Perhaps it is impossible to summarize all the essentials of Christianity in so short a space. So picture the words as an umbrella under which the rest of Christian theology can stand. Better yet, imagine the three words are the fountainhead from which the waters of Christian theology can flow.
I have heard a number of suggestions:
- the good news that “Jesus saves sinners”
- the gospel imperative to “repent and believe”
- the sovereignty of God in the message that “Jesus is Lord”
- Bible verses such as John 3:16.
All of these suggestions have their merit (although using a Bible verse reference to count for the three words seems a bit like cheating to me!).
But I recommend three different words. If I had to sum up all of Christian teaching in one statement, I would quote directly from 1 John 4:8. “God is love.” Those three words stand at the very heart of the Christian faith.
Some of you may bristle at the thought that “God is love” could be at the very heart of Christianity. Perhaps you have come across Precious Moments bookmarks with the phrase scrawled on the bottom. Or maybe you have seen too many gaudy collectible items in Christian bookstores that have sentimentalized (and feminized) the idea that God is love.
Hear me out first. These three words may surprise you.
“God is love” is not some mushy, saccharine version of what our culture would like to be true: “Love is God.” Not at all. The Apostle John’s statement carries radical implications.
Saying that “God is love” is claiming something about who God is in his essence. The statement points us to the Trinity, and the truth of the Trinity throws open the windows, revealing to us the nature of a God who chooses from eternity past to provide salvation for sinful rebels like you and me. “God is love” is not a sappy statement for teary-eyed dreamers; it is truth about God that leads to a bloody cross.
“God is love” is not a generic tip of the hat to a watered down civil religion that pushes tolerance to the top of our “most-desired virtues” list. When understood correctly, “God is love” represents an exclusive claim that can only be true about the Christian God. The statement seems utterly simple upon first glance, and yet all of Christian theology is, in some sense, an unpacking of who God is and what he has done.
Along these lines, let me recommend Fred Sanders’ new book, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. Sanders says “the Trinity is the gospel” and here is what he means:
When I say the Trinity is the gospel, I mean that the Father sent the Son to redeem us, and the Spirit of the Son to adopt us (Galatians 4:4-6).
When we hear about the Trinity, we should think first and foremost about that event, that history, that saving action that God performed for us. It’s pretty sad when Christians hear the word “Trinity” and the dominant idea in their mind is some kind of abstract analogy about shamrocks or the three states of matter.
I think the early church pondered its way to the doctrine of the Trinity by figuring out how to condense the whole gospel story into the shortest form. That form is the name that Jesus gave us: the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, into which we are baptized.