Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Some Concluding(?) Thoughts

It seems somewhat appropriate as we approach the Christmas season to attempt to draw these series of posts on Trinitarianism and Oneness to a close as we consider just who it was that was born in Bethlehem. Again, I was someone who had no understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as a younger person and as a teenager was introduced to the Oneness teaching. Oneness seemed simple and straightforward. Over the course of 25 years in the UPCI I was never exposed to anything other than Oneness proof texts and certainly was never provided a meaningful understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. Today, I see Oneness for what it is – a simplistic and surface level understanding that distorts the teaching of scripture.

Within the UPCI, the Oneness doctrine is central to their teaching as it carries through to salvation for they believe that one must be baptized in Jesus’ name to bring about the forgiveness of sins and complete the new birth process. If they believe so strongly in their position that one’s salvation may very well depend upon the Oneness teaching, you would think that their followers would be equipped to go out and proclaim this teaching. To effectively proclaim this teaching (Oneness) you need to know and understand the other (Trinitarian) position so as to properly interact with those who believe differently. Over the course of 25 years in the UPCI, I never once even heard someone attempt to meaningfully contrast and interact with the doctrine of the Trinity versus Oneness teaching. As I have mentioned in the past, in my 25 years I also never once heard anyone teach on the subject of justification by faith and what that meant either.

I believe that one central reason for this is that there are very, very few people within the UPCI who can accurately discuss the doctrine of the Trinity from a biblical perspective and fewer still who would dare to attempt to equip their followers by exposing them to this doctrine.

As I have mentioned several times throughout my posts, one of the central errors of the UPCI is their taking the scriptural teaching that there is one God and presupposing that this means that God is unipersonal. From this presupposition, every time they interact with a scripture that affirms the deity of Christ, they conclude that this means that Jesus is the Father in flesh. While simple in its basic assertion that there is one God and that one God is in Jesus – if we give any serious consideration to a number of passages we find that the Oneness position is a confused and muddled view of the nature of God.

Oneness advocates state that it is all very clear if we simply understand that dual nature of Christ – he is fully man (Son) and he is fully God (Father). When Jesus speaks, Oneness supporters state, we simply need to understand whether he is speaking as a man or whether he is speaking as God. Is he speaking or acting from his humanity or from his divinity? If this is the simple key to understanding the nature of Christ then it must follow that John and Paul, in particular, were themselves very confused as to the nature of Christ. For their statements specifically ascribe to the Son such attributes and actions as eternality, glory and creative power and authority.

I will confess that while I saw clearly that we are saved by grace through faith and the implications of this when considering the gospel according to UPCI, I continued to struggle with the idea of oneness theology. It was something that I felt I understood and something that I was concerned about letting go of because of what that might possibly mean. But as I began to read the perspectives of others and to reread the perspectives of people like David Bernard (now superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International), I began to compare the views and their interpretations on various passages. When you find a string seemingly dangling there in an argument and you give it a little pull and find that the entire argument begins to simply unwind – that may not be a faith upon which to stand.

When I set aside my presupposition that God is simply unipersonal and to read scriptures allowing that God may be tripersonal, it became apparent repeatedly that there are distinctions made between the Father, Son and Spirit and that these are personal distinctions. But it was when I began to see those passages that assert the pre-existence of the Son to the incarnation and to understand the implications of what was being stated that things began to crystalize for me. It wasn’t simply an understanding of those passages but looking to how the UPCI has historically understood those passages and that the UPCI position simply does not work.

John’s gospel is simply so full of teaching asserting the distinctions between the Father, Son and Spirit and the pre-existence of the Son and the deity of the Son. The UPCI loves the gospel of John as well because, again, with every assertion of the deity of Christ they read into each and every passage that John intended to convey that Jesus was the Father in flesh. But this does not stand a simple, logical reading of John 1. It does not stand when reading what is considered the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 or the many other statements of the Son’s heavenly origin and his pre-existence.

While I am not a Greek scholar, I mentioned the Greek when looking at several passages in John’s gospel. The Greek is not necessary to understand the plain teaching of these passages, but it does aid in reinforcing some of the plain teaching and, in particular, by countering the assertions that Oneness advocates make concerning these passages. The Logos of John 1 cannot be understood to simply be the mind, plan or thought of God. The Logos of John 1 is not merely a thought or plan but is personal – he exists, he is in relationship, he has a divine nature, he is a creator, he was made flesh. Oneness advocates must assert the logos is simply a plan or thought because otherwise the rest of the teaching would collapse – it is the string that would unwind their theology. If the logos is a person in the substance of God who is in relationship with the Father, then he pre-exists the incarnation and he was creator.

The Oneness view of the Son as being begotten is also problematic when considering the Greek monogenes. It is helpful to appreciate the Greek when looking at and attempting to understand differences in particular Bible translations. But again, having an understanding of the Greek is not necessary as any student of the scripture, even if dedicated to the KJV, should consider and look to other translations of particular passages, particularly if important in your formulation of your theology. But if you create an environment where you are borderline KJV-only in your view of scripture, then you truly are seeking to protect your traditions over truth.

UPCI Echo-Chamber

The question I would ask is do you genuinely want to seek to know God. If so, you will look to what God has revealed to us about himself in the scripture. You will not allow traditions to trump the teaching of scripture. You should be willing to test your beliefs against those that disagree with you and you should be willing to listen. If you find that the footing upon which you have rested your beliefs in the past is not as securely rooted in scripture as you thought, you should be willing to examine those beliefs more closely against what the whole of scripture teaches. We should always be seeking and willing to bring our hearts and minds in line with the teaching of scripture on all points.

We should not be fearful of teaching that seems to contradict what we have been exposed to in the past. Exposing ourselves to the teaching of those that seem to disagree with us should do several things. First, if our faith is properly rooted in the scriptures we should find greater confidence in God. Second, being exposed to those that hold to a different view may help us better understand our position and the positions of others so that we are in a better spot to interact with those that think differently. Third, we may find that our thinking or teaching on a given subject is not truly consistent with all of what scripture has to teach. We should be extremely careful to not simply reject teaching or scripture that does not comport with our beliefs for it is possible we are rejecting God in favor of our traditions. My comments here should be taken as general statements – obviously there are differences between those areas that are definitional to the Christian faith and those that less definitional. Our view of the nature of God and the Trinity are more definitional while eschatological teaching is less so.

I do believe that there is a strain of anti-intellectualism within the UPCI in that there is no exposure to different beliefs. Not all matters that Christians disagree on are matters of heaven or hell. Not all points of disagreement are matters that we need be dogmatic about but even these non-dogmatic differences are not acknowledged within the UPCI.

In my final days in the UPCI, I heard a pastor simply dismiss offhand the idea of predestination within the plan of God. The idea of election was simply dismissed with a “we don’t believe in that” with no further explanation of what the scripture teaches or the differences in the camps of Calvinism and Arminianism. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is, I don’t think a proper explanation of those differences could have been offered. I also heard a lady from church, a licensed minister within the UPCI, teach on ‘God’s unfolding plan’ and essentially advocated for open theism. We can debate open theism but in this situation, I don’t think it was even understood what position was being taken and the implications. Even open theist, Greg Boyd, has stated that there are certain things that God has decreed, such as the fact that Abraham’s seed would be enslaved in Egypt. Yet it was taught by this licensed UPCI minister that even the enslavement of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt was contingent upon their obedience or disobedience to God. Thus, God’s words to Abraham were merely a warning and not something that was a part of God’s decree that would come to pass.

