A Personal God

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This Sunday we are starting a new series of studies entitled the God Who is There. This morning I am starting with "A Personal God". And I shall be referring to 1 Peter chapter 1 verses 1-3.

The majority of people in the United Kingdom say they believe in God. But what sort of a God? The fact is that in Western Europe since the Reformation there has been a programme of what has been called "God Shrinking". A book was published by the Bible translator, J.B.Phillips, some years ago with the title, "Your God is too Small". For many, he was so right. The Protestant Reformation recovered the God of the Bible in fundamental ways. But since then he has been systematically reduced. In the 18th century the deists said that God had just created the world, but was now not involved in it - so there certainly were no miracles. In the 19th century liberal theologians said God didn't communicate with the world. So the Bible is not God's word. And in the 20th century after Darwin, Marx and Freud had done their work (and their worst) some secularists were saying that "God is dead".

Many, however, still believe - but in what sort of a God? For some it is a benign Father Christmas figure, who is infinitely tolerant, totally non-demanding and overlooks all sorts of sins particularly the sins of sexual immorality. For others it is a God who is a cosmic principle rather than a sovereign person. This is the God of the New Agers. Then - and more importantly - there are those who believe in the God of Mohammed.

Yes, Christianity is growing world-wide at a remarkable rate (in Western Europe we find that hard to believe). But Islam is growing too. One billion people are now Muslims - one in six people on this planet. So what is the nature of the God of Mohammed or the God of Islam? A book has recently appeared with the title: "Is the father of Jesus the God of Mohammed?" That is a vital question. In fact it is the key question. What matters is not whether people believe in God.

You don't need pollsters to tell you that pretty well everybody believes in something that, if not someone who, is ultimate. The key question, however, is, "What is the nature of what is believed to be ultimate - what is it or he or she, like?" And there are so many answers these days - but they are not the answer of the bible - namely that Jesus alone shows us God and alone is like God. So what is the God of Mohammed like? Is he like the father of Jesus? Perhaps you say, "he must be, because Islam like Judaism is similar in a number of ways to Christianity." Well, yes, in some ways it is.

First, unlike a number of religions Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all historical religions. They all say that God has acted decisively in human history. For the Jews it was at the Exodus; for Christians it was in the birth, life, death and Resurrection of Jesus; for Muslims it was with the revelation Mohammed claimed 600 years after Jesus.

Secondly, they are all "religions of the book" - for the Jews it is the law and the prophets (the Old Testament). For Christians it is the whole Bible (the Old and New Testaments). For Muslims it is the Qur'an.

Thirdly, they all believe in an "end". They all see an end to history. They do not believe that life is just a cycle and we all reincarnated after death - like some religious people believe. No! They all believe that history had a beginning and it will have an end.

Those are indeed similarities. But having said that, at the heart of the Christian faith is a total and complete difference. And the difference is centred on the nature of this God who acts in history, who inspires the Bible, and who will act as judge of all one day. For this God, says the bible, has a name. It is not just "God" or - to use the Arabic translation - "Allah". His full name is "the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." The last words of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew 28.19 were these:

"... go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Notice it is "in the name of" singular - not "in the names of" the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." And this is how our God is "A PERSONAL GOD". He is one God but in three persons. So this morning I want us to focus on the Trinity. And I have just two headings: first, THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY and, secondly, PETER'S APPLICATION OF THAT DOCTRINE.


First, THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY

The truth of the Trinity can be neglected by too many Christians. And that is dangerous.

The classic expression of Trinitarian faith is in the Athanasian Creed. In the Church of England the Athanasian Creed used to be said at certain times in the year. It is hardly ever said now. However, at least Anglicans observe Trinity Sunday and regularly remind themselves of the Trinity when they say Psalms together and conclude with the Gloria. The Gloria is made up of words of praise that remind us both of the permanent relevance of what we have just been saying and of the reality of the Trinity. Many free church folk never do any of that. And that is not good. Can I say that to help you this morning (at the back of the church for you to take) are copies of the Coloured Supplement I wrote in May 1997. That contains the Athanasian Creed and my comments on it.)

You see, the Trinity is simply biblical teaching. It is there in the Bible - it is clear from the New Testament and is foreshadowed in the Old Testament. And that biblical teaching on the Trinity is summed up in Article I of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England like this:

"There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance [or we might say 'being'], power and eternity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost [or Spirit]."

That is to say God is as truly three as he is one and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are coequal, coeternal, uncreated, undivided though distinguishable. That is just New Testament teaching.

In the Gospels Jesus made it clear that he himself is divine and to be worshipped, but he is not the same person as the Father, whose will he does and to whom he prays. He also made it clear that the Holy Spirit, who was going to come as his deputy, was a further divine person in the same way as he was a divine person. Study John's Gospel for the clearest teaching on all of this.

But, alongside that "threeness", and it is a big "but", Jesus taught in Mark 12.29 the absolute truth of the Jewish Confession of faith in Deuteronomy 6.4:

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one."

Yes, Jesus taught the threeness of the persons who were in a relationship of love - so God is love. But he also emphasized the oneness. Similarly Paul the apostle could write in 2 Corinthians 13.14 his great Trinitarian prayer:

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all."

Yet that same Paul said there was "one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph 4.6).

But that is the God of the Bible. Yes, the teaching is complex. So we don't always like to think about it - that is until a Jehovah's Witness knocks at our door, or a Mormon. And then we don't always know what to say. Or perhaps we meet a Muslim and then we discover that they do not worship a God like that at all. Yes, we all talk about "God" or, in Arabic, "Allah". But what is believed about him is so very different. So the Muslim can say to us:

"Why continue to believe in three Gods? Our Qu'ran says, 'They do blaspheme who say, "God is Christ the son of Mary" (Surah 5.74) and it says, 'They do blaspheme who say: "God is one of three in a Trinity; for there is no god except One God." If they desist not from their word of blasphemy, verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them' (Surah 5.76)."

