GOD who is one is revealed in three distinct persons. God-Jesus-Holy Spirit
In trying to find words to express their faith in Jesus, the New Testament writers gave him various names. Jesus was Master, Rabbi, Teacher. He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He was the Doorway to the sheepfold, the Light of the world, the Prince of Peace, and more. In the church's long tradition, scores of other names or titles have been given. Let's look at five of the most central biblical names for Jesus:
Son of God
We believe in Jesus as God's special child. We call this the Incarnation, meaning that God was in the world in the actual person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writers explain this in different ways. In Mark, Jesus seems to be adopted as God's Son at his baptism. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. In John, Jesus is God's pre-existing Word who "became flesh and lived among us" (1:14). However this mystery occurred, we affirm that God is wholly present in Jesus Christ.
Son of man
Paradoxically, we also believe that Jesus was fully human. One of the church's first heresies claimed that Jesus only seemed to be human, that he was really a divine figure in disguise. But the early church rejected this. It affirmed that Jesus was a person in every sense that we are. He was tempted. He grew weary. He wept. He expressed his anger. In fact, Jesus is God's picture of what it means to be a mature human being.
We say "Jesus Christ" easily, almost as if "Christ" were Jesus' surname. Yet this name is another way of expressing who we believe Jesus to be. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means God's Anointed One. For years before Jesus' time the Jews had been expecting a new king, a descendant of the revered King David, who would restore the nation of Israel to glory. Like kings of old, this one would be anointed on the head with oil, signifying God's election; hence, the Chosen One = the Anointed One = the Messiah = the Christ. The early Jewish Christians proclaimed that Jesus was, indeed, this Chosen One. Thus, in calling him our Christ today, we affirm that he was and is the fulfillment of the ancient hope and God's Chosen One to bring salvation to all peoples, for all time.
We also proclaim Jesus as our Lord, the one to whom we give our devoted allegiance. The word Lord had a more powerful meaning for people of medieval times, because they actually lived under the authority of lords and monarchs. Today some of us may find it difficult to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of our lives. We're used to being independent and self-sufficient. We have not bowed down to authority. To claim Jesus as Lord is to freely submit our will to his, to humbly profess that it is he who is in charge of this world.
Perhaps best of all, we believe in Jesus as Savior, as the one through whom God has freed us of our sin and has given us the gift of whole life, eternal life, and salvation. We speak of this gift as the atonement, our "at-oneness" or reconciliation with God. We believe that in ways we cannot fully explain, God has done this through the mystery of Jesus' self-giving sacrifice on the cross and his victory over sin and death in the Resurrection.
Who God is
When we say the Apostles' Creed, we join with millions of Christians through the ages in an understanding of God as a Trinity—three persons in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, who is one, is revealed in three distinct persons. "God in three persons, blessed Trinity" is one way of speaking about the several ways we experience God.
We also try to find adjectives that describe the divine nature: God is transcendent (over and beyond all that is), yet at the same time immanent (present in everything). God is omnipresent (everywhere at once), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omniscient (all-knowing). God is absolute, infinite, righteous, just, loving, merciful…and more. Because we cannot speak literally about God, we use metaphors: God is a Shepherd, a Bridegroom, a Judge. God is Love or Light or Truth.
What God does
We cannot describe God with certainty. But we can put into words what God does and how we experience God's action in our lives. God works in at least these seven ways:
- God creates. In the beginning God created the universe, and the Creation is ongoing. From the whirling galaxies, to subatomic particles, to the unfathomable wonders of our own minds and bodies—we marvel at God's creative wisdom.
- God sustains. God continues to be active in creation, holding all in "the everlasting arms." In particular, we affirm that God is involved in our human history—past, present, and future.
- God loves. God loves all creation. In particular, God loves humankind, created in the divine image. This love is like that of a parent. We've followed Jesus in speaking of God as "our Father," while at times it seems that God nurtures us in a motherly way as well.
- God suffers. Since God is present in creation, God is hurt when any aspect of creation is hurt. God especially suffers when people are injured. In all violence, abuse, injustice, prejudice, hunger, poverty, or illness, the living God is suffering in our midst.
- God judges. All human behavior is measured by God's righteous standards—not only the behavior itself but also the motive or the intent. The Lord of life knows our sin—and judges it.
- God redeems. Out of infinite love for each of us, God forgives our own self-destruction and renews us within. God is reconciling the individuals, groups, races, and nations that have been rent apart. God is redeeming all creation.
- God reigns. God is the Lord of all creation and of all history. Though it may oftentimes seem that the "principalities and powers" of evil have the stronger hand, we affirm God's present and future reign.
When all is done, if we have difficulty in imagining who God is or in relating to God, there's a simple solution: Remember Jesus—for in the New Testament picture of Jesus, we see God.
The Holy Spirit is God's present activity in our midst. When we sense God's leading, God's challenge, or God's support or comfort, we say that it's the Holy Spirit at work.
