Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 47


The Trinity

Preached April 6, 1851

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” - I Thessalonians 5:23


The knowledge of God is the blessedness of man. To know God, and to be known by him-to love God, and to be loved by Him-is the most precious treasure which this life has to give; properly speaking, the only treasure; properly speaking, the only knowledge; for all knowledge is valuable only so far as it converges towards and ends in the knowledge of God, and enables us to acquaint ourselves with God, and be at peace with Him. The doctrine of the Trinity is the sum of all that knowledge which has as yet been gained by man. I say gained as yet. For we presume not to maintain that in the ages which are to come hereafter, our knowledge shall not be superseded by a higher knowledge; we presume not to say that in a state of existence future-yea even here upon this earth, at that period which is mysteriously referred to in Scripture as “the coming of the Son of Man”-there shall not be given to the soul an intellectual conception of the Almighty, a vision of the Eternal, in comparison with whose brightness and clearness our present knowledge of the Trinity shall be as rudimentary and as childlike as the knowledge of the Jew was in comparison with the knowledge of the Christian.

Now the passage which I have undertaken to expound today is one in which the doctrine of the Trinity is brought into connection practically with the doctrine of our humanity. Before entering into it, brethren, let us lay down these two observations and duties for ourselves. In the first place, let us examine the doctrine of the Trinity ever in the spirit of charity.

A clear statement of the deepest doctrine that man can know, and the intellectual conception of that doctrine, are by no means easy. We are puzzled and perplexed by words; we fight respecting words. Quarrels are nearly always verbal quarrels. Words lose their meaning in the course of time; nay, the very words of the Athanasian creed which we read to-day mean not in this age the same thing which they meant in ages past. Therefore it is possible that men, externally Trinitarians, may differ from each other though using the same words, as greatly as a Unitarian differs from a Trinitarian. There may be found, in the same Church and in the same congregation, men holding all possible shades of opinion, though agreeing externally and in words.

I speak within the limit of my own experience when I say that persons have been known and heard to express the language of bitter condemnation respecting Unitarianism, who when examined and calmly required to draw out verbally the meaning of their own conceptions, have been proved to be holding all the time, unconsciously, the very doctrine of Sabellianism. And this doctrine is condemned by the Church as distinctly as that of Unitarianism. Therefore let us learn from all this a large and catholic charity. There are in almost every congregation, themselves not knowing it, Trinitarians who are practically Tri-theists, worshipping three Gods; and Sabellians, or worshippers of one person under three different manifestations. To know God so that we may be said intellectually to appreciate Him, is blessed: to be unable to do so is a misfortune. Be content with your own blessedness, in comparison with others’ misfortunes. Do not give to that misfortune the additional sting of illiberal and unchristian vituperation.


The next observation we have to lay down for ourselves is, that we should examine this doctrine in the spirit of modesty. There are those who are inclined to sneer at the Trinitarian; those to whom the doctrine appears merely a contradiction-a puzzle-an entangled, labyrinthine enigma, in which there is no meaning whatever. But let all such remember, that though the doctrine may appear to them absurd, because they have not the proper conception of it, some of the profoundest thinkers, and some of the holiest spirits among mankind, have believed in this doctrine-have clung to it as a matter of life or death. Let them be assured of this, that whether the doctrine be true or false, it is not necessarily a doctrine self-contradictory. Let them be assured of this, in all modesty, that such men never could have held it unless there was latent in the doctrine a deep truth-perchance the truth of God.

We pass on now to the consideration of this verse under the following divisions. In the first place, we shall view it as a triad in discord: “I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless;” in the second place, as a Trinity in unity: “the God of peace sanctify you wholly.” We take then, first of all, for our consideration the triad in discord: “I pray God your whole body and soul and spirit be preserved blameless.”

The apostle here divides human nature into a threefold division; and here we have to observe again the difficulty often experienced in understanding words. Thus words in the Athanasian creed have become obsolete, or lost their meaning: so that in the present day the words “person,” “substance,” “procession,” “generation,” to an ordinary person, mean almost nothing. So this language of the apostle, when rendered into English, shows no difference whatever between “soul” and “spirit.” We say, for instance, that the soul of a man has departed from him. We also say that the spirit of a man has departed from him. There is no distinct difference between the two; but in the original two very different kinds of thoughts-two very different modes of conception-are represented by the two English words “soul” and “ spirit.”

