The Lord Jesus prayed on the night before His death: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:20–23). Jesus prayed that believers would be united, and yet the unity of believers is not His ultimate concern. He prayed for such unity for the sake of the world, so that the world would realize that the Father sent the Son. In addition, when believers are united, the world will comprehend that the Father loves believers just as He loves His one and only Son.
Has this prayer been answered? We all know Christendom has been rent into a thousand pieces by the ever-increasing number of denominations. Still, it doesn’t follow that Jesus’ prayer was for naught, for the answer to the question posed is complex. First, Jesus’ prayer is being answered to some extent during the period from His resurrection to the second coming. True believers are united in Christ. They truly love one another and worship the same Savior, trusting in His atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of their sins. We stand unified together at the foot of the cross. This unity is ours even if we belong to different denominations. We may have different opinions on eschatology, ecclesiology, baptism, Arminianism, Calvinism, and many other theological questions. Nevertheless, those of us who are relying on Christ alone for salvation are truly united in Christ. We do love our brothers and sisters in the Lord, even if we are convinced that they are mistaken on some doctrinal matters.
This brings us to the second observation that must be made: Jesus’ prayer has not yet been answered fully. We live in the interim period before the consummation of all the promises of God. We are justified and at the same time sinful (simul justus et peccator), as Luther rightly said. Since we are still sinful, we don’t love each other the way we should. Nor do we work out every theological issue correctly. The remaining presence of sin continues to touch our minds as well. A very important qualification must be made here. I am not suggesting that “anything goes” theologically. There is a boundary between orthodoxy and heresy. We do not know the truth exhaustively, but we do know it truly. The unity Jesus speaks of here is a unity in the truth, particularly the truth that the Father sent His Son for the salvation of the world. Hence, the unity we pray and work for is a unity in the gospel. The gospel teaches us that we look to the cross of Jesus Christ and not to ourselves for salvation. We look to one outside of us for salvation and not to our own works. We understand the gospel truly even now, but we do not grasp it completely. How does this work out practically? I know some parts of my theology are mistaken (not the fundamental truths of the gospel), but I don’t know where I am mistaken, for I am convinced that everything I believe is true. Such is the paradox of life before Christ returns. Let me return to my main point after this parenthesis. We are not perfectly united because sin remains in us. Our love and theology are both inadequate and continue to be affected by sin.
It is quite evident in reading the New Testament that believers are not yet perfectly united. We find some evidence of remarkable unity in the early church (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37). But we know that the early church also suffered from divisions and strife. Even a cursory reading of the Pauline epistles makes this very clear. Indeed, the problem with divisions was particularly evident in Corinth. Paul laments the divisions to which the congregation succumbed in 1 Corinthians 1:10–17. Apparently, the members of the church had selected their favorite leader and formed factions that featured the leader they prized. They divided over Paul, Apollos, Peter, and even Christ! The latter group very piously and smugly said that they followed Christ, and not just mere men, but unfortunately they had the same spirit of pride that plagued all the other groups.
The strife in Corinth cannot be traced to theological differences. There is no evidence that Peter, Apollos, and Paul taught different gospels. Paul explicitly affirms that they all proclaimed the same gospel (1 Cor. 15:11). Paul would not have recommended that Apollos visit Corinth if he believed that Apollos’ theology was defective! (16:12). It appears that the Corinthians were entranced by the rhetorical skills of their favorite leader, and they quarreled over which person was the most effective (1:17–25; 2:1–5). Some followed Apollos, presumably because of the eloquence of his preaching, while others maintained that Paul was superior to Apollos. It is as if we quarreled today over whether Sproul, Piper, or MacArthur were the best preacher. Paul was thankful for the ministry of Apollos and for the gifts God granted to him, but he rebuked the Corinthians for their secular viewpoint. By exalting men they had forgotten God, failing to see that all spiritual growth comes from him (3:5–9). The Corinthians had become dazzled by human vessels and had forgotten the message of the cross. Only Christ was crucified for them, not Paul, Apollos, or anyone else. The cross of Christ nullifies human pride, reminding us that our only boast is in the Lord, for redemption, justification, and sanctification are all God’s gifts (1:26–31).
First Corinthians reminds us, therefore, that Christians may fall into significant sin and experience strife and division. Indeed, it is quite evident that the Corinthians were divided over eating food offered to idols (8:1–11:1) and spiritual gifts (12:1–14:40) as well. We are reminded that too often our churches are rent asunder not by theological differences but by selfishness, pride, and lack of love. Indeed, we can become proud of our right theology but contradict the very theology that we hold dear by lack of love. We are not surprised, then, to find in the midst of the discussion on spiritual gifts the famous love chapter (chap. 13).
Too often, even in theological disputes, the real problem is not a theological difference but a lack of Christian charity. We need the admonition of Paul: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14). True unity is realized only through the truth of the gospel, but it also becomes ours when we love each other. We desperately need to bear with one another in love, to forgive one another (Col. 3:13), for love covers “a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Unfortunately, some churches that are theologically orthodox compromise their witness through strife, gossip, and the refusal to forgive one another.
In the present age before Christ comes, the church experiences the unity He prayed for in some measure, but not perfectly. We could say that we are already united but not yet perfectly. This brings me to my last observation: Jesus’ prayer will be answered fully, for when Jesus returns all sin will be removed from His bride — the church of Jesus Christ. Then we shall know even as we have been known (1 Cor. 13:12). Then we shall love even as we have loved. We shall be without spot or blemish (Eph. 5:27). No more theological differences will remain (even minor ones), our love for one another will be perfected, and unbelievers and angels and demons will see what Christ has accomplished in redeeming a people for Himself. He has taken stubborn, recalcitrant, and sinful people like us and transformed us. He has given us love for Him and for one another. Such a redeeming work has already begun in us, and we are called upon to maintain the unity of the Spirit now (Eph. 4:3). And yet we await the day when the work begun will be completed to the praise and glory of our God and Savior.