Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Fight the Church Had to Have

Blessed Trinity

Athanasius of Alexandria

This sermon has been edited to correct one mistake of substance, suggesting that the analogy if the Trinity using the shamrock with consists of three leaves teaches tri-theism when in fact it teaches a kind of tri-partism. I was staightened out by the Lutheran Satire website that covers several Trinitarian errors by poking fun at St. Patrick. You can watch it here for both amusement and edification.

Dr. J.I. Packer, in his book Knowing God, wrote: “The average Anglican clergyman never preaches on the Trinity except perhaps on Trinity Sunday; the average nonliturgical minister, who does not observe Trinity Sunday, never preaches on it at all.” In an effort to be at least an average Anglican clergyman, today, with fear and trembling, I am going to attempt to preach on the doctrine of the Trinity.

Let me put before you two texts that are foundational to this doctrine.


Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Matthew 28:19

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen. 2 Corinthians 13: 14

One Sunday when we lived in Pittsburgh, I came home from morning worship and turned on the TV to watch the service from a famous downtown church whose minister attended the same seminary as I. He was preaching on the Trinity and offered an illustration of the doctrine. He said, “My wife is one person. Yet at the same time she is a daughter to her parents, a mother to her children, and a wife to me.” Does that sound like the truth to you? Congratulations. You’re a heretic.

1. What is the doctrine of the Trinity?
  • We confess the doctrine of the Trinity every Sunday. 
    • If we say the Apostles’ Creed we confess: “I believe in God the Father Almighty...and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord...I believe in the Holy Ghost.”
    • If , as today, we say the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God the Father Almighty...And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father...And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified…”
    • Article I of our Articles of Religion summarizes the doctrine: “There is but one living and true God...And in the unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” 
    • On Pentecost, we used the great Trinitarian creed, the Athanasian, and confessed the faith of the universal Christian church. We confessed that …
      • we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity
      • we do not confuse the Father with the Son or Spirit, or the Son with the Father or Spirit, or the Spirit with the or Son
      • Nor do we divide God up into three parts. There is one God, not three; yet the three Persons are distinct from one another. 
      • Each of the Persons has all the attributes or characteristics of God, yet they are not three Gods but one.
  • Let me summarize: God is one God who is eternally three Persons. 
    • There is only one God. 
    • Within the one God there are three Persons, the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. 
    • God is eternally and unchangeably both one God and three Persons. 
    • Each of the three Persons has all the essential qualities of God. Yet they are three Gods but one God.
  • There are several mistakes we need to avoid when we think about the Trinity and confess our Trinitarian faith.
    • Tritheism. We are not tri-theists. Jews, Islamists, and unitarians of various sorts accuse us of tri-theism, but Christianity is distinctly and decidedly monotheistic.  The Bible and our Faith teach us that God is one who is three Persons, not three Gods.
    • Tri-partism. On the other hand we do not believe that God is three parts which when all added together make one God. There is a toothpaste that has three ribbons, one to clean, one to strengthen, one to freshen. Add up the three parts and you have Aquafresh. St. Patrick's analogy of the Trinity using the three leaf clover also makes this mistake for the Shamrock is made up of three leaves. But you don’t get one God by adding together the Father, Son, and Spirit.
    • Subordinationism. We should not think of a hierarchy within the Godhead. The Persons of the Trinity are co-equal. The Father is not superior to the Son, the Father and the Son are not superior to the Spirit. In the work of our salvation the Son subordinates himself to the Father, speaking the Father’s words and doing the Father’s will. The Spirit comes to focus our attention on the Son and to glorify the Son. But not in eternity. In their eternal relationships they are co-equal. 
    • Temporal Priority. Another thing this means is that we do not think of one Person existing before the other. The Persons of the Trinity are co-eternal. The Father did not bring the Son into existence, nor did the Father and the Son did not bring the Spirit into existence.
      • We confess that the Son is the only-begotten Son, not because the Father first existed and then brought forth the Son, but because the Son is uniquely the Son - the only Son who had the same nature as the Father. He is the eternal Son.
      • We confess that the Father and the Son sent forth the Spirit, not because the Spirit did not exist until the Father and Son created him but because he is the eternal Spirit whom the Father and Son together sent, the Spirit who is at the same time the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is the eternal Spirit.
    • Modalism. Another thing this means is that the three Persons of the Trinity are not three ways of thinking about God, or three forms God has taken, or three ways God relates to us. 
      • Some suggest that God is not really three Persons, but that God has revealed himself to us in three ways so that we think about God sometimes as the Father, sometimes as the Son, sometimes as the Spirit. 
      • Others suggest that God is not really three Persons but that God has taken three forms. They believe God was first the Father in the Old Testament, then the Son in the Gospels, and then, the Spirit in Acts and the Epistles. Sometimes the illustration is used that God is like H2O which can exist in three forms - liquid, solid, and gas. 
      • Others suggest that there are three relationships God has with us. God is really just one Person who relates to us in three ways - as Father, Son, and Spirit. That is what the minister meant when he said God is like the one woman who is daughter, wife, and mother.
  • No illustration can do any more than hint at the Trinity, so they tend to veil the doctrine rather than clarify it. Can we explain how there can be one God who is three Persons? No, there is mystery. The doctrine of the Trinity stretches our human minds to their limits, and then some. But, while we cannot fully comprehend, we can understand. We content ourselves to say that there is one eternal God who is eternally three Persons.

