My last article challenged preachers to Think as Trinitarians. Once preachers understand that the doctrine of the Trinity is not some abstract, unpractical theory, but rather a practical invitation to “participate” in communion with our triune God, everything changes. Preaching works differently. Rather than just preach about God, preachers participate with God, joining in the relationships, movement and power of God’s three persons. This profoundly affects how preachers behave.

That is why it is also vital that we Act as Trinitarians. Because most preachers and worship leaders have careers within organizations, preaching can sadly be downgraded into a mere job, dominated by deadlines and routine expectations. Sometimes preachers speak of “working up” next Sunday’s sermon, and worship leaders certainly know about “working up” next Sunday’s service content.

So preaching is reduced to utilitarian ends – a weekly grind that is necessary in order to make the rest of the church’s program effective. I remember one preacher, on reaching retirement, rejoicing: “Oh, I’m so glad I don’t have the slog of preparing weekly sermons anymore.”

Of course preaching is hard work. Gerard Sloyan wryly observes: “Preaching well is a great labor. That is the chief reason it does not happen very often. It requires too much of us.”[1] Yet, without minimizing the element of slog, preachers who act as Trinitarians bring their hard work into a different dynamic. Rather than “working up” something entirely by their own strength, they dare to participate in God’s continuing power and purpose.

Note the word dare. For while there are several aspects of Trinitarian behavior, including: surrender, prayerfulness, humility and gratitude, the first and most critical behavior trait is awe.


Awe expresses prostrate wonder – an experience of God’s total, overwhelming holiness. Awe marks God’s breakthrough to humans, who know in His holy presence they have no rights, nothing to give and everything to try and hide.

Awe marks every God-encounter in Scripture. It is the first human response. Moses kicks off his sandals in the presence of God’s holiness, “hiding his face because he was afraid to look at God” (Exo. 3:5, 6); Isaiah is overwhelmed in the temple (Isa. 6:3-7), Simon cannot bear Jesus’ power (Luke 5:8), nor can Saul (Acts 9:3-6). True meetings with God always provoke incredulous wonder and inadequacy before his holiness.

Awe initiates everything – “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Pro. 1:7). The two key New Testament words for worship emphasize awe. Proskuneo, literally “to bow down” or “to kiss toward” underlines such an attitude of prostration; latreueo “to pay homage” or “render honor” also speaks of being overwhelmed before God’s transcendence.

However, awe seems to be in short supply today. In a sermon about God confronting Elijah in a cave (1 Kin. 19:9-18), Eugene Lowry remarks that some preachers seemed to have missed out on the seminary course titled: Transcendence 101. They think that there is no big deal about preaching. For them “it is just a little word about Jesus…they have no conception of God’s mystery beyond all mysteries.”[2] With no sense of awe before our holy Creator God, they saunter casually into worship.

Scripture’s claim that by Christ’s sacrifice “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19) offers no grounds for casual poise or self-reliance. Only by Christ’s mediation through the Holy Spirit can worshipers approach the Father. Otherwise they can only tremble with fear before a blazing mountain (Heb. 12:18-21). Self-confidence that swaggers into worship with hands in pockets utterly fails to understand who God is, and how much Christian worship depends on Jesus Christ.

Too often, an understandable desire to make seekers comfortable has traded-off awe for welcome. Personal pleasure has trumped mystery. While God wants us to enjoy fellowship with Him, it should never be at the expense of awe before His three persons. John Whale commented: “Instead of putting off our shoes from our feet because the place where we stand is holy ground, we are taking nice photographs of the burning bush from suitable angles.”[3] And Marva Dawn warns: “I fear the subtle replacement of the mystery of the Trinity with the pastor’s personality in initiating worship…almost as if the priest invites us into his living room instead of God welcoming us in his presence”[4]

Preachers only dare to preach because of God’s call and gift of worship, grounded upon the sacrifice of Jesus, His continuing mediation and the work of the Holy Spirit. Every moment spent on their knees better enables preachers to taste something of the awesome Isaiah 6 experience, and prepares them more adequately to act as Trinitarians.

