The Triune God Has Saved You

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By Family Minister, Dr. Brandon Steenbock

This article was adapted from a sermon preached for Trinity Sunday 2024. 

If you haven’t recently read the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night, you should do so. It’s in John 3, and it’s really an amazing conversation. You can feel Nicodemus’s confusion. Here he is, this rabbi, teacher of the Law, member of the Sanhedrin. He knows God’s Word; he’s memorized and taught the Scriptures. He knows the Jewish traditions about the Messiah and what to look for. And he’s pretty sure this is it.

But it is Jesus himself, and his words that confuse Nicodemus.

Nicodemus knows Jesus is from God – it was said among Jews that no one could perform helpful miracles, like healings, if they weren’t from God. He also knows Jesus’ words are from God, and desperately wants to understand. But it seems like Jesus is beyond his understanding. “Is he really claiming to be God?” Nicodemus has to wonder. And all this about Spirit and flesh and water and wind… It’s a little mind-blowing. There are mysteries here that defy human explanation.

The same is true with the Triune God. If you’ve ever tried to scratch the surface of this three-in-one and one-in-three concept of God – whether in your own mind or in trying to explain it to someone – you can probably sympathize with Nicodemus and his befuddlement. These are mysteries that defy human explanation.

People try. They come up with analogies. “Like an egg – the shell, the white, and the yolk.” “Like water – three forms, one God.” “Like a three cheese pizza – three cheeses, one pizza.” The problem with analogies like these is that they get more wrong than they get right.

For example, if all you have is an eggshell, you don’t have an egg. But God the Father is still fully God all on his own. That analogy is the ancient heresy known as “Partialism,” where each person of the godhead is just a part of God. It’s not what the Bible teaches.

Take the example of water. Water can be a solid, a liquid, or a vapor, but it always has the same chemical composition. But if that’s an analogy for God, then it’s like saying God is just taking on different forms in different places. That’s just the ancient heresy of “Modalism,” which claims that God just takes on different forms at different times, like an actor putting on a mask. It’s not what the Bible teaches. 

It is better to simply trust and speak the truth. The complicated, mind-blowing, explanation-defying truth that God is three persons in one God and one God in three persons. Because that truth gives us something to hang onto. This awesome, immense, mysterious, mind-blowing explanation-defying BIG God of ours has saved you. 

Like Nicodemus, we can sink into the comfort of Jesus’ words in that late-night meeting. Because Jesus makes it clear that all three persons of the Triune are involved in saving you. 

The Father sent the Son to save you. Nicodemus got hung up on why Jesus came. “We know you are from God…” the implicit question is… “So why are you here? What are you here to do?” We might get hung up, too. “Why is God Triune? Why isn’t God just…. One God? How does this all work?”

But Jesus is concerned with leading Nicodemus into his Father’s kingdom, and so all his words are about teaching Nicodemus how he can enter that kingdom. He’s not trying to satisfy every curiosity, he’s focused on saving souls. His Father sent him for this purpose, to win souls for the kingdom. Or, as Jesus puts it, to save the world through him, so that all who believe in him will have eternal life.

That must have thrown Nicodemus. He knew the Law. He knew that sin is real, and that sin separates people from God. He knew all the stories of human failure and God’s response. And he knew that if Jesus is from God – if Jesus is God – and he’s stepping into the world, then judgment is coming with him.

You might not like to admit it, but you would agree. Why are you uncomfortable with people knowing what we do when we’re alone? Why do you avoid transparency and vulnerability with people, especially fellow Christians? You fear judgment. Small judgment from small people, but even bigger judgment from the God of all things. 

Why do you fight so hard to avoid death, get every surgery, take every pill, trying to stall the day you have to face your Maker? You fear God. You’re afraid to face him. You know there is a reckoning. You know your sin must be answered.

You know what you’ve done. You know how you’ve offended a holy God. And you know that sin must be punished. Jesus’ own words confirm it. The expectation is that when God enters the scene, condemnation is coming with him.

But Jesus says something amazing – that he came to take that condemnation. That he is punished in your place. That he died the death you deserve. And when you throw your lot in with him, when you cling to him, when you wrap your arms around the foot of his cross… there is no condemnation here. Your sin is gone. In Christ, your sin has died, and the life you now live, you live because of him, and through him, and for him, and in him.

The Son gave his life to give you life.

And the Holy Spirit makes that life yours.

Nicodemus was faced with a mystery: How exactly can a person be born again? He wrestled with the very logistics of the idea – how can a man enter again into his mother’s womb? You might understand that Jesus is being metaphysical here, not literal, but you might still wrestle with a similar question: How can my life, with my record of sins, be reset as though it never happened?

It’s one thing to say that Jesus died my death, that he took my punishment, that my sins are buried in his tomb, that his resurrection is my new life… But you might think, “Are you sure? You don’t know what I’ve done. You don’t know how much I’ve done. You don’t know how far I’ve strayed. You don’t know how guilty I feel when I lie awake at night. You don’t know how many times I’ve pushed God away because I was sure he would push me away.” 

You’re right. I don’t know. But the Holy Spirit does. And here’s what Jesus says about the Spirit: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to spirit.” If that seems too confusing, metaphysical, or symbolic, let me sum it up in simple language: The Holy Spirit gives you a whole new life. Not just metaphysically, not just symbolically, but really, actually, quite literally, you have new life, rebirth in him. Take that entire record you think is too long to erase and know that it belongs to a dead person. That’s not you anymore. You are new. You are alive.

Analogies for the Trinity might be bad, but let me give you a decent analogy. When I was a kid, we had the Nintendo Entertainment System. If you’re either too old to have played one or too young to know how this worked, it was a gray box with physical buttons on the front you had to push to turn it on. My brother and I would play Super Mario Brothers, and we’d try to compete on who could get the higher score. And my older brother, well, he just was better at games than me. But here was the trick: No matter how much higher his score, all I had to do was reach out and press one of the buttons on the front – the “Reset” button – and when I pushed it, both scores just magically went back to zero.

This is what the Holy Spirit does for you. Rebirth. Reset. Your life is made new. But yes, even that analogy breaks down, because unlike on the Nintendo, you’re not racking up sin, then pressing reset, then racking up sin, then pressing reset. No. You bear Jesus’ name, Jesus’ record, Jesus’ righteousness. Always.

This is the work of the whole Triune God. The Father sent his Son to save you. The Son gave his life to save you. The Holy Spirit gives you the life of your Savior. All three persons of the Triune God are intimately involved in your salvation.

And this is why the analogies don’t work. If the Father is only part of God, then do we have a whole kingdom to belong to? If the Son is just one-third God, is he fully able to save? If the Holy Spirit is just God in a different form, then who is sending him, and who is he connecting us to when he comes to us? All these analogies do is confuse the brilliant, complex, mind-blowing, awesome truth that the Triune God, this BIG explanation-defying God, has worked to save… you.

I love the Athanasian Creed. This ancient statement of faith lays out in no uncertain terms what it means to believe in the Triune God. It’s long and wordy and crystal clear, but it starts with this simple sentence: “We worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God.” You couldn’t say it better.

Don’t try to explain it. Don’t use analogies to make it make sense. But don’t shy away from it. Someone says to you, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense,” you can just say, “Yep. That’s right.” And then tell them about how you’ve been saved.