Mission is the mother of all theology. ~Martin Kahler
Where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are, there too is the Church which is the body of the Three. ~ Tertullian
Once we understand the nature of the Trinity, that doctrinal truth should become the basic foundation and structure of every single thing in our lives. The relationship between the three persons of the Trinity define everything. In this message I would like to examine the application of Trinity. What does it mean to live a Trinitarian life? How do we reflect the image and the nature of our Trinitarian God.
The outline of this message is taken, almost completely, from a paper that one of my professors published entitled, THE SELF-GIVING TRIUNE GOD, THE IMAGO DEI AND THE NATURE OF THE LOCAL CHURCH: AN ONTOLOGY OF MISSION. When I was in seminary I had to take an entire class on the Trinity. At first I thought the class was going to be easy. I quickly learned otherwise when Dr Scott Horrell passed out a binder of notes that, to this day, is the thickest folder on my shelf. The doctrine of the Trinity is enormous. And this paper that Dr. Horrell wrote about The Trinity, the imago dei and the nature of the church has radically effected my understanding of — well — everything.
Perhaps the most popularly quoted line in the Westminster Confession is the question, “What is the chief end of man?” and it’s responsive answer, “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Most Christians have heard this before. The chief end of man is to glorify God. This means that God created the universe and man for his own glory. Everything that is — exists to bring God glory. Even the French Existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, believed that,
If there is a God, the purpose of the universe would be to glorify him.
If God created everything in order to bring glory back to himself, does that mean that God is selfish? If everything exists for his glory, then it seems true that God is seeking his own glory which, in-fact, makes him selfish? Perhaps you’ve never asked yourself that question. Perhaps you’ve been too afraid to ask yourself that question — but, you really need to know that this is an extremely important question. It is one of the central questions in the minds of people who are seeking to understand who God is. And for those who are antagonistic towards the Christian God the answer to that question is, “Yes, God is Selfish.”
For instance, Picasso and Mark Twain both expressed that, “God is the paradigm of selfishness.” John Stuart Mill the utilitarian philosopher stated that, “God does every day that for which he regularly condemns man.” When I taught this lesson to our High School students, there was a senior who got so excited because this was the very question that one of her friends posed as a reason why she didn’t believe in God.
This is a very important question. If God created everything for his own glory and then he commands man to worship him and to give him glory how can we not conclude that God must be selfish? Dr. Scott Horrell, professor of Trinitarianism at Dallas Theological Seminary states:
“If God were only one person, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in some sense, while we are not to be selfish, God himself is absolutely selfish.”
Now you may say that God has every right to be selfish for he is God. Perhaps that’s the answer you would give to someone posing this question. Maybe that’s the answer that you’ve given to yourself — and for you that is good enough. But, it is not good enough. That is the answer a Moslem would give to defend Allah, but it cannot be the Christian answer to defend Yahweh. Fortunately, we have the doctrine of the Trinity. Remember, Dr. Horrell said that, “If God were one” he would be selfish but since God is three he is not. Instead of seeking the glory of one, God is actually seeking and pursuing and giving the glory of each other. Therefore God can never be selfish.
The Nature and Meaning of God
God is Trinity. This is the Orthodox doctrinal belief of the church. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. If we want to understand and know God, we must understand and know the doctrine of the Trinity. St. Augustine, one of our earliest church fathers, said this about the Trinity.
“If you deny the trinity you shall lose your soul, if your try to explain the trinity you shall lose your mind” ~ Augustine
It is a very difficult concept and literally takes an intimate understanding of our early creeds to fully understand the depth of this doctrine. You might want to revisit the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed, and the Chalcedon Creed. But for the sake of time here is a simple definition.
There is One God who eternally exists as three distinct equal persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, who are each fully and equally God.
The doctrine of the Trinity is often symbolized by three intersecting circles. Within these three intersecting circles, you can see another very popular symbol sometimes called a trefoil. It is from this symbol that we get the fleur-de-lys, a symbol very prominent in this city. Sometimes it is expressed in the form of knot. All of these symbols are important because they seek to express the nature of three distinct persons who are interconnected in perfect unity with each other.
“Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” (John 14:9–11)
All of this interconnectedness, equality, unity and love that is happening within the Trinity is a very organic kind of thing. The fact that the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father and the Holy Spirit is in them both is a unique and strange concept. There is an organic-ness about it. That little word “in” is huge. Theologians call this organic thing perichoresis, which means “mutual inter-penetration and indwelling within the threefold nature of the Trinity.”
