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What Difference Does it Make?

God is Love: Submission by Choice, Not by Default

At the centre of the Great Controversy is the devil’s accusation that God is not love; that He is a cruel, exacting, tyrant.

The statement that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8) is huge. It is not simply saying that God is capable of being loving. It is a definitive statement about God’s nature. God is love. God, being God, can, of course, make such a claim.

The philosophical, theological and doctrinal implications are enormous. There is a very strong philosophical argument based on this statement that God must always have had an object on which to bestow love. If not creatures, then there must have been plurality of Persons within the Godhead. But that is another subject.

It is unsurprising, then, that this statement, “God is love”, should be the subject of dispute and counter-claims right from the beginning of Creation until now.

There is a false teaching among some professed believers that teaches that when God the Father first exalted His Son, He was giving the Son entry into Divinity by inheritance. According to this teaching, the Son is not a truly co-eternal, co-equal Being, but a dependent subordinate, whom the Father had generated or begotten a long way back in eternity or in some mysterious pre-eternity.

This is actually very similar to Satan’s first accusation against God. When Satan attempted to usurp God’s throne, he was jealous of Christ, claiming that there was no essential difference between himself and God’s Son. He claimed that the Father was arbitrary in exalting the Son but not himself, Lucifer. His jealousy of Christ led him, and still leads him, to try to place himself in Christ’s elevated position, or failing that, to bring Christ’s position down to being a subordinate, derived being like himself.

“To dispute the supremacy of the Son of God, thus impeaching the wisdom and love of the Creator, had become the purpose of this prince of angels. To this object he was about to bend the energies of that master mind, which, next to Christ’s, was first among the hosts of God” (PP 36).

What was Satan specifically arguing? He was lifted up with self-exaltation (Is 14:12-14, Ezek 28:12-17), wanting to “be like the Most High” (Is 14:14). He argued that the glory given to Jesus was arbitrary and should be given to him, Lucifer.

If Christ was an installed deity (i.e., not having always been fully Divine), then Lucifer perhaps would have somewhat of an argument. However, Christ was not an installed Deity. He had not been generated by the Father and neither did He originate from the Father. Rather, since Christ’s pre-eminence was inherent, there was no change in His status:

“There had been no change in the position or authority of Christ. Lucifer’s envy and misrepresentation and his claims to equality with Christ had made necessary a statement of the true position of the Son of God; but this had been the same from the beginning. Many of the angels were, however, blinded by Lucifer’s deceptions” (PP 38).

Not surprisingly, Ellen White confirms the Bible, that: “Jesus Christ [is] the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” (Heb 13:8)

So Lucifer’s claims to supremacy alongside or ahead of the Son had no basis. Lucifer was a created being. The Son of God was the “self-existent” Creator, in whom was “life, original, unborrowed, underived” (DA 469, 530).

Now, the next part of Lucifer’s charge against God was that the law of God, the law of love, was arbitrary, unfair and “impossible for us to obey” (DA 24). Lucifer was able to deceive not only part of the angelic host, but also our first parents. Having influenced others to break God’s law, Lucifer’s final accusation was that God was not love, as He could not simultaneously be both just and merciful (see DA 761).

In the face of these significant accusations, and the breaking of His law, God’s response is nothing short of amazing – and reveals much about His nature.

It would take God Himself, the Creator and Law-Giver, to demonstrate that He is indeed love. This He did by paying the penalty for the broken law, in the person of Jesus, the Son of God, in place of those He created, who chose to rebel.

As noted above, there is a false teaching about God that teaches that when God gave His Son to die, He was not giving a truly co-eternal, co-equal Being, but that He was giving a dependent subordinate, whom the Father had generated or begotten a long way back in eternity or in some mysterious pre-eternity.

The way that God went about paying the penalty and revealing Himself to us – revealing that He is love – is worthy of much and repeated contemplation. If we are to understand, trust and believe that God truly is love, and place our allegiance on the side of God in the Great Controversy between good and evil, we need to be sure we are not deceived by the devil’s lies and accusations against the character and nature of God.

The devil would gladly have us believe that the supreme Deity gave a subordinate being as our sacrifice. This aids his accusation that God is not fair, and “that in requiring submission and obedience from His creatures, He was seeking merely the exaltation of Himself” (PP 42, cf DA 22). It would take the Creator of all life and the giver of the Divine law to pay the penalty.

“Since the divine law is as sacred as God Himself, only one equal with God could make atonement for its transgression” (PP 63).

“The angels…offered to become a sacrifice for man.  But an angel’s life could not pay the debt; only He who created man had power to redeem him” (PP 64-65; compare Rom 3:25; 5:1-21).

To believe that God gave us a derived and subordinate being as our sacrifice makes God indeed look the severe, unforgiving and self-exalting God that Satan accused Him of being (see DA 22). This belief makes the atonement look like some form of Divine child abuse, where an innocent Son is arbitrarily punished by His Father.

