Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

The Evan­gel­i­cal Tra­di­tion is com­prised of three great themes: first, and fore­most, the faith­ful procla­ma­tion of the gospel; sec­ond, the cen­tral­i­ty of Scrip­ture as a faith­ful repos­i­to­ry of the gospel; and third, the con­fes­sion­al wit­ness of the ear­ly Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty as a faith­ful inter­pre­ta­tion of the gospel. 

A Faith­ful Proclamation 

The evan­gel mes­sage is the good news of redemp­tion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, pow­er­ful­ly cap­tured in the words of the Apos­tle Paul: If any­one is in Christ, he is a new cre­ation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who rec­on­ciled us to him­self through Christ and gave us the min­istry of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.… We are there­fore Christ’s ambas­sadors, as though God were mak­ing his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be rec­on­ciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:17 – 20NIV).

This evan­gel, this euan­ge­lion, this won­der­ful good news is that we no longer have to stand out­side, barred from near­ness to God by our sin and rebel­lion. Know­ing that we are a stiff-necked and hard­heart­ed peo­ple, God has pro­vid­ed us a way into his heart. And that way is through him who says, I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus Christ is the door that opens into God’s great grace and mercy. 

The evan­gel mes­sage is root­ed in the per­son of Jesus Christ, the Word of God liv­ing. In the Christ event — Jesus’ birth, life, death, and res­ur­rec­tion — the way has been opened for us to be rec­on­ciled to God. 

Jesus him­self announced this good news of the gospel in his cryp­tic call, Repent, for the king­dom of heav­en has come near” (Matt. 4:17). The word repent here means lit­er­al­ly to turn around in your mind.” In oth­er words, we should reeval­u­ate our whole way of liv­ing in light of this great fact: in the per­son of Jesus Christ the king­dom of heav­en has been made acces­si­ble to human beings.1

What does this mean? It means that we can be rec­on­ciled to God. It means that we can be made new. It means that we can be born from above. It means that we can expe­ri­ence the for­give­ness of sins through the aton­ing death of Jesus on the cross.2 It means that we can enter a lov­ing, liv­ing, eter­nal rela­tion­ship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ the Son, by the pow­er of the Holy Spir­it. Sure­ly this is great, good news! 

Lis­ten to Jesus’ grand invi­ta­tion of grace: Come to me, all you that are weary and are car­ry­ing heavy bur­dens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gen­tle and hum­ble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my bur­den is light” (Matt 11:28 – 30). 

So we are invit­ed into a new life in Christ. And that new life is ours by faith alone. There are no things we do to get good enough to receive this life. It is all grace and all gift: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8 – 9). In the words of P. T. Forsyth, Chris­tian­i­ty is not the sac­ri­fice we make, but the sac­ri­fice we trust; not the vic­to­ry we win, but the vic­to­ry we inher­it. That is the evan­gel­i­cal prin­ci­ple.”3

Please under­stand, we are not here talk­ing exclu­sive­ly (or even pri­mar­i­ly) about how we may get into heav­en when we die. Get­ting into heav­en is a mat­ter of gen­uine con­se­quence (and it does, in fact, come as part of the total pack­age), but the evan­gel of the gospel is that abun­dant life in Christ begins now, and death becomes only a minor tran­si­tion from this life to greater Life. 

So the evan­gel, the good news of the gospel, is that we enter into life in Christ as his dis­ci­ple right now. It is not that we believe now, enrolling as his dis­ci­ple at some lat­er point if we are so inclined (as if it were pos­si­ble to believe with­out being his dis­ci­ple). Believ­ing in Jesus and dis­ci­ple­ship to Jesus are part of the same action. We accept Jesus Christ, the liv­ing Word of God, as our life. He then promis­es to be yoked to us as we are yoked to him, and to teach us how to live our life as he would live it if he were in our place. He is alive and among us in all his offices: as our Sav­ior to redeem us, as our Teacher to guide us, as our Lord to rule us, and as our Friend to come along­side us. In this way we grow ever more into Christ­like­ness, for those whom [God] foreknew he also pre­des­tined to be con­formed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29a).

Even more, we are giv­en the hon­or of shar­ing this good news of ongo­ing life in Christ with all peo­ples: Go there­fore and make dis­ci­ples of all nations, bap­tiz­ing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spir­it, and teach­ing them to obey every­thing that I have com­mand­ed you” (Matt. 28:19 – 20a).

Now, we do not do this with­out the work­ing of this trans­form­ing life in our­selves. We can­not preach the good news and be the bad news. So, mak­ing the nec­es­sary cul­tur­al adjust­ments, we step into the life of the Gospels and do what they did and live as they lived. As we take the words of Christ into our hearts, and those around us — see­ing the trans­form­ing pow­er of God in us — say, We need to get in on this.” What we are offer­ing the world is life as it was meant to be. 