The self giving nature of God.
You see, God cannot be selfish because his very nature is selfless. The nature of God is an interconnected love between three persons. Based on his internal nature, God can never be selfish. The Father loves the Son and the Father dotes upon his Son. All throughout the Old Testament you can see the Father pulling out his wallet and showing us pictures of his Son and he can’t wait for us to meet him. And when Jesus comes to earth in the New Testament he is constantly showing us pictures of the Father. In-fact he says I came so that you may know the Father. The Son loves the Father and the Holy Spirit does the same. The Spirit is constantly giving glory and honor and praise and love to the Father and to the Son.
So, if this is God’s internal nature. If this is who God is within himself? What can we assume about his external self? If God is giving and loving internally then it is only natural that God is externally giving and loving. That is why he created the heavens and the earth. That is why he created mankind. That is why he is giving life and giving redemption and giving of his only Son. You see, it is the exact opposite of selfishness. Man does not exist to give him glory because God is selfish, man exists as his glory because God is selfless.
It is out of the Godhead’s personal relatedness that all else flows: the creation of angels, man in the imago dei, and the great plan of redemption—all in order that finite beings might enter into the joyous fellowship of the Holy Trinity. Put another way, creation and salvation begin and end with God’s self-givingness, both internally (each to the other within the Godhead) and externally (the Triune God to all creation).
If this is who God is then the application of the doctrine of the Trinity for us and our for our lives is enormous. Once we understand the self giving nature of God we must then begin to understand the self giving nature of man and the self giving nature of the church. That leads us nicely to the imago dei.
The term imago dei, means image of God. And this morning we need to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be created in the image of God?” Specifically, “What does it mean for us to be created in the image of the Triune God?” How does man reflect the perichoresis? Now that we understand that God is not selfish but rather he is engaged in an intimate fellowship and relationship of three distinct persons we can now begin to understand what it means to be truly human.
The Nature and Meaning of Man
In order for us to know what it means to be a person, we must first understand what it means that God is three persons. In other words, humanity finds its meaning in God. If God created man to reflect his Triune image then it must follow that God created man to be in relationship. Humans necessarily reflect the self-giving relational nature of God.
This is obviously evident in the creation story. God created and declared all of his creation to be good. But, the one thing that was not good was for man to be alone. If God is three persons involved in a perichoresis relationship then man, who is made in the image of that God, must also be involved in a perichoresis relationship. The triadic nature of man is that we are one person who is intimately involved with another person (be it our spouse or neighbor) and we are intimately involved in a relationship with the Triune God. To put it another way, every human has both a vertical and horizontal relationship. If the horizontal relationship is missing then that human is in-fact selfish and does not reflect the self-giving image of God and the testimony of God states that is not good.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:15–20)
We have the wonderful privilege to participate in perichoresis. We are in him and he is in us. It is a mutual interpenetration and indwelling. The union between a man and a woman is a wonderful example. Scripture teach us that when a man and a woman are united in marriage they become one flesh. They are two persons who are one flesh — united together in a mutual inter-penetration. And God possesses, through the Holy Spirit, each of those two persons creating a triadic union which perfectly reflects the triune Godhead. It is no wonder that our Lord uses marriage as a parable.
When I proposed to Kelly I sang a song written by Wess King entitled “Another Man”. The gist of the song was that I was in love with Kelly but there was another man in her life. And, her love for this other man is a much stronger and deeper love than I could ever compete with. This man’s love for her is much greater than anything I could offer. Now thats bad news if your proposing, but then we finally learn that the other man is Jesus. I proposed, she said yes, and I was able to finish the song stating that this man — this other man, he holds both our hands and his love makes ours complete. There is a Trinitarian formula between a man and a woman when that man and woman is possessed by God.
Perichoresis: Becoming a Solid Person.
Now that’s just an illustration. One does not have to be married in order to reflect the image of God. A single human reflects the image of God. Jesus was single. And we know that he is the ultimate — the pinnacle — of what it means to be human. Jesus modeled for us what it means to reflect the self-giving relational nature of God.
It is almost difficult to count how many times Jesus commanded us to love and give. He taught that we should love our neighbor as ourselves (internal/external). We must give our lives in order to save our lives. It is better that we give than receive, and to serve rather than be served. The very nature of the Triune God is to be selfless rather than selfish. Therefore, man finds meaning in being selfless rather than selfish.
