A Call To Preach The Trinity
A Call To Preach The Trinity
When was the last time you preached or heard a sermon on God – his nature, character, purposes, plans, ways, and will? I suspect for some it may have been a long time. Sadly, we hear and preach all too few sermons about God. And yet, those are the sermons that we, and our people, need the most. J. I. Packer states: “The average Anglican clergyman never preaches on the Trinity save, perhaps, on Trinity Sunday.” Why is this? Why is there such a lack, or even absence, of preaching on doctrine and, in particular, the doctrine of God and of the Trinity? Let me propose several reasons.
First, many preachers do not “fight the good fight of faith” any more (1 Tim. 6:12). They do not contend for our Christian confession in advancing truth, correcting error, and opposing heresy.
Second, I venture to suggest that some preachers do not preach the doctrine of the Trinity much anymore because they do not understand it, it is difficult to explain, and it takes hard work – in research, sermonizing, and application.
Third, perhaps some preachers don’t preach about God anymore because they are driven by a consumer-oriented mentality, preaching what the people want to hear, not what they need to hear. These are surely the days to which Paul referred when he said that “the time would come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). No wonder Paul exhorted Timothy to “hold fast the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13). No wonder he warned against those things that are “contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:10-11). No wonder he pressed home the need for “sincere faith,” from which some had strayed having turned aside to idle talk, “desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (1 Tim. 1:5-7). No wonder he insisted that the leaders of the church be men who are “bold in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:13), men who “hold fast the faithful word” so that they “may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” ( Tit. 1:9). No wonder he urged Timothy to “instruct the brethren in these things” so that he would be “a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine” which he had carefully followed (1 Tim. 4:6). No wonder he warned about those who would “not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to doctrine which accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3).
It is not my intention in this paper to “proof text” my way to the doctrine of the Trinity, nor to show you “how” to preach the Trinity, but rather to issue a clarion call to preach the Trinity by (1) developing a biblical basis for preaching the Trinity; (2) providing some reasons why we must preach the Trinity; (3) suggesting a preferred approach to preaching this doctrine; (4) motivating you with some goals for, and benefits from, preaching the Trinity; and then (5) drawing some conclusions.
It is the thesis of this paper that just as the biblical authors did not present a systematic theology of God and the Trinity, but assumed and acknowledged it as their understanding of God was enlightened and filled out by God’s progressive revelation of himself, so we should preach the Trinity in like manner, preaching the nature, character, and ways of God as he has progressively revealed himself to us.
I. The Biblical Precedent for Preaching the Doctrine of the Trinity
Even a casual consideration of Jesus’ teaching quickly and clearly indicates his emphasis and focus on God. Consider His high priestly prayer: “This is life eternal,” Jesus said, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3). Or, consider His Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Or, consider His response to Satan: “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only you shall serve” (Matt. 4:10). Or, consider how he, the Son of God, led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, defended his Father and his own deity (Lk. 4:1-13).
More particularly, in his dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus openly and clearly articulated the work of the Trinity in redemption as he outlines the work of the Spirit in regeneration (Jn. 3:8), the work of the Son in the crucifixion (3:14-15), and the work of God himself in the plan of redemption (3:16-17). Of course, Jesus himself made no secret of his deity, which always incited the wrath of the Jews against him (e.g. Jn. 5:16-18; 10:33-38).
Jesus’ lengthy discourse with the disciples in John 14-16 and his pursuant high-priestly prayer in chapter 17 give us his most detailed and explicit teaching on the Trinity. Here, he carefully and intricately unfolds the doctrine of the Trinity by moving from his unity and oneness with the Father (Jn. 14:7-11; cf. also 12:45) to the unity and oneness of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit (14:16-17). Bringing comfort to their saddened hearts as they reacted to the news of his departure, Jesus promises them another Comforter, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name” and who would “abide with them forever” (14:16, 26). This “Holy Spirit,” Peter Toon comments, “...is described in personal terms as he who dwells within the disciples, teaches them, and bears witness to and glorifies Jesus.” This is the Spirit of truth, who would proceed from the Father and who would “testify of Me,” Jesus says (15:26). To have eternal life is to know not only the Father but also the Son (17:3), who had finished the work of redemption which the Father had given him to do, had manifested the Father’s name and given the Father’s word to his disciples (17:4-6), who now needed to be kept by that self-same word, the word of truth (17:17), and who would now enjoy a mutual indwelling with the Father and the Son similar in character to the mutual indwelling that exists between the Father and the Son (17:21, 23).
Further, Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples was a trinitarian commission. As the Father had sent him, so he was sending them, and then he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 20:21-22). His final instruction as to the nature of the disciples’ commission continues this trinitarian theme, as Jesus declares that they were to baptize disciples from all nations “in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18-20).