It is our business, therefore, in the first place, to under stand what is meant by this threefold division. When the apostle speaks of the body, what he means is the animal life-that which we share in common with beasts, birds, and reptiles; for our life, my Christian brethren-our- sensational existence-differs but little from that of the lower animals. There is the same external form, the same material in the blood-vessels, in the nerves, and in the muscular system. Nay, more than that, our appetites and instincts are alike, out lower pleasures like their lower pleasures, our lower pain like their lower pain, our life is supported by the same means, and our animal functions are almost indistinguishably the same.

But, once more, the apostle speaks of what he calls the “soul.” What the apostle meant by what is translated “soul,” is the immortal part of man-the immaterial as distinguished from the material: those powers, in fact, which man has by nature-powers natural, which are yet to survive the grave. There is a distinction made in Scripture by our Lord between these two things. “Fear not,” says He,” them who can kill the body; but rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

We have again to observe respecting this, that what the apostle called the “soul,” is not simply distinguishable from the body, but also from the spirit; and on that distinction I have already touched. By the soul the apostle means our powers natural-the powers which we have by nature. Herein is the soul distinguishable from the spirit. In the Epistle to the Corinthians we read- “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things.” Observe, there is a distinction drawn between the natural man and the spiritual. What is there translated “natural” is derived from precisely the same word as that which is here translated “soul.” So that we may read just as correctly: “The man under the dominion of the soul receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things.” And again, the apostle, in the same Epistle to the Corinthians, writes: “That is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural:” that is, the endowments of the soul precede the endowments of the spirit. You have the same truth in other places. The powers that belong to the spirit were not the first developed; but the powers which belong to the soul-that is, the powers of nature. Again in the same chapter, reference is made to the natural and spiritual body. “There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body.” Literally, there is a body governed by the soul-that is, powers natural: and there is a body governed by the spirit-that is, higher nature.

Let then this be borne in mind, that what the apostle calls “soul” is the same as that which he calls, in another place, the “natural man.” These powers are divisible into two branches-the intellectual powers and the moral sense. The intellectual powers man has by nature. Man need not be regenerated in order to possess the power of reasoning, or in order to invent. The intellectual powers belong to what the apostle calls the “soul.” The moral sense distinguishes between right and wrong. The apostle tells us, in the Epistle to the Romans, that the heathen-manifestly natural men-had the “work of the law written in their hearts; their conscience also bearing witness.”

The third division of which the apostle speaks, he calls the “spirit;” and by the spirit he means that life in man which, in his natural state, is in such an embryo condition that it can scarcely be said to exist at all-that which is called out into power and vitality by regeneration-the perfection of the powers of human nature. And you will observe, that it is not merely the instinctive life, nor the intellectual life, nor the moral life, but it is principally our nobler affections-that existence, that state of being which we call love. That is the department of human nature which the apostle calls the spirit; and accordingly, when the Spirit of God was given on the day of Pentecost, you will remember that another power of man was called out, differing from what he had before. That Spirit granted on the day of Pentecost did subordinate to Himself, and was intended to subordinate to Himself, the will, the understanding, and the affection of man; but you often find these spiritual powers were distinguished from the natural powers, and existed without them.

So in the highest state of religious life, we are told, men prayed in the spirit. Till the spirit has subordinated the understanding, the gift of God is not complete-has not done its work. It is abundantly evident that a new life was called out. It was not merely the sharpening of the intellectual powers; it was calling out powers of aspiration and love to God; those affections which have in them something boundless, that are not limited to this earth, but seek their completion in the mind of God Himself.

Now, what we have to say respecting this threefold state of man is, it is a state of discord. Let us take up a very simple, popular, everyday illustration. We hear it remarked frequently in conversation of a man, that if only his will were commensurate with his knowledge, he would be a great man. His knowledge is great-his powers are almost unbounded; he has gained knowledge from nearly every department of science; but somehow or other-you can not tell why-there is such an indecision, such a vacillation about the man, that he scarcely knows what to do, and, perhaps does nothing in this world. You find it remarked, respecting another class of men, that their will is strong, almost unbounded in its strength-they have iron wills, yet there is something so narrow in their conceptions, something so bounded in their views, so much of stagnation in their thoughts, so much of prejudice in all their opinions, that their will is prevented from being directed to any thing in a proper manner. Here is the discord in human nature. There is a distinction between the will and the understanding. And sometimes a feeble will goes with a strong understanding, or a powerful will is found in connection with great feebleness or ignorance of the understanding.