I seem to have digressed.

I believe my point here is that while there are matters upon which Christians can disagree, we should be open to addressing those disagreements to help ensure that our beliefs comport with scripture. There are other matters that are more definitional and this would include the scriptural teaching of the nature of God. Nevertheless, without a willingness to be open to the views of others offering different positions, you will remain in an echo chamber. The only thinking that you will ever be exposed to is that of those who agree with you and what they tell you about other positions. These will be the only voices you hear and if they are not proclaiming properly what is taught in the scripture, it makes it a bit challenging for you to ultimate hear the voice of God leading you to where he wants to take you.

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Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Oneness Proof Texts Addressed (cont.)

In addition to the many texts that we have discussed previously, there are other standard texts to which Oneness advocates will appeal in support of their position that God is unipersonal and that the Son merely refers to the humanity of Jesus –he was God the Father manifested in the flesh.  I am attempting to touch on a number of those passages here.

Revelation 4:2 – At once I was in the Spirit and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.

Here John has a vision in heaven and he sees a throne set up in heaven with one sitting on the throne.  David Bernard and other Oneness advocates will look at this passage and then compare the description of the one sitting on the throne with the description of the one given in Revelation 1:12-16.  Given the similarity in titles and descriptions given for Jesus in Revelation 1 and the one who sits on the one throne in Revelation 4, according to Bernard, “it is apparent that the One on the throne is none other than Jesus Christ.”[i]

The fact that similarities exists in a vision of one on a throne and a glorified Christ does not a doctrine make.  Revelation is full of visions and symbols and of some things that John was unable to record.  Clearly there are similarities between the one on the throne and the one said to be a glorified Christ.   This certainly supports the Trinitiarian and Oneness claims that Jesus Christ is the Lord God Almighty.  Yet as we continue to read the text into chapter 5 we see that in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne was a sealed scroll that no one was worthy to open.  “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.  And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song….To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”  (Revelation 5:6-91, 13).

According to Oneness advocates, this vision of the one on the throne and the Lamb affirms that the Lamb and God are one and the same person.[ii]  Again, the presumption is that God is unipersonal and, therefore, every statement affirming the deity of Christ is a statement, according to Oneness advocates, that God the Father is in Christ.  Oneness supporters say the Lamb in these visions would pertain to the Jesus the man the one on the throne would be God the Father or Jesus’s divine nature.  Yet how does such an interpretation not fall into the trap that Oneness advocates assert against Trinitarians – that their position stands for more than one God.

There appears to be a clear distinction made between the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb in Revelation 4 and 5.  Yet both are in heaven and both are the objects of worship.  In the Oneness position, God is one person and he would be the one sitting on the throne and yet the Lamb is also an object of worship.  Isn’t this teaching bi-theism or a belief in two gods?  How does the Oneness position reconcile this seeming contradiction?  They simply assert that the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb are the same.  But how are they the same?  Bernard states, “The only person who is both God and the Lamb is Jesus Christ.”[iii] (emphasis added).

The fact of the matter is that Revelation continues to emphasize the Trinitarian teaching that recognizes that there is but one God/one divine being shared by three persons or subsistences – Father, Son/Lamb, Spirit.  The Father, Son and Spirit are all recognized to be the one God and yet are distinguished from one another time and time again.  It is why Jesus and the One sitting on the throne can share in the same divine glorious appearance in one moment and then be distinguished from one another in the next moment.  Oneness theology continues to struggle with providing an explanation for these passages that remains both consistent to their position as well as consistent to the overall teaching of scripture as a whole.

[i] David Bernard, The Oneness of God (Word Aflame) page 77.

[ii] Id. at 78.

[iii] Id. at 78.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Love

Love

Bernard states, “Love is the essence of God; it is his very nature.” (Bernard at 32).    This raises more of a philosophical argument in favor of a Trinitarian theology but there is a very clear Biblical basis for this argument and we should look at what love is if it is the essence of God’s nature.

The essence of love is the giving of oneself to another.  “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.”  (Romans 5:8)  We did nothing to deserve or earn his love – his love for us was his giving of himself to us.

“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”  (I John 4:8-11).  God loved us first and his love was manifested among us when he sent his only Son into the world as the propitiation for our sins.  John continues in expressing the importance of knowing and understanding who the Son is and believing in him as the basis for our salvation.

We know that the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father.  (John 3:35, 5:20).  If Oneness advocates are correct that the God is unipersonal how can God eternally be love when by definition one loves by giving oneself to another –love is personal and requires God to be personal.  A solitary, unipersonal God cannot by definition be love.

C.S. Lewis states in Mere Christianity, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’  But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two persons.  Love is something that one person has for another person.  If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”

Thus, for God to eternally be love, God must contain “at least two persons” to be the objects of self-giving love.  If love is intrinsic to who God is, it is because God is eternally a communion of persons in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that love one another.  The God of Oneness theology cannot be defined as love as the God of Oneness theology is a solitary, unipersonal being that existed as a solitary being in all eternity.

John makes love the litmus test for those who claim to disciple of Christ.  “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  (I John 4:8).  As it is intrinsic to what God is, our being joined together in union with God through the Holy Spirit should be result in a manifestation of the love of God.  “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”  (I John 4:16).

David Bernard lays out certain statements/arguments against this reasoning.  “First, even if correct, it would not prove a trinity.  In fact, it could lead to outright polytheism.”[i]  Bernard’s statement is not an argument and, again, he is in basic error in arguing that this “could lead to outright polytheism.”  He provides no basis for this statement.  Once again, it is an intentional misconstruing of the doctrine of the Trinity and a straw man argument.

Bernard continues, “Second, why does God need to prove to us the eternal nature of his love? … Why do we limit God to our concept of love, contending that He could not have been love in eternity past unless He had a then-existing object of love?”[ii]  Is Bernard asserting that we should not be looking to the Bible to form the basis for our understanding of the love of God?  John provides within the very context the nature and demonstration of God’s love and it requires an object to which to direct love.

“Third, how does the trinitarian solution avoid polytheism and at the same time avoid saying merely that God loved Himself?”[iii]  This argument, once again, causes one to question whether or not Bernard fully appreciates and understands some basic concepts within Trinitarian theology that he so ardently argues against.  Analogies always tend to fail but it might be similar to stating that there is one church but many persons make up the church.  To say that the persons within the church love each other does not mean that the church necessarily loves itself but the persons who make up the church love each other.  There is simply one church.

“Fourth, we cannot limit God to time.  He could and did love us from eternity past.  Even though we were not then in existence, He foresaw our existence.  To His mind we existed and He loved us.”[iv]  To say that he foresaw and loved us from eternity past opens the door to a number of issues that the Oneness Pentecostal advocates likely would not like to pursue from the perspective of certain logical fallacies that will be encountered.  In this vein, Bernard points out that, “God knew before the world began that He would manifest Himself as the Son.  He loved that plan from the beginning.  He loved that future Son just as He loved all of us from the beginning of time.”[v]

Thus, in the Oneness perspective, God loved his plan from the beginning of time.  Earlier I noted that Bernard was critical of the Trinitarian perspective as “saying merely that God loved Himself?”[vi]  If, from the Oneness perspective, the Son was simply the Father manifested in the flesh, isn’t Bernard guilty of asserting that God merely loved Himself?  It is the Trinitarian perspective of distinct persons within the one being of God that is consistent with the understanding that God is love.  The Oneness perspective is the view that presents a solitary, unitarian God that is able to only direct his love towards his plan from eternity past.  This seems contradictory to the nature of the God that is revealed to us in the New Testament.

