‘Glory be to God the Father’, sings the church, ‘glory be to God the Son, glory be to God the Spirit, great Jehovah, Three in One’. What is this? we ask—praise to three gods? No, praise to one God in three persons. This is the God whom Christians worship—God in three persons. At the heart of the Christian faith is the revealed mystery of the Trinity.
Over the last FEW weeks we’ve been considering this revealed mystery. There is one God: the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God. Each of these persons share the divine nature and are fully God. Yet the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Holy Spirit. There are three persons, irreducibly different, co-eternal and co-equal, forever existing in perfect unity.
There is no doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity is the glory of the Christian faith. So if by some chance three weeks ago you were not convinced, I hope now that you are convinced. For God’s essential nature is one of trinity (the immanent trinity), and he operates in this world according to this divine pattern (the economic trinity). And so, says one commentator, ‘the dogma of the Holy Trinity is not only a doctrinal form, but a living Christian experience which is constantly developing […] There is no true Christian life, apart from knowledge of the Trinity’ (Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church).
This is why we labour to understand this doctrine. For there is no true Christian life apart from knowledge of the Trinity. There is no true life outside our knowledge of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is not remote and obscure, rather he is personal and knowable. He knows Paul and Winsome and Mary and Bob and Martin and Joan. He knows all of us. The triune God thrusts himself into our painful world and says, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6:35).
The doctrine of the Trinity leads us to praise God. ‘Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, unto ages of ages. Amen’. And as we praise God it is natural that we want to know more about him so we can praise him further, and this leads us back to theology. And so theology and doxology are never far from one another as we join with the heavenly hosts, ‘Great and marvellous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed’ (Rev 15:3–4).
It’s therefore a tragedy that many in the Christian community think about the Trinity more as a mathematical problem than the heartbeat of the Christian life. There are two main reasons for this situation, the first, the broader tradition in which we find ourselves, and second, the pressure of contemporary worship.
If you flunked out at school, consider yourself back in school again —this time for a short history lesson. We are part of the Western church and the Trinity has been sadly neglected in our tradition. There are historical reasons for this situation. Most theologians point to Augustine in the 4th century who stressed the unity of God over and above the diversity of God in three persons. While people are good at relating to other people, we are naturally not so good at relating to ‘a thing’. And the fruit of Augustine’s thinking was the portrayal of God as more a single, impersonal essence rather than as persons we can relate to.
Augustine also conveyed the idea that the Spirit was the bond of love between the Father and the Son. As though the Spirit was the glue that held the Father and the Son together. This analogy tends to downplay the importance of the Spirit. And so the downgrading of the Spirit, the emphasis on God as an impersonal essence, meant that the Trinity became increasingly divorced from the life and worship of the Western Church.
This is the broad tradition we have inherited.
Now some of us maybe surprised to hear this assessment. For surely the great joy of being Christian is knowing and enjoying God. I’m pleased to say that for many of us God is anything other than remote. We love him and read his Word and relate to him in prayer. So Augustine has failed to influence us in this area.
But we are not representative of all the Western Church. Even here, perhaps, there are some of us with a remote view of God. One doesn’t need to travel too far to find people who relate to God more as a callous schoolmaster, someone more as one to be feared rather than someone who can be known at a personal level. Even more so in Europe, where scholars such as Ulrich Luz lament the spiritual vacuum. He says that people ‘want someone or something […] to touch them and give them authority or clear direction in life and provide them with a hope that transcends this hopeless world’ (U. Luz, Matthew in History, 12). The broader religious trend in Europe is to see God as impersonal and remote from the experiences of daily life.
Augustine’s thinking has not left us completely untouched. Jim Packer in his well known book Knowing God says that the doctrine of the Trinity is often treated by Christians as though it ‘is a piece of theological lumber that we can get on very happily without. Our practice certainly seems to reflect this assumption’ (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, chapter 6). We are not as trinitarian in our thinking as we ought to be. Yet this doctrine should be the engine room of our lives because the Father made us alive in Christ, and it is the Spirit who strengthens and sustains us.
There’s another reason why the Trinity is on the outskirts of our thinking. John Armstrong is the editor of a journal called Reformation and Revival. In 2001, he wrote these words as he mulled over the state of the present day church:
We have actually come to think that the Bible is primarily about us. We then reason that the church is also about us. Surely the future then must be about us. Indeed, everything finally relates to us. We are the consummate “me generation.” God is there for us!
