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Preaching the Divine Team (pt. 1)

We may be making it harder to preach on the Trinity than it should be. In this interview, J. I. Packer gets to the heart of the matter.

This interview is part one of a three-part series.

PreachingToday.com: What are the current debates or conversations regarding the Trinity that preachers need to be sensitive to as they preach on this subject?

J. I. Packer: The big issue preachers need to be sensitive to is, evangelicals don't talk about the Trinity, and pastors don't teach their people about the Trinity. We have the idea—one we've taken for granted and never examined—that we can get on without any knowledge about the Trinity. That is a problem.

What are some issues regarding the Trinity that are especially important as we face a postmodern, or post-Christian, culture?

The postmodern/post-Christian culture of our time has jettisoned the Trinity just as it has jettisoned the rest of supernatural Christianity. As a result, what it embraces is some sort of syncretism—this idea that all religions are more or less the same, all religions can be melded together in a sort of general, unfocused religiosity of mind. And as long as we retain this religiosity as a feeling and decency as a lifestyle, well, we're all sharers in whatever good things Christianity once offered—call it salvation if you like. But everybody's in it together.

And so there's no sense that people need to be born again. There's no sense that Christians are different altogether at root level from non-Christians in society. It's this blending and melding that we have to battle, because it isn't true. It doesn't match what God tells us in his Word. In fact, it will lead people into the delusion of supposing they're all right when they're all wrong.

Why do you think some preachers shy away from the topic of the Trinity?

I think it's because most of them have been taught the Trinity as something that Christians are supposed to spit out as part of their orthodoxy without needing to understand it very well. Preachers know that the people in the pew aren't interested in that sort of lumber for the mind, and so they try to dodge it. They're afraid their listeners will be bored if the truth of the Trinity is focused on in any way at all.

What are the essential truths about the Trinity that must accompany our preaching of the gospel of Christ? To put that another way, how is it that when we preach the gospel we are unavoidably preaching about the Trinity?

Well, that is how the gospel comes to us in the New Testament. I like the way you just expressed it. In preaching about the gospel, or in preaching the gospel directly, we must proclaim the Trinity as part of our message.

In preaching the gospel, we must proclaim the Trinity as part of our message.

That is exactly what the Lord Jesus did, in fact, when Nicodemus came to him by night. Jesus told him about the kingdom of God, which Nicodemus and all his Jewish peers were anxious to be a part of. And he explained that, in order to enter the kingdom of God, you've got to be born again of the Spirit of God. And in order to be born again of the Spirit of God, you must attend to the message about Jesus and learn to trust him as your sin-bearer. This idea corresponds to the brass snake that Moses put at the top of a pole in the middle of their camp in the wilderness. The Israelites were to look at it when they were bitten by snakes. When they looked, the snakebite was healed. Well, that's a picture of what happens in a human life when people learn to look to Jesus.

Still, the message involves all three persons—the Father, whose kingdom it is; the Son, who was going to die on the cross and thus match the serpent on the pole; and the Holy Spirit, who brings you to new birth. And I would stress that you cannot preach the gospel without that Trinitarian frame of reference.

For example, if you leave out the Holy Spirit, you'll give people the idea it's entirely up to them whether or not they come into the kingdom, even though it's actually a work of God changing the heart that is needed to bring them in. If you leave out the cross, you're buying into this post-Christian ideology of religiosity—the religious feeling, unfocused but sobering to the heart—which people mistake for real religion. And of course you have to speak of God and his kingdom, because that's what it's all about: a relationship with a God who in fact turns out—at least, when you look with the guidance of Scripture to help you—to be three persons in unity.

This unity is beyond our understanding but is displayed in the work of the gospel and the message of the gospel. The simplest way to explain it to anybody is to say that God is a team—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—working together in all God's works, but now particularly through the gospel for the salvation of us needy sinners.

We know the Trinity is impossible for our finite minds to understand, but is it also offensive to human sensibilities? Do we resist the idea of the Trinity like we resist the cross?

Yes, I think from one standpoint it is offensive to the modern mind. The postmodern mind takes for granted that human beings can understand everything. The human mind is the measure of everything that's real. If it's real, it's intelligible. And if we can't understand it fully, then it isn't real. So the truth of the Trinity does offend the Western mind at that point.

I say the Western mind, because you don't have this particular problem if you're talking to Hindus or Buddhists. They've never been infected with the enlightenment assumption that everything real is intelligible in this way. But here in the West, just about everybody takes in that idea with their mother's milk. And so people get very uptight with the thought that there is more to God than our minds can grasp, and therefore there comes a time when we have to admit our ignorance and let God tell us what the truth is. In other words, listen to the Bible and stop arguing. That is a big modern stumbling block.

My way around this is to say what I was beginning to say in answer to your last question about the essential truths of the Trinity. Look at the gospel and you will see there is a divine team effecting all that the gospel effects. The Father sent the Son to take away our sin on the cross. The Son sends the Holy Spirit at the Father's will to renew our hearts. So Christians are people who know the ministry of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in their own lives. And the doctrine of the Trinity is simply the formal way of stating, "Yes, that's the divine team that I'm talking about—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working together for my salvation and the salvation of all who put faith in Jesus."

When we think about preaching on the Trinity, one of the first things that may come to mind is the doctrinal distinctions that have been so important in church history. What part should those distinctions play in our weekly preaching service?

I don't think they should play much of a part, directly, because I think those were debates from the early Christian centuries about the nature of God. But those debates assume the subject for thought and discussion should be the nature of God. I believe the question of the inner nature of God should only be approached in terms of clarity about the language of the gospel. Once you are clear that the Christian gospel is the message of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working together for your salvation and mine, then you can say, "We don't claim to understand how the Father, Son, and Spirit are together as three persons and yet one God in their own inner being. But what the Bible helps us to understand is how the team fulfills its ministry towards us sinners."

The truth of the Trinity is present in the gospel as a corollary. It's something that is naturally inferred by the gospel rather than the first thing you try to tell people before getting on to salvation from sin through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working together.

That, I think, is what makes it so hard for the many clergy who have difficulty on Trinity Sunday. They think that, in talking about the Trinity, they must leave behind for the moment talk about the gospel. And I believe that is incorrect. If we would just say to our people, "Look at the gospel and you'll see the Trinity," then the problem would be solved straightaway.

In parts two and three of this article, Dr. Packer will address the use of analogies to describe the Trinity, and the nature of relationships within the Trinity.

J.I. Packer is Board of Governors' professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has written many books, including Knowing God (IVP, 1993) and In My Place Condemned He Stood (Crossway, 2007), and also served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible.

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