The audacity of the gospel

Reflections after Reformation Day 2014

Once again Reformation Day has come and gone. Does it still make sense for us to make a big deal of it in an age of ecumenism and growing inclusion? Would it not be preferable to focus our attention on what unites us as Christians facing an increasingly hostile secular climate rather than to dwell on our differences?

As one called to teach doctrine and theology, I encounter two contrasting views about the importance of doctrine. Some people believe that doctrine should be minimized or even set aside in favour of Christian living. Serving God in witness to Christ as Lord is what is important, not arguing about the details. Others take the opposite extreme in insisting that our very salvation depends on getting the right doctrine straight. Neither point is correct. Doctrine is important because the truth of the gospel is at stake. But we are not saved by doctrine; we are saved by God’s grace in Christ. While heresy is really destructive in the church, even heretics can be saved.

My own Reformation Day ponderings are always influenced by one of my dearest friends and brothers in Christ, Eduardo Echeverria, who is a Roman Catholic Professor of Philosophy at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. A one-day trip on a Saturday to Detroit this past spring captures my Reformation Day sensitivities. In the morning I participated in an ecumenical conversation about, of all people, the Dutch Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996) about whom Prof. Echeverria had just written a monograph. We discussed topics and issues that have for a long time divided Reformed and Catholic thinkers, such as nature and grace, reason and revelation, Scripture and tradition. Not only were we able to clear up significant confusion on both sides but, especially over lunch-time discussions with seminary students, I was struck by our common commitment to the gospel and a shared passion to communicate this to the next generation.

Fresh ways of communicating
After lunch I joined six of my Calvin Seminary colleagues at Kensington Church in Troy, Michigan, 20 miles north. Kensington Church began with a nucleus of 40 people, drew 463 people to its first service in 1990 and is now a four-campus church of 15,000 members and still growing by planting new churches. We came on behalf of Calvin Theological Seminary’s new Global Institute for Church Planting and Renewal to listen, learn and explore potential partnerships with Kensington. A four-hour meeting was climaxed with our attending the church’s regular 5:30 p.m. Saturday service where we heard a 40-minute-long message – punctuated with professional and effective video clips – about spiritual warfare. It resonated with Augustine’s two cities in his City of God, Abraham Kuyper’s emphasis on the antithesis and C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, even though none of the three were explicitly mentioned. Here too, I was overwhelmed by the clear commitment to the gospel and the passionate desire to communicate it in fresh, contemporary ways so that others might be won to Christ.

Now here’s the thing that struck me. Common to the two quite different venues was a shared rootedness in and awareness of the audacity of the gospel. One need not swallow the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – as I most certainly do not – to acknowledge that it is based on an audacious claim that is inseparable from the audacity of the incarnation itself. The bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ? “Impossible,” say Protestant critics. “Really, why not?” is the Roman Catholic response: “Isn’t the incarnation itself ‘impossible’?” God became human “for us and our salvation?” I was reminded once again that believing in the power of an audacious gospel, celebrated in daily mass, is exactly what propels devout Roman Catholics to active lives of service for Christ. Without embracing the mass, I do rejoice in the presence of the gospel and the service to our Lord.
Our shared mission
Kensington Church’s audacity (and notion of “apostolic”) is quite different from Rome’s. Its staff is committed to a vision of 40 multiplying churches worldwide, reaching 250,000 people by 2020. This includes 12 campuses in the greater Detroit area reaching 50,000 people, plus another five national churches reaching 15,000 more people. In addition, the vision includes reaching 225,000 campers in a summer ministry. This is what the church understands by “apostolic” (from the Greek apo-stellō = to “send out”); bold, entrepreneurial, visionary leadership that just keeps on moving out into the world with the gospel. Again, as I listen in awe, I can only rejoice.

Two quite different modes of gospel audacity; neither of them my own. I am less sacramentally oriented than my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and more liturgical/sacramental in my longings than is presently available at Kensington Church. Yet I recognize and gratefully acknowledge our commonality in the gospel. (And, lest I be misunderstood; neither place gave any evidence of “rivalry” or “selfish ambition.” On the contrary, selflessness and common commitment to mission were abundantly evident.)

In both instances, therefore, it seems to me that the purpose of the Reformation was present: recovery of the power of the gospel. I rejoice in that and confess to some envy for the audacity I encountered that day, and long for more of it for myself as well as for my church.

  • John is the Jean and Kenneth Baker Professor of Systematic Theology, Emeritus, of Calvin Theological Seminary.

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