What is the answer to this colossal aberration? I answer, without hesitation, the recovery of the mystery and wonder of the triune God of the Bible. This recovery must inevitably begin with a healthy dose and thoughtful understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity because this is who God really is.
(John H. Armstrong, ‘The Trinity: What and Why?’, Reformation and Revival 10:3 (2001): 11)
Trends in contemporary worship are by-and-large about me and my religious experience. This is not surprising as Christian worship has been influenced by postmodernism which is all about ‘me’—my story, my life, my feelings, my wants, my needs, my happiness. God is there for me, and it doesn’t matter whether we think about him as one or three, as long as he’s there for me.
So we discuss the Trinity with a sense of urgency. We have never denied the doctrine, its clearly in the Bible and its re-iterated in our Presbyterian confession of faith. But perhaps we have failed in the area of serious doctrinal reflection. We need to think about the Trinity and consider how it shapes our worship, our mission and the daily challenges of the Christian life.
So we come to consider the pattern for trinitarian worship. I don’t mean just what we do in church, but worship as a pattern of life. And what we do as a pattern of life, we do together at church on Sunday.
The first point is that only God determines how we can relate to him. God in three persons grants us access to himself. And he alone sets the ways and the means that we are to relate to him and approach him. And so our worship of God is grounded in who he is and what he has done.
At his discretion, God has chosen to reveal himself to us. He reveals his name which is above every other name. In the Ancient Near East, the one who names has authority over the one named. However, only God ever names God. Only he has the right to name himself, for as the Creator he is not subject to anything in all creation. So God reveals his name in Ex 3, the covenant name by which we know him and relate to him. Indeed, it is only by the gracious action of YHWH, who breaks into our darkness and death and who arouses us to new life—it is only this way that we can ever have fellowship him.
For our salvation, we see God as Father, God as Son, and God as Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament there are very elaborate patterns which prescribe how Israel can approach God. The tabernacle with its careful construction, the priests, the sacrifices, life as a clean and unclean person, ‘be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy’ (Lev 19:2). But in the new covenant, the Father sends the Son ‘for us and for our salvation’ (John 5, 10, 17). Then the Father, together with the Son, sent the Holy Spirit to indwell the church. The Spirit’s role to is to speak of Christ the Son.
So here is an underlying principle (slide 3a): God’s actions arise from the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. So the Father sent Jesus into the world. Jesus announced that no-one comes to the Father except through the Son. The Son bore our sins on the tree. And the Spirit takes the words and activity of the Son and applies them to this world. Cyril of Alexandria summarises this principle for us, ‘All things proceed from the Father, but wholly through the Son in the Spirit’.
Our response to one God in three persons is the basis for Christian worship. ‘For God so loved the world’. How do respond to that? ‘That he sent his only Son’. How do you respond to that? ‘So that whoever believes in the Son will not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). How do you respond to that? ‘And because ‘you are sons (and daughters), God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!”’ (Gal 4:6). How do you respond to that?
(slide 3b) Here is the foundation for the church’s worship: by the Holy Spirit, through Christ, and to the Father.
By the Holy Spirit: it is the Spirit who creates a desire to pray and worship God. It is he who brings us to faith and it is he who sustains us in a life of faithful obedience. It is he who leads us into truth. It is he who sanctifies and ministers to us in our weakness.
Through Christ: our access to the Father is exclusively through his Son. The Spirit directs us to the Son because no-one comes to the Father except through the Son. Now that Jesus has offered the one, perfect sacrifice for all time, we have access to the throne room of God. We can approach the throne of grace with confidence, knowing that our great High Priest is there to intercede for us. We know that Jesus experienced the struggles of a life in a fallen world, and so he sympathises with us in our weakness (Letham, The Holy Trinity, 414).
To the Father: Jesus introduces us to the same relationship that he has with his Heavenly Father. Now, like Jesus, we can call God ‘our Father’. This happened because Jesus breaks down the distance between us and God. Jesus has gone into his Father’s house and prepared a room for us. He enables us to fellowship with the Father and know life to the fullest.
Here is the pattern for trinitarian worship: by the Holy Spirit, through Christ, and to the Father. We must not confuse the Trinity. We must not blur these roles. In the words of the Athanasian Creed, ‘And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance’ (close slide 3).
Donald Macleod points out that since all the persons of the Trinity are in the fullest sense divine ‘they must have an equal place in our adoration’. But an equal place in our adoration does not mean that the three persons must be worshipped the same way. Rather, each person must be worshipped according to their role in salvation. So we worship the Father because he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. We worship the Father because he planned our salvation from eternity and at the right time he sent his Son into the world. We worship the Father because he gave his Son up for us. We must worship the Father on these terms.
