The Holy Trinity
June 15, 2014
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. Matthew 28:16-20
My father enjoyed telling that rhyme to us when we were little and we enjoyed listening to it. Dad was not one to trivialize spiritual matters or to make light of heaven and hell, so it was always a bit surprising that he would tell us that rhyme. Now, nearly two decades after he has died and gone to heaven, I think I have figured it out. Dad wanted to teach us how to become good little theologians. Don’t try to fly up to heaven. You can’t. Don’t try to figure out God. You can’t. Don’t think that you can find God by your own spiritual powers. You can’t. God must reveal himself to you. That is the only way you will ever know him. God must come to you as he chooses to come. There and only there can you meet him, know him, trust in him, love him, and serve him.
We Christians worship one God in trinity and trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. The Holy Trinity is God. God is the Holy Trinity. There is no God but the Father who has begotten the Son from eternity and from whom the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds. There is no God but the Son who is begotten of the Father from eternity and from whom the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds. There is no God but the Holy Spirit who from eternity proceeds from the Father and the Son. Yet there are not three gods; but one God.
We did not invent this God. We know that God is triune because of the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures. We confess that God is triune in the creeds: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian. We know that God is triune because God tells us he is in the words of the Holy Scriptures.
Don’t be misled about this. This is very important. We believe in the God who wrote the Bible and we believe what the Bible says about him. We may not teach anything about God that is not taught in the Holy Scriptures. How did God lead the early church to confess his trinity of persons and his unity of substance? He did so by guiding them through the clear Scriptures and opening up to them the plain meaning of the biblical text!
All Christians are Trinitarian. Jesus sent out the disciples with the command to teach or make disciples of all nations. How? By baptizing and by teaching. Baptizing and teaching go together. When God baptizes us he lays claim to us by putting his name upon us. We don’t choose God’s name for him. He is our Father. We are his children. Thus, his name comes before our name. His name is who he is. As he said to Moses, “I am who I am.” His name is who he is. Therefore, when Jesus says to his ministers that they are to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit he is saying that God is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The name of God identifies God.
That God would identify himself by name and then join his name to us means that we are his children. Holy Baptism is how God makes us his children. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. We are not baptized in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier. We are baptized in the name that God chooses; not the name that we choose. That’s because Jesus, who is God in the flesh, is the One doing the baptizing. We know this by what he says to his ministers that he sends out. He says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them and teaching them.” He is laying claim to all authority as he is sending out his disciples to baptize and to teach. This means that when Christ’s ministers baptize us in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Christ is the one who is doing it. They do what they do by his authority and he has all authority in heaven and on earth.
God baptized you. True enough, he used the hands and the voice of a man. But it was God who did the baptizing. And note specifically which person of the Holy Trinity instituted Holy Baptism. It was God the Son, who became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. The God-man instituted the baptism by which the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is placed upon us. This is significant. It means that if you want to know the Father and the Holy Spirit you must look to the man Jesus.
I can’t figure out God and neither can you. If you have ever read or listened to Jehovah’s Witness propaganda against our Christian religion you may have noticed how strongly they attack our belief in the Triune God. They argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is impossible to understand whereas their god is easy to understand. Perhaps that’s a reasonable argument, but it’s a false one. We Christians don’t claim that you must be smart to be a Christian or to know God. That God is three distinct persons and one divine essence is not a theological problem to be figured out by super smart theologians. In fact, our faith in the Triune God is very simple. We look to Jesus on the cross dying for our sins and there we see the Holy Trinity. There is the Father’s love. There is the Son’s forgiveness. There is the Spirit’s power.
Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him. Jesus is God. He always had all authority in heaven and on earth. But according to his human nature he humbled himself. He didn’t always fully use the divine powers that his divine nature gave his human nature. “If you are the Son of God,” taunted the devil and the mockers beneath the cross. He was. Yet he humbled himself unto death, offered up his life for us, fulfilled the law for us, endured the guilt and the punishment of sin for us, and took all our sin away. Our God and brother did this. And Jesus is humbled no longer. He is exalted and exercises all authority for our benefit. His baptism has authority. It makes us into Christians. His teaching has authority. So we hold on to everything he said.
During the early centuries of the Church there were many controversies about who God is and specifically who Jesus is. The Bible had always taught that God is triune. Moses, who wrote the first five books of the Bible, taught that God is triune. In the very first words of the Bible the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit are identified. In Genesis chapter 18 God appears to Abraham as three men. Isaiah’s vision of God lifted up in the temple is accompanied by three holies. Three is the number of God throughout the Holy Scriptures.
The true deity and true humanity of Christ are also taught in the Bible from cover to cover. From the very first messianic prophecy of the Old Testament recorded in Genesis 3:15 just after our first parents’ fall into sin, to the end of the Revelation of Saint John, the Savior is identified as true God and true man. The man Jesus, who promised to be with his disciples until the end of time, is the omnipresent God. By a wonderful personal union of his divine and human natures, Jesus is true God, begotten from his Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary. He is our Lord and he is present with us until the end of time. His presence is more than that of a good luck charm or a sentimental reminder. Whenever his holy teaching is taught to those who are baptized by his command, there he is.
St. Athanasius was a great defender of the trinity of God and the true deity and humanity of Christ. The Creed that the church has named after him stands as one of the most beautiful confessions of the Christian faith ever written. During the early centuries of the church, these two holy mysteries were under constant attack. And so it is today. We defend these mysteries because our very salvation depends on their truth. If God did not become your brother then you have no Savior. What God did not assume he did not redeem. If God assumed your humanity and did as a man what his law required of you then you have a Redeemer who has set you free from the threatening perils of your sins. If Jesus is not your God and your brother, he is just like any other teacher. All he can do is teach you and then leave it up to you to apply the teaching.
But Jesus rescues us from our sins and delivers us from death by his baptism and his teaching. This is how he can promise, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” His teaching is life-giving. This is why he wants everything he taught the original ministers of his church to be taught to everyone who belongs to his church.
When God shows himself to us as he really is, so that we can worship the unity in trinity and the trinity in unity, he shows us how much he loves us. He doesn’t leave it up to us to figure him out. We can’t. When he puts his name upon us in Holy Baptism he forgives us all our sins. That forgiveness is not just a onetime pronouncement on the day we are baptized. It is a river of grace flowing through our entire lives, keeping us pure and holy by washing us in the blood of Jesus every single day. In our baptism we claim the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit as our God and he claims us, now and forever.
Rolf D. Preus