Sharing Your Faith with a Oneness Pentecostal (Part 1)

by Gregory A. Boyd


Perhaps the most important thing to remember when dialoguing with Oneness Pentecostals is to demonstrate to them the unconditional love and acceptance of Jesus Christ. The most problematic aspect of my theology when I was a Oneness Pentecostal was the belief that no one other than us Oneness Pentecostals was going to heaven. Trinitarian Christians simply were not saved! So every time I met Trinitarian Christians who clearly reflected the loving presence of Jesus in their lives by the way they related to me, I confronted more strong evidence that my theology could not be true.


A second vitally important component of witnessing to Oneness Pentecostals is to confront their misunderstandings of what Trinitarians believe. Like most Oneness Pentecostals, I was firmly convinced that Trinitarians worshipped three separate gods and that they didn't "really" believe that Jesus Christ was Himself the Lord God Almighty. This is how Oneness Pentecostals are indoctrinated to perceive Trinitarians. Hence, when dialoguing with Oneness Pentecostals it is vitally important to be utterly empathic about your own belief that there is only one God - not three - and that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of this one God!


If need be, explain to them that the Trinitarian creedal language about God existing in "three persons" does not literally mean that there are three "people" who are God. It is rather simply a shorthand way of saying that God eternally exists in three personally distinct ways (who would deny that God is capable of that?).

Most importantly, emphasize as strongly as possible that Jesus Christ is the very center of your faith and life. Oneness Pentecostals honestly believe that they are the only ones for whom this is true. When I as a Oneness Pentecostal first confronted some informed Trinitarians who successfully conveyed this to me, it effectively loosened the grip which my elitist theology had on me.


The third important ingredient in a witness to Oneness Pentecostals is confronting their theology on its weakest points. Like other authoritarian doctrinal systems, Oneness Pentecostal theology pretty much stands or falls as a whole in the minds of its followers. If you can show it to be in error at all, even on a peripheral point, you have gone a long way toward undermining their trust in the entire doctrinal system which holds them in bondage.

Among the erroneous beliefs which Oneness Pentecostals hold, there are four that are especially weak and open to effective refutation: (1) their belief that tongues is the necessary sign of salvation; (2) their denial of the pre-existence of Christ; (3) their belief that Jesus was Himself the Father; and (4) their belief that baptism "in Jesus' name" is necessary for salvation. In the remainder of this article I will briefly discuss how one might refute the first of these beliefs. In Part Two (next issue) I will discuss effective approaches to the latter three beliefs.


Oneness Pentecostals believe that unless one has spoken in tongues, one does not have the Holy Spirit (not just the fullness of the Holy Spirit, as certain other Pentecostals hold). And, since a person cannot be saved without the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9), it follows that only those who have spoken in tongues are truly saved. This belief is (loosely) based on the fact that speaking in tongues is mentioned in three of the four accounts of people receiving the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts (2:4; 10:46; 19:6). What follows are some of the considerations which were most effective in changing my views on this matter and which I have in turn found effective in helping other Oneness Pentecostals out of their misguided theology.


1. The Oneness Pentecostal position frequently results in sincere believers "seeking for the Holy Ghost" for days, weeks, and even years (I've seen some die yet seeking!). These poor souls are literally begging God to save them. The reason they do not receive the Holy Spirit, and hence salvation, is presumably because they lack sufficient faith, or they have unacknowledged sin in their lives.


In a loving way, ask Oneness Pentecostals if they have ever wondered why there is no biblical precedent for this sad phenomenon (I assure you, they have!). Why is salvation so "easy" in the Bible? And if sinners must first believe "sufficiently" and cleanse themselves "sufficiently" in order to receive (as a reward?) the Holy Spirit, why does the New Testament portray faith and sanctification as the result, not the basis, of receiving the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 15:16; 2 Thess. 2:13)?


2. The "tongues" doctrine of Oneness Pentecostalism is a doctrine based entirely on a historical record, not on an explicit teaching. Explain to your Oneness friend that by all recognized scholarly standards this constitutes very unsound hermeneutics (Bible interpretation). One can no more base a doctrine about the necessity of tongues on a historical report about tongues than one can base a doctrine about the necessity of communal sharing of property in the church on Luke's historical report about it in the early church (Acts 4:32-37). To say that something occurred is very different from saying that this something should always occur. Luke tells us the former but not the latter. His purpose is simply to provide an "orderly account" of what happened in the early church so that Theophilus, his reader, will be convinced of the truth of the Gospel message (Luke 1:1-4). This is very different from teaching doctrine.


Ask the Oneness Pentecostal why - if it is in fact so clearly taught in the Bible that salvation itself hangs on believing it - no one throughout church history has ever arrived at the Oneness Pentecostal position on tongues until the twentieth century?


3. If your Oneness Pentecostal friend persists in maintaining that Acts is a blueprint for all church history, ask him to show you where in the Book of Acts does one find individuals seeking for the Holy Spirit and expecting to receive tongues as the sign that He's come? This is the standard way the "baptism of the Spirit" occurs among Oneness Pentecostals, but it has no parallel in Acts. In Acts, the Holy Spirit always falls on entire groups who are not expecting tongues (or any other sign). So the Oneness Pentecostals do not even follow their own (misguided) hermeneutic. This insight was a wound to my pride as a Oneness Pentecostal, for the belief that "we alone do it just like the Bible says" (!) is the essence of the Oneness Pentecostal position.