The gospel writers preached about, were focused on, and were absorbed with, God. From the time of Jesus’ birth, to his baptism, death, resurrection, and ascension, they present a trinitarian God. They declare the God, who through the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit, became flesh and dwelled among us, “Immanuel, God with us” (Matt. 1:23; cf. Isa. 7:14). They tell us about the Word, who pre-existed his incarnation, who was with God and who was God (Jn. 1:1). They faithfully record that Jesus, upon whom the Holy Spirit descended at his baptism, was affirmed by God the Father as his beloved Son in whom He was well pleased (Lk. 3:22). Indeed, the transfiguration of Jesus was such a powerful testimony of Jesus’ deity to the disciples of the inner trio that it indelibly marked their ministry (Lk. 9:28-36).
The God whom the Gospel writers believed, followed, and preached was none other than the triune God as both Peter (“You are the Christ the Son of the living God”) and Thomas (“My Lord, and my God”) boldly confessed.
The apostle John openly declared, was focused on, and absorbed with, God, not only in his gospel, but also the epistles and Revelation. Perhaps more explicitly than any of the other gospel writers, he declares the truth of the Trinity concerning the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christ, and the Father (e.g. Jn. 14:17-23). For John, understanding who God is and believing in Him is of prime importance. For John, to know God is to know him as Trinity. “Then he [the Spirit through one of the seven angels] showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev. 22:1-5).
Stephen preached, was focused on, and absorbed with, God. This is powerfully evident at his martyrdom when, “being full of the Holy Spirit,” his final experience on earth, as they stoned him to death, was to gaze into heaven and see the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-59). That’s where his life was lived – in the presence of the triune God.
The apostle Peter preached, was focused on, and absorbed with, God. He preached a trinitarian God who raised up Jesus from the dead and exalted him in ascension to his own right hand, having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:32-33). He preached the gospel of our trinitarian God who anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power and who raised Him up on the third day, and showed Him openly; the God to whose command Peter and the apostles responded by preaching to the people and testifying that it is He, Jesus of Nazareth, who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead, to whom all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins (Acts 10:38-43).
This is the God who elected us according to his foreknowledge in sanctification of the Spirit for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:2); the God who raised Jesus from the dead and gave him glory so that your faith and hope might be in God (1 Pet. 1:21). This is the triune God whom Peter witnessed on the holy mountain of transfiguration when he heard the voice of God declaring from heaven that Jesus Christ was his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased (2 Pet. 1:16-18).
The apostle Paul preached, was focused on, and absorbed with, God. He emphatically teaches the primacy of preaching about God, who he is and what he has done. In Romans, Paul preached the gospel of our trinitarian God concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was “born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:1-4). Paul preached about a trinitarian God who demonstrated his love toward us by sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3) to die for us while we were still sinners in order that, through His death, we might be reconciled to Him, and whose Spirit has poured His love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5-11). He preached about the God whose Spirit now indwells us, and by whose power he will give life to our mortal bodies, just as He raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 8:9-11). Paul’s God is the God whose Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God and who helps us in our weaknesses by interceding for us in agonizing, unutterable prayers; the God who foreknew us and predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son, and who has called us, justified us, and will glorify us; the God who did not spare his one and only Son but delivered him up for us all; the God who freely gives us all things and from whom we can never be separated (Rom. 8:13-32).
In Corinthians, Paul preached the testimony of our trinitarian God concerning Jesus Christ and him crucified, not to convince or impress his hearers with human wisdom or oratory but to demonstrate the Spirit’s power so that their faith would not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Paul’s gospel was the wisdom of God in a mystery which can only be known through the Spirit of God who alone reveals to us the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:8-14). Paul’s God is the trinitarian God whose Spirit baptizes us into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12), in which there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit, differences of ministries, but the same Lord, and diversities of activities, but the same God who works all in all (1 Cor 12:4-6). Paul’s God is the trinitarian God who always leads us in ministry triumph in Christ (2 Cor. 2:14) and whose Spirit has engraved on the tablets of our hearts that we are epistles of Christ (2 Cor. 3:2). The trinitarian God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness has shone into our hearts by his Holy Spirit to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). This is the God in whose trinitarian name and character Paul blesses the saints (2 Cor. 13:14).
