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“The Tri-unity of God”
1 Peter 1:1-2
June 4, 2017
We believe in one God eternally existing in three Persons.
1. One God – Deuteronomy 6:4
II. Three Persons – Father Romans 8:15, Son John 1:14, Spirit John 14:16-17
III. Working as One – 1 Peter 1:1-2
So we finished God’s big story last week, and today we start our summer series, called Foundations. We’re going to look at the doctrinal foundations of the church, of our church, and of our lives. I realized as I sat down to write this message that I’ve got three things to do in the twenty-five minutes that I allot myself on a communion Sunday. First, I need to introduce our new series and try to communicate why the elders and I think it’s important to look at these truths this summer. Second, I need to look at one of those truths, and it’s a big one, the Trinity. And third I need to tie those first two things, somehow, into communion, so that as we the Lord’s supper we have a sense of wonder over what Jesus has done. As I thought about it, I realized that the first and the last of these things, the why and the wonder, are both made easier by the fact that my subject today is the Trinity. It’s a perfect place to start this series.
So why are we doing this series? Part of the answer is that this is Trinity’s twenty-fifth year, so looking back at our foundations made sense. During this past year the elders have had several discussions challenging our doctrines. We’ve been told on one side that we are too old-fashioned on some things, that we need to get on board what the Holy Spirit is doing now. We’ve been told on the other side that we’re not old fashioned enough, that Trinity and the larger Evangelical Church has lost touch with the early church, with the teachings handed down from the apostles. Also, this is the 500th year of the Reformation, but we’ve been told that the Reformation led only to doctrinal chaos.
So it seemed good to address these concerns. We quickly agreed that the foundations of our church are not 25 years old. They are not even 500 years old. Our church, and all true churches are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” The history of Trinity Fellowship does not look back 25 years to the early nineties, it looks back 2000 years to Jesus and the apostles, to the early church and the centuries in which God has been working through, and sometimes in spite of, the Church.
Take the Trinity, which we are studying today. This is a foundational truth. Yet the word Trinity does not appear in Scripture. Even the concept must be distilled from Scripture. But it’s a central concept, a central doctrine which God led the church to formalize in those early centuries, and without which there can be no true understanding of salvation or the Christian life. This is the kind of thing we’ll be seeing all summer. These key doctrines will point us back to the early centuries of the church and ultimately to the clear truths of Scripture.
We will also find that these foundations allow us to stand as God’s church today, and as members of the church, in a culture that places little value on truth and on Godly living. We’ll find, every week, that our own foundations for living depend on these Biblical truths expressed doctrinally. We’ll find that none of these truths can be fully known apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ, who has brought atonement and salvation, faith and grace, and who has shown us how to live through the Word and the Spirit. Just as God’s Big Story was all about Jesus, so the foundations of the church are all about Jesus. As the hymn says, “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”
So the first doctrine we want to look at this morning is the Trinity. Our own statement of faith puts it this way: “We believe in one God eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” This doctrine of the Trinity is revealed in Scripture, defended by the early church, and central to our faith and life. So how is it revealed in Scripture? Well, there is no verse that says “I, God, exist as a loving unity of three equally divine persons.” But every word in that sentence has Scripture that supports it. We can know from the Bible that there is One God, that there are three persons each of whom is God and that they work together as one.
There is one God. Every day of his life a devout Jewish person will recite the Shema, verses taken from Deuteronomy 6. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God,” etc. The Jewish people and all people needed this truth because the tendency of the human heart is to make gods of everything, and to turn those gods into pantheons of competing idols, none of them sovereign, none omnipotent, none holy. All through God’s Big Story the Jewish people turned away from the true God and worshipped false gods. Over and over, especially through the prophets, God said things like “I am the Lord, there is no other.” In fact we could make a whole study of that phrase. I’ll limit myself to two verses. Isaiah 45:18 For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” And a few verses later “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.”
So God was obsessive about teaching Israel that there was one God and that God was one, because he knew that in this truth was their salvation. But it was not until the Babylonian exile, that his people finally got it. That great purging of their impurities left them with the unshakeable conviction that there was one true God. So when Jesus is asked the greatest commandment, he answers from the Shema. Mark 12:29 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” God the Son himself says that there is only one God, one alone.
