This year is a big one for Evangelicals. 31 October will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. That event sparked what we call the Protestant Reformation.
Luther and his friends rediscovered the gospel. At its heart is the glorious reality that ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17). Justification — our being made right with God — is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Add merit to grace and it is no longer biblical grace. Add works to faith and it is no longer gospel faith. Add anything to Christ and you take away everything from his finished work on the cross at Calvary.
Luther and Calvin
After centuries of darkness, the light shined again. John Calvin and others built on the work of Luther and his friends. The Bible was once more front and centre, which led to a thoroughgoing reformation of doctrine, worship and practice.
Any notion that the Reformation was mistaken or is no longer relevant must be resisted. Roman Catholicism has not changed fundamentally. The teaching of Rome, as publicly stated in its official documents, is still as unbiblical and anti-gospel as ever.
The Apostles’ Creed commits us to belief in ‘the holy catholic church’. That has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, it refers to the universal church of Jesus Christ, down the generations and across the nations.
Theology rightly distinguishes between the church local and the church universal. A local church is any congregation to which an individual Christian belongs in one place at one time. The universal church includes all God’s elect people throughout world history.
Universal and local
Both the universal and the local church are important in Christian experience. Membership of the universal does not render the local unnecessary. Equally, active involvement locally should never be so all-absorbing that the wider cause is forgotten or disregarded.
If local churches are often problematic, then the universal church is arguably more so. Not all churches are true churches, and gospel discernment is necessary. It is vital to judge by biblical criteria, and draw lines in the right places.
Luther described the doctrine of justification as the article of faith that decides whether a church is standing or falling. Agree on justification, and you have the gospel in common. Disagree on justification, and you have no basis for fellowship.
The Reformers were no more perfectly sanctified than evangelicals today. Faults can easily be found in both their words and actions. And yet, throbbing through so many of their writings is a wonderful catholicity of spirit towards all genuine believers.
Catholicity of spirit
It is good to be zealous for the biblical gospel. True doctrine and right practice should be prized. Catholicity of spirit, however, is perhaps one aspect of the Reformers’ legacy that is not taken as seriously as it should be.
For the Reformers, to be Reformed was to be ‘catholic’, in terms of evidencing this warm spirit towards others. It was not an optional extra, far less something they regarded as suspicious. It was a non-negotiable part of the package.
John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan was Hebrew Professor at New College, Edinburgh, in the mid-1800s. He famously said, ‘I am first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order’.
In just a couple of sentences, Duncan brilliantly demonstrates that, while all convictions are important, some are more so and others less so. It is possible to preach the orthodox gospel and yet deny it by a failure of catholicity.
Primary and secondary
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones made a lot of distinguishing between primary and secondary doctrinal issues. He argued strongly that Christians and churches should not allow differences over matters which are not essential to the gospel to divide them. Such would be schism.
This centre ground of evangelicalism is not as well populated as once it was. Some have reinterpreted the primary-secondary distinction to relegate secondary issues to the level of the inconsequential; others are denying the primary-secondary distinction altogether. Both extremes are dangerous.
The Bible has a lot to say about innumerable secondary issues. While God’s Word is most definitely gospel-centred, it is in no way one-dimensional. The true gospel will always need a biblically ordered church in order to survive and thrive.
At the same time, Scripture constantly emphasises the fundamental non-negotiables. To equate secondaries with primaries will inevitably lead to majoring on minors, and focusing on what divides rather than what unites. It holes catholicity of spirit below the water line.
Loving one another
For far too long, Reformed evangelicalism has been wracked by petty divisions, unnecessary splits and all-out bust-ups. God is dishonoured, his people discouraged, his gospel discredited and the world disillusioned. Whatever happened to our Lord’s command to love one another?
Christ prayed for his church, ‘That they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me’ (John 17:21).
Whatever that might mean, it clearly shows that our attitude towards other Christians and churches is a key element in our gospel identity. If God has loved us, then we should love one another. Gospel people love other gospel people.
Jeremy Brooks is pastor of Welcome Hall Evangelical Church, Bromsgrove. He chairs the Dudley Reformed ministers’ fraternal, teaches ethics at the European School of Biblical Studies, and is vice-chair of EP Books. Married to Lydia, they are blessed with eight children.