The Unity of One God

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on June 7, 2020.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:1–6).[1]

The Hebrew Shema, meaning “hear,” states Israel’s succinct doctrine of monotheism: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4). The name translated “LORD” in our English bibles is the covenant name of God revealed to Moses, Yahweh, a unique name derived from the verb “to be.” He is the God who is. Israel was redeemed from slavery to unite as God’s covenant people to worship the God who is, the LORD. As redeemed, Israel was given the Law of God, specifically prohibiting pagan polytheism: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).

Unlike the pagan gods, the LORD revealed himself as the one true and living God. Yet, from the beginning verses of Scripture there are hints of plurality, not of gods but of God. In the creation of mankind, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27). One God, plurally-described, as having one image.

However, what is latent in the Old Testament is implicit in the New. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Jesus is presented as the Son of God of the Father, yet the eternal Word from the beginning, God. Equivalent to Yahweh of the Old Testament, the risen Christ is referred to as the Lord Jesus.[2] And, the New Covenant sign and seal of God’s covenant with his people is made in his name: of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity has been historically expressed as one God in three Persons. As we confess in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God…And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.”[3] In our Reformed tradition, we confess, “There is but one only, the living and true God,” and “There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”[4] Therefore, as monotheists we too confess, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” and he is three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, one God.

It is right that we understand the doctrine of our God as he has revealed himself in his Word, that we may know and worship him. But the Apostle Paul teaches that there is secondary application of the grand doctrine of the Trinity: unity within the body of Christ, the church. Simply stated, just as there is one God, so there is one faith, and as there is one faith there is one body, with practical implications for the church throughout the ages and even today.

One God

Unity within the church is not merely wishful thinking. It is telling at the most fundamental level: what we believe about God. While a right belief in our Triune God may not be the first thing you think of regarding disunity in the church, it is the basis of Paul’s argument here.  In his admonition to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” he submits a sort of reworking of the Shema: “one Spirit…one Lord…one God and Father of all.”

Indeed, God is our Father (and the Father is God) to whom we are taught to pray: “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9a). Paul’s use here also speaks of God’s transcendence and immanence, as God is above his creation but also integrally involved in it. Paul expresses this truth by stating that God is “Father of all” and “over all and through all and in all.”

God as our Father can be understood in two ways: creational and relational. In the first way, God as our Creator is the Father of all mankind. Paul, earlier in Ephesians, describes him as “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15). God created everyone and everything, and in this sense he is the Father. However, in the second way, and the way in which I think Paul is using it here, God is our Father by virtue of his redeeming grace. He is our Father, relationally. In this sense, only those who have received the “Spirit of adoption” through faith in Christ may pray to our heavenly Father or cry out “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15).

As our Father, God is “over all.” There is no limit to his transcendent, sovereign authority over all. Relationally, unity in the church starts with submission to the sovereignty of God. God is working through us. He is also “through all,” as God’s immanence is revealed through his church. Unity in the church is necessary in part because we are instruments in God’s hands. And, God our Father is “in all,” as his intimate presence is known through his indwelling Spirit. By God’s grace through faith we are assured that God is not only over us and working through us but also living in us.

Each of those aspects in which we know God also reveals the varying ministries of the Persons of our God. Just as God the Father is sovereignly over all, he ordains whatsoever comes to pass, including the Fall, redemption, and glory. Of equal power and glory, God the Son accomplishes what his Father has ordained, notably the redemption of the elect through his atoning death and resurrection. Therefore, he is our one Lord “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Proceeding from the Father and the Son, yet equal in power and glory, the Holy Spirit applies what the Father has ordained and what the Son has accomplished. Through the Spirit’s work we are born again to new life, indwelled by his presence, and enabled to live in obedience to God.

Through the various ministries of the Persons of our one God, we live as one body, manifested in the life of the local church. And it is in the local church that we see God in three Persons at work.

Consider what you are experiencing at this moment: God the Father has chosen to reveal himself through his Son in the Word of God, and as the Word is read and especially preached the Spirit illumines the Word and allows us to hear the revelation of God. Or consider our prayers, in which we pray to our heavenly Father, through our Mediator the Son, by the Spirit. In fact, our prayers are translated by God the Spirit, interceded for by God the Son, as they are brought to God the Father. Likewise, your baptism was a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We see the unity of our one God in these ways and more in the local church, as we assemble as people of one faith.