In Galatians, Paul’s God is the trinitarian God who sent forth his Son, born of a woman, and who has sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts (Gal. 4:4, 6). In Ephesians, Paul’s trinitarian God is the Father who elected us before time began (Eph. 1:4-5), the Son in whom we have redemption (1:7), and the Spirit who has sealed us and guarantees our inheritance (1:13-14). Paul’s God is the trinitarian God to whom we have been reconciled through the cross of Christ in one body, through whom we have access by one Spirit to the Father, and in whom the whole building of the church body is fitted together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:16-22). Paul’s trinitarian God is the Father to whom we direct our prayers, so that his Spirit may empower us in the inner man and that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:14-16). Paul clearly and unequivocally declared the doctrine of the Trinity as “one Spirit...one Lord...and one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6).
In Timothy, Paul exalts the God whose Son, Jesus Christ, is “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the God who alone is wise” (1 Tim. 1:17), “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see, to whom be honour and everlasting power” (1 Tim. 6:15-16). Paul’s insists that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Paul’s God is the trinitarian God of salvation – the Father, whose kindness and love toward us has appeared and by whose mercy he saves us through the washing and regeneration of the Holy Spirit, whom he has poured out on us abundantly through his Son, Jesus Christ our Saviour (Tit. 3:4-8; cf. Tit. 2:11-14).
The writer of Hebrews declared, was focused on, and absorbed with, God. He wrote of the God who spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets and who has in these last days spoken to us by His Son (Heb. 1:1-4). This author affirms the trinitarian work of salvation by the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, to cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:13-14).
For the N.T. authors, then, the notion of a triune God was intuitively obvious such that they saw no need, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to inscripturate a systematic formula. “What the Bible provides is not a developed doctrine of the Holy Trinity and not even proof texts for developing such a doctrine. Rather the whole New Testament stands as a witness to a basic Trinitarian consciousness in the hearts of the writers and of the early Christian church.”
Evidently, from the moment the apostles understood the truth and reality that the One whom the wise men and shepherds worshipped was the one true God who alone is truly worthy of worship (and who, as God, received their worship); from the moment they comprehended the implications of his calling of them to follow him; from the moment they grasped the truth of his perfect, sinless life, his performance of miracles, his radical teaching about the principles for living in his kingdom, his outright claim to deity, his prophesy and fulfillment of his death and resurrection, his ascension to heaven and his promise to return again, together with the coming and powerful indwelling of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise (Jn. 16), so that they themselves performed miraculous deeds - from that time forward their Judaic notion of one God underwent a dramatic shift, but a shift that was, for them, understandable, acceptable, logical, and which needed no systematic explanation. As Paul Rees states, “Nothing short of this three-personal God does justice to the experience of the early Christians.” Their explanation of who God is did not lead them to deny their belief in the one true God of Israel, nor to abandon their notion of the one sovereign Creator, nor to add Jesus as a second God, but to “accept and confess a mystery” and to confirm their conviction of God as Father and Son and Holy Spirit – one God in three eternal, co-existing, co-equal persons. “These persons had a trinitarian Christianity even before they had a trinitarian theology.” Peter Jewett writes, “Being inchoate Trinitarians from the start, Christians became conscious Trinitarians in the end. Confessing with the prophets of Israel that the Lord their God was one, and with the apostles of Christ that Jesus is Lord, they eventually came to unite these truths, so fundamental to their faith, in the doctrine that God is the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
So then, the biblical precedent and basis for preaching the Trinity is enormous. In addition, we have, of course, the model of the Reformers and Puritans, who also declared, were focused on, and absorbed with, God. I do not have the time to develop this here, but just to note that they regularly preached on the nature, character, and attributes of God. They were transfixed by God. Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and others all give united testimony to their absorption with God both in their personal and public lives. One only needs to read a sample of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons to safely conclude that they focus on the nature and character of God both in their content and in their application. He was possessed by the glory of God, and obsessed with declaring God in his sovereignty, beauty, glory and majesty at every opportunity.
Alas, such is not the case today. Why do we hear so little preaching about God the Father – his attributes, his purposes, his ways? Why do we hear so little preaching about God the Son – his person, his redemptive work, his teachings? Why do we hear so little preaching about God the Holy Spirit – his deity and present operations in our lives and in the world? I think it is because contemporary preaching in many evangelical churches has been caught by, and caught up in, the spirit of the age – in a culture that wants “how to” sermons that focus on us, our needs, our lives, our well-being, our success. It is anthropocentric preaching, not theocentric or Christocentric. It panders to our supposed “felt” needs not “real” needs. It is market driven, not God centred. It has corporate objectives, not kingdom directives. It is therapeutically oriented, not spiritually motivated.
Doctrinal preaching has long fallen out of favour. It is considered a subject for theologians, not congregations. It is discussed in seminaries, not churches. It is articulated by denominational leaders, not church members.
