No one should be an accidental evangelical—or a merely cultural one. Unfortunately, few evangelicals can actually articulate the gospel. They can lead people to Christ and help them pray the sinner's prayer, but when it comes to setting forth just how Jesus saves, most of us flounder.
Last year, two evangelical theologians had a bright idea. Wouldn't it be wonderful, they said, if evangelicals could achieve a broad consensus on the gospel and join in a common statement? These theologians felt the pinch of recent tense discussions over how to define the doctrine of justification, a key element of the gospel. They saw the need for a reference document for those engaged in interchurch dialog, for theological students, for pastors, for parachurch ministries, for itinerant evangelists, and for the rest of us. Those two theologians recruited some top Christian leaders and scholars (along with two representatives of Christianity Today). Now, almost a year later, the fruits of their passion appear below.
Of the making of many statements, there is no end. In the history of evangelical Protestantism, issues and opportunities have called forth declarations on various topics. The Lausanne Covenant (1974) is the most famous and influential, with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) running a close second.
Curiously, those who bear the name evangelical (a term that means "of or relating to the gospel") have never put forth a large-scale defining document about the gospel. That is because the gospel itself has not been at the center of modern disputes. In the decades when many evangelical institutions were being founded (from the National Association of Evangelicals and Youth for Christ in the early forties through Fuller Seminary and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and up to Christianity Today in 1956), most Protestants agreed (at least formally) on justification, though they were at odds over a multitude of other issues.
As modern evangelicalism emerged from its isolation and engaged American culture as it then was, evangelical leaders paid attention to safeguarding the authority of the Bible and the propositional nature of truth in order to counter the existentialist, liberal, and neo-orthodox tendencies in the theological world of that day.
Today, classic theological liberalism is no longer the church's main threat. As we enter a post-Christian world, one driven by consumer culture and the entertainment industry, we face more basic challenges, such as the radical devaluation of human life. In this context, we find ourselves standing with Catholic and Orthodox believers on key social issues. In deed, through collaboration with Catholic and Orthodox activists in the prolife movement, many evangelicals have discovered a genuine appreciation for and developed friendships with them. This deeper friendship has required that Protestants know their Protestantism (and that Catholics know their Catholicism and the Orthodox, their Orthodoxy).
Providence gave the first evangelicals a gift: at the time of the Reformation, the renewal of classical learning provided an opportunity to return to the sources of the gospel, sharpen the church's understanding, and disseminate that understanding through new channels of travel, communication, and commerce. Today, in evangelicals' ongoing contact and collaboration with the historic churches, it is time for us to revisit, reaffirm, and recapture the gospel. For as religious communities and Christian individuals come together to enrich one another and work together, the biblical understanding of the good news is, first, the most important thing that we can offer friends in these churches and, second, the only thing in which we can find true unity.
Human beings seem to have an infinite capacity for getting things wrong, and unfortunately, we have often gotten the gospel wrong, looking for ways to take some of the credit for our own rescue or fearing that giving God all the credit robs sinners of responsibility. Thus this statement not only celebrates what God has done to set things right, but also takes the space to name and deny the ways the church and her members have misconstrued or even perverted the good news. These affirmations and denials continue a pattern set long ago and continued in this century by the Barmen Declaration and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
As the drafting committee worked on this statement, they brought to bear the varying disciplines of history, theology, patristics, and biblical studies. In some sense, their work is remedial: we are living in a time when evangelicals choose their churches based on music style or specialized ministries rather than doctrine or biblical content.
If some parts of this document sound like a reprise of themes from the sixteenth century, it is because those themes have grown faint for many. This is not merely a biblical study of salvation, but a pastoral reminder of where we have come from, a remembrance of a relevant past. Nevertheless, while the statement is remedial and a reminder, it is not a reprimand. Through out the writing process, the drafters, long "experts" in the gospel, found themselves celebrating afresh the truth of grace.
Though evangelicals have their inner tensions and conflicting styles, we believe that, as we go into the next millennium, this statement not only represents the synthesis of the Reformation's recovery of biblical truth, but that this truth is the key to our Christian identity and our continued effectiveness in God's mission.
Unlike the Lausanne Congress and the Council on Biblical Inerrancy, the process that birthed this statement has been very informal. There have been no public meetings, no Congress on Anything. The names listed below as endorsing this document represent just the first wave of friends and leaders who by virtue of personal connections have joined their names to this project.