[i] Bernard at 185.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 186.

[vi] Id. at 185.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – A Distinction of Persons

Distinctions of Persons

As previously discussed, Trinitarian theology holds to a strict monotheistic view of God.  There is only one God.  Trinitarianism holds that there are three persons sharing in the one being of God.  Oneness Pentecostal advocates seem to overlook this most fundamental concept of the doctrine of the Trinity and create straw man arguments against the Trinity by asserting that it teaches tritheism.  While David Bernard does not come right out and claim that orthodox Trinitarian theology asserts a belief in three gods, he certainly makes statements in his book, The Oneness of God, alluding to the teaching holding to tritheistic ideas.

“It is clear that the terms Father, Son, and Holy Ghost cannot imply three separate persons, personalities wills or beings.”[i] (emphasis added).

“The Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as different manifestations, roles, modes, titles, attributes, relationships to man, or functions of the one God, but it does not refer to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three persons, personalities, wills, minds or Gods.”[ii]  (emphasis added).

Oneness Pentecostals view the one being of God as simply being unipersonal (rather than tripersonal).  A question for us to consider today is does the Bible differentiate between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in such a way that they are each understood to be God and sharing in the nature of God and yet distinguished from one another.  OP asserts that the Son was simply God the Father manifested in the flesh.[iii]  Thus, Son generally refers to the humanity of Christ – his flesh – while the Father is in reference to God and the divine nature of Christ.  The Holy Spirit is simply a mode in which God the Father is manifested in terms of his interaction with humanity.

Is this OP line of reasoning sustained by the scriptural evidence regarding the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  Does the scripture teach that the only distinction is really between Father and Son and that is tied strictly to the dual nature of Christ?  Or does the scripture teach that the Father is so distinguished from the Son and from the Holy Spirit that the only consistent way in which to understand these passages is to understand the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to all be God and yet the Father not be the Son, the Son not be the Spirit and the Spirit not be the Father – that is, there are distinctions of persons within the being of God?

Father and Son

“The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand….For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all things that he himself is doing; and greater works than these will he show him, so that you will marvel.”  (John 3:35, 5:20).  Clearly, the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father and these are the actions of distinct persons.  To the OP, these verses are simply describing the divine loving the humanity and the humanity loving the divine Father.

Yet there is something amiss if the Son is merely the Father manifested in the flesh, how can there truly be this loving relationship between the two if they are one and the same person.  Jesus said, “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in my love.”  (John 15:9).  So as the Father loves the Son, the Son loves his disciples.  Clearly the Son and the disciples were separate persons and were therefore capable of loving each other as the act of love is the giving of oneself to another – thus, by definition, love requires two or more persons.

In a number of other passages, Jesus clearly distinguishes himself from the Father.  “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”  (John 6:38).  “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.”  (John 16:28).  In these and other passages, the Son is referred to as being sent by the Father.  And not simply that the Father is sending the flesh but that the Son had “come down from heaven” and “came forth from the Father” having “come into the world….”

At the baptism of Jesus we read the following:
After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”  (Matthew 3:16-17).

We find here the Father speaking from heaven as the Son is being baptized.  The Father again is affirming his love for his Son.  We also see the Spirit is descending and resting upon the Son.  Here we see three distinct persons represented – the Father speaking from heaven, the Son being baptized, and the Spirit represented by the dove, resting upon the Son.  This passage certainly is not the end all of passages in support of the doctrine of the Trinity but it does seem to reflect the triune nature of God.  According to OP, the Father was in Jesus and yet the Father was speaking from heaven concerning who, Jesus the man?

Bernard argues that the key to understanding this passage is to appreciate the omnipresence of God.  “It was not at all difficult for the Spirit of Jesus to speak from heaven and to send a manifestation of His Spirit in the form of a dove even while His human body was in the Jordan River. The voice and the dove do not represent separate persons any more than the voice of God at Sinai indicates that the mountain was a separate intelligent person in the Godhead.”[iv]

No one disputes that God is omnipresent.  Bernard is presupposing that God is unipersonal rather than tripersonal and is confusing is the idea of the ontological Trinity with the economic Trinity and the idea that within the one being of God are three distinct persons.  His argument in alluding to the voice of God at Sinai makes no sense as no one would argue that the mountain is a separate intelligent person.  Yet the scripture seems to differentiate, as we have been looking at, between the Son and Father as distinct persons who love one another.  The Father states that he is well-pleased with his Son.  If the Son is merely the Father in flesh is the Father talking about himself or is he talking about the flesh?  Or are we looking at separate persons within the essence of God.

We can look at the transfiguration and see again separate persons in the Father and the Son and not simply the Father in the Son: While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!”  (Matthew 17:5).

Again, we see the Son being distinguished from the Father and not simply the divine from the flesh.  In this passage we see the glory of the Son being revealed to Peter, James and John as the Father speaks from heaven.

Bernard, again, simply argues that “a voice does not indicate a separate person in the Godhead but only another manifestation of the omnipresent Spirit of God.”[v]  Anytime a voice was heard from heaven, “the voice was not for the benefit of Jesus but for the benefit of others, and it came for a specific purpose.”[vi]

Certainly, there was a purpose and a benefit to those who witnessed the Son’s glory and the heard the voice of the Father from heaven.  But again, the passage seems to reflect a clear distinction between the Father and the Son from the perspective of personhood.

In the third instance in which there was a voice from heaven, we find the Son praying and the Father speaking to the Son in a voice heard by the disciples:
Father, glorify your name.”  There came then a voice from heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”  (John 12:28).

Here we find the Son speaking to the Father and the Father responding to the Son.  According to OP, this is really a monologue between the Son and himself – it is the human nature speaking to the divine nature and the divine nature responding out of heaven because the Father is omnipresent.  Remember, a key to OP, from their perspective, is asking the question who is speaking – is this the human Jesus or the divine nature.  In this passage of John, OP would argue that it is the human Jesus praying to the divine and the divine responding from heaven, despite the fact that the Father is really in Jesus.  But that is not really an accurate picture as to what is being presented.  What we have being presented is one person speaking to another and vice-versa.

The prayers of Jesus and other passages show us over and over that there is a distinction between the Father and Son reflecting two persons.  These statements cannot be dismissed on the basis of the human nature of Christ speaking to his own divine nature.  Jesus’ statements of have been sent by the Father and having come down from heaven and his pre-existent glory make clear that there is something more here than the human speaking with the divine.  The content of these passages make clear that the Son is more than simply a reference to the flesh of Jesus.

Jesus prayed in John 17: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son, that the Son may glorify you, even as you gave him authority over all flesh, that to all whom you have given him, he may give eternal life.  This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent….”

First, we find the use of personal pronouns as stressing the fact that the Father and Son are distinct persons.  Jesus is stressing the distinctions in personhood between himself and the Father.  Is this simply distinguishing between the humanity praying to the divine?

Jesus continues his prayer: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.  And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”  (emphasis added).