II. Why Preach the Doctrine of God and the Trinity?
One of the concerns about preaching doctrine, specifically the doctrine of the Trinity, is that the general attitude today is that doctrinal preaching is boring, irrelevant, of no practical value for the Christian life, and, in the ultimate analysis, incomprehensible anyway. But the truth is that if our people do not know God – who He is, what He is like, and how He acts – they cannot adequately, properly, or fully live their lives in God’s world, under God’s control, and for God’s glory.
How can we possibly strive for, much less achieve, our primary goal in living – namely, to glorify God in thought, word, and deed, if we do not know Him? As J. I. Packer rightly puts it: “Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.”
We are compelled to preach the doctrine of the Trinity because this doctrine throughout history has been and continues to be maligned, distorted, mocked, and perverted. How can our people properly distinguish between truth and error if we have not taught them the truth about God? How can they discern the error, if not outright heresy, of liberal theologies, such as Open Theism, which propose a God who is different from the God of the Bible, if we have not taught them the truth? How can they adequately and appropriately respond to Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to their doors with the age old Arian heresy, if we have not taught them the truth about God? The reality for many Christians is that they can’t properly respond to, nor adequately discern, theological error.
We are compelled to preach the doctrine of the Trinity because there are many false prophets, deceivers and antichrists in the world (1 Jn. 4:1; 2 Jn. 7). Some of them are trying to tell us that we can and should properly refer to God as female by using the female pronoun “she.” Such terminology is foreign to the Bible and must be counteracted. In the spirit of the age others in the egalitarian movement propose that God be referred to as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier rather than as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in order to be non-gender specific. The fact that God is genderless and that He is described in Scripture as having some attributes associated with females does not authorize us to refer to him as “she.” I understand that God is not defined adequately by any of our pronouns: God is spirit, wholly other than we are in his essence. He is not defined by male gender or genitalia; nor are males more like God than females; nor does referring to God as Father imply any sort of male privilege or preference. But Scripture throughout refers to God as “He,” being consistent with the gender of Father and Son.
Unless we properly instruct our people in this doctrine, how will they be able to “test the spirits whether they are of God” (1 Jn. 4:1)?
We are compelled to preach the doctrine of the Trinity because to be wrong about God is to be wrong about one’s eternal destiny. This is a doctrine that clearly has eternal consequences if we get it wrong. It will lead to destruction if we believe in a god who is not the God of the Bible. The truth of the gospel can only be retained and maintained so long as we uphold, defend, and boldly proclaim the truth about God – the truth about God in election, salvation (justification and sanctification), and glorification. We must preach the one, true gospel of Christ, not a gospel of a different kind (Gal. 1:6-10).
We are compelled to preach the doctrine of the Trinity because the doctrine of the Trinity is fundamental to the Christian faith and separates it from all other belief systems. “The doctrine of God is the doctrine which is basic to all others and...the doctrine of the trinity is basic to the doctrine of God.” We are compelled to preach the doctrine of the Trinity because, as Paul Rees, puts it, “nothing short of it fully satisfies my heart.” We need to hear about and inculcate the truth of:
(1) the grace of Christ – that grace that has met my need (2 Cor. 8:9);
(2) the love of God – that love that deigned to send his Son to be my substitute; and
(3) the fellowship of the Holy Spirit – that fellowship of believers, “who are indwelled and baptized by the Spirit into one body and who are now the testimony of Christ on earth.”
We are compelled to preach the doctrine of the Trinity because the responsibility is ours, as preachers and church leaders, to preach on this challenging but fruitful subject not only for the edification of God’s people but for the worship and glory of God.
We are compelled to preach the doctrine of the Trinity because, as John Piper rightly asserts, true expository preaching is trinitarian since, as he says, “the goal of preaching is the glory of God, the ground of preaching is the cross of Christ, and the gift of preaching is the power of the Holy Spirit.”
III. Suggestions for Preaching the Trinity
Of all the doctrines to preach on, the doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps the most challenging, because it is a difficult concept to understand and explain, and because it is hard to relate to life.
The first challenge is: “How do you approach such a topic homiletically?” If you take a systematic approach, your sermon quickly sounds like a list of proof texts, which becomes tedious for the congregation and seems more like a seminary lecture than a sermon. Such a clinical, academic approach can also detract from the impact of awe and worship that should result from preaching this topic. Just as Sidney Greidanus astutely points out concerning miracles, that “a turgid apologetic for miracles, or, worse, any rational explanation of miracles may scuttle the sense of ‘wow’ (that it is designed to evoke) and, therefore, be homiletically inappropriate,” so, it seems to me, a systematic explanation or dissertation would not be an appropriate homiletical approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. I am not in any way minimizing the need for, or the benefit of, systematic theology, nor am I suggesting that we should not teach our people dogmatics. Rather, I am suggesting that since the doctrine is not presented that way in Scripture, we would be wise to follow the pattern of Scripture, which pattern is more likely to evoke a response of wonder that it surely should.
