Making the Most of Trinity Sunday

|

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

One week after Pentecost Sunday is Trinity Sunday. Since I agree with Michael F. Bird that renewed Trinitarian theology is one of four things that is needed to renew the evangelical churches, I’m excited by anything that draws our attention to the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, setting aside one Sunday to focus on the Trinity risks isolating the doctrine and reinforcing the common notion that it is a confusing and esoteric belief—necessary to affirm but basically irrelevant. Pastors who are weak in their own trinitarian theology may feel compelled to speak about the doctrine, regurgitate a few common propositions, fall back on some misleading illustrations, and ultimately do more harm than good. Ben Myers once began a 58-tweet thread on the Trinity by asking, “How to combat trinitarian heresies? Start by abolishing Trinity Sunday, that fateful day on which preachers think they have to explain it.”

While I’m not convinced that we need to abolish Trinity Sunday (though it is a fairly recent addition to the liturgical calendar), there are some common pitfalls to avoid. Here are a few ways to make the most of Trinity Sunday.

1. Explain its connection to the Easter season. The Easter season is a fifty-day period that begins on Easter Sunday, runs through Ascension Day (forty days after Easter), and concludes with Pentecost Sunday. Even before Easter, during Holy Week, we set aside days to focus on the many beautiful colors of the gospel story. We give focused attention to the work of the Son in the incarnation, from his death and resurrection to his ascension and enthronement as king of the universe. Then we give focused attention to the work of the Spirit at Pentecost, whose divine mission is to apply the work which Christ has accomplished.

It is in the missions of the Son and the Spirit that the Trinity has been revealed to us. We know that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because the Father sent the Son and the Spirit into the world for us and our salvation. You might have heard something like this: (1) The Father planned our redemption; (2) the Son purchased our redemption; (3) the Spirit applies our redemption. This is called the divine economy, the way that the Triune God works to accomplish our salvation.

The logic of Trinity Sunday is that after Pentecost, it is fitting to acknowledge that the various colors on which we have been focusing are refractions of one brilliant gospel light—the light of the Triune God working for us and for our salvation.

The logic of Trinity Sunday is that after Pentecost, it is fitting to reflect back on the unity of the divine economy, to acknowledge that the various colors on which we have been focusing are refractions of one brilliant gospel light—the light of the Triune God working for us and for our salvation. Trinity Sunday celebrates the good news that the Father sent the Son and the Spirit.

2. Recite the Creeds and point out their trinitarian structure. If the goal on Trinity Sunday is to emphasize the unity of the events which came before it in the liturgical calendar, then the great Christian creeds are invaluable resources. In the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, all of the events in the history of creation and recreation are comprehended under three articles: Father, Son, and Spirit. The Creeds remind us that the Trinity is not one doctrine alongside many others that Christians must believe. It is the “biggest” doctrine, the one that encompasses all other doctrines. 

3. Preach from texts that highlight the unity of the divine economy. This year during the Easter season, I preached a series on the Spirit and the Church from Acts 2. On Pentecost Sunday, I’ll be focusing on Acts 2:33: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he [Christ] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” The Father raised the Son in the power of the Spirit. The Son was then exalted to the right hand of the Father and received from the Father the promise of the Spirit.

Ephesians 1:3–14 is arguably the greatest trinitarian passage in Scripture. Preaching on a passage such as this will help the church to understand the work of the Son and the work of the Spirit, which have been celebrated throughout the Easter season, in the context of the Father’s predestined plan. For an excellent sermon on this beautiful text, see “The Blessing of the Trinity” by Fred Sanders. If there is one book on the Trinity that I wish every pastor—and every Christian, for that matter—would read, it is Sanders’ accessible work The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.

4. Avoid trying to explain the threeness and the oneness. Trinity Sunday is not, in my opinion, a good time to teach or preach through a series of propositions about the Trinity, e.g., that (1) there is one God; (2) Father, Son, and Spirit are each God; and (3) they are distinct persons. And it’s never a good time to try to explain the Trinity by saying that it is like an egg (the heresy of partialism), water in three states (the heresy of modalism), or anything else in creation. Trinity Sunday is a time to say what the Bible says—that the Trinity is like the gospel, because that is how the Trinity is revealed.

5. Point out ways that we are already immersed in the Trinity. It’s fine, of course, to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” or to plan some more explicitly Trinitarian elements in the liturgy. In addition to the Nicene Creed, I recommend singing or praying the ancient Christian prayer called the Gloria Patri (included at the beginning of this article) and using a trinitarian benediction like the one included at the end of this article. But I wonder if a sudden, heavy dose of explicit Trinitarianism can impress people with the idea that “this Sunday we are focused on the Trinity, then next Sunday we’ll get back to our regular worship.” Instead, consider emphasizing how Christian life and worship is already thoroughly and inevitably trinitarian. Our prayers, songs, Scripture readings, and blessings are saturated with trinitarian reference, so much so that it tends to fade into the background, and Trinity Sunday is a day to highlight that all-encompassing theological framework.

Instead of a sudden, heavy dose of explicit Trinitarianism on Trinity Sunday, consider emphasizing how Christian life and worship is already thoroughly and inevitably trinitarian.

For example, there are many beautiful trinitarian prayers that could be included in your liturgy, but it may be more helpful for some congregations to pause and consider how we already ordinarily pray to “Our Father,” ending our prayers “in the name of Jesus,” and praying always in the Spirit. That is, we pray to the Father, through the mediation of the Son who sits at his right hand to intercede for us, in the power of the Spirit whom Christ has sent to help and comfort us in our weakness.

A major goal of Trinitarian teaching should be to help raise awareness about the ways in which every true church is already immersed in the life and worship of the triune God. In Classic Christianity, Thomas Oden points out repeatedly that Christian teaching on the Trinity arose to help Christians understand what it means for them to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If we avoid treating the Trinity as an isolated doctrine, highlight its connection to the Easter season, and emphasize how we are already thoroughly Trinitarian, Trinity Sunday can be a blessing to the life of a local church.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.