Yet God eternally exists in three persons. We say persons, not people because the word people somehow leads us to the idea that there are three Gods, and “the Lord is God, the Lord is one.” The Athanasian creed, which was written in the sixth century to artistically summarize what Athanasius and other had taught says it this way. “We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.” It goes on to say “And yet there are not three eternal beings; there is but one eternal being. So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings; there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.” Three persons, one essence, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. That’s the Triune God.
So what we want to show from Scripture is that each Person of the Godhead is a person and that each has all the qualities of divinity. It’s not that hard to do, so I want to ask you to listen, in each of these Scriptures not just for those things, but for a third thing – relationships. Each is a person, each is God and each is in relationship with the others. Listen for that in these Scriptures. It’s important to us, because we are made in God’s image and therefore we are made to be in relationships. The giving and receiving of love and care are not universally held human values just cause they’re nice. It’s because they existed from eternity past in the relationship of the persons in the God.
God the Father is a person, divine and relational. Let’s think of the Father in Romans 8:14-17. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
One of things that students of the New Testament have noticed is that Paul and others often use the use “God,” alone where the context implies God the Father. Verse 14, for all who are led by the Spirit of God, that’s God the Spirit are sons of God, that’s God the Father. If you have sons you are a father, so it’s a strong implication that there is a person of the Trinity not the Spirit who is the Father. And that implication is fully fleshed out in the other verses. Verse 15 we’ve received the Spirit, but the Spirit gives us adoption as sons, and so now we cry “Abba, Father” which is how Jesus spoke of His Father in the Gospels.
So, verse 16, God the Holy Spirit who dwells in us testifies to our own spirits that we are children of God, children of God the Father. The New Testament never says we are children of the Son, but of God the Father. Verse 17 we are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. He is the Son and we are now sons and daughters of God the Father. Do you see the persons of the Trinity in those verses? Do you see the relationships between them. It’s awesome.
The only weakness of that section is that the title God the Father is not used. But it is common in the New Testament. Galatians 1:1 “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” James, Peter and John also speak of the Father this way. 2 John 1:3 “Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son.” So God the Father is clearly God. He’s also a person: being a Father is something only a person can do. You can’t be adopted and cry daddy toward a tree or a star or an impersonal force. He’s clearly relational because he has a Son, and sons and daughters.
In the same way Jesus the Son is God, he’s a person, and he’s relational. John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The church fathers, the church through most of history and almost all students of Greek agree that what this sentence is saying is that the Word is God. Only the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and a few others deny this clear truth. But the Word is also the Son. John 1:14 the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. The heart of God’s Big Story is that God the Son, the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt or set up his tent among us.
In his life and ministry Jesus said things that only God could get away with saying. He said “Before Abraham was, I am,” using God’s personal Old Testament name. In John 10 he said “I and the Father are one.” And listen to the response. Verse 31 “The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. 32Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” 33The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” They were right. It’s perfectly plain.
Jesus being a man, made himself out to be God. Yet at the same time he placed an incredible emphasis on his relationship to the Father. Remember relationship is something persons do. In John 5 he says “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” In John 10 he says that the Father knows him and he knows the Father and that the Father loves him.
In fact the word Father is used this way a hundred times in John’s Gospel. And it’s not just John. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus says “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Back in God’s Big Story we saw the baptism of Jesus, where the Son submitted to the Father, and the Spirit descended and the Father spoke. “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” The Father is a person, the Son is a person and they have a relationship of love. One of the things we can take to heart in this study of the Trinity is the truth that we can have a relationship with God, because he is by nature relational. He created us to be relational, and redeemed us through the Son to restore relationship. As John says in his first letter “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” Amen.
The Father is a person, yet he is God. The Son is a different person, in relationship with the Father, yet he is God. And the Spirit is a person, yet He is God. We saw this in God’s Big Story, in John 14. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. The Spirit is the person of the Trinity most likely to be mistaken for “the Force.” He’s not. He’s a person. As I said a few months ago, the grammar is not ambiguous, even where it could be. The word Spirit, pneuma, is a genderless noun. In Greek there are male nouns, female nouns and genderless nouns. But when the Spirit is mentioned here and in many other places, the genderless pronoun, it, is replaced by the male pronoun, he. The writers affirm his personhood.