2. Why Do We Believe the Doctrine of the Trinity?

We can consider this from two perspectives, Biblical and historical.
  • Biblical 
    • We can say of the Trinity as we must say about every doctrine we are bound to believe - that we believe it because the Bible tells us so. But the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible and there is no place in the Bible that says “God is one God who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." So, how can we say the doctrine is Biblical?
    • Dr. J.I. Packer makes the point that we are led to confess the doctrine of the Trinity because there is no other way to do justice to all the Bible says about God. 
        • If the Old Testament teaches anything, it is that there are not many gods, but one only true and living God. Yet, even the Old Testament hints at plurality within the unity of God. 
        • When we come to the New Testament, we find that, while it continues to insist that there is one God, it also speaks of the Father who has all the attributes and powers of God who sent the Son into the World. So it is with the Son or the Word whom John tells us was at the side of God in eternity, distinct from God, yet himself God. So it is with the Spirit whom Jesus promised that he would send to be another Comforter like himself, whom he called the Holy Spirit which calls to mind the Holy One of Israel, and to whom the New Testament gives the divine name, Lord. All three Persons have all the prerogatives of God, and all three are worshiped as God.
    • So it should not surprise us that Jesus instructed his church to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “Name” is singular - there is only one name. Yet the singular name provides a plural baptismal formula, the Father, Son, and Spirit. One name, yet three names, one God who is three.
    • Nor does it surprise us that Paul, the Jewish monotheist, pronounces Trinitarian blessing on God’s people - the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.
  • Historical
    • We can give only the briefest account of how this truth came to us historically. There was a Bishop in the early 300s named Arius. Arius said that the Son of God was a divine but created Person. He said that, while the Son existed before all other things except God the Father, there was when he was not. He also said that while the Son’s nature was of a similar substance as God the Father, the Son did not have the full Deity of the Father.
    • In 325 Bishops from all over the Roman Empire gathered for a great Council held at Nicaea. One of the men in attendance was not a Bishop but an assistant to a Bishop. His name was Athanasius, and he became a great champion for truth. Athanasius said of Christ that there never was when he was not, meaning that the Son existed in eternity with the Father. He also said that the Son is not of similar but of the same substance with the Father, meaning that the Son is as fully God as the Father. 
    • The Council concluded that the Son is eternal with the Father and has the same substance as the Father. The question became, “Well then, what about the Spirit?” And on reflection the church concluded from the Biblical witness that the Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity - he is also eternal, of the same substance as the Father and Son. 
    • Don’t let anyone tell you that the doctrine of the Trinity is Biblical theology getting messed up by Greek words and philosophy. In the providence of God there was a vocabulary and there were concepts in Greek thought that were put to good use to express clearly what the Bible teaches.
We believe in the Trinity because the Bible teaches it and because God led his church to bear witness to the Biblical truth.

3. What difference does the doctrine of the Trinity make?

  • If God has made himself known to us, it both our duty and to our spiritual benefit to understand as fully as possible, to state as clearly as possible, and to believe what God has made known. God has made known to us that he is one God who is three Persons. This is who God is, the Triune God.
  • The Triune God is the God we worship. We worship one God who is tri-Personal. He is unity in diversity and diversity in unity. We cannot worship God aright or truly unless we worship him as one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. True worship is always Trinitarian worship. One of the glories of Anglican worship is that it is clearly, intentionally, and always Trinitarian worship, whether it is Morning Prayer or Holy Communion. 
  • The doctrine of the Trinity is the touchstone that sets Christianity apart from everything that is not Christianity. No church that rejects the doctrine of the Trinity can claim to be Christian - Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals and all other non-Trinitarian groups are not Christian. No baptism that is intentionally non-Trinitarian is Christian baptism. No individual who with knowledge and purpose rejects the Trinity has a right to claim to be a Christian. As we confess in the Athanasian Creed, whoever would be saved must believe this Trinitarian faith.
  • The doctrine of the Trinity gives us insight into the life God. God has never been without love and fellowship, for God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in eternal unbroken communion with one another. There is not the slightest hint of rivalry or jealousy, only perfect harmony of sympathy and purpose. God did not need to create us in order to have fellowship with us, for he always had fellowship within himself. Rather, he chose to create us and to bless us by having fellowship with us.
  • It is the will of the Triune God to take us into the divine Fellowship. For that purpose the Father planned our salvation, the Son came into the world and died on the cross to accomplish our salvation, and the Spirit has come to make us partakers of salvation. We do not become little gods, but we do share in the life and the fellowship of God, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. It is as if the Father, the Son, and the Spirit talked together and said, “Let make man and have fellowship with them, and, when they have fallen into sin, let us redeem fallen men and women, bring them into fellowship with us, and bless them to share in our life together forever."

                  To thee, great One in Three
                  The highest praises be, 
                        Hence evermore;
                  Thy sovereign majesty
                  May we in glory see,
                  And to eternity
                        Love and adore.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

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