Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999, 207 pages.
This latest book from R.C. Sproul is a further result of the Roman Catholic/Evangelical dialogue of recent years, and the ongoing controversy which arose when certain prominent Evangelicals signed the first document which issued from that dialogue: Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). The purpose was to set forth key elements of the Christian faith which both Catholics and Evangelicals could agree on, and use as a basis for cooperation in presenting a united front against the secularist and pagan trends in our culture. The document was signed in 1994, and the signatories included such Evangelical stalwarts as Charles Colson and J.I. Packer. However, other Evangelicals such as Sproul said that Evangelicals could not sign a common statement of faith with Catholics unless either Catholics or Evangelicals had changed their position over key aspects, particularly the doctrine of justification by faith (sola fide) which was the primary dividing issue which led to the Protestant Reformation. One negative impact of ECT was that Evangelical unity on the key issue of sola fide was now threatened. Sproul says that “the effort to seek unity and accord with Roman Catholics had the negative effect of driving a wedge between Evangelicals who once were closely allied” (page 10). Since both the Evangelical and Catholic signatories affirmed that they had not abandoned the historical position of their respective groups, then the document must have been flawed in affirming agreement on a key issue, when there was in fact no agreement.
One of the key flaws of ECT was that while unity was affirmed on the doctrine that we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the word alone was conspicuously absent. Historic Evangelicalism has “insisted that justification is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), and because of Christ alone (sola Christo)” (page 48). And so Sproul summarizes:
Since the Roman Catholic Church has always affirmed that justification is by grace, through faith, and because of Christ but has firmly rejected the solas of the Reformation, many Evangelicals viewed this joint declaration as a sad and tragic compromise of the Reformation and of Evangelical doctrine. Critical discussions of ECT focused on the absence of a clear affirmation of justification by faith alone (sola fide), which has been the hallmark of historic Evangelicalism (page 48).
And this is not needless quibbling over words, for as Sproul says:
The Roman Catholic Church has always affirmed that justification is by faith in the sense that faith is a necessary condition (though not a sufficient condition) for justification…Rome believes justification is through faith but not through faith alone (page 68).
Out of the tensions which resulted, and as an attempt to address this question, a further document was signed between Evangelicals and Catholics in 1997, called The Gift of Salvation (GOS, or as it is also referred to by some, ECT II). Sproul says GOS was a “self-conscious attempt on the part of the original draftees of ECT to clarify their first document and to answer many of the objections that had been leveled against it” (page 47). Many Evangelical signatories were elated by this second document, believing that it achieved a joint declaration of sola fide. However, others did not share the enthusiasm. James Montgomery Boice was quoted in Christianity Today magazine as stating that GOS “sells out the Reformation” (page 87), while the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) issued an open letter expressing distress at both the assertions and omissions of GOS. The ACE said that one of their chief concerns was the concept of imputation as it relates to justification; their assessment was that imputation had been sidestepped. So the rift was still there.
Discussions were held in early 1998 between those who supported GOS and those who rejected it. It was agreed that what was urgently needed was “a joint statement regarding the gospel and justification by faith alone that could reaffirm the unity that has existed historically among a wide and diverse body of evangelical Christians” (page 10). A drafting committee was selected which included Packer, Sproul, D.A. Carson, Timothy George, Erwin Lutzer, John Ankerberg, and John Armstrong, among others. The result was the recently signed document called The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration .
In addition to the drafting committee of 15, there was a “Confirmed Endorsing Committee” of 114 individuals drawn from a broad swath of Evangelicalism, which included among others: Bill Bright, Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Richard Land, Max Lucado, John MacArthur, Sinclair Ferguson, John Stott, David Wells, and Charles Swindoll (see complete list on pages 193-195).
Sproul’s book consists of three parts. Part one has two chapters on such surrounding issues as the visible versus the invisible church, the marks of a true church, the unity of believers, the history and changing meaning of the word “Evangelical,” and the causes of the Reformation.
Then, in part two of the book, there are three chapters containing the complete text of GOS, with a thorough discussion of it, paragraph by paragraph. One of the critical issues of the Reformation concerned whether the ground of our justification was the imputed righteousness of Christ (the Reformers’ position) or the infused righteousness of Christ (the Catholic position). Infused righteousness is that which is “poured into the soul sacramentally” (page 65). But GOS neither affirmed nor denied imputation; it sidestepped it. To this Sproul says: “Just as sola fide is essential to the gospel, so imputation is essential to sola fide. In summary, we believe that imputation is essential to the gospel and that without it you do not have the gospel or gospel unity” (page 66).
There are a number of other critical issues that are dealt with in these three chapters. But the paragraph which Sproul found “the most problematic of the entire document” was paragraph 17, labeled “Needlessly Divisive Disputes,” and consisted of a list of 10 issues which “require further and urgent discussion” (page 76). In other words, these unresolved issues were not deemed weighty enough to hinder an affirmation of unity. However, Sproul says that some of these issues which were left hanging “go right to the heart of the Reformation controversy over sola fide” (page 78). The list includes such issues as the meaning of baptismal regeneration; the eucharist; sacramental grace; the normative status of the doctrine of justification; diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences; Marian devotion; et al. Sproul says that “the greatest weakness of ecumenism is its tendency to use studied ambiguities as a means to achieve unity…(dodging) issues by using evasive language” (page 88). In other words, using ambiguous terminology that can be agreed to by people of differing positions. As Sproul says:
Imprecision, especially when intentional, does not resolve conflict. It merely seeks to mask it through the use of studied ambiguity and to provide a formula for dishonest ‘agreement’ (page 90).
Then, in part three of the book, there are six chapters on The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration, the recently signed document that affirms Evangelical unity on the gospel. Those six chapters include the complete text of the document, along with a thorough point-by-point exposition. And both the text and the exposition are simply grand! In the text and accompanying explanation, the glory of the gospel shines forth, and those six chapters were a delight to read. The format that was adopted is particularly helpful, utilizing articles of both affirmation and denial. The affirmation-and-denial format was used to make clear not only what was meant, but also what was not meant, thereby avoiding ambiguities.
This book is highly recommended. I think it succeeded in clearly showing the flaws in the ACT and GOS documents, and why it is important that we (as the book’s title says) get the gospel right. As the Preamble to The Gospel of Jesus Christ states:
This Gospel is the only Gospel: there is no other; and to change its substance is to pervert and indeed destroy it. This Gospel is so simple that small children can understand it, and it is so profound that studies by the wisest theologians will never exhaust its riches (page 100).