And we have gently to say, "but Jesus actually taught otherwise."

Now there may have been heretical Christians at the time of Mohammed who taught that God had a wife named Mary with whom he had intercourse, and the baby was Jesus. And Mohammed was reacting to that heresy. If so, it would show how important it is to stop heresy. But it doesn't show that Mohammed was right. In fact he was wrong. He did not understand the teaching of Jesus as you have it in the Bible.

However, because Christians can become heretical about the Trinity as happened in those early centuries - and ever since - that is why the creeds were written, in particular the Athanasian Creed. You see the bible is clear that God is the high and holy one. That was Isaiah's great message as we heard in our Old Testament reading. And listen to Isaiah 55.8-9:

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. {9} "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

There is so much about God that we will never understand (certainly this side of heaven) - his sovereignty, his election, his creative power, his omniscience, his love - there is so much. And we will never fully understand the Trinity. But Trinitarian heresy comes about when people with finite human minds try to explain our infinite God to make sense of him for themselves. They do not simply accept God's revelation that he is one God in three persons and then praise him as the great triune God. Rather they try to simplify - and with disastrous consequences.

One of the first heresies was that of Marcion. He liked Jesus and the New Testament but he didn't like the God of the Old Testament, God the Father. So he wrote the Old Testament out of his bible - and liberal theologians have been doing that ever since.

Then there was Sabellius. He said the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were not distinct persons but just aspects of God. Today he would have said it was like Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets or Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove where one person plays several roles. (Even some Evangelical Christians are tempted with this idea).

Then there is the idea of Arius - the idea that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not personally divine, but are God's two best creatures. They are at the top of creation, but not divine. Jehovah's witnesses also think that, as do a lot of multi-faithers. And then there are the people who do believe in "three Gods" - like the Mormons.

So how we need to remind ourselves of the Athanasian Creed! It does not so much define the truth as rule out what is wrong. It is like a fence around a field protecting precious crops. The fence keeps out animals that would eat the crops. But like all fences, the crop is the important thing. And for us the crop is the message of the gospel. The message is this: Jesus, the divine and sinless Lord, was sent by the Father into this world to bear our sins on the Cross so that we might be free and secure for all eternity. And the Holy Spirit is the divine spirit who gives us new birth and new life when we are forgiven; he opens our blind spiritual eyes to the truth of God's word; and he equips us to serve and live for Christ.

Well, that is the doctrine of the Trinity in very brief outline.


Secondly, PETER'S APPLICATION OF THAT DOCTRINE

Look now again at 1 Peter 1.1-3 - our New Testament reading. Paul we have seen is Trinitarian. John, the other great apostle, writes even more fully about the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus also calls the Counsellor. Chapter 1 of his Gospel that we read at Christmas time is essential reading for understanding the Trinity.

But the apostle Peter is also Trinitarian. So here in verses 1-2 you have God the Father electing; God the Son shedding his blood; and God the Holy Spirit sanctifying. And read those verses with your Trinitarian spectacles on - not with those "God shrunken" ones that are only too easy to be wearing these days. And then think what this means.

First, Peter says in verse 1, he is "an apostle of Jesus Christ." But this Jesus is none other than the Word of God who John, like Paul, tells us is God's agent in creation: "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1.3). And this Jesus is the very Son of the living God - eternal before all creation. And Peter is his apostle - his delegate who is speaking his message. How we ought, therefore, to listen to Peter's words.

Secondly, Peter is writing "to God's elect ... (verse 2) who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood." Now if you have a shrunken God, you read that and think "Oh no! I can't cope with all that stuff - that looks like 'predestination' to me. And that makes God look very unfair." But if you have your Trinitarian spectacles on, you don't say that. Instead you say,

"I cannot understand all about election as I can't understand all about the Trinity. And I don't expect to understand fully this side of heaven. But I can see that this is not a denial of human freedom. For Peter tells us that we are 'chosen ... for obedience to Jesus Christ'. We are not chosen to be automated followers of Jesus Christ, but free-will obeyers."

So you then think again about election and you think about it in the light of the Old Testament. There God chose Israel from among the other peoples. This was not because of any good they had done, or deserved, or because they were very attractive and likeable. No! It was because God loved them with a love that was totally undeserved. And then you think about these people Peter is writing to.

Many of them, we know, were at the lower end of society - slaves or very poor Christians. But they knew that "they were chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father." They were only too aware that they were people of no significance in the world's eyes. But they knew they were of great significance in God's eyes. Indeed, his plan for them was traced right back not to creation but, as the bible says, to before creation. So they knew that they were all part of God's divine purpose and providence. And he was a loving God so they had great assurance for the future. But any privileges they had were not so as to be idle. No! They were for "obedience to Jesus Christ". And in chapter 2 verse 9 Peter says this:

"you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, [not that you may sit and do nothing, but] that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

And those "praises" were to be declared both to God and to those who were still in darkness. Of course, with such a high calling, they must trust God and allow the Holy Spirit to do his sanctifying work so they could effectively obey Jesus Christ. But all the time they must be thankful that Christ died for them on Calvary for their sins - that his blood was sprinkled (or spilt) so that they could be free and forgiven. So what should be their response? What should be our response to such a God? Look at verse 3:

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."

Can you say that? Try changing the "us" to a "me". "In his great mercy he has given me new birth." If you can't say that, why not pray this morning that God the Father will send God the Holy Spirit to open your spiritual eyes and give you his gift of faith - faith in God the Son, the risen Jesus Christ?

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