As endorsements have been gathered, a number of people have been stunned by the broad acceptance of this statement. When, since the Fundamentals, has something like this happened? asked one historian.
Over the coming weeks and months, many more will receive an invitation. We trust that this already broad list (Methodist and Presbyterian, Pentecostal and cessationist, Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, and free church) will become longer and more international.
Plans are being laid for a public celebration of the gospel in 2000. The leadership of the Christian Booksellers Association has graciously offered to devote one of the services on Sunday, July 9, 2000, at their New Orleans convention to this gospel focus. This venue will give maximum public exposure to this document, as the convention is well attended by media representatives as well as by evangelicalism's most prominent public speakers and writers. In addition, plans for a book-length treatment of this document will be unveiled there.
Charles Wesley was right: "In vain the first-born seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine." We pray that this document is not the last word on the gospel. We hope that it will spark renewed discussion and appreciation among evangelicals of the wonders of saving grace. Let us remember that we are "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." Let our only plea be Christ's shed blood. But let us, in all things, celebrate God's boundless love, and let us share that love with the world.
By David Neff, executive editor, Christianity Today.
Christianity Today's Evangelical Doctrinal Renewal Project, was provided in part by the Lilly Endowment.
THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST:
AN EVANGELICAL CELEBRATION
For God so loved the world
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him
shall not perish
but have eternal life.
Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is news, good news: the best and most important news that any human being ever hears.
This Gospel declares the only way to know God in peace, love, and joy is through the reconciling death of Jesus Christ the risen Lord.
This Gospel is the central message of the Holy Scriptures, and is the true key to understanding them.
This Gospel identifies Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, as the Son of God and God the Son, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, whose incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension fulfilled the Father's saving will. His death for sins and his resurrection from the dead were promised beforehand by the prophets and attested by eyewitnesses. In God's own time and in God's own way, Jesus Christ shall return as glorious Lord and Judge of all (1 Thess. 4:1318; Matt. 25:3132). He is now giving the Holy Spirit from the Father to all those who are truly his. The three Persons of the Trinity thus combine in the work of saving sinners.
This Gospel sets forth Jesus Christ as the living Savior, Master, Life, and Hope of all who put their trust in him. It tells us that the eternal destiny of all people depends on whether they are savingly related to Jesus Christ.
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.
All Christians are called to unity in love and unity in truth. As evangelicals who derive our very name from the Gospel, we celebrate this great good news of God's saving work in Jesus Christ as the true bond of Christian unity, whether among organized churches and denominations or in the many transdenominational co operative enterprises of Christians together.
The Bible declares that all who truly trust in Christ and his Gospel are sons and daughters of God through grace, and hence are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
All who are justified experience reconciliation with the Father, full remission of sins, transition from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, the reality of being a new creature in Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. They enjoy access to the Father with all the peace and joy that this brings.
The Gospel requires of all believers worship, which means constant praise and giving of thanks to God, submission to all that he has revealed in his written word, prayerful dependence on him, and vigilance lest his truth be even inadvertently compromised or obscured.
To share the joy and hope of this Gospel is a supreme privilege. It is also an abiding obligation, for the Great Commission of Jesus Christ still stands: proclaim the Gospel everywhere, he said, teaching, baptizing, and making disciples.
By embracing the following declaration we affirm our commitment to this task, and with it our allegiance to Christ himself, to the Gospel itself, and to each other as fellow evangelical believers.
This Gospel of Jesus Christ which God sets forth in the infallible Scriptures combines Jesus' own declaration of the present reality of the kingdom of God with the apostles' account of the person, place, and work of Christ, and how sinful humans benefit from it. The Patristic Rule of Faith, the historic creeds, the Reformation confessions, and the doctrinal bases of later evangelical bodies all witness to the substance of this biblical message.
The heart of the Gospel is that our holy, loving Creator, confronted with human hostility and rebellion, has chosen in his own freedom and faithfulness to become our holy, loving Redeemer and Restorer. The Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world (1 John 4:14): it is through his one and only Son that God's one and only plan of salvation is implemented. So Peter announced: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). And Christ himself taught: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).
