In speaking of the Trinity, the problem is not to divide the essence of the One God, or confuse the three persona or faces, which the One God has revealed to us: the face of the Father, the face of the Son, and the face of the Holy Spirit.
The term “Trinity” was first used in the 2nd century A.D. by a great scholar of the church named Tertullian; and it was not given it final form until the early 4th century. Though the Trinity of God was not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. It is there in its implicit, rudimentary form, especially in the various liturgical formulations of the early church. For instance, in Matthew 28, the Risen Christ tells his disciples that they are to make disciples of all nations and baptize them “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
It is especially fitting that baptism is distinctly Trinitarian, because salvation itself is the cooperative work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Another word for Salvation is Justification. My father used to say, “When I am justified, it is ‘just-as-if-I’ed’ never sinned.” In Romans 5 we read about how the Trinity is active for our Justification. The apostle writes:
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
In the New Testament, salvation is the work of the Trinity. Therefore, it is not surprising that that the Ancient Moravian Unity used the language of the Trinity in describing the Essentials of salvation. From God’s point of view, just three things were considered Essential.
- The gracious will of God the Father for our salvation.
- The meritorious saving Work of Jesus, including his incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and rule.
- The gifts (or, more accurately the operation) of the Holy Spirit. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convince the world and the individual believer concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment. And to reproduce the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer.
From the human point of view, there was just one Essential. “The Unity Book of Order” spoke of: “A heart relationship with the Triune God that issued in faith, love and hope.”
The Ancient Unity made a distinction between these Essentials, and Ministerials, and Non-Essentials. You have heard about the Essentials. Ministerials were defined as things like, but not limited to, the Bible and the Sacraments. Non-Essentials were then defined as things like the way the congregations served the love feasts, governed themselves, or performed any the other tasks that make our life together possible.
Now some people are chagrin to hear that the Ancient Unity classed the Sacraments, and the Bible as Ministerials, not Essentials. Yet this makes Perfect sense. The Essential is our relationship with God. The Ministerials are those things that lead us into that relationship. They are a means, but never an end in themselves. Baptism is over in a moment, but it we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6), and guarantees our. inheritance until we receive possession of it (Ephesians 1:14) The Holy Communion is frequently repeated, but it is not an end in itself. It, too, is the means by which we draw near to Jesus Christ. Jesus said that the bread was his body, broken for us, and he called the cup, the cup of the new covenant in his blood, which is shed for us, and for many, for the forgiveness of sin. He said that when we eat his flesh and drink his blood we abide in him, and he is us. (John 6:56)
The Bible is also the means by which we draw near to Jesus Christ. To quote one of our hymnists:
It is the golden casket*
Where gems of truth are stored;
It is the heaven-drawn picture
Of Christ, the living Word.
*When the hymn was written it was understood that a casket is a small chest for holding jewels. Only in more recent days, and only in America, has a coffin been called a casket.
The goal of the Bible is not to draw us to itself, but to draw us into itself and beyond itself. It seeks to move us from the “heaven-drawn picture” to “Christ, the Living Word.”
This doctrine is not exclusive to the Moravian Church. For instance, St. Augustine said that, if a person is resting in faith, hope and love, and keeps a firm hold upon these, he or she does not need the scriptures, except for the purpose of instructing others.
In the history of the church, many have lived without the scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of the three graces: faith, hope, and love. For more than a thousand years the vast majority of Christians were denied the comfort of the scriptures. The early church used the language of the people, but by the 4th century, the service of the church was in Latin, a language spoken only by clergy and the upper classes. It was not until the 15th Century that John Hus started to preach in the language of the people. And it was not until the 16th century that the Ancient Moravian Unity completed the very first translation of the Bible in the common language of the people.
Even in the modern era, some Christians have been denied the comfort of the scriptures. Let me give you an example. In the Marines, I had a battalion Commander from Mississippi who was a devout Catholic. While we were deployed in the Caribbean, his brother, an Air Force fighter pilot was released from North Vietnam where he had been a Prisoner Of War. He, too, was a devout Catholic, yet, like most POW’s he was denied the right to read the Bible, yet he never wavered in his relationship to God. Many Christian POW’s, like those who have been imprisoned for their faith, have testified to the truth of Romans 8:38-39:
38 For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now let us look more closely at what the Ancient Unity called the Essentials of Salvation.
