You are here

14. Perfection: Oneness


– Chapter 14 –

Perfection: Oneness

“that they all may be one …

that they also may be one in us …

that they may be one just as we are one …

that they may be made perfect in one”

(John 17:21-23, NKJV)


These words are spoken by Jesus in what is called his “high priestly prayer,” in which he makes profound and strik­ing state­ments. The prayer becomes exceed­ingly mean­ingful when we examine it in the context of perfect­ion. It is important to remember that perfection is not achievable in our own strength. With­out God’s grace and power, perfection would be so unattain­able that it would be pointless for us to even talk about it. But because it is God’s will that we be perfect, and because He is the Father of mercies (2Cor. 1:3) who gives us the power to do His will, we have no reason for not striving towards it.

In this chapter we look at another important aspect of perfection: oneness. Oneness is a synonym of perfection, as can be seen from the following parallels:

Be perfect as He is perfect

Be holy as He is holy

Be merciful as He is merciful

Be one as He is one

We have considered the first three; let us turn our attention to the fourth, “Be one as He is one”. But before expounding it, we need to grasp four vital points regarding perfection as they apply to oneness in particular.


Part One: Four Main Points on Perfection

First: Perfection is part of salvation

Paul says, “To this end (to present everyone perfect in Christ, v.28) I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Col.1:29). Paul doesn’t shrink from using words such as “labor” or “struggle” which the church avoids because they remind us of “works”.

What is Paul aiming for in toiling and striving with all his might? To present everyone “perfect” in Christ (v.28). If salvation is little more than regen­eration, why would Paul work so hard to bring believers to perfect­ion? He could simply say to the newly saved, “I wish you the best. You’re on your own now.”

In the prevailing situation today, what do churches do for the spiritual growth of the newly baptized? In most cases, nothing. Young Christians would be told to attend church and get involved in church activities, but generally there is no program of teach­ing or training for building them up step by step. Solid Biblical teach­ing is hard to find, so how will young Christians be built up spiritually through God’s word? And if the essential ingre­dient of oneness is missing in the spiritual life of a church, how can one grow up to spiritual perfection or maturity in that kind of environment?

Perfection has for the most part disappeared from the teaching on salva­tion. Instead there is a scornful or derisive tone about perfection­ism or perfectionists, concepts that have nothing to do with the Biblical teaching of perfection. (See the Appended Note at the end of this chapter on the difference between perfection and perfectionism.)

God’s word has been given to us so that we may grow up to salvation (1Pet.2:2). Salvation has to do with growth, and growth is the evidence of the vigor of life. Growth is a process, just as salvation is a process rather than a one-time event. In the process of spiritual growth, we “grow up to salvation” with its goal being perfection or Christ-likeness. Paul says that “we are to grow up in all aspects into him, who is the head, even Christ” (Eph.4:15).

If we are born of God, we would be “partakers of the divine nature” (2Pet.1:4), which is holy and merciful. Hence regeneration will inevit­ably take us on the road to perfection.

Second: Perfection is not a matter of deliberate policy

Secondly, the progress towards perfection (whether as holiness, mercy or oneness) is not a calculated course of action that we decide to take, but a spontaneous expression of the new life in Christ. It is not an ethical policy but something that stems from an inner spiritual dynamic of the new life by which holiness and mercy become part of our nature. This distinction is vital. Occasionally I might show intentional mercy and give a few dollars to a beggar, making me feel good. An act of mercy doesn’t necess­arily stem from a merciful nature, but from my generous mood today, or from my belief that I should, as a mat­ter of policy, show kindness from time to time because “it is good for my soul” or it is good in some way. The old ego is also capable of producing a few acts of generosity when it serves its purpose to do so.

But if we are truly regenerate, mercy will flow naturally from our innermost being. Having been born anew, we are moved by the Spirit to be merciful. It doesn’t depend on any calcu­lated intention on our part. Regeneration has transformed me into a new person with a new nature, and now I am merciful because of that new nature in me. It is not the result of a calculation that goodness or holi­ness is a good social policy, or good for my mental health.

Most people agree that mercifulness is good. We can aspire to holi­ness for personal reasons, but if we don’t have true inner holiness, we are no better than the Pharisees who have decided that holiness, or the appearance of it, serves a social purpose. The Pharisees think that it is good for them to be seen praying in public (Mt.6:1,5). Piety has its social rewards, especially in a relig­ious society (as Israel was at that time). But this kind of piety doesn’t stem from regeneration.

In talking about perfection, we are not promoting a human ideal that we think is good and desirable. Perfection is indeed a good ideal, but that is not why we press towards it. It is because we have been born anew, and consequently God’s power im­pels us in the direction of perfection. As Paul puts it, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil.2:13). One chapter later, he says, “I press on toward the goal” (3:14).

The pursuit of Christ-like perfection is the evidence of regenerat­ion. Paul says, “Let a man examine himself” (1Cor.11:28) — including whether he is regenerate. The question is not whether you think holi­ness is good. Every Christian agrees with that, but what counts is that a person has been made holy and merciful because God’s Spirit has come into him, chang­ing his nature and giving him an inner dynamic that moves him “to will and to work for His good pleasure”.

A regenerate person, because he has God’s life in him, will seek all the qualities of the divine nature comprehended in the word “perfect­ion”. As a partaker of the divine nature, the divine qualities now reside in him in nascent form and are in the process of growing. Conversely, anyone who feels a strong inner resistance to holiness, mercy, oneness, or perfection, ought to let the Lord examine him to see if he has been born anew.

