Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
June 12, 2022
Once a year on Trinity Sunday the Church confesses the Athanasian Creed. You’re familiar with the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed was confessed when you were Baptized. You were taught it in Catechism Class. It should be a part of your daily prayers at home along with the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. You’re familiar with the Nicene Creed. The Church confesses the Nicene Creed every Divine Service where Holy Communion is offered. If you attend Church regularly, you probably don’t need to look at your hymnal to recite the Nicene Creed with the congregation. Yet, the Athanasian Creed is different. We don’t say it too often. It’s long. And it’s repetitive. And with its tedious language and assertion that whoever does not believe it whole and undefiled will perish eternally, it makes some people uncomfortable.
But in fact, the Athanasian Creed is a wonderful Confession, which every Christian should hold dear. It is named for St. Athanasius, a fourth century Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, who was a staunch defender of the teaching of the Holy Trinity. Athanasius suffered much for his defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, frequently being exiled and unjustly removed from his position as bishop. Yet, the Church holds Athanasius in high esteem for his defense of the truth. Some might think that Athanasius was deposed and exiled so frequently, because he was a cantankerous old curmudgeon, who didn’t know how to compromise. But in fact, Athanasius suffered so readily for the doctrine of the Trinity, because he was so devoted to the truth of Scripture and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone saves.
Over the first several centuries of the New Testament Church, the Church produced and edited a number of Creeds, articulating its teaching of the Holy Trinity. This has caused many to assert that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented by the Church, that it evolved over time. But that is not so. The Church continued to articulate and clarify the teaching of the Trinity, because this teaching has been so viciously attacked. And the teaching of the Trinity has been so viciously attacked, because it conflicts with human reason. How can God be one, yet there be three persons. Either there are three gods or the three persons are not all God, or the three persons are not three persons. This is how human reason thinks. But Scripture says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33) It is not our job to judge the teaching of Holy Scripture or determine whether what God teaches in it is rational. Rather, it is our job to hear the Word of God and keep it. It should not surprise us that there are things about God and his ways, which are past finding out. To have faith does not mean that you understand everything. To have faith means that you trust what God says, even when you do not understand it.
The Athanasian Creed expands on the teaching of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed. It teaches that there is one God, yet three persons. and that one of these three persons, who is God, became man and suffered, died, and rose for our salvation. The Athanasian Creed calls itself the catholic faith, which might surprise some Lutherans. But the word catholic simply comes from two Greek words meaning, “according to the whole.” This means that the Athanasian Creed claims to be the faith that has always at all places and at all times of the Christian Church been taught. So, even we Lutherans can call ourselves catholic, because we believe our faith is the faith passed on by God himself through the prophets and apostles.
The teaching of the Trinity is catholic, not because it was invented by the Church, but because it is taught in Holy Scripture. There is only one God. Deuteronomy 6:4 states, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Yet, Scripture also makes clear that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Yet, the Father is not the Son. Jesus tells us that the Father gave his Son to die for us (John 3:16). And the Father is not the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us that the Father sends us the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). And the Holy Spirit is not the Son. Jesus tells his disciples that he will send them the Holy Spirit (John 16:17). So, you cannot say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the same person, because Scripture makes clear that they are distinct from one another.
Yet, there is only one God. And the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is God. The Father is not greater than the Son or the Holy Spirit. Neither is one before or after another. None is mightier than another. All three are equally infinite, eternal, and almighty. In fact, they share one substance. That means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is each one-hundred percent God. Yet, there remains only one God.