Therefore, I would suggest that rather than a systematic approach to preaching the Trinity in a congregational setting, you take a biblical theology approach – i.e. teach the truth of the Trinity as it unfolds throughout the Bible, tracing the biblical history of God’s progressive revelation of who He is. Deal with who God is, how He acts, what He likes and dislikes, and what He has done (i.e. God’s nature and character and works as Scripture progressively reveals them), all of which can only be explained ultimately in trinitarian terms, which, of course, makes clear why the concept of Trinity is everywhere assumed and acknowledged in the N.T. You may preach on the divine attributes of the Trinity – omniscience, omnipresence (Ps. 139), omnipotence, immutability (Mal. 3:6), eternality (Psalm 136:1?), perfection (Matt. 5:48), self-existence, sovereignty (Matt. 5:21), worthiness (Rev. 4:11) and so on. You may preach on the trinitarian God as our Creator, and our the Judge. You may preach on the moral attributes of the Trinity – holiness (Isa. 6:3), righteousness (Rom. 3:22), and justice (2 Thess. 1:6). You may preach on the love of God (1 Cor. 13:8), his mercy (Deut. 4:31), compassion (Matt. 9:36), goodness (Matt. 19:17), kindness (2 Sam. 9:3), truthfulness, faithfulness (Deut. 7:10), trustworthiness (Amos 5:24). You may preach on the ways of God – his revealed will, his chastisement, his comfort and compassion. Or, you may preach on “the pleasures of God” (to use John Piper’s phrase) - what brings him joy, what incites his anger.
These aspects of the nature, character, and ways of God are now often, and sadly, unfamiliar to some of our congregants, but were at one time regularly preached. Take, for example, the fourth question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which asks: “What is God?” The answer: “God is spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” These simple catechisms are no longer taught or memorized, so that if you ask someone to tell you what, for example, “justification” means, most Christians could not give you a succinct answer.
Such a sermon series on the doctrine of God would be quite lengthy, but appropriately so given the subject matter. And it would be out of this series that you would then be able to draw logical conclusions about God, one of which would be that the God of the Bible is a triune Being.
I would suggest that the biblical theology approach to preaching the Trinity is the most commendable, most edifying, and most relevant. It allows you to follow specific passages and preach them expositorally, so that the people can see from the text what you are talking about. As your sermon series progresses over the weeks and months, they will see the progressive revelation of Scripture concerning the nature, character, and ways of God, from the Judaic view of the oneness of God in the O.T. (e.g. Deut. 6:4; 4:35; Isa. 43:10; 44:6-8; 45:5-6; 21-22) to the oneness-and-threeness of God as revealed in the N.T. Gradually, they will begin to see the connection between the “Lord” of the Shema and “the living and true God” of the Christian confession (1 Thess. 1:9; cf. also Eph. 4:6; 1 Cor. 8:4; Mk. 12:29).
By preaching the Trinity this way you will open up to your people the progression of revelation in Scripture from a God who is holy and just, punishing sin and rewarding righteousness, to a God who fulfilled his promise to redeem his people in and through his Son, whom He sent to be the Saviour of the world; from a God who is transcendent and awesome, to a God who cares and provides for his people; from a God who is love and light, in whom mercy and truth unite, to a God who has revealed himself in his word, in which we see his purposes and plans laid out; from a God who has sent his Spirit to indwell us so that we are capable of living for his glory, to a God who will complete salvation history at our glorification. In sum, a God who alone is worthy of all our praise.
Let me issue two caveats about preaching the Trinity using a biblical theology approach. First, we need to be careful when preparing sermons, not to make a sharp distinction, which we so often do, between the O.T. and N.T. They are one Word of God; they are a unit with historical, theological, and revelatory progression and continuity. Granted, when we turn the page from Malachi to Matthew we might well ask: “What happened?” Nevertheless, our hermeneutical and homiletical task is to preach both Testaments as one revelation from God, in which we see:
(1) the typological connections between the O.T. and the N.T. (such as institutions like the tabernacle, events like the feasts and offerings, and people like Moses and Joseph) as salvation history unfolds;
(2) the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the coming Messiah fulfilled in the New in Christ;
(3) the offices of the O.T. which point forward to their fulfillment in Christ as prophet, priest, and king;
(4) the progression of salvation history from the O.T. toward its eschatological goal in the New; and
(5) in the specific case of our topic, the trinitarian inferences in the O.T. which become more evident in the New. Thus, we move, as Sidney Greidanus puts it, not so much “from the lines drawn from the O.T. to the N.T. but in the prior move in the opposite direction – the move from the fullness of the N.T. revelation to a new understanding of the O.T. passages.”
