God has revealed himself as Triune. He is both one and three. Yet many hear that statement as contradictory. Obviously, in mathematics 1 does not equal 3. And it would be a contradiction if God was one and three in the same way. But he is not.
An important distinction must be made regarding God and these numbers. We say that God is one being who exists as three persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So God is one in one sense, but he is three in another sense.
Speaking of math, as a former math teacher, let me use an illustration to help you see. (Please do not groan about a math example. Remember, God created it!) We know the following formula cannot hold true if X is anything but zero:
X + X + X = X
You cannot add three X’s together and just end up with one X. If X is any number with value, it will not work. For example, 2 + 2 + 2 = 2 is not logical. However, if we change the formula slightly to this example:
X + X + X = Y
then there may be solutions. For instance, if X is 2, then adding three of them together would give 6, which Y could equal. We have a logical solution if the letters X and Y represent different numbers.
Similarly, we cannot say God is three persons and also one person. That is like saying 2 + 2 + 2 =2 and does not make sense. But if we say that God is three persons, who exist as one being, and the word “persons” is different than what we mean by “being,” then that can be logical even if it is still a mystery to us. So God can be one in a certain way concerning his being, and three in another way regarding his persons.
Throughout history, the church has clarified these distinctions. The Nicene Creed of the fourth century said that the Son of God was of “the same essence as the Father.” The words “same essence” are translated from one Greek compound word homoousios, which also could be translated as “same substance” or “one in being.” So though there are three persons in God, each person of the Father, Son, and Spirit are each one fully God in who they are.
Getting our theology of God correct regarding his oneness and threeness is vital.
People act as if theology is not that important. They reason, “It does not really matter if one group represents God one way and another group measures what his Word says a different way.” In particular, you will hear people say that we do not need to worry about the finer points of God’s Word that we all differ on – it’s just not worth having a squabble over these things.
Yet we live in a world where we know that a little too much of a certain medicine, veering a little too far in driving a car, or being off just a little in measurements on a building project can harm or even kill. How precise we can be in making measurements; yet how careless we can be in understanding and representing God! The former can be a matter of life and death to the body, but the latter is far more serious for both body and soul are involved.
We then need to know what it means that God is one in being. To say that God is one being is to confess him as the only living God.
God is One Means He is the Only Living God
When God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt with the ten plagues and their passing through the Red Sea, he eventually brought them to a mountain called Sinai. On this mountain, he came down, met with Moses, and gave his people the Ten Commandments written on stone. The very first commandment is this one: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2). We need to read this leading commandment very carefully.
We can think of the word “before” like in a race. Runners can come in first place, then second, third, and so forth. We say the winner came across the finish line before the others. Here the use of the word before has to do with the relative position of the winner to all the other runners.
But before can have another sense, such as the idea of presence. Think of what we mean when we say you have to go to court and “stand before the judge.” You have to come into the judge’s presence.
Which sense does God mean here? Does he want to be treated first among all the gods there are, or does he mean he does not want any other gods in his presence?
Clearly, God means the latter sense. The word before used in Exodus means literally “at my face” or “in my face.” God does not want any others gods whatsoever near him, for they are all false. He will tolerate no rivals amongst his people. He makes that so clear in his word.
One of the primary calls to prayer and obedience for Israel emphasized this unique oneness of God. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). In other words, no other god can be compared to God, for no other god shares his character, his position, or his authority. No other god is to have the allegiance that is due to him and him alone. If you have any other god, you are not able to love God with your whole being.
God did not only want Israel to remember this truth. He expresses his desire that the whole world would know that there are no other gods. "I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me, there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isa. 45:5-7). Through all times and nations, people are to know there is only one God, the God of the Bible. Any other god from A to Z, from Asherah to Zeus to any god in between, is no god at all. The Lord is the only God. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks and answers so succinctly, “Q. 5. Are there more Gods than one? A. There is but one only, the living and true God.”
As you reflect on your own life, is this one only, the living and true God, the only God in your presence? When you go to church each Lord’s Day, into his presence, is he the only one you worship? Are you living in such a way that your life reflects that you are devoted to the God who has revealed Himself in the Bible?