The text of today’s Trinity Sunday sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York is below. I didn’t write the sermon in a three-point outline 🙂 The sermon audio is available here at this link. Other relevant posts on the Trinity on this site include this one. Next Sunday we will explore Numbers 1:1-46.
Now I’m guessing that if I asked you what is the most practical teaching of Christianity, you would not think of the Trinity. You might think of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or His message of forgiveness or even start making a list of other very important teachings of Christianity, but the Trinity would not be at the top of that list. Yet the doctrine of the Trinity is the most important of all the teachings in Christianity. Without the Trinity, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His gospel of forgiveness would be irrelevant to us. Therefore, the Trinity is the belief that should make the most difference in your life. It is the very foundation of Christian belief and if you reject it you cast aside all of God’s Word. This is not overstatement—the doctrine of the Trinity is that important. An even better Christianese word summing up the doctrine of the Trinity is to speak of the Tri-unity of God. Very simply, the doctrine of the Trinity or the Tri-unity of God is to say that God is three and that God is one. The Reformed Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck put what I’m trying to say this way: “Whenever any one rejects God’s tri-unity, he destroys the very foundation of Christian belief, and casts aside all of special revelation. The doctrine of the trinity is the sum and substance of the Christian faith, the root of all dogmas, the essence of the new covenant.” In Matthew 28:19, which I will read in a moment, God’s name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Notice that the word “name” is singular. He has one name with three parts. These are not three different names for God. It is one name because God is one. And there are three parts to the one name, but this is not to say that God has parts—no these are distinguishing three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This name is so important that whenever someone does not use it in their profession of faith on the floor of presbytery I like to ask, “Why?” I’ve mentioned before that many Americans who think that they are Christians actually believe in something that has been called moral therapeutic deism (MTD). Those who buy into that philosophy act like the Trinity is irrelevant. However, my objective today is to point out a few reasons that this doctrine makes a practical difference in your walk with Jesus. First, let’s read a couple representative passages regarding the Trinity or Tri-unity of God.
In our second reading, the apostle Paul is working out some practical implications of the Trinity. Instead of using the three parts of God’s name, Paul refers to the three persons of the Trinity as the Spirit, the Lord, and God. It is obvious in these few verses that by the word Spirit, Paul has in mind the Holy Spirit. Notice as well that Paul says that Jesus is Lord—so by the word Lord, Paul has in mind the Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise then by the word God, Paul has in mind the Father—as he often does when he speaks of God and the Lord Jesus. Just think of the blessing from 2 Corinthians 13:14, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” There too, when Paul says the word God, he has in mind the Father.
1 Corinthians 12:3-6
The doctrine is important because we do not worship some generic god – a generic higher power or even highest power – we worship the true and living God who is personal, He has a name, He has revealed to us that name. You cannot love the Lord your God and have no other gods in His presence if you do not even know His name. It is a name that shows us the importance of relationships. For example, Father and Son are a relationship. You cannot have a relationship with God if He has not told you His name. This does not mean that everyone who lived before Jesus revealed His full name did not have a relationship with Him. One of the most important teachings in the Old Testament was the name of God—He revealed a few names and titles but the most important one roughly translates as “I am who I am” and is the Hebrew word translated as Lord in all caps. It was not His full name, but it was the name He had revealed. And the Jewish people knew that it was so important that we not misuse the name of God that they would say Lord instead of saying His revealed name. This is what we mean when we say, “Jesus is Lord.” To say, “Jesus is Lord,” is to recognize that Jesus is the “I am.” This is what the apostle Paul is saying. But to return to the Triune name of Matthew 28, the revelation of that name is in many ways the climax of Matthew’s Gospel and of the Scriptural theme of the revelation of God’s name.
Nevertheless, the idea that someone can be one and three at the same time is a difficult concept for us to grasp. Really, it is impossible for us to fully comprehend just as ultimately everything is impossible for us to fully comprehend – only God can do so. We are not the Creator, we are creatures. Christians cannot know exhaustively, but we can know truly. And the Tri-unity of God is true. It has been revealed to us by God. It is knowledge to be accepted and received. That is the attitude of faith. We believe that God is one and that God is three because God tells us this. You can call this circular reasoning if you want, but whenever we are talking about the ultimate we have no choice but to reason in a circle. An attitude of unbelief would approach the teaching and say that because I cannot make sense of it or because circular reasoning defies the rules of logic, therefore I will not receive it. The attitude of unbelief is one that assumes you can be the judge of its truth. But the Triune God is the judge.
The direction is all important in this discussion. God tells us His name. God the Father is from eternity the original father. It is not an attempt to describe the first person of the Trinity by looking at earthly fathers. They are to imitate Him, He does not imitate them. God the Son is from eternity the original son. It is not an attempt to describe the second person of the Trinity by looking at earthly sons. We are to imitate Him, He does not imitate us. We do not get to invent our own names for Him.
