Some elements of Christian doctrine are like the catalytic converter of a car. Drivers know it's "in there somewhere" and the car probably couldn't function without it. But if ever asked to explain exactly what it is and how it works, they wouldn't know where to start.
J.I. Packer fears that many preachers have adopted this attitude concerning the Trinity, one of the most important tenets of the Christian faith. But the Trinity isn't a technicality; it's the central relationship of the Christian faith.
Packer is the Board of Governor's Professor of Theology (retired) at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., author of Knowing God (IVP, 1973), and served on the editorial board of Christianity Today.
Packer is interviewed by Craig Brian Larson, pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago, Illinois, and co-general editor of The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2005).
Why do you think preachers shy away from the topic of the Trinity in their sermons?
I think it's because most of them have been taught the Trinity is what in the trade we call a theologoumenon, that is, something that Christians are supposed to spit out as part of their orthodoxy without needing to understand it very well. Preachers know that the people in the pew aren't interested in that sort of lumber for the mind, and so they try to dodge it simply because they're afraid that people will be bored if the truth of the Trinity is focused on in any way at all.
We have the idea—one we've taken for granted and never examined—that we can get on without any knowledge about the Trinity. That is a problem.
Why is the Trinity important for preachers facing a postmodern, or post-Christian, culture?
The postmodern/post-Christian culture has jettisoned the Trinity, just as it has jettisoned the rest of supernatural Christianity. As a result, what it embraces is a sort of syncretism—this idea that all religions are more or less the same, that all religions can be melded together in a sort of general, unfocused religiosity of mind. And as long as we retain this religiosity as a feeling and decency as a lifestyle, well, we're all sharers in whatever good things Christianity once offered—call it salvation if you like. But everybody's in it together.
And so there's no sense that people need to be born again. There's no sense that Christians are different altogether at root level from non-Christians in society.
It's this blending and melding that we have to battle, because it isn't true. It doesn't match what God tells us in his Word. In fact, it will lead people into the delusion of supposing they're all right when they're all wrong.
So what essential truths about the Trinity must accompany our preaching of the gospel?
The gospel comes to us in the New Testament through the lens of the Trinity. In preaching the gospel, the Trinity is part of our message.
That is what the Lord Jesus did, in fact, when Nicodemus came to him by night. Jesus told him about the kingdom of God, which Nicodemus and all his Jewish peers were anxious to be a part of. Jesus explained that, in order to enter the kingdom of God, you've got to be born again, that is, born of the Spirit of God. And in order to be born again, of the Spirit of God, you must attend to the message about Jesus and learn to trust him as your sin-bearer.
So the gospel involves all three persons—the Father, whose kingdom it is; the Son, who was to die on the cross; and the Holy Spirit, who brings you to new birth.