Therefore, our task is to preach this unfolding of God’s self-revelation by faithfully communicating the O.T. understanding of God and tracing it through to the New Testament trinitarian understanding as it developed.
Further, this biblical theology approach to preaching the Trinity requires great sensitivity to the various literary genres in which it is presented in Scripture. We must let Hebrew narrative or gospel genre, for example, shape how we preach the truth of the passage, being sure to find their theocentric purpose – namely, “to show God at work in His creation and among His people. The narratives glorify Him, help us to understand and appreciate Him, and give us a picture of His providence and protection.” We must interpret and explain the Psalms and Prophets in accordance with their respective genres and in the light of unfolding redemptive history. In O.T. prophetic literature, the central focus is on the coming King in His kingdom (e.g. Isa. 42:4). Thus, we need to look for corresponding references and inferences. Nevertheless, we must be careful to interpret these texts in the way the original audience would have – namely, associating the person with the immediate referent before associating him with the fulfillment in the N.T.
Of course, once such passages have been exposited accurately we can draw the appropriate theological conclusions. Then, we will see how these O.T. truths become clearer through the incarnation and teachings of Jesus (whose most extensive teachings on the Trinity occur in his discourse with the disciples in John 14-16) through to the book of Acts where their understanding of God develops and a more complete expression of that understanding is recorded. We can trace this natural development and see the apostles intuitively coming to grips with the concept of God without stating it in systematic form, so that, ultimately, the progressive unfolding of truth led them to the only rational conclusion that adequately synthesized their experience and data and concluded with their universal presupposition as to the trinitarian nature of God.
Second, we need to be careful not to reverse the order in which the doctrine of God is developed by trying to teach the systematic doctrine of who God is before we have preached the biblical history of who God is and what He is like, as revealed in his acts in the world and the biblical authors’ understanding of God. Therefore, let us preach the doctrine as it unfolds in Scripture, declaring God’s mighty acts in history, culminating in the apex of redemptive activity at the cross and resurrection, showing how God is present and active and what His relationship is to the human race and his creation in general before we try to synthesize all of that into a systematic unit called the doctrine of the Trinity.
If you take this homiletical approach that I am suggesting, as your people listen to you preach the biblical theology of God in the context of biblical history, they will come to understand that even though the systematic theology and creedal articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity was developed over the first three or four centuries in response to heretical teachings about God that were beginning to surface in the second and third centuries, and that even though universal, formal adoption of a single creedal statement by orthodox churches did not occur until the fourth century, nonetheless, the doctrine and concept of God as Trinity is pervasive throughout the N.T. As Darrell Johnson explains it, “What really triggered the theological process was what ordinary people experienced when they encountered Jesus Christ...The doctrine of the Trinity is not the result of philosophical speculation carried out in ivory towers, cut off from real life. It is the result of ordinary believers trying to make sense of the facts of God’s self-revelation and trying to live in the light of those facts.” Or, as Alister McGrath points out, “The doctrine of the Trinity is the end result of a long process of thinking about the way in which God is present and active the world…The scriptural witness to and Christian experience of God came first, and reflection on it came later.”
So much, then, for the first major challenge in preaching the Trinity – namely, “How do you approach the topic?” The second major challenge in preaching the Trinity is: “How do you apply this doctrine to people’s lives?” How do you make such a doctrine relevant to contemporary Christian life? How do you overcome the “so-what” hump of your audience? Doctrine must always be related to life when we preach or teach. As Peter Toon points out, “If we give the impression that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is only and solely the doctrine of the immanent or ontological Trinity then we run the risk of its confession being irrelevant to Christian worship, life, and service.”
We can and must relate the doctrine of the Trinity to some very practical aspects of the Christian life, by showing how our understanding of the Trinity uniquely applies to our Christian worldview and mission. For example, when preaching the Trinity, you would probably want to apply the doctrine to such topics as:
1. The creation of the world and the Trinity. The godhead unitedly created the universe. The Father planned it; the Son implemented it; and the Holy Spirit empowered it. Most importantly, the human race was created in God’s image. Since we are created in God’s image, we are to reflect the many dimensions of God’s nature and character.
2. Our human existence and the Trinity. God providentially cares for and controls the universe that He has created. For “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). As John Calvin says: “It is perfectly obvious... that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.”