If we have God’s life in us, wouldn’t we feel that He is at work in us that we pray for the oneness of His people? And isn’t this evident in Jesus’ prayer to the Father in John 17 when he prays for the oneness of those who belong to God, which is also a central concern of His Father?

Third: Perfection involves fruit-bearing

In John 15, Jesus talks about bearing fruit. The word “fruit” occurs eight times in this chapter alone. Hence we live for the purpose of bearing fruit. Linking this to our previous point, fruit-bearing must also come from an inner dynamic. It is the inner life that causes a branch to bear fruit. Fruit-bearing doesn’t depend on the branch’s calculated conclusion that fruit-bearing is a good ideal.

If a branch fails to bear fruit, it will be thrown out and cast into the fire (John 15:6). It is a solemn warning that a branch that fails to bear fruit has failed to fulfill its purpose of being a branch. If it fails to pass on life, it will be cut off. Being a part of the vine does not automatically guarantee a permanent place in the vine.

Perfection is the transmission of God’s life through us to others. God has given us what we could call a “transmissive life” — a life that is trans­mitted or passed on to others. Let us ask ourselves whether or not we are branches that draw life into ourselves, giving nothing and produc­ing nothing, reminding us of the Dead Sea into which water flows but none flows out. Its water is said to be “dead” because it remains stagnant in the Dead Sea.

From John 15 we see that life (salvation) is transmissive. If we seek salvation solely for our own benefit, keeping it to ourselves, we won’t have it in the end. We wish that every evangelist would tell his listeners, “Do you want to be saved? Good! But if you selfishly keep salvation for yourself, or keep God’s love to yourself without channel­ing it to others, you won’t be saved.”

On the authority of God’s word, we can be sure that no one will be saved who fails to fulfill the transmissive principle of the new life in Christ, and to become a channel of God’s love and life to others. The one who is concerned solely with his own salvation will be excluded from it. That is the Lord’s clear teaching. “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, He takes away … [such branches are] thrown away … cast into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:2,6).

A vine does not produce individual fruits but clusters or bunches of fruit. A single grape comes from a cluster of many grapes. The fruit of the Spirit is a cluster of nine fruits; that is why the word “fruit” is in the singular (Gal.5:22,23). The fruit of the Spirit is the fruit that the Spirit bears in us, not the fruit we bear from ourselves. The fruit we are called to bear is encapsulated in the words, “Go and make disciples” (Mt.28:19). Disciples form small units like clusters of grapes that grow together in oneness in the vine and its branches.

(1) The self-absorbed and materialistic mentality

What militates so strongly against oneness in the church of God is that many Christians in this genera­tion are more selfish than many non-Christians. Most Christ­ians are preoccupied with them­selves, their own blessings, their own salvation. Many Christian songs emphasize “me”. When I was looking for a hymn on the theme of passing on God’s love to others, I could not find one, neither in the Scripture index nor the subject index of the hymn book. The nearest title I could find was Channels Only.

We see ourselves as the main recipients of God’s salva­tion: “Hallelujah! God loves me and saves me and blesses me!” When this attitude pervades the church, it will breed people who are so selfish as to think that they don’t exist for God, but God exists for them. We fear for a Christian who has this kind of attitude because that person may be left without a share in eternal life. But the concern for people’s salvation ought to be universal. Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1John 2:2).

In his earthly ministry, Jesus never gave a thought for him­self. After fasting forty days in the wilderness, he refused to turn one stone into bread to feed himself. In our thinking, it would have been reason­able for Jesus to use God’s power to satisfy his hunger; yet he refused to use it for his own benefit. When the multitudes were hungry — 5,000 men on one occasion, 4,000 on another, along with women and children — Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish for them, not for himself. This is transmissive love.

(2) Who is following whom?

If we claim to be disciples of Jesus, what kind of Lord do we think we are following? Do we follow him, or do we treat him as following us? When we go on a road trip, does “I am with you always” (Mt.28:20) mean that we do things accord­ing to his will, or does it mean that he accompanies us to provide for our needs, protect us on the road, and take us to our destination on time? Who is following whom? Who is the Master and who is the servant?

Many Christian television programs preach a self-centered gospel with unabashed temerity. They are watched daily by millions in North Amer­ica. God is there to do our bidding, to give us money, a car, a house, and a good life, provided that we have “faith”. The preacher would hold up his Bible and quote verses out of context to demonstrate his point.

This kind of teaching appeals to the natural man. Churches are filled with those who want to get things from God. This kind of “faith” makes it seem as if God is obliged to give us whatever we want and to make us prosperous.

Despite the Bible waving during the preaching, this kind of “faith” has nothing in common with New Testament faith. The stark contrast comes out in Paul’s statement that “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith” (1Tim.6:10). His personal motto is, “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal.6:14)

Those who follow God don’t need to be anxious about their mater­ial needs, for our merciful God is totally committed to us. He cares for our every need when we follow Him. So how can anyone who has received God’s love and has gazed upon the cross of Jesus will still be preoccupied with pursuing his or her personal interests?

At the cross where the Son of God gave himself for us, we see the power­ful evidence of his total commitment to us. His commitment to us is the vital first half of the story of our salvation. The other half is the call to us to be totally commit­ted to God and His Son, a call to deny ourselves and follow God: to bring His eter­nal life to a world perishing in sin, and make disciples of all nations.

