The True God Revealed
Trinity Sermon 2007| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| St. John 3:1-15
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” St. John 3:5-6
Jesus teaches Nicodemus that he must be born again. In explaining this new birth, Jesus refers to two things. First, he talks about Holy Baptism. Second, he refers to his crucifixion. In being born again we come to know God. The true God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – is revealed in Holy Baptism and in the crucifixion of Jesus.
We are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized the Triune God was clearly revealed. The Father’s voice spoke from heaven. The Son stood in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit descended on the Son like a dove. When we are baptized the Holy Trinity is revealed to us. His name and our name are joined together and in this way we come into fellowship with God and he with us. This is by divine grace. It is not by human strength.
When I was born I had nothing to say about it. God chose to give me birth. And likewise, when I was born again, it was not I who brought it about. God chose to give me new birth. The Christian Church has always baptized babies. The main argument against infant baptism is that we can, at least in part, be born again by an act of our own will. But this is false doctrine. Just as we cannot bring about our physical birth we cannot bring about our spiritual birth. When we are born physically – of the flesh – God uses the agency of our parents. When we are born again spiritually – of the Spirit – God uses the agency of Holy Baptism. In either case it is God who brings about the birth.
The new birth is the birth to faith. Faith doesn’t reside within us unless God himself elicits it. We do not by nature trust in God. By nature we trust in idols. This is why God must place idolatry at the top of the list of what is forbidden. The First Commandment forbids idolatry. Every commandment that follows shows how idolatry is carried out. False faith leads to false lives. The true faith comes from receiving the forgiveness of sins and being joined in fellowship to the true God. This is what baptism does for us. Jesus says it is a birth of water and the Spirit. The faith of our baptism is faith in the true God. The true God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We can never get closer to God than we were when he baptized us and put his name upon us. The Holy Trinity took up residence in us and made us his holy children.
As we confess in the Athanasian Creed, it is necessary for salvation that we hold to the Trinitarian faith. It is not necessary for salvation that we fully understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity. We confess that there is but one God. There aren’t many different and competing gods. There isn’t one god for this blessing and another god for that blessing. There has always been only one God. We confess that the Father is God. He has begotten the Son from eternity. He has always been the Father of the Son. We confess that the Son is God. He is eternally begotten of the Father. He has always been the Son of the Father. We confess that the Holy Spirit is God. He proceeds from the Father and the Son from eternity. He has always proceeded from the Father and the Son. These three persons are not three separate gods. They are three distinct persons. A person possesses a will and the ability to act on his will. A person isn’t just a power or a force, like the wind or gravity. The three persons of the Holy Trinity are not three parts of God. God has no parts. Each person is fully God and yet they are not three gods but one God.
Since the Triune God is the only true God the Church must confess clearly that all other gods are idols and should not be worshipped. The only God who is truly God and to be worshipped is the Holy Trinity. We worship the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We worship him in whose name we have been baptized and we worship no other. All other gods are idols. The Church must say so. It is not religious bigotry but true faith that confesses the Holy Trinity as God to the exclusion of all other gods. We Christians are required to reject all false gods, including the gods of the Muslims, the Jews, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unitarians, and all others who deny the Holy Trinity and deny that Jesus of Nazareth is true God and true man.
After Jesus explained to Nicodemus that only those born of the Holy Spirit can see the kingdom of God, he added: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” Jesus is the Son of Man. He is also the Son of God. He joins heaven to earth. He opens heaven to us here on earth. He is in heaven and on earth at the same time. He is with the Father and the Holy Spirit enjoying the eternal unity that the three persons of the Godhead have enjoyed from eternity. And he has joined us here below where he was lifted up on the cross. In baptism we are united with the Triune God. At Christ’s crucifixion, the Triune God is clearly revealed. The love of the Father is revealed in the suffering of his Son. Christ’s suffering is the forgiveness of all our sins. The power of that suffering is the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Triune God will not share his glory with another god. He is glorified in the faith of his children. Faith is not a generic kind of human dependence on the divine, as if there is a one size fits all kind of faith with each person of faith supplying whatever specific details are necessary. No, faith is the gift of God. It is the greatest gift of God. It involves knowledge of what God teaches, but it is more than that and it isn’t lost when we become forgetful. It involves assent to the truth of what God teaches, but it is much more than that and it isn’t lost when we lose our ability to express our agreement with God. Faith looks to Jesus. It looks to Jesus lifted up. The children of Israel who were dying of venomous poison were saved by looking at the bronze serpent raised up on a pole. Christians are saved by looking to Christ raised up on the cross. As Jesus said:
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
It is as Jesus is lifted up that we believe in him. It is as Jesus is nailed to the cross and suffers and dies for us that the Holy Trinity, the God of our baptism, the only true God who alone lives in the unapproachable light, who alone has immortality, is known, grasped, and received.
Look at Jesus lifted up on the cross and who do you see? You see God the Father. You see his love in all its purity and power. What kind of love is it that places the sin of all sinners on the Son he has loved from eternity to eternity? It is a love greater than words can express.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
Look at Jesus lifted up on the cross and who do you see? You see God the Son. The man who is dying for you is the eternal God.
Look at Jesus lifted up on the cross and who do you see? You see God the Holy Spirit. The washing of your baptism receives its power from the suffering where Jesus bore your sin in its entirety. When the Holy Spirit forgives you, comforts you, teaches you, guides you into the truth, confirms you in your faith, induces you toward holy desires, changes your will to conform to his own, and brings you the peace that passes all understanding, he does so by fixing your faith firmly upon the suffering and dying of Jesus. So look! See Jesus die for you. There is the power of the Holy Ghost in your life.
The Triune God is in the washing of Holy Baptism and in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. There the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is revealed. The cross avails for all. The washing of Holy Baptism avails for all. So there I can find my God, my own personal Savior, the one who has known and loved me from eternity and who will keep and sustain me in the face of all trials, temptations, doubts, fears, and sufferings.
Saint Athanasius suffered and was maligned. In the face of unbelievable opposition both from ecclesiastical and secular authorities St. Athanasius stood firm in his defense of the biblical, catholic, and orthodox teaching of the Holy Trinity. He didn’t write the Creed we confessed today, but it is named after him. It was through men like St. Athanasius that God preserved for his church the saving truth. We thank God for raising him up when he was needed. The Athanasian Creed is not only a work of art with poetic beauty and grace. It is also a faithful confession of the mystery of the Holy Trinity that we, with the saints of old, confess as our own personal confession of the true and saving faith.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can we confess the saving faith and live lives according to our confession. This is why we live from our baptism. And we live looking at Jesus lifted up. This is how we retain our Christian identity in the face of a godless and dying culture. This is where we learn to love one another. We can’t figure out the movements of the Holy Spirit and we don’t need to. But we know that his will is to keep us steadfast in the faith of our baptism until we die. As we keep coming to where that faith is preached and confessed the Holy Spirit will confirm in our hearts the testimony of God.