True Unity: Our Aim
AIMING FOR TRUE UNITY
IN THE BODY OF CHRIST
The Lord Jesus prayed that his disciples “all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” The petition Jesus makes, as stated in this verse, is for unity.
What kind of unity is this? The kind of unity that should exist among the saints is the kind of unity that exists in the Godhead.
Jesus prayed that his followers all might be one, “as you, Father, are in me, and I in you…” That is a unity we don’t fully understand for the Father and the Son, though they are one, are also distinct. The unity then is a spiritual unity which does not blur the distinctiveness of each person.
The Father/Son relation then is the model of unity. The kind of unity that exists between the Father and the Son is the kind of unity that should exist between believers. The model for unity is the unity which exists in the Godhead!
That is exactly what we find in John 17. The unity that exists between the Father and the Son, which is also the kind of unity that should exist among the saints, can be summarized in three statements.
I. The Unity of the Godhead
is a Love-Grounded Unity
The Father and the Son are one in love. Towards the end of his prayer Jesus says to his Father, “And I have declared to them your name, and will declare it, that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them” (26).
There is a deep intimacy between the Father and the Son, a love like no other love. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. We cannot begin to understand the relationship that exists between them without grasping this fact; there is perfect love between the Father and the Son. In John 14:31, Jesus told his disciples, “I love the Father.”
This same kind of love is to exist among the saints. We are to live together in a relationship that is pictured by the love experienced among the Persons of the Godhead. Their unity is a unity of love.
One of our greatest problems is that we don’t love each other like we ought to. That is sad, for love would resolve many of our differences, or at least would not make them larger than they really are. In writing to the Galatians, Paul reminded the saints that “all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:14). He followed that with this warning: “But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” (15).
II. The Unity of the Godhead
is a Like-Minded Unity
There is more than love between the Father and the Son; there is agreement between them. There is no disagreement or conflict of mind and will. They never quarrel or have any discord over opinions. They are of one mind as they are of one heart.
In his prayer, Jesus asked that the Father would sanctify his disciples. How would this be accomplished? He prayed, “Sanctify them by your truth. Your word is truth” (17). The word of God and the word of Christ are in full accord. They do not speak contrary words. They are one in truth. The Father’s word is in harmony with the Son’s word.
Our unity must be centered on “the word of truth” (2 Cor. 4:2; Eph. 1:13; 1 Thess. 213). A measure of doctrinal agreement is an absolute must for true unity.
One of our goals as believers, as the church, is to be like-minded. Paul prayed that the Romans would be like-minded. He said, “Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus” (15:5). He told the Philippians, “fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (2:2).
Unity is never to be had at the expense of truth. Now this is very difficult for us. We often do not see eye-to-eye on doctrinal matters. But we are to work at that! The more we can agree on doctrinally, the more grounds we have for unity. That is to be our goal. The more we can agree on doctrinally, the greater our unity will be. It ought not to be our goal to see how little we can agree on but how much.
Complete agreement on every conceivable doctrine is impossible, but agreement on the fundamentals of the faith is. Paul taught that there is a hierarchy of truth, that some things are more important than other things. Some doctrines are of primary importance and others are of secondary importance. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I delivered to you first of all…” (1 Cor. 15:3). His use of the word “first” means some things are of first or primary importance.
What are the fundamentals? The things essential are doctrines like the resurrection, justification by faith alone, the necessity of the atonement, the deity of Christ, etc. Such things we call “non-negotiable.” These are the doctrines that have been thrashed out in the historical controversies of the church. These are the things that are indispensable, that are fundamental.
We will never know the spirit of unity if we contend for every conceivable doctrinal formulation possible, but it would be a mockery if it were not formed on the basis of agreement in the essentials.
Prior to his ordination to the gospel ministry, Matthew Henry composed a paper which he designated, “Serious Self-examination before Ordination” (The Life of Matthew Henry, by J. B. Williams). The young Mr. Henry (he was 24 years old) wrote:
I can appeal to God, that I have no design in the least to maintain a party, or to keep up any schismatical faction; my heart rises against the thoughts of it. I hate dividing principles and practices, and whatever others are, I am for peace and healing; and if my blood would be sufficient balsam, I would gladly part with the last drop of it, for the closing up of the bleeding wounds of differences that are amongst true Christians. Peace is such a precious jewel, that I would give anything for it but truth. Those who are hot and bitter in their contendings for or against little things, and zealous in keeping up names of division and maintaining parties, are of a spirit which I understand not. Let not my soul come into their secret (p. 40, emphasis added).
In like manner, unity is a most precious jewel but it is not to be had at the expense of truth! Truth should not be sacrificed on the altar of unity. The basis of our unity must be our common agreement in doctrine, but this means the fundamentals of the faith, not every minor point.
III. The Unity of the Godhead
is a Labor-Directed Unity
The unity that exists between the Father and the Son is a unity of labor; their mission is the same; their purpose is the same. There is no division in the Godhead concerning the task of each member in carrying out the covenant of redemption (the eternal compact between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to save an elect people). This eternal agreement and the fulfillment of it by Christ wonderfully reveals the unity that exists in the Godhead.
Jesus began his prayer by saying, “Father, the hour has come” (John 17:1). In saying this Jesus was pointing to the accomplishment of what was agreed by them in the eternal counsels. All that Christ did when he came to earth happened according to the eternal decree. It was “was foreordained before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20) that he would become a man and die a sacrificial death in order to redeem his people. The cross was part of “the determinate counsel of God” (Acts 2:23).
It is John’s Gospel that records our Lord saying on several occasions, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38). He also said, “I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (5:30). Even when Jesus experienced an inner conflict that would have him escape the cross, he bowed and said, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39).
As the Father and the Son are one in purpose, so we are to be one. We are to labor in the body of Christ, each according to our gifts that have been sovereignly bestowed upon us by the Spirit.
The body is one but has many members (1 Corinthians 12). The various members of the body are to work together for the good of all! But here is the rub. Pride intrudes and says one part of the body (or one gift) is superior to another. Or despair interferes and says one part of the body (or one gift) is inferior to another. But God has set the members in the body as it has pleased him. All the members are important and all are to work together in a common purpose.
We must have a love-grounded unity and we must have a like-minded unity, but we also must have a labor-directed unity. We are to join ourselves together in the cause of Christ and do the things he has commanded us to do! “We are laborers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:9). Having hearts that are joined in love and minds that are joined in truth, we are to have feet coordinated in work. Being laborers together with God means that we recognize what our common task is and that we are working together to complete it.
And what is that task? A great part of it is spreading the gospel throughout the world. Jesus gave as a reason in his prayer why he wanted us to be one. He said it was so “that the world may believe that you sent me.” See also verse 23…
How can we carry out the Great Commission if we are divided and disconnected? Unity is necessary in order to get the army moving on one front. But that very unity is a testimony to an unconverted world that God did in fact send Jesus to be the Savior of the world! As love is a force that compels men to believe we are Jesus’ disciples (John 13:35), so too, according to John 17:21, is unity in the Spirit a factor that compels men to believe that Jesus is the Sent One of God.
The unity of the saints is not a peripheral issue. It is greatly needed among us. And we learn what kind of unity that is to be in Jesus’ prayer. May the Lord make our unity like that which exists in the Godhead.
BIO: Dean Olive has been in the ministry of the gospel for over 40 years. He is a graduate of Mid-Continent Baptist Bible College, Mayfield, Kentucky. He has been pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Madison, Alabama since its’ beginning. Grace Baptist Church is a member church of the Sovereign Grace Baptist Fellowship and Pastor Olive served ably as past secretary for the Fellowship.