Getting the Gospel Right, R. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017 (repackaged edition, originally published 1999).
Summary: A critical discussion of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement “The Gift of Salvation” (1997) centering on what it sees as an inadequate understanding of justification by faith alone, accompanied by a discussion of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” a statement by evangelicals in response.
“…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)
Many Christians, surveying the landscape of a church riven through history by schism and division, believe this is a scandal that undermines witness to an unbelieving world. They find support for this idea in the prayer of Jesus for his followers, connecting their oneness to the world believing that the Father sent the Son. And this has moved some to come together with other believers from other parts of the church to see if they might articulate a common basis for a shared witness to the one Lord they believe in. In 1994, Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson convened a group of evangelical and Catholic leaders to see if this might be possible. Over the years this group has released a series of statements on various, often controverted, issues including justification, Scripture, the communion of the saints, Mary, the sanctity of life, religious freedom, and in 2015, a statement of marriage. The statements have explored both what might be affirmed in common, and what differences remain, while focusing on common witness to the risen Lord.
Needless to say, such efforts have come in for harsh criticism from evangelicals and Catholics alike. R.C. Sproul’s book, recently released in “repackaged” form represents an example of the criticism these statements have faced, focused here around the second of the statements, released in 1997, “The Gift of Salvation,” that addresses the matter of justification and the Reformers’ commitment to sola fide (justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone), a major fault line between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic church.
On its face, Sproul contends that “The Gift of Salvation” appears to be a statement evangelicals could embrace and a breakthrough affirmation by Catholics. In particular the statement affirms:
- Justification is received through faith,
- Justification is not earned by good works or merits of our own,
- Justification is entirely God’s gift,
- In justification God declares us to be his friends on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, and
- Faith is not mere intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, issuing in a changed life.
(Summary quoted from “An Appeal to Evangelicals” but essentially the same as Sproul).
Sproul finds that while, in the words of the statement “this agrees with sola fide,” it fails to affirm key ideas of what the Reformers meant by sola fide. In particular, these statements fail to deal with a crucial difference in how Christians are declared righteous friends of God. For Reformed believers, this has involved the believe in imputation–that our sins were imputed to Christ on the Christ and his righteousness imputed to us, apart from any work or merit on our part. The Catholic understands that while we are saved by grace through faith, this is assisted by God’s infusing of a person with a saving righteousness, with which it is important to cooperate in order to be justified. These and other differences are, in fact acknowledged in the statement as matters for further study and dialogue. For Sproul, the lack of agreement at this point undermines common witness, and in fact he contends that these are in fact different gospels.
The first part of the book discusses “The Gift of Salvation” with a statement by statement critical review. Sproul concedes the evangelical bona fides of the evangelicals who signed the statement and the good will of the signers but believes that the infelicities (at very least) or worse, the “studied ambiguities” that conveyed an apparent unity through the use of imprecise language that could be understood differently by each party are dangerous because they reflect a dangerous departure from sola fide.
The second part of the book begins with a statement drafted in response to “The Gift of Salvation” titled “The Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This statement summarizes a Reformed understanding and also includes a series of affirmations and denials to clearly delineate both what evangelicals do and do not believe. Sproul then expands upon each of these affirmations and denials. Signers of the statement include evangelical signers of “The Gift of Salvation” and evangelicals who disagreed with the statement–an effort to mend the rift within evangelicalism caused by the statement. The book concludes with appendices that contain the complete text of both statements, and lists of their signers.
Sproul could have been a great lawyer! Lawyers scrutinize language for any ambiguities that could lead to disagreement between contracting parties. He realizes that fuzziness of ideas or “studied ambiguities” generally end badly through misunderstandings or doctrinal drift. Both Catholic and Evangelical commentators on this statement have noted this concern. Sproul’s concerns and careful work cannot be lightly dismissed in an age that is careless with words and increasingly inured to a culture of deceit.
What troubled me was an attitude that seemed satisfied with affirming orthodox evangelical belief and differentiating it from Catholic belief, without any further effort to propose how the divide might be healed. Sproul certainly acknowledges there are genuine Catholic believers, but in contrast to Colson and Neuhaus, does not seem to have any sense of urgency for common witness amid the pressing challenges of our day, nor for efforts to root that witness in a shared theological understanding. Likewise, the book does not address more recent discussions around justification within the evangelical community resulting from New Perspective scholarship.
What I find myself wrestling with, while appreciating Sproul’s theological precision, is what seems an unspoken assumption that the Reformed tradition reached a terminus with statements like the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Confession, and likewise Catholicism in the Council of Trent. While each of these reflected a developing understanding, albeit contrasting, of the testimony of our shared scriptures, is no advance in understanding possible in our day? Is there no possibility of development of doctrine (such as occurred as the church sought to articulate its understanding of the Trinity and Incarnation in earlier centuries)? Have we concluded that no further understanding is possible of the authoritative testimony of scripture that could lead to agreements that are not exercises in “studied ambiguity”? And is there no value in proximate shared understandings along the way, that honestly acknowledge differences while affirming ways, and bases by which we might stand together in a secularizing age?
R. C. Sproul, and the signers of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” may well have gotten that gospel “right.” I found nothing with which I took exception. Yet my reading left me with questions of how we might be one, not merely “invisibly” as Sproul discusses in the beginning of this book, but in visible ways that the world may see, and thus believe.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.