Actually, it might literally be on our knees. Last summer, I was given a prayer kneeler as a birthday gift, which some friends found in an antique shop. Made of solid wood, a sloping lectern top with a shelf beneath is connected by an ornate carved back to a cushioned floor kneeler. Since placing it in the corner of my study, my time spent there has added discipline and bodily commitment to personal worship. My kneeling (Psa. 95:6; Eph. 3:14) has helped me keep the right worship perspective before God’s triune holiness. Otherwise, too easily, “we have allowed the magnitude of our problems to blind us to the majesty of the Master.”[5]


When Romans 12:1-2 urges believers “to offer your bodies as living sacrifices,” it deeply disturbs the utilitarian mindset. “Offer” can be translated “yield” or “surrender,” echoing Old Testament commands to place whole sacrifices upon the altar, unreservedly giving up the best for God. Worship is only “pleasing and holy to God” in so far as we yield and surrender our strength, weaknesses, time, private lives, public lives, words and silences, to his grace. “Offer” within God’s two-way movement of grace demands availability as well as ability; submission as well as effort; re-activity with pro-activity and resting as well as rushing.

Trinitarian behavior responds sensitively and holistically, because it involves surrendering in relationship to the Trinity. The double movement of God’s grace depends on Jesus Christ, the perfect human, offering faultless human praise to the glory to the Father, so that through his offering we might offer our praise too. “Through him (the Son) we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph 2:18).

I recall how a hymn irritated me when I first heard it as an energetic teenager:

Jesus, I am resting, resting
In the joy of what Thou art
I am finding out the greatness
Of thy loving heart.[6]

It seemed far too passive, sentimental and pietistic. What’s the point of resting? Yet, as a born activist, I have grown (with difficulty) to recognize the need to rest more in who God is and what he is already doing. Of course, Trinitarian thinking expands “resting in joy” to a gift of relationship with all three persons of the Trinity.


Prayer, as our two-way relationship with God, is intimately connected with surrender and participation. Indeed, Trinitarians understand prayer as “joining in” with God, as Jesus intercedes at the right hand of the Father (Rom. 8:34, Heb. 7:25), and the Holy Spirit helps us in weakness (Rom. 8:26). Rather than depending on humans initiating a relationship with God, prayer enters a relationship that God has already made possible. Human prayer joins in the conversation that God began first.

Because prayer sums up participation with God, some have described the act of worship as prayer. In Worshipful Preaching, Gerard Sloyan pictures the whole of worship as prayer, claiming that Scripture helps us join in conversation with God. “Our preaching is one of the several prayerful things we do in the context of worship.” As God speaks to us in Scripture, so a preacher’s sermon is a “continuation of the conversation. It is Spirit-invested but not, like the Bible, Spirit-inspired.”[7]

Sadly, the pressures of “working up” sermons and worship services often leave little room for authentic two-way prayer. Prayer becomes intermittent and marginalized rather than the “Christian’s vital breath…native air.”[8] Yet Trinitarian prayerfulness encourages a conscious “joining-in” to embrace all that we do.

Recently I met with a worship leader for the first time, to help prepare some conference worship. I began with a time of prayer, committing both of us into God’s strength and guiding. Afterwards the worship leader said: “Oh that was so wonderful! I wish all service planning began with prayer.” But isn’t beginning worship preparation in prayer the most obvious action? Not perfunctory prayer, but yielding, surrendering prayer. Preachers and worship teams need to pray on their way in worship preparation, entering into glorious relationship with God in three persons, who is already communicating with us.


Positive thanks should flow from God’s generosity. The apostle Paul especially demonstrated the power of positive thanking, (for example, Col. 1:3; 3:17). Yet, in spite of using the language of thanking God for the “privilege of worship” – an expression I have often heard – too often preachers act without gratitude. The dutiful slog of preparing sermons has dulled them both to the Giver and His gift of preaching as worship.

Remember that “bodies are offered as living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1) because “of God’s mercy.” Indeed, Romans 12:1 follows immediately after the tumultuous verses of Romans 11:33-36, with heaped-up praise exclamations and doxology (with Trinitarian undertones): “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be praise for ever.”

