The Gospel Truth


‘Evangelical is not enough’ is a phrase you hear a lot these days. Ever since a well-known Evangelical, Thomas Howard, published a book with that title in 1984, every time someone wants to point to a mistake some Evangelical is making, the phrase ‘Evangelical is not enough’ is sure to be used. Thomas  converted to Roman Catholicism not long after publishing the book, but the dissatisfaction he left behind is still all over the place, especially among the younger generation of Evangelicals.

I’d be the first to admit that Evangelicals have been messing things up in the Episcopal Church—other denominations no doubt have their own critics—for quite a while, but I want to insist that it is not because ‘evangelical is not enough’.

The word ‘evangelical’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘gospel’, and ‘evangelical is not enough’ is just another way of saying ‘that which pertains to the gospel is not enough’. ‘Evangelical’ is enough, if Christianity is enough. The gospel is that human beings are sinners and cannot be admitted into God’s presence until they have been cleansed from their sin, and in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross God has taken those sins on Himself. Nothing more than this is needed. Until 50 years ago, Evangelicals stood for this, and for nothing else. Evangelical was enough, by definition: evangelicalism summed up what Scripture said was all that humanity needed to be right with God.

The trouble with modern evangelicalism is not that it is not enough, but that it has become too much. Everything that has been added during the last fifty years—emotional experiences misread as manifestations of the power of the Holy Spirit, a romantic fascination with mystery and symbolism instead of the common sense application of God’s word written, the appropriation of all that is worst about modern life in the hope of being relevant—must go. Evangelicalism must become less and less, shedding all that it has covered itself with until it is nothing more than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Hobnobbing with some of my fellow Methodist colleagues for our community Good Friday service today, I could not help mourning what could have been had the early Methodists and Episcopalians united early on.  In the chaos after the American Revolution, John Wesley set apart Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as “superintendents” to continue to spread the Gospel and set up Methodist Societies in America.  However, the American societies, already functionally operating as churches, conferred upon them the title of “bishop.”  Coke extended an initial olive branch to Bishops White and Seabury.  Seabury’s response is unknown if he had responded, yet Bishop White met with Coke on three other occasions.  The exact substance of their conversations is lost to history, aside from speculations by White that Asbury did not seem to care about being a bishop as such, and that Coke seemed more keen on having “official” episcopal authority for the sake of his Methodist flock.  All  we know is that nothing akin to merger ever happened.  Perhaps the same forces were at work that split Methodism from Anglicanism in the U.K. came to the fore earlier in America thanks to the Revolution.

Yet to think of the potential impact in terms of missions, evangelism, even ecumenical endeavors is an exercise worthy of consideration.  If we can picture what an alternative past would have looked like, it can help us conceive of a different future we would like to work toward.  Jesus was willing to die to bring us back into relationship with himself.   How much are we willing to give in striving for a kingdom-focused approach to ministry?

With Thanksgiving Vespers at hand this evening, I briefly considered reading an old time sermon for tonight.  A quick Google search with the words “Anglican, Episcopal, sermon, Thanksgiving” yielded this interesting tidbit from Absalom Jones at Project Canterbury.  It seems especially apropos considering the OT Reading in the Lectionary for Thanksgiving Day.

There are many chains that human sinfulness places into the hands of Satan, whereby we are made slaves.  It can be the literal slavery of Israel or the African diaspora in America.  It can be the figurative slavery of drugs and alchohol, codependent relationships, or a broken sexuality.  Yet I am reminded of the chorus of an old Gospel song, “Jesus breaks every fetter.  Jesus breaks every fetter.  Jesus breaks every fetter, and He sets me free.”  Let us give thanks to the God who rescues us from shackles both without and within.  He who the Son sets free is “free indeed” (John 8:36).

With the publication earlier this yeart of The Radical Disciple, John Stott, the father of the modern Anglican Evangelical Movement, gives his last words to those who are still listening. And at 89, after 56 years of publishing, they are his last; on p 139 he tells us is laying down his pen (‘literally, since I confess I am not computerised’).

The Radical Disciple is a companion to The Living Church (2007), and between them they sum up what it means to be a biblical Christian in the church and in the world. In The Living Church he reminded us of the Bible’s teaching that in their life together Christians are to learn from God’s word, care for others, worship Christ as Lord, and urge others to accept Christ as Lord. In The Radical Disciple, he reminds us of the personal priorities Christians must have if they are to consitute such a church when they work together. The description of these qualities is simple, biblical and incontrovertible. No one will read anything new in this book, but the reminder that this is what following Christ is all about can never be given too often, and it only demonstrates again Stott’s gifts as a teacher that his last words to students would go over the basics in as easily memorable a form as he can find.

