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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:A clear understanding of the Trinity is essential for our salvation
Text:LD 8 + Athanasian Creed articles 1- (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Trinity
 
Preached:2018
Added:2019-07-01
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 100

Hymn 3:1,2

Hymn 4

Hymn 1

Hymn 9

Scripture reading: 1 John 2:18-27

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 8 + Athanasian Creed articles 1-28

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

Imagine for a moment a married couple.  You ask the husband, “What’s your wife like?”  And he says, “I don’t know.  I don’t really know anything about her.”  He’s married to her, he’s technically in a relationship with her, but he doesn’t know anything about her.  You’d say that’s completely bizarre, and maybe even completely unrealistic.  You’d be right.  To be in a relationship with someone, obviously you have to know them.  In order for a relationship to be meaningful, there has to be some depth to what you know about each other. 

In John 17, Christ offered up what we call his high priestly prayer.  In John 17:3, he prayed, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  Eternal life depends on knowing God.  When Christ said that, he meant that those who would have eternal life have to be in a relationship of fellowship with God.  To be in that relationship also means knowing about God. 

Last time when we looked at Lord’s Day 7, we learnt that true faith has three inseparable components.  True faith includes knowledge, assent, and confidence.  We need all three for there to be a vital faith connection to Jesus Christ. 

This afternoon, we’ve come to Lord’s Day 8 and we’re learning about our Triune God as we head into the Apostles’ Creed.  The Apostles’ Creed has a Trinitarian structure.  It’s set up according to the works of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in creation, redemption, and sanctification.  That leads to QA 25 and a brief consideration of the Trinity.  Our Catechism states it in a basic way.  I want to go into more depth on that doctrine with you this afternoon.  Because eternal life depends on knowing God rightly, it’s necessary that we learn as much about him as we can.  We’re going to use the articles of the Athanasian Creed to guide us more deeply into the doctrine of the Trinity.  We’re going to pursue the clear understanding of the Trinity that’s essential for our salvation.

The Athanasian Creed is probably the least well-known of our ecumenical creeds.  We use the Apostles’ Creed nearly every Sunday to profess our faith, so that’s familiar.  The Nicene Creed is a little longer than the Apostles’ Creed, but it’s mostly quite similar.  But the Athanasian Creed is something quite different.  On Lord’s Supper Sundays, we confess our faith in the morning service with the Apostles’ Creed, so sometimes we’ll use the Athanasian Creed in the afternoon on those Sundays.  But that’s still quite rare.  It’s maybe once a year.  Yet it’s one of our creeds and confessions and it’s good that we understand what we confess together there.

The name of the Creed is misleading.  It might make you think that it was written by Athanasius, but it wasn’t, just like the Apostles’ Creed wasn’t written by the apostles.  The truth is no one knows who wrote the Athanasian Creed or when.  It’s still called by the traditional name because Athanasius was the most famous defender of the doctrine of the Trinity.  While we don’t know when it was written, eventually it became a creed of the Church.  It’s been long recognized as a powerful statement of orthodox teaching on the Trinity and also on the two natures of Christ. 

Before we get into the substance of the Creed on the Trinity, let me just say something about a couple of questions that people sometimes raise with this creed.  A couple of times the Athanasian Creed mentions “the catholic faith.”  Let’s be clear that this does not mean “the Roman Catholic faith.”  While the Roman Catholic Church does hold to the Athanasian Creed, the word “catholic” there is used in the sense of universal.  In other words, this is the faith of all true Christians everywhere, in all ages, in every culture. 

The other question has to do with the strong language of the Athanasian Creed.  We confess that you have hold to this doctrine of the Trinity if you’re going to be saved.  If you don’t hold to the doctrine of the Trinity as laid out in the Athanasian Creed, you will “assuredly perish eternally.”  Is it biblical to say it so strongly?  If you look at what we read from 1 John 2, you’ll find that if you deny the Son, if you deny that Jesus is the Christ, if you deny that he is God, then you don’t have the Father either.  If you don’t have the Father, you’re not saved.  Now this is just one element of the doctrine of the Trinity, but we can certainly extend it to the whole doctrine.  To have eternal life, you have to believe in God as he is revealed in his Word.  That means believing in God as Triune.  Any other belief is idolatry and therefore condemned – it doesn’t lead to salvation.  So, while the Athanasian Creed might sound harsh to modern ears, it is biblical.  A clear understanding of the Trinity is essential to salvation.

So let’s get into it.  We’ll start with articles 3-6 of the Creed.  Here we have the basics, almost exactly as we have it in Lord’s Day 8 of the Catechism.  We confess that God is a Trinity, a Triune being, three-in-one.  Scripture teaches us that there are three distinct persons in the one Godhead.  When we say “persons,” let it be clear that this is not saying “human beings.”  A person in this context is a someone, a distinct personality.  These three distinct persons are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Together they are the one God. 

