THE ONENESS PENTECOSTAL VIEW OF SALVATION
by Gregory A. Boyd Phd.
Oneness Pentecostals are known mostly for their denial of the doctrine of the Trinity. What is not usually recognized, however, is that their understanding of salvation is as aberrant as is their doctrine of God. This misunderstanding is reflected even in most of the published literature on the subject. Thus, for example, no less an authority than Ruth Tucker states in her work Another Cospel, “Except for the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, the United Pentecostal Church is not significantly different from other Pentecostal groups.” (p.385). This common opinion, however, is simply not correct. It is in part the prevalence of this view which causes many evangelicals to dismiss Oneness Pentecostalism as a minor aberration of classical Pentecostalism. In the mean time it continues to be one of the fast growing nontrinitarian movements in the world.
There are three aspects of the Oneness Pentecostal understanding of salvation which set them apart from the orthodox evangelical understanding: their understanding of baptism, their understanding of tongues, and their understanding of holy living. I shall briefly treat each of these items in their respective order.
The Necessity of Jesus Name Baptism
Oneness groups teach that one must be baptized in order to be saved. On the basis of such passages as Acts 2:38 which speaks of being baptized “for the remission of your sins” and John 3:5 where Jesus says one must be born “of water and of Spirit” Oneness Pentecostals argue that baptism is absolutely essential for one to have their sins forgiven and be born again.
This position, obviously, simply dismisses the numerous other passages of Scripture which unequivocally teach that salvation is by grace through faith alone. Over 60 times in the New Testament it is proclaimed that salvation is for those who believe (e.g. Jn.3:15, 36, 5:24, Acts 2:21, 10:43, 15:9, 16:31, Rom. 1:17, 3:22-30, 4:3-5, Eph. 2:8, etc.). Baptism is regarded as being a sign and seal of salvation (see Rom. 4:9-11, Col. 2:11-12), not the basis of salvation. One must wonder how Jesus could promise the thief on the cross eternal life if baptism were essential for salvation as the Oneness Pentecostals claim.
The error of the Oneness position is easy to refute. The phrase”for (eis) the remission ofsins” does not mean “to cause the remission of sins.” In the original Greek eis need only mean “in view of” or “in the light of.” That’s why John the Baptist’s pre-Christian baptisms are also said to be “for (eis) the remission of sins” (Mk. 1:4, Lk. 3:3), though no one believes his baptism literally washed away sin. Jesus hadn’t even died yet!
Their interpretation of John 3:5 is also skewed. If in talking to Nicodemus Jesus was referring to baptism when he spoke of being “born of water,” why didn’t he simply say so? If one responds by saying that baptism was implied, one must wonder if Nicodemus would have picked up on this very opaque reference to a Christian practice that wasn’t even to exist for another 3 years.
A far easier reading of this passage is to see Jesus here simply using “water” as a metaphor for the cleansing power of the Spirit. just as he uses “wind” for a metaphor for the freedom of the Spirit three verses later. Water, after all, was a common metaphor for God’s Spirit, and Nicodemus would have picked up on this (see Jn. 4:11-15, 7:38, Rev. 22:1,17, Tit 3:5, Cor. 6:11, Eph. 5:26).
It should also be pointed out that Oneness Pentecostals teach not only the necessity of believers baptism by immersion: they also teach that it must be administered using the formula “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” if it is to be saving. God hangs all eternity not only on a ritual, but on the precise wording that is said during a ritual! On the Oneness view, anyone baptized “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is, in their view, yet unsaved. God damns people — even those who believe in him and love and trust him — on minute technicalities. The result is that less than 99.9999% of all who have ever believed in Christ have made it to heaven! It hardly needs to be said that the view of God this understanding of baptism and salvation presupposes is a far cry from the character of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and throughout the New Testament!
Oneness Pentecostals attempt to base their view of the baptismal formula on the fact that baptism in the book of Acts is said to be “in the name of Jesus.” The argument however, can be quickly dismissed. First the clearest teaching on baptism we have is Matthew 28:19 where Jesus explicitly tells us to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. ” Oneness Pentecostals make the outrageous claim that Jesus was here referring to himself in this passage, but the fact that Jesus never refers to himself or is referred to by anyone else as “Father” or “Spirit” in the Gospels is enough to completely rule this interpretation out. (By contrast, he is called “Son” over 120 times!)
The fact that Luke refers to baptism in the book of Acts as being “in the name of Jesus,” or some related phrase (2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5) doesn’t affect this in the least. First the fact that all four baptismal references in Acts differ significantly from one another is enough to show us that we are not dealing with a ritualistic formula at all (certainly not one upon which all eternity hangs!). Secondly, the phrase “in the name of in Semitic thought was equivalent to “in the authority of” or “with the significance of” (e.g. Mt. 10:40-42). Hence, for example, Paul tells us that we are to do all things “in the name of the Lord jesus” (Col. 3:27), though he certainly doesn’t intend us to say out loud the name of Christ when we do anything at all. He is simply telling us to do everything for the glory of God. No spoken formula is intended.
Thus, to teach that salvation hangs upon the act, the mode, and the formula of baptism is based on a misunderstanding of the Bible and portrays a view of God who is more like the pagan gods of magic (whose behavior is based on formulas) than the God of the New Testament
The Necessity of Tongues
Allmost all Oneness Pentecostal groups teach that if one has not spoken in tongues, they are not saved (even if they’ve believed right and been baptized right!). Their reasoning is that tongues are the initial sign of receiving the Holy Spirit, and without the Holy Spirit one cannot be saved (Rom. 8:9).