This teaching is incomprehensible, yet it is clearly taught in Scripture. If you read Scripture, you will find that there is only one God. And you will find that the Father is God, that he is infinite, eternal, and almighty. You will find the same for the Son and the Holy Spirit. And you will find that though they are one, they are distinct, just as the Old Testament calls both the LORD and the Angel of the LORD God (Genesis 22:11-12; Exodus 3:2-6; Judges 13:21-22). This is why the angels in Isaiah 6 cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy, LORD God of Sabaoth.” The LORD is thrice Holy for his three persons. This is why St. Paul writes, ‘For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36) There are three Hims, yet there is only one Him. This is why Jesus says, “We speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen.” (John 3:11) Who is we? The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus commands the Church to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). The only reason to deny the teaching of the Holy Trinity, is because it offends our human reason. Well, let God be true and every man a liar. To God alone be glory. His ways are past finding out. Yet, he has revealed in his Holy Word, that he is three in one!
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is so important, not simply because it is right. You can be wrong about things and still be saved. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is so important, because only the Triune God saves. Those who deny the Holy Trinity, deny the God of the Bible. And those who deny the Holy Trinity, invariably deny that a sinner is saved by grace, that is, as a free gift through faith alone. Yet, those who hold fast to the teaching of the Trinity hold fast to the Gospel by which the Trinity saves.
Only God the Father sent his Son to save sinners. No other god could or would do that. And the Son he sent was not an honorary son. God didn’t send an angel. He didn’t send any created being. He sent him, who was from the beginning with him, him by whom all things were made and without whom nothing was made (John 1:1-3, 14). Our God sent God to take on our human nature, to fulfill the Law in our place, and to suffer and die in our stead. This is why St. Paul is able to say that they crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Corinthians 2:8) and why St. Peter was able to tell the Jews in Jerusalem, “You killed the Author of Life!” (Acts 3:15), and how St. Paul again is able to declare that God purchased the Church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Now how can the Lord of Glory die? How can they kill the Author of life? How can God have blood to shed? Because, the Son, who is true God became man. God the Son is united in one person with human flesh, so the man who died and rose for our sins is indeed our God.
This of course gives us confidence in our salvation! Are you troubled by your sins? Do you lament with the Psalmist, “For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.”? What is greater than God’s own blood? The Triune God has granted you certainty of salvation through Jesus Christ, the God-man, who has died and is risen for you.
Although the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is taught throughout the Old Testament, it is most clearly taught in the New Testament, because Jesus reveals the Trinity to us. We see this in Jesus’ Baptism when the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and the Father calls him his beloved Son from heaven. We hear it in Jesus’ teaching of the work of the Father and the Holy Spirit and in his command to baptize in that name. Jesus tells us that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). We can only know the Father’s love for us through Jesus whom he has sent to die for us.
The divinity of the Holy Spirit is of great comfort to us as well. Do you have difficulty believing? That is not surprising, because it is in fact impossible for you to believe. You are born of the flesh. That which is born of flesh is flesh. If you are to believe in the Holy Trinity, then you must be born again. And God has sent the Holy Spirit to cause this new birth in you. When you are baptized, you are born again of water and the Spirit. God did not send an angel to try to convert your sinful flesh. He hasn’t sent you a mere helper to guide your way. God has sent God, the Holy Spirit, to cause you to be born again after the image of Christ, so that you might be a new person, washed free from sin. This should give you confidence to believe and something to throw against all doubt. You cannot believe, but the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word of Christ certainly can make you believe. He is God. He is all powerful.
Finally, some are troubled by the words of the Athanasian Creed, which say, “At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.” This might sound un-Lutheran, but it is not. This is what Jesus says in John chapter 5, “For an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (vss. 28-29) But neither Jesus nor the Athanasian Creed says that those who have done good earn their salvation, but rather, those who enter into salvation have done good. Jesus also says in John chapter 5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (vs. 24) But it is important to remember that it is impossible to do good unless you are born again of the Spirit. And if you are born again of the Spirit, then you will do good. This does not mean that you will earn your way to salvation, but rather that God is pleased with you for Christ’s sake and the Holy Spirit is working good through you.
On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate the God, revealed in Scripture, who alone saves us by his grace. He alone has the power to save. He alone made the plan to save us. And he alone has revealed that plan to us. In the Athanasian Creed, we see a beautiful summary of the Christian faith, and how our God is invincible to save us.