5-26-24 Holy Trinity

Bible Text: John 3:1-15 | Preacher: Pastor Andrew Richard

Man is rational. This is one of the things that makes man man. We can think and deliberate and plan. We have the use of language, which is not something that we figured out on our own, but the very day God created man He gave Adam a command, and Adam understood, and God asked Adam what he would call this creature, and Adam made up nouns, because God created Adam with language as an innate gift. Man is rational. He can take one thing he knows and put it together with a second thing he knows, and if both those things are true, man can draw a true conclusion, and will have arrived at further truth using only the truth he already knew. We see Nicodemus do this in today’s reading. He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (Jn. 3:2). Nicodemus is doing what rational man should do: he’s being reasonable, in the very best sense of the word reason, like we confess in the Small Catechism that God gives us our reason and all our senses and still takes care of them.

Yet our reason is not what it used to be. We are fallen men. We are corrupt, and nothing with us is what it once was. We experience this all the time with our will and actions, as Paul writes in Romans 7, “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Rom. 7:15). Our life isn’t what it once was, for now we die. Our memories fail us, our words fail us, our strength fails us, and our reason fails us too. Today is Trinity Sunday. We focus on the doctrine of the nature of God: that He is one God and at the same time three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’re inclined, when presented with such a statement, to say it is unreasonable. That is wrong. It is perfectly reasonable. We would do a bit better to say that it doesn’t make sense that God is one God and three persons, but even that sounds like it doesn’t make sense objectively, which again is wrong. It makes perfect sense to God. It just doesn’t make sense to us, and now we’re being most accurate. The doctrine of the Trinity is completely reasonable and makes complete sense, to God, and not to us sinful men with our corrupted reason.

Now we’re able to function fairly well in life. Our reason doesn’t seem to be disappointing us too much. We might even flatter ourselves and suppose that with a little mental training we could grasp the things of God with our minds: understand at a rational level the Trinity and the two natures of Christ and the Sacraments, and be able to explain how these things could be. Except it’s not that we’re just one step away from storming heaven with our minds. It’s that we’re a million steps away from grasping even the most commonplace things of earth. Consider your own self. How is your soul joined to your body? With super glue? That sounds silly, and I certainly don’t advocate for such a position, but which of us could come any closer to offering a right explanation? Jesus speaks of wind in the reading, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes” (Jn. 3:8). Advanced meteorology has perhaps let us predict wind force and direction, but that doesn’t mean our reason understands its coming and going any better than the ancient Greeks did, who thought that some guy named Aeolus could tie the winds up in a bag and give them to Odysseus as a gift.

Our reason has its limit, and that limit is far lower than we like to think. We can’t grasp heaven with our reason. We can barely grasp earth! So what are we to do when it comes to the things of God? We have two options, and they are the two ways in which we can use our human reason. There’s the “magisterial” use of reason, and there’s the “ministerial” use of reason. The word ministerial is from the Latin minister, which means “servant.” It’s in turn from the word minus, meaning “less.” The servant is less than his superior and bends the knee to him. The ministerial use of reason is when our reason is humble and simply wants to serve the Word of God, even if it can’t explain how certain things in God’s Word could be. The word magisterial, on the other hand, is from the Latin magister, which means “master” or “teacher.” It’s in turn from the word magis, meaning “more.” The teacher knows more than the student. The magisterial use of reason is when our reason is proud and claims to know more than God.

It is vital that we exercise a ministerial use of our reason, not magisterial. On Trinity Sunday our reason should say, “I can understand a few things about God by nature. From the creation I can deduce a Creator. From the orderliness of the creation I can see that God is orderly, and from its vastness I can see that God is very powerful. But this natural knowledge of God is very insufficient. If I want to know who God is, He’ll have to tell me. And He has given me the Scriptures, in which He makes Himself known to me.” Then our reason should search the Scriptures and state plainly what it finds. In Deuteronomy 6:4 it says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” and in 1 Corinthians 8:4, “We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.” Then our reason should say, “There is one God; Scripture clearly teaches this.”

And as our reason searches the Scriptures, it also finds passages like the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3, where the Son of God is standing in the water, and the Father’s voice comes from heaven, and the Holy Spirit descends in bodily form like a dove. And lest we think that only one of these three is God, Jesus says in John 10, “I and My Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). Jesus commands His Church to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the three persons having the same divine name and doing divine work in Holy Baptism. Similarly the Apostle Paul pronounces the blessing on the Church in 2 Corinthians 13:14, saying, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” From such a passage our reason concludes that there are three separate persons, all bestowing divine gifts on the Church. Yet our reason rightly keeps in mind the other passages that say there is one God and the Lord is one. So our reason says, “There is one God and three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Do I understand how this can be? I do not. But it’s what God has said in His holy Word, and who knows God better than God Himself?” That’s the ministerial use of reason.