C.S. Lewis beautifully portrays this in his novel the Great Divorce. It is a story where the author boards a bus in Hell. Hell is just like earth except it’s gray and it’s dark and dreary and all of its residents are just like us but they’re gray and their fading and their ghostlike. Hell is not so much a place of torment but a place in which you get exactly what it is that you’ve always wanted. To be right about every opinion you’ve ever had to be able to complain all you want about the way things are to be free to cling to your addictions. Essentially, hell is full of selfish people who get to be selfish and the more selfish they are the less substantial or solid they become. They are less like a persons and more like ghosts.
This bus dramatically climbs out of Hell and reaches the outskirts of heaven, the foothills of the mountain of God, everything is vibrantly bright and beautifully colorful. The grass is so green and tall it hurts the feet of the ghostly people to walk on it. The grass is too solid because the citizens of heaven are solid people. Lewis’ contrast is that the people who are stuck in hell because of their selfishness become less and less like people and those who are selfless citizens of heaven, become more solid — or more human.
The Self Giving nature of the Imago Dei.
What happens when man becomes selfish? Is it possible for humans to be selfish even though we’ve been created in the image of a selfless God? Absolutely it is. Is it possible for Christians to be selfish even though we’ve been created in the image of a selfless God and are possessed by that selfless God? Again, unfortunately, the answer must be “absolutely”. That seems painfully obvious.
I’m going to make a bold statement so forgive me if this hurts your feelings but it has been stated by many that Christianity has become in this country, more selfish than selfless. We look more like the people on the bus complaining, criticizing and blogging hateful opinions, than the solid people who are full of color and life and who reflect the self-giving nature of God. To the lost we seem more gray, fading and ghost like than colorfully bright and solid.
“The world has a caricature of the Christian. For many a secular observer, the believer is a human disaster. To become a Christian is to abnegate life. No more laughter, no more days of raucous shouting around a football game at a tavern with a good beer. The gusto is gone. The Christian convert has died. Too often, we must admit, this caricature is true. Many Christians have died, not just to sin—which is right—but somehow they have also died to their own humanity, which is wrong. Some have been bound by guilt and legalism. As believers we can become forced, defensive, angry, afraid, isolated, morose, mechanical or spiritually artificial.
Yet if our God is truly three persons in an infinitely meaningful relationship, then those who are redeemed and brought into relationship with this God have every reason be the most fulfilled and authentic of all the human race. Indeed, the Christian’s humanity should luster and glow. Our personhood should radiate because we are in loving relationship with the fount of all personal life. Christians should be the most powerful, sensitive, transparent and truly human of all the people on earth.” (Horrell)
My hope is that this quote would not so much discourage us but encourage us to live life to the fullest by becoming more solid, more human, and reflecting the self-giving nature of our Triune God. If we can’t do that individually how could we possibly do it corporately. And that leads us nicely to our final point, the Church or missio dei.
Missio Dei is a theological term used to describe the missionary attribute of God. Theologians will tell us that God is a missionary. Missio Dei literally means the “sending of God.”
The Old Testament is replete with stories and examples of God sending Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and of course, Israel. We see this also in the dynamic relationship within the Trinity. God the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit and they both send the Church. Jesus tell us in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.
The Church Finds Meaning in God
So what is the meaning and nature of the Church? It is mission. Mission is not something the church does, it is who God is. The Church reflects who God is. The church exists because of mission, not the other way around. We must stop thinking of the church as an institution that does mission and start thinking correctly. The Church is mission.
The God-given identity of the church arises from its mission. This order of priority is foundational.
The order of priority is this: God is the first missionary. He is on a mission to give. God sent the Son, the Son sent the Spirit and the Spirit sends the Church. So, just as man finds his meaning in the self-giving nature of our Triune God, so the Church finds her meaning in the self-giving nature of the Trinity. In order for a human to be truly human he must give and love. In order for the Church to be true she too must give and love.
The Holy Trinity is the archetype of the local church and mission. As the Triune God came to a lost world in both the Son and the Holy Spirit, so this same God has structured the local body of Christians in such a way that in order to be fulfilled it too must collectively give of itself.
We’ve talked about the perichoresis as it relates to the triune God and how humans participate in a perichoresis by having both a horizontal and vertical relationship, but what about the perichoresis of the Church. The Church also has a vertical and horizontal relationship. We are in intimate relationship to Christ the head of the Church. We are sharing in his sufferings and fellowship in his mission and we sharing in one another’s sufferings and participate together in mission.