Five things may be said in refutation of this position. First the Bible never teaches that tongues is the initial evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit. Oneness Pentecostals base their erroneous teaching on the fact that tongues is mentioned in three of the five instances which speak of the baptism of the Spirit in Acts. But Luke is giving a historical report not a doctrinal teaching, and it is an abuse of his report to wring a doctrine of salvation out of it. A historical description is one thing; a doctrinal prescription is quite another.
Secondly, even if the Oneness Pentecostals insist on using Acts to teach doctrine for the Church, they do so inconsistently. In Oneness churches one customarily finds people “seeking for the Holy Ghost” sometimes begging God for salvation, often doing so for years. But where is there anything remotely close to this modeled in Acts, or the rest of the Bible for that matter? Where is there an example of anyone seeking for tongues as a sign of the Spirit’s coming? Where is there even an example of someone receiving this gift alone, a part from a group (in Oneness Churches it almost always happens one at a time)? If the Oneness Pentecostals are going to mistakenly use Acts as a normative book for all of Church history, they should at least be consistent. (This would, however, also mean that they should all be communistic! cf. Acts 4:32ff.)
Third, the Oneness teaching on Spirit baptism is not consistent with the Oneness view of water baptism. If the baptism of the Holy Spirit brings salvation, and water baptism brings forgiveness of sins, how is it possible to have some people receiving the Spirit baptis m (salvation) before their sins are forgiven (by water baptism)? And how is it possible for God to forgive someone’s sins (by water baptism) and yet not give them the Holy Spirit (salvation)? This sort of thing happens all the time in Oneness churches. Cod gives his Spirit to people he doesn’t forgive, and forgives people h doesn’t give his Spirit to!
Fourth, the Oneness teaching that tongues is the initial sign of receiving the Holy Spirit and thus of salvation, has the effect of completely undermining the New Testament doctrine of salvation by grace. In my book Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity, I argue that this unprecedented teaching of the Oneness Pentecostals gives them the unique distinction of being the most heretically Pelagian movement in all of Church history! The reason is simple: in the Oneness teaching the only reason why one would not yet have “spoken in tongues’ once they’ve been baptized is because either their faith is not strong enough or their lives are not “pure enough.” So one finds “seekers” in Oneness churches pleading with God for the Holy Ghost trying hard to “purify themselves” and have enough faith in order to merit this “gift” of salvation. Never has a form of works righteousness been so blatant — and psychologically tormenting! The biblical teaching is that salvation is for free, by grace, and that even our faith is a result of the Holy Spirit’s working (e.g. I Cor. 12:3, Eph. 2:8).
Finally, the Oneness teaching on tongues simply goes directly against everything Paul says about the Christian practice of tongues in I Corinthians 12 and 14. Read these chapters carefully. Is there anything in these chapters to remotely suggest that Paul, or anyone, believed that tongues had any special (let alone savingl) significance? Is it not perfectly clear in these passages that Paul does not expect everyone to speak in tongues (I Cor. 12:27-30)? Is it not clear that if tongues has any “sign” value, it is to unbelievers, not believers. (I Cor. 14:22-23)?
The Necessity of Keeping “the Standards”
The final aspect of the Oneness Pentecostal aberrant understanding of salvation has to do with the role which “the standards” play in the life of the believer. In the teaching of the United Pentecostal Church and most other Oneness groups, a believer is expected, as a matter of salvation, to adhere to the norms of the community (“the standards”). Hence, for example, it is usually taught in United Pentecostal churches that Christians must never drink alcohol, use tobacco, dance, listen to secular music, go to movies, or attend sporting events. It is, moreover, usually taught that women must never cut or even trim their hair, wear pants, makeup, jewelry, or short dresses.
What is most distinctive about the Oneness understanding of these practices is that they view them not as individual preferences, (which would be fine) but as requirements of salvation, part of what it means to be “holy.” Whether an individual personally sees the point of these prohibitions or not, they are expected to follow them. And any disconformity is perceived as being a manifestation of a rebellious spirit.
There are of course, moral absolutes taught in Scripture, ethical norms which every believer will move towards fulfilling as they grow in the Lord. And there are indeed particular practices which, while not prohibited in Scripture, certain individuals may decide are not wholesome to partake of. In such cases other Christians are called on to support such “weaker” brothers (Rom. 14).
But to make a certain set of behaviors a prerequisite for salvation — as though God held out on accepting a person until they were “holy enough” — goes against the most central teaching of the entire New Testament: we are saved by grace not works; salvation is a gift, not a reward (Eph. 2:8, Rom. 4:4). And to lay upon believers particular behaviors which are not taught in Scripture but which must be carried out as an aspect of one’s salvation flies directly in the face of the freedom which Christ purchased for us. It is a freedom which Paul insists we must “stand fast” in (Gal. 5:1-3, Col. 2:16-18).
Hopefully it is now clear to the reader that Oneness Pentecostals differ from ordinary evangelical Christians in more ways than simply their denial of the Trinity. Their understanding of salvation is aberrant as well. This is really to be expected, for the doctrine of the Trinity grounds the doctrine that we are saved by grace through faith, and this is why it has almost always been the case that groups which deny the Trinity end up with a sub-Christian legalistic understanding of salvation (e.g. Armstrongism, Jehovah’s Witnesses). Oneness Pentecostalism affords us one more example of this truth, and as such reconfirms once again the central importance of the Christian’s understanding of God as a Trinity.
Greg Boyd is assistant professor of Theology at Bethel College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He holds a Phd from Princeton Theological Seminary and is the author of Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity. (Baker Book House)