Calvary Road Baptist Church

"THE ANCIENT HERESY OF MODALISM RETURNS"

 

 Is anything more important than God? Is anyone more important than God? Some of you may have recently been apprised of the views of a cosmologist named Stephen Hawking. He is a British scientist who has lately been in the news for several reasons, not the least of which is his affliction with Lou Gehrig's disease, which has left him in a wheel chair and from which he communicates by means of a specially adapted computer. Hawking wrote in his new book The Grand Design that "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."[1],[2] While Hawking may use the word "God" in conversation, his first wife declared during their divorce proceedings that Hawking was in fact an atheist who only referred to God in his writings to sell more books.[3],[4] Psalm 14.1 speaks to those holding such opinions: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God."

Of course, this should be no surprise to any Christian, in light of the scriptural declarations about the nature of our God. In Colossians 1.15, the Apostle Paul describes God as "invisible." In First Timothy 1.17, he once again makes mention that God is "invisible," as well as being the King, eternal, immortal, and uniquely wise. Then, in Hebrews 11.27, the writer to the Hebrews describes God as "invisible." Therefore, I am in no way surprised that those who embrace science as the be all and end all of knowledge would conclude that the unseen does not exist. Since science is so limited by its dependence upon observation, and since the faith that reaches so far beyond the capabilities of science to perceive truth comes by hearing God's Word, Romans 10.17, I am saddened by Stephen Hawking's comment, but not surprised. He damns his soul to Hell by clinging to such folly as replacing God with gravity.

What should prove more surprising to Bible believing Christians is the resurgence I am seeing of an ancient heresy. As you know, my wife and I returned from vacation last week, and were delighted to see friends and extended family members along the way. It also gave us opportunity to witness Christianity in the heartland of our country, and to smell the aroma of Christianity in the fly over portion of our nation. What I observed on several occasions, thankfully from none of the preacher friends that we know, was evidence of an ancient belief called Sabellianism. Sabellianism was an early-third-century trinitarian heresy named for Sabellius, who taught that the one God revealed Himself successively in salvation history first as Father (Creator and Lawgiver), then as Son (Redeemer) and finally as Spirit (Sustainer, Giver of Grace). Hence, for Sabellius there is only one divine person, not three as in Christian trinitarianism.[5]

This error is also known as Modalism, not viewing Father, Son and Spirit as three particular "persons in relation" but merely as three modes or manifestations of the one divine Person of God. Thus, God comes in salvation history as Father to create and give the law, as Son to redeem and as Spirit to impart grace.[6] From reading both the inspired history of the book of Acts, along with the letters to the Romans, the Corinthians and the Galatians, as well as works such as Cunningham's fine two-volume "Historical Theology,"[7] you can see evidence of dangerous errors entering in swiftly and with boldness, as was the case with the Judaizers the Apostle Paul had so much trouble with, while other errors crept in gradually and with great subtlety. My friends, this error of Modalism is creeping into Baptist churches all across the country. It is a view of God that radically departs from God's description of Himself in the Bible.

Allow me to review the matter under four headings to help you see the seriousness of the problem: 

First, THERE IS THE DOCTRINE OF GOD 

The Bible strongly asserts the unity of God. Have you become as weary as I am of Muslims insisting that I believe in three gods, or of Jehovah's Witnesses claiming that I believe in three gods? Beloved, I do not believe in three gods, but in the one God of the Bible. If I may. Genesis 1.1: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." One God. Deuteronomy 6.4: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD." Again, one God. Throughout the history of the Israelite people, the continual task of the prophets raised up from time to time was to call the people back to the worship of the one true and living God. What about in the New Testament? Mark 12.1: "And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord." Therefore, the first of the four gospels to be written shows the Lord Jesus Christ emphasizing the monotheism of the Hebrew scriptures. In First Corinthians 8.4 and 6, the Apostle Paul restates the monotheism of his Jewish roots with great emphasis: "there is none other God but one."  "there is but one God." As well, of course, there is First Timothy 2.5: "For there is one God." Thus, it is very clear that the Christian Bible, the founder of Christianity (the Lord Jesus Christ), and the most prominent of the earliest Christians (the Apostle Paul), each embraced the truth that there is only one true and living God.