1. The first essential is the gracious will of God the father for our salvation.
I have frequently listened as some well meaning preacher described how Jesus, the Son of God, sacrificed himself on the cross in order to pacify an angry and wrathful God who wished noting more than to plunge all humanity into the depths of hell. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the New Testament it is God who is the architect of our salvation from first to last. It is God the Father who loved us so much that he sent the son into the world. It is God the Father who willed that Jesus Christ be lifted up on the cross to die for our sins. And it is God the Father who lifted Jesus to the right hand of the majesty on high. Christ is the head of his body the church, and where the head goes, the body will follow. When Jesus cried out from the cross saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabathani?”, which is to say, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me.” His pathos was absolutely shared by the Father. A painting in the national gallery shows Christ on his cross surrounded by clouds and darkness. If one looks closer, one sees that the figure of God the Father is hidden in the clouds and darkness, and it is the Father’s hands that support the outstretched arms of Christ, and the Father’s tears, that drip hot upon the face of the Son. This picture perfectly captures the message of the New Testament regarding the relationship between the Father and the Son.
2. The second essential is the meritorious saving work of Jesus Christ.
The saving work of Christ consist of two grand movements: Down and then Up. First, the movement is down. Perfect God becomes Perfect man. In the incarnation and death of Jesus, the Eternal Son robes himself in human flesh, and walks among us, and sacrifices himself for our sins. Then the movement is up. Perfect Man become Perfect God. In the Resurrection, and Ascension, Jesus lifts our humanity into heaven to the right hand of the Majesty on high. Emil Brunner calls this two-fold movement the Parabola of redemption. Brunner says that at its lowest point, the cross, exaltation has already begun. As Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted-up, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) Certainly, the cross of Christ is God at his most heroic. Not long ago I attended the movie, “Batman vs. Superman.” I did so because I heard it was powerful theology, and I wanted to see it for myself. There is one point where this is powerful theology is supremely revealed. Superman, who is almost indestructible, and almost a god, like the mythical Gods of Greece and Rome, has Batman in choke hold. He says, “I can kill you anytime I choose.” Batman, who is fully human, with no super powers, responds, “You are no hero, only men are heroes.” That is a great line, and it is perfectly true. Only men can be heroes, because only men can sacrifice themselves for another. Of course, there is one exception, in Jesus Christ God became a man so that he could be a hero for all of us, and teach us how to be heroes, too. Nowhere is God more heroic and appealing than in the cross of the Eternal. As the apostle writes. I once told a dying man that the only God I can believe in is the God of the Cross. Though a declared agnostic, he responded, “Yes, he is the only God I can believe in, too.” Of course the cross of Christ is not the bad end of a good man, it is a road traveled once, for all, by our now Risen and Victorious Lord and Savior.
3. The third essential is gifts (or operation) of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit convinces us of sin and righteousness and judgment. Though we cannot, by our own reason and strength, come to Jesus Christ, or believe in him, the Spirit calls us and enlightens us by his gifts. Then, when we have become disciples of Jesus, the Spirit seals us, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, even more hope—the kind we need now, in this life, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
These three Essentials represent what God has to do to accomplish our salvation. Our part is a mirror of it. We must enter into a heart relationship with the triune God that issues in faith, love and hope.
The Moravians put faith first because this is where it starts. St. Paul said: “If you confess with your lips, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This is not a purely emotional movement. In the Bible the heart is the center of the mind, emotions, and will. It is a decision to submit to God. Billy Graham says we cannot have Jesus as Savior, unless we also accept him as Lord. He has a plan for humanity, and his followers must be a part of it.
The Moravians put love next, because this is where we live. Once we come to Christ in faith, God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit God gives to us. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, for Christ desires to live in us and through us. Nothing could be finer; and nothing could be more of a challenge.
The Moravian put hope last, because our hope of sharing the glory of God is reserved for next life. In this life, Christ calls us to take up a cross, and follow him. Some say, “The cross that Christ gives is like wings to a bird.” My dad said his faith cost him nothing. Other say that the cross is not a cross unless we must, from time to time, cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I have known both realities, and I can promise you nothing different. I can promise that once you have lived in a world that filled is with One God, who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you will never again be satisfied to live in a world that is filled with gods of your own making, and you will certainly never be satisfied to live anymore in a world that without God and without hope.