Worship’s first cause is God’s overwhelming love. Awe should mark God’s encounter, but gratitude quickly follows from experiencing his grace. As C. Welton Gaddy defines it: “Worship is a gift between lovers who keep on giving to each other” (2 John 4:19).[9]

Developing the positive power of thankfulness requires space, reflection and intentionality, all of which are so easily squeezed out by busy pressures of preparing worship. Yet every week the refrain should be, “Come, you thankful people come.” Every part of preparation responds to God’s generous grace. Preaching depends utterly on God’s revealed word in Scripture, by His Son and through His Spirit, gifted to us and returning to Him. Preachers need more tumultuous from-through-and-to-Him doxology.


True gratitude requires humility. Unfortunately, however, all public performance is liable to pride, and leading worship is no exception. Hubris ever stalks those who work in the public eye, with dangers (some subtle) of applause. Especially in preaching, human egos can so easily shine at the expense of divine glory.

Sloyan warns preachers about “upstaging Scripture” and receiving congratulations. For example, he is concerned that when people say: “That was a powerful message,” they mean that the sermon “has taken on a life of its own….It stands alone in splendor…as a good performance.”[10] Rather, preaching should not been seen in competition with other parts of worship (especially Scripture and communion), but belonging within the whole act of worship. God is to be praised, not the preacher.

He also warns about the “hazard of fluency” when words come too easily for practiced preachers. Perhaps, his judgment is too harsh: “The bitterest complaint against pulpit practitioners is that they speak too long. This invariably means that they use more time than there are thoughts to match.” He challenges preachers:

There is a thoughtful, prayerful, cultivated you that lies deep. There is also a surface you that is immediately available. The latter your people can have at any time. To preach well is to go in search of the former.[11]

The popular refrain: “It’s not about us” seems often undone by a total absence of the modest spirit that knows weakness, fear and trembling (1 Cor 2:3).

Preachers and worship leaders who approach their task with awe, surrender, prayerfulness, gratitude and humility are marked by reverential wonder. Unhappily, the words “reverence” and “dignity” have received a bad press in some quarters. Superficially identified with modes of dress, liturgical forms or self-importance, I have heard traditionalists deride a preacher for not wearing a suit and robes, and contemporary worshipers mock a preacher who did.

Of course, appearances do matter as preachers identify with particular contexts. But reverence and dignity are not matters of status and appearance; rather they are determined by a person’s relationship with God – by Trinitarian behavior! I have been in worship services where both leadership styles – formal robes in pulpits, or casual dress in tee-shirts and jeans – have actually modeled reverential wonder. Sadly, I have also observed leaders at both extremes who (unwittingly) have displayed self-importance and over-confidence.

William Willimon warns that in a culture that admires media moguls, “pastors unconsciously take on the mannerisms and style of the television preacher, particularly in their leadership of public worship. The pastor as performer, as grinning personality, supersedes the roles of pastor as teacher, priest and leader of the congregation.” [12]

Reverential wonder results not from some manufactured appearance, but from the overflow of authentic relationship with God. Nineteenth-century preachers sometimes spoke of the value of a “presidential style” of worship leading, when a leader’s dignity (arising out of awe, surrender, prayerfulness, gratitude humility), enabled others to encounter God’s mystery in worship. When Thomas Long describes characteristics of vital congregations, he lists as number one: that they make room “for the experience of mystery.” [13]

So far, I have considered how preachers should think and act as Trinitarians because preaching is participation with God. Now I must turn to the content of preaching.

Preach as Trinitarians

Let’s remember that the early church developed the doctrine of the Trinity not to complicate the Bible’s message but to explicate it. The Trinity is not some clever idea imposed on Scripture, but an inspired way of making sense of Scripture. The God of Scripture is triune and Christian faith is Trinitarian. God is always three persons and always acts as three persons. Preachers therefore need t

a) Preach the Trinity in the whole story of Scripture

b) Preach all Three Persons

c) Preach the Trinity in Scripture texts  

d) Preach Trinitarian grammar

The last part of this article will consider a) and b).