By far the most common objection to the masculine names Father and Son comes from women who were abused by their earthly fathers. They have a hard time receiving this teaching because of their visceral reaction to the word Father. This is a stumbling block that is very difficult for many to overcome. We should be sympathetic. But let’s be honest, that God’s name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a stumbling block for every unbelieving Muslim, Jew, polytheist (those who worship many gods), deist (those who think God created the universe but sits back and lets it run by natural laws), pantheist (those who think the creation is God), Unitarian (those who believe God is one but not three), agnostic (those who would rather say they do not know when it comes to God) or atheist (those who say there are no gods). For example, some mosques put over the doorway that God is one but not three. They openly admit that they want nothing to do with the God we worship. They worship another god who is no god. Modern Jewish synagogues do not accept the Triune God because they reject Jesus of Nazareth’s claim to divinity. They do not worship the God of Christianity. They have rejected the true and living God of the Scriptures. We should admit that we would be no different if God had not revealed to us His name that we received by faith. It is a stumbling block that none of us can get over, but God comes over it to us. And so we should show compassion to everyone struggling with this teaching.
Some have attempted to do so by offering other names for God. One suggestion is, “God the compassionate mother, God the beloved child, and God the life-giving womb.” Scripture does describe God as being like a mother, Jesus even describes himself as being like a mother hen, but these are analogies – they are not the name of God. The name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not an analogy – as I said before, it is from eternity the original, earthly fathers are the analogy. Some others call God, “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.” This is a simplification because each person in the God-head had a role in Creation and Redemption and each has a role in sustaining and consummating all things. Take creation, for example. God the Son is the Word spoken at creation. Take a look at the teachings of Colossians 1:15ff and Hebrews 1:2 and you will see this. Paul says this about the Lord Jesus in Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Furthermore, God the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters in Gen 1:2. Indeed, all three persons of the Trinity participated in the act of creation. Moreover, the doctrine of creation presupposes the Triune God. Both deism and pantheism have got it wrong. God relates to His creation (contrary to deism) but God is also separate from creation (contrary to pantheism). We could make the same kinds of points for Redeemer and Sustainer. Indeed, Hebrews 1:3 speaks of the Son as Sustainer saying, “He upholds the universe by the word of His power.” The problem is not with simplification itself, our creeds are simplifications. But the idea behind “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” is to name God with the main works associated with each person. They are not names for persons. At best they are titles. These attempts are not the way to show compassion to those struggling with the teaching of the Trinity.
Perhaps the best way is to explain some implications of the doctrine.
For one thing, knowing that God is Triune teaches us that God is in perfect fullness of life apart from His creation. God does not need His creation. For example, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in relationship with each other from eternity. He does not need you to have a relationship. He chooses to be in relationship with you. To give another example, the true God tells us that He is love. To give an impossible scenario: If God was not Triune, God is love would be an empty statement before the creation of the world. To say that God is love would be a meaningless platitude because there would be no one to show love to. But this is not an empty statement before the creation of the world because love is an attribute shared within the Trinity. God is not love because He shows love to us but because He is the Triune God. The Triune God is love: the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit loves the Father and Son and the Father and Son love the Spirit. So again, God does not need His creation in order to be love.
Another implication of this doctrine is that it answers the philosophical problem of the one and the many. In philosophy, unity and diversity is a huge problem that each system tries to explain. But in Christianity, the one and the many, or unity and diversity, begins with the Triune God. He is one and three. He is unity and diversity. Each person is distinguished. Each one has different roles. But they are one God. The next time you talk with someone who has studied philosophy mention that. This is part of the reason I brought up the 1 Corinthians text. God is the example we are to imitate. Each one of us are different people with different roles in the worship and work of the church. But we are one body. Unity and diversity. All so-called “practical theology” if it is worth anything starts with the doctrine of the Trinity. It is the presupposition of all Christian counseling that is worth calling Christian counseling. It is the presupposition of all Christian preaching that is worth calling Christian preaching. All application should ultimately begin with the Trinity. For example, if we want to talk about communication—a common issue in counseling, we must remember that the perfect example is between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The root of communication is communion. It all comes back to the issue of unity and diversity – how should we be one and many?
I hope that you are not more perplexed by the Trinity than you were before this sermon. But then again, perhaps this is something you have accepted by faith and not questioned, but also not thought about the implications, and so hopefully this will spur you on to think more about the true and living God and how you are to imitate Him. There is no more practical doctrine than the Trinity. It is the sum and substance of Christian faith. If your God is not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then you are not a Christian by definition.
You may struggle with the mathematical question of how can God be one and three. People have used the example of water existing in three different modes – liquid water, ice, and water vapor – but that is an illustration better suited for the ancient heresy of modalism than to describe the Trinity. Modalism teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different modes that God takes. So the Trinity teaches that God is one and three, but modalism falsely teaches that God is one but can take three different modes. It is far better for you not to seek analogies on earth to reason back to God, but instead for you to take God as one and three as your starting point for everything else. So likewise do not reason backwards from math, but start with the reality that God is Triune. In other words, simply submit to God’s teaching rather than trying to reason your way to it independently from God’s special revelation. If your faith rests on an illustration about water rather than upon God’s revelation, then all it takes is for someone to point out the limitations of such an analogy for you to loose your faith. Nature does reveal God truthfully, but not completely and not even as extensively as Scripture. We would never learn the doctrine of the Trinity from nature. Start with the revealed name of God, which is no analogy but the original from eternity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And if your presupposition for everything is the Triune God. If you believe in the God of the Scriptures, then be sure to teach the next generation the name of God and all that the Son of God has taught us. Indeed, as Jesus prayed in the Spirit to the Father, “keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). Amen.