Even though this is the simplest form of the doctrine of the Trinity, it is a mystery.  One plus one plus one equals one.  Three persons equals one God.  No matter what anyone tells you, there is no illustration that can adequately or accurately explain it.  Every illustration of the Trinity will lead you into heresy.  Marva Dawn writes of how she heard a pastor trying to illustrate the Trinity with three shoes – a hiking shoe, a business shoe, and a sports shoe.  He said that with each person of the Trinity, we see God wearing a different shoe.  But that is not the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity – it’s a heresy known as modalism.  The one God appears in different forms or persons.  Loved ones, the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery.  You can’t illustrate it.  You have to leave it the way it’s expressed in the creeds and confessions – three persons in one God.  That’s the best and only way to say it.

So:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God.  The Athanasian Creed adds in article 6 that they have equal glory and co-eternal majesty.  This means the same as what we find later in articles 25 and 26, that in this Trinity there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less.  It’s not as if one of the persons of the Trinity is more God than another.  They are all together equally divine.   They are all together equally the one God we worship.  We worship him as the God who is so much greater than us.  We worship him as the God who is so far beyond our understanding.  We worship him as the God who is so mysterious and so amazing.  Loved ones, let your hearts stand in awe of your Triune God. 

The Creed gives us more reasons for worship as we move deeper into the doctrine with articles 7-14.  Here we confess that the persons of the Trinity have shared attributes.  Attributes are qualities or characteristics.  We describe what God is like by speaking about his attributes.  The Athanasian Creed mentions four divine attributes.

First, we confess that God is uncreate.  Uncreate is an old way of saying “uncreated.”  So no one created God.  God is not a creature.  The Father was not created, the Son was not created, and the Holy Spirit was not created.

Second, we confess that God is infinite.  That means he has no limits.  He is the one who, according to Jeremiah 23:24, fills heaven and earth.  This applies to each person of the Trinity:  the Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, and the Holy Spirit is infinite. 

Third, we confess that God is eternal.  That means more than having no beginning and having no end.  It also means that God exists beyond time.  Creatures like us are subject to time, but God is not.  He exists above and beyond.  We say that he transcends time.  And that is true as well of each of the three persons in the Godhead.  Think about that for a moment.  We live in time, subject to it.  But God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he is not bound to time, to succession of moments.  He exists over and beyond that.  Isn’t that an awesome thing about God? 

The last attribute is God’s almighty power.  We sometimes call that omnipotence.  God has the power to do anything that is in accordance with his nature.  In Genesis 18:14, God said to Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”  No, God is almighty.  The Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, and the Holy Spirit is almighty.

Now these are only four of the divine attributes.  There are more and you can find some of them listed in article 1 of the Belgic Confession.  And every single divine attribute belongs to each of the persons of the Trinity.  Yet, look at this:  the three possessing these attributes doesn’t take away from the fact that there is only one God who has these attributes.  This is why the Athanasian Creed says that there not three uncreates, three infinites, three eternals, or three almighties.  There are three persons in one God.

Articles 15-20 take us down a similar route.  Only now we’re confessing that the persons of the Trinity have shared names.  Scripture calls each of them God.  In John 17, Jesus calls upon the Father and says that he is “the only true God.”  In Titus 2:13, Paul writes about believers “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.”  In Acts 5, Peter first says to Ananias that he lied to the Holy Spirit, and then later that he lied to God – making it clear that the Holy Spirit bears the name of God too.  All three are God. 

All three are also Lord – which is to say, master or owner.  The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is Lord.  Each of the three distinct persons is called Lord in the Bible.  For example in 2 Corinthians 3:17, we read that “the Lord is the Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit is Lord. 

So each person of the Trinity bears divine names.  But that doesn’t mean that there are three Gods or three Lords.  No, the Bible teaches us quite clearly that there is one God and one Lord.  1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”  So up to this point in the Athanasian Creed, the stress has been on the mystery of the Threeness and oneness of God.  To have a correct doctrine of the Trinity we have to maintain both.  God is both three distinct persons and one God.

Now with articles 21-28 we start moving more towards the deep end of Trinitarian doctrine.  These articles are about how we speak about the relations between the three persons of the Trinity.  The persons are related or connected to one another in different ways and we need to be clear about those relations. 

With regard to the Father, we confess that he is from none.  His personhood does not derive in any way from the other two persons of the Trinity.  As we noted in article 8 of the Creed, he is not created.  But he is also not begotten, which is to say that he does not relate to any other person as a Son to a Father.

In article 22, the Son is from the Father alone.  That means his personhood derives from the Father.  Like the Father, the Son is not created.  He is not a creature, but the Creator.  He is the one through whom all things were made according to John 1:3.  We confess that the proper way to speak about his relationship to the Father is to describe him as “begotten.”  “Begotten” is a biblical term.  You find it used of the Son of God in Psalm 2 and other places.  This word “begotten” simply describes the relationship between a father and son.  A father begets a son.  Now exactly what that means within the context of the Trinity is another mystery.  We can say what it doesn’t mean.  It doesn’t mean that there was some kind of spiritual reproduction within the Godhead.  It doesn’t mean that there was a time when the Son didn’t exist and then he came into existence through begetting.  But to try and positively define what begetting means is going to be impossible.  It’s impossible because Scripture doesn’t tell us.  Scripture simply uses this language that we can understand to an extent, and then leaves it at that. 

