The Holy Trinity (B)
May 30, 2021
Text: John 3:1-17
“Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.” How must we think? The Athanasian Creed places very rich theological language on our lips and in our minds, and hopefully in our hearts, as we speak about the Trinity. And this is good. An article of faith as sublime and mysterious as the Triune God should be clothed in the very highest and most precise language. But it can and should also be boiled down quite simply, in such a way that our young children can understand. There is one God. He is the only true God. And this one God is three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person is His own, and not the other. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Holy Spirit, etc. But they are one God. Three in One. One in Three. And beyond that, we can’t really understand it. And we shouldn’t use things like eggs or apples to explain it, because those illustrations will quickly lead us into heresy, and for that, see the popular Lutheran Satire video, “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.” The issue is, when you think you’ve stumbled on a way to comprehend how God can be One, but also Three, you’ve gone off the road. This is an incomprehensible mystery. The Athanasian Creed does not aim to explain the Trinity in such a way that you can grasp all the intricacies of the what and the how. It simply confesses, in very precise terms, the biblical truth as God has revealed Himself to us. It sets God before our eyes as the object of our faith and adoration.
So whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity. This bothers a lot of people, because they think it means you have to have an advanced intellectual handle on Trinitarian theology in order to be saved, as though God is going to administer an academic test before He lets you into heaven. But that is not what the Creed says, and frankly, it is your own self-devised hang up. What the Creed is actually saying is that this is the God who alone saves. This is the God in whom we believe and whom we worship, the One who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And there is no other God. If you confess a different god than this One, you cannot be saved. Look, we confess that even infants can have faith in this God and so be saved, so we aren’t talking about an intellectual exercise. We’re talking about having and believing in the right God, the only God, the one true God. In other words, the Creed is an extended commentary on the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” It isn’t politically correct to say, but it is nevertheless true: Any god who isn’t Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not God!
“But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man.” A lot of people are bothered about this for the same reason they are bothered about the Trinity. But again, the answer is the same. This isn’t an intellectual exercise or a theological examination administered before entry into Paradise. It can be said quite simply for the sake of our young children. Jesus is the Son of God from all eternity. But He became a man in Mary’s womb, and was born from her, so that He could grow up and die for our sins, and then be raised as a man, with a human body, so that on the Last Day He can raise us from the dead in our bodies. And what the Creed is saying is that this is the Jesus who alone saves. This is the Jesus in whom we believe and whom we worship, the One who is the eternal Son of the Father, true God, but also true man, born in time of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified, dead and buried, and is now risen from the dead. There is no other Savior. If you confess a different savior than this One, you cannot be saved.
And of course, in both cases, we understand, and the Church has always understood, that some people will have a deeper command of these statements than others. Some will know the Athanasian Creed by heart (yes, believe it or not, there are some here this morning, though to my shame, I am not one of them, who know the Creed word for word). There are others who cannot yet, or maybe ever, grasp the high language of this Confession. Certainly the youngest of our children cannot. Okay. That does not mean they are not confessors of this faith, this God, this Jesus. Because this is the faith, this is the Name, this is the God and the Savior into which they, and you, are baptized. They are born into it. And then they grow into it. Just as a babe in arms, or even a baby in the womb, knows, believes, and trusts in Mom, without any ability to intellectually comprehend her or confess her; so the Christian who is baptized into Christ, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, knows, believes, and trusts in Him. And just as that baby grows to know Mom deeper, and in relationship to her, and begins to form the word “Mom,” and then to know all kinds of things about her; so the Christian grows from birth in Baptism to know God deeper, and in relationship to Him, and begins to know and say things about Him that are revealed in His Word. This is just a summary of what Jesus says right before His ascension into heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20; ESV). Baptize and teach. Teach and baptize. The two always go together. Birth and growth. Faith seeking understanding. Baptized into our Triune God and growing in relationship to Him. Baptized into the faith of the Creed and growing in understanding of it. And it should be said, because of your finite and fallen mortal mind, you will never understand it as you should, until you see with your own eyes the God whom you here confess.