Let us, however, go into this more specially. The first cause of discord in this threefold state of man is the state in which the body is the ruler; and this, my Christian brethren, you find most visibly developed in the uneducated and irreligious poor. I say uneducated and irreligious, because it is by no means education alone which can subordinate the flesh to the higher man. The religious uneducated poor man may be master of his lower passions; but in the uneducated and irreligious poor man these show themselves in full force; this discord, this want of unity, appears, as it were, in a magnified form. There is a strong man-health bursting, as it were, at every pore, with an athletic body; but coarse, and rude, and intellectually weak-almost an animal. When you are regarding the upper classes of society, you see less distinctly the absence of the spirit, unless you look with a spiritual eye. The coarseness has passed away, the rudeness is no longer seen: there is a refinement in the pleasure. But if you take the life led by the young men of our country-strong, athletic, healthy men-it is still the life of the flesh: the unthinking and the unprincipled life in which there is as yet no higher life developed. It is a life which, in spite of its refinement, the Bible condemns as the life of the sensualist.

We pass on now to another state of discord-a state in which the soul is ruined. Brethren, this is a natural result-this is what might have been expected. The natural man gradually subordinates the flesh, the body, to the soul. It is natural in the development of individuals, it is natural in the development of society: in the development of individuals, because that childlike, infantine life which exists at first, and is almost entirely a life of appetites, gradually subsides. Higher wants, higher desires, loftier inclinations arise; the passions of the young man gradually subside, and by degrees the more rational life comes: the life is changed-the pleasures of the senses are forsaken for those of the intellect.

It appears natural, again, in the development of society. Civilization will subordinate the flesh to the soul. In the savage state you find the life of the animal. Civilization is teaching a man, on the principle of this world, to subordinate his appetites; to rule himself; and there comes a refinement, and a gentleness, and a polish, and an enjoyment of intellectual pleasures; so that the man is no longer what the apostle calls a sensual man, but he becomes now what the apostle calls a natural man. We can see this character delineated in the Epistle to the Ephesians. “Then we were,” says the apostle, “in our Gentile state, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” Man naturally fulfills not merely the desires of the flesh, but the desires of the mind. “And were,” says the apostle, “children of wrath.”

One of the saddest spectacles is the decay of the natural man before the work of the Spirit has been accomplished in him. When the savage dies-when a mere infant dies-when an animal dies-there is nothing that is appalling or depressing there; but when the high, the developed intellect-when the cultivated man comes to the last hours of life, and the memory becomes less powerful, and the judgment fails, and all that belongs to nature and to earth visibly perishes, and the higher life has not been yet developed, though it is destined to survive the grave forever-even the life of God- there is here ample cause for grief; and it is no wonder that the man of genius merely should shed tears at the idea of decaying life.

We pass on to consider the Trinity in unity. All this is contained in that simple expression, “The God of peace.” God is a God of unity. He makes one where before there were two. He is the God of peace, and therefore can make peace. Now this peace, according to the Trinitarian doctrine, consists in a threefold unity. Brethren, as we remarked, respecting this first of all, the distinction in this Trinity is not a physical distinction, but a metaphysical one. The illustrations which are often given are illustrations drawn from material sources: if we take only those, we get into contradiction: for example, when we talk of personality, our idea is of a being bounded by space; and then to say in this sense that three persons are one, and one is three, is simply contradictory and absurd. Remember that the doctrine of the Trinity is a metaphysical doctrine. It is a trinity-a division in the mind of God. It is not three materials; it is three persons in a sense we shall explain by-and-by.

In the next place I will endeavor to explain the doctrine-not to prove it, but to show its rationality, and to explain what it is.

The first illustration we endeavor to give in this is taken from the world of matter. We will take any material substance: we find in that substance qualities; we will say three qualities-color, shape and size. Color is not shape, shape is not size, size is not color. They are three distinct essences, three distinct qualities, and yet they all form one unity, one single conception, one idea-the idea, for example, of a tree.

Now we will ascend from that into the immaterial world; and here we come to something more distinct still. Hitherto we have had but three qualities; we now come to the mind of man-where we find something more than qualities. We will take three-the will, the affections, and the thoughts of man. His will is not his affections, neither are his affections his thought; and it would be imperfect and incomplete to say that these are mere qualities in the man. They are separate consciousnesses-living consciousnesses-as distinct and as really sundered as it is possible for three things to be, yet bound together by one unity of consciousness. Now we have distincter proof than even this that these things are three. The anatomist can tell you that the localities of these powers are different. He can point out the seat of the nerve of sensation; he can localize the feeling of affection; he can point to a nerve and say, “There resides the locality of thought.”