One Faith

The church then is not the assembly of many faiths but one. Christianity is not an inclusive religion but an exclusive one. God ordained that he be known as our Father ordained exclusively through his Son. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And, no one comes to the Son unless the Father draws them (John 6:44) by his Spirit (John 3:8). A church is only a church if it assembles through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone.

Paul describes God’s work of faith in the church as “the calling to which you have been called.” This is an efficacious calling of those whom God foreknew and predestined and therefore justified through faith. Paul says that this calling is to “the one hope that belongs to your call,” a hope not of attitude or circumstance but of Person, namely Jesus Christ. We who once “had no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12) now are reconciled to God through Christ. And, this one hope is a unifying hope.

In fact, while we are each called individually by the Spirit, we are never called alone. We are called into the church, the body of Christ. And just as the Spirit who calls us is one, so there is one body, the body of our Lord, the church of Christ, a household of faith. Practically speaking, we experience this through the local church, which is not a part of the body of Christ but rather a manifestation of it. Therefore, the unity of God is reflected through the unity of one faith in one Lord as one body.

The outward sign of this spiritual reality is observed explicitly in the local church through baptism. Baptism is also a seal of the Covenant of Grace, serving as an identifying mark of our “ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of [our] giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.”[5] It is a setting apart from the world and into Christ’s body those who “profess faith in and obedience unto Christ” and their children.[6] Therefore, as a unifying characteristic of Christ’s body, we are baptized once in the name of our one God, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Within the local church, we are to look to the one baptism of our brothers and sisters as an appeal to the unity of one faith. Have you ever considered the testimony of your baptism to be a message of unity? We are to look to our own baptism as evidence of our union with our Lord and one another. For, we were not baptized in the name of many gods but in the name of the one only, the living and true God. Our faith and obedience is to our one Lord who has but one body. And, we who are of the one body are to live out our faith in unity, reflecting the unity of our God.

One Body

What does this unity look like? Paul describes it as walking (or conducting your life) “in a manner worthy” of your calling. In other words, the grace that you have received by the Father’s ordination, through faith in the Son who accomplished your redemption, by the Spirit’s efficacious application of God’s grace to you should govern how you live with your church family. Characteristics of this life include humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love. Each of these necessary graces are of and from God and contribute to maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Humility and gentleness are similar words in Greek and are intended to be understood comprehensively (“all”). In the first century, humility, or lowliness, was not considered a positive attribute, carrying a connotation of servitude. Yet, as Christ came to serve, so do we. Similarly, gentleness, or meekness, implies a poverty of spirit, a position of weakness rather than strength. And yet, it is in perfect and positive display in the Son of God, who defined himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29), and is described as one who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” and humbling himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-9).

We are to exercise patience, or long-suffering, which is defined graphically in Scripture as how God deals with his people, and it is witnessed in sinners like you and me when we extend grace to the various shortcomings of one another. Closely related, we are to bear “with one another in love,” a practical application of patience. You and I have both weaknesses and failures, often different but never absent. It is only through the love of God that we are able to turn irritations and offenses into reasons to reflect the unity of God.

By faithfully exercising these necessary graces within the church, we are actively striving for peace, which we do by maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Clearly, Paul is not advocating a manufactured unity but of the Spirit, the seal of God’s presence within the church. This is why the necessary graces of humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love are to be evidenced within the church. This is why the fruits of the Spirit must be witnessed, as they are telling of God’s work within the body, providing the unity that is of God by his Spirit.

The result is “the bond of peace” or “the bond which consists of peace,”[7] (O’Brien, 280), meaning unity in the body is evidenced in peace. Such peace is telling of the peace that every Christian enjoys with God the Father through God the Son by God the Holy Spirit. Just as there is unity in God, so there should be unity in his body, as it is manifested in the local church. And so, as we consider our one God in three Persons, “the same in substance, equal in power and glory,” let us consider our calling and how our unity is a testimony to the world of the unity of our God.

            Praise God from whom all blessings flow;

            praise him, all creatures here below;

            praise him above, ye heav’nly host:

            praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.[8]

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 66.

[3] Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, Inc., 1990), 846.

[4] “The Shorter Catechism,” in The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts (Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications, 2005), 360-61.

[5] “The Confession of Faith,” in The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts (Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications, 2005), 134.

[6] Ibid., 135.

[7] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 280.

[8] “Doxology,” Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, Inc., 1990), 731-732.

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