A Sermon on the Holy Trinity (Augsburg Confession, Article I) by Armin Wenz

—by Armin Wenz

Dear congregation! We believe in the triune God. The Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession joins in the belief of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Christianity.

Isn’t that an unacceptable anachronism? How should the modern person understand this? And of what use is this doctrine in our day and age? Isn’t it a direct impediment to the reputation of the gospel? Isn’t it enough if we just appreciate the Lord Jesus as a good man whom we love? Must we also worry about his divine, spiritual nature? Most of the groups that are rejected in the second part of the first article of the Augsburg Confession are rejected, even though they had some fondness for the Lord Jesus. That is especially true for Islam, which only appreciates Jesus as a great prophet.

For this reason alone, the confession of the Holy Trinity is not an anachronism, nor is it an unnecessary formula that impedes the message of the church. The doctrines addressed in the Lutheran Confessions are still relevant today. Therefore the Augsburg Confession remains a necessary antithesis to the doctrines of human reason, which cannot imagine the Trinity and cannot imagine any more that Christ is true man and true God.

The church speaks this antithesis in her confession because the criteria of human reason are not fundamental for the church, but the self-introduction of God in the Holy Scriptures is fundamental. When I get to know a person, I do not get ready to meet him, but I perceive him as he introduces himself to me, although I cannot immediately comprehend everything about him.

When God introduces himself to us, we do not straighten it out with our reason, but we should rather see him as he introduces himself to us. God has now unequivocally revealed himself to us in the word of Holy Scripture as the one and only God whom we encounter at the same time as the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit.

As it is with people, it is more so with God: God is as he introduces himself. We should thus address him as he reveals himself to us in his word: as one true God in three distinct Persons.

For the Reformation, taking seriously the self-introduction of God is also of paramount importance because our redemption before God through justification on account of Christ is only possible on the basis of faith in the Trinity. So it is, therefore, the question of salvation; the justification of the sinner becomes reality in our baptism in which we are baptized in the name of the triune God.

Let us, therefore, in this sermon consider in two steps what it means to believe in the triune God. Just as it occurs in Luther’s catechism, we want to ask (1) What does it mean if we believe in the triune God? and (2) What does God thereby cause, that he introduces himself to us as triune?

(1) We believe in the triune God. What does that mean, dear congregation? Two things: God is entirely different from us and he is incomprehensible to us humans.

We are physically bound to creation in space and time. It is not fully and completely possible for us to become one with another person. God, on the other hand, is a spirit, and he is not eternally and physically bound to space and time. He is entirely different, and he is not contained within the limits of our ability to think, nor within the limits of space, number, and time. If it was this way, then he would not be God, but rather he himself would be a part of creation. God and creation, however, are two different things.

In the Scriptures, this triune God does not reveal himself as a soloist who is sufficient in an eternal monologue, but he reveals himself as a community of persons who have connected with each other in love, communicate together, exist together, and permeate each other. That God is triune also means that love of self is not his attribute, but that he announces love, which is mutual, dialogical love.

This love grasps his creation and creates a counterpart in the world and man. That man is created in God’s image provides community and fellowship with God. God is devoted to us in love. He reveals that love in his works: in creation, in deliverance, and in the consummation on the last day.

But this triune God does not only remain for us as entirely different and incomprehensible, but he is also the one who, in his Trinity, completely surrenders to us human beings. As Luther says in the Large Catechism, God has completely poured out himself and has withheld nothing from us, that he has given himself to us completely, that he gives all that he has and is able to do so as to give us help (BSLK, 651, 661; Kolb-Wengert, 434.26, 440.69).

As Father, Son, and Spirit, God does not remain in the hereafter as the distant judge who weighs us in the balance, but he comes to us through the Son and through the Spirit to make us his children, to give us his righteousness and holiness, in that he draws us into the fellowship and love, which he himself has and is.