Sharing Your Faith with a Oneness Pentecostal (Part 2)

In the previous issue of the Christian Research Journal I offered three suggestions on how to witness to Oneness Pentecostals. One must demonstrate to them Christlike love; one must correct their tritheistic misunderstandings about the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity; and one must confront their theology on its weakest points. We concluded by discussing the first of the four weakest points of Oneness theology: their belief that tongues is a necessary sign of salvation. I will now conclude this two-part series by discussing the remaining three weakest aspects of Oneness theology: (1) the Oneness denial of the preexistence of Christ; (2) their belief that Jesus was the Father as well as the Son; and (3) their belief that one must be baptized "in Jesus' name" in order to be saved.

(1) Unlike orthodox Christianity, members of the United Pentecostal Church and other Oneness groups do not believe that Jesus existed as the Son of God from all eternity. Since they deny that there are three eternal persons in the Godhead, the only sense in which Jesus could have existed prior to His human birth in Bethlehem is either as God the Father or as an idea in the Father's mind (viz., as an aspect of God's foreknowledge).


This position is central to Oneness theology, but it is easily refuted by pointing out to Oneness believers that there are many places in Scripture that clearly speak of Jesus as existing with (not as) God the Father prior to His earthly existence, and not as a mere idea in God's mind! For example, John 1:1 explicitly identifies "the Word" (Jesus Christ, v. 14) who is God and who from eternity is with God. This could not refer to a mere idea in God's mind since the Word is God (and God is certainly no mere idea). Moreover, the same one who was "in the beginning" and who is creator (can a mere idea create?) is said to have come to His own world and to have been rejected by it -- an unambiguous reference to the real Jesus Christ (vv. 10-14).


In this same context we find John the Baptist referring to Christ's real preexistence (John 1:15, 31), as well as Jesus Himself making reference to the same thing. Jesus notes how He shall ascend up to the Father where He was "before" (6:62). He says, numerous times, that He has "come forth" from the Father, is "going back" to the Father, has "come down from heaven" and "come into the world" - all statements which clearly presuppose that He really existed with the Father prior to His earthly birth (John 3:13, 31; 6:33, 38, 41, 46, 51, 57-58; 8:42; 13:3; 16:27-28).

In conjunction with these verses one should lead the Oneness believer through a careful reading of such passages as Colossians 1:16-17, 1 Corinthians 8:6, and Hebrews 1:2-10 which clearly speak of Jesus as the Son of God creating the world. From my own experience as a Oneness believer, I can assure you that these verses are extremely troublesome to the Oneness position.


(2) The most forceful response to the Oneness claim that Jesus is the Father as well as the Son is to simply point out how contrary this belief is to the general teaching of the New Testament. Help your Oneness friend to see that, while Jesus is never once explicitly called "Father" in the New Testament, He is explicitly referred to as "the Son" (of God, of man, etc.) over 200 times. What is more, the Father is referred to as distinct from Jesus the Son throughout the New Testament over 200 times. And over 50 times, Jesus the Son and the Father are juxtaposed within the same verse. Ask your Oneness friend why there is this overwhelming (indeed, unanimous) emphasis on Jesus being the Son of God and being distinct from the Father if in fact Scripture also wants to teach us that Jesus is Himself the Father? Why is Scripture so clear on the first point and yet so silent on the second?


It is also helpful to point out to a Oneness believer why the arguments they have for the "Fatherhood" of Jesus simply do not hold water. Oneness believers have splendid arguments for the deity of Christ, and this they believe also proves that Jesus is the Father. Reassure your Oneness friends that you fully accept the position that Jesus is Himself God Almighty, but remind them that this does not itself prove that He is therefore God the Father. What is more, the verses that Oneness believers misuse to demonstrate that Christ is the Father simply speak either of His parental ("fatherly") love (Isa. 9:6; John 14:18), or of Christ's unity with the Father, not His identity as the Father (e.g., John 10:30; 14:7-9).


(3) The Oneness belief that baptism must be "in Jesus name for the remission of sins" can be refuted by four brief considerations. First, at least 60 times the New Testament speaks of salvation by faith alone without mentioning baptism. If baptism is in fact necessary for salvation, why is there this emphasis on faith for salvation but not on baptism in Scripture? Second, the phrase "for the remission of sins," used by Peter in Acts 2:38, is also used to describe John the Baptist's baptism (Luke 3:3; Mark 1:4), but no one supposes that his baptism literally washed away people's sins (why would they need to later be rebaptized? Cf. Acts 19:1-6). The word "for" in the Greek (eis) need only mean "with a view toward," for we know that the Jews baptized people "for" such things as "freedom," "God's justice," etc.


Third, the Oneness insistence that the words "in Jesus name" have to be said over a person while he or she is being baptized is also without scriptural justification. When this phrase is used in Acts (e. g., 10:45-48), it only means "in the authority of" or "for the sake of." It is not a formula (which is why it never occurs the exact same way twice in Acts). We are commanded to do all things "in the name of Jesus," but this obviously does not mean we have to say "in Jesus name" before we do anything (Col. 3:17). Again, the Jews baptized people "in the name of" many things (Mt. Gerizim, a rabbi, etc.), but they placed no significance on saying these words while performing the ceremony.



Finally, Jesus tells us to baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19), and there is simply no reason to think that Jesus was here cryptically referring to Himself. The fact that next to no one throughout history has understood Jesus to be doing this itself shows that either the Oneness interpretation is wrong, or Jesus is a very poor communicator (and on a point which supposedly affects our salvation!).

It was arguments such as these that led me out of Oneness Pentecostalism, and - when combined with a loving, nondefensive approach - I have found them to be very effective in helping other Oneness believers as well.



Gregory A. Boyd (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) is currently Assistant Professor of Theology at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

This article first appeared in the Winter 1991 issue of the Christian Research Journal.