Somewhere on the way to last week’s Trinity Sunday sermon I realized we have a choice: we can either subscribe to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity or we can subscribe to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, but we can’t subscribe to both.
The Trinity won’t allow it.
In my children’s sermon that morning I described the Trinity as a triple-braided cord, and used some yellow nylon rope to demonstrate. I asked little Anna Carr Starkey to hold the end of all three ropes as we sat on the steps and then I braided them together. I said, “When all three strands pull in the same direction the rope is almost unbelievably strong.” And then I pulled on the rope, hard, and Anna Carr came sliding across the step toward me. “But look what happens when one rope pulls in one direction and the other two pull in the other direction,” I said, and she pulled two ropes and I pulled one and the triple-braided cord fell to pieces.
Later that morning I shared a story I had read in Shirley Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine years before. It’s about a boy who went to a revival meeting where the preacher held up a dirty glass. “See this glass?” he said. “That’s you. Filthy. Stained with sin, inside and outside. He picked up a hammer. “This hammer is the righteousness of God. It is the instrument of God’s wrath against sinners. God’s justice can be satisfied only by punishing and destroying people whose lives are filled with vileness and corruption.” The preacher put the glass on the pulpit and slowly, deliberately drew back the hammer, took deadly aim, and with all his might let the blow fall. But a miracle happened! At the last moment he covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck with a crash that echoed through the hushed church. He held up the untouched glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other. “Jesus Christ died for your sins. He took the punishment that ought to have fallen on you. He satisfied the righteousness of God so that you might go free if you believe in him.”
In a nutshell, that’s the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, affirmed by the Southern Baptist Convention at its annual gathering this week. You’ve probably heard some version of that doctrine so often that it sounds perfectly normal, but listen to it with the ears of an outsider. It sounds as if the Father and Son are working against each other. It sounds as if God hates your sin so much he is willing to punish you, but Jesus loves you so much he is willing to take your place. I call this “Virgin in the Volcano” theology, and in my sermon on Trinity Sunday I told the story of my daughter Catherine’s visit to an active volcano in Nicaragua that was described as one of the “seven entrances to Hell.” In primitive times the people of that region thought that some angry god inhabited the volcano, and when it would start to rumble they would throw virgins or young children into the volcano to appease it.
“That’s unthinkable, isn’t it?” I said. “We reject that as primitive, pagan superstition. And yet the illustration used by that preacher, with his glass and his hammer and his mangled pan, sounds almost exactly like that. It suggests that our sinfulness so offended God’s holiness that he was on the verge of destroying us, and none of us was perfect enough or pure enough to appease his anger. But then along came Jesus — the sinless Son of God — who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins. And that did the trick; God was no longer angry.”
There’s a popular hymn that expresses that theory of the atonement in one line: it says, “Till on that cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.” But as I said, that’s only one theory of the atonement. We have that same hymn in our hymnbook (Celebrating Grace) but that line has been changed to reflect another theory. It says, “Till on that cross as Jesus died the love of God was magnified.” And let me just say, it makes a huge difference in the way you think about God to think that Jesus died to magnify his love rather than satisfy his wrath.
And that’s why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important.
These three persons — Father, Son and Spirit — pull together as one. If one strand of that triple-braided cord is pulling in one direction, and another strand is pulling in another direction, the cord loses its strength, its power. But if all three strands are pulling in the same direction that cord is almost unbelievably strong, strong enough to pull us out of some of the holes we’ve dug for ourselves.
Do you remember that old gospel song, “Throw out the Life Line”? It’s been running through my head all week. “Throw out the life line! Throw out the life line! Someone is drifting away; Throw out the life line! Throw out the life line! Someone is sinking today.” But the life line I’ve been thinking about is the strong, triple-braided cord of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All three persons of the Trinity want to save you when you’re sinking, not just one. As Athanasius put it nearly 2,000 years ago in words that became a creed of the early church: “The Unity is Trinity and the Trinity Unity.”
Father, Son and Spirit pull together.