Scripture puts the “outward, objective, historical view of the Gospel…before every other.”
M. F. Sadler, Church Doctrine—Bible Truth
Imagine a group of believers coming together to write up the ideal presentation of the Gospel. What might it sound like? Maybe there would be discussion on where to begin—with Scripture? with God the Father? with the sinner himself? How strongly should we state man’s fallen condition? Should we state it at all? Was Christ’s death a vicarious one? Should we mention social issues? Any number of churches might add any number of other specifications, denials, and statements. Not many of us, perhaps, would think to step back one or two paces and consider that the very phenomenon of presenting the Gospel as a list of affirmatives, negations, and commands is, well, odd. And not just odd; it is downright unscriptural.
Not that the Bible anywhere says, “Thou shalt not agglomerate statements one upon the other.” We aren’t even given any explicit template for how to present the Gospel. Every statement and every demand in this gospel presentation could be defensible by Scripture. But it still would be unscriptural, because it would not be in the form in which God Himself presented the Gospel in the Scriptures.
This is M. F. Sadler’s assertion in one chapter of his book Church Doctrine—Bible Truth. Sadler uses as one example the doctrine of election. Never in Scripture, he says, is the doctrine of election discussed apart from a narrative of some historical event, whether that be the calling and casting off of Israel as a chosen nation, and the choosing of the Gentiles, or the calling of the disciples as the new twelve tribes. Another example is the doctrine of the atonement. The doctrine itself gets relatively little treatment (for example, “He was wounded for our transgressions,” and following) when compared to the amount of narrative devoted to the actual sufferings of Christ—His agony and bloody sweat, His cross and passion, His death and burial.
Consider a few of the passages of Scripture that are more full of the abstractions of dogma: the early part of Hebrews, or I John 1, or the better part of Romans. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” “There is therefore now no condemnation…” “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” “Therefore he has mercy on whom he wills, and whom he wills he hardens.”
After discussing all this doctrine in Romans, what does Paul do? He bursts into a hymn of praise: “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” Dogma is a good thing; just not in isolation. The real problem with which Sadler contends is not the articulation of doctrine, but the exclusive focus upon doctrine apart from “historical facts.”
And why is this so important? “For anything that we know,” Sadler notes, “the exclusive contemplation of the doctrines apart from the facts of Redemption may nourish a Christian character very different from that which God desires to see in his children.” He doesn’t have positive things to say about the pleasantness of those characters which have been formed “by the exclusive contemplation” of evangelical doctrines: “not humble, not forbearing, not forgiving, not peaceable, not childlike, not unobtrusive.” Moreover, if God knows best how to bring men’s souls to faith, and as He has seen fit to present far more narrative of historical fact than teaching of abstract theology in His Word, ought we not to imitate Him?
Our own Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion are a list of doctrinal assertions. But they do have a few important distinctions from statements such as the Westminster Confession and more recent attempts at similar statements (e.g. T4G http://t4g.org/). First, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion do not attempt to be “the Gospel” or even a summary of it. Secondly, they are connected physically and literally to the Book of Common Prayer, and in the same way connected to the life of the Church as guided by the Book of Common Prayer. They are part of the same volume which contains the daily readings for morning and evening prayer, the exhortations, the confession, absolution, and comfortable words, the propers for each Sunday and feast day, and the offices for everything from baptism to burial. They don’t stand alone.
In this life of the Church we see God’s good provision for how His Church should continue to honor the union of story and application, of the historical and the doctrinal. Every Sunday, during the Office and the Order for Holy Communion, we are to hear, at the least, a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a reading from an Epistle, and a reading from one of the Gospels. We are furthermore instructed to make confession of sins, then are pardoned, and then assured from Scripture of our forgiveness, and through Whom we are forgiven. Then we are exhorted to come eat from Christ’s table. Each year we walk in Christ’s footsteps from conception to ascension, wondering at the mystery of Christmas, tasting of his sufferings during Lent, and rejoicing inexpressibly at Easter. “You never know someone until you walk around in His shoes” does sound trite, but is so very true.
Many of us have a great zeal for proclaiming the Gospel, and spill much ink and use much breath in our efforts. But the very form of the Gospel presentation we often use is mitigating the good that those efforts could do.