This week the sermon is not based directly on a Bible story or letter as it usually is. The sermon is about a teaching that comes from the Bible, an important one, the Holy Trinity. This doctrine is so important that there are many churches named it. What other teaching gets a church named after it?
The Trinity is the belief that God is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not spelled out in one, distinct Bible passage. You can’t quote a verse of the Bible that says, “Believe in the Holy Trinity. There it is.” But we see the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments, teaching about the Trinity.
The Church has three creeds about the Holy Trinity. You are, no doubt, familiar with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds that we read in church. They teach us about the work of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit and how they brought about our creation and salvation.
The Athanasian Creed is often overlooked. We only read it on Trinity Sunday. It was dedicated to Saint Athanasius, who defended the truth about who Jesus really is. It originated in Gaul, modern day France, around 500. A.D.
From the first two sentences you can see that the Athanasian Creed is about something important. Seldom today are we told that if we want to be saved we have to believe something, and if we don’t we will most certainly perish forever.
Now when you see the word “catholic” with a lower case “c” you should not think it means Roman Catholic. In early church times when this creed was written there were no such distinctions as we have today. Back then the word catholic meant “true” or “original”. So the catholic faith is the true belief as taught by Jesus and the Apostles and recorded in the accepted Bible. We don’t change the wording because that would be the same as writing a new creed. The purpose of a creed is to demonstrate that the faith hasn’t changed over time.
Read together verse 1 and 2 from the printed creed (page 319 in the hymnal).
Whoever will be saved shall, above all else,
hold the catholic faith. Which faith, except everyone keeps whole and undefiled,
without doubt he will perish eternally.
For the first two hundred years after Jesus most believers were simply trying to survive in a world that often persecuted Christians with threats of imprisonment and death. After Christianity was legalized controversies developed over who Jesus really was and how he related to the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Some Christians, called the Sabellians, did not believe there were three distinct persons in the Holy Trinity, but that God merely appeared as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was as if God had three different masks he wore when he visited us.
Others, called the Nestorians, believed Jesus existed as two different people. One was the man Jesus, and the other was the eternal son of God.
A popular group called the Arians believed that Jesus was not really God, at least on a level with the Heavenly Father. As the Son of God he was a little lower than the Father, like the first and most powerful of the Angels. This was a popular view in the third century.
Eutychians believed that Jesus had both the human and divine natures like we believe, except that the divine nature overwhelmed the human nature, so that he wasn’t really human like you and me are human.
Now if I’ve confused you with all these different views of who is Jesus and how he relates to the Father and the Holy Spirit, you can see why the early Christians wanted to write something down once and for all to settle these controversies and stop the confusion.
So they came up with the Athanasian Creed sometime in the 400’s. If someone wanted to know what we believed, they read the creed. If a pastor started preaching another view of Jesus, the people could show him the creed and ask him to stay on topic.
The creed is confusing to read because it is trying to simplify something that can’t be explained with human logic: how God can have three distinct persons but not end up being three different Gods. The Bible says, “"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4
So we have to say that there is only one God. There are many false Gods, but only one true God we are to worship.
But the Bible also says things like “Let us make man in our image.” Genesis 1:26 Who is “us”? That was a mystery until Jesus came on the scene. I think Jesus’ biggest challenge was to convince people that he was God and not just another prophet who did miracles. How could he be God if he prayed to the Heavenly Father? How can one God be divided.
Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). So we believe that Jesus is God with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But there are not three gods, but one.
Let’s read together verses 3-19.
And the catholic faith is this,
that we worship one God in three persons
and three persons in one God,
neither confusing the persons
nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father,
another of the Son,
and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one:
the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated,
the Son uncreated,
and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father incomprehensible,
the Son incomprehensible,
and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal,
the Son eternal,
and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet there are not three eternals
but one eternal.
As there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensibles
but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is almighty,
the Son almighty,
and the Holy Spirit almighty.
And yet they are not three almighties
but one almighty.
So the Father is God,
the Son is God,
and the Holy Spirit is God.
And yet there are not three gods;
but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord,
the Son Lord,
and the Holy Spirit Lord.
And yet they are not three lords
but one Lord.
For as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge every person by himself
to be both God and Lord,
So we cannot by the catholic faith
say that there are three Gods or three Lords.
Now who exactly is Jesus? Is he God or a man? How can a man be equal to God? Another problem was what to do with Mother Mary. Was she the mother of God? To say yes meant that God had a mother. To say no meant Jesus was not really God. What do you think?
The early church answered this by saying Jesus had two natures, divine and human. He was God, but he was God in a human body. He was fully human like we are, but he was God at the same time.
Sometimes Jesus showed his divine power, like when he healed people’s diseases and fed a multitude with a handful of food, and certainly when he raised people from the dead. At other times he didn’t use his divine power, like when he suffered on the cross and died.
But we must believe that He is both human and divine, and that he is equal in being God to the Father and the Holy Spirit. Here is why:
You have sinned against God. Your sin is enormous when you look at it the way God does. Think of all the good you could be doing in your life, but haven’t done. You can’t cancel it or make up for it yourself. What are you going to do? You are so blessed if you know Jesus took it all to the cross and did away with it.
He could take it because he was a human being like you are. He paid for it by dying, giving his life in your place.
He could do it also because he was God. He had the power to live a life without sin and be a perfect sacrifice. He could also rise from the dead to show you what he accomplished for you.
This is expressed in the rest of the creed, so now we read verses 20-37.
The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone, not made nor created;
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten
So there is one Father, not three Fathers;
one Son, not three Sons;
one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
And in this trinity none is before or after another;
none is greater or less than another;
But the whole three persons
are coeternal together and coequal,
so that in all things, as is aforesaid,
the Unity in Trinity
and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped.
He, therefore, that will be saved is compelled thus to think of the Trinity.
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation
that he also believe faithfully the incarnation
of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right faith is
that we believe and confess
that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
is God and man;
God of the substance of the Father,
begotten before the worlds;
and man of the substance of his mother,
born in the world;
Perfect God and perfect man,
of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead,
and inferior to the Father as touching his manhood;
Who, although he is God and man,
yet he is not two but one Christ.
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh,
but by taking the manhood into God;.
not by confusion of substance,
but by unity of person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man,
so God and man is one Christ;
Who suffered for our salvation;
descended into hell;
rose again the third day from the dead.
He ascended into heaven;
he sits at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty,
from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies
and will give an account of their own works.
Now the end of the creed is confusing, especially for Christians like us that understand what the Bible teaches about the place of good works in the order of salvation. The creed says at verse 39 that when Jesus comes again he will judge all people according to their deeds. If they have done good, they will go to heaven, and if they have done evil, they will go to hell.
That seems to go against what we preach every week here at church, that we are saved by grace apart from works, as St. Paul says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that one can boast” Ephesians 2:10-11.
Why do we use this creed if it is against what we believe from the Bible?
While it is confusing, we should see it this way: We have all done evil. Those whose names are written in the Book of Life have received forgiveness. Their evil works have been swallowed up in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
When we are judged on the last day, we will be judged as righteous for the sake of Jesus’ righteousness. In fact, God has already passed his sentence of “not guilty” on us the moment we believed.
But even the so called “good works” of the unbeliever will be judges as evil because of their sinful condition and unrepentance.
We must always explain this when we say the Creed so it is not misunderstood.
Read verses 38-40.
How can we confess a creed which we do not understand? I am comforted by Paul’s words to the Romans, the 11th chapter, verses 33- 36:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" 35 "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. Romans 11:33-36 ESV
Rev. Dr. James F. Wright
Saint John’s Lutheran Church
Wednesday in Trinity, 2008