3. Our salvation and the Trinity. God the Father through the Spirit delivered his Son into the hands of wicked men. He went to the cross and rose again, and in so doing, reconciled the world to himself. In this the love of God is manifest to the world in that, through him, our sins are expiated and we have eternal life (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:9).
4. Our Christian lives and the Trinity. Our lives are intimately related to, bound up in, and united to (1) the Father’s care, provision, protection, love, goodness, and holiness; (2) the Son’s truth, grace, liberty, and forgiveness; and (3) the Spirit’s guidance, illumination, teaching, power, and comfort. “The doctrine of the Trinity gives expression to the fact that...God has opened himself to us...in such a way that we may know him in the inner relations of his Divine Being, and have communion with him in his divine life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
The Father sends the Spirit in the name of the Son to indwell believers, sanctifying us, illuminating us, and empowering us for godly living. God is in us, so that, as new creatures in Christ we are “partakers of the divine nature” (1 Pet. 1:4). Therefore, because God is holy, so we are to lead holy lives. Because God has given us his illuminating Spirit, we are able to fully and properly understand the truth that God has given us. “The Father is light, the incarnate Son is light, and believers are called to live and walk in the light...For one to see the light, to have the light shine in his heart, and to walk in the light, he needs the illumination of the Holy Spirit of light. In other words, light shines upon and within him from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit”
5. Our Christian community and the Trinity. Our fellowship, relationship, and unity are intimately bound up in the relationship of the Trinity (1 Jn. 1:3; Eph. 4:3-6). God is not an isolated God but one who lives in relationship with his creation and his people in particular. He is a God of intimacy, “Immanuel, God with us.” The intra-trinitarian intimacy and relationship is to be reflected in the Christian community. Our fellowship with each other is made possible through our fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 Jn. 1:3). Because God is love and first loved us, we love Him (1 Jn. 4:19) and because love is of God, we love one another (1 Jn. 4:7) and demonstrate that love in fellowship and mutual care. As Jewett points out, “when we are admonished to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (manifest in the one body which is the church [Eph. 4:3]), we are being admonished in our Christian communal life to imitate the communal life of God himself.”
6. Our Christian worship and the Trinity. Our worship is truly Trinitarian when we render worship and prayer to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Such worship is not possible with any other concept of God. Peter Toon states, “True worship must be offered to the Father through (i.e. according to the truth which is in) Jesus and by / in the Spirit, who is given by the Father...To worship in Spirit and in truth is to worship the Trinity by the Trinity.” In the language of the seraphim, we worship God and cry: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3). As Darrell Johnson writes, “The Father draws near to us to draw us near to himself so we can praise the Son the way he does. The Son draws near to us to draw us near to himself so we can worship the Father the way he does...The Spirit comes upon us to fill us with his passion to see the Father and Son glorified.”
7. Our Christian mission and the Trinity. Because God is love and we are of God, we love the world he has made. We are ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), so that “as He is so are we in the this world” (1 Jn. 4:17). Jesus said: “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (Jn. 20:21). We are “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14) even as Jesus himself was the Light of the world, reflecting the God who is light.
Let me also suggest that preaching the doctrine of the Trinity gives you an opportunity to make relevant certain creeds, hymns, and spiritual songs by utilizing them in your services to underscore the doctrine on which you are preaching. I recommend that you adopt regular recitations of the various orthodox creeds, especially in this case as they relate to the Trinity (e.g. the Apostles’ creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Athanasian Creed) to provide support to and a framework for your doctrinal preaching. Incorporate into your services the singing of the great hymns of the faith that declare powerfully the triune nature of our great God. If we encourage our congregations to participate in worship by reciting these creeds and singing these hymns, they will at the same time, become familiar with our basic Christian doctrines and especially the doctrine of God, so that they should be able to give an answer of the hope that lies within them – particularly, what they believe about God.
IV. The End for Which We Preach the Trinity
Our pursuit of God must be practical more so than theoretical – i.e. “to know and enjoy God himself” (cf. Psalm 119:12, 18, 97, 103, 125). In other words, our goal is to know God personally and practically and the means to that end is the knowledge and experience of God. The more we know about God, the more our lives will reflect his nature and character in our own godliness and manner of life. Our knowledge about God is then reflected in our values, our priorities, our speech, thought, and behaviour, our worship, our prayer, and our occupation with God.
Our pursuit and preaching of the truth about God must have as its aim not merely the knowledge about God, but to know Him – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The duty and delight of the preacher must be to preach about the God who created us, redeemed us, guides us and keeps us, and the God who is coming for us. Our duty and delight must have as its proper object not theological knowledge or academic pursuit as an end in itself, for that can lead to arrogance, spiritual pride, and intellectual superiority, and is self-centred, not God centred (cf. Jer. 9:23f) - but our proper object is to have the knowledge that leads us into a deeper relationship with God. Our motive and objective must be to know him more fully, love him more deeply, and follow him more devotedly. This is the grand goal of preaching and of preaching the Trinity in particular.