There are three distinct localities for three distinct qualities, personalities, consciousnesses; yet all these three are one.

Once more, we will give proof even beyond all that. The act that a man does is done by one particular part of that man. You may say it was a work of his genius, or of his fancy; it may have been a manifestation of his love, or an exhibition of his courage; yet that work was the work of the whole man: his courage, his intellect, his habits of perseverance, all helped towards the completion of that single work. Just in this way certain special works are attributed to certain personalities of the Deity; the work of redemption being attributed to one, the work of sanctification to another. And yet just as the whole man was engaged in doing that work, so does the whole Deity perform that work which is attributed to one essential.

Once more, let us remember that principle which we expounded last Sunday, that it is the law of being that in proportion as you rise from lower to higher life, the parts are more distinctly developed, while yet the unity becomes more entire. You find, for example, in the lowest forms of animal life one organ performs several functions, one organ being at the same time heart and brain and blood-vessels. But when you come to man, you find all these various functions existing in different organs, and every organ more distinctly developed; and yet the unity of a man is a higher unity than that of a limpet. When you come from the material world to the world immaterial, you find that the more society is cultivated, the more man is cultivated, the more marvellous is the power of developing distinct powers. In the savage life it is almost all one feeling; but in proportion as the higher education advances and the higher life appears, every power and faculty develops and distinguishes itself and becomes distinct and separate. And yet just in proportion as in a nation every part is distinct, the unity is greater, and just in proportion as in an individual every power is most complete, and stands out most distinct, just in that proportion has the man reached the entireness of his humanity.

Now, brethren, we apply all this to the mind of God. The Trinitarian maintains against the Unitarian and the Sabellian, that the higher you ascend in the scale of being, the more distinct are the consciousnesses, and that the law of unity implies and demands a manifold unity. The doctrine of Sabellianism, for example, is this: that God is but one essence-but one person under different manifestations; and that when He made the world He was called the Father, when He redeemed the world He was called the Son, and when he sanctified the world He was called the Holy Ghost. The Sabellian and the Unitarian maintain that the unity of God consists simply in a unity of person, and in opposition to this does the Trinitarian maintain that grandness, either in man or in God, must be a unity of manifoldness.

But we will enter into this more deeply. The first power of consciousness in which God is made known to us is as the Father, the Author of our being. It is written, “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” He is the Author of all life. In this sense He is not merely our Father as Christians, but the Father of mankind; and not merely the Father of mankind, but the Father of creation; and in this way the sublime language of the prophets may be taken as true literally, “The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy;” and the language of the canticle which belongs to our morning service, “the deeps, the fountains, the wells,” all unite in one hymn of praise, one everlasting hallelujah to God the Father, the Author of their being. In this respect, simply as the Author of life, merely as the Supreme Being, God has reference to us in relation to the body. He is the Lord of life: in Him we live, and move, and have our being. In this respect God to us is as law-as the collected laws of the universe; and therefore to offend against law, and bring down the result of transgressing law, is said in Scripture language, because applied to a person, to be provoking the wrath of God the Father.

In the next place, the second way through which the personality and consciousness of God has been revealed to us is as the Son. Brethren, we see in all those writers who have treated of the Trinity, that much stress is laid upon this eternal generation of the Son, the everlasting sonship. It is this which we have in the creed-the creed which was read to-day-“God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds;” and, again, in the Nicene creed, that expression, which is so often wrongly read, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,” means absolutely nothing. There are two statements made there. The first is this, “The Son was God:” the second is this, “The Son was-of God,” showing his derivation. And in that, brethren, we have one of the deepest and most blessed truths of revelation. The Unitarian maintains a divine humanity-a blessed, blessed truth. There is a truth more blessed still-the humanity of Deity. Before the world was, there was that in the mind of God which we may call the humanity of His Divinity. It is called in Scripture the Word: the Son: the Form of God. It is in virtue of this that we have a right to attribute to Him our own feelings; it is in virtue of this that Scripture speaks of His wisdom, His justice, His love. Love in God is what love is in man; justice in God is what justice is in man; creative power in God is what creative power is in man; indignation in God is that which indignation is in man, barring only this, that the one is emotional, but the other is calm, and pure, and everlastingly still. It is through this humanity in the mind of God, if I may dare so to speak of Deity, that a revelation became possible to man. It was the Word that was made flesh; it was the Word that manifested itself to man. It is in virtue of the connection between God and man, that God made man in His own image; that through a long line of prophets the human truth of God could be made known to man, till it came forth developed most entirely and at large in the incarnation of the Redeemer. Now in this respect, it will be observed that God stands connected with us in relation to the soul as “the Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”