However, the Bible also clearly reveals the tri-unity of God. Allow me to simply state today what I have taken great pains to point out in the Bible on other occasions, that this one God referred to in the Bible has shown Himself to exist in the form of three coequal and coeternal Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. It is very easy to show that while there is only one God, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, yet the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. Each of the three divine Persons possesses the undiminished and uncompromised attributes of deity, yet there is only one God. How this can be is a great mystery to the human mind. However, our responsibility is not so much to insist that God be understandable to us as it is for us to bend ourselves to God's clear declarations about Himself in the Bible. Modalism, also known as Sabellianism, while claiming to be Christian, refuses to do that. Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to do that. Islam refuses to do that. 

Next, THERE IS THE DANGER OF MODALISM 

Too many professing Christians exhibit impatience with anyone who shows a concern about the nature of God, claiming that careful Christians are somehow out of line. However, Modalism is a dangerous error:

First, consider that Modalism denies the truthfulness of scripture. Remember the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, Mark 1.9-11? 

9  And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.

10  And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:

11  And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. 

The Lord Jesus Christ being baptized, God the Father speaking from heaven, and the Spirit of God descending on Him like a dove. Is that not an accurate description of the actions of three different persons? Yet Modalism says "No." To deny the accuracy of this passage, and other passages that describe similar events, is to repudiate the integrity of God's Word as an accurate record of real events.

Next, Modalism denies the nature of God. Modalists refuse to accept the Biblical account of Jesus' baptism as an accurate representation showing the actions of the three divine Persons. Modalists would also challenge the Biblical account of the transfiguration when Jesus shined forth in His glory and the Father spoke from heaven, Matthew 17.5. They deny this obvious account of God the Father speaking about His glorious Son, who is another person. Yet, these denials interfere with God's right to describe His own nature in His own Word. Some would say, "So what?" However, more thoughtful people consider the implications of such closed-mindedness. To deny God the right to describe His own nature, to refuse His forthright revelation of Himself, has fearful implications. Consider: First John 4.8 and 16 declare "God is love." Thus, God declares that love is an essential attribute that makes Him who and what He is. Yet, if God is not a trinity, whom did He love throughout the eons prior to His creative activity, when he brought the angels, Adam, and Eve into existence? Those who deny the trinitarian nature of God cannot explain how God who is love could possess such an unexpressed and unmanifested attribute. How do you love if there is no one to love for eternity past? The doctrine of the trinity, however, easily answers that question. Jesus said in John 15.9, "As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you." And in John 17.31, Jesus prays to His heavenly Father and speaks of "the love wherewith thou hast loved me." If God is love then God must love. However, only if God is a trinity can God actually love, by loving His Son and by loving the Holy Spirit, Who in turn love each other and the Father simultaneously . . . all the while being one God.

Modalism denies the Word of God, the nature of God, and also the gospel of God. John 3.16 is the most famous verse in the Bible: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." However, there is a great difference between God so loving the world that He gave His eternal and coequal Son, as the trinity reveals, versus God only loving the world to the extent that He would only pretend to give His Son, as Modalism suggests. Is this matter really so important? Yes, it is. You see, the gospel is really all about the deliverance of the sinner from the wrath of God the Father. Who actually delivers the sinner from the wrath of God the Father but God the Son? I submit to you that no less than God the Son, coeternal and coequal with the Father, could deliver any sinner from the wrath of God the Father, by taking upon Himself our sins, by dying a substitutionary death on the cross, and by then being raised from the dead by His Father three days after His death and burial. If God is not a triune Being, this gospel is a fraud and a deception perpetrated on mankind by a god who only pretends to be first one person and then another. Such a god is not true, meaning that scripture therefore cannot be true, and all is lost. I am not playing word games. God must be a triune Being or there is no gospel. 

Third, THERE IS THE DETECTION OF MODALISM 

First, this Modalism heresy is on "Christian" television. Do you realize that one of the most compelling speakers on so-called Christian television is a Modalist and thereby denies the trinity? That is right. His name is T. D. Jakes, and not only was he raised in the Oneness Pentecostal denomination that denies the trinity, but he continues to this day to refuse to clarify his position with respect to the important doctrine of the trinity.[8] Therefore, it is clear that no discernment is involved when programming so-called Christian programs on the so-called Christian television networks. My advice? I urge you to never watch so-called Christian programming or to listen to Christian radio, unless you confine yourself to someone like Adrian Rogers or J. Vernon McGee.

