God and the Gospel: Theological Molehills?

Article ID: JAG069 | By: E. Calvin Beisner

This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume29, number4 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

One great temptation for Christians is to compromise the truths of the faith for the sake of peace and unity. No one likes to be seen as harsh, divisive, or arrogant. Doctrinal compromise seems attractive, especially in a relativistic society and in a church that is increasingly characterized by that same relativism. Scripture, however, detests relativism: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20 NKJV).

A sad example of such doctrinal relativism infiltrating the church appeared in the April 7, 2006, issue of Charisma magazine. Editor Lee Grady published a passionate call for a healing of the breach between Oneness (or “Jesus Only”) Pentecostals and the rest of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement—and, presumably, evangelical Protestants generally. In it Grady writes, “Call me an idealist, but wouldn’t it be great if leaders on both sides of this family feud attempted to resolve it? 2006 would be a great time for reconciliation, since all of us are celebrating Pentecostalism’s 100th anniversary this month.”

The Essence of Christianity. Grady’s plea is charitable, but he mistakenly minimizes and covers over crucial doctrinal differences in pursuit of reconciliation. He ascribes the division between Oneness Pentecostals and Trinitarians to sectarianism when it is better ascribed to reasoned differences over essential Christian doctrines. These include the Trinity, the efficacy of baptism, and justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Oneness Pentecostals, in fact, seem to have a clearer understanding than does Grady of just how crucial these doctrinal differences are.

Grady writes that Oneness Pentecostals “insist that converts must be baptized in the name of Jesus [only] rather than in the more common Trinitarian formula (‘in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’). They also refuse to use the term ‘trinity’ to describe the Godhead, even though they affirm that God has a triune nature.” His ambiguous language, however, avoids the very substance of the debate. Oneness Pentecostals believe that God is “triune” only in His relations with creatures—to whom He relates externally in three ways correlated with the titles Father, Son, and Spirit. In their view, God has no internal relations; God is but one person. Trinitarians, on the other hand, believe that God has three internal relations: while God is but one being, God is three distinct persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who relate to each other personally.

”And besides these doctrinal quirks,” Grady writes—as if denial of the Trinity were nothing more than a quirk—Oneness Pentecostals “are extremely strict about holiness standards.” Their strictness about holiness is tied to their doctrine of justification by works. When one’s works are a determining factor of whether one gets to heaven, strictness is inevitable. Oneness Pentecostals are strict not only on moral matters, but on matters on which the Bible does not require strictness. They make up their own rules and enforce them as if they were God’s rules; thus, they are legalists in both senses: requiring law-keeping as a means of justification, and erecting man’s laws in place of God’s laws. To ignore that issue for the sake of peace and unity is to compromise the gospel itself.

Molehills or Mountains? ”Some people have gone so far as to label Oneness Pentecostalism a cult,” writes Grady, “partly because of its isolationism but also because some UPC leaders have suggested that only Oneness believers are truly saved.” Neither of those positions would be a sufficient reason to call Oneness Pentecostalism a cult in a theological sense (rather than a sociological sense); but because the group claims to be Christian yet denies doctrines that uniquely define Christianity, such as the Trinity and justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apologists, including myself, have consistently labeled Oneness Pentecostalism a theological cult.

Grady, however, ignoring those substantive doctrinal differences, states, “As in all broken relationships, healing of this rift will require apologies on both sides. This is no time for childish rantings such as, ‘They started it first!’” Responding in this manner would indeed be childish, but insisting that we pay attention to the substantive doctrinal disagreements would not. It rather would be earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

”Some of us have condemned Oneness believers to hell for their legalism when love should have moved us to reach out to them,” says Grady. If they are indeed legalists—if they teach that justification is by works (even if by faith plus works) and not by faith alone (and they do, as I document in my book “Jesus Only” Churches)—then they are teaching another gospel, and Paul’s judgment fits: let them be anathema (Gal. 1:8). We certainly should reach out to them in love to persuade them to embrace the true (triune) God and the true gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Allowing people to remain captive to a false gospel that is not the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16), however, is not reaching out in love.