Fourth: Perfection is commanded

Perfection is essential because it is commanded by the Lord. Even if we don’t understand our first three points on perfection, we are obliged to be perfect because Jesus himself calls us to it. True believers will obey his commands without hesitation. Scripture speaks of the “obed­ience of faith” (Rom.1:5; 16:26). Conversely, disobed­ience negates faith.

Many Christians “believe” the gospel in some intellectual sense, but do not obey it. But God will “deal out retribution” to “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2Th.1:8). There will be judgment on “those who do not obey the gospel of God” (1Pet.4:17).

From these verses, it is clear that the Gospel is not just to be believed but to be obeyed. That is because it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the Lord. It is by being under his lordship that we are freed from the dominion of sin, and become new persons in him. If we should ever stop living under his lordship, we would fall back into the bondage of sin. But having been freed from the grip of sin, we gladly obey his commands as we live in fellowship with him.

Those who don’t obey God show thereby that they don’t have the “obedience of faith”. Obedience is integral to, and is a vital constituent of, the saving faith which is mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Do we think we will enter heaven on our own terms? Are we printing our own tickets to heaven because God’s ticket is too costly? Many Christians have printed their own tickets to heaven with their own terms in fine print. On that day, they will know at “the gates of heaven” whether their tickets are valid or not.

Many years ago before the start of the high-tech age, I was in a store in the Hong Kong district of Tsimshatsui, when some American tour­ists walked in. They handed over some cash, and the salesperson took out an instrument to scan an Amer­ican bank note. A light turned on. The Americans were impressed, and asked him what the gadget was. He explained, “This device can tell whether a bank note is genuine or counterfeit. If it’s genuine, the device lights up. If it’s counterfeit, it doesn’t light up.” These Americans had never seen anything like this before, not even in America, nor had I seen one myself. Most people would hold a bank note up to the lights, but that is unreliable in this age of sophisticated counterfeiting.


Part Two: Perfect in Oneness

1. “Perfected into one”

Let us now consider John 17:23:

I in them, and You in me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent me, and have loved them as You have loved me. (John 17:23)

In these profound words, Jesus prays that God’s people may become “perfect in one” (literally “perfected into one”), that they may be­come perfect­ly one, and that the world will know that the Father has sent the Son, and has loved His people as He has loved Jesus! This is an amazing statement: The Father loves us as He loves Jesus, His most precious Son!

The fact that God’s love for us sinners could be mentioned in parallel with His love for His Son, in one sentence, is staggering. This astounding truth is demonstrated by the cross of Jesus, the place where God gave His own Son for our redemption. God’s perfect love for His people is what binds us into becoming “perfect in one”.

Since we are the object of God’s infinite self-giving love, wouldn’t that make our self-love redundant? The vast ocean of God’s love can fill our little cup of self, but will never be contained within it. Selfish­ness is therefore pointless. God’s love can fill everyone in the body of Christ, yet cannot be contained by all of us put together. If we could empty ourselves by pouring out that love to others, we would be instantly refilled!

God’s people are to be one as He is one. That is parallel to what we have been discussing all along: be holy as He is holy, be merciful as He is merciful, be perfect as He is perfect — be one as He is one. These four are similar in principle but the last one is different from the others in that it is not stated as a command but as a prayer for God’s people, that they may be brought into oneness through His indwelling presence in them — “I in them” (John 17:23).

Every quality is possible in us through God’s indwelling presence, but this prayer shows that God’s presence is linked specifi­cally to oneness. Since oneness is the measure of God’s presence in us, all the other qualities in us depend for their fulfillment on His oneness in us.

The other parallels (be holy, be merciful) become realities in us only insofar as His indwelling presence is able (i.e., not hindered by us) to draw us into an ever-stronger oneness with God and with each other. Conversely, if the oneness in God’s people is weak, then holiness, mercy, and the other qualities of His nature in them will be proportionately weak.

2. Perfection is communal, not individual

In speaking of unity, I am still addressing the crucial topic of perfect­ion. The two are linked together in the following im­portant point: Perfection is a communal endeavor, not just a personal matter. There can be no perfection without oneness. When we think of perfection, we tend to think of a solitary indiv­idual striving for perfect­ion. There is some truth to this, but not the whole truth. That is because perfection in Scripture is a communal matter, a view that is contrary to the pre­vailing understanding today. It has become a cliché among evangelicals to speak of a “personal” salvation or a “personal” Savior, which cater to our egoistic individualism. Today we have personal checks, personal computers, personal every­thing.

The term “personal salvation” is fine if it is understood as expressing the need for each person to get right with God. It is right to emphasize the need for a personal, direct, and living re­lationship with the living God in regard to salvation.

The importance of correct emphasis

The stress on the personal in all areas of the Christian life to the neglect of the communal is as disturbing as it is wrong because the emphasis in Script­ure is quite the reverse. Scripture constantly stresses the com­munal, that we are one body in Christ, that we share in one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph.4:4-6), emphasizing what we have in common rather than what is personal. In John 17, Jesus prays for the oneness in the community of his disciples as a whole.