If the Son had glory in the presence of the Father before the world existed how can the Son simply refer to the flesh of Jesus.  Jesus, the Son of God, is stating that he had glory in the presence of the Father before the very worlds existed.  We will look at the prayers of Jesus and the pre-existence of the Son in other posts but for now, suffice it to say that there is a clear distinction being made between the Father and the Son and this cannot be limited to a simple explanation of pointing to the human and divine natures of Christ.  To do so, ultimately would seem to lead us down the troubling path of denying the deity of Christ himself.

How did Paul seem to understand this? One interesting point to note is that, like the rest of the NT writers, Paul made significant effort to both affirm the deity of Christ while distinguishing him from the Father.  We can look to many of his opening passages:  Romans 1:7, I Corinthians 1:3, II Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, and Philippians 1:2 where Paul states “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Any basic reading of these various passages demonstrates that God the Father is being distinguished from the Lord Jesus Christ.  Bernard attempts to force a reading onto this passage by arguing that the Greek word kai translated in all these passages as and could also be rendered even resulting a reading of “God the Father even the Lord Jesus Christ” thus identifying Jesus as the Father.[vii]  Thus, Oneness advocates argue that these passages teach us that Jesus Christ is the Father rather than a person distinguished from the Father.

Others have noted that re-interpretation of these passages is simply not based on any grammatical or exegetical foundation – it is simply asserted by people like Bernard to deny the scriptural teaching of a distinction between personhood in the being of God.  Kai is overwhelming used and properly translated as the connective “and” and not as “even”.

Further, Bernard argues that the definite article (the or o) is missing from before Lord Jesus Christ causing the translation to literally be “from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ.”[viii]  In support of his assertions regarding the Greek, Bernard cites to The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament to show the absence of the definitive article as well as “Greek scholar” Robert Brent Graves, who is also an advocate of Oneness theology and not necessarily an individual with no presuppositions on this issue.  Bernard is correct regarding the lack of a definite article before Lord Jesus Christ but is completely wrong with respect to its implications.  The passage would read as follows in the Greek:

…apo Theou Patros hemon kai Kyriou Iesou Christou

Bernard’s simple assertions that we should re-read the passage as using “even” rather than “and” and the lack of a definitive article serves to eliminate any distinction between the Father and Jesus Christ is simply not supported by anyone other than a Oneness “Greek scholar”.  The use of the definitive article tends to say more about the nature and quality of nouns, in particular, in relation to other nouns.  When you have two nouns present and both have the definite article this may well mean that they are essentially equivalent to one another.  When you have two nouns and only one has the definite article and it is absent from the other noun (this noun is anarthrous), the anarthrous noun is not necessarily equivalent to the articular noun but describing the nature or quality of the articular noun (see John 1:1c).

Greek grammarians agree that these salutary passages demonstrate that Paul was intending to make a distinction between the Father and Jesus Christ and in no way was he looking to identify them as the same person.  Granville Sharp’s Rule 5 states that “when there is no article before the first noun, the insertion of the copulative kai before the next noun, or name, same case, denotes a different person or thing from the first….”  (emphasis added).

In the present passages, we have a lack of the article before the first noun and both God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ are in the same case.  Therefore, according to standard Greek grammarian rules, God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ “denotes a different person or thing from the first.”  Bernard’s citing to the absence of the article before Lord Jesus Christ does nothing to support his Oneness position – the contrary, the lack of the article in this phrase points to the fact that Paul was seeking to differentiate between God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Granville Sharp himself cited to passages such as II Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 1:2 and Galatians 1:3 as examples of where this rule should be applied.

The fact of the matter is, Paul is very consistent in his distinguishing between the Father and the Son and yet affirming the deity of both the Father and the Son.  He continuously refers to the Father as God/theos and the Son as Lord/kurios.  The Father is regularly referred to by the God or the OT name of Elohim while the Son is regularly referred to by the OT name of Yahweh.  They are never identified as the same person but are both identified as the God of the OT.  Both the Father and Son are deity and yet both are distinguished as persons from one another.  In this respect Paul can both affirm that Jesus is God and is yet distinguished from the Father. Paul can state that all of God dwelt in Christ and yet he does not state that the Father was in Christ.  All of God’s nature and attributes were in Christ as the Son is fully God, and yet he is not the Father.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit

If we have seen distinctions in personhood between Father and Son, it would seem that it should follow we would also see distinctions between the Spirit, the Father and the Son as well.

First, we know that the Spirit takes up unique functions with respect to God and his dealings with humanity and, in particular, with respect to man’s regeneration.  We have already made mention of the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove and lighting upon Jesus at his baptism as distinguishing himself from the Father and the Son in that picture.

In John 16, Jesus speaks concerning the coming of the Spirit and his role and purpose and does so while distinguishing the Spirit from himself as well as from the Father:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you.  And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer….  I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

From these passages we can see that with the departure of the Son, the Helper will come.  He will be sent by the Son and will have a number of roles to play.  The Spirit will act as an advocate to the believer.  He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.  The Spirit will guide believers into truth.  But note that the Spirit does not speak based on his own authority but whatever he hears is what he speaks.  His role is to bring glory to the Son.  Thus, the Spirit is spoken of here by Jesus as not only distinguished from the Father and the Son in terms of his functions and role but in terms of his personhood as well.  Recall that differences in function does not mean subordination within God.  The Holy Spirit is fully God despite it being his function to speak what he hears and to bring glory to the Son.  Again, we are distinguishing between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity.

A number of other passages speak of this distinguishing both of personhood as well as work of the Spirit:

Now he who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us in God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.  (II Corinthians 1:21-22).

For through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.  (Ephesians 2:18).

There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:4-6).

In a number of other passages, the Holy Spirit is described as acting with personal attributes.  In Hebrews 3:7 the Spirit speaks; in Acts 15:28 the Spirit reasons; in I Corinthians 2:10-11 the Spirit searches, thinks and understands the depths of the mind of God; in I Corinthians 12:11 the Spirit has a will; in Ephesians 4:30 the Spirit can feel and experience grievance; and in II Corinthians 13:14 the Spirit fellowships with believers.

As we read these passages and other it becomes evident that the believers in the early church were Trinitarian in their thinking and understanding of the nature of God.  This thinking continues to be carried through and contained in the writing of the early post-apostolic church.  Clearly, there were those who struggled in attempting to understanding the nature of Christ and the nature of God and this did lead some into error.  There were those who sought to deny the deity of Christ and saw Jesus as simply a man – they distinguished between the Father and Son but did so at the expense of denying the divine nature of Christ (these were the Arians).  There were those who sought to maintain the deity of Christ but did so at the expense of denying the distinctions between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the scripture (these were the Sabellians).  Both camps were roundly condemned by the early church fathers as asserting doctrines concerning Christ and the nature of God that were contrary to the historical teaching of the church.

The historic teaching on the nature of God is that there is one divine being with one indivisible essence – this essence reflects all the attributes and fundamental nature of who God is and what makes God, God.  Oneness advocates (and KJV readers) will identify this as the godhead (from the old English word godhood as describing the essence of all that makes God, God).  Within this one being of God there are three distinct persons or subsistences (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) that are co-equal and co-eternal.  The whole essence of God is shared equally by each of the subsistences.  Thus, we can say that the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Holy Spirit is fully God.  Nevertheless, the three distinct persons are distinguished by personal attributes, roles and functions.  Differences in attributes, roles or functions do not mean that one is necessarily subordinate to the other for all share equally in the essence of God.  Thus, there are no demigods within the nature of God.

