In a couple of recent public debates between Trinitarians and Biblical Unitarians on the Trinity, an argument has come up from the trinitarian side that I would like to address here. The argument is this: the passion and death of Christ is not God’s sacrifice of another, but God’s self-sacrifice for us. This is then praised for its beauty, its show of love and its demonstration of humility. This is something, according to these trinitarians, that Biblical Unitarianism misses, much to its own hurt. But here I want to ask the question: is this idea of God’s self-sacrifice biblical?
The answer to this is short and simple: no- the Bible repeatedly and explicitly tells us not that God gave Himself for our sins, but that He gave His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.John 3:16-18 NASB
Notice the clarity here is this most famous verse: God gave who? God so loved the world that He gave Himself? No; God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. Now, anyone can understand that a son is not one and the same with the one whose son they are, but must be another; for the very nature of sonship is to denote a relationship between two different individuals, as being father and son.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 11 And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.Romans 5:8-11 NKJV
God demonstrated His own love for us how? By who dying for us? The trinitarians in these recent debates want to answer ‘God!’. But what does the Bible say? God demonstrates His own love for us by Christ’s death for us. We are reconciled to God, not through His own death, we are told, but through the death of His Son. And His Son is, of course, another besides Him, or else he is no real Son at all. This passage is clear in telling us that we are reconciled to God through the death of a third party, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. 14 But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses.Acts 3:13-15 NASB
Notice that the one God raised from the dead was not God Himself, but another “the one whom God raised”. Who is this? The Prince of Life, God’s servant Jesus Christ. Notice that Jesus is hear clearly distinguished from YHVH, the one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as being His servant. No one is their own servant, but to be a servant of someone denotes a relationship between two distinct individuals.
“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— 23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. 24 But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.Acts 2:22-24 NASB
Who got nailed to the cross and raised from the dead, God, or another, according to Peter here? Clearly another, Jesus the Nazarene. We are told that God performed wonders and signs through him; an action which again shows that they are two distinct beings, as it would be meaningless to say that one performed an action through their own self. Here we see clearly again that the one who died for our sins is not the one God, but another, His Son, Jesus Christ.
There are many other passages we might go to as well. To the claim that God redeemed us with His own personal sacrifice and not through a third party, we may simply quote 1 Timothy 2:5 (“For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” NASB) and be done with it, but all these other texts quoted above only serve to irrefutably demonstrate the point that much more clearly. God did not suffer and die for anyone’s sins, and He didn’t sacrifice Himself. Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins and sacrificed Himself for us.
If we value the beauty and nobility of self-sacrifice, let us look to Jesus, the Son of God, who willingly gave himself up for us in obedience to the Father. Here we see not only a glorious example of great humility, as the Christ of God suffered and died like a common criminal, but also a glorious and noble example of obedience, as Philippians 2:8 points out:
Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Philippians 2:8 NASB
If we instead say that God gave Himself for our sins, we lose this example of obedience; God is not subject to another, to obey another. But Jesus Christ the Son of God gives us the perfect example of willing obedience to God, in dying for our sins according to God’s plan.
We must remember that our notions of what is beautiful or noble don’t trump truth. If God had really died for our sins, then we would have to appreciate the beauty of that. But if God didn’t die for our sins- if another besides God died for our sins- then there is no beauty in this falsehood that God died for us. In fact, we would be so far from advancing what is beautiful and noble, that we would be robbing the one who did suffer and die for us the glory due him. Jesus Christ the Son of God must get the glory for what He has done for us; it is unacceptable to rob him of that glory, by ascribing the extremely noble and praiseworthy things he has done to another, Who in fact did not do them.
While hoping to glorify God, these trinitarians are greatly dishonoring the Lord Jesus Christ. That is not pleasing to God, Who wills that on account of his obedience and sacrifice, Christ should be highly exalted to God’s right hand, should receive the name above all names, and should have every knee bow to him. All this is to the glory of the Father (Phil 2:11); if we really want to glorify God, we must stop ascribing the work of Christ to God, and glorify Christ for his amazing accomplishments, which is, we are told, to the glory of God Who sent and empowered him. In this way, we will honor both Christ and God, according to the will of God.
There remains just two more things I’d like to briefly note in relation to this trinitarian argument we are addressing. Firstly, God is immortal, and to be immortal simply means you cannot die. Trying to define death in some special way here won’t help, because being immortal means that whatever death is, God doesn’t do it. God is the living God, and is immutable, unchanging; so then, He always lives, and never dies in any way, for a living unchangeable being must always and eternally live. Any experience of death would both mean that God had changed, and that He was mortal; but we are told that God never changes (Mal 3:6), and that He is immortal (1 Tim 1:17). It should be obvious then that its not even a possibility that God died on the cross for our sins. Rather, as the Bible says, the man Jesus Christ the Son of God gave Himself for us.
Secondly, I want to note how very modalistic this trinitarian argument is. This really goes to demonstrate what I have frequently tried to draw attention to, that most modern trinitarians are actually modalists. For them, Father, Son, and Spirit are all just the same rational individual being; and of course, a rational individual being is simply a person. Now, traditional trinitarian language prevents them from calling this being, this ‘triune God’ or ‘tri-personal God’ a “person”, but when you get down to the actual concepts in play, they believe that this entity is a single person which is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, for them, the Son dying is the self-sacrifice of the one God, because the Son just is that one God, that one individual who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Of course, if the Son just is the one God, however, then the Son isn’t really the Son of God at all. A son must be another besides the one whose son they are; a father-son relation necessarily denotes a relationship between two individuals. So if Jesus Christ just is the one God, he is not in any real sense the Son of the one God. Denying that Jesus is the Son of God, of course, is extremely problematic:
The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. 11 And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.1 John 5:1-12 NASB
Its precisely because modalism denies the Son of God, and with it, the gospel and all true Christianity, that the early church rightly identified modalism as a dangerous heresy.
Of course, if the Son just is the one God, and the Father also just is the one God, then the Son just is the Father, too. This is the rational outcome of trinitarian dogma, but its a forbidden conclusion; a good trinitarian is not allowed to reason that far. But the logic holds; if A=C, and B=C, then A=B; if the Father and Son are both identified with the entirety of the same individual being, then the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father, meaning, there really is no father-son relation at all. Father and Son become, logically, interchangeable titles for the same person.
In conclusion, then, this ‘trinitarian’ argument falls short; not only does it lack support from the Bible, but is contradicted by the Bible, which is clear in telling us that another besides God, namely His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, died for our sins. Not only this, but the argument implicitly denies God’s immortality and immutability, by claiming that the living God died. Finally, we may note that this argument would better suite a oneness pentecostal or modalist of some stripe than it would someone truly holding to a nicene trinitarianism. Most trinitarians, of course, do not hold to a nicene trinitarianism, but are very modalistic in their theology, meaning that sadly, this argument will probably remain popular among trinitarians for some time to come.