Yesterday I was reading on the history of church dogma, and what I read shows the importance of what one stresses. The writer, a German professor, in his now classic work on the history of dogma, says that the difference between Calvin and Luther is fundament­ally a difference of emphasis. Calvin stresses law and decrees as well as God’s plan in predestination, but Luther stresses God’s love for man. That is a vital difference, and the writer argues that Luther is closer to the Scrip­tural emphasis than is Calvin.[1]

What you emphasize is very important because it will, in the long term, affect the way you think and behave. If we keep on stressing the personal, this can only lead to individualism at the expense of oneness and community. “I will do what I think is right!”

Spiritual lessons from world events

In the seventies and eighties, many were intrigued by the strength of the Japanese economy. (It declined later on, but this was mainly in the 21st century.) The strength of the Japanese nation lay exactly here, in the stress on the communal rather than the individual (though that may be changing due to Western in­fluence). The West was mystified that the Japanese could go from strength to strength when the once power­ful West German economy was struggling with defi­cits and economic problems. They looked across the globe and said, “Japan used to lag behind Ger­many, but now it has reached Germany’s level, even surpassing it in some areas.”

The economic problems in the West were partly the result of an ongoing series of strikes pressing for better pay and better benefits. In some cases, the companies affected by strikes were already on the verge of financial collapse, but the strikers put their personal bene­fits first, jeopardizing the survival of the companies.

In the United Kingdom where we lived for many years, there was a time when there were strikes, strikes, and more strikes! A garbage collectors’ strike created mountains of garbage everywhere. If you ask the workers if they care about the community, the answer would be: “With the rising cost of living we need more pay.” Then the nurses went on strike, and many others followed suit. We do, of course, sympathize with the financial needs of all who work for a living. That is not the issue. But do we solve problems by insisting on my personal needs and rights irrespective of its impact on the community?

But the Japanese function communally, usually within the context of the companies they work for. When a company’s financial situation improves through revenue growth, it will be in a position to raise the individual’s sal­ary. The in­div­idual will do better and better all the time. He knows that his well-being is tied to that of his company; that is why he is loyal to his company, and doesn’t want to destroy it with strikes. As the company does better, he does better. (The problems that later plagued the Japanese economy have been much debated, and have been blamed on various factors, but never to my knowledge on the Japanese sense of community.)

In saying this, we have no intention of endorsing one social system over another. But we must express alarm when we see that the church is con­forming to the individualistic mentality that is so pervasive in the West. It is a mortal danger for the church to conform to the world.

If individualism is the way to go, we church ministers ought to form a union! When the church deals unfairly with us, we will go on strike and teach the people a lesson: “You talk about personal salvat­ion? Let’s talk about my personal salary. If you don’t give me a raise, I will go on strike! Next Sun­day you will have no minister. Want to get baptized? No pay, no baptism!”

Few pastors would put it as bluntly as that, but this sentiment is actually quite prevalent, even if expressed in more discreet lang­uage. They may put the matter before the church committee in this way: “My pay is inadequate by the standards of society, so let’s give ourselves a month to adjust it. As reasonable people, we will handle it in a reasonable manner. But if you don’t come up with a raise by next month, please be aware that other churches are looking for a minister like me.” It boils down to personal benefit. What happens to the church is second­ary. I am not exagger­ating. A pastor personally known to me promptly left the church he was serving in when presented with an attractive offer from another church. He did this even though his church was left without a pastor and could not find one for a long time.

Is holiness mainly an individual attainment in Scripture?

When it comes to holiness, the Bible likewise stresses the com­munal, not the personal. Yet some think that they need to isolate them­selves (in a monastery, for example) to attain personal perfection. “I’ll lock myself in a room. Don’t disturb me until I become holy.” He turns his back on everyone, shuts the door, and pursues holiness. The intention may seem right, but the approach is wrong because we are to grow in holiness together.

Paul says, “The whole body (the church), supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (Col.2:19) — a description of spiritual growth, not numerical growth.

God causes the individual member and the Body to grow toget­her such that the individual grows in holiness in tandem with the Body. This stands in contrast to the notion of a solitary “holy man” who gets along fine by himself apart from the rest of the Body of Christ.[2]

If God’s life and God’s love are transmissive, they will flow out to others. The spiritual life by its nature cannot be a solely individual mat­ter. As my life grows in holiness, it will affect someone else. That person will in turn show me brotherly love, causing me to grow even more. This is the interchange of life, the essence of life in one body. We grow together as one body or we don’t grow as we ought to. That is why we are disturbed by the almost universal cancerous disease of individual­ism which is innate to the natural man.

3. Becoming overcomers together

Let us recall that holiness, in Biblical teaching, is not the eradication of sin from our lives, neither in the individual nor in the church, but the victorious overcoming of sin. We wrestle with the reality of sin every day, both on the individual level and as a community, but we overcome sin by drawing on God’s power and living by His grace.

Grace doesn’t come into our lives only once, as a one-time event when we believed in Jesus. On the contrary, we live by grace day by day, moment by moment. Salva­tion is indeed by grace alone, but it is not a one-time event of grace. It is a grace that continues unceasingly through our earthly pilgrim­age, helping us to overcome sin.

The Bible, notably in Revelation, depicts the Christian as one who “overcomes”. Each of the letters to the seven churches mentions over­coming (Rev.2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21). The true Christian over­comes sin. For the church it means that we fight sin together. There is no need to pretend that we are holier than we really are. Pretense will only deprive us of help and prayer support because people will be unaware of our problems and needs. We don’t need to pretend that we are holier than the next guy. He is fighting sin as I am. If we fight the battle shoulder to shoulder, we will win together.

