At the Last Supper on the eve of His passion, Jesus said to the Father in His intercessory prayer: “this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn 17:3). Unitarians, including the Jehovah Witnesses and followers of A. E. Knoch, present Jesus’ statement here as conclusive evidence that Jesus Christ was not God. Some even go so far as to say that if you honor the Son just as you honor the Father, you are guilty of blasphemy and will not inherit eternal life (eonian life).
But did Jesus intend for us to understand His reference to the Father as the only true God in a manner that would exclude the divinity of the Son, or was He only excluding all so-called gods, except for the true God, which also comprises the Son and Holy Spirit, as Trinitarians affirm? Does this one statement somehow negate all that we have seen in the previous blogs concerning Christ’s eternal preexistence? The purpose of this blog is to demonstrate that Jesus’ words here actually dovetail with all the other affirmations of Christ’s deity in Scripture, rather than contradicting them.
If indeed the Father is the only true God in a Unitarian sense, to the exclusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit, then we have an obvious contradiction, since both the Son and the Spirit are called God throughout Scripture (Jn 1:1; 1:18 NET; 5:18; 20:28-29; Phil 2:5-6; 2Pet 1:1; Acts 5:3-4). If the Father is the only true God in a Unitarian sense, it would logically lead us to conclude that the Son is a false god, being that He is also called God.
1 John 5:20 “Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.”
Only in the Trinitarian sense can Jesus be God at the same time that the Father is the only true God, since the Triune God includes the Son. For this reason, John had no problem with also calling Jesus “the true God” in 1John 5:20. He said:
“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This (οὗτος) is the true God and eternal life.” (1Jn 5:20)
Here we see the very same title “the true God” which Jesus Himself applied to the Father in John 17:3, applied to Himself as the Son. Since there cannot be two true Gods while at the same time being only one true God, both the Father and the Son must make up that one and only true Godhead, just as Trinitarians have always believed. It cannot be argued that the pronoun “this” is referring to the Father here, since “this” is the near demonstrative pronoun οὗτος. If John had wanted to refer back to the Father, he would have used the far demonstrative pronoun ἐκεῖνος, which would read “that one” in English.
Additionally, Jesus Christ is here declared to be “the true God and eternal life.” It is Jesus, rather than the Father, who John repeatedly refers to as “the life” and “eternal life” (Jn 1:4; 5:26,40; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6; 20:31; 1Jn 1:2; 5:12). In fact, 1John begins and closes identifying Jesus Christ as “eternal life” in distinction from the Father. The epistle begins saying of Christ the eternal Word:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — 2 the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us.” (1 Jn 1:1-2)
So, we see here that the Son, the true God, also called “eternal life,” was with the Father from the beginning before being manifested in the flesh as Jesus, the Christ. This is in agreement with John 1:1 which says that “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” The only way the Father and the Son can both be the only true God is if indeed what Jesus said concerning His relationship with the Father is literally true when He said: “I and My Father are one” (Jn 10:30), and “The Father is in Me and I in Him” (Jn 10:38), or “He that has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). When Jesus said that He and the Father were one, the Jews understood and attempted to stone Him for blasphemy, saying to Him: “You, being a Man, make Yourself God” (Jn 10:33). Apparently, the Jews had a better understanding of who Jesus was claiming to be than the Unitarians do today.
Unitarians typically argue that the Son is only one with the Father in the sense of being united in mind and purpose. In order to argue this, they point out that, later in Jesus’ intercessory prayer, He prayed to the Father asking, “that they may be one just as We are one” (Jn 17:22). However, what Jesus was asking for was not merely that we be one in mind and purpose with them, but rather, He was speaking of a real vital union with God through the Son in which He would become our very life in union with Him through the new birth (Rom 8:10 NASB; Gal 2:20; Col 3:4).
