoption of his view of the Holy Spirit.

Historian Charles Freeman states: “Virtually nothing is known of the theological debates of the council of 381, but Gregory was certainly hoping to get some acceptance of his belief that the Spirit was consubstantial with the Father [meaning that the persons are of the same being, as substance in this context denotes individual quality].

“Whether he dealt with the matter clumsily or whether there was simply no chance of consensus, the ‘Macedonians,’ bishops who refused to accept the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, left the council . . . Typically, Gregory berated the bishops for preferring to have a majority rather than simply accepting ‘the Divine Word’ of the Trinity on his authority” ( A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State, 2008, p. 96).

Gregory soon became ill and had to withdraw from the council. Who would preside now? “So it was that one Nectarius, an elderly city senator who had been a popular prefect in the city as a result of his patronage of the games, but who was still not a baptized Christian, was selected . . . Nectarius appeared to know no theology, and he had to be initiated into the required faith before being baptized and consecrated” (Freeman, pp. 97-98).

Bizarrely, a man who up to this point wasn’t a Christian was appointed to preside over a major church council tasked with determining what it would teach regarding the nature of God!

The Trinity becomes official doctrine

The teaching of the three Cappadocian theologians “made it possible for the Council of Constantinople (381) to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly stated, not even in Scripture” ( The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “God,” p. 568).

The council adopted a statement that translates into English as, in part: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages . . . And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets . . .” The statement also affirmed belief “in one holy, catholic [meaning in this context universal, whole or complete] and apostolic Church . . .”

With this declaration in 381, which would become known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Trinity as generally understood today became the official belief and teaching concerning the nature of God.

Theology professor Richard Hanson observes that a result of the council’s decision “was to reduce the meanings of the word ‘God’ from a very large selection of alternatives to one only,” such that “when Western man today says ‘God’ he means the one, sole exclusive [Trinitarian] God and nothing else” ( Studies in Christian Antiquity, 1985,pp. 243-244).

Thus, Emperor Theodosius—who himself had been baptized only a year before convening the council—was, like Constantine nearly six decades earlier, instrumental in establishing major church doctrine. As historian Charles Freeman notes: “It is important to remember that Theodosius had no theological background of his own and that he put in place as dogma a formula containing intractable philosophical problems of which he would have been unaware. In effect, the emperor’s laws had silenced the debate when it was still unresolved” (p. 103).

Other beliefs about the nature of God banned

Now that a decision had been reached, Theodosius would tolerate no dissenting views. He issued his own edict that read: “We now order that all churches are to be handed over to the bishops who profess Father, Son and Holy Spirit of a single majesty, of the same glory, of one splendor, who establish no difference by sacrilegious separation, but (who affirm) the order of the Trinity by recognizing the Persons and uniting the Godhead” (quoted by Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 1999, p. 223).

Another edict from Theodosius went further in demanding adherence to the new teaching: “Let us believe the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgement, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give their conventicles [assemblies] the name of churches.

“They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation, and the second the punishment which our authority, in accordance with the will of Heaven, shall decide to inflict” (reproduced in Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, editor, 1967, p. 22).

Thus we see that a teaching that was foreign to Jesus Christ, never taught by the apostles and unknown to the other biblical writers, was locked into place and the true biblical revelation about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit was locked out. Any who disagreed were, in accordance with the edicts of the emperor and church authorities, branded heretics and dealt with accordingly.

Trinity doctrine decided by trial and error

This unusual chain of events is why theology professors Anthony and Richard Hanson would summarize the story in their book Reasonable Belief: A Survey of the Christian Faith by noting that the adoption of the Trinity doctrine came as a result of “a process of theological exploration which lasted at least three hundred years . . . In fact it was a process of trial and error (almost of hit and miss), in which the error was by no means all confined to the unorthodox . . . It would be foolish to represent the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as having been achieved by any other way” (1980, p. 172).

They then conclude: “This was a long, confused, process whereby different schools of thought in the Church worked out for themselves, and then tried to impose on others, their answer to the question, ‘How divine is Jesus Christ?’ . . . If ever there was a controversy decided by the method of trial and error, it was this one” (p. 175).

Anglican churchman and Oxford University lecturer K.E. Kirk revealingly writes of the adoption of the doctrine of the Trinity: “The theological and philosophical vindication of the divinity of the Spirit begins in the fourth century; we naturally turn to the writers of that period to discover what grounds they have for their belief. To our surprise, we are forced to admit that they have none . . .

“This failure of Christian theology .   .   . to produce logical justification of the cardinal point in its trinitarian doctrine is of the greatest possible significance. We are forced, even before turning to the question of the vindication of the doctrine by experience, to ask ourselves whether theology or philosophy has ever produced any reasons why its belief should be Trinitarian” (“The Evolution of the Doctrine of the Trinity,” published in Essays on the Trinity and the Incarnation, A.E.J. Rawlinson, editor, 1928, pp. 221-222).