That is the beauty of life in the body. We say to one another, “This is my weakness, what is yours?” As we become one in Christ, we will win the battle together. Oneness is achieved by an open attitude to one another, shar­ing the realization that the battle is not won individually but together. Paul speaks of striving for the faith “side by side” (ESV) in one mind and one spirit (Phil.1:27). Isn’t that a beautiful picture?

Which is the most difficult sin to overcome? Isn’t it our natural inclination towards selfishness in all its forms: our persistent concern for our own interests, our pride or self-pity, our insisting on our own ways and opinions, our impatience with others, our critical spirit, and our incon­siderateness?

4. Three aspects of oneness

There are three vital aspects to oneness, and these summarize Jesus’ teaching in John 17. The three are: our relationship to God, our relationship to one another, and our relationship to the world.

First: Our relationship with God

John 17 depicts our relationship with God in terms of one­ness with God: “That they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may be in us” (v.21) — the Father in Jesus, Jesus in the Father, and we disciples in God and the Son of God.

Oneness with God is an internal unity with Him, a unity of spirits. People often think of unity in an organizational sense, but true unity takes place at the deepest level of the spirit. Oneness with God, which takes place on the spiritual level, is something that God draws us into. It is not something that we attain by our own efforts. Jesus says, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). He draws us into an intimate union with him­self: “I in them, they in me.” The one is in the other. It involves the deepest possible inner communication. You and I are united only because we are one with God and the Son of God.

If we are one with the Lord Jesus, we will know his mind. This is brought out in First Corinthians, especially in the noteworthy state­ment, “We have the mind of Christ” (2:16). The term “the mind of Christ” appears nowhere else in the New Testament. If we have the mind of Christ, we would under­stand his way of thinking and doing things. How else can we pray to God according to His will unless we pray with the same mind in which Jesus prays to the Father?

Do you have a hard time praying? In the case of most Christians, the answer is “yes” in all likelihood. How can we pray if we don’t have oneness with God? Prayer would be meaningless if we cannot communicate with Him. On the human level, it is frustrating to talk with someone who is on a different wavelength. He says one thing but you take it to mean something else. So he says, “That’s not what I meant.” But you say, “That’s exactly what you said. How do I inter­pret your statement apart from the words you use?” Communication breaks down when one party says something but the other party understands it differently. Eventually one side will say, “I’ll go watch TV because at least the TV won’t argue with me.” Man’s best friend is the television set because it never talks back. You can pound on it, and it won’t hit back. Entertainment comes out of the box non-stop. If you don’t like one channel, you can switch to another. With hundreds of channels, that’s is enough to keep you entertained.

Do we commune with God, or are we on different wavelengths from Him? Unless we are one with Him in heart and mind, with our wills united and harmonized, communion would be imposs­ible.

Of course we can recite a profound prayer from a prayer book or say pious words in prayer. But that is a religious exercise rather than communion with God. Without a union of our hearts and minds with His, no real com­munion can take place. We must take time to ensure that our spirits are completely in tune with His. There is no commun­ion without union; hence the importance of oneness with Him.

Second: Our relationship to one another

The second point: We are to be united with one another by mutual understanding. But first we need to be united with God. Only when everyone is in union with God and able to commun­icate with Him, will we be able to have inner understanding and communication with one another. In other words, our union with one another is rooted in our union with God.

These two things — our relationship to God and our relationship to one another — are tied together in John 17. Verse 11 says, “That they may be one, even as we are one”. Verse 21 says, “that they may all be one, even as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may be in us”. The con­stant refrain — that they may be one — appears four times in this chapter (verses 11,21,22,23).

Oh that we may delight in one another! But it’s hard to delight in someone who is not walking with the Lord, isn’t it? A person who walks with God, who is united with God, who has the mind of Christ, and who communes with God — such a person is refreshing. The televis­ion set is no match for him. Try sharing your personal problems with a TV. When your boyfriend or girl­friend leaves you, try talking to the TV about it. You will begin to see that your brother or sister — if he or she is walking with God — is much more precious.

The one who walks with God refreshes others. When you approach such a person, your problems become lighter and may even start to vanish. The secret is nothing more than this: he or she is pass­ing on God’s life, love, mercy, power, truth, wisdom and kindness to you. Suddenly your problems diminish, and you begin to appre­ciate your brother or sister. When we give ourselves to one another, bear­ing each other’s burdens and taking each other to heart, we will exper­ience the oneness that God has called us to.

Third: Our relationship to the world

How does oneness relate to the world? The answer is found in verse 21: “That they may all be one … so that the world may believe that You have sent me.”

So that the world may believe because of our oneness! But what is our outreach strategy in this generation? We empha­size missions and evangelistic cam­paigns. Is this how we are going to save the world? Many churches think so. In North America, “missiol­ogy” is a popular subject in seminaries. I had never heard of it in England but they have it here in North America. Missio­logy is the study of missions. Even missions have become a kind of “science” (an “-ology”) that studies the techniques and strategies of evangelism.

But what does John 17 tell us? Unless we are one, the world won’t believe in the way it is meant to believe. Brothers and sisters, there is no shortcut to world evangelism.

