The Trinity: Our Great Heritage
Lutherans today, as in the Augsburg Confession, confess the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as found in the Nicene Creed and defined by the first four ecumenical councils. 1 But by the time of the Reformation it had become clear that in spite of the preservation of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, God was not clearly known since the gospel had become obscured, for:
[T]o know God’s essence means to know ‘the most profound depths of his fatherly heart, and his sheer, unutterable love’ (Large Catechism II, 64). To know God’s love means to receive his gracious love. However, the love of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is not given through the demands of the law but through the gift of the Gospel. The triune God therefore is known only in the distinction of the law and Gospel, that is, by faith in the Gospel. 2
We exclude any doctrine of the Trinity which is not governed by the distinction between law and gospel, which is the Word of the cross.
The Cross: Where we begin
In Luther’s phrasing, “The cross alone is our theology” (cf 1 Cor 2:2). That is, through the death of his Son on the cross, the Triune God established his own righteousness. What does this mean? Looking at the problem of sin and death, the Lord dealt with it his own way-on the cross, he did this alone-without us, and it is finished. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees that his death on the cross is not defeat, but victory. It is the cross that reveals our need of the Savior and the Savior we need. The proclamation of the cross is the gospel.
Thus the gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). Through this Word alone we are saved. But what is this Word alone? First, the Word alone is Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14). Second, the Word alone is the proclamation of the Word of the cross effecting salvation and creating faith (Rom 10:17; 1 Cor 1:18, 21). Third, the Holy Scripture inspired by God is the Word alone witnessing to Jesus Christ and testifying to the Word of the cross. The scriptural witness is the sole norm for all formulations of the gospel. A careful distinction must be drawn, however, between faith itself as trust in God’s promises, and those aspects of the faith of the Church which are responses to the divine promise through canon, creed, confession, teaching, and doctrinal formulations.
The gospel (the promise of God) does indeed have a specifiable ‘knowledge’ content. 3 But the authority of this content, Lutherans believe, is established by its power to convict of sin and convince of grace through the work of the Holy Spirit. 4
The gospel, so to speak, establishes its own transcendence. Its truth becomes known and its authority acknowledged only upon being heard through the Word, received in the sacraments, and believed through the power of the Spirit. 5
We exclude any teaching which diminishes the offense and folly of the cross (1 Cor 1:23) by the use of human reason or by appealing to tradition or experience.
Sin and Death: Our Problem
We are in bondage to sin (John 8:34) and death (Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 15:26, 56) and cannot free ourselves. From birth on we are in rebellion against God. We will not let God be God. “[We] cannot by our own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ [our] Lord or come to him . . .” (SC 2/3, §6). Only because of what God has done through the cross do we know the seriousness of sin and, because he alone established his righteousness through the cross, do we know our helplessness before sin. 6 We are not free not to sin.
- the belief that sin is part of our very being so that we are excused from any responsibility.
- the belief that we are able to comprehend the depth and the seriousness of sin through our own experience.
- the belief that there is something in us which naturally points or leads us to the truth of the gospel (a divine spark). 7
The Word of the cross is: we are elected to eternal life solely for the sake of Christ’s death and resurrection, apart from any merit or worthiness in us (Rom 10:17; 1 Cor 1:18, 21). Through this Word alone God puts us to death and raises us to new life (Rom 6:4), that is, he creates faith. Thus faith is not a work of our own doing. It is always God’s work, for the Holy Spirit is the one who “calls [us] through the gospel, enlightens [us] with his gifts, and sanctifies and keeps [us] in true faith” (SC 2/3, §6). In faith we trust in the Word of the cross, not in our own faith, even though it is we who have faith.
The Word of the cross comes to us through means (SA 3/4); God does his saving work in all of them. The Word of the cross is in the mouth of the preacher, driving the sinner to repentance and announcing the forgiveness of sin. In baptism, by water and the Word, the sinner is drowned and raised by God’s grace and given new birth. Infant baptism is an especially dramatic example of how God works. By water and the Word alone he creates and sustains faith in the infant. 8 The Lord’s Supper, Christ’s Last Will and Testament, is his true Body and Blood in, with, and under the bread and the wine, sustaining us in faith and life eternal according to his Word and Institution. In confession and absolution his Word of pardon sets the sinner free from the past and opens up a future that not even death can destroy. In the mutual conversation and consolation of the faithful, the Word of the cross raises up a community in which sinners are reconciled to God and to each other, a foretaste of his kingdom.