Yet the Holy Spirit is God, as much as the Father and the Son. Not only does he indwell believers, but he’s the Spirit of Holiness, the Spirit of Glory, the Spirit of Life, the Eternal Spirit, the Spirit of Grace, the Spirit of Truth, and over and over, the Holy Spirit. He has all the attributes of God, and in several places is called God. In Acts 5 Peter says to Ananias and Saphira, “You have lied to the Holy Spirit.” And then “You have not lied to man, but to God.”
So we have discovered in Scripture three persons. And yet there is one God. The Old Testament affirms this, and the New Testament does not update this teaching. In fact the New Testament teaches this just as plainly. In 1 Corinthians 8:4 Paul wrote: "So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one." James says “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.” There is one God, but he exists, eternally, in three persons.
One church leader who had opposed the Trinity, but then embraced it says “The Bible teaching is that there is one God who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is not my idea, nor is it the idea of some fourth-century theologians. What the fourth-century theologians did was to formulate a doctrine that denies certain unbiblical teachings about God that were in vogue at the time.” The creeds are important not because they formulated doctrine but because they stated clearly an understanding that already existed, in order to refute heresy, and ultimately so that you and I could recognize mistakes and mis-understandings. The Trinity is a mystery. We will never fully understand how it works. But we can see where people walk away from it.
In the fourth century, he says “One such teaching was the idea that the Son was a created being. Another heresy is the idea that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not distinct but are really all the same, in other words, the idea that the one God is sometimes the Father, sometimes the Son, and sometimes the Holy Spirit, but not all three all the time.” This last is called modalism and it is an understanding of the Trinity that a lot of people have today, without even knowing it. In our day the basic doctrines of the Trinity are denied not only by cults like Jehovah’s witness but by churches and denominations, like the many Oneness Pentecostals. So we need to take hold of this doctrine.
I love the Athanasian Creed. It’s a little bit like S. M. Lockridge’s “That’s My King,” but sixth century. “We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal. What quality the Father has, the Son has, and the Holy Spirit has. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is immeasurable, the Son is immeasurable, the Holy Spirit is immeasurable. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal. And yet there are not three eternal beings; there is but one eternal being. So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings; there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.
Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God. The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten from anyone. The Son was neither made nor created; he was begotten from the Father alone. The Holy Spirit was neither made nor created nor begotten; he proceeds from the Father and the Son. Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other. So in everything, we must worship their trinity in their unity and their unity in their trinity.
Like most of the doctrines we’ll study this summer, the Trinity is not only significant to our understanding, but also to our lives and to our salvation. There are many verses where the work of the Trinity is revealed, and each person takes a role in our lives. One great example is 1 Peter 1:1-2 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
Peter’s first letter is to believers scattered through the Roman provinces of what is now Turkey. He calls these believers elect or chosen by God. But notice, verse 2, the work of the Trinity. They were chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” In what is called the economic Trinity, what the persons of the Trinity do, one of God the Father’s roles is planning. From before the Fall, God planned our rescue from slavery to sin and death in a broken world.
The plan of the Father and the sanctification of the Spirit. Sanctification means purifying. God the Holy Spirit is at work in us to purify us, first by salvation and then through purifying our daily lives. This connection of the Holy Spirit to sanctification is made in several places in Scripture, though as is typical of these Trinitarian works, it is also the work of the Son and a work of the Father. Sanctification, purity from the effects and the practice of sin is a goal of our salvation, a goal we need to take seriously and in which we rely on the Spirit.
But we are also chosen for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood. The obedience mentioned here is undoubtedly what Paul calls the obedience of faith, believing in Jesus and his work on the cross. John says “this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” The object of our faith is God the Son. His unique role in the Trinity was to be the sacrifice for our sins that we might be sprinkled with his blood and purified from all that had separated us from God. Sprinkling with blood is a frequent Old Testament image and was used to set apart something or someone as holy. This is what Jesus did on the cross, where “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
So one of the many sets of roles the Trinity takes in salvation is the Father initiating, the Son sacrificing and the Spirit sanctifying. As we celebrate communion I want us to remember that God the son was on the cross, God from eternity, God almighty. Anselm said Jesus must be fully God and fully man because only a man deserved to die for the sins of men, but only God could pay the full price of those sins. The Triune God is the foundation of our salvation.