One is the division in Evangelicalism between so-called Open and Conservative wings. I have tried without success to establish what underlies the bitterness of this dispute. However, it is clear we have moved a long way from the heady, and united, days of the 1977 National Evangelical Anglican Congress, when Evangelicals gathered as one body under one roof.
The other is the patent lack of evangelism within the Church of England as an institution. I have a series of ‘Google News Alerts’ which keep me in touch with various issues, one of which is the pairing of ‘Church of England’ with ‘Evangelism’. It very rarely produces anything. Indeed, even ‘Back to Church Sunday’ —surely the nearest thing the Church of England has had to an evangelistic initiative since the late and unlamented ‘Decade of Evangelism’ —is a remarkably unproductive source of news.
It seems to me, however, that the one thing which should define Evangelicalism is evangelizing. An Evangelicalism which did not evangelize would be an oxymoron. Any definition of Evangelicalism, therefore, should be gospel centred and, preferably, short. Here, then, is my offering.
Evangelicals believe in a gospel:
1. Centred on the death of Christ for sin
2. Effective for salvation from coming judgement
3. Sufficient for reconciliation with God through faith alone
1. A gospel which is centred on the death of Christ for sin
This first point is readily established from the Gospels generally, but is cogently summarised in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures ...” Much could be said on this single verse but four things are worth noting:
a. The death of Christ for our sins is ‘of first importance’.
b. This death is to be understood ‘according to the Scriptures’, wherein we may find attributed to the cross everything from victory over the powers of evil to the substitutionary bearing of God’s wrath.
c. That ‘Christ died for our sins’ shows we are sinners for whom Christ had to die. We cannot understand ourselves without admitting this fact.
d. That ‘Christ died for our sins’ shows that he is the one whose death takes away the sin of the world. We cannot understand Christ without admitting this fact.
To preach the gospel, then, is to proclaim, in Scriptural terms, what Christ has done for us in dying for our sins. There are many starting points to this, as we see in Acts, but they all come down to admitting the truth of 1 Corinthians 15:3.
2. A gospel which is effective for salvation from coming judgement
The point about Christ dying ‘for our sins’ raises a second issue, however, which is that he died to save us from coming judgement. This is a point Paul managed to make in his sermon at the Areopagus (Acts 17) even though he preached without mentioning the name of Jesus —a fact which should tell us much about the priorities of the gospel message.
Judgement is declared, however, not to terrify but in order to allow the preaching of the news that Christ is Lord and that people should repent and be baptized in his name for the forgiveness of sins.
We may admit that we do not know all of God’s ways and, as some of the Reformers did, we may leave open the question of how God may save those, such as unborn infants, who do not have the capacity to respond to the gospel. But we have no other known remedy for sin than the gospel and no other name under heaven by which people may be saved than Jesus. Thus for our own part we are compelled to call everyone to flee from the wrath to come, knowing that the gospel is God’s effective means of deliverance.
3. A gospel which is sufficient for reconciliation with God though faith alone
The great divides between true and false understandings of the gospel have not been over whether Christ died for our sins, however, but whether faith in that message is sufficient, in itself, to reconcile us fully with God.
That is the point at issue in Acts and in many of the New Testament epistles when the early Church confronts the so-called ‘Judaizers’. These people did not deny that Christ died for our sins, but they wanted to affirm adherence to the Law as a necessary complement to belief in Christ as Lord.
During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church similarly did not deny that Christ died for our sins. But it affirmed then, and affirms to this day, that faith enables a process by which, through the workings of God’s grace, we become sufficiently holy in ourselves to merit entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is also, I think, the dividing point between Evangelical and Charismatic theology, for in the latter, though salvation is indeed said to come through the death of Christ for our sin, the full blessings of God may not be experienced until some later endowment of the Holy Spirit, connected with some other teaching or challenge to faith than simply the gospel itself.
The dynamic of the gospel, however, is set forth in Galatians 3:13-14:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us ... in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
The sufficiency of the gospel was Luther’s great Reformation discovery, and it therefore must remain a plank of Evangelical conviction.
We may notice that it is perfectly possible to be saved and not appreciate this last point. Many of the recipients of Paul’s letters had not appreciated it, nor, in my view, do Roman Catholics or modern Charismatics. But it is not, thereby, a minor point, for on it rests the nature of our Christian experience and the nature, ultimately, of our preaching.
Sin, salvation and Spirit
There is one other thing which must be said, arising from this understanding of the gospel. It is clear from Scripture that the Holy Spirit is given ‘through faith’ to those who believe the gospel, and through no other means. It is clear, too, that the gospel is that Christ died for our sins. We may fairly conclude, therefore, that those who do not believe that Christ died for their sins ‘according to the Scriptures’ do not have the Spirit, no matter how much they may claim to be Spirit-led.
This is why it is so vital that the gospel is preached on the basis that Christ’s death for our sins is ‘of first importance’. Any response towards God that is not based on this understanding is not only unable to find reconciliation with him, it is unable to result in receiving the Holy Spirit. We may build many things on other foundations than this gospel, but what we cannot build is the Church.Revd John P Richardson
24 September 2007
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