The Word is always both law and gospel. On this side of death we are always completely caught by sin and fully forgiven through the gospel. 9 The one justified continues to be subject to sin: we are obedient to the will of God, yet against our own will. In faith we return every day to our baptism. The Word of the cross shows the brokenness of all our thoughts, words, and deeds. We cannot look to anything in us, but depend entirely on the promise of God’s unconditional mercy through the cross of Jesus Christ. 10
The power of the Word of the cross to convict of sin and convince of grace is the article by which the church stands or falls, that is, because God justifies the ungodly, forgiving sinners for Christ’s sake, nothing else can be trusted for salvation. All teaching and practice are to be tested by this one criterion: whether they further the proclamation of this gospel.
- the attempt to make grace into an abstract idea (gnosis), omitting the cross.
- the confusion of this gospel with the various kinds of therapy promoted in our culture.
- the belief that God’s righteousness through the cross is not an adequate and complete solution to the problem of evil.
The Word of the cross comes to us earthly creatures through earthly means: words, water, bread and wine. The gospel by its very nature turns us back into the world, creating both church and mission. 11
The New Testament does not prescribe any particular structure for mission and church except for establishing that Jesus Christ continues to be the Lord of his mission and the Lord of his Church, regardless of the shape of these structures. Thus, while the true church is not invisible (i.e., it has visible means ), it is always both hidden under the cross and revealed through the cross (Ap 7-8:18). All structures and practices for church and mission, like all our works, are broken. They are earthly and sinful. Jesus Christ retains his Lordship.
Therefore it is sufficient for the true unity of the Church that the gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with this gospel (AC 7). No particular structures may be prescribed. Their shape and use are determined by whatever best serves the mission of preaching the truth of the gospel. Just as we are all free in Christ (cf. Gal 5:1), so too we are free to use whatever structures further the proclamation of the Word of the cross.
“Through Word and sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, and the Holy Spirit produces faith, where and when it pleases God, in those who hear the gospel” (AC 5; cf. Rom 10:17). All Christians receive the Holy Spirit through baptism, and all Christians are called to proclaim the Word of the cross in word and in deed (the priesthood of all believers).
For the sake of good order (1 Cor 14:40) and mission a variety of public structures for proclamation has developed (Ap 14:1), but already in the New Testament the variety of such structures demonstrates that no particular structure was normative. 12 The Lord is free to use many kinds of structures for his mission.
Through the Word our brokenness is forgiven by Jesus Christ and we are free to live in a broken world, trusting in the Word of the cross alone; we are not free to surrender our freedom by establishing structures which are held to safeguard the gospel from the brokenness of this world.
- the attempt to use the doctrine of the unity of the church to determine the truth of the gospel.
- the belief that anyone or anything (such as bishops in an historic episcopate) except the Word of the cross “safeguards” the gospel or establishes its “fidelity.” 13 The gospel authenticates itself.
- elevating any structure or practice-except proclaiming the Word and administering the sacraments-to the level of a requirement for mission and Church, so that it is held to safeguard the gospel from the brokenness of this world.
- distinguishing between the audible Word (i.e., the preached Word) and the visible Word (i.e., the sacraments) in such a way that the visible Word is given elevated status over the preached Word.
- restricting the administration of the Lord’s Supper to the “ordained” in such a way that implies ordained clergy have a special character or power to make Christ present in the Sacrament.
- establishing any structure in the church which limits the freedom to proclaim the Word of the cross even to the church, i.e., the church too, like every Christian, is totally sinful, even in its structure, as well as totally righteous. 14
Life in Christ is always both law and gospel, which are to be distinguished but not separated. Life in the gospel under the Word of the cross banishes the use of reason and the law, yet the law always accuses us (Ap 4:167; SA 3/2: 4-5). Life under the law is life where common reason and common sense determine what is necessary to restrain evil (SA 3/2:1-3).
Both our Lord and the Apostle Paul sum up the law in terms of self-denying love (Mt 22:34-40; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 10:27-40; Rom 13:10). As a consequence, we are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, because the Word of the cross has already shown we are broken in all that we do (“All our righteous deeds are filthy rags.” Is 64:6), we do not grow in holiness, but begin every day anew with our baptism, living by forgiveness, at the foot of the cross, not even judging ourselves (1 Cor 4:3-4).