I quote again Luther’s Large Catechism: “God has created us for this very reason, so that he redeems and sanctifies us. He has also given us his Son and the Holy Spirit, through which he brings us to himself. For we could never recognize the Father’s favor and grace except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the Father’s heart. Apart from Christ, we see nothing but an angry and dreadful Judge. We could also know nothing of Christ, if it was not revealed by the Holy Spirit” (BSLK, 660; Kolb-Wengert, 439.64–65).

Thus the Father and the Son together send the Holy Spirit, so that we recognize the Father in Christ, so that we can thus call upon God, as he is in eternity. Thus the triune God openly reveals himself as the God of love and mutual devotion, which specifically reveals the relationship of the three Persons and with which he himself turns to us human beings.

(2) We believe in the triune God and ask: What does this faith do? Answer: This faith liberates us from a false way of salvation and from false gods and gives us absolute certainty of salvation. First of all, that liberation, which the triune God brings through his self-revelation, changes us. This liberation opposes itself against the rejections that form the second part of our article of faith in the Augsburg Confession. Here notions of God are rejected that deny that the Creator has revealed and given himself to us in the Son and in the Spirit.

That involves, for example, Islam, in which God is exclusively the Transcendent One who is beyond our world, and he is taught as the only One, in which there is no community of persons. For it is unimaginable in Islam, just as it is for many sectarians, then and now, that God becomes a man, that Christ is true God and true man. Therefore, in Islam, Christ cannot redeem us through his death on the cross but he is only an exemplary person. On the other hand, other factions deny the true divinity of the Spirit and thus confuse the Holy Spirit with the phenomenon of the greatness of the human mind or also with human enthusiasm. With it comes the underestimation of the sinfulness of mankind and the overestimation of the human mind. God will produce repentance through his Spirit, and we can only find out about this through a radical revelation that comes from outside ourselves; this is often overlooked.

These false representations of God exempt us from the benefit and necessity of believing in the triune God. Because where it is denied that the Son and the Spirit truly are God, it always leads human beings to think that they can redeem themselves.

Where it is denied that God comes to us in an entirely different way in Christ and the Spirit, the result is that we always think we can find God with our own abilities. The Scriptures, however, say with great clarity: The natural man does not understand the Spirit of God. Through his revelation as the triune God, God therefore liberates us from many false representations of God. At the same time, God gives us an absolute certainty of salvation. God indeed remains unfathomable for us as triune in a great variety of ways while we still live here on earth and still do not look upon him in perfection.

However, he has made known to us his nature. He has revealed to us what is necessary to our salvation, so that we can live in fellowship with him. The Father reliably reveals to us that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Light of God, who leads us home to the Father’s house.

And the Holy Spirit testifies to this Jesus Christ through the word of the apostles and prophets that his cross and his resurrection is our salvation and our life. The Spirit is the Comforter, whom Christ sends from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who brings us to Christ, who calls us to the heavenly Father.

Thus the triune God has withheld nothing from us that we need in order to find him. We do not need to wait for new prophets and new revelations. God himself has appointed in the word of his heralds who preach Christ to us, and in the sacraments, by which he gives us his Spirit.

But since God has revealed himself as triune, we believe on him, and we specifically call upon him, as he reveals and has given himself to us. He is a God who is entirely different, in contrast to the reliance on human beings, because he is both almighty and faithful. As one who has totally given himself up to us, he is gracious and merciful and full of love.

Therefore the confession of the triune God, as the fathers of Augsburg reaffirm the fathers of Nicaea, is never an anachronism, but each time it is the truth necessary for salvation, not that we must bear or understand it, but that it bears us and shapes us. We owe this common confession to our God with the church of all ages because he has redeemed us. We owe this confession with the church of all ages because the sinful world needs this redemption. Amen.

Armin Wenz is pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, Oberursel, Germany. Translated by Peter A. Bauernfeind. Peter Bauernfeind is pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Palisades Park, New Jersey. The sermon was preached on 26 June 2009 for the Commemoration of the Augsburg Confession.