Conformity to Christ rather than to the world, growing as a Christian (so easy to ignore by desiring to ‘stand firm’ in what we already know), the rejection of affluence as a life-style, a balance between individual discipleship and corporate fellowship, worship and work, pilgrimage and citizenship, a willingness not just to be humble but to be actually humiliated—the imitation of Christ is as clearly set forth as it can be, and I don’t think I’m alone in being in great need of this encouragement to a deeper commitment to these things.

Who is still listening? Stott seems no longer to be as honored by those who learned from him as he once was. His refusal to support policies that are already resulting in formal divisions between Anglicans in many places around the world has led many younger Evangelicals to think of him as somehow out of date, no longer realistic about the state of the church. A still younger generation, as it sees the inevitable cost of such policies in terms of evangelical witness from within the Anglican tradition, will want to return to these fundamental principles. When that day comes, there is unlikely to be a better teacher of them than Stott.

Perhaps one of the key difficulties evangelicals have faced in the Episcopal Church has been ensuring quality theological education for both lay people and those discerning a call to ordained ministry.  I am blessed to have gone to a seminary that neglected neither exposure to the breadth of theological learning nor a commitment to biblical truth.  Nevertheless, Episcopal seminaries have earned a reputation for being either neglectful or hostile to traditional expressions of Anglican faith, while most evangelical seminaries have earned a reputation in the Episcopal world for being somehow inadequate to the task of training good Episcopal clergy.

One way to turn this tide is to raise the bar of Christian formation and education of adults in our congregations.  Many seminaries now have free online programs that can be accessed and utilized on an individual and congregational level.  Two such programs are Dimensions of Faith offered by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the Worldwide Classroom offered by Covenant Theological Seminary.  Many in our pews see this kind of learning as either superfluous or inaccessible.  Programs like these help break down the false idea that such learning is for “experts” only, or that it has little to do with our day-to-day practical life.  We are to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength–so encouraging–at minimum–the lay leadership in our parishes to engage in such opportunities will go a long way to deepen their faith and give them a discerning eye to guard themselves against the errors our churches have been succumbing to over the past decades.

By taking advantage of these wonderful opportunities, more lay people will be able to say, “I have stored up your word in heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11) and become adept at reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting God’s Word.  And as more and more lay persons participate, I suspect we’ll see the seeds of renewal begin to take root and flourish even among the current decaying form of Episcopalianism, like wildflowers among the ruins of an ancient temple whose glory has long since faded.

Do you belong to the one true Church; to the Church outside of which there is no salvation? I do not ask where you go on Sunday; I only ask, ‘Do you belong to the one true Church?’

Where is this one true Church? What is this one true Church like? What are the marks by which this one true Church may be known? You may well ask such questions. Give me your attention, and I will provide you with some answers.

The one true Church is composed of all believers in the Lord Jesus. It is made up of all God’s elect—of all converted men and women—of all true Christians. In whomsoever we can discern the election of God the Father, the sprinkling of the blood of God the Son, the sanctifying work of God the Spirit, in that person we see a member of Christ’s true Church.

It is a Church of which all the members have the same marks. They are all born of the Spirit; they all possess “repentance towards God, faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ,” and holiness of life and conversation. They all hate sin, and they all love Christ. They worship differently and after various fashions; some worship with a form of prayer and some with none; some worship kneeling, and some standing; but they all worship with one heart. They are all led by one Spirit; they all build upon one foundation; they all draw their religion from one single Book—that is the Bible. They are all joined to one great center—that is Jesus Christ. They all even now can say with one heart, ‘Hallelujah’; and they can all respond with one heart and voice, ‘Amen and Amen.’

It is a Church which is dependent upon no ministers upon earth, however much it values those who preach the Gospel to its members. The life of its members does not hang upon church-membership, and baptism, and the Lord’s  Supper—although they highly value these things, when they are to be had. But it has only one great Head—one Shepherd, one chief Bishop—and that is Jesus Christ. He alone, by His Spirit, admits the members of this Church, though ministers may show the door. Till he opens the door no man on earth can open—neither bishops, nor presbyters, nor convocations, nor synods. Once let a man repent and believe the Gospel, and that moment he becomes a member of this Church. Like the penitent thief, he may have no opportunity of being baptized; but he has that which is far better than any water-baptism—the baptism of the spirit. He may not be able to receive the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper; but he eats Christ’s body and drinks Christ’s blood by faith every day he lives, and no minister on earth can prevent him. He may be excommunicated by ordained men, and cut off from the outward ordinances of the professing Church; but all the ordained men in the world cannot shut him out of the true Church.