”On the Oneness side,” writes Grady, “leaders of the UPC and other groups must apologize to the rest of us for splitting doctrinal hairs and insisting that their narrow interpretation of the Bible is the only view.” Here, ironically, the Oneness Pentecostal leaders have seen what Grady fails to see: the doctrines over which they differ with the rest of us are not “hairs”; they are issues significant enough to divide genuine Christianity from counterfeit Christianity.

”God is bigger than a baptismal formula,” Grady insists. Such rhetorical flourish does not constitute an argument, however. Further, it fails to acknowledge that Oneness Pentecostals contend against the Trinitarian baptismal formula precisely because they see that the Trinitarian God is not their God. Either Oneness Pentecostals or Trinitarians are worshiping a false god. They recognize that; we must also.

According to Grady, those who insist on dividing over these issues “make mountains out of theological molehills.” Again, however, the doctrines to which he refers have been defining the boundaries of Christianity for centuries, from the defense of the Trinity against the Arian heresy in the fourth century, to the defense of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in the Reformation. The Christian leaders who defended these doctrines, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, would be shocked to hear an heir of their faith dismiss these towering mountains as molehills.

The Importance of Truth. Grady asserts, “Oneness folks also must apologize for [their] spiritual elitism. They must stop teaching people that they have a corner on the truth.” Such a view, however, virtually eliminates the importance of truth.

The doctrinal distinctions between the two are simply too profound to ignore: Oneness Pentecostalism teaches that there are no personal distinctions in God and that Trinitarianism is pagan polytheism; Trinitarianism teaches that there are personal distinctions in God and that Oneness Pentecostalism is pagan rationalism. Oneness Pentecostalism teaches that water baptism regenerates the believer and remits sins and that one cannot be born again or have forgiveness without it; evangelical Protestantism (generally speaking) teaches that water baptism is a sign and seal of regeneration and remission, but not the effectual instrument of either apart from faith, and that one may have both regeneration and remission without it. Oneness Pentecostalism teaches that one can trust in Jesus for salvation, yet go to hell because one’s works do not measure up; evangelical Protestantism teaches the Reformation gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!” (Acts 16:31 NKJV). If Grady is right, then these differences are inconsequential; thus, we should ignore the facts that we worship different deities and believe different gospels and just embrace religious relativism.

Grady insists that Oneness leaders (and, presumably, Trinitarian leaders) “must challenge their congregations to embrace the whole body of Christ.” This begs the question, however, whether in fact Oneness Pentecostals and Trinitarians are, together, the body of Christ. Here, again, Oneness Pentecostals are right: if theirs are the true God and the true gospel, then the rest of us are not part of the body of Christ. The opposite is true as well.

The Devil Is Not in the Details. ”The devil thrives on division,” Grady laments. On the contrary, it is the Church that thrives on division: division between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil, light and darkness, holiness and impurity, justice and injustice, love and hatred. That is why Paul said that it is necessary that there be schisms among the church members, so that those who are approved of God may be clearly seen (1 Cor. 11:19). It is why he commanded us not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers (those who rejected the true God and true gospel), but separate from them (2 Cor. 6:14). The Devil does not thrive on division; rather, he thrives on ambiguity and relativism in order to obscure the divisions between God and idols, between the true gospel and false gospels. Woe to those who call light darkness and darkness light (Isa. 5:20)!

Anyone who has read John 17 can sympathize with a strong desire for unity among believers, but Jesus’ prayer for the unity of the Church did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred at the climax of a three-year ministry in which He insisted on truths that divided Himself and His followers from the unbelieving world. In that very prayer He said, “I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me” (John 17:9 NKJV). His prayer was for the sanctification of the church—sanctification being defined first as “separation from,” or “disunity with,” all that is unholy and ungodly—and He rooted that sanctification in truth, praying, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth” (17:17 NKJV).

— E. Calvin Beisner