I don’t know how much geography you remember, but probably enough to know that much of the Netherlands is below sea level. So, over the centuries, the Dutch have built defences to keep the water out. And obviously the trick is to build your defences where the land is most under threat. Well, this morning we begin a sermon series on the Nicene Creed. And creeds are like flood defences for the church – because there’s a whole sea of false teaching around us, coming from professedly Christian leaders and theologians, which if it gets into the church, does huge damage. So over the years, the church has built defences in the form of creeds – to keep false teaching out. And the trick is to build your defences where the truth is most under threat. That’s why there are a number of creeds, with different emphases, because they were written to defend against different errors.
So my first heading this morning is:
Firstly, WHY WE NEED CREEDS
Well, I’ve already said that creeds are defences against error. And the Nicene Creed was a defence against a bishop called Arius (who died in AD 336). And he said that Jesus could not have been fully God. He basically said, ‘Surely if you believe in God the Father and God the Son, you’re saying there are two Gods. But the Bible says there’s only one God; so Jesus could not have been fully God.’ So said Arius.
So a group of church leaders met for the council of Nicea (in AD 325) and drew up the Nicene Creed. And it says that the Bible lays down three truths that we must hold onto together without denying any of them. And they are:
1)There is one God
2)God is three Persons (Father, Son and Spirit)
3)Each person is fully God
And so, the Nicene Creed begins, ‘We believe in one God...’ – which was originally a defence against Arius saying, ‘Surely you believe in two – Father and Son.’
Well, we’ll come back to the truth of the trinity – to how we believe there’s one God, but that he is three persons. But first let me mention two other fronts where we need defences today. And the first is atheism. And that brings us to my second heading:
Second, TO ATHEISTS WE SAY, ‘WE BELIEVE IN ONE GOD – AS OPPOSED TO NO GOD’
So atheists say, ‘There is no God.’ So what does God think of them? Well, look at Psalm 14, v1:
1The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalm 14.1)
Now that word ‘fool’ doesn’t mean unintelligent. The ‘new atheists’ in the media today are highly intelligent men. No, the Old Testament (OT) – especially the book of Proverbs – uses that word to describe someone who’s so stubbornly committed to his personal belief that he’s simply not open to correction or new evidence or changing his mind. And the fool in Psalm 14 is stubbornly committed to the personal belief that there is no God.
And it’s very important to understand that atheism is a faith-position which can’t be proved by logic or observation. Sometimes atheists sound like their position is ‘proven fact’. But you can’t sit down with pen and paper and come up with an argument that disproves God – there is no such argument. And nor can scientific investigation disprove God, either. So when an atheist says, ‘There is no God,’ he’s not saying, ‘I’ve disproved him – so you’d be stupid to believe in him.’ He’s just saying, ‘I disbelieve in him – that’s my personal choice.’
So why do people make that choice? Well, look at the next verses printed out on the outline from Romans chapter 1 and v18:
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1.18-20)
So those verses say that just looking at the created universe (let alone the evidence of Jesus in the New Testament (NT)) should lead us to acknowledge the truth that there’s a Creator God. But, v18 says ‘men suppress that truth by their wickedness’ – ie, they ignore the evidence of himself that God has built into this universe, so that they can live as they please – rather than having to live as God would want them to. It’s like the person who ignores a speed limit so that he can get somewhere quicker. It doesn’t mean the sign was unconvincing. It just means the observer had a strong, personal agenda. And likewise, atheists saying, ‘There is no God’ doesn’t mean the evidence for God is unconvincing. It just means they have a strong, personal agenda not to go where the evidence points.
