Nicky Cruz is not famous for his trinitarian theology. He is famous for having been the “warlord” of a violent street gang called the Mau-Maus in New York City in the 1950s, and for the dramatic story of his 1958 conversion to Christianity. At the center of his conversion story was a confrontation between this hard-hearted, knife-wielding teenage gang leader, and a young preacher who brought the simple message that Jesus loved him. It was a confrontation, that is, between The Cross and the Switchblade, as that young preacher David Wilkerson would put it in a book about his Times Square ministry. Nicky Cruz would retell the story from his own point of view in his 1968 biography, Run Baby Run. Against the dark background of his young life as a victim and a victimizer, Cruz tells about forgiveness, the power of Jesus Christ, and how he was set free from soul-crushing loneliness. That dramatic turnaround is the story Nicky Cruz is famous for. There is not a word about the Trinity in it. Looking back, Cruz would say “I came to Jesus because I knew He loved me, and still didn’t know anything about God.”
But in 1976, Cruz wrote another book to describe what he called “the single most important fact of my Christian growth.” The book was The Magnificent Three, and the fact that had become central to Cruz’s Christian life by that time was the fact of the Trinity:
Something has emerged in my walk with God that has become the most important element of my discipleship. It has become the thing that sustains me, that feeds me, that keeps me steady when I am shaky. I have come to see God, to know Him, to relate to Him as Three-in-One, God as Trinity, God as Father, Saviour, and Holy Spirit. God has given to me over the years a vision of Himself as Three-in-One, and the ability to relate to God in that way is the single most important fact of my Christian growth.
The Magnificent Three is Nicky Cruz’s personal testimony to the power of the Trinity in his life. It never sold like Run Baby Run, but it is vintage Nicky Cruz, from the chapter about the salvation of a drug addict named Chico, to the healing of a nameless prostitute, to the chapter about Cruz being ambushed by rival gang members a few weeks after his conversion. As a theologian whose specialty is trinitarian theology, I have several hundred books about the Trinity on my shelves, but only one of them includes a knife fight: the one by Nicky Cruz. “Dynamite! A real turn-on!” say the publishers in a prefatory note: “Nicky lays it on you with his hard-hitting straight talk. You are there with him –in the tenement, in the jail.” (p. 9)
Cruz’s testimony to his experience with the Trinity is indeed powerful. He praises the three persons in turn, beginning with several chapters about Jesus as his “magnificent saviour.” He especially emphasizes Christ’s presence, reality, and power to save. Cruz has already told us, “When I first became a Christian, I knew nothing about anything. So far as the things of God were concerned, I was a totally ignorant man. I knew nothing. But Jesus reached me despite my ignorance of Him.” (13) In these chapters, he tries to look back and describe that strange knowledge he gained in his first encounter with Jesus, before he had learned any details. In prose that turns to prayer, Cruz says
I remember when I saw the real Jesus for the first time. Suddenly I saw You as You really were. I saw that You were human, just like me… I saw that You had courage, You had guts. You had something I couldn’t describe, something I had never seen before, something incredibly strong and tender all at the same time. I saw that You had the power to squash me like a bug, and instead You poured out Your blood to save me, to love me, to heal my aching heart. (24-25)
This is the heart of Cruz’s message, and he moves effortlessly from the language of prayer to the language of invitation, directing his readers to the presence of Christ: “He wants to forgive you of your sin. He wants to heal you of your sickness. He wants to keep you from anxiety and fear and guilt. He wants to free you from every kind of bondage. And He is there with you now to do it. He is a wonderful, magnificent Saviour!” (51)
But this intense focus on Jesus does not keep Cruz from celebrating “the Magnificent Father, whose fatherhood “is not simply a figure of speech.” God is not our father merely in a “universal and impersonal” sense of having created us, but “also in a new, personal, special kind of fatherhood that is reserved for born-again Christians only. He is my Father not just because He created me but now also because He adopted me as His child! I am His creature, but more than that I am His adopted son!” (64) Cruz is no less eloquent and impassioned about God the Father–his fatherly intimacy, his protection, his generosity, and his discipline–than he is about Jesus.
Nicky Cruz does not say very much about how his experience of Jesus and his experience of the Father are related to each other. But when he turns to the third person, “the Magnificent Holy Spirit,” he begins tying the three together in one unified view of salvation. He accomplishes this by pointing out the absolute necessity of the Spirit’s work in bringing us into contact with the Father and the Son:
God is a magnificent Father.
God is a magnificent Saviour, Jesus Christ.
But if it were not for the magnificent Holy Spirit, I would still be a wretched, hateful sinner!
It is not enough to have a Father-God who loves and provides for me. It is not enough even to have a Saviour who died for my sins. For any of those blessings to make a difference in our lives, there must also be present in this world that Third Person of God, the Holy Spirit. (103)
In what sense is the ministry of the third person necessary? The Spirit’s work is necessary because he is the one who actually brings us into contact with the Son and the Father. It does not take away from the Father and the Son to say that their work depends on the work of the Spirit. As Cruz argues, though Jesus died for us and the Father forgives us, we need to ask ourselves, “But why did you come to Jesus in the first place?” and answer, “Because you were drawn by God the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus saved me; the Father forgave me. But the Holy Spirit convicted me, brought me to my knees, and showed me God… He showed me Jesus Christ, and I was gripped by His strong, sweet love. And then He shoved me toward God, and I gladly fell into the arms of my loving Father. (105)
In the work of the Spirit, the purposes of God are fulfilled, and all the salvation, forgiveness, and fellowship are realized.