It is a Church whose existence does not depend on forms, ceremonies, cathedrals, churches, chapels, pulpits, fonts, vestments, organs, endowments, money, kings, governments, magistrates, or any act of favor whatsoever from the hand of man. It has often lived on and continued when all these things have been taken from it; it has often been driven into the wilderness or into dens and caves of the earth, by those who ought to have been its friends. Its existence depends on nothing but the presence of Christ and His Spirit; and they being ever with it, the Church cannot die.

This is the Church to which the Scriptural titles of present honor and privilege, and the promises of future glory, especially belong; this is the body of Christ; this is the flock of Christ; this is the household of faith and the family of God; this is God’s building, God’s foundation, and the temple of the Holy Ghost. This is the Church of the first-born, whose names are written in heaven; this is the royal priesthood, the chosen generation, the peculiar people, the purchased possession, the habitation of God, the light of the world; the salt and the wheat of the earth; this is the ‘Holy Catholic Church’ of the Apostles’ Creed; this is the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’ of the Nicene Creed; this is that Church to which the Lord Jesus promises, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,’ and to which He says, ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt. 16:18; 28:20).

This is the only Church which possesses true unity. Its members are entirely agreed on all the weightier matters of religion, for they are all taught by one Spirit. About God, and Christ, and the Spirit, and sin, and their own hearts, and faith, and repentance, and necessity of holiness, and the value of the Bible, and the importance of prayer, and the resurrection, and judgment to come—about all these points they are of one mind. Take three or four of them, strangers to one another, from the remotest corners of the earth; examine them separately on these points; you will find them all of one judgment.

This is the only Church which possesses true sanctity. Its members are all holy. They are not merely holy by profession, holy in name, and holy in the judgment of charity; they are all holy in act, and deed, and reality, and life, and truth. They are all more or less conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. No unholy man belongs to this Church.

This is the only Church which is truly catholic. It is not the Church of any one nation or people; its members are to be found in every part of the world where the Gospel is received and believed. It is not confined within the limits or any one country, or pent up within the pale of any particular forms or outward government. In it there is no difference between Jew and Greek, black man and white, Episcopalian and Presbyterian—but faith in Christ is all. Its members will be gathered from north, and south, and east, and west, in the last day, and will be of every name and tongue—but all one in Jesus Christ.

This is the only Church which is truly apostolic. It is built on the foundation laid by the Apostles, and hold the doctrines which they preached. The two grand objects at which its members aim are apostolic faith and apostolic practice; and they consider the man who talks of following the apostles without possessing these two things to be no better than sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.

This is the only Church which is certain to endure unto the end. Nothing can altogether overthrow and destroy it. Its members may be persecuted, oppressed, imprisoned, beaten, beheaded, burned; but the true Church is never altogether extinguished; it rises again from its afflictions; it lives on through fire and water. The Pharaohs, the Herods, the Neros, the bloody Marys, have labored in vain to put down this Church; they slay their thousands, and then pass away and go to their own place. The true Church outlives them all and sees them buried each in his turn. It is an anvil that has broken many a hammer in this world, and will break many a hammer still; it is a bush which, often burning, yet is not consumed.

This is the Church which does the work of Christ upon earth. Its members are a little flock, and few in number, compared with the children of the world; one or two here, and two or three there. But these are they who shake the universe; these are they who change the fortunes of kingdoms by their prayers; these are they who are the active workers for spreading the knowledge of pure religion and undefiled; these are the life-blood of a country, the shield, the defence, the stay and the support of any nation to which they belong.

This is the Church which shall be truly glorious at the end. When all earthly glory is passed away then shall this Church be presented without spot before God the Father’s throne. Thrones, principalities, and powers upon earth shall come to nothing; but the Church of the first-born shall shine as the stars at the last, and be presented with joy before the Father’s throne, in the day of Christ’s appearing. When the Lord’s jewels are made up, and the manifestation of the sons of God takes place, one Church only will be named, and that is the Church of the elect.

Reader, this is the true Church to which a man must belong, if he would be saved. Till you belong to this, you are nothing better than a lost soul. You may have countless outward privileges; you may enjoy great light, and knowledge—but if you do not belong to the body of Christ, your light, and knowledge, and privileges, will not save your soul. Men fancy that if they join this church or that church, and become communicants, and go through certain forms, that all must be right with their souls. All were not Israel who were called Israel, and all are not members of Christ’s body who profess themselves Christians. Take notice, you may be a staunch Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, or Independent, or Baptist, or Wesleyan, or Plymouth Brother—and yet not belong to the true Church. And if you do not, it will be better at last if you had never been born.

J.C.Ryle
Bishop of Liverpool, 1880-1900

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