[i] Bernard at 134.

[ii] Id. at 144.

[iii] Id. at 67.

[iv] Id. at 172-3.

[v] Id. at 175-6.

[vi] Id. at 176.

[vii] Id. at 208.

[viii] Id. at 209.

Sanctification – Part 2

In the previous post we discussed the concept of sanctification and what that means in very general terms.  We discussed our definitive or positional sanctification that comes through our being placed in Christ.  We also looked at the concept of progressive sanctification – our growing in Christ, our being conformed to the image of Christ.

In this post, I wanted to look at how we are sanctified and briefly at what sanctification does not entail.

How are we Sanctified?

We must appreciate that just as no Christian is able to justify himself, no believer is able to sanctify himself either.  The New Testament makes clear that that it is the work of the Spirit in our lives that brings about growth, change and sanctification.  According to the II Corinthians 3:8, it is by the Spirit of the Lord that we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.”  The scripture speaks of our being sanctified by God in the truth and by his peace.  (John 17:17, I Thessalonians 5:23).

Nevertheless, the scripture is clear from Philippians 2:12-13 that we, as believers are not passive in the process of our sanctification.  It is God that is doing the work within us but we have the ability, by the same Spirit, to yield ourselves to him in obedience to his working within us.  It is “by the Spirit” that we “put to death the deeds of the body….”  (Romans 8:13).

What are the instruments utilized to bring about our sanctification?  These instrumentalities are often referred to us the means of grace.  These means of grace are the scripture, prayer, worship, fellowship with believers, service, ordinances and the providences of God which work together for the good in our lives.  Through these various instrumentalities, God is working to change us and grow us in our Christian lives and bring us into the likeness of his Son.

We are repeatedly admonished to be in the scriptures, in prayer, in fellowship with other believers and to take part in the Lord’s Supper and baptism as well as understand that God is working through all things to the good for those who are called to be conformed to the image of his Christ.

How are we Not Sanctified?

Just as our justification is derived from God, our sanctification is derived from him as well.  The believer cannot bring anything to the equation to add to his sanctification when the source of his sanctification is the Holy Spirit working within him.  Any holiness that might be ascribed to me is because God has placed me within Christ – God has separated me and God is continuing to work within me.  I have been sanctified, separated or made holy when God justified me and I continue to be made holy through the Spirit of Christ continuing to work within me.

Our involvement, as previously discussed, in sanctification is not merely a passive one but one in which we yield ourselves to the agent of change in our lives, the Holy Spirit working within us to bring us into conformity with the Son of God.  Christ is the image that we should seek to reflect and the pattern of life lived by Christ is the pattern we should seek to follow.  It should go without saying but we will repeat here that the law of God that we should seek to fulfill is love.  God is eminently concerned with the state of our hearts.  Jesus was not so concerned with external religious practices, such as failing to wash before eating, for these wouldn’t defile a man.  Jesus said that it was “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”  (Matthew 15:18-20).

John Piper once provided a definition for sanctification as “progressively becoming like Jesus.”  There is only one way in which we can gradually become more and more like Christ and that is by allowing the Spirit of Christ to work on us, by allowing the word of God cleanse and shape us, by fellowshipping with other Christ-like believers, and by finding Christ in the middle of our everyday situations.

We are not sanctified by following a set of guidelines or rules that man creates defining what you must do (or what you must refrain from) in order to be holy as God is holy.  Again this is another subject to lengthy to be covered here; nevertheless, we should touch on the fact that there are churches, such as the UPCI, that focus on what they call holiness standards or just “standards.”  The UPCI will teach that these standards are merely practical applications of biblical standards of holiness, modesty and separation from the world.  The UPCI Articles of Faith contains a number of position papers and the second longest paper among these articles is the article on the subject of Holiness.

Holiness is an imperative for without holiness no man shall see the Lord.  (Hebrews 12:14).  Yet when we begin to define holiness in terms of standards to be kept by the Christian man and woman we by necessity are focusing on the external.  We are focusing on actions rather than thoughts and intentions.  We are looking at external procedures rather than the heart.  It is common then for the UPCI member to begin thinking in terms of their “holiness” as being defined by how they look, their dress, their appearance.  This is certainly an area of dispute within the UPCI church more broadly with some within the organization being more liberal on this issue while others hold to the view that the UPCI as an organization should be more firmly dedicated to and defined by their holiness roots in terms of practical/external applications.

Holiness standards, in organizations like the UPCI, tend to focus on women not wearing make-up or jewelry of any kind, women not wearing pants, women having uncut hair, men keeping short hair and remaining clean shaven.  Modesty in dress is enforced through men and women wearing pants and skirts/dresses, respectively, of a proper modest length and not wearing short sleeves.  In many churches, prohibiting any form of “worldly” entertainment is enforced through the prohibiting of members having television sets, attending movies or other forms of entertainment.  Amusement parks and dancing, even at weddings, is frowned upon.  Prohibitions on alcohol are enforced as well.  The local church itself has some leeway in establishing its own standards that it wishes to enforce as rules.  It may enforce these rules by allowing or prohibiting involvement in church activities or ministries up to and including temporary/permanent excommunication from the church body for failure to abide by the standards set down by the leadership of the local church.

Holiness, from a Biblical perspective, means to be consecrated, purified, and sanctified.  To be in a state of holiness involves our being consecrated to God, purified by God and growing in the grace of God as a result of our placing our faith in Christ.  We have been justified (declared just through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ received by grace through faith) and we have been sanctified or consecrated (at the time of our justification in being set apart by God and declared holy), and we are in the process of being purified (through progressive sanctification or our growing into the likeness of Christ through the means of grace).  We are being conformed to the image of Christ by allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us killing the sin that is at work in our hearts and bearing spiritual fruit, such as love, in our lives.  This is the wonderful picture of holiness.

When the UPCI begins to define holiness in terms of external dress codes, make-up, jewelry, the owning of a television set, and hair length it has moved into the realm of legalism and degraded the beautiful concept of the holiness of God into a set of man-made commandments.  There is no difference between the legalism of the UPCI and the legalism of the Pharisees in the days of Jesus.  Both rely on the God’s word but add to the scriptural concepts and definitions external activities and mandates that are to be kept in order to keep one within the grace of God – after all, without holiness (defined by the UPCI as both inward and external rule keeping), you will not see the Lord.  The criticism of the Pharisees was that they actually undid the scriptures and violated the law through their traditions.  Unfortunately, the UPCI may itself be undoing the grace of God by inserting and raising their traditions to level of inspired scripture.

Suffice it to say, for today, that our sanctification is through the Spirit of God working in us and through the means of grace in our lives.  Sanctification is not achieved through external rule keeping or dress codes.  To argue that the holiness you or I need is achieved or maintained through rule keeping is to cheapen and degrade the holiness of God to something like that of an idol.  If there is any aspect of holiness in us, it is attributable to the Spirit of Holiness that we have received by the grace of God.

Sanctification – Part 1

During the posts concerning justification, the subject of works came up frequently.  As I discussed, works are not something that ever brings about our justification before God (at least not our works – we are justified by the works of Christ, which we receive by grace through faith) but good works, spiritual fruit, good deeds and obedience are the natural product of a life that is in Christ – it is the natural outflow of a heart that is now indwelt by the Spirit.  We would be speaking now about sanctification.