Preach the Trinity in the whole story of Scripture

Recently, narrative theology has stressed that the Bible should be viewed less as a collection of books, and more as a single dramatic story running from creation to new creation. Robin Parry pleads for this “biblical super story” to be told from the Trinitarian perspective, so that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the key characters, involved in every part from Genesis to Revelation. In creation of the cosmos and of humanity all three persons are involved (Gen. 1:1-2, 26-27; 2:7; John 1:1-14; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col.1:15-17; Heb. 1:1-3).

The story of salvation of the whole human race is precipitated by Adam’s disastrous fall, begins with the call of Abraham and leads to the mission of Israel that is unfulfilled until salvation is won gloriously by the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is the new Adam (Rom. 5:12-21). “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). At the heart of the biblical super-story, Jesus’ ministry should be told with reference to the Father and the Holy Spirit, as should the story of the church and the future redemption of creation.

Last Pentecost I heard a sermon from Dr Bilezikian, in which he spent the first ten minutes setting out the Pentecost story in terms of the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father had acted in the Old Covenant, and sent Jesus to bring in the New Covenant, and now the Holy Spirit was initiating the birth of the church. Without mentioning the “economic model” of the Trinity – an unnecessary complication! – he skillfully painted the Trinitarian “super story.” No one could walk out of the service without, at least, hearing about God in three persons.

Of course, this story must be told carefully, for at no point does any divine person act without the others. So, for example, the Father never acts without the Son and the Spirit. But this grand view of God at work helps to put the whole of Scripture’s story into a cosmic perspective.

Preach all three persons.  

  • Stop neglecting the Father. Tom Smail warns that because many evangelical churches exclusively focus on Jesus, they “forget” the Father.[14] He emphasizes that while the Son and the Spirit equally share divine authority and lordship with the Father, they both exercise power in relationship to him (John 14:28; 1 Cor 12:3; 2 Cor. 13:14). Helpfully he calls the Father the “Integrator” – the one who integrates divine life and mission. Omit the Father and the gospel misses its source and purpose.
  • Stop diminishing Jesus. Smail also stresses how the identity, revelation and action of both the Father and Son can only be understood within their unique relationship to each other (John 8:16-19). “Every action of Jesus originates and is directed by and towards the person, purpose and glory of the Father.” [15] And, unless Jesus is depended upon as the continuing Mediator and Intercessor with the Father, by the Spirit, worship is doomed to be human effort only.
  • Be open to Holy Spirit experience. The twentieth century world-wide Pentecostal/charismatic renewal undeniably brought heightened awareness of the person of the Holy Spirit. As the sent “presence of God,” He “is the Father and the Son reaching out in communication and love beyond themselves towards another, so that the activity of revelation can rightly be attributed to each singly and all jointly” (John 7:39; 16:7).[16] Yet, much contemporary preaching appears to give little emphasis to the Spirit as the sent “presence of God” working inwardly in the lives of men and women to form community.  

Preachers can so easily miss out God’s three persons. For example, preaching John 3:16 can simply neglect the Trinity. As Wilson challenges:  the God of this verse is the “Father”…the “Son” is also God – incarnate. And the New Testament teaches us that belief in the Son is the work of the Spirit….working for our salvation we have the Father, who sent the Son; the Son, who gives and is given for our forgiveness; and the Spirit who births us into the kingdom of forgiveness and life.[17]

[1] Gerard S. Sloyan, Worshipful Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 19.

[2] Eugene Lowry, “Listening to the Dark”, E.Y. Mullins Lectures, (Southern Seminary, March 3, 1992).

[3] John Whale, quoted in Cornelius Plantinga & Sue A. Rozeboom, Discerning the Spirits (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

[4] Marva J.Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995),78.

[5] Attributed to James Stewart.

[6] Jean Pigott, 1876.

[7] Sloyan, Worshipful Preaching, 12.

[8] James Montgomery, in hymn ‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire’ 1818

[9] C. Welton Gaddy, The Gift of Worship (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), xi.

[10] Sloyan, 13.

[11] Ibid., 22.

[12] W. Willimon, Pastor, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 58.

[13] Thomas G. Long, Beyond Worship Wars (Alban Institute, 2003), 20.

[14] Thomas A Smail, The Forgotten Father (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).

[15] Ibid., 79.

[16] Ibid., 78

[17] Jonathan R.Wilson, Why Church Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 57.

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