by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
The Centrality of the Gospel
We affirm the centrality of the gospel—the good news of salvation through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God—for Christian faith, life, and worship.
In this manifesto we are staking a claim for a specifically evangelical Baptist catholicity. Other Baptist groups outside of North American evangelicalism have carried on important work in situating the Baptist tradition within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. But we are seeking to chart a course for a self-consciously evangelical expression of this impulse.
We need to be careful to note at the outset that we are using the term “evangelical” in an explicitly theological sense, not in a political or sociological sense. There has been some debate in recent years about the utility of the evangelical label, given the fact that it has been coopted by some—both inside and outside the evangelical camp—to service an almost exclusively political and cultural agenda. To the degree that “evangelical” has come to connote a particular voting bloc in American politics, we sympathize with those wary of the label. Still, we believe that the term has such a rich history of meaning that it can still be rehabilitated to express succinctly an abiding commitment to the evangel, the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, that is shared by a variety of orthodox Protestant traditions. In this way, evangelicalism can trace its lineage not only to the postwar neo-evangelical movement but back behind it to the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, the confessional symbols of the post-Reformation era, the theological insights of the Reformation itself, and indeed to the whole of Christian history to the extent it has been committed to the life-giving message of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection.
We define the gospel as “the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.” Even this listing is not exhaustive, but entails other aspects of Christ’s work, such as his active obedience, his descent to the dead, his ascension to and ongoing reign at the Father’s right hand, the gift of the Spirit, and his promised return in glory. The content of the gospel is quite simply Jesus himself—who he is and what he came to do for the salvation of the world. As such, the gospel is not an all-inclusive category. The gospel is not everything good that we can do or say. The gospel is not even everything that Scripture teaches (we have to account for the law of God as well). Instead, the gospel is the announcement that the kingdom of God—the saving reign and rule of God—has come in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Defining the term in this way allows us to conceive of the gospel as informing all of Christian faith and practice as its fount and source but without reducing every debate to a “gospel issue” that calls into question the Christian faithfulness of our theological opponents. To be more specific, we do not believe that the gospel should be confused with a particular version of the ordo salutis, or order of salvation. Nor should it necessarily be identified with a particular view on the mechanics of atonement. These theological debates, as important as they are, constitute second order reflections on the gospel – the good news that Christ has come “for us and for our salvation.” Those committed to this good news of salvation in Jesus Christ can have spirited and charitable debates about what exactly that gospel implies and how it works in the lives of sinners.
Neither should the gospel be confused with a presentation of the gospel. An effective gospel presentation to an unbeliever could include any number of biblical stories and themes that serve an explanation of the identity and saving mission of Jesus Christ, culminating in an appeal for the unbeliever to repent and believe in the gospel. But the gospel itself is that climactic announcement of Jesus Christ that compels the response.
Defining the gospel in such specific terms should not be misunderstood as a narrowing of its power or implications. To the contrary, we would argue for the expansion of many truncated versions of the gospel’s range of influence. The gospel is often truncated in many ways even within evangelicalism. The cross is cut off from the resurrection. The atonement is cut off from the incarnation. Personal salvation is cut off from the gospel’s corporate and, indeed, cosmic implications. Issues related to socio-economic and racial justice are sometimes treated as optional or detracting. Faithfulness to the gospel is often identified with voting for a particular political party. We do not wish to see the gospel shrink but to see it expand in our theological and ethical systems. But we believe that a carefully tailored biblical definition of the gospel allows for Christians from diverse traditions to share common cause in Christ, even as they allow space for disagreement regarding mechanics and means to ends.
So how does a commitment to the gospel serve the quest for Baptist catholicity? It is no exaggeration to say, in every way! If we are to find common cause with fellow Christians both within our own Baptist tradition and across denominational lines, it must be grounded in the gospel and in the service of the gospel’s expansion. If the goal and purpose of the church is the worship of Christ and the evangelization of the world in his name, then the gospel must be and ever remain at the heart of all our strivings and all our longings.