I believe that the pastor who regularly preaches about God will do his congregation a great spiritual service, the benefits of which will become readily apparent. There will be an increased zeal for God among your people, evidenced in (1) evangelism; (2) the advancement and defence of the truth and opposition to false teaching; (3) in corporate worship, (4) in Christian fellowship, and (5) in congregational unity.
There will be an increased occupation with God. The orientation of their lives will change. They will begin to think biblical thoughts about the ways and character of God in the day-to-day events of their lives. They will live in the atmosphere of God, thinking, acting, and speaking as children of God. Their thought lives will improve as they meditate on the glories of God. Their lives will be enriched as they live in awe of God. As you preach about God, you should find increasing evidence of their inner peace with God, their willingness to “be still and know that I am God,” their dependence on God not self, their spiritual maturity, their relationships, and attitudes.
This, then, is why I am issuing this clarion call to preach the Triune God whom we know, worship, serve, and obey – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
Until and unless we understand, believe, and acknowledge that (1) God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; (2) that the Father, our Creator, is God; (3) that Jesus, our Redeemer, is God; (4) that the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, is God; and until we understand, believe, and acknowledge the truth of our triune God, we can never effectively proclaim the Gospel of God or truly worship the God whom we trust for eternity.
There is, as Steven Lawson’s title to his book says, a “famine in the land” – a famine of expository, doctrinal preaching. I whole-heartedly affirm Timothy George’s exhortation that “The recovery of doctrinal preaching is essential to the renewal of the church.” He goes on to say:
“The presupposition in doctrinal preaching is that the God who has once and for all come in Jesus Christ and once and for all spoken in Holy Scripture still comes and still speaks to His people through the faithful proclamation of His Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. ‘Doctrine’ is not an abstract formulation of belief divorced from this saving reality and divine revelation. To the contrary, it is the irreducible content of this very reality, conveyed through God’s authoritative, infallible Word and elucidated through what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of that Holy Word.”
Similarly, John Piper writes, “Our people are starving for God” “They are starving for the grandeur of God, and the vast majority do not know it.” Our task, then, is to so declare God to our hearers in all the aspects in which he has revealed himself to us, so that the hunger of their hearts and minds is satisfied and they are wholly occupied with Him. This demands preaching that is trinitarian in its exegesis and proclamation. As Piper says,
“If anyone in all the world should be able to say, ‘I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and glory,’ it is the herald of God. Who but preachers will look out over the wasteland of secular culture and say, “Behold your God!”? Who will tell the people that God is great and greatly to be praised? Who will paint for them the landscape of God’s grandeur? Who will remind them of the tales of wonder that God has triumphed over every foe? Who will cry out above every crisis, ‘Your God reigns!’? Who will labor to find words that can carry the ‘gospel of the glory of the blessed God’?
“If God is not supreme in our preaching, where in this world will the people hear about the supremacy of God? If we do not spread a banquet of God’s beauty on Sunday morning, will not our people seek in vain to satisfy their inconsolable longings with the cotton candy pleasures of pastimes and religious hype? If the fountain of living water does not flow from the mountain of God’s sovereign grace on Sunday morning, will not the people hew for themselves cisterns on Monday, broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13)?”
The overriding need is not for more “how-to” sermons but for more of God. Let us, then, resolve that through our preaching, our people will know God more intimately, see him more clearly, live for him more devotedly, worship him more passionately, and love him more deeply so that, with the Psalmist, they cry: “One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in His temple” (Ps. 27:4).
No preaching accomplishes this task better, it seems to me, than preaching the Trinity.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. 1. London: James Clarke & Co., Limited, 1957.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991)
Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.
George, Timothy. “Doctrinal Preaching” in Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, ed. Michael Duduit. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.
Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
Greidanus, Sidney. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.
Jewett, Paul K. God, Creation, & Revelation: A Neo-Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
Johnson, Darrell W. Experiencing the Trinity. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2002.
Lawson, Steven J. Famine in the Land. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003.
Martin, Dana. “God in Three Person” in Best Sermons, vol. 6, ed. James W. Cox (San Francisco: Harper, 1993)
McGrath, Alister E. Understanding the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988.
Packer, J. I. Knowing God. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973, 1975 edition, 16th impression 1987.
Piper, John. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Grand Rapids; Baker Book House, 1990.
Rees, Paul. Stand Up in Praise to God. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960.
Toon, Peter. Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1996)
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