So don’t be shaken by atheists: they’ve not disproved God; they’ve just chosen to disbelieve in him. And if you find yourself talking with someone who says they’re an atheist, I suggest asking two questions. One is: Why do you believe there’s no God? What’s your reason or evidence for saying that? It’s always helpful to ask people why they believe what they believe – because quite often they haven’t really given it much thought. But then the other question is: does your belief explain your experience, and can you actually live by it? Eg, if you believe there’s no personal God who defines what’s good, then you can’t actually believe that anything is good or evil, or that people matter any more than slugs or stones, or that love is real. But our experience is that we do think there’s good and evil, and that people do matter more than slugs or stones, and that there is such a thing as love. But atheism can’t explain any of that.
Then the other front where we need defences is other religions. So that brings us to my third heading:
Third, TO OTHER RELIGIONS WE SAY, ‘WE BELIEVE IN ONE GOD – AND THAT YOURS IS FALSE’
Now, I know our culture says, ‘You can’t say that!’ – because it sees all beliefs as just personal opinions (of the ‘I believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden’ type), to be respected as ‘equally valid.’ But for a start, the law of non-contradiction says, ‘You must say that!’ – because the other religions contradict both one another and the gospel. So, eg, the gospel claims that Jesus was the Messiah who fulfilled the promises of the OT; whereas modern Judaism says he wasn’t – and that we’re still waiting for the Messiah. Or, eg, the gospel claims that Jesus was the Son of God and that his death on the cross for our forgiveness was the most important event in history; whereas Islam says Jesus was merely a prophet of God and implies that he didn’t die on the cross at all. There are huge contradictions between the claims of the gospel, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the lot. Which means: either all of them are false; or one of them is true and the others are false. What’s for sure is that they cannot all be true. And I’d say that whether or not I was a Christian – simply from believing the law of non-contradiction.
But I am a Christian – I’m convinced that Jesus was and is the Son of God, so what he says on any subject is my ultimate authority. And on this subject, he spoke clearly. Let’s look at John 14. This is John’s eye-witness record of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples the night before he died. Jesus is telling them he’s about to go away via his death on the cross and his resurrection. And they don’t understand what he’s saying. So look at John, chapter 14 and v5:
5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14.5-6)
So Jesus says there that he’s the truth about God – ie, he alone reveals what God is like absolutely truly. And Jesus also says he is the way into relationship with God – and that there is no other way. So if you accept the authority of Jesus and his words, you have to say to other religions, ‘We believe in one God – and, I’m afraid, that yours is false.’ Now for Judaism and Islam, some things they say about God are true precisely because they’re taken from the Bible (Judaism re-interprets the OT on the assumption that Jesus was not the Messiah; while Muhammad incorporated elements from the OT and NT into Islam.) But you have to say: the overall picture of God presented in Judaism and Islam is false, and that people are not being put right with God through them.
So onto my fourth and final heading – and back to the truth of the trinity:
Fourth, TO EVERYONE WE SAY, ‘WE BELIEVE IN ONE GOD – WHO IS THREE PERSONS’
Now as I’ve said, the Nicene Creed was a defence against Arius, who was saying, ‘Surely, if you believe in God the Father and God the Son, you’re saying there are two Gods.’ Now Arius didn’t actually raise the nature of the Holy Spirit – the church thrashed out the question of where he fits in later – but the same objection applies: ‘Surely if you believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, you’re saying there are three gods, aren’t you?’
Well, the Bible says ‘No’. Just turn on to 1 Corinthians 8 and v6:
6yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live... (1 Corinthians 8.6a)
So that’s saying loud and clear that there’s only one God – the Creator and supreme authority over this universe. But then read on in that very same verse:
... and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8.6b)
Now ‘Lord’ is the OT name for God (see, eg, Isaiah 45.18-25). So unashamedly, in the very same verse, the Bible says there is one God, the Father – and there’s another person who’s fully God (‘Lord’) as well – namely, Jesus Christ. And I could multiply examples of verses like that about Father and Son. And elsewhere, other verses of the Bible tell us that the Lord makes himself present with us in the person of his Holy Spirit, who is also fully God. So the hard facts of the Bible – the ‘data’ of verses like 1 Corinthians 8.6 – lead us to believe that there is one God who is three persons. Put all the data of the Bible together, and you’re hemmed in to saying that (unless you deny some of it).