We saw Nicodemus use reason rightly at the beginning of the reading. However, he turns from using his reason as a servant to using his reason as a master. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). To which Nicodemus responds, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (Jn. 3:4). Jesus continues His teaching about Baptism, by which one is born of water and the Spirit, and Nicodemus does not follow. The problem is not his lack of understanding. Do you understand how the water of Baptism gives you a new birth? The problem is that he refuses to believe it until he can make it make sense. He will not let go of the question, “How can these things be?” This is the magisterial use of reason, and it is a mother of unbelief and heresy.
The Church’s history is full of people who exalted their reason over the Word of God and only had heresy to show for it. In the fourth century there was a pastor named Arius who taught that there was a time when the Son of God didn’t exist. That makes sense, right? What son do you know who is as old as his father? Does not the very nature of things teach us that a father must come before his son in time? Indeed, when we’re talking about men, in time, then certainly that’s the case. But we’re talking about God, in eternity. The reasonable move here would be to say, “I have no point of reference for such divine and eternal action. If I’m going to understand how God the Father begat God the Son, I’m just going to have to listen to what He tells me about it in His Word, because I wasn’t there, and it is such an utterly unique event that I can’t hope to reason my way through it.” Then reason turns to the Scriptures and reads things like Jesus saying, “I and My Father are one” (Jn. 10:30), and rightly concludes that the Father and the Son are both eternal. As reasonable as Arius may have sounded, he was completely unreasonable. Why would you think that conception and birth among mortals is anything like God the Father begetting His Son? Why would you think that how things happen in time must be how they happen in eternity? Yet Arius wanted to satisfy his reason, and our fallen reason is satisfied with some of the most unreasonable things.

In the sixteenth century Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others were teaching that Jesus could not be bodily present in the Sacrament of the Altar. Fīnītum nōn est capax infīnītī, that was their position: “The finite is not capable of the infinite.” Heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain God. How much less could this little piece of bread be his body? Magisterial reason hems and haws and hows, which is its favorite question―“how? how? how?” But ministerial reason says, “Jesus said, ‘This is My body,’ so it is. ‘I leave to You how this can be; Your Word alone suffices me; I trust its truth unfailing’ (LSB 622:5).” And note how reasonable that is! Jesus can do other miraculous things with His human body by virtue of its union with the divine nature. A touch from His body can heal the sick and raise the dead. So why couldn’t the bread be His body? He who made bodies and made bread says, “This is My body.” And note, once again, how unreasonable magisterial reason is. If the finite is not capable of the infinite, then not only can’t the bread contain Jesus, but Jesus’ body can’t contain Jesus. Not only do such heretics deny the Sacrament; with all their wit they unwittingly deny the Incarnation!

In short, to quote our Lord, “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (Jn. 3:13). You cannot set up a ladder and send your reason scampering up it into the throne room of God. And even if reason could scamper up that ladder, it couldn’t read God’s mind when it got there. And even if reason could read God’s mind, it wouldn’t understand the half of it, so feeble are the powers of our fallen reason. But there is One who descended from heaven. And thanks be to God, He did not descend for us men and for our explanation, as if the real problem was that we couldn’t comprehend the Trinity. No He descended for us men and for our salvation. Or as we said in the Athanasian Creed, after confessing the divine and human natures of Christ, He “suffered for our salvation.” Jesus has come to us and revealed as much of the mind of God as He would have us know, and He has revealed it in such ways that we can actually grasp. We don’t know how God can be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but we rejoice that we are created by our Father in heaven, redeemed by the blood of His Son, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. We don’t know how Jesus can be fully God and fully man, but we rejoice that as man He took our place under the Law, both fulfilling all its demands and suffering all its punishments, that as God He can count His righteousness as ours and make His sacrifice avail forever, that as the God-man the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7). We don’t know how Baptism can save us or how the Lord’s Supper can be the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. But we rejoice that Jesus has made it so easy to receive His grace, that He engages our senses and offers us such simple words in Scripture, like, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” and, “This is my body.” We are content with a ministerial use of reason that bows the knee to God’s Word, simply says what God says, and doesn’t bother itself about how these things can be.

The ministerial use of reason is absolutely necessary when talking about the teachings of Scripture. If we exalt reason over God’s Word, it will be like the fall of man all over again as the devil makes unreasonable arguments sound reasonable enough to us, while the clear Word of God says, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). In all doctrine, in everything we believe, the Word of God is supreme, and reason must serve that Word, or else all is lost.

But this ministerial use of reason is useful not only for believing sound doctrine, but for living the Christian life. How often have you felt terrors of conscience over sins that have already been forgiven? There are certain very serious, life-altering actions that you can never undo. It seems reasonable that the past should haunt you. Yet there stands the Word of God, “In Him [Jesus Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph 1:7). And in Psalm 103, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Reason demands guilt. The Word of God proclaims peace. Which is the master and which is the servant? The Word of God is the master. Peace is yours, and reason bends the knee and is glad to be the servant and says its “Amen” to the Absolution.

This ministerial use of reason extends to all kinds of questions of why or how. “Why is this happening to me?” “How am I going to get my daily bread?” and so on. Sinful reason, that is, magisterial reason, demands answers. But our redeemed reason contents itself with the Word of God, knowing that, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). We walk by the Word of God, not by reason. When God wants us to have answers, He gives us answers. More often He’s more interested in giving us better things than explanations of our daily lives, like giving us the Gospel and the Sacraments, His holy name to call upon in prayer, all that we need to support this body and life, and a host of other gifts crowned with the blood of Jesus. You have a merciful Father in heaven, who created you in His image. You have the gracious Son of God, who shed His blood to redeem you. You have the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies you by the Gospel, by faith, by warring against the flesh. In this we rejoice, and reason bows its head in worship and contentment, and all heaven and earth sing, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Recent Sermons