Once more: there is a nearer, a closer, and a more enduring relation in which God stands to us-that is, the relation of the Spirit. It is to the writings of St. John that we have to turn especially, if we desire to know the doctrines of the Spirit. You will remember the strange way in which he speaks of God. It would almost seem as if the external God has disappeared to him; nay, as if an external Christ were almost forgotten, because the internal Christ has been formed. He speaks of God as kindred with us; he speaks of Christ as Christ in us; and “if we love one another,” he says, “God dwelleth in us.” If a man keep the commandments, “God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” So that the spiritual manifestation of God to us is that whereby He blends Himself with the soul of man.

These, then, my Christian brethren, are the three consciousnesses by which He becomes known to us. Three, we said, known to us. We do not dare to limit God; we do not presume to say that there are in God only three personalities, only three consciousnesses: all that we dare presume to say is this, that there are three in reference to us, and only three; that a fourth there is not; that, perchance, in the present state a fourth you can not add to these-Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.

Lastly, let us turn to the relation which the Trinity in unity bears to the triad in discord. It is intended for the entireness of our sanctification: “the very God of peace sanctify you wholly.” Brethren, we dwell upon that expression “wholly.” There is this difference between Christianity and every other system: Christianity proposes to ennoble the whole man; every other system subordinates parts to parts. Christianity does not despise the intellect, but it does not exalt the intellect in a one-sided way: it only dwells with emphasis on the third and highest part of man -his spiritual affections; and these it maintains are the chief and real seat of everlasting life, intended to subordinate the other to themselves.

Asceticism would crush the natural affections, destroy the appetites. Asceticism feels that there is a conflict between the flesh and the spirit, and it would put an end to that conflict; it would bring back unity by the excision of all our natural appetites, and all the desires and feelings which we have by nature. But when the Apostle Paul comes forward to proclaim the will of God, he says it is not by the crushing of the body but by the sanctification of the body: “I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body he preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In this, my Christian brethren, there is one of the deepest of all truths. Does a man feel himself the slave and the victim of his lower passions? Let not that man hope to subdue them merely by struggling against them. Let him not by fasting, by austerity, by any earthly rule that he can conceive, expect to subdue the flesh. The more he thinks of his vile and lower feelings, the more will they be brought into distinctness, and therefore into power; the more hopelessly will he become their victim. The only way in which a man can subdue the flesh is not by the extinction of those feelings, but by the elevation of their character. Let there be added to that character, sublimity of aim, purity of affection; let there be given grandeur, spiritual nobleness; and then, just as the strengthening of the whole constitution of the body makes any particular and local affection disappear, so by degrees, by the raising of the character, do these lower affections become, not extinguished or destroyed by excision, but ennobled by a new and loftier spirit breathed through them.

This is the account given by the apostle. He speaks of the conflict between the flesh and the spirit. And his remedy is to give vigor to the higher, rather than to struggle with the lower. “This I say, then, Walk in the spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.”

Once more: the apostle differs from the world in this, that the world would restore this unity and sanctify man simply from the soul. It is this which civilization pretends to effect. We hear much in these modern days of “the progress of humanity.” We hear of man’s invention, of man’s increase of knowledge; and it would seem in all this, as if man were necessarily becoming better. Brethren, it always must be the case in that state in which God is looked upon as the Supreme Being merely, where the intellect of man is supposed to be the chief thing-that which makes him most kindred to his Maker.

The doctrine of Christianity is this-that unity of all this discord must be made. Man is to be made one with God, not by soaring intellect, but by lowly love. It is the Spirit which guides him to all truth; not merely by rendering more acute the reasoning powers, but by convincing of sin, by humbling the man. It is the graces of the Spirit which harmonize the man, and make him one; and that is the end, and aim, and object of all the Gospel: the entireness of sanctification to produce a perfectly developed man.

Most of us in this world are monsters, with some part of our being bearing the development of a giant and others showing the proportions of a dwarf: a feeble, dwarfish will-mighty, full-blown passions; and therefore it is that there is to be visible through the Trinity in us, a noble manifold unity; and when the triune power of God shall so have done its work on the entireness of our humanity, that the body, soul, and spirit have been sanctified, then shall there be exhibited, and only then, a perfect affection in man to his Maker, and body, soul, and spirit shall exhibit a Trinity in unity.