Previous article in this series: January 15, 2022, p. 181.
An error regarding the Trinity is being taught today in a number of books on practical matters. A person might pick up what is considered a conservative book on marriage and find instruction about the triune God that is fundamentally wrong.
The specific error we have been considering is sometimes called EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination). It is the teaching that within the Trinity the second Person is submissive to the first, and the third Person is submissive to both the first and the second Persons. In the previous article I gave a brief overview and critique of this doctrine. In this concluding article on the subject we consider a few verses that have been said to support EFS.
At the beginning of the previous article it was mentioned that doctrinal errors are used by God to get us to look more closely at what He has taught us in Scripture. With that in mind we look at these passages not just to point out what they do not teach, but also to consider the important instruction our Lord gives us in these verses.
The two wills
In an effort to prove that the Son within the Trinity eternally submits to the Father, those holding to EFS seek to find places in Scripture where the divine will of the Son is distinguished from the divine will of the Father. What they find are statements that indicate that Christ’s human will is distinct from the will of the triune God.
John 6:38, for example, is sometimes quoted. Here the Son says that He came to do His Father’s will: “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.”
The claim is that this verse speaks of the Son obeying the Father before He had a human nature:
Again, Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Again we see that Jesus’ obedience to the Father occurred prior to his incarnation, and this prior obedience accounts for the very incarnation itself.1
This verse, they say, speaks of the Son obeying the Father before He had a human will. So, they argue, it must be referring to His divine will.
Yet Ware is mistaken when he says that this verse speaks of the Son submitting before He had a human nature. Our Lord came down from heaven. He took upon Himself human flesh, so that as a man He could offer the perfect sacrifice for sins in submission to the Father.
Jesus was speaking of what He would do after He took upon Himself our flesh, not before. This is evident also from another passage in which our Lord explains why He is come: “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Christ came “to give his life a ransom for many.” Certainly this took place after He had taken upon Himself the human nature. His act of “giving His life” is something He did according to the flesh. He took upon Himself the human nature that He might lay down His life for His brethren. The
Father sending the Son
Those holding to EFS sometimes quote passages such as John 8:42, which speaks of the Father sending the Son: “Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.” Regarding this verse, Wayne Grudem writes,
The same argument can be made from John 8:42…. The Father willed to send the Son, and the Son willed to be sent. These are not the same, because the Son did not will to send the Father, and the Father did not will to be sent. There are several other verses like this, especially in John’s gospel.2
In his commentary on this verse, Calvin rightly says that Christ “is not speaking of His essence but of His office.”
In other words, in this passage and other similar ones Jesus speaks of Himself as the Christ, the Son of God in human flesh. Christ means “anointed one” and refers to Jesus as the one ordained of God the Father and anointed with the Spirit to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, our only High Priest, and our eternal King (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 12).
Here again Christ speaks of Himself as a man. The unbelieving Jews accused Him of being a pretender who came of Himself without being sent by God. Over against that false accusation Christ declares, “I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.”
Jesus often referred to Himself as a man. For sure, He also made statements that made quite clear that He was God. He confessed, for example, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Yet He was and still is a real man. When speaking to others while on this earth, He frequently referred to Himself as the Son of man who is always submissive to the Father.
Imitating our Lord
Let us take a look at a couple more of the verses that are sometimes cited by those holding to EFS, considering now the important instruction our Lord gives us in these passages.
Our Lord said, “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30).
Jesus’ judgment is just because He seeks not His own will. In other words, if we seek our own will, our judgment will not be just. In times of disagreement and controversy men often seek their own will, and thus make unjust judgments.
This is something against which we all must be on our guard. We know that sinful anger, envy, and desire for revenge are causes of murder. When we think we have been wronged, we must beware lest we fall into these sins. If we give in to them, our judgments will not be just. They will be unjust, because we will be seeking our own will, rather than the will of our heavenly Father.
Jesus did not do this. He always took heed to what the Father said and did according to His will. When He was reviled, He reviled not again. When He suffered, “he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (I Pet. 2:23).
We, then, are called to imitate Him. The Son of God who died for us also leads us by His example. We are to look at the Son of God in human flesh, see what He did, and do the same.
Consider also the instruction our Lord gives in John 7 verses 16 and following. Speaking to some opposing Jews, our Lord said, “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him” (John 7:16a-18).
Jesus here is talking about whether His doctrine “be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” This serves to make very evident that again He is referring to Himself as a man.
Let us take note of the instruction our Lord gives us in this passage. He tells us that those who truly seek God’s glory, rather than their own, will speak not their own ideas but the doctrine that is of God.
That is what Christ did. Seeking God’s glory, He faithfully taught what God says.
We, then, are to follow His example. If we are seeking the glory of God, we will not be trying to impress people with our own ideas. Rather, we will be looking to God’s Word, requesting grace to understand what He taught, that we might then faithfully confess what we have learned from Him.
Our chief Prophet and Teacher has told us that those who desire to do the will of God will be guided to understand what the truth is. Those who pray from the heart “Hallowed be Thy name” are expressing a desire to know God rightly and to glorify His name (LD 47). Our Father in heaven will certainly grant our request when we pray this from the heart. He will guide us to grow in our understanding of the truth, that we might teach what He taught and confess before men that the doctrine our Lord has taught us is indeed the truth of the Word of God.
The passages we have briefly considered give us instruction concerning Christ, the Servant of Jehovah, who is the example of godly submission. Him we are always to follow. We are to seek not our own will, not our own glory, but the glory and will of our Father in heaven. When that is what we seek, when His glory is our goal, then our teaching will be what God has said and our judgments will be just. May our merciful and faithful Father grant us the grace to do that. May we be diligent in all our work to follow the example our Lord has given us. May we humbly search the Scriptures and joyfully labor in His service, submitting to the will of the holy and triune God.
1 Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 78.
2 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 307.