When we speak of our being “saved” we typically think of a past act (I was saved), a current state of being saved (I am being saved) and our future salvation (I will be saved).  We can compare these past, present progressive and future states of our salvation with our justification (past), our sanctification (present progressive) and glorification (future).  I was justified when I placed my faith in Christ and repented of my sins.  I am now in process of being conformed to the image of Christ – I am being sanctified.  One day, I will be saved and that will happen when I am glorified – when I take off this mortality and put on immortality and will truly be like Christ.

Without overly complicating sanctification, it typically refers simply to our progressive growth in righteousness in Christ.  This flows out of our justification.  The believer is in Christ and is progressively being conformed to the image of Christ.  The heart, mind and will of the believer are being transformed by the Spirit to conform to the will of God.  It is the process of our Christian growth.  Justification is thought of as being a one-time definitive act on the part of God directed towards a believer.  There is an aspect of sanctification that may be viewed as a one-time act as well as that relates to our position in God.  Sanctification fundamentally means to be set apart, to be made holy.  When we are justified we are also set apart to God.  In this respect we have been sanctified from a positional/definitive perspective.

Positional/Definitive Sanctification

In a number of passages, Paul discusses sanctification from the perspective of a past occurrence that parallels the notion of justification and our regeneration.  When we are justified there is a break that occurs between the old man and the new man.  This is a result of the believer’s sanctification – he has been set apart.  There has been a legal declaration of our righteousness before God and we are, therefore, set apart.  In this respect we have been sanctified and we are undergoing the process of sanctification as well.

In Romans 6, Paul has much to say on this subject.  He has spent considerable time building the case of man’s need in his sinful state and the fact that man can find himself at peace with God by grace through faith in justification.  Our justification is that legal declaration of righteousness – the judgment due us for our sins has been handled through the cross and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us.  So this may naturally lead one to question, should we continue in sin?  If grace abounds where sin abounds, why not continue in sin?

Paul answers that question with a question:  How can we who died to sin still live in it?  (Romans 6:2).  Paul makes it clear that living in the realm of sin means being a slave to sin.  Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”  (John 8:34).  John wrote, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” (I John 3:9).

To live in the realm of sin is to continue in the practice of sinning.  This is not to say that all that have been placed in Christ will no longer commit a single act of sin for we are not yet perfected and remain trapped in our fallen bodies.  As Paul states, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  (Romans 7:24).  His point is that there is a war at work in him between his inner man and the sinful law that seeks to rule in his body.  Nevertheless, when we are sanctified and set apart in Christ there is a break that occurs – we are not freed from our fallen bodies and the temptations that come against us but we are no longer slaves such that we have no choice but to follow those temptations.  We no longer should continue in making it a practice to sin.  This begins with our changed state – as some might call our definitive sanctification.

A death to sin means that our old self has been crucified with Christ that we would no longer be slaves to sin but we are instead freed from sin and sin should no longer reign in our mortal bodies.  (Romans 6:6, 7, 12).  Sin is no longer our master that we must obey.  (Romans 6:14).  Instead, we are to present ourselves as instruments of righteousness and seek to be slaves to righteousness.  We are to be obedient from the heart to the gospel and all Christian teaching.  We are no longer to be slaves to sin but enslaved to God.  (Romans 6:13-14, 17, 19, 22).  Thus, this definitive sanctification does not mean that we are in fact sinless but that there has been a break with the power and dominion of sin over us because of our union with Christ.  John makes clear that if we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves.  (I John 1:8).  But Paul makes clear that sin should have no dominion or control over us.  (Romans 6:14).  Therefore, every believer should take seriously the change that has been wrought in his life and should stop sinning and instead render their bodies as instruments of righteousness.

The basis of our justification is the imputation of the obedience of Christ to us.  Likewise, the basis of one’s definitive sanctification is one’s spiritual union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.

Progressive Sanctification

With this radical change having been rendered in us as believers, the work of being conformed into the image of the Son of God can really begin.  While we have spoken of the definitive sanctification that took place when we repented and turned to God in faith, the process of sanctification (or progressive sanctification) can begin.

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  (Philippians 2:12-13).

Paul wrote these words while exhorting the Philippians to live a holy, godly lifestyle following the example of Christ in humility and seeking to serve others first.  His speaking of our working out our salvation is in reference to the ongoing process of our being saved – our progressive sanctification.  It is simply our seeking to follow in the example that Christ left for us.  Paul continues that we should not be found grumbling or arguing but found to be blameless and innocent, children of God who are without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.  In this dark time, we should be lights holding fast to God’s word.

Our progressive sanctification involves “God who works in” us and our yielding to his working in us in putting off the characteristics of our old nature and putting on the characteristics of the new man after Christ.  (Colossians 3:8-10).  It is God working in us but it is not without our cooperation.  We are to undertake to put off the old ways and put on the new ways as a result of what God has done for us and in us.  We need to put to death the sins just as we have died to sin.  (Romans 6:6-7, Ephesians 4:27-5:33, Galatians 5:16-26, I Peter 2:1-2, Romans 12:1-2).  This is something that is always spoken of as being progressive – not something that happens like justification, where we are declared to be something.  This is spoken of as a process – we are in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ, we are being shaped and molded so that we will follow the will of God.

How are we in this process or by what means are we being shaped?  First, Peter quoted the admonition found in Leviticus that we should be holy for the Lord is holy.  (I Peter 1:15-16, Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2).  Because we have been recreated by the grace of God to God’s image in righteousness and holiness, we should pursue putting on the new man in God’s likeness.

Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:22-24 that you are “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Similarly in Colossians he wrote, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self, with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”  (3:9-10).

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  (Romans 12:1-2).

There is an aspect of this conforming of us as believers that involves our assuming the ethical nature of God.  How we treat one another is a manifestation of our view of and obedience towards God.  These admonitions are always accompanied by exhortations around our treatment of one another.  The second of all commandments is that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves or as we would like to be loved.  This is born out of a transformation or renewal of our minds, our thinking, from a knowledge that we acquire of God through his word and in relationship with his Spirit living within our hearts.

While ethics is often focused on our relationships with one another, the moral law of God provides us with a greater understanding of God’s character and holiness, including his ethical demands.  The law of God provides us with an understanding of the moral will of God.  While the ceremonial laws were all fulfilled by Christ and we are not called to fulfill ceremonial laws under the Mosaic Law, we (as all men) are called to live according to the moral and ethical laws of God.  Our ability to live according to the moral and ethical laws of God is not possible when we follow after the old man and his desires but we are able to do so as we are empowered by the Spirit in us.  Christ came to condemn sin in the flesh “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”  (Romans 8:4-5).

There are various ways in which the law was intended to be used by God and two of those ways involved the law showing us our sin and our need and, thus, causing us to turn to Christ (Romans 3:20 – through the law comes the knowledge of sin; Galatians 3:24 – the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ) and to provide us with a pattern that we ought to follow with respect to our sanctification.

When speaking of the law of God, we are speaking primarily of the Ten Commandments.  Nowhere in the New Testament are the commandments abrogated as a basis for Christian ethics.  To the contrary, Paul calls the law holy, just, spiritual and good.  (Romans 7:12,14, 16).  Paul views the commandments as the revealed ethic of God and that the law is fulfilled when we love:  “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  (Romans 13:8-10).

