Athanasian Creed: Trinity, Good Works, and Salvation
I’ve received some questions about the Triune (Three-in-One) God, as well as a few who essentially ask, “How can you say that only those who do good works will go to heaven when you also say that it is only by grace that people are saved?”
I’ll touch on both, starting with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Both will involve a look at the Athanasian Creed. (Follow this link for a copier-ready 21k PDF file of the Athanasian Creed formatted for responsive reading with introductory notes.)
Christianity has constantly struggled to keep the Faith free from false philosophies.
In the fourth-century Greek culture of Alexandria, Egypt, a persuasive preacher with a logical mind used a philosophy foreign to the Scriptures in order to explain the connection between Jesus and His Father. Arius borrowed from the popular Greek concept that a “god,” by nature, had to be high, distant and almighty; and that humans, consequently, had to be low, spacial and inferior.
Arius taught that only the Father was really a proper God. Because Jesus was human, He was therefore only a creature (created by God) and therefore did not really possess any divine qualities. The problem was basic: When Arius denied the divinity of Christ, he destroyed God’s role in accomplishing our salvation. If Jesus were not really God, then He could not possibly have saved us from our sins.
Orthodox (“right-teaching”) Christianity declared the Scriptural teaching of the two natures in Christ — that He was both “true God,” and “true man.” The Athanasian Creed proclaims over and over that Jesus is “equal with the Father.” Affirming Jesus’ divinity, this creed confesses that God was the originator of our salvation — He did it for us.
Affirming His humanity, it confesses that Jesus died for every part of us — He was a Savior who was completely human. Excerpts from this creed, named for Saint Athanasius, show how the Church has traditionally expressed the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
“The catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Three Persons and Three Persons in one God, neither confusing the Persons nor dividing the substance. For there is One Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.”
Still, while there is one God, the Persons of the Trinity are not to be confused: “The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made nor created but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten but proceeding.”
The Athanasian Creed goes on to clearly confess the divine and human natures of Christ, concluding by saying of Him, “At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account of their own works. And they that have done good will go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.” This mention of works and salvation often bothers those who understand from Scriptures such as Ephesians 2 that we are saved by grace, not by works. This passage from the Athanasian Creed echoes Christ’s Judgment Day prophecies in Matthew, especially 25:31-46.
The key to understanding is that it is not the works themselves that save. Rather, works testify to saving faith; that is, they indicate that the deeds that are called “good” by God are done only by Christians who believe in Jesus Christ as their crucified and risen Savior and who trust in Him alone. Returning to Ephesians 2, we note that after the explicit and total foundation of salvation by grace alone, Paul also states that ours is not an idle salvation, but one dedicated to the service of the One who saved us: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10)” Many who think that they have done good will be horribly dismayed on the Last Day (Matthew 25:44-46).
As an aside, the “catholic faith” spoken of in the creeds doesn’t mean “Roman Catholic.” Rather, it means the faith of the entire Christian Church as it is rightly believed, taught, and confessed around the world and throughout the ages.
ADDENDUM: Related posts include He Descended into Hell and Creeds and Confessions.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.