By Ken Stebbins
From the earliest days of the church Christians wrestled with the wonderfully mysterious nature of our triune God. The truth, as taught in the Bible, is clear enough: 1) There is one God 2) There are Three Persons: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit 3) The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God 4) The Father is not the Son is not the Spirit.
But how to reconcile these truths has always been a challenge.
Some have tried and gone seriously astray. In the fourth century, Arius tried to resolve the mystery of the Trinity by teaching that the Son (Jesus) is not God. In so doing, Arius was seeking to counter another error: that of Sabellius in the previous century. Sabellius taught that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are all God; but they are all just different forms of the one Person.
In recent times a more subtle form of Sabellianism has appeared. This is where churches which hold to a doctrinal statement that professes the doctrine of the Trinity, yet in practice may focus on “Jesus only” as God. Chris Balzer has also observed this: “In my church experience, I have noticed a discernible trend for many Evangelicals perhaps to be Trinitarian in theory but ‘Jesus only’ in practice.”
But Jesus came to bring us into an intimate relationship with God the Father, as well as with Himself, by means of the indwelling Spirit. He said: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God [addressing God, the Father] and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Let us love and sing and wonderJohn Newton
Let us praise the Saviour’s name…
He has washed us with His blood,
He has brought us near to God.
Let me outline a few areas where I believe we are seeing this subtle form of Sabellianism emerging.
There is a confessionally Trinitarian church in Australia that advertises itself as being “all about Jesus. We meet to hear about Him, worship Him, pray to Him and express our love for Him”.
Many others define themselves similarly: “Above all else, we are about Jesus… we worship Christ because He is the only One truly worthy of such a high level of devotion and affection.”
It is right that we worship Jesus. But it is wrong if in practice He is “the only One” worthy of worship. It is wrong if nothing of worship is directed toward the Father, or toward our triune God.
In recent years there has been a renewal in emphasis on “Christ-centred” preaching. On the whole this has been healthy. But it is hijacked when a preacher uses this as an excuse to squeeze a Scriptural passage into saying what it is not.
Ralph Davis, the well-known commentator, says: “I have no problem in preaching Christ from an Old Testament narrative so long as this can be done legitimately and it frequently can… However, I am convinced that I do not honour Christ by forcing Him into texts where He is not.”
Hymns have a profound influence on shaping the theology of the church.
There are many good hymns being written today praising Christ. But there are disproportionately few praising the Father; or praising God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Some hymns draw on Scriptures that praise God, even specifically the Father, but are turned into praise of “Jesus only”. Some of these are basically fine hymns; many, I am happy to sing. But, they leave the door open to skewing our understanding of Scripture.
As an example, consider Stuart Townend’s “O my soul, arise and bless your maker”. Personally I love most of what Townend has written, and there is nothing in this hymn that is obviously wrong. But while it overtly references Psalm 103 and Psalm 3 which clearly address God the Father (or, at least, the triune God), each verse concludes directing us only to the worship of Jesus.
Chris Balzer notes how “Jesus only” practice “can often be seen in the prayers in public worship, and in a neglect, almost an avoidance, of mentioning the Trinity in any way in the sermons.”
Ron Clark (of PCQ) observes: “We have replaced Christology with what I would term ‘Jesus-ology’. This seems to be evidenced in the way the vast numbers of people these days will pray to Jesus, rather than through Jesus to the Father.”
When Jesus was asked by His disciples to teach them to pray, Jesus Himself said, “In this manner, therefore, pray: ‘Our Father in heaven…’” It is not wrong to pray directly to Jesus; there are a few (though very few) instances of such in Scripture. But normally, if we are following Jesus, we would direct our prayers to “our Father in heaven”, praying “in Jesus’ name”.
The Love of God
Why have so many churches that confess the Trinity, forsaken the Father in their practice?
I believe that, at least in part, it is because, while we crave intimacy, we have lost sight of the purpose of salvation being to bring us into an intimate relationship with the Father, as well as with the Son. Instead we have focused solely on intimacy with the Son – or a watered-down, man-centred version of “Jesus”. This leads to unbiblical views of God, notably:
- The only possibility of an intimate relationship with divinity is seen to be with Christ, but not with the Father, contrary to what Christ Himself taught (e.g. John 14:21, 17:3), and what the rest of the Bible (e.g. Rom 8:15-16) –including the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 103:8-14) – teaches.
- God the Father is seen as remote, even unloving, who only favours us now because of Christ’s sacrifice, contrary to verses like John 3:16, Rom 5:8.
There are many references in the New Testament to the love of Christ: Mark 10:21, John 11:5, 13:1, 13:23, Rom 8:35, 8:39, 2 Cor 5:14, Gal 2:20, Eph 3:19, Eph 5:2, 5:25, 6:23, 1 Tim 1:14. I personally delight in the precious truth which assures me of Christ’s personal and intimate love for me: that “the Son of God… loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20) – I can never get over that.
But equally, I find great comfort in the loving relationship I have with God my Father, and the many references to that: John 3:16, 14:21, 14:23, 16:27, Rom 5:5, 5:8, 8:39, 2 Cor 13:11, 13:14, Eph 2:4, 6:23, 2 Thes 2:16, 3:5, Titus 3:4, 1 John 3:1, 4:8, 4:9, 4:10, 4:11, 4:16, Jude 21.
A Trinitarian Theology
Ron Clark comments on the “Jesus-only” trend: “It is my opinion this is creating a possible weakening in our understanding of the Trinity even though we may hold to that theological position.”
It is now almost 70 years since Loraine Boettner warned against this trend: “The history of doctrine shows quite clearly that those who have attempted to organise the system of theology around the person of Christ, regardless of their good intentions, have tended to slight other vital truths and to drift into a superficial system. Their system is unstable and tends to gravitate downward, relinquishing one doctrine after another until it becomes anthropocentric.”
We see this happening today: “Jesus” becomes more and more just a personal friend. As a result, worship loses a sense of the true wonder that is God and becomes increasingly man-centred.
Ken Stebbins is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Reformed Church.