Through the Gospel we learn that we human beings, who were made for fellowship with God, are by nature—that is, "in Adam" (1 Cor. 15:22) —dead in sin, unresponsive to and separated from our Maker. We are constantly twisting his truth, breaking his law, belittling his goals and standards, and offending his holiness by our unholiness, so that we truly are "without hope and without God in the world" (Rom. 1:1832, 3:920; Eph. 2:13, 12). Yet God in grace took the initiative to reconcile us to himself through the sinless life and vicarious death of his beloved Son (Eph. 2:410; Rom. 3:2124).
The Father sent the Son to free us from the dominion of sin and Satan, and to make us God's children and friends. Jesus paid our penalty in our place on his cross, satisfying the retributive demands of divine justice by shedding his blood in sacrifice and so making possible justification for all who trust in him (Rom. 3:2526). The Bible describes this mighty substitutionary transaction as the achieving of ransom, reconciliation, redemption, propitiation, and conquest of evil powers (Matt. 20:28; 2 Cor. 5:1821; Rom. 3:2325; John 12:31; Col. 2:15). It secures for us a restored relationship with God that brings pardon and peace, acceptance and access, and adoption into God's family (Col. 1:20, 2:1314; Rom. 5:12; Gal. 4:47; 1 Pet. 3:18). The faith in God and in Christ to which the Gospel calls us is a trustful outgoing of our hearts to lay hold of these promised and proffered benefits.
This Gospel further proclaims the bodily resurrection, ascension, and enthronement of Jesus as evidence of the efficacy of his once-for-all sacrifice for us, of the reality of his present personal ministry to us, and of the certainty of his future return to glorify us (1 Cor. 15; Heb. 1:14, 2:118, 4:1416, 7:110:25). In the life of faith as the Gospel presents it, believers are united with their risen Lord, communing with him, and looking to him in repentance and hope for empowering through the Holy Spirit, so that henceforth they may not sin but serve him truly.
God's justification of those who trust him, according to the Gospel, is a decisive transition, here and now, from a state of condemnation and wrath because of their sins to one of acceptance and favor by virtue of Jesus' flawless obedience culminating in his voluntary sin-bearing death. God "justifies the wicked" (ungodly: Rom. 4:5) by imputing (reckoning, crediting, counting, accounting) righteousness to them and ceasing to count their sins against them (Rom. 4:18). Sinners receive through faith in Christ alone "the gift of righteousness" (Rom. 1:17, 5:17; Phil. 3:9) and thus be come "the righteousness of God" in him who was "made sin" for them (2 Cor. 5:21).
As our sins were reckoned to Christ, so Christ's righteousness is reckoned to us. This is justification by the imputation of Christ's righteousness. All we bring to the transaction is our need of it. Our faith in the God who bestows it, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is itself the fruit of God's grace. Faith links us savingly to Jesus, but inasmuch as it involves an acknowledgment that we have no merit of our own, it is confessedly not a meritorious work.
The Gospel assures us that all who have en trusted their lives to Jesus Christ are born-again children of God (John 1:12), indwelt, empowered, and assured of their status and hope by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 7:6, 8:917). The moment we truly believe in Christ, the Father declares us righteous in him and begins conforming us to his likeness. Genuine faith acknowledges and depends upon Jesus as Lord and shows itself in growing obedience to the divine commands, though this contributes nothing to the ground of our justification (James 2:1426; Heb. 6:112).
By his sanctifying grace, Christ works within us through faith, renewing our fallen nature and leading us to real maturity, that measure of development which is meant by "the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). The Gospel calls us to live as obedient servants of Christ and as his emissaries in the world, doing justice, loving mercy, and helping all in need, thus seeking to bear witness to the kingdom of Christ. At death, Christ takes the believer to himself (Phil. 1:21) for unimaginable joy in the ceaseless worship of God (Rev. 22:15).
Salvation in its full sense is from the guilt of sin in the past, the power of sin in the present, and the presence of sin in the future. Thus, while in foretaste believers enjoy salvation now, they still await its fullness (Mark 14:6162; Heb. 9:28). Salvation is a Trinitarian reality, initiated by the Father, implemented by the Son, and applied by the Holy Spirit. It has a global dimension, for God's plan is to save believers out of every tribe and tongue (Rev. 5:9) to be his church, a new humanity, the people of God, the body and bride of Christ, and the community of the Holy Spirit. All the heirs of final salvation are called here and now to serve their Lord and each other in love, to share in the fellowship of Jesus' sufferings, and to work together to make Christ known to the whole world.