People have asked me, “Why don’t you go out on missions?” In fact I have done more mission­ary outreach than have most people and most pas­tors. Have you done door to door evangelism? I have done that many times. I have spoken to people at the door, or, if I am invited in, inside the house. Have you distributed gospel tracts? I have given out tracts on the streets and on cross-harbor ferry boats. Have you preached in the open? I have preached on city streets and thorough­fares. Have you ever tried preaching at the marketplace next to fruit vendors, your voice competing with theirs? I have stood on soap boxes and preached in marketplaces. And what about person-to-person evangelism? I have done that on buses and airplanes. Have you organ­ized an evan­gelistic campaign? I have organized such cam­paigns, and have preached at these myself. Indeed, I have been greatly involved in evangelism and missions. But over the years, my eyes have opened to the realization that so long as the church is not what God meant it to be, we won’t be able to reach the world effectively.

It grieves me when a non-Christian says, “Look at the church. What’s so special about it?” I have nothing to say in reply. The non-Christian is quite right when he says, “Church people are so ordinary. They claim to be saved and transformed by God’s power, but I see nothing special in their lives.” What excuses do we give? The standard reply is, “Don’t look at the church, look to God.” The non-Christian will say, “So you’re admitting that Christians are no different from non-Christians? Why would I want to be a Christian?”

“That’s beside the point,” some may say. Sorry, but that is precisely the point! If regeneration doesn’t transform a person, what is the point of regen­eration? If you say it is to get to heaven, the non-Christian will say, “Will heaven then be full of selfish, untrans­formed people?”

By all means, go out and knock on doors, and get “decisions” for the Lord. I have done this too. But God has His own ways of doing things. We cannot bypass or short-circuit His ways. We cannot effect­ively bring salvation to the world unless God’s people become one in God and Christ, and manifest God’s glory.

Is God not dishonored when people say, “Christians are fighting over the ownership of the church building, even suing each other in court”? And you say that’s beside the point?

Jesus prayed, “That they may be one … that the world may believe that You have sent me.” There is no shortcut to effective evangel­ism and the salvation of the world. When the churches, or a part of them, are united spiritually and not just organizationally, God’s power will be manifested so power­fully that non-Christians will be drawn to Him.

We praise God that a good number of people have come to Him in this church, even when we have not organized evang­elistic cam­paigns, given out tracts, or knocked on doors. People are being drawn to God, and they are being changed into new persons in Christ because of the love and oneness they see in the church. This amply demon­strates the truth of the Lord’s words, namely, that our oneness draws the world to believe in him.

5. Is oneness possible?

Is oneness attainable? Or is it a naive dream? Looking at the churches today and over the past two millennia, we may be forgiven for wonder­ing what has happened to Jesus’ prayer for oneness. It’s not that the Lord Jesus is unfamiliar with human nature. He had observed the behavior of the twelve disciples he had chosen to be with him. They had their good qualities, yet their weaknesses were also evident. He knew not only his disci­ples, but “He knew all men” and just how unreliable they can be (Jn.2:24). “He knew what was in man” (v.25).

How is oneness among men conceivable unless man is so trans­formed that “not I, but Christ” becomes an estab­lished reality in every­one who is a part of that oneness? The disharmony of just one member will disturb the harmony of the body. Anyone who has a toothache — and a tooth is a tiny member of the body — would under­stand this point.

But if the harmony of the members within the Body is envis­ioned in Jesus’ prayer for oneness, and if the church is to be one as God is one with His Son, then we might be inclined to think that this dream is unrealizable at this present time on earth. We may think that it can be realized only when God’s redeemed people are perfectly trans­formed in body and spirit in the age to come, in heaven.

Since the final perfection of our spirits and bodies in heaven is the certain outcome of our redemption in Christ Jesus, the need for him to pray for something that is not in doubt does not seem to make sense. In other words, this cannot be what he was praying for. We are then forced to conclude that he was praying for something to be realized on earth in the present age and in the age to come. More­over, in the future age to come, the time for the world to believe in Christ will have passed, so the central purpose of Jesus’ prayer for oneness, namely, “that the world may believe,” will no longer be relevant.

If Jesus is praying for something to be realized among his people in the present age, what exactly is he praying for?

In the present age, given the innate selfishness of the human heart as well as its self-assertiveness, is it at all realistic to expect oneness of any community of human beings on earth? Dis­unity and schisms existed already as early as the Corin­thian church. And didn’t Jesus himself make it clear that the enemy has sown weeds among the wheat, such that wheat and weeds coexist within the kingdom of God? Surely there is no harmony between wheat and weeds! So oneness of the whole church in the present world is, in the nature of the case, unrealizable. Even a local church like the one at Corinth failed to attain it.

Faced with these solid facts from the Bible, we ask: What exactly was the Lord praying for, since he knows these facts better than we? It was he himself who taught us the parable of the weeds (Mt.13:24-30, 36-43). He also taught about the sheep and the goats, which are not separated until the final judg­ment (Mt.25:31-46). Again there is no possibility of oneness or harmony between these disparate entities.

6. The steps to actual oneness as seen in Scripture

In the light of these barriers, what did Jesus envision in his prayer for oneness? Only one possible answer remains: The oneness of those who are faithful to him, who, like the disciples at Jerus­alem, will be of “one heart and one mind” (Acts 2:46; 4:32). To understand this answer more fully, other pertinent facts must be taken into account:

(1) Mutual acquaintance is necessary as a starting point for oneness. On the practical level, there can be no meaningful oneness between persons who don’t know each other personally. We can speak of being united because of belonging to the same race or nationality, or even by the fact of being human (“from one,” Acts 17:26). But even within that union of identity, the fact is that I cannot be actually and functionally one with someone who is a stranger to me.