Why believe a teaching that isn’t biblical?

This, in brief, is the amazing story of how the doctrine of the Trinity came to be introduced—and how those who refused to accept it came to be branded as heretics or unbelievers.

But should we really base our view of God on a doctrine that isn’t spelled out in the Bible, that wasn’t formalized until three centuries after the time of Jesus Christ and the apostles, that was debated and argued for decades (not to mention for centuries since), that was imposed by religious councils presided over by novices or nonbelievers and that was “decided by the method of trial and error”?

Of course not. We should instead look to the Word of God—not to ideas of men—to see how our Creator reveals Himself!

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What Does Christianity Say About the Nature of God? Two Important Truths

The first year I decided to take a group of students to Utah to share the Gospel with Mormons, a parent of one of the students asked me why I would take such a trip: “Why would you want to strip someone of their faith in God and Jesus?” This question came at a pivotal time for me as a pastor. It caused me to ask myself the question: What is the difference between the Mormon God and the Christian God? Is the difference significant? Does it separate who is a Christian from who isn’t? As it turns out, the nature of Jesus, God the Father and Salvation are the core essentials distinguishing Christianity from other theistic faith systems. If you want to call yourself a Christian, you’ll need to embrace the definitions offered by Christianity. If you don’t you may still be a theist, but you won’t be a Christian theist.

While early Christians may have sometimes struggled to understand exactly what the scriptures taught about the nature of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they eventually recognized something distinctive about the God described in the New Testament. The God of Christianity has a triune nature, and His character is reflected in His creation. The Bible teaches two truths: there is only one God, and God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are all that same God:

1. There Is Only One God
Both the New and Old Testament declare there is only one God. Not just one God for this universe, or many gods united in one purpose, but one God. Both Judaism and Christianity are clearly monotheistic.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Isaiah 43:10
“You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen, In order that you may know and believe Me, And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me.”

James 2:19
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

1 Corinthians 8:4, 6
Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

1 Timothy 2:5-6
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time.

From these few verses, it is clear there is only one God according to Jewish and Christian theology. This is our starting point; this is where we begin. God is ONE.

2. Yet the Father, Son and Holy Ghost Are All God
But there is something else we see in the Scripture. The Bible teaches God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are all God. In fact, the Bible teaches all three of these divine persons are equally Divine. Let’s look at some of the ways the three persons share the exact same nature:

All Three Are the All-Powerful Creator (Omnipotent)
The first characteristic of deity (omnipotence) is possessed by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All three are described in the Bible as being the all-powerful Creator:

Father:
But now, O LORD, Thou art our Father, We are the clay, and Thou our potter; And all of us are the work of Thy hand. (Isaiah 64:8)

Son:
All things came into being by Him (Jesus, the Word), and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. (John 1:3)

Holy Spirit:
“The Spirit of God has made me, And the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” (Job 33:4)

All Three Are All-Knowing (Omniscient)
In addition to possessing the power to create, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all observed to be all-knowing according to Bible:

Father:
…in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. (1 John 3:20)

Son:
“Now we know that You (Jesus) know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God.” (John 16:30)

Holy Spirit:
For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. (1 Corinthians 2:10)

All Three Are All-Present (Omnipresent)
While we assume this of the Father and the Holy Spirit, most people don’t realize the Scripture also describes the Son as having the ability to be everywhere at the same time (omnipresence):

Father:
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee, how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)

Son:
“…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthews 28:20)

Holy Spirit:
Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Thy hand will lead me, And Thy right hand will lay hold of me. (Psalm 139:7-10)

All Three Are All-Loving (Omnibenevolent)
Another aspect of Godhood, the all-encompassing love of God, is also demonstrated equally by the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit:

Father:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Son:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25)

Holy Spirit:
Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me… (Romans 15:30-31)

All Three Are Called “God”
Now you are starting to see why we must conclude God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are all God. In fact, the Bible explicitly calls all three of them God:

Father:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:2)

Son:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

Holy Spirit:
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land? “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4)

To Deny the Trinity is to Deny Christianity
Even the earliest believers understood the importance of this truth (and apparent tension) in the nature of God. There is one God, and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God. This is clear in the Scripture, and while it may be mysterious to us, it is the objective claim of the Bible. The first Christians understood the importance of retaining this truth about God in order to retain the true identity of Jesus. When early Christians tried to maintain the oneness of God without regard to the Divine description of Jesus and the Holy Spirit as we’ve just described, they usually redefined (and mischaracterized) Jesus as a human, limited, or finite creature. But, if Jesus is not God in every sense of the word (as the Bible claims), then He does not have the power to save us on the Cross. If Jesus is not God Incarnate, then he simply cannot take our place and bestow upon us the righteousness of God. For this reason, the earliest leaders were very careful to describe the triune nature of God as seen in the Bible. They eventually described God as one in substance, essence or nature, while being distinctly but undividedly three in person. This was reflected in the early creeds, including the Athanasian Creed of the 4th Century:

“…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal… And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”

It’s interesting this creed (widely accepted and used in Western Christianity) affirms that without a proper understanding of the nature of the Trinity, one cannot even be saved. Augustine (the well respected and influential philosopher and theologian who became bishop of the North African City of Hippo Regius) agreed a proper understanding of the Trinity was critical to understanding Christianity and grasping the power and Salvation of God:

“And I would make this pious and safe agreement, in the presence of our Lord God, with all who read my writings, as well in all other cases as, above all, in the case of those which inquire into the unity of the Trinity, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; because in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.”(Augustine, On the Trinity 1:3:5)

Why is a proper understanding of the Trinity so important? Because all deviations from historical Trinitarianism have compromised the eternal, divine nature of Jesus. It’s that simple. Over the course of history, several groups have mischaracterized the Trinity and, therefore, mischaracterized the true nature of Jesus. The Early Church Councils corrected the errors of Adoptionism (2nd Century), Docetism (2nd Century), Monarchianism (2nd and 3rd Century), Sabellianism (3rd Century), Arianism (4th Century), and Socinianism (16th and 17th Century). In addition to these historic mischaracterizations of the triune nature of God, there are several current mischaracterizations, including the polytheism of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the denial of the Trinity present in many Unitarian groups, including the Christadelphians.

Christianity emphatically claims that God is TRIUNE in nature. Not polytheistic, but triune. It’s not about three gods (1+1+1=3); it’s about three distinct persons within the Godhead (1x1x1=1). Once someone moves from this description of God (one in substance but three in person, distinct but undivided), he or she has simply moved away from Orthodox Christianity. This belief may find a home in some other worldview, but is no longer a reflection of the Christian Worldview.

Is The Triune Nature of God Reflected In His Creation?
The concept of the Trinity is incredibly difficult to grasp. In large part, it is completely mysterious and impossible for us to understand or communicate thoroughly. But would you really expect anything less? Would you really think  God could be so easily grasped or described? Is it reasonable to expect limited creatures such as humans to be able to completely understand and render the nature of an incredibly vast and powerful Being? Perhaps this is why the triune nature of God is difficult to understand and a challenge to communicate to others. Many metaphors have been attempted over the years, but most are simply a poor reflection of the truth of God’s nature.

But there is some evidence for the triune nature of God in the world around us. If we look at the nature of our universe and our own bodies, we do see the fingerprints of a triune God. And that really should come as no surprise to us, given the fact God is the creator of everything, and His creation reflects His Nature:

Genesis 1:1
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:27
And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

If God’s creation reflects His nature, we might expect to see this in the nature of the universe and the nature of human beings:

The Triune Nature of the Universe
Science tells us the universe in which we live is finite and had a single point of origin. Science continues to confirm the fact there was a point of Cosmological Singularity (often called the “Big Bang”). Scientists describe this event as the beginning of all space, time and matter. Science continues to divide and describe the physical universe in this triune manner. Is this simply evidence of the triune nature of its Creator? It’s interesting to note that each of these three properties of the universe are also triune within their own natures:

Space
Dimensions in space are typically measured in degrees of height, width and depth (spacially three dimensional)

Time
Time is typically understood as it relates to the past, present or the future (temporally three dimensional)

Matter
Matter is typically measured and divided into categories of solid, liquid and gas (categorically three dimensional)

The Triune Nature of Human Beings
In addition to God’s creation of space, time and manner, we need look no further than our own lives to see the nature of the Triune God evident within us. Each of us is comprised of a body, spirit and soul:

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 4:12-13
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Even though the concept of the Trinity is difficult to grasp in relationship to the Divine Nature of God, it appears to be clearly evident in the nature of God’s creation.

All worldviews have distinctive beliefs characterizing and distinguishing them from other ways of viewing the world. Christianity is no different. When it comes to the nature of God, trinitarianism is a Christian distinctive. It has been affirmed by believers over the centuries, not as a random construct, but as a true reflection of the Biblical teaching. The best and most reasonable way to interpret what the Bible teaches about the nature of God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is to conclude that God is one in essence and three in persons. As mysterious as this may be, it is the claim of Scripture. As exclusive as this claim may seem, it is the defining and distinctive teaching of the Bible. To reject the Trinity is to reject the clear teaching of the Scriptures. To deny the triune nature of God is to deny the claim of Christianity and to redefine oneself as something other than Christian.

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