But the beautiful truth of the atonement is that God provides Himself as the sacrifice. In order to do that, the Son willingly chooses submission (see DA 22). This is true love, where there is freedom of choice. Subordination is by choice rather than by force or by default. (Where I say “by default”, I mean by virtue of a subordinate essential nature.) Only this way could the Godhead reveal the depth of love that we sum up simply by saying “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).

“Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again” (Jn 10:17).

“But he humbled himself, and took mortality upon him. As a member of the human family he was mortal, but as a God he was the fountain of life to the world. He could, in his divine person, ever have withstood the advances of death, and refused to come under its dominion; but he voluntarily laid down his life, that in so doing he might give life and bring immortality to light. He bore the sins of the world, and endured the penalty which rolled like a mountain upon his divine soul. He yielded up his life a sacrifice, that man should not eternally die. He died, not through being compelled to die, but by his own free will. This was humility. The whole treasure of heaven was poured out in one gift to save fallen man. He brought into his human nature all the life-giving energies that human beings will need and must receive” (RH, July 5, 1887 par. 5).

Our understanding and appreciation of Christ’s chosen self-subordination and condescension is very much weakened if our belief of Christ does not respect the fact that He already was fully God, fully supreme (Phil 2:5-11). If He was not already supremely God, we would always wonder whether in some way He was forced or defaulted into the role of sacrifice, rather than the reality, which is that “he humbled himself” (Phil 2:8).

“The earth was dark through misapprehension of God. That the gloomy shadows might be lightened, that the world might be brought back to God, Satan’s deceptive power was to be broken. This could not be done by force. The exercise of force is contrary to the principles of God’s government; He desires only the service of love; and love cannot be commanded; it cannot be won by force or authority. Only by love is love awakened. To know God is to love Him; His character must be manifested in contrast to the character of Satan. This work only one Being in all the universe could do. Only He who knew the height and depth of the love of God could make it known. Upon the world’s dark night the Sun of Righteousness must rise, “with healing in His wings.” Mal. 4:2″ (DA 22).

So not only philosophically, but also very practically, the truth-claim that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8) works for a unity of Divine Persons who are eternally equal and choose to love and cooperate. There is not nearly as much credibility in a response to the devil’s accusations if there is only one Supreme Deity who begets another subordinate Deity who obtains attributes of Deity only by inheritance. This errant belief does not speak of love nearly so eloquently.

In sum, “God is love” is most eloquently revealed through Jesus’ willing incarnation and self-sacrifice as part of the co-equal triune Godhead’s selfless work for our salvation.

Unity in Diversity: Role Differentiation with Essential Equality

[A side technical note: In this section we are talking about real role differences: valid and meaningful differences in function, role or ‘office’, to use the word more commonly used by Ellen White. We are certainly not talking about pretending or play-acting, as is suggested by some in setting up a flawed ‘straw-man’ argument.]

The united, relational, functionally diverse and outward focused nature of the Godhead gives us a glimpse of the full potential of the natures we were given at Creation:

“(26) And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (27) So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen 1:26,27).

Genesis says that male and female are created in the image of God. The fact that plural pronouns are used suggests that God’s plurality is part of what we were modelled after.

When God created the two genders, He did not create one as essentially subordinate to the other. That is, male and female are equals, albeit with different natures leading to natural role differentiation. But one is not the originator, owner, parent or supreme authority over the other. Gender role differences are modelled after the role differences in the Godhead: willing submission out of love and free choice, not dependent submission of necessity.

The difference is love versus control. God designed us as social beings to interrelate – to love and be loved. Interrelationship always involves submission – give and take – for any social structure of more than one person to have harmony. But God designed for that submission to be based on a free choice of love.

This is functional and chosen subordination rather than essential (or ontological) subordination. Essential (or ontological) subordination of woman to man, if it existed, would rob a marriage of love and happiness. But when a wife chooses to functionally submit, out of love, and because of the love given by her husband, a much greater quality of love and happiness is possible as God intended.

In our wider social engagement, functional subordination is everywhere evident. Police officers are not inherently superior beings. But if we want to avoid a criminal record and punishment, we respect the functional authority they are given. The police force is not simply role-playing. They are performing a role that, as a society, we appreciate and respect.

Similarly, at our local church, we may be elected to church office. For this to work, there is hierarchy and functional subordination. But never essential subordination, as a deacon can become the head elder at a future date. The roles are not simply role-played. They are God-ordained roles that we take on with reverence and respect. The submission that the church makes to allow these offices to take effect is submission out of choice, motivated by love, so as to arrive at true unity. Submission is not by default, because of essential superiority, or with no choice.

It should hardly be surprising, then, that Ellen White actually talks about the roles in the Godhead in a similar way:

“Had God the Father come to our world and dwelt among us, humbling Himself, veiling His glory, that humanity might look upon Him, the history that we have of the life of Christ would not have been changed…. In every act of Jesus, in every lesson of His instruction, we are to see and hear and recognize God. In sight, in hearing, in effect, it is the voice and movements of the Father” (TMK 338).