This is something our church should be well familiar with. It is expressed in the New Testament by the word koinonia. Koinonia is the greek word for fellowship, sharing, and participation. The term is used in Scripture to describe communion at the Lord’s table and fellowship within the church body. To put it simply, God is love, it is not good for a human to be alone because he must love, and the church also must love. We will be known, Jesus says, by our love. The Father so loved the world that he gave his Son, and the church participates in the mission of God by loving the world and giving of herself.
Just as God has an internal and external nature of self giving, man has an internal and external nature of self giving, we must love others as we love ourselves, so too the church has an internal and an external nature of self-giving. We must love the world as we love ourselves and give of ourselves to the world.
The self giving nature of the Missio Dei.
What happens when a church becomes selfish? Is it possible for a local church to be selfish even though we are ambassadors of a selfless God? Absolutely it is. Is it possible for a local church to be selfish even though we are subordinate to Jesus Christ, the head of the Church who was the ultimate self-giver giving his life in order to purchase and redeem the Church? Again, unfortunately, the answer must be “absolutely”. The church can be selfish.
“Just as an individual Christian focused upon himself becomes less Christ-like (and so less human), so a local church when it becomes centered on its own wellbeing will become a hollow shell of what it is intended to be. Too often churches have become content to orient nearly everything to their own members: programs, finances and even prayer concentrate repeatedly on themselves, their own preferences, patterns and goals. Not that members of a church should not nurture and care for one another. As we have seen, the imperative to love one another in the church— as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit love one another—is very important. Yet the local church cannot remain absorbed in itself. Just as the persons of the Trinity did not confine themselves to loving themselves but rather created the world and entered redemptively into our existence, so the local church is called to give of itself to an alienated world.” (Horrell)
Now, If that’s what a selfish church looks like then what does a selfless church look like. How can a local community of believers reflect the self-giving nature of God? How does a church continue to look inward taking care of its own needs but also focus outward as a sent group of image bearers to love and give.
I am a wholehearted believer that one of these ways is in church planting. When a church plants another church it must give of its self sacrificially. It will lose perhaps some of its best members but in giving of itself a new assembly will be formed that will reach a new demographic in a new context. I believe in saturation church planting which means that a church will constantly be thinking about where the new plant should be and constantly thinking about how it will prune its assembly in order to sacrifice of itself to reach another context. Statistics prove over and over again that the more a church engages in this kind of self sacrifice the more it will grow.
In-fact, in “various evangelical denominations in Latin America, a church is not considered a church until it has given birth to daughter churches. While appearing to lose its most devout members, the local church that imitates the Godhead in sacrificial love for the world is the one which multiplies.”
“The church lives by mission as a fire lives by burning.” Emil Brunner
In conclusion, allow me to offer a summary. The doctrine of the Trinity is important and foundational because it is the center of all meaning. First, it teaches us the meaning and nature of God. God is love. The Father loves the Son of the Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves them both and they are mutually and intimately related to one another. This relationship is both internal and external because it is the very nature of who God is. God loves himself and the members of the Trinity, and God loves the world and whom he has given life and redemption. Secondly, it teaches us the meaning and the nature of man, and what it means to be human. Humans reflect the same self-giving nature of the Godhead. Man also reflects the self giving nature of the Triune God both internally and externally. God indwells the believer and he gives externally through his horizontal relationships. Jesus Christ is the perfect picture of a man who gives completely of himself by shedding his own blood and giving his own life for the sake of others. Jesus Christ is our Lord and our Savior, whom we have gathered here to worship and taught us repeatedly to give of ourselves. Thirdly, it teaches us the meaning and the nature of the Church, which is an assembly of image bearing humans who must give of itself internally and externally. The church must participate in the self-giving character of God in order to truly be a church. Selfishness robs humans from being truly human and it hinders church from being the church.
1 Scott Horrell. THE SELF-GIVING TRIUNE GOD, THE IMAGO DEI AND THE NATURE OF THE LOCAL CHURCH: AN ONTOLOGY OF MISSION.
3 Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology. (London: SCM Press, 1977), 64.
4 Wilbert Shenk. Changing Frontiers of Missions. (New York: Orbis Books, 1999), 7.
5 Scott Horrell. THE SELF-GIVING TRIUNE GOD, THE IMAGO DEI AND THE NATURE OF THE LOCAL CHURCH: AN ONTOLOGY OF MISSION.