We find ourselves in a similar place with the Holy Spirit in article 23.  The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son.  So his personhood derives from the other two persons.  Like the Son and the Father, the Holy Spirit was not made or created.  With the Father and the Son, he was there in the beginning at creation – Genesis 1:2 mentions him, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”  He was not begotten either.  Instead, the Holy Spirit has a unique relationship to both the Father and the Son.  That relationship is described with the word “proceeding.”  He proceeds from them.  Now again, if you ask exactly what that means, we run up against a wall.  We have a word to describe the relationship, and we’ve excluded what that relationship doesn’t involve and doesn’t mean, but to lay it all out in positive terms is just not doable.  We can’t do it, because the Bible doesn’t give us the insights to do it.  All we know is both the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit, and so we can say that he proceeds from the Father and the Son. 

Because there are these unique relationships between the persons, we must stress again that there are three distinct persons.  There is only one Father who is from none, there is only one Son begotten of the Father, and only one Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son.  These three are co-eternal, co-equal, to be worshipped together as the one only true God.

As it says in article 27, “both trinity in unity and unity in trinity must be worshipped.”  What that means is that we must worship each of the persons individually, but we also worship them together as the one true God.  That is the practical outworking of the doctrine laid out here.  And when the Athanasian Creed speaks here about worship, that’s speaking about our songs of worship, but also our prayers.  Prayer is also an act of worship, in fact, singing praises is a form of prayer, an intensified form of prayer.  So in our songs and prayers, we worship God as Triune.  We worship God taken together as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We do that explicitly with some of the Trinitarian hymns we have, like Hymn 3 and Hymn 4.  In many of the Psalms, we’re also addressing God as the Triune God, as Yahweh or the LORD.  But we can and should also at times worship the persons individually.  For that purpose, we have hymns addressed to God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  Similarly, at times we pray to God taken together as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But at other times, we may also pray to our Lord Jesus, or to the Holy Spirit.

It’s important that we have a clear understanding of the Trinity.  According to article 28, if you want to be saved, you have to think of the Trinity in the ways laid out in the Athanasian Creed.  To have a meaningful relationship with someone, you have to know about them, and that’s what this has been all about this afternoon.

But there’s also another reason why it’s important to spend some time on this teaching.  The reason is why the Athanasian Creed almost certainly came into existence in the first place.  It’s because there were false teachers perverting what the Bible says about God.  There were people like Arius who taught that Jesus was just a man and not God.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses today teach the same thing.  There was Sabellius who said that there was only one God, but he had three different names:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  That’s a type of modalism, which I mentioned earlier.  That teaching is still around today too. 

There are Pentecostal churches which hold to the heresy of modalism.  For example, there is the United Pentecostal Church.  On their website, they have a statement of faith and it says, “There is one God, who has revealed Himself as our Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit.”  God reveals himself in three different ways, as Father, as Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit.  That is not orthodox Christianity.  That’s modalism and it’s a heresy.  It doesn’t speak about God as three distinct persons, but one person revealing himself in three ways.  If you hold on to that belief, that’s not the true Christian faith which leads to salvation. 

By the way, apart from carefully reading a statement of faith, there is a sure fire way to detect a modalist church.  Faithful churches will always do baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  But a modalist church will baptize only in the name of Jesus.  They do that because they say that the name of Jesus is a name of God.  If you baptize in Jesus’ name, you baptize in the name of God.  That’s contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture in Matthew 28:19-20.  So beware and don’t be deceived:  if you hear of a church baptizing only in Jesus’ name, they’re quite likely holding to the heresy of modalism. 

Brothers and sisters, nothing is more important than knowing God.  And we need to know him rightly.  The Athanasian Creed is right:  it’s essential for our salvation.  Believe it or not, in this afternoon’s sermon we’ve only scratched the surface of the doctrine of the Trinity.  There is much more that could be said.  It may seem like we’ve done deep, and perhaps we’ve gone deeper than we have in the past, but you can actually go even deeper.  While there is mystery when it comes to who God is, there is a lot that has been revealed in the Bible too.  We ought to pursue that.  We ought to seek to grow in our knowledge of God.  After all to know him is eternal life.  AMEN. 

PRAYER

Holy God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

We worship you as the three persons in one God.  We worship you as the uncreated, infinite, eternal, and almighty God.  We worship you, Father, Son, and Spirit, as both God and Lord.  We worship you Father, for your work in creation.  We worship you Lord Jesus, for your work in our redemption.  We worship you Holy Spirit for your work in our sanctification.  Triune God, please help us to know you better from your Word.  Please help us to grow in our understanding of who you are and in our relationship with you.  Work in us a deeper awe of who you are, so that we might worship you with ardent zeal.                                                        

            




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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