This is the God, the only One, who loved the world in such a manner that He sent His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). This is the Savior, the only One, the eternal Son of the Father, who came in the flesh, not to condemn the world, but in order that the world be saved through Him (v. 17). This is the Spirit, the only One, sent from the Father, through the Son, who blows where He wishes, and though you do not see Him, you hear His sound through His Word (v. 8). It is this Spirit who hovers over the waters to take what is formless and void and give it shape and fill it (Gen. 1:2). That is to say, you, as you are born of water and the Spirit, for unless one is born anew, of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5).
Now, like Nicodemus, you hear the Creed, and you say, “How can these things be?” (v. 9). It is always the temptation to be the teacher of Israel in such a way that you set yourself up as judge over God’s doctrine. The only answer for that is to listen to Jesus and get over yourself. Or the biblical word is, repent.
The Creed is not given to be an exercise in how you’re more orthodox than the holy fathers of the Church who composed it. It is given to you as a gift. The God in whom you believe, the Jesus who saves you… this confession teaches you about Him and gives you words to say about Him, words that are drawn directly from God’s own revelation of Himself in Holy Scripture. You should always fear to set yourself up as judge over the ancient and well attested teachers of the Church. It can be done, and it is sometimes necessary. The Reformation, for example, comes to mind. But it should not be done as a cavalier matter of opinion or taste. You should never simply say, “I don’t like that Creed, or hymn, or liturgical element, or tradition, or Church Father.” A little humility goes a long way, and the burden of proof is on you. Don’t become a teacher too quickly. Be taught. Be formed. This Creed does that for you as it preaches the one true God. The Spirit is blowing. Don’t shut the window.
“This is the catholic faith,” and I know that word bothers you, but that ought to be the least of your worries. Surely you know by now that word does not mean “Roman Catholic.” It is a Greek word that means “according to the whole,” as in “according to the whole doctrine believed by the whole Christian Church, at all times, and everywhere.” That is what the Creed confesses, and in that sense, this is a very Lutheran word. Don’t let Rome keep everything good to itself.
The more serious objection is to the bit about deeds at the end, but this shouldn’t bother you, either, because it simply says what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats, and the answer to the objection is the same in both cases: Only those who have this God as their God, who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in this Christ whom we confess alone, have good works. Because their entire righteousness is Christ. Christ’s righteousness counts as theirs, and in Christ, and by His Spirit, they begin to do righteous things. Tainted with sin, to be sure, but then those works are covered by the sin-atoning blood of Christ, cleansed by Christ, sanctified in Christ. And they are not saved by those works, but they do those works because they are saved, and they enter into life because of Christ.
But those who do not have this God as their God, who seek righteousness apart from Christ, may do the very same works, but those works are only sin, because they are not covered by the sin-atoning blood of Christ, they are not cleansed by Christ, they are not sanctified in Christ, and they are not done by His Spirit. And all these have to present before God on the Day of Judgment is their works. And those works are only sin. They are only evil. Thus they enter into eternal fire. It is a great tragedy, because Christ died for them. The Father sent His Son for them. The Spirit preached for them. This one true God was also for them. But they would not have Him.
But you have Him. And He is for you. And He has revealed Himself to you. And He has given you faith in Himself. And so we have these words to confess Him. And rather than object to them, we ought to give thanks for them, and speak them joyfully, in praise and adoration. There is one God, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is one Lord Jesus Christ, true God from all eternity, the very Son of the Father, true man born in time, the Son of Mary. He died for you. He is risen for you. And He lives for you. You are baptized into this God, and this Savior. The Spirit blows through in His Word, placing words of confession on your tongue. Let us open now our lips and speak His praise. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Quotes from the Athanasian Creed are from Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006) pp. 319-20.