Then we worship the Son who willingly ‘for us and for our salvation’ was made flesh, who submitted himself to life in a fallen world, who trod a path of lowliness, temptation and suffering which led to his cruel death on a cross. We worship the Son for his glorious resurrection, for his ascension to the right hand of the Father, for his continual intercession for us, and for his future return to judge the living and the dead and to complete our salvation.
And then we worship the Holy Spirit, who gives life and breath to all, who grants us the gift of faith, who sustains us through the troubles of life, and who testifies to the Son. In his book, Shared Life, Macleod is puzzled as to why there are only two instances in the New Testament of people worshipping the Holy Spirit. This troubles him (and it should trouble the charismatic movement) who find it easier to say that, despite the evidence, the Spirit should be directly worshipped and glorified. Whilst the Spirit should be eternally praised for his part in our salvation, yet the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and it is his role to deflect attention to the Son, for the Son provides the only way we can enter into fellowship with the Father.
So lets now consider some areas where the Trinity shapes the way we approach God.
The first area is music. We need more trinitarian hymns. It’s pleasing that our Rejoice! hymn book has a section on the Trinity—but it only contains six hymns, and only one of them comes close to being a traditional favourite. Think of the other well-known hymns we sing: ‘Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven’ (Rejoice! 70), ‘Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise’ (Rejoice! 38), ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ (Rejoice! 25), ‘To God Be the Glory’ (Rejoice! 63) and ‘Tell Out My Soul’ (Rejoice! 168). None of these hymns praise God in three persons. But must a hymn mention Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be worthy of our singing? No, not everyone hymn. We expect many hymns to be about the person and work of Jesus. After all, the Father gives all things to the Son, and the Spirit is the ‘Spirit of Christ’.
But the work of the Son does not diminish the roles of the Father and the Spirit. So we have a problem when most hymns in our tradition forget that salvation is by the Holy Spirit, through Christ, and to the Father. As we’ve seen, our theology determines how we worship; so our theology demands that the words we sing acknowledge the triune God. At those times in history when the Trinity was challenged, there was an outpouring of trinitarian hymns. But by the Middle Ages, the composition of these hymns slowed to a trickle, to virtually dry up altogether.
The situation is worse with contemporary music. There is virtually no modern music which expounds the doctrine of the Trinity. Emu Music represents the best of evangelical Christian music in Australia. The current top ten songs are terrific in so far as they point us to Jesus, praising him for the cross, encouraging us to live under his lordship, and reminding us he will come again. All this is good. But (at the time of research) none of these songs mention the Spirit, and none lead us to the trinitarian nature of God. We need song writers who are trinitarian in their thinking.
Amongst other things, prayer is an exploration of the Holy Trinity. We need to remind ourselves that in prayer we are directly engaging with our three-personed God. Letham laments the church’s move into unguided, spontaneous prayer in so far as it has taken us away from properly emphasising the Trinity. Rather, he commends the prayers written by Thomas Cranmer (1549 Book of Common Prayer), or the rich liturgies of the Eastern church. For in prayer, we ought to be raised into ‘communion with the persons of the Holy Trinity’ (D. Staniloae, Experience of God, 1:248–249).
Perhaps the most well-known book on prayer is the volume by E.M. Bounds. His books amount to a thorough exploration of prayer. Bounds recognises that prayer is to the Father, made possible through the Son, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In all our activities, including prayer, we cannot worship one person at the expense of the others. For to do this is to divide the Trinity. The charismatic movement separates the Spirit from Christ. And we must ask ourselves whether or not there is a tendency in our tradition to virtually remove the Spirit altogether. Someone has cheekily suggested that we have a new Trinity, ‘Father, Son, and Holy Bible’ (Mark Driscoll).
In the Lord’s Supper we remember what Jesus did for us at Calvary. But we must do more than that, for Calvin and the Westminster Assembly reminds us that in the Eucharist the faithful feed on Christ by the Holy Spirit. And as we feed on Christ, we share his access to the Father. So the Lord’s Supper is far more than a mental recollection of what Jesus has done. It is a sacrament that strengths our faith in Christ, and this way we are joined to him who gives us access to our Heavenly Father.
Praise and honour to the Father,
Praise and honour to the Son,
Praise and honour to the Spirit,
Ever three and ever one;
One in power and one in glory
While eternal ages run.