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Preaching the Divine Team (pt. 3)

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 three of a three-part series. In part one, Packer addressed some of the problems encountered when preaching about the Trinity. In part two, he discussed the inefficacy of common analogies used to describe the Trinity.

PreachingToday.com: Is preaching about the Trinity essentially about describing relationships?

J. I. Packer: Yes, describing relationships and describing the relationships within the reality of gospel grace at every stage. As I said earlier, conversion is one stage. It's a process, and there is a lot to say about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the process of conversion.

Sanctification is another stage. It's seeking to do the will of the Father in the knowledge that the Lord Jesus is with you always—he is beside you to encourage you. And the Holy Spirit is in your heart to strengthen you and enable you to understand what all this requires of you, what you need to do. So it's the Father, Son, and Spirit together.

In Christian witness, it's the same story. The Father and the Son both send us to be the Lord's witnesses in the world. And they promise that the Holy Spirit in us will be prompting us about what to say in witness situations. And we witness to Christ in the power of the Spirit of Christ. We witness to the Father in the power of the Spirit who comes from the Father and the Son. It's a Trinitarian reality.

All the power and all the ability to witness, along with the summons to do it, comes from God. So, at the end of a witnessing or preaching situation—which are just two instances of the same thing, really—every sermon should be a witness to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit from the Scripture that's being expounded and taught. When we see that the witness was done well, we thank the Lord because it was the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who made it happen the way it should have happened. And if we see, in retrospect, that there was anything inadequate about the sermon or anything inadequate about the personal witness—well, we confess that. We ask for more wisdom and more strength to do it better next time around, and on we go. But the witnessing situation is a Trinitarian situation.

In fact, all the calls to action in the Christian life, whatever they are, are Trinitarian situations. The Father says, "This is what you have to do." The Lord Jesus confirms that and stands by you, walks with you as you seek to do it. And the Holy Spirit within empowers and enlightens you so that you can see what needs to be said and done. And you find yourself able, in some measure, to tackle it.

The whole Christian life is a Trinitarian business.

People ask me, "How are preachers ever to get round to preaching about the Trinity?" And I say, if we preach the Bible properly, the question really should be, "How can a preacher ever stop preaching about the Trinity?" Because the whole Christian life is a Trinitarian business.

We've talked about preaching on the Trinity collectively. What are the unique opportunities of preaching on the individual members of the Trinity? Especially since there really is no way to talk about any member without talking about their relations to the other?

Well, that is why it seems to me a real preacher can't stop talking about the Trinity. You can't talk about any of the three in isolation from the other two, and we shouldn't try. After all, the very names Father and Son are telling us that. The Father is so called because, in the first instance, he is the Father of the Son. It's an extension of that when he declares himself the Father of Christians.

By the way, I don't like talking about members of the Trinity. It makes it sound as if the Trinity is a club. I'd much rather stick to talking about persons within the Trinity, or persons who make up the Trinity, something like that.

Getting back to the names of the Father and Son, well, let's realize we call him the Son because the first person of the Trinity calls him the Son, and he is the second person of the Trinity. And the Bible pattern for the ideal father/son relationship is modeled on that. The Son will be respectful of, and obedient to, his Father. He will love his Father, and he will serve his Father. You've got that theme running all the way through both Testaments. It's ideal sonship. We don't always find it in this post-Christian world, but that's the ideal.

And then the Holy Spirit. Again, you look at the name. You meet "spirit" in the Old Testament. It's a word that originally meant "air moving with energy." Blowing out the candles on your birthday cake is an exuding of spirit from your lungs. The wind is called spirit because it blows. Like Jesus said to Nicodemus: The wind blows where it wants to blow.

In Ezekiel's valley of dry bones, the word for the wind is the word spirit. And the Bible translators are never quite sure whether to render God's command to Ezekiel, "Preach to the wind and tell the wind to come and put new life into these dry bones," or whether it should be "spirit" so that the reader understands right from the start that this is a picture of the Spirit of God animating dry bones.

Leaving that particular problem aside, the Spirit is the enlivening breath of the Father. It powerfully changes the situations on which that breath is blown by the Father. Indeed, in the Old Testament the logic is simply that the Spirit—the breath of God breathed out in power—is like the arm of the Lord extended in power.

Of course, there's no thought in the Old Testament directly of the Spirit as a third person. That thought comes when Jesus talks directly about another paraclete: "He will glorify me, for he will take of mine and show it to you." Jesus is unambiguously talking about another person, and so does the whole of the rest of the New Testament. In the Book of Acts and all the letters and the Book of Revelation; they're all clear that the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son. They learned the lesson.

I'm saying this because the three names—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (holy breath, holy wind, holy energy)—they're all pointing to the distinct personhood of the three as well as pointing to their own relations to each other. Augustine, in his enormous work on the Trinity, is very clear and emphatic that, in terms of personal description, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are identical. None of them is God of a weaker strain or a different strain from the other. But you distinguish them by the relations they bear to each other, which are permanent and which are distinct in each case.

I think that is the proper way to think of it. And if you think of it that way, you'll find that you're right in the heart of the New Testament, because that's how the New Testament thinks of it. How else can one say it? The New Testament takes you straight into the truth of the Trinity. Actually, it doesn't let you get away from it.

The thing is, though, that Christians these days—of course, we are Christians in a non-Christian society, and to a certain extent we've got our backs to the wall all the time in the post-Christian West—we are encouraged by our preachers, by our teachers, by our devotional books, and perhaps by our own innate self-centeredness to read the Bible asking only: What do we find here of devotional value for my life today? And we don't read the Bible looking for the first thing that the Bible was written to set before us: namely, the reality of God in action fulfilling his plan of salvation.

And because we're not looking for what it tells us about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—the three in one, one in three—we miss it. And then we feel that it's a special subject that has to be addressed in a special way because people are ignoring it. But it doesn't have to be addressed in a special way. I've said it in all my answers today: it's the structure of the gospel that addresses it, and you cannot proclaim the gospel without addressing it if you understand what you're doing.

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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