Therefore, there are three things
— he who loves, and that which is loved, and love. ~Augustine
In his First Epistle, John encourages his readers to love one another via the love they have received from God. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God because God is love [1 Jn. 4:7-8].” In a previous article, we discussed the love which constitutes the relationship between the Father and the Son, and how this loving relationship is extended to us as His children. John certainly continues this theme in Chapter 4 of his epistle by reflecting on the greatest expression of divine love: The Son offering himself as an atoning sacrifice on our behalf. This divine act adopts us into God’s family, and the indwelling of God’s Spirit perfects his love in us [1 Jn. 4:12].
The beauty and depth of John’s understanding of love and the abiding of God’s Spirit is further illustrated by his Triune understanding of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. As Pastor Travis warned in a recent Sermon, the Trinity is a complex doctrine.
Our creaturely attempts to simplify it often form faulty or heretical expressions of this Doctrine.
To combat this, early Christian theological treatises on the Trinity were generally paired with complimentary Doctrines, which provided critical theological boundaries. These included the Doctrine of Simplicity (i.e. God is indivisible), Two-Natures Christology (i.e. In the singular Person of Christ there exists a Divine and Human Nature), and the Doctrine of Inseparable Operations. Much could be written on all three of these doctrines; however, let us restrict ourselves to the third doctrine for our present discussion of 1 John 4.
The Doctrine of Inseparable Operations teaches that all three Persons of the Trinity work in every divine act.
As Adonis Vidu correctly indicates, the Persons do not work via delegation nor cooperation. They all act as one, in the same way, that the Triune God is one being. Thus, when we see a singular divine agent at work within the Scripture, the other two Persons are also working in the same action as well. This means that the work of salvation at the Cross is not just a work of the Son alone, but the Father and Spirit are also working at the Cross. Therefore, salvation is a Trinitarian work, not just a work of the Son.
Likewise, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and all of the works of the Spirit are Trinitarian works. John expresses this by connecting the Indwelling of God the Father with the Indwelling of the Spirit [1 Jn. 4:12-13; cf. 1 Jn. 3:24]. It may be further understood that this indwelling is not just a binitarian indwelling but Trinitarian. Earlier in the letter, John articulated that the Son abides within believers [1 Jn. 2:1-6], and here in Chapter 4, we find the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice as the means by which God indwells believers. John is not unique in his Trinitarian understanding of indwelling. Elsewhere, Paul provides a similar paradigm in the idea of our bodies being temples in which the divine Spirit dwells [Father-1 Cor. 3:16; The Son-Rom. 8:9-10; Holy Spirit-1 Cor. 6:19]. Thus, the Spirit’s indwelling, and all works therein, is a Trinitarian indwelling.
What the Doctrine of Inseparable Operations provides is two-fold. First, it provides a necessary boundary for our Trinitarian reflections.
When we understand divine agency as Triune, our theological language ought to prohibit language which separates the divine Persons.
Rather, our Trinitarian confession should emphasize distinction without separation nor division. It ought to ascribe diversity of Persons, but not plurality of being. If we fail to recognize this boundary, our views of the Trinity risk falling into a form of Functional Tritheism, where we view each Person as operating as distinct beings.
Second, and perhaps most important, this understanding of divine indwelling as a Trinitarian work, empowers us to walk out the love by which we were adopted into the household of God. Augustine preferred the relational analogy of love as an ascription of God’s inner relationship in his work on the Trinity. Using 1 John 4 as a foundational passage, he reflects,
“Well then, when I, who make this inquiry, anything, there are three things concerned — myself, and that which I love, and love itself. For I do not love love, except I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. Therefore, there are three things — he who loves, and that which is loved, and love (Augustine, De Trinitate, Bk. IX.2).”
This reflection on love, Augustine ties into the Trinity—The Father is He who loves, the Son who is loved, and the Spirit who is the love which persists between the lover and the beloved.
This love which persists within the Trinity, is expressed and manifested through God’s Indwelling within the Church.
As children adopted in love, indwelled in love, and experiencing the love of the Trinity, our works ought to reflect our union within God [1 Jn. 4:17-19]. Thus, as people of the Spirit, we ought to live by the Spirit which is love [1 Cor. 2:11-15].
Augustine. De Trinitate. Translation by Edmund Hill. Hyde Park: New City Press, 2012.
Vidu, Adonis. The Same God Who Works All Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2021.
“How The Doctrine of Inseparable Operations Unlocks the Gospel.” The Gospel Coalition. May 3, 2021. DOI: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/doctrine-inseparable-operations/