On the other hand, our righteousness as Christians cannot grow at all because it is the perfect righteousness of Christ, which we have received in faith. Our good works are nothing other than the fruits and visible signs of his righteousness. We no longer regard anyone “from a human point of view” (2 Cor 5:16), for this is “one for whom Christ has died” (Rom 14:15; cf. 1 Cor 8:11). We are commanded to love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13:34). This kind of extravagant love is such that no one but Christ himself fulfills its demands (cf. 1 Cor 13:4-8a; Mt 5:48). Such a law only accuses us.
To use Luther’s remarkable words: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” 15 Always totally sinful and totally justified, we are called to use our common reason in order to restrain evil and provide for the proclamation of the Word of the cross. Therefore we have a commitment to protecting the family, the child, the weak, and the impaired.
- the belief that because we are forgiven we may sit on our hands (quietism) or say that anything goes before God (relativism).
- the appeal to experience and feelings as guides superior to our common reasoning, as if they were exempt from our common brokenness under the cross.
- the belief that “saints” are more than forgiven sinners.
- the belief that “good works” do not spring solely from his righteousness
1 Nicea: 325; Constantinople: 381; Ephesus: 431; Chalcedon: 451. Return to text
2 The entire paragraph reads as follows:
The Triune God is not yet known if he is presented without the distinction of law and Gospel. In the Roman church the dreadful fact had become evident that, in spite of the preservation of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, God was not known any more, since the Gospel had been lost. But to know God’s essence means to know ‘the most profound depth of his fatherly heart, and his sheer, unutterable love’ (L.C. II, 64). To know God’s love means to receive his gracious love. However, the love of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is not given through the demands of the law but through the gift of the Gospel. The triune God, therefore, is known only in the distinction of law and Gospel, that is, by faith in the Gospel. The train of thought in this chapter has shown that the Creator is known only in the Gospel. The same holds true of knowing God the Sanctifier, for the Holy Spirit is given only through the Gospel. Of every knowledge of God the statement applies: ‘Thus the entire Holy Trinity, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, directs all men to Christ as to the book of life’ (S.D. XI, 66).
Edmund Schlink, Theology of the Lutheran Confessions (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961) 66. Emphasis in the text.
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3 Cf. Gerhard Forde, “Infallibility Language and the Early Lutheran Tradition,” Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue 6 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978) especially the Appendix 135-37. Return to text
4 L/RC 6:63. Return to text
5 L/RC 6:62. Return to text
6 LW 26:32-35. Return to text
7 Also excluded are the Roman Catholic notions of habitus and synterisis, which hold that every person has a natural bent or inclination toward God. Return to text
8 “Water by itself is only water, but with the Word of God it is a life-giving water which by grace gives the new birth through the Holy Spirit,” (Small Catechism 4:3; cf. Book of Concord, p.349). Return to text
9 simul totus iustus et totus peccator Return to text
10 We fall into the sin of presumption when we look to ourselves (securitas); the certainty (certitudo) of our salvation depends entirely on the Word of the cross. Return to text
11 “Our churches also teach that one holy church is to continue forever. The church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (CA, VII, §1). Return to text
12 In Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue 4 (New York: LWF, 1970) 100, Jerome Quinn, writing for the Roman Catholics, acknowledges that in the New Testament period “differences in structuring the Ministry existed simultaneously in different churches (Jerusalem; Corinth; Ephesus; Rome, etc.).” The Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue II Report and Recommendations (Cincinnati: Forward Movement, 1981) 40 notes that the Lutheran/Catholic dialogue acknowledges the diversity of church order found in the New Testament period. Return to text
13 See CCM 5: “a ministry of pastoral oversight (episkope)…is necessary…to safeguard the unity and apostolicity of the church,” and 12: “Both churches value a ministry of episkope as one of the ways in which the apostolic succession of the church is visibly expressed and personally symbolized in fidelity to the gospel through the ages.” Return to text
14 AC 28:77: “It is not our intention that the bishops give up their power to govern, but we ask for this one thing, that they allow the Gospel to be taught purely.” Cf. AC 7: ” The church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely….” The link between AC 7 and AC 28:77 is found in the word purely (Latin: pure). To proclaim the gospel purely undermines the sacramental Historic Episcopate because to proclaim the gospel purely overthrows all authorities that appeal to something else besides faith alone in Christ alone. Return to text
15 LW 31:344. Return to text