Next, this infiltrating Modalism can be detected in the prayers of professing Christians. The Lord Jesus Christ was most explicit in His instructions to His disciples about praying. In Matthew 6.9, Jesus begins, "After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven." Please, also, consider the following: John 14.13, where Jesus said, "And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name." John 14.14: "If ye shall ask any thing in my name." John 15.16: ". . . whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name." John 16.23: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you." Then, in John 16.26: "At that day ye shall ask in my name." This is why Christians typically conclude their prayers "in Jesus name, Amen." So, we are instructed to pray to the Father and we pray in Jesus' name. How, then, are we to understand someone who prays, "Dear Jesus . . . in your name we pray, Amen"? Or, how about someone who prays, "Dear Father . . . in your name we pray, Amen"? What is troublesome is the apparent unconscious confusing of the Persons of the trinity. My friends, this is what Sabellianism does. This is what Modalism does again and again. However, keep in mind that god the Father was not born of a virgin and did not shed His blood for the remission of anyone's sins. The Holy Spirit has never been clothed in human flesh. Jesus alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

In testimonies of professing Christians, this confusing of the Persons of the trinity can have serious implications. One experienced evangelist preached a sermon in which he exhorted sinners again and again to "come to God." However, Jesus said, "no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."[9] Such fuzzy talking, when it is assumed the sinner knows that the preacher certainly means one should come to God by coming to Christ, can easily confuse the sinner. However, an uninformed or confused sinner may think either he can come directly to God for salvation, or he will lose confidence in the wisdom and discretion of the preacher for failing to give to Jesus Christ the prominence in the gospel message that is His due. What about someone hopefully converted to Christ? What if his testimony fails to give prominence to the Lord Jesus Christ? What if he speaks of being convicted by the Holy Spirit and then coming to God for salvation? My friends, such testimonies frighten me. When hopeful converts speak so as to confuse the persons of the trinity, or to exclude Jesus altogether from their remarks about how they were converted, I will not have confidence that person has been born again. How can I? Therefore, while some very good Christians will sometimes speak in such a way that they assume certain doctrinal realities are taken for granted, such as the trinity and a recognition that each Person of the trinity plays a different role in working out a sinner's salvation, we no longer live in a time when such assumptions are warranted. What you believe about the nature of God and the role of Jesus Christ as the savior needs to be clearly stated and carefully spelled out, lest you confuse the lost, as well as the babe in Christ.

 

Finally, THE DEFEAT OF MODALISM

 

Allow me to urge upon you a careful and explicit approach to offsetting the encroachment of this insidious and wicked error:

First, we must have a correct doctrine of scripture. We must stand firmly on the Word of God as our rule of faith and practice. The blessed Book must be accepted as trustworthy and as being straightforward. Therefore, unless there are powerful reasons for questioning what seems to be taught in the Bible in a simple and straightforward manner, what seems to be taught in a straightforward manner should be accepted as true. That is to say, when it appears that the First Person of the Godhead is speaking while the Second Person of the Godhead is being baptized, and the Third Person of the Godhead is descending upon Him in the form of a dove, that is exactly what is actually happening. The one God of the Bible can be seen at that moment with each of the three divine Persons manifested by their actions.

Next, we must have a correct doctrine of God. How is it possible for one God to exist in the form of three Persons? I do not claim to know how that is possible. I make no claim to be able to get my mind around that concept. However, scripture strongly declares that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.[10] Therefore, when a mere human will humbly bow before God and allow Him to reveal Himself in scripture, without proudly demanding that God conform Himself to some preconceived notion of what I think He must be like, then a man can accept what he cannot understand. When you accept what the Bible declares about God's nature, even if you do not understand it, then your doctrine of God's nature will be correct. There is one God and He is a triune Being, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Third, we must have a correct doctrine of the gospel. God the Father is angry with sinners. It is clear that Jesus Christ is not angry with sinners in His present session, just as He was not angry with sinners during His earthly sojourn. How is that explained unless God is a trinity? Furthermore, how else is the gospel explained (a sinner fleeing the wrath of the First Person of the Godhead by fleeing to the safety and refuge provided by the Second Person of the Godhead) apart from the trinity?