In Hebrew, the words for Spirit, wind, and breath are nearly the same. The same is true in Greek. In trying to describe God's activity among them, the ancients were saying that it was like God's breath, like a sacred wind. It could not be seen or held: "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3:8). But the effect of God's Spirit, like the wind, could be felt and known. Where do we find the evidence of the Spirit at work?
In the Bible
The Spirit is mentioned often throughout the Bible. In Genesis a "wind from God swept over the face of the waters," as if taking part in the Creation (1:2). Later in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), we often read of "the Spirit of the Lord."
In Matthew's account of Jesus' baptism, Jesus "saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him" (3:16) and he "was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted" (4:1). After his Resurrection Christ told his disciples, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you" (Acts 1:8). A few weeks later, on the Day of Pentecost, this came to pass: "And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind....All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:2, 4). As the Book of Acts and Paul's letters attest, from that time on, the early Christians were vividly aware of God's Spirit leading the new church.
In guidance, comfort, and strength
Today we continue to experience God's breath, God's Spirit. As one of our creeds puts it, "We believe in the Holy Spirit, God present with us for guidance, for comfort, and for strength" (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 884). We sense the Spirit in time alone—perhaps in prayer, in our study of the Scriptures, in reflection on a difficult decision, or in the memory of a loved one. The Spirit's touch is intensely personal.
Perhaps we're even more aware of the Holy Spirit in the community of believers—the congregation, the church school class or fellowship group, the soup kitchen, the planning committee, the prayer meeting, the family. Somehow the Spirit speaks through the thoughtful and loving interaction of God's people. The Holy Spirit, who brought the church into being, is still guiding and upholding it, if we will but listen.
In the gifts we receive
How does the Holy Spirit affect our lives? By changing us! By renewing us and by strengthening us for the work of ministry.
- Fruits: Jesus said, "You will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16). What sort of fruit? Paul asserts that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22).
- Gifts: Paul also writes that the Spirit bestows spiritual gifts on believers. In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 he lists nine, which vary from one person to another: the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues.
These fruits and gifts are not of our own achievement. They and others are the outgrowth of the Spirit's work in us, by grace, through our faith in Jesus the Christ. And they are not given for personal gain. Through these fruits and gifts, the Holy Spirit empowers us for ministry in the world.
What does it mean to be saved and to be assured of salvation? It's to know that after feeling lost and alone, we've been found by God. It's to know that after feeling worthless, we've been redeemed. It's to experience a reunion with God, others, the natural world, and our own best selves. It's a healing of the alienation—the estrangement—we've experienced. In salvation we become whole. Salvation happens to us both now and for the future. It's "eternal life," that new quality of life in unity with God of which the Gospel of John speak—-a life that begins not at death, but in the present. But how does salvation happen?
By grace through faith
Salvation cannot be earned. There's no behavior, no matter how holy or righteous, by which we can achieve salvation. Rather, it's the gift of a gracious God.
By grace we mean God's extraordinary love for us. In most of life we're accustomed to earning approval from others. This is true at school, at work, in society, even at home—to a degree. We may feel that we have to act "just so" to be liked or loved. But God's love, or grace, is given without any regard for our goodness. It's unmerited, unconditional, and unending love.
As we come to accept this love, to entrust ourselves to it, and to ground our lives in it, we discover the wholeness that God has promised. This trust, as we've seen, is called faith. God takes the initiative in grace; but only as we respond through faith is the change wrought in us.
This is the great theme of the Protestant Reformers, as well as John Wesley and the Methodists who followed: We're saved by grace alone through faith alone. We're made whole and reconciled by the love of God as we receive it and trust in it.
This process of salvation involves a change in us that we call conversion. Conversion is a turning around, leaving one orientation for another. It may be sudden and dramatic, or gradual and cumulative. But in any case it's a new beginning. Following Jesus' words to Nicodemus, "You must be born anew" (John 3:7 RSV), we speak of this conversion as rebirth, new life in Christ, or regeneration.
Following Paul and Luther, John Wesley called this process justification. Justification is what happens when Christians abandon all those vain attempts to justify themselves before God, to be seen as "just" in God's eyes through religious and moral practices. It's a time when God's "justifying grace" is experienced and accepted, a time of pardon and forgiveness, of new peace and joy and love. Indeed, we're justified by God's grace through faith.
Justification is also a time of repentance -- turning away from behaviors rooted in sin and toward actions that express God's love. In this conversion we can expect to receive assurance of our present salvation through the Holy Spirit "bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:16).
Growing in grace
Conversion is but the beginning of the new life of wholeness. Through what Wesley called God's "sanctifying grace," we can continue to grow. In fact, Wesley affirmed, we're to press on, with God's help, in the path of sanctification, the gift of Christian perfection. The goal of the sanctified life is to be perfected in love, to experience the pure love of God and others, a holiness of heart and life, a total death to sin. We're not there yet; but by God's grace, as we United Methodists say, "we're going on to perfection!"