We learn from the Gospel that, as all have sinned, so all who do not receive Christ will be judged according to their just deserts as measured by God's holy law, and face eternal retributive punishment.
Unity in the Gospel
Christians are commanded to love each other despite differences of race, gender, privilege, and social, political, and economic background (John 13:3435; Gal. 3:2829), and to be of one mind wherever possible (John 17:2021; Phil. 2:2; Rom. 14:115:13). We know that divisions among Christians hinder our witness in the world, and we desire greater mutual understanding and truth-speaking in love. We know too that as trustees of God's revealed truth we cannot embrace any form of doctrinal indifferentism, or relativism, or pluralism by which God's truth is sacrificed for a false peace.
Doctrinal disagreements call for debate. Dialogue for mutual understanding and, if possible, narrowing of the differences is valuable, doubly so when the avowed goal is unity in primary things, with liberty in secondary things, and charity in all things.
In the foregoing paragraphs, an attempt has been made to state what is primary and essential in the Gospel as evangelicals understand it. Useful dialogue, however, requires not only charity in our attitudes, but also clarity in our utterances. Our extended analysis of justification by faith alone through Christ alone reflects our belief that Gospel truth is of crucial importance and is not always well understood and correctly affirmed. For added clarity, out of love for God's truth and Christ's church, we now cast the key points of what has been said into specific affirmations and denials regarding the Gospel and our unity in it and in Christ.
Affirmations and Denials:
1. We affirm that the Gospel entrusted to the church is, in the first instance, God's Gospel (Mark 1:14; Rom. 1:1). God is its author, and he reveals it to us in and by his Word. Its authority and truth rest on him alone.
We deny that the truth or authority of the Gospel derives from any human insight or invention (Gal. 1:111). We also deny that the truth or authority of the Gospel rests on the authority of any particular church or human institution.
2. We affirm that the Gospel is the saving power of God in that the Gospel effects salvation to everyone who believes, without distinction (Rom. 1:16). This efficacy of the Gospel is by the power of God himself (1 Cor. 1:18).
We deny that the power of the Gospel rests in the eloquence of the preacher, the technique of the evangelist, or the persuasion of rational argument (1 Cor. 1:21; 2:15).
3. We affirm that the Gospel diagnoses the universal human condition as one of sinful rebellion against God, which, if unchanged, will lead each person to eternal loss under God's condemnation.
We deny any rejection of the fallenness of human nature or any assertion of the natural goodness, or divinity, of the human race.
4. We affirm that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, the only mediator between God and humanity (John 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5).
We deny that anyone is saved in any other way than by Jesus Christ and his Gospel. The Bible offers no hope that sincere worshipers of other religions will be saved without personal faith in Jesus Christ.
5. We affirm that the church is commanded by God and is therefore under divine obligation to preach the Gospel to every living person (Luke 24:47; Matt. 28:1819).
We deny that any particular class or group of persons, whatever their ethnic or cultural identity, may be ignored or passed over in the preaching of the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:1922). God purposes a global church made up from people of every tribe, language, and nation (Rev. 7:9).
6. We affirm that faith in Jesus Christ as the divine Word (or Logos, John 1:1), the second Person of the Trinity, co-eternal and co-essential with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Heb. 1:3), is foundational to faith in the Gospel.
We deny that any view of Jesus Christ which reduces or rejects his full deity is Gospel faith or will avail to salvation.
7. We affirm that Jesus Christ is God incarnate (John 1:14). The virgin-born descendant of David (Rom. 1:3), he had a true human nature, was subject to the Law of God (Gal. 4:5), and was like us at all points, except without sin (Heb. 2:17, 7:2628). We affirm that faith in the true humanity of Christ is essential to faith in the Gospel.
We deny that anyone who rejects the humanity of Christ, his incarnation, or his sinlessness, or who maintains that these truths are not essential to the Gospel, will be saved (1 John 4:23).
8. We affirm that the atonement of Christ by which, in his obedience, he offered a perfect sacrifice, propitiating the Father by paying for our sins and satisfying divine justice on our behalf according to God's eternal plan, is an essential element of the Gospel.