Finally, we must experience the new birth. Nicodemus was the most knowledgeable teacher in Israel, but he was blind to his need to be born again, John 3.3-11. In like manner, the lost of this world will find it very difficult to embrace a concept of God that is true so long as we are lax in stating and restating that truth. My own opinion is that the real defeat of Modalism requires the new birth. God's law requires that we love Him with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul. However, being sinners, we are not going to love God until we experience the love of God in Christ Jesus. "We love him, because he first loved us." If God is not a trinity, the love of God and the love of Jesus is exactly the same thing. However, if God is a triune Being, then the love of God the Father for me is not exactly the same thing as the love of Christ for me. God's love sent His Son for me, while Christ's love prompted Him to come and die for me. Thus, the sinner's experimental solution for the problem presented by Modalism is the new birth, whereby the sinner experiences the love of God in Christ, and also experiences the love of Christ, at the time of his conversion. No truly born again person will have much difficulty with the triune nature of God, because he has experienced the love of God in Christ, he has experienced the love of Christ, and he has experienced love as a fruit of the indwelling Spirit. 

Do you see one aspect of the trouble you are in so long as you remain lost, my friend? You already know you are Hell-bound and fully deserving it. As well, you already know you are dead in trespasses and sins, for what other explanation is there for the deadness of your mind and heart for the things of God, sitting there on your way to Hell without any concern besides a desire to escape the punishment you deserve.

However, today we have seen a danger that is new to you. Though God has clearly revealed Himself in His Word to be a Being consisting of three coequal and coeternal Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, your tendency will be to not accept God as He has revealed Himself. If you are not careful, if God is not particularly gracious toward you, the result will be such confusion of the Persons of the trinity, and such confusion so as to lose the essence of the gospel message, so that you will never be saved.

Why are we so determined to speak clearly and concisely at Calvary Road Baptist Church when it comes to articulating truths about the Persons of the trinity, Who does what in this grand plan of salvation, and Who is to be prayed to in whose name? It is because the integrity of the Bible, the clarity of the gospel message, and perhaps your soul's destiny is at stake. Your depraved indifference angers God the Father. He is determined to pour out His wrath upon you unless you flee to the safety provided by His Son, Jesus Christ. That is why Jesus bids you to come to Him. And because Jesus is not angry with you, and because only Jesus both can and will save you from your sins, from the wrath of God that is determined for your sins, you must come to Christ.

Modalism, this doctrine of demons that is sneaking into Christian thought and practice by means of all this muddled speaking and imprecise thinking about the Persons of the trinity, puts you at great risk. Come to Jesus now, before it is too late, before your understanding of God's nature has been so compromised by this error that you will never be saved.



[1] Michael Holden (2 September 2010). "God did not create the universe, says Hawking". Reuters. http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100902/lf_nm_life/us_britain_hawking. Retrieved 3 September 2010.

[2] "Another ungodly squabble". The Economist. 2010-09-05. http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/09/science_and_religion. Retrieved 2010-09-06.

[3] "Then, in 1999, his former wife published Music To Move The Stars: My Life with Stephen, in which she claimed (...) her Christian faith clashed with his steadfast atheism; (...) The last line in A Brief History Of Time is famous for saying that, if we could tie together the equations describing the universe, we would 'know the mind of God.' But his former wife claims, 'He is an atheist. So why is the deity making an appearance? The obvious answer is that it helps sell books.' Charles Arthur, "The Crazy World of Stephen Hawking", The Independent (London), 12 October 2001, Features, Pg. 7.

[4] "Jane took much of her dramatic hope at the time from her faith, and still sees something of the irony in the fact that her Christianity gave her the strength to support her husband, the most profound atheist. 'Stephen, I hope, had belief in me that I could make everything possible for him, but he did not share my religious - or spiritual - faith.'" Tim Adams, "A Brief History of a First Wife", The Observer, 4 April 2004, Review Pages, Pg. 4.

[5] Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki & Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), page 104.

[6] Ibid., page 79.

[7] William Cunningham, Historical Theology, Vol 1 & 2, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust edition, 1960)

[9] John 14.6

[10] James 4.6; 1 Peter 5.5

 

 

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pastor@calvaryroadbaptist.org