Jesus, speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost said: “At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (Jn 14:20). Jesus wasn’t simply saying: “In that day you will know that we are of one mind.” He was speaking of believers being immersed into the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit (1Cor 12:13). We actually become partakers of the divine nature, becoming one with the Lord through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit (2Pet 1:4). Paul said of born-again believers: “But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Cor 6:17). This is not merely referring to being of the same mind as the Lord, although we do have the mind of Christ. It speaks of a vital union with God that the natural mind cannot receive nor comprehend, just as they cannot comprehend the vital union which exists between the persons of the Trinity, in spite of the fact that it is clearly taught in Scripture. The God of the Bible is one, but it is a complex unity, comprised of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I demonstrate this with more detail in my blog: The Triunity of God.
Also, to argue that the Son is excluded from being the true God because Jesus called the Father “the true God,” would conversely obligate Unitarians to deny that the Father is the true light since it is only the Son who is called “the true Light” (Jn 1:9).
Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, also refers to Jesus Christ as “our only Master and Lord” (Jude 4). Who would deny that the Father is also our Master and Lord? Jesus said that no one is good except God alone (Mk 10:18). Does that mean that the Son is not good? Certainly not! As Jesus said: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).
The only way in which the Father and the Son can both be the only true God, the only Master and Lord, and the only true Light is if the Father and the Son are truly one, just as Jesus declared, thereby provoking the Jews to take up stones to stone Him for claiming equality with God (Jn 10:30,33).
Why then would Jesus refer to the Father as the only true God? Why does John also refer to Jesus as the true God? The obvious reason is because there were many false gods in that culture. The very next phrase which follows in 1John 5 explains why. Immediately after saying: “This is the true God and eternal life,” John follows up by saying: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1Jn 5:21). While the synoptic gospels were written to monotheistic Jews, John primarily wrote to Gentile believers in the pagan society of the Roman Empire with its panoply of gods, including Caesar. For that reason, he emphasized that there is only one true God, telling them to avoid worshipping other false gods.
1Corinthians 8:4-6 “For us there is one God, the Father…and one Lord Jesus Christ”
In light of all the idolatry in Corinth, Paul, likewise, emphasized that, although there are many “so-called gods,” for us there is only one true God. He said:
“For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.” (1 Cor 8:5-6)
Again, if “one God” is understood in the Unitarian sense, excluding the Son, rather than God being one in a Triune sense, that would make the Son out to be a false “so-called” god, rather than the true God, since He is called God several times in Scripture.
Also, if there is only one Lord, it would exclude the Father from being Lord, yet the Father is commonly referred to as Lord in Scripture (Matt 11:25; Lu 1:32, etc.). We even see the Father as Lord, speaking to the Son as Lord in Acts 2:34, where it says: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’” Here we either have two Lords, contrary to what Paul said, or else the Father and the Son are truly one, just as Jesus said they were (cf. Matt 22:42-45). Additionally, if the Lord Jesus were the only Lord, it would exclude the Holy Spirit from being Lord, yet He is also called Lord (2Cor 3:17).
In conclusion, while these statements emphasize that there is only one true God, when the totality of Scripture is taken together as a harmonious whole, it actually confirms the Triune nature of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in a complex unity, rather than presenting God as having a simple solitary existence. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are always seen together from the very moment of creation. All created things are of the Father and through the Son, and they took form as the Holy Spirit moved (1 Cor 8: 6; Gen 1:1-2).
Contrary to the Unitarians who say that we blaspheme when we worship Jesus Christ as Lord and God, as Thomas did, Jesus warns those who would diminish Him as the Son of God, saying that “all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (Jn 5:23). John takes it a step further saying to those early Gnostics who denied that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, saying: “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1Jn 2:23).
You ask why it is so important? It is important because there cannot be any other Savior apart from Yahweh Elohim Himself. The blood of Christ shed upon the cross was not just the blood of a good man, it was the very blood of God. As Paul said:
“Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
 Wuest’s Word Studies, 2 Peter 1:4: “Through these promises, the saints have become partakers of, sharers in the divine nature. Peter is here referring to regeneration as in 1 Peter 1:23. This divine nature implanted in the inner being of the believing sinner, becomes the source of his new life and actions. By its energy in giving him both the desire and the power to do God's will, he has escaped the corruption that is in the world.”