Now some people say, ‘It’s a contradiction to say, ‘There is one God who is three persons – so one half of that statement must be false.’ But Christians want to say: it’s not a contradiction; it’s a mystery – ie, both halves of that statement are true, but our finite minds can’t fully understand how to put them together in a way that begs no further questions. But that doesn’t make the statement untrue. I once said that sort of thing to my Christianity Explored group, and one member of the group said, ‘That sounds perfectly reasonable to me: I don’t fully understand my wife – but I don’t doubt the truth of her existence.’ Maybe an illustration will help. Just imagine you had a billion piece jigsaw puzzle. And now imagine that that jigsaw puzzle stands for everything God knows – about himself and this universe. Well, having the Bible (lengthy as it appears) is like having, let’s say, just fifty pieces of that jigsaw. Which means we can know God, but we can’t understand him fully – not remotely. So imagine: here’s the piece of the puzzle that shows me God is Father; here’s the piece that shows me God is Son; and here’s the piece that shows me God is Spirit. And because I’ve only got fifty of the billion pieces, I can’t show you exactly how they fit together; but I trust that they do – I trust they belong to the same, coherent picture of the one God.
So listen to what the Nicene Creed says about the Son. It says he is ‘eternally begotten of the Father... not made, of one being with the Father’. ‘Eternally begotten’ means he’s always existed, eternally (unlike a human son who doesn’t exist before he’s ‘begotten’); ‘not made’ means he’s not part of God’s creation, but is part of God himself; and ‘of one being with the Father’ means he shares one and the same divine nature as the Father. And then listen to what the Nicene Creed says about the Spirit. It says he ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’ and that ‘with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified’ – ie, treated as God, alongside the Father and the Son. It sounds a bit of a mouthful - because it’s carefully chosen language to safeguard the truth. But the Nicene Creed is basically saying that God is three persons and that each person is fully God. Those are the three greatest bits of the jigsaw we have.
Now if you want to look up some of the Bible verses which, when put together, lead to the doctrine of the trinity, I suggest: John 1.1-2, 14-18 (Son = ‘the Word’); John 14.6-10 (Son); John 15.26 (Spirit), Acts 5.3-4 (Spirit); Matthew 28.19, 1 Corinthians 12.4-6, 2 Corinthians 13.14 (the three Persons together).
But let’s finish by asking: why does truth of the trinity matter? Isn’t it just an obscure piece of logic-chopping? Well let me mention four things:
1. The truth of the trinity means that ultimate reality is personal, relational and loving
The ultimate reality behind this universe is not impersonal matter, but a personal God. And it turns out that he is three persons who’ve always existed – as they always will – in loving, self-giving relationship. So, after performing a miraculous healing in John 5, the Lord Jesus said,
20‘For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does [with the sense of ‘involves him in all he does’]. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these [ie, than the miraculous healing that’s just been done]. 21For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. 22Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, 23that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father.’ (John 5.20-23)
So there you have the Father giving amazing responsibilities to his Son – sharing with him the right both to save and to judge. Then in other verses, we read about the Son loving his Father by giving himself up to his Father’s plan for our salvation and going to the cross for us. Eg, on the night before he died the Lord Jesus said:
30‘I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, 31but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.’ (John 14.30-31)
And then still other verses show us how both the Son and the Spirit want not to bring glory to themselves, but to see it given to the Father. Eg, speaking of the work of the Spirit in helping people see who Jesus really is, the Lord Jesus says:
14‘He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.’ (John 16.14)
So the Spirit doesn’t want to draw attention to himself – he wants to ‘bring glory to’ Jesus – ie, point people to Jesus. But Jesus then wants to point people to his Father – eg, he says:
49‘…I honour my Father and you dishonour me. 50I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge.’ (John 8.49-50)
Or again Jesus says:
13And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. (John 14.13)
So the Bible gives this amazing picture of three divine persons giving to one another in love – co-operating in the Father’s plan with absolutely no hint of ego or rivalry, but with willingness and joy. And if ultimate reality is like that, it means that giving of ourselves in loving relationships is what life is really all about. It’s not ultimately about accumulating possessions or experiences, as materialism says. It’s not ultimately about passing on your DNA as Richard Dawkins says. It’s about finding your identity in the thing that our culture most fears will lose it for you – namely, deep, personal commitment to other people.
