Luther repeatedly pointed Christians old and new to the articles of the Apostles’ Creed as the simplest, most profound statement of faith. Not only did he address the Creed in his catechisms, but it found its way into his sermons with great frequency. The following excerpt from Luther’s 1535 Trinity Sunday sermon provides the reformer’s commentary on the development of the Creed and his use of the Creed to distinguish the persons of the Trinity and their unique works. For the complete sermon, see Volume 78 of the American Edition of Luther’s Works, due to release this month.
Therefore, the fathers have done well in writing the Creed or Symbol so simply that the children can pray it: “I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, etc., and in the Holy Spirit.” We have not made or devised this confession, nor did the earlier fathers. Rather, as a bee gathers honey from many beautiful, pleasant flowers, so this very brief Symbol has been collected from the books of the dear prophets and apostles—that is, from the entire Holy Scriptures—for children and simple Christians. It is right to call it the “Apostles’ Symbol or Creed.” It is arranged in such a way that it could not have been written better and more beautifully, so briefly and clearly. It has remained in the Church from ancient times, so that either the apostles themselves arranged it or it was gathered together from their writings and sermons by their best students.
First, it begins: “I believe.” In whom? “In God the Father.” This is the first person in the deity. So that all three persons can be distinguished more exactly, the property and work in which each is especially revealed is briefly expressed, such as, with the first person, the work of creation.
Although it is true that this is the work not only of one person but of the one, whole, divine, eternal essence—so that we must say, “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have created heaven and earth”—yet that work is applied to the person of the Father as the first person, because otherwise He is revealed visibly and outwardly in no other work than in the creation of all creatures, which is the first work of the divine Majesty toward the creatures.
However, He is properly and especially distinguished from the other persons with the word “Father” to show that He is the first person and derived from none other; the Son and the Holy Spirit, however, are from the Father.
Then, [second,] the Creed further says, “I believe still in another who is also God” (for believing is something which is owed to no creature, but only to God). What is He called? “Jesus Christ, His one only-begotten Son.” Christians have prayed in this way now for more than fifteen hundred years. Yes, all believers from the beginning of the world, even though they did not have just these words, have believed and confessed just the same thing.
So the first distinction of God the Son is that He is called the only Son of God. Although otherwise all angels—yes, all Christians—are called our Lord God’s sons and children, yet none is called the only or only-begotten Son, but the Lord Christ alone is born from the Father, so that He has no equal among all the creatures, not even among the angels. This means that He is the true, natural Son, that is, of the same divine, eternal, uncreated essence of God the Father.
Then His specific works are further listed: “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born from Mary the virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; on the third day He rose again, ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God His heavenly Father, and will come again on the Last Day to judge the dead and the living,” etc. In this way the Son is distinguished (according to His own work). Only He (not the Father or the Holy Spirit) became a natural man, blood and flesh (as we are), suffered, died, rose, ascended into heaven, etc.
Third, there follows: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Here again a distinct person is named, yet also of the divine essence with the Father and the Son. We should and must believe in no one except only the true God, according to the First Commandment: “I alone am your God” [Exod. 20:2; Deut. 5:6].
Thus this confession briefly includes both the unity of the divine essence—we believe and worship only one God—and yet in three distinct persons. Similarly, this distinction is also pointed out in holy Baptism, where we are baptized in the name of only one God, and yet Christ commands us to “baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” etc. [Matt. 28:19].
The property of this third person is that He proceeds from both the Father and the Son. Therefore, He is also called the Spirit of both the Father and the Son, who is poured out into the hearts of people. He is revealed in the work that He gathers the Church of Christ in all kinds of languages, enlightens them, kindles their hearts to one faith through the Word of the Gospel, sanctifies them, makes them alive, and saves them.
Thus in this confession of the Symbol, the three persons are comprehended in one divine essence and yet are distinct; each one is clothed in a special work before the others, so that the simple Christian may know that there certainly is only one divine essence and only one God but still three persons. Distinct works are added as a sign of this: the work of creation is given to the Father; to the Son, redemption; to the Holy Spirit, the power to forgive sins, gladden, strengthen, and, finally, bring from the dead to eternal life.
This does not mean that the Father alone is the Creator, or the Son alone the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit alone sanctifies. Rather, even though creating and preserving all things, making satisfaction for sins, forgiving sins, raising from the dead, and giving eternal life are the work of the entire divine Majesty, nevertheless the Father is pointed out in the work of creation, which proceeds originally from Him as the first person; the Son [is pointed out] in the work of redemption which He carried out in His own person; and the Holy Spirit [is pointed out] in the work of sanctification for which He was especially sent and revealed. This is done so that Christians can have this simple, certain understanding that there is only one God and yet there are three persons in the one divine essence. The holy fathers diligently gathered this from Moses and from the writings of the prophets and the apostles and maintained it against all heretics.
Amended from Luther’s Works Volume 78, pages 23–26. © 2015 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.