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Posts Tagged ‘The Gift of Salvation’


My years working in Ligonier Ministries’ phone room were tumultuous ones for the larger evangelical community. The Promise Keeper’s movement was huge, and divisive among lay people. More importantly, two documents were released: Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) and the subsequent Gift of Salvation (GOS). These caused division among many among evangelical leaders. Some friendships and relationships would never be the same.

“To work toward unity in the gospel is not a matter of ecclesiastical politics: it is a matter that touches the soul of tahe church itself and the souls of all its members.”

This is the old cover.

In response to ECT, R.C. Sproul wrote Faith Alone, a defense of sola fide which interacted with the document. In response to GOS (and subsequent release of The Gospel of Jesus Christ by evangelical leaders) he wrote the recently repackaged Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie that Binds Evangelicals Together.

It is important to keep this context together. In seeking greater dialogue and “unity” with Roman Catholicism, some evangelical leaders were causing conflict and division among Protestants. Here Sproul is once again focusing on the doctrine of sola fide as one that did and should unite Protestants including Evangelicals.

Sproul is clear, and generally irenic. He wants to rebuild bridges, not destroy them. He doesn’t want to forfeit the core of the gospel to gain “unity”.

Part 1 of the book focuses on the context, historically and contemporary respectively, in two chapters. Part 2 of the book is a critical analysis of GOS over the course of 3 chapters. The bulk of the book, 6 chapters, is Part 3 which explains The Gospel of Jesus Christ. The appendix of the book contains GOS and The Gospel of Jesus Christ for reference.

Sproul begins with the historical and theological context of “communion of saints”. As a matter found in the Apostles’ Creed (and for Presbyterians like Sproul and myself in the Westminster Confession) this is an important doctrine to understand. He brings us through the distinctions between the visible and invisible church, the marks of the church, and when it becomes necessary to leave a church that has lost the marks of a true church. He also lays out the shape of unity so we don’t seek the wrong kind of unity.

“When an essential truth of the gospel is condemned, the gospel itself is condemned with it, and without the gospel an institution is not a Christian church.”

He begins the contemporary context with a discussion of how words change meaning. Evangelical is one of those words whose meaning has changed greatly over time. The root of the word pertains to the gospel. Evangelicals were people concerned with believing and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now it means many things, including voting blocs in American politics, which have nothing to do with the gospel. The two defining doctrines of evangelicalism were sola scriptura (including the inspiration of the Scriptures) and sola fide. In the 1970’s the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures were undermined in many historically evangelical circles. In the 1980’s & 90’s it was the latter that was undermined. It became possible to self-identify as an evangelical but not hold to these core doctrines.

He also considers whether or not the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church has changed, thereby making unity possible. The bottom line is that Trent still stands and it condemns both sola scriptura and sola fide. The position of Trent is maintained in the newer catechisms of the Church of Rome. If the Catholics who signed these documents (ECT & GOS) affirm these doctrines they too are condemned by the Church of Rome.

As Sproul notes, there are some understandings of salvation shared by Protestants and Roman Catholics. Sproul has a history of being fair when handling the views of Roman Catholicism. That continues here. He gives credit where credit is due. They do, for instance, affirm grace and faith as necessary for salvation. Here is where distinctions are vastly important and R.C. does continually remind us of them. These distinctions are like the rock on the path you keep tripping over. We cannot ignore these distinctions. Sadly, the evangelicals who signed the documents think they affirm sola fide but it doesn’t. There is fide, or faith, but not the sola. It comes close but never gets there. That last yard is important, vital, necessary as a few Super Bowl teams have discovered. The disagreements over the ground of justification continue (imputation vs. infusion, Christ’s righteousness vs. our personal righteousness, faith alone vs. faith & works, grace received by faith vs. grace received from sacraments, and the list goes on). Similar terms is not to be confused with similar meaning and understanding.

“In summary we believe that imputation is essential to the gospel and that without it you don’t have the gospel or gospel unity. … Evangelicals who signed GOS could still affirm the normativity of a doctrine of justification, but not the normativity of the doctrine of sola fide, which clearly contains the essential ingredient of imputation.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ was written by both evangelicals who signed ECT and GOS, and evangelicals who were critical of the documents, like Sproul. It clarifies many of these issues that were obscured in ECT and GOS using a series of affirmations and denials. What follows is Sproul unpacking the historic Protestant understanding of the gospel.

The document is not perfect. For instance, in denying that the power of the gospel rests on things like the eloquence of the preacher, it does not deny that it depends on the efficacy of the sacraments. But the documents gets to most of the most important issues. Sproul covers plenty of ground in his explanation of the document. He doesn’t go very deep into those matters as a result. But he is clear and continues to make proper distinctions (a seemingly lost art).

Getting the Gospel Right is a good book. It examines important doctrines within the context of a recent theological controversy. For some this may be incredibly helpful. Others, who have not interest in historical theological controversies, may not appreciate how the book is written. R.C. is typically clear and engaging. This is a helpful volume that should not overwhelm the average reading by either its length or depth. I’d recommend it greatly for those trying to sort out the key differences between historic Protestantism and Roman Catholicism on the key matters of salvation.

[I received a promotional copy of this book for the purposes of review.]

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