The oneness for which Jesus prayed has to be a union of those who know each other within a particular community of his disciples, such as that at Jerusalem. It is the people we see whom we are called to love (1Jn.4:20).

But even within a particular community, a person cannot know all the other people equally. Usually only members of a small group within that community are more intimately acquainted. Therefore, spiritual oneness is more readily established within smaller units of a community of the Lord’s disciples. Oneness can be built up within smaller units through mutual caring and encouragement, doing household chores together, and helping each other serve God effectively. The stronger the bond of oneness, the greater the spiritual effectiveness of the unit.

(2) A small group provides the basis for oneness on a wider scale. Matthew 18:19-20 mentions a gathering of only two or three. Many great spiritual movements, including mission­ary movements and societies, started with a small number of people united in heart and mind. These movements have had a great impact on the growth of the church and the evangelizing of the world. The early Methodist movement is one among many such examples.

It is not the quantity but the quality that counts. In general, the greater the number of people involved in a group, the weaker the bond in that group. It is well known that a large committee functions less effi­ciently than a smaller one. But when a large committee is sub­divided into smaller ones, each with its own special responsibilities, efficiency improves.

This is indeed what Jesus had in mind, namely, the establishing and proliferation of small, tightly knit cells, which together form the larger body of God’s people, “the body of Christ”. This can be seen in the brief but significant statement in Matthew 18:19,20:

Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything they may ask, it shall be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.

If oneness cannot be established even in a small unit of two or three persons, it would be nonsensical to expect the whole commun­ity to be one. It means that the unity of the body depends on the oneness of its cells. In turn the unity between the various cells is established through the unity of the cell leaders, thereby establishing the oneness of the community. For if the leaders are not united as one, how can the church be one?

Looking at the Lord’s own teaching and practice, we see that the small unit he had in mind could range from two to twelve persons. Two is the smallest functional unit as can be seen from the verse quoted above, while twelve is the largest functional unit.

When Jesus sent out the 70 disciples (some versions say 72), he sent them out in pairs (Lk.10:1). But when the twelve were sent out, there was no mention of such an arrangement (Mt.10:1f). This doesn’t necessarily mean that the twelve went out as one group; it could also mean that in their case, the functional units for their mission were variable in number (there could have been units of two, three, or four). Our conclusions need not be rigid in this matter.

(3) The cell can serve as the base for spiritual growth in the Body of Christ. The vital importance of oneness at the cell level lies in the fact that this oneness, because it derives from God’s life in us, can grow and spread to other small groups through regular interact­ion between members of one cell with those of other cells. The one­ness of the cells then becomes the catalyst for the oneness of the body. The general health of the body depends on the health of its cells, and vice versa.

This oneness, beginning at the cell level, must not be something merely organizational but something profoundly spiritual. This is central to Jesus’ high priestly prayer. It is God’s own oneness with Jesus that is the basis of our oneness as his disciples: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21). Our oneness derives from our being in Christ, and not from our organizational efforts nor even from our imitating Christ. It is a oneness brought about by his life working in us through the Holy Spirit as we abide in him. It is a oneness that is established by God, not man. It is the church of the living God, not merely a church of people.

Hence creating divisions within a community of God’s people, damaging or destroying its oneness, is an act of the most hein­ous type in God’s eyes. He will destroy its perpetrators (1Cor.3:17). Scatter­ing the Lord’s people is an act of hostility against the Lord himself: “He who is not with me is against me; and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Mt.12:30; Lk.11:23). But those who labor to draw his people into oneness are working with Jesus for the building up of the church.

7. The Lord is one

“God is holy” and “God is merciful” are descriptions of God that are more familiar to Christians than “God is one”. But in Scripture, God’s oneness is affirmed as a fundamental truth just like His holi­ness and merciful­ness. Right from the start of His relation­ship with Israel, God said to them, “Hear, O Israel! Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one!” (Dt. 6:4). This is to be understood as a numerical one — that Yahweh is one in number — yet there is also the truth that God is a God of oneness.

In answer to a question that someone had asked him about which is the foremost command­ment, Jesus quoted the same words from Deuter­onomy when he said, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord’” (Mark 12:29). Then he continued on with the rest of the command: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (v.30, quoting Dt.6:5).

If God’s oneness is as much a part of His divine nature as His mercy, love, holiness and other attributes, would it not follow that if we become par­takers of His nature, these same attributes will become a reality in our lives? Wouldn’t it also mean that anyone who doesn’t partake of these qualities shows thereby that he or she isn’t a partaker of the divine nature and don’t have the new life?

Two aspects of God’s oneness

There are two aspects of God’s oneness as it relates to us:

(1) It affects us internally, uniting our inner being. Most people today live in a condition of inner tension. In the West, millions of people are dependent on stress-relieving drugs to get through the day. Stress con­fronts us in daily life, whether at work, at school, in family relationships or, above all, within our own selves. When it becomes a serious medical condition, it might be diagnosed as schizophrenia or another ailment, in which case one is usually placed under the care of a psychia­trist.

In some circumstances, stress can result in an inner dis­integration of the person. Stress is known to cause a host of physical problems such as hypertension, heart disease, and other potentially fatal condit­ions even when it doesn’t get as far as mental breakdown.