2. The truth of the trinity means that Jesus reveals God truly and trustworthily
Just turn back again to John 14. And look again at v6:
6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. (John 14.6-10)
So Jesus claimed to reveal the truth about God the Father. But why can we trust that claim? Why can we say, ‘God is exactly like Jesus’? Well, Jesus says: because the Father is in him and he is in the Father. That’s his way of talking about the union between his Father and himself – not just a union of wills, but a union of nature underlying their union of wills. The way the Nicene Creed puts it is that the Son is ‘of one being with the Father’ – ie, they share one and the same divine nature. And that’s why to see Jesus in action was to see his Father in action – he revealed God perfectly. Now there are some things I do that are the same as my Dad – eg, having coffee black. In that particular respect – of having coffee black or white – if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen my father. But because we have two different human natures, that’s only true in some respects. Eg, he likes sugar in his coffee; I don’t. So looking at me won’t reveal my father to you. But God the Father and God the Son share one and the same divine nature, which is why we can say, ‘God is exactly like Jesus – in every respect.’
3. The truth of the trinity means that Jesus’ death really dealt with the judgement due to our sins
Today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses – like Arius, who sparked off the council of Nicea – deny that Jesus is fully God. And I remember one conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness where we got into the standard argument about their translation of the Bible – which twists the key verses about the full divinity of Jesus. And this guy was so well drilled in the JW line that there was no point in going over that ground again. So I changed tack and said, ‘Do you realise what’s at stake if you deny the full divinity of Jesus?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘What’s at stake is whether or not his death on the cross was an ordinary human death, or whether it was a death that took away the judgement due to us because it was a divine person paying for sins that were not his own.’ And he’d never had that explained to him before. And that’s a big part of the argument of the NT book of 1 John: that if you knock one truth (denying the full divinity of Jesus), you demolish another truth (the effectiveness of the cross to pay for the forgiveness of sins).
4. The role relationships between the sexes
The Bible teaches that in both church life and married life, there’s a God-ordained difference in roles between men and women. Eg, in marriage, Ephesians 5 says that the husband is the ‘head’ of the wife – implying self-sacrificial leadership – and that the wife is to ‘submit’ to his headship. And it’s often been argued that difference in roles – and especially that call for submissiveness – must imply the inferiority of women. For some women, that is what’s driven their campaign for the ordination of women to all roles, identically to men, in the ministry of the church. But knowing about the trinity tells us that difference in role simply does not imply inferiority of persons. Just look at 1 Corinthians 11.3, to close:
3Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Corinthians 11.3)
And that last bit is another extraordinary window onto the relationships within the trinity: it tells us that the head of Christ (ie, the Son) is God (the Father). Ie, there is authority assumed and submission given between Father and Son – and yet the Son is equal to the Father (see Philippians 2.6) and no inferiority is implied. And if that’s true of relationship within the trinity, surely that’s also true in these role relationships between the sexes – relationships created in the image of God. We can be given different roles, with no inferiority implied.
Well, that’s both covered a lot of ground and merely scratched the surface. But those are some of the things we’re affirming every time we say those first five words of the Nicene Creed: ‘We believe in one God...’ We’re saying, ‘We believe in one God as opposed to no God; we believe in this God – the God of the Bible – as opposed to any other; and we believe in a God who is three-personal and who provides the model for all our own personal relationships.