The triune nature of God reveals to us our identity and value in relationship. We are defined by our relationships to a much more significant extent than merely by our individuality or by our separateness. Western thought, on the other hand, is very individual-centred. God as a singularity, however that is conceived, is not the God that the Bible presents.

The triune nature of God speaks powerfully to us as to how we are always defined and humanised by our relationships. To sever a relationship is not to “find ourselves” or to find freedom!

Serving a master, authority or head, as a submerged personality, can be easier than giving and receiving true love between equals. Our human nature resists true freedom. We are easily drawn to a servant-master type of relationship. This is easier for our fallen natures to gravitate toward. Understanding love that gives itself willingly, and not because of dependence or servitude, is a more difficult concept to grasp and live out. In marriage it is easier to revert to parent-child relationships in marriage than love between equals as free choice. Rather than being given by a supposed superior Father, Jesus offered a free gift of love by willingly choosing to give up Himself for us.

Over-reaction to Liberalism: Inevitable Legalism

There are many in today’s church who sense that the church has abandoned its core and unique beliefs, values and identity, and opted for a weakened ecumenical position on many key doctrinal and practical issues. Their response is to try to identify our historic beliefs, values and identity in contradistinction to mainstream tradition, adopting as closely as possible the beliefs held by our pioneers.

While there is a lot that makes sense about sticking to our core and unique beliefs, values and identity, we need to be wiser in determining the criteria for sorting out what is truth, tradition and error. It only makes sense that the devil would lay traps for the unwary as they seek to respond to what may be a legitimate concern.

Pre-1888 Adventism tended to be quite legalistic. Ellen White commented: “We have been at work on the law until we get as dry as the hills of Gilboa, without dew or rain. Let us trust in the merits of Jesus” (1888, 557). The focus was on Jesus as our Exemplar (not fully divine) rather than as our Redeemer (for which full divinity is a necessary qualification). This legalistic approach fitted well the Arian and semi-Arian views of the day.

Usually, non-triune views of the Godhead have Jesus attaining His position alongside the throne due to His achievement. Fountarian teaching has turned this the other way, emphasising relationship over performance, but the net result is still the same. Fountarianism is not a new teaching, it’s just a new skin for Arianism.

Seventh-day Adventism without acceptance of the triune Godhead would become a legalistic cult. It would tend toward Islam with a focus on exacting justice over mercy, where Jesus is just a messenger and exemplar, rather than our substitute and surety.

Is the Trinity a Deception of Satan?

If the “Trinity” doctrine is a deception of Satan that he has used to deceive and derail God’s people, then it would be very important to unveil the deception and promote the truth. Many have argued that teachings opposed to their own are part of an elaborate conspiracy of the devil to do just that: to deceive and eternally damn otherwise honest seekers after truth.

It is indeed quite likely that all erroneous teachings are part of the devil’s plans to separate as many as he can from God’s salvation. However, an elaborate explanation of how this belief or that belief is part of the devil’s plan does not constitute primary evidence for or against a particular viewpoint for the following reasons:

  1. Truth and error are often hard to tell apart on a number of fronts, as error does not usually converge around one consistent picture. So it is very risky to come to conclusions on the nature of truth by proposing a narrative that explains what may be perceived as error.
  2. There is a strong risk of using straw men arguments to mix in some obvious error as well as truth into something that is labelled as deception in its entirety and thus rejected in its entirety.
  3. Narratives explaining the devil’s plans in deceiving people run the risk of being part of the devil’s plans in themselves: the devil would gladly have us think that we know all of his devices when we simply do not.
  4. Narratives attempting to explain the devil’s deceptions often fail to engage with the core evidence of what is the truth of the doctrinal matter. If someone can propose how a particular “Trinity” doctrine may be part of the devil’s plans to deceive people, that hardly constitutes “evidence” in comparison to inspired writings that shed truth as to the character and nature of God.

Ignoring The Holy Spirit’s Personal Role at our Own Peril

The Holy Spirit is a personal presence in our lives and not simply a mystic force. What He does for us is nothing short of breath-taking. He makes “intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom 8:26). He guides us into all truth (John 16:13), and convicts us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). He changes our lives (2 Cor 3:18) so that we bear fruits of righteousness (Gal 5:22,23). He leads us in our Christian walk so that we become sons and daughters of God (Rom 8:14). And He empowers our witness (Acts 1:8).

All of this amazing work for our salvation does not deserve to be rewarded with a denial of His existence. Little wonder that we are told that even if someone should speak “a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (Matt 12:32).

And God wants to pour out His Spirit in the latter rain (Joel 2:23-29) to light the whole world with His glory (Rev 18:1). Another warning is given in the parable of the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13) about neglecting the gift of God’s Spirit.

Why reward the Holy Spirit for His most active and personal role on behalf of our salvation and witness with a denial of His existence, especially in face of these most solemn warnings? To suggest that the Holy Spirit is simply the presence of Christ is grossly misunderstanding the Scriptures and Spirit of Prophecy, and makes nonsense of the above warning.

The Holy Spirit is a wonderful Comforter whose personal existence deserves to be embraced! (See John 14:16, Luke 11:13.)