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Preaching the Divine Team (pt. 2)

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 two of a three-part series. In part one, Dr. Packer introduced the Trinity as a divine Team and addressed some of the problems encountered when preaching about the Trinity.

PreachingToday.com: Concrete metaphors explaining the nature of the Trinity invariably break down and perhaps mislead us as much as they teach us. So preaching at an abstract level is the first challenge we face. Is there a way to overcome this? Or is it simply a reality that we must challenge people to deal with some of these abstract ideas?

J. I. Packer: If the approach I'm trying to spell out is right, then the question doesn't need to be put quite that way. It's certainly true that all the classic illustrations of the Trinity break down. You only have to look at them twice to realize that. The Trinity is not like water, which at different temperatures can be liquid, solid, or steam. The Trinity is not like a cloverleaf, where you have the three little leaves making one big leaf. The Trinity is not like a cube, which has a number of sides but nonetheless is one cube.

What's so bad about all those illustrations is they lose sight, from the word go, of the truth that the Trinity is three persons—persons who are more personal than we are, persons whose personhood ought to be highlighted and shouted from the housetops. Neither the Father nor the Son nor the Holy Spirit is inanimate or a thing. Each of the three is he.

You have to say "he" because that conveys to people's minds straightaway the image of a stronger Person than the word she would do. It isn't that you're giving sex to either the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit either way. It's that you're using the strongest personal pronoun that you've got to express the thought that here is the strongest personhood that we've ever confronted, stronger and fuller and more thrustful than your personhood or my personhood or anybody's personhood. We talk about strong personalities. Well, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are way stronger than any of our human strong personalities. God is the Creator, after all.

If we have to use a formula, the best formula is that he—that's God—is they; and they—that's the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are he. Three persons, one God. But you're highlighting the fact that we are talking about persons. Because the illustrations don't catch any of that, I would say throw them away.

I've often been asked: What then do you teach kids in Sunday school? (Which is where these illustrations are commonly used.) And I say, when they can begin to understand this at age two or three, start telling them about three friends who, in a wonderful way they can't understand—and Dad and Mom can't understand and nobody can understand, yet it's true—are one Being. Teach them to think of what the Father does for us. Teach them to think of the Lord Jesus as the friend who sticks closer than a brother—the friend who has saved you and is saving you, taking you along the path that leads to a heavenly home. And teach them to think about the Holy Spirit, the helper inside. Here they are: your three friends, your one God.

It's important to focus on the relationships between the three.

I think children can understand that. They know what it's like to have a person coming alongside to help them and serve them and lead them and direct them in one way or another. And if people teach that way, the need for unhelpful illustrations simply dissolves away, and you don't at any point need to run into abstractions. In fact, talking about the three friends means turning your back on abstractions just as it's turning your back on impersonal illustrations. So to answer the latter part of your question, abstraction doesn't enter into it. It's the doctrine of the three heavenly friends.

When we preach on the Trinity, we can talk about their collective unity and relationships, and we can talk about the individual members of the Trinity and their uniqueness as persons. What are the unique opportunities of preaching on the Trinity collectively?

The way into preaching on the Trinity collectively is to pick up and run with the idea of the Team and go on from there. In all human teams, of course, the players are separate persons, even though they work as a team. But in this particular team exercise we're talking about—in conversion, in just about every experiential reality of the Christian life—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all involved. The New Testament says so.

That's the way to take off, and then we can stress the fact that we are not tritheists, because the Bible all the way through insists that there's only one God. That's as much New Testament as it is Old. The New Testament all the way through holds to the relational pattern of the Son doing the Father's will, the Spirit doing the will of the Father and the Son, and the three being together in every stage of everyone's Christian life. But each is still distinct in the ministry that he has to the Christian, and in the relation that he bears to the other two persons.

And there are plenty of Scriptural texts that can be used to illustrate this. The Son completely and at every point does the will of the Father, according to John 6. He came into the world because the Father sent him, and lives in closest communion with the Father every moment. The end of the prologue in the first chapter of John's Gospel says the Son is in the Father's bosom, as the Greek is translated; the English Standard Version says the Father's embrace. Therefore, the Son, who is in the Father's embrace, has expounded and revealed the Father—that is, shown us fully what he's like because the Son is the split image of the Father.

You've got John four times in the early chapters of his Gospel speaking of the Son as the only Son. That phrase "only begotten"—as we now realize better, I think, than some of the earlier Christian theologians did—is a phrase that in Greek has the emphasis on the only. The idea is to emphasize the special affection that a father gives to an only son as distinct from one of a whole range of sons.

Well, you can preach whole sermons on the uniquely close relationship between the Father and the Son, and that is one side of the doctrine of the Trinity. Or, you can preach a whole range of sermons on the relation of the Holy Spirit to both the Father and the Son. There are a half a dozen texts you can pick up for this in the Lord Jesus' farewell discourse in John 14–16. He says that he will ask the Father, and the Father will send the Holy Spirit; that he will send the Holy Spirit; and that "when he comes, he will glorify me." He'll take of what's mine and show it to you.

And he will come as the second paraclete. Jesus is the first paraclete. Now, paraclete is a Greek word for which there isn't a single English equivalent. It does mean all the different things the translations offer as renderings—comforter and advocate and helper and supporter, and there are two or three more. Paraclete, paraklētos in the Greek, actually does mean all those things lumped together. Now, says Jesus, "I will ask the Father, and he'll send you another paraclete." The implication is, he is the first. So the one who comes to replace him will carry on his paraclete ministry. So one can preach in detail about the way in which the Holy Spirit carries on the personal ministry to needy persons, which the Lord Jesus began in his earthly life.

In the same way, one can collect texts about the Father sending the Spirit of his Son. Galatians 4 immediately comes to mind: Because you are sons—sons of God by adoption—God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, so that you cry—by instinct, as a spontaneous expression of what's in your heart—Father, Abba. It's the intimate family word for father in the first-century Jewish family.

So the Holy Spirit in your heart has so changed your nature that that's what is natural for you now. When I'm teaching about the new birth, I tell people one of the signs you're born again is that now it's natural for you to treat the God whom you once acknowledged, but didn't yet know, as your Father. You call on him as Father; you look to him and trust him as Father in the way that it's natural for a young child to do with his or her earthly father.

So it's important to focus on the relationships between the three: the Father and the Son, the Father and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit, the Son and the Father, the Father and the Son together sending the Spirit, and the Spirit appearing therefore as both the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of Christ. There's just so much there in the actual Scriptural texts to tease out and explain. It shouldn't be difficult for us preachers to say some really illuminating gospel things about the three persons of the Trinity.

In part three of this series, Dr. Packer discusses preaching on the individual members of 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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