We deny that any view of the Atonement that rejects the substitutionary satisfaction of divine justice, accomplished vicariously for believers, is compatible with the teaching of the Gospel.
9. We affirm that Christ's saving work included both his life and his death on our behalf (Gal. 3:13). We declare that faith in the perfect obedience of Christ by which he fulfilled all the demands of the Law of God in our behalf is essential to the Gospel.
We deny that our salvation was achieved merely or exclusively by the death of Christ without reference to his life of perfect righteousness.
10. We affirm that the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead is essential to the biblical Gospel (1 Cor. 15:14).
We deny the validity of any so-called gospel that denies the historical reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ.
11. We affirm that the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone is essential to the Gospel (Rom. 3:28; 4:5; Gal. 2:16).
We deny that any person can believe the biblical Gospel and at the same time reject the apostolic teaching of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. We also deny that there is more than one true Gospel (Gal. 1:69).
12. We affirm that the doctrine of the imputation (reckoning or counting) both of our sins to Christ and of his righteousness to us, whereby our sins are fully forgiven and we are fully accepted, is essential to the biblical Gospel (2 Cor. 5:1921).
We deny that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ infused into us or by any righteousness that is thought to inhere within us.
13. We affirm that the righteousness of Christ by which we are justified is properly his own, which he achieved apart from us, in and by his perfect obedience. This righteousness is counted, reckoned, or imputed to us by the forensic (that is, legal) declaration of God, as the sole ground of our justification.
We deny that any works we perform at any stage of our existence add to the merit of Christ or earn for us any merit that contributes in any way to the ground of our justification (Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:89; Titus 3:5).
14. We affirm that, while all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and are in the process of being made holy and conformed to the image of Christ, those consequences of justification are not its ground. God declares us just, remits our sins, and adopts us as his children, by his grace alone, and through faith alone, because of Christ alone, while we are still sinners (Rom. 4:5).
We deny that believers must be inherently righteous by virtue of their cooperation with God's life-transforming grace before God will declare them justified in Christ. We are justified while we are still sinners.
15. We affirm that saving faith results in sanctification, the transformation of life in growing conformity to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification means ongoing repentance, a life of turning from sin to serve Jesus Christ in grateful reliance on him as one's Lord and Master (Gal. 5:2225; Rom. 8:4, 1314).
We reject any view of justification which divorces it from our sanctifying union with Christ and our increasing conformity to his image through prayer, repentance, cross-bearing, and life in the Spirit.
16. We affirm that saving faith includes mental assent to the content of the Gospel, acknowledgment of our own sin and need, and personal trust and reliance upon Christ and his work.
We deny that saving faith includes only mental acceptance of the Gospel, and that justification is secured by a mere outward profession of faith. We further deny that any element of saving faith is a meritorious work or earns salvation for us.
17. We affirm that, although true doctrine is vital for spiritual health and well-being, we are not saved by doctrine. Doctrine is necessary to inform us how we may be saved by Christ, but it is Christ who saves.
We deny that the doctrines of the Gospel can be rejected without harm. Denial of the Gospel brings spiritual ruin and exposes us to God's judgment.
18. We affirm that Jesus Christ commands his followers to proclaim the Gospel to all living persons, evangelizing everyone everywhere, and discipling believers within the fellowship of the church. A full and faithful witness to Christ includes the witness of personal testimony, godly living, and acts of mercy and charity to our neighbor, without which the preaching of the Gospel appears barren.
We deny that the witness of personal testimony, godly living, and acts of mercy and charity to our neighbors constitutes evangelism apart from the proclamation of the Gospel.
As evangelicals united in the Gospel, we promise to watch over and care for one another, to pray for and forgive one another, and to reach out in love and truth to God's people everywhere, for we are one family, one in the Holy Spirit, and one in Christ.
Centuries ago it was truly said that in things necessary there must be unity, in things less than necessary there must be liberty, and in all things there must be charity. We see all these Gospel truths as necessary.
Now to God, the Author of the truth and grace of this Gospel, through Jesus Christ, its subject and our Lord, be praise and glory forever and ever. Amen.
"THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST: AN EVANGELICAL CELEBRATION" IS COPYRIGHT 1999 BY THE COMMITTEE ON EVANGELICAL UNITY IN THE GOSPEL, P.O. BOX 5551, GLENDALE HEIGHTS, IL 60139-5551
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