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I. Who God Is
“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.” This is how the Athanasian Creed begins.
The “catholic faith” is then spelled out in great detail. “And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God, in three persons and the three persons in one God, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance…” etc. etc. etc.
And then the Athanasian Creed concludes with these words. “This is the catholic faith which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.” (Athanasian Creed). In other words, its do or die.
If the Athanasian Creed sounds strange to our ears, it may be because we’re not used to talking about WHO GOD IS. We’re a lot more accustomed to talking about WHAT GOD DOES.
He creates, He redeems, He sanctifies. He comforts, He guides, He hears my prayers, He answers my prayers. “He works all things for good to those who love Him….”
We like talking about God in terms of WHAT HE DOES – especially WHAT HE DOES FOR ME. And I’m not suggesting for one minute that we should not think and talk about God in that way.
But the three, ecumenical Creeds, the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian creeds, talk a lot about WHO GOD IS. Especially the Athanasian Creed, which goes so far as to talk about WHO GOD IS NOT.
I think too, that there’s another reason why the Athanasian Creed sounds strange to our ears. It’s those sentences that bracket the whole thing. “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.” And, “This is the catholic faith which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”
In a culture that demands INCLUSIVITY and ACCEPTANCE of every belief and way of life, the EXCUSIVITY so clearly enunciated here makes this Creed a tough pill to swallow, irregardless of what it actually says about God. We’ve become very familiar with a different sounding creed that goes something like this:
“Whoever will be saved shall, above all else, hold the human faith. Which faith, except everyone keeps whole and undefiled, without doubt, he will never reach his full potential. And the human faith is this, that we worship one god, in many persons, and each person is his own god; neither confusing the one god with the many beliefs, nor dividing the many beliefs into true or false, nor right or wrong. For there is only one god and every religion is the same, and every religion leads to the same god. This is the human faith which, except a woman/man believe faithfully and firmly, she/he cannot be taken seriously and must surely be rejected and silenced.”
The “universal” or “catholic” faith that is most strenuously confessed today is that god is the great and mighty “whatever.” And whatever you think about god must be accepted as true and right, as long as you really, really believe it. “Personal sincerity” is the great touchstone for truth – not an objective standard such as a Creed that spells out WHO GOD IS and WHO GOD IS NOT.
If you think that I’m exaggerating, you might want to test it out for yourself. Here’s the test. The next time you have the chance, tell your neighbor or co-worker or classmate who you believe that God is. Say, “I believe that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three distinct persons in one divine unity.” He’ll probably look at you a little funny but shrug his shoulders and say, “if that’s what you believe – go for it.”
But then tell him that “this is the catholic faith, which faith, except everyone keeps whole and undefiled, without doubt he will perish eternally… he cannot be saved.” To that, he’ll probably respond much more vigorously. “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”
Yet, this is what we are compelled to believe and confess because this is what the Holy Scriptures say and the Holy Scriptures are our touchstone for what is true. The Holy Scriptures are God’s Word, telling us who He is. The Bible says there are lots of ‘SO CALLED GODS,’ but there is only ONE TRUE GOD. And therefore we say that there is only ONE TRUE GOD.
We say that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit because this is how God, in His Word, speaks about Himself. When Jesus tells His disciples to go out to all nations and teach and baptize them, He doesn’t tell them to baptize them into the name of God, but into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).
So, Trinity Sunday is an important date on the Church’s calendar for us to observe. It’s important because we live in a world that is very confused about WHO GOD IS. And frankly, we ourselves are not so firmly grounded in the knowledge of the Scriptures as we should be. And we, like sheep, are prone to go astray. We live among people with unclean lips, and we hardly notice it, but gradually, after awhile, we start talking just like them.
So, Trinity Sunday is important because it distinguishes the real from the counterfeit. If you’ve ever worked as a bank teller, you’ll already know this. But I’m told that bank tellers are trained to recognize counterfeit bills by handling a lot of the real thing. They become so familiar with the feel of the real thing, that when a counterfeit comes along, they just know something’s not right about it.
Trinity Sunday reminds us again of the real thing, the one, true God, so that we might recognize the counterfeit when it comes along.
To boil it down to its simplest form, we say that the one, true God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This ‘simple’ expression of WHO GOD IS, is usually enough to distinguish the real from the counterfeit. Unitarians, Muslims, Jews and Jehovah Witnesses have to bow out right here.
But there are others who talk about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are confused about what this means. And so we have to go a bit further and say: the Father IS God, the Son IS God, and the Holy Spirit IS God. And it’s at this point that the Mormons have to sit down because they don’t say this.
And there are some who want to say, ‘Oh, so you believe in three gods.’ And there are some who want to say, ‘no, they are just three names for the One God who appears in different forms.’ Which is wrong. So we have to go a bit further say: the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not the Father. At it’s at this point that everyone who has cooked up an opinion of WHO GOD IS according to their own imagination also has to sit down.
And then, just to be sure we’ve made the point clear, we say, ‘there is only one God.’
I think you have to have a certain measure of sympathy for those who just can’t swallow the ‘catholic faith.’ It simply doesn’t add up.
But it’s not so much the strangeness of the Trinity that causes the biggest problem for most people. The real struggle begins with the strangeness of the 2nd Person of the Trinity – the Son. In all three ecumenical creeds, the Apostles, the Nicene and the Athanasian, this is the section that gets the most attention because it’s the one that people have the most trouble with.
The Son, who is God, became man. And the man who is named Jesus, is truly and fully God in the same way that the Father is God and the Holy Spirit is God. He is not some lesser god or something created by the Father, or adopted by the Father to be the intermediary between God and the world.
The Church Fathers insist on spelling out what the Scriptures clearly state. In the Nicene Creed, we are taught to say that the Son is “of one substance with the Father…’’ He is of one and the same ESSENCE as God the Father.
In the Athanasian Creed it gets spelled out in even more detail just to close every loophole that hides the truth. “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…”
And of course the reason that this is both so critically important to the ‘catholic faith,’ and so terribly troublesome to those who cannot swallow it, has to do with WHAT THE SON OF GOD DOES WITH HIS DIVINE AND HUMAN NATURES.
The ‘catholic faith’ is this, when Jesus Christ the son of Mary, was crucified and died on the cross, Jesus Christ the Son of God died. And the Son is fully God. When Jesus died on the cross, God died. The Father did not die and the Holy Spirit did not die, but the Son died and the Son is fully God.
And it is only because God died on the cross to atone for our sin, that we can say that all of the sin of the whole world was atoned for. From the first sin of Adam to the last sin committed before the Son comes again to put an end to sin – only the death of God is sufficient.
If Jesus Christ is anything less than TRUE GOD AND TRUE MAN, then the payment is insufficient and we are still in our sins. Which is why every other faith than the ‘catholic faith’ teaches that you must pay for your own sins.
This is what we mean when we say that there is no other way to be saved than through faith in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In His divinely perfect love for His whole creation and for you in particular, God the Father sent God the Son to atone for the sin of the world by becoming sin for us.
And God the Son, in divinely perfect love, both for God the Father and for His whole creation and for you in particular, humbled Himself and became obedient to the Father unto death, even death on a cross. And on the 3rd day, God the Father raised God the Son from the dead “and he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph.1:22-23)
And in divinely perfect love for His whole creation and for you in particular, God the Father and God the Son sent God the Holy Spirit to bring the Son to us and us to the Son – through Holy Baptism, and the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures, and the Lord’s Supper.
“This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”