On the other hand, oneness is the opposite of inner conflict, tension, disintegration, and break­down. Oneness is an inner peace and har­mony. Inner peace is so vital for the Christian life that every letter of Paul begins with a greeting such as, “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Shalom (peace) is the standard greeting among the Jews from ancient times to the present day. Without an inner oneness, there would be no inner peace. The Psalmist prays, “Teach me Your way, Yahweh; I will walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name” (Psalm 86:11, NIV has “give me an undivided heart”).

(2) God’s oneness as being external to our person, enabling relation­ship with those around us. The internal and the external are inextrica­bly linked. If we lack inner peace, our inner conflicts are bound to affect the way we relate to others, while the conflicts of others could likewise harm our inner stability. The inner oneness of each person in a group is essential for the oneness of the group as a whole. Unity and harmony within a group has a unifying and stabilizing effect on the inner life of its individual members.

Where there is sin there is no peace, neither in the indiv­idual nor in the community. Sin seeks an opportunity to destroy our peace, internal or external, so it is wise for everyone who follows the Lord to identify which sins pose specific dangers to him or her in particular, for diff­erent people have different weaknesses. We will then be in a better position to implement the Lord’s exhortation, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Mt.26:41; Mk.14:38).

Cell units likewise need to be aware of the kinds of sin that could threaten, harm, or even destroy the oneness, and therefore the life of the whole unit. It is helpful to discuss these things with one another from time to time, and to put the specific problems before God in prayer, for a cell within the Body of Christ will only be as strong or as weak as the oneness within it.

Sin must be dealt with. Our internal and external oneness, peace, and harmony can be secured because God has provided the effective answer to the fatal effects of sin on our lives. What God has done in regard to sin is summed up in the words: “through him (Christ) to reconcile to himself all things … by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col.1:20, NIV). Even if we don’t understand the full meaning of this statement, we can still experience its truth and power by the fact that where internal or external oneness and peace are lack­ing, oneness can be established through Jesus’ atoning and reconciling blood. As a result, every sin can be confessed and cleansed away. At the cross, God has provided peace and reconciliation for all who seek them with all their hearts.


An Appended Note: The difference between perfection and perfectionism

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary gives three useful definit­ions of “perfection­ism”.

First, “the doctrine that the perfection of moral character constit­utes man’s highest good”. This has to do with the self-im­provement which, as we saw in the last chapter, is at odds with Biblical perfect­ion. The Scriptures show that man’s high­est good is to be found in the spiritual rather than the moral aspect of life.

Second, “the theological doctrine that freedom from sin is attain­able on earth”. This is true or false depending on what is meant by “freedom from sin”. If by this it is meant that we are no longer under the bondage to sin because of Christ’s atoning death for us and because we have died to sin with him (Romans 6), then this is correct. But if the definition is understood to mean that sin has been totally eliminated from our being such that we have become sinless and even incapable of sinning, then it is certainly false.

Third, “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unaccepta­ble”. This, again, is true or false depending on how it is under­stood and applied. We have already noted the importance of ensuring that things are perfect if they are to function properly.

A tire that loses air because of a tiny imperfect­ion in the valve could leave the car stranded on a highway. This could create a potentially life threaten­ing situation in the depths of a Canadian winter. A few years ago, because of a tiny undetectable defect in the braking system of the car I was driving, the brakes suddenly failed on a busy highway, almost resulting in a fatal accident. One unde­tected imper­fection can lead to a traffic disaster. By God’s protect­ion and mercy, no one was hurt, and there was no major damage except to the old car I was driving.

If, however, Webster’s definition is understood to mean a perfect­ion that is judged by what is acceptable or unacceptable to me, that is, a subjective and self-centered “perfection” (expressed, for example, by my being demanding on others), then this sort of perfection is certainly false where Scripture is con­cerned. In the last chapter we saw that true spirituality is never self-centered.

The fact that there are a number of definitions of “perfectionism” should alert us to the fact that there are right and wrong definitions. But we cannot simply throw out perfection all together just because there are incorrect perceptions of it.

That is all the more so because our concern is with Biblical perfection and not with some general concept of perfection. It is there­fore erroneous, indeed irresponsible, before God to label any reference to, or concern for, perfection as “perfectionism,” a term that is usually meant pejoratively. Yet the Biblical teaching on perfection has vanished from most churches, notwith­standing the fact that the gospel — the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) — includes not only regeneration but also perfection, which finds its perfect embodiment in Christ.

[1] The work referred to is that of Paul Tillich. Reihold Seeberg, a professor of church history and systematic theology in Germany, writes similarly: “The God of Calvin is the omnipotent Will, ruling throughout the world; the God of Luther is the omnipotent energy of Love manifest in Christ. In the one case (Calvin), we have acts of compulsion even in the heart, subjection, law, service; in the other (Luther), inward conquest by the power of love, free self-surrender, filial love without compulsion. The one does not necessarily exclude the other; but the tone and emphasis give rise to the differences (between Calvin and Luther) which undeniably exist.” The History of Doctrines, p.416, paperback, 1977, Baker Book House, italics mine.

[2] This is not to say that we shouldn’t have longer or shorter periods of time to be quiet before God alone. Paul mentions that he went to Arabia for a time after his Damascus road experience of Christ, but doesn’t say how long he was there (Gal.1:17). The length of time will depend on God’s leading.


(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church