Nicky Cruz is famous for preaching a simple gospel message in a way that is relevant to street-hardened young people. He is not famous for his trinitarian theology, and it might even seem incongruous to highlight his doctrine of the Trinity. He goes out of his way to make sure nobody confuses him for a theology professor: “I don’t know everything there is to know about theology. I am not a Greek scholar. I am just a Puerto Rican street kid whom God picked up from the slums in New York and made into a disciple and a minister. But there is one thing I know… I know that God is my Father.” (70) He also makes sure nobody can mistake his book for systematic theology: “This is not a doctrinal treatise on the Trinity. It is not a theological statement. I am not capable of that. It is a personal statement, a testimony, a simple sharing of how God the Magnificent Three lives in my life every day.” (18) And even though Cruz brings his own voice and his own life experience to his trinitarian testimony, he is not trying to teach anything novel. His trinitarian theology is not “his” in the sense of originating with him; it is his personal discovery of something that has been the common faith and experience of Christians since the time of the apostles.
There is nothing in Nicky Cruz’s book on the Trinity that was not already implicit in his previous books. His understanding of salvation and the Christian life did not change between Run Baby Run and The Magnificent Three. From the moment of his dramatic conversion, he had known that Jesus saves and the Father forgives. In his earliest days of Bible study he came to understand how it had been the sovereign “shove” of the Holy Spirit that had been at work behind the scenes. None of this was new information when he began to describe the Trinity as “the most important element” of his discipleship. In fact, Cruz had even affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity from the beginning. It seems as if nothing had changed, yet he began writing about his relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit with the excitement of having made a life-changing discovery. He called it “the thing that sustains me, that feeds me, that keeps me steady when I am shaky.” Though Cruz had gained no new information, he wrote as if his new grasp of the Trinity had changed everything about his Christian life.
The difference is that he had gotten on the inside of the doctrine. He had moved from accepting it on the authority of Scripture and his trusted elders, to understanding it from within. “I didn’t understand it. I believed it was true, though at first only because I had such great confidence in those who taught it to me. Then later I believed it was true because I saw it to be true in the Bible.” This was an important transition in itself, maturing from a necessarily immature trust in human authority, to direct reliance on divine authority. But it was still only authority, and only worked on Cruz from outside. “So I believed it, but I still didn’t understand it.” What Cruz experienced in his trinitarian awakening was a kind of shift in how he perceived the same idea: First, he saw the Trinity as a difficult doctrine that had to be accepted but could hardly be explained, then he went on to see it as an illuminating doctrine that explained his actual Christian life as he had experienced it. Whereas he first encountered the doctrine as a problem, he came to understand it as a solution.
Cruz recalls his early exasperation with the doctrine in a way that probably rings true for many Christians who wouldn’t express it so bluntly: “Why have three persons, I thought, when it confuses me so much? It seemed to me such a totally unnecessary complication. Why couldn’t God just be God? Then I could understand Him. This ‘Trinity’ business I accepted by faith, but I could not relate to it at all.” (15) The transformation in his life took place when he realized that the things described in the doctrine were things he was already in contact with. He knew Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit through their work in his life. The doctrine of the Trinity was the key to understanding that those three experiences belonged together because the God behind them was the one God, making himself known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit precisely because he eternally exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “I understand that God is so much more to me as Three-in-One than He could ever be in any other way,” Cruz wrote. “I know now how much easier it is for me to relate to Him in that day-to-day way because He is three.” (17) He goes on:
I am not talking about theology. What I am describing is something different from merely believing in the doctrine of the Trinity. I have always believed in the doctrine of the Trinity but I had never experienced God personally as Three-in-One. It was at first merely a doctrine in which I believed, but now it has become a truth of everyday life. God has developed in me a sense of the separate relationships which I can have with Father, Saviour, and Holy Spirit. He has shown me the strength that comes from those separate relationships, the power for living that comes from the three faces of God. He has taught me to feed off the Trinity for my daily sustenance, rather than just having some vague feeling that the Trinity is somehow true. (17)
People can become Christians after learning a very small amount of doctrine and information. As they grow in discipleship, they read more of the Bible, and come to understand more than they had understood before. But what Nicky Cruz’s trinitarian testimony highlights is that the decisive factor is not a transfer of information. There was no brand new data put into his thought process, and he did not have to change his mind about any of his beliefs. He had already been believing in the Trinity for some time when he woke up to the difference the Trinity makes for every aspect of his Christian life. His radical trinitarianism did not come from an advanced theology lesson; it came from the gospel and then led him to an advanced theology lesson. He was like a man who found a treasure hid in a field that he didn’t have to buy, because he already owned it. He heard God calling him to dig into the depths, and what he found there changed everything for him.