Jesus himself noted the greatest of all commandments was that we love God with all our hearts, soul and mind that the second being that we love our neighbors as ourselves – and that upon these two commandments hang all the law and prophets.  Each of the Ten Commandments appears to be referred to and invoked in some manner throughout the New Testament.

In the next post we will look at how it is that we are sanctified…what are the means of grace utilized to bring about our sanctification.

A Stroll throught the UPCI Articles of Faith – Divine Healing

Divine Healing

This is the first (and possibly last) of posts that look to take a stroll through the United Pentecostal Church International’s (UPCI) Articles of Faith for comment.  The AoF on the subject of divine healing was one that I felt strongly should be addressed.  This is what the UPCI Articles of Faith have to say with respect to divine healing of the body:

The vicarious suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ paid not only for the salvation of our souls but also for the healing of our bodies. “With his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Matthew 8:17 reads, “Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sickness.” (See also I Peter 2:24). We see from this that divine healing for the body is in the atonement. (emphasis added).

The emphasis on divine healing of the physical body based on this passage in Isaiah is not only a twisting of the passage but creates a doctrine of divine healing and expectation in the heart of individuals that is both unwarranted and dangerous in its consequences. This doctrine of divine healing puts the UPCI squarely in the camp of the traditional Word of Faith and charismatic movements with all of the negative results that follow.

Is it accurate to state that divine healing for the body is in the atonement?

The short answer is no.

One of the most amazing passages in all of scripture, Isaiah 53:4-6, 10-11, states:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. … Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

If we look at the context, it is quite clear that spiritual healing is what was obtained by Christ through the events leading up to and including his crucifixion. It was the relationship between sinful man and holy God that was healed through the atonement, not a specific promise of physical healing of sick bodies today.

The context defines man’s problem (and it is not physical sickness).  Man has “gone astray” and turned “to his own way”. We have “iniquity” and “guilt” before God that must be addressed. Therefore, the Lord laid on Christ “the iniquity of us all” and made his soul “an offering for guilt” and “he shall bear their iniquities” and cause “many to be accounted righteous” (justification).

What an amazing passage regarding Christ’s atoning work on the cross. But are we to read into this passage that his wounds are for are physical healing? That would be a mistake. Again, the context makes clear that his “wounds” were “for our transgressions” and “for our iniquities” and the “chastisement” has “brought us peace”. Peace with whom? Peace with the one from whom like sheep we have gone astray and turned to our own way – his atonement has brought us peace with God.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1.

But wait a minute, when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with fever, healed other sick people and cast out demons, Matthew wrote that, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” (Matthew 8:17). Isn’t Matthew applying the Isaiah passage to divine healing of the body?

Well, let’s take a step back and look at the context and understand the mission of Christ. Did Christ come to heal and perform other miracles or did he come to make atonement for the sins of the people and fulfill Isaiah 53? He came to make atonement for people’s sins and everything needs to be viewed and understood within that context. The next chapter (9:5-6), Matthew records the healing of a paralytic and Jesus explains the purpose behind his miracles. “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he then said to the paralytic –’Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’”

Jesus was attempting to point to his authority to forgive sin and the mission upon which he was set. Jesus healed and performed miracles within the context of his mission as outlined in Isaiah 53 and that was to accomplish the atonement for sins and cause many to be counted righteous. His healing of the paralytic was not with the primary and sole purpose to make that man’s life easier but to point to who he was, his authority and his mission.

It is also worth noting that the invocation of this Isaiah passage in Matthew occurred long before the actual fulfillment of Isaiah 53 in terms of his sacrificial death and atonement. So how do we understand the purchase of our healing (as I have heard it described) on the cross when Matthew is using the passage prior to the atoning work of Christ on the cross being completed? Again, Matthew’s point is that the healings and miracles performed by Jesus pointed to his authority to forgive sins and authority to fulfill the mission that was laid before him, which was to reconcile us with God.

Peter confirms that Isaiah was pointing to our spiritual healing and being reconciled to God in the context of being healed by his wounds: He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (I Peter 2:24-25).  How have we been healed according to Peter – we were like straying sheep but have not returned to the Shepherd of our souls.  This is not a promise of divine healing of our physical bodies being purchased within the atoning work of Christ on the cross.

Sickness, disease and death are the reality and consequences of sin having entered the world. While through the atonement Christ paid for the consequences of our sin, not all the benefits have yet to be realized. The position of the UPCI and other Word of Faith and charismatic movements is one of what is described as an over-realized eschatology. An over-realized eschatology is a system of belief that pulls too much of future promises into the present fallen and broken world. It is a belief that all of the benefits of heaven are not only available to us here on earth but that it is the will of God that all of heaven be fully realized here on earth. Thus, as there will be no sickness in heaven, if we have enough faith there should be no sickness among believers here on earth. This is the heart of the health and wealth gospel preached throughout the charismatic movement. But based on this reasoning, if the atonement purchased life and a glorified body, why does the movement not also preach that we should never physically die on this earth?

What does the NT say with respect to sickness/suffering?

This view of divine healing is not taught and certainly was not experienced among the New Testament church. It is not the view of scripture that faithful Christians should always experience perfect health. Despite our new state in Christ we continue to live in our fallen bodies, sin continues to reside and battle within us and we ultimately experience death. Nowhere is it taught that there is a reversal of these consequences in this current life on earth for the believer. To the contrary, there are examples of powerful, faithful Christians in the New Testament that struggled with physical maladies and were seemingly not healed in this life.

When Paul wrote to the Galatians about his “bodily ailment”, his “condition” – “You know it was because of bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and through my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 4:13-14). In II Corinthians 12:7-8 Paul wrote of his thorn in the flesh and how he asked God to remove the thorn three times but God simply replied that his grace was sufficient, for his strength was made perfect in weakness. Much has been debated and speculated concerning the subject of the thorn. Some argued that Paul was speaking of his opponents. Others seeing that he spoke of a thorn in the “flesh” believe that it was a bodily ailment that Paul suffered from – and possibly the same illness that Paul wrote the Galatians concerning. The point is that Paul – the great Apostle to the Gentiles – clearly suffered from some physical ailment in his life and it was not the will of God for that thorn to be removed.

In writing to the Philippians, Paul mentioned how Epaphroditus – his “brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier” – was ill. “Indeed he was ill, near to death.” Philippians 2:25-7.

Timothy was encouraged to no longer drink water but to use a little wine “for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” I Timothy 5:23. Paul called Timothy his “true child in the faith”, yet he suffered from frequent ailments.

In II Timothy 4:20, Paul wrote of Trophimus who was ill and left behind at Miletus.

If we were to look at the Old Testament we will find that Elisha died from illness and what would the Word of Faith movement say concerning Job?

The New Testament makes frequent mention of the suffering of Christians – this suffering is tied to our spiritual growth but it also certainly means that physical suffering is whether through illness or persecution awaits the believer. Paul wrote to encourage the Corinthians to “not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (II Corinthians 4:16-18).

This hardly sounds like the message offered by those promising divine physical healing within the atonement.

What about other passages regarding healing?

In the Book of Acts we certainly have a number of examples of Peter and Paul praying for the sick and their miraculous recovery. Yet, as discussed above, there are many times that we encounter both Paul and his companions in the faith suffering with physical ailments. We know that Paul prayed for himself. Certainly he prayed for Timothy and his other fellow soldiers, yet it appears their illnesses were not miraculously removed. Was this something that was occurring with less frequency as time went on and the gospel spread and the church was becoming more established?

A passage in the Letter from James is frequently cited with respect to the divine healing being promised for sick who pray.  James wrote, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:13-15).

Certainly, when one is sick, as whenever anyone is suffering, we are compelled to pray. It is interesting to note the connection between illness and sin in this particular passage and the confessing of faults to one another in the proceeding verses as well as suffering and persecution in the preceding verses. What seems to be contemplated here is spiritual weakness and not necessarily physical illness. The Greek term translated here as sick  is often used in reference to weakness or without strength, including being weak in faith. The entire context of this portion of James is truly addressing the suffering that comes through persecution. James speaks of the suffering and patience that believers must endure much like the prophets of old who spoke in the name of the Lord. He is encouraging believers to remain steadfast in the faith, much like Job. In verse 13, he speaks of those who are suffering to pray and those who are cheerful to sing praise – potentially all with the aim of deriving strength from the hope that Christ has placed within them.

Concerning the use of the Greek word here in James, it is also worth noting that there are three Greek words utilized in the New Testament that can be translated as healing. In the passage in James, the word is sozo, which emphasizes the healing of the entire man – soul, spirit and body – and the word is frequently associated with and translated as saved, rescued or delivered. Another word is therapeuo, from which we derive the word therapy, and this word is primarily translated as to cure through various means of healing. Finally, the third Greek word is iaomai and it is also usually translated as heal in the context of an instantaneous, miraculous healing.

The context and the Greek would seem to indicate that James is not truly focused on physical healing of illness, while it cannot be excluded from the meaning, but is instead focused on those who are spiritually weak as a result of persecution and suffering seeking out the elders of the church, those who are spiritually strong, for prayer and strength and encouragement. And if, in their spiritual weakness in enduring suffering, they have sinned, those sins can be forgiven them as well. James continues that we should confess our faults one to another and pray for one another that we may be healed – that we may be strengthened and restored in our relationship with God. As James, a few verses later writes, “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20).

Understood in its context, this passage in James is more properly focused on strengthening those that are spiritually weak and enduring suffering and may have stumbled as a result. It is about bringing strength, forgiving sins and healing one’s spiritual relationship with God that would appear to be the thrust of James’ argument. It is not simply a magical promise that God will heal me physically if I just find a righteous person to pray over me with enough faith.

Can God heal? Absolutely. Should we pray for the sick? Always. Does God’s word promise us heaven on earth in the form of divine healing for our physical illnesses as guaranteed through the atonement? No.

What are the implications of this doctrine of divine healing in the atonement?

The implications of this doctrine of divine healing as purchased through the atonement are very dangerous. The doctrine provides false assurances and a false hope based on promises of things that are not provided for now. When the healing doesn’t come in the form in which the seeker asks, he naturally must ask why? Why is God not healing me of this sickness?

The first question that comes to mind is ‘maybe I lack faith.’ The faith preachers assert that you must have enough faith in order to both receive and maintain your healing. The excuse is given that God’s power to heal is always present but a lack of healing could be a result of a lack of faith on your part. It is also possible that we might have just enough faith to start the healing but if we don’t maintain that level of faith, sickness will creep back into our bodies, thus promoting a cycle of doubt and condemnation.

This is simply nonsense. When Jesus would inquire of people with respect to their faith, it was not on the basis of ‘do you have faith to receive?’ but do you have faith in God’s ability to heal.

Matthew 9:28-29: When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes Lord.” Then he touched their eyes saying, “According to your faith [in the ability of Jesus] be it done to you.”

The type of faith that Christ seeks is the one that simply believes and has confidence and trust in him and in his promises. Why would God require a greater level of faith to receive a healing than is somehow required in order for us to be saved? It has nothing to do with faith enough to receive but simply faith in God’s ability. When we make it about faith enough for us to receive, we make it all about us, what great levels of faith we can conjure up rather than about God. This gets to an error that exists with respect to the nature of faith – something we will need to address in another post.

A second question that comes to mind is, ‘maybe I’m not saved.’ This is a crushing message that places great distress on an already suffering individual. Why am I not healed? Is it because I’m not really saved? If the message is one of divine healing being purchased for me in the atonement, if I am not being healed, maybe I am still lost? Maybe the atonement is not really for me.  Maybe, relying on James 5, I have sin in my life causing this illness? Based on their interpretation of James 5, it seems only logical that one would question whether illness is a result of some secret sin in the life of the believer causing them to believe that they are not “right with God.” This leads to someone already dealing possibly with a serious illness to know begin to experience condemnation and to question God’s love for them and their very salvation.

When the message is that physical healing is so interwoven into the message of salvation, the logical consequence is the presence of sickness is a lack of salvation. When the loved one (a wife and mother or a child) is not healed of cancer despite prayers for their healing, the message of divine healing in the atonement leads to the inevitable question as to whether the atonement was really in effect in the loved one’s life in the first place. This is simply a lie and a perversion of the scripture that leads people to question both the truthfulness and goodness of God in their lives. Thus, we know the origin of this lie and it is not from a proper understanding of scripture but a torturing of promises of God.

Illness is never a reason to question your salvation. Illness is, unfortunately, a normal part of living in this broken and fallen world and being trapped in a fallen and broken physical body. We have the promise of healing – both a physical healing of our bodies with a new glorified body at the time of the resurrection and a physical healing of the physical world through the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. We continue to exist in a world subject to the curse and though we are new spiritual creations in God with a heavenly citizenship we remain living here on earth and continue to experience the brokenness of life here.

I have personally known people who lost loved ones to illness who firmly believed that God would heal their loved one – they did all they could to conjure up and maintain a level of faith that God not only could but that he would heal their loved one and created such a level of expectation as though that would somehow be the difference maker in that situation. And when they lost that loved one – as devastating as it was to lose a loved one so early, who left small children behind – their underlying faith in God was also so devastated that they seem to have walked away from the faith. Others I know have simply been plagued by physical issues for most of their adult lives and have questioned whether they simply don’t have enough faith to be healed or whether they are being punished by God for some sin in their lives.

The fact of the matter is that physical healing in this lifetime is not apparently always God’s will. When your foundational thinking is that physical healing is promised now to believers and that it was purchased in the atonement and you are not healed of some illness, the only logical result must be that it is somehow your fault.

This is a devastating and dangerous doctrine that is not based on the scripture and causes such spiritual harm in lives of people already suffering physically. They are suffering with illness and instead of being comforted with the reassuring words of the true promises that we have in scripture they are lead to question whether they have sufficient faith, whether they are being punished by God and whether they are actually saved by God in the first place.

While this doctrine is very prevalent in much of the charismatic world, it finds its way into the Oneness Pentecostal movement as well. In a movement that emphasizes physical manifestations of the Spirit’s work, this doctrine finds a natural home in the UPCI. In an organization that stresses man-centeredness and works, it is also natural that feelings of condemnation and judgment are often associated with illness and are only heightened when healing does not seem to immediately come.

I have heard a minister declare that when he became ill – he refused to accept it, he spoke against it (as thought speaking to remove the mountain), and eventually he was healed (I am sure with the help of doctor prescribed medications). Yet, the minister can’t read without his reading glasses. Not to sound disrespectful, but I wonder has he prayed concerning the imperfections of his eye sight.  Or maybe he just considered the poor eye sight as a function of getting older and a body that will eventually break down.