Remem­ber, we are call­ing peo­ple not mere­ly to accept a set of beliefs about Jesus that will some­how trip the divine lever and get them into heav­en when they die. Oh, no! We are call­ing peo­ple to turn to Jesus as their life. We are invit­ing peo­ple to believe in Jesus by becom­ing his dis­ci­ples, and as his dis­ci­ples (or appren­tices) to enroll in his school of liv­ing. Thus peo­ple become trained in the Way, increas­ing­ly tak­ing into them­selves Jesus’ hopes, dreams, long­ings, habits, and abil­i­ties. This is how they learn to obey every­thing that I have com­mand­ed you.” There sim­ply is no oth­er way. 

A Faith­ful Repository 

This evan­gel mes­sage has been faith­ful­ly pre­served and pre­sent­ed to us in Scrip­ture. The Bible is the Word of God writ­ten, just as Jesus is the Word of God liv­ing. Evan­gel­i­cal faith is bib­li­cal faith. The Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — stand at the heart of the bib­li­cal wit­ness, for they faith­ful­ly give us the Christ event. The Epis­tles are the inter­pre­ta­tive record of the Christ event, and we receive the Hebrew Scrip­tures as the writ­ten Word of God because Jesus did. And Paul’s con­fes­sion­al state­ment is ours as well: All scrip­ture is inspired by God and is use­ful for teach­ing, for reproof, for cor­rec­tion, and for train­ing in right­eous­ness, so that every­one who belongs to God may be pro­fi­cient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16 – 17). 

Many and var­ied are the apolo­getic wit­ness­es to the inspi­ra­tion and author­i­ty of Scrip­ture, and beyond affirm­ing their valid­i­ty, we need not go into them here. But along­side them we can add what the old writ­ers called the indi­cia , the inward tes­ti­mo­ny of Scrip­ture, for it is the uni­form wit­ness of the Church that, as illu­mi­nat­ed by the Spir­it, Scrip­ture authen­ti­cates itself. 

The evan­gel­i­cal wit­ness affirms the pri­ma­cy of Scrip­ture as the only infal­li­ble rule of faith and prac­tice. This can­not be stressed enough. Scrip­ture has pri­ma­cy over oth­er writ­ings; pri­ma­cy over church tra­di­tion; pri­ma­cy over indi­vid­ual reli­gious expe­ri­ence; pri­ma­cy over the indi­vid­ual con­science; pri­ma­cy over indi­vid­ual rev­e­la­tions, dreams, and visions; pri­ma­cy over cul­ture.4 As the Protes­tant reform­ers put it, Sola Scrip­tura, the Scrip­ture alone. This impor­tant con­fes­sion gives us a stan­dard or a norm for dis­cern­ing faith and prac­tice. The­olo­gians, in fact, call Scrip­ture the for­mal norm” (just as Jesus and his mes­sage are the mate­r­i­al norm”) for Chris­t­ian faith and prac­tice. This by no means solves all of our prob­lems, for huge ques­tions of inter­pre­ta­tion (hermeneu­tics) remain, but it does give us a basis upon which to work on the var­i­ous prob­lems that con­front us almost daily. 

A Faith­ful Interpretation 

The evan­gel mes­sage of new life in Christ spread rapid­ly to vir­tu­al­ly every cul­ture and peo­ple group in the known world of that day. Soon, how­ev­er, com­pet­ing views began to emerge, some claim­ing to replace or even sur­pass the good news of the gospel. Clar­i­fi­ca­tion was need­ed. In the New Tes­ta­ment Epis­tles, espe­cial­ly those attrib­uted to Paul, we see the begin­nings of this clar­i­fi­ca­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion of the Christ event. We can­not, for exam­ple, read Paul’s great chris­to­log­i­cal state­ment in Colos­sians 1:15 – 20 with­out the deep­est admi­ra­tion and thanks­giv­ing to God for it: 

He is the image of the invis­i­ble God, the first­born of all cre­ation; for in him all things in heav­en and on earth were cre­at­ed, things vis­i­ble and invis­i­ble, whether thrones or domin­ions or rulers or pow­ers all things have been cre­at­ed through him and for him. He him­self is before all things, and in him all things hold togeth­er. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the begin­ning, the first­born from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in every­thing. For in him all the full­ness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to rec­on­cile to him­self all things, whether on earth or in heav­en, by mak­ing peace through the blood of his cross. 

This clar­i­fy­ing and inter­pret­ing work con­tin­ued on for some time — rough­ly five cen­turies. Sev­er­al great ecu­meni­cal coun­cils” were held dur­ing those years to ham­mer out as clear an under­stand­ing of the Christ event as pos­si­ble.5 A pre­cur­sor to these coun­cils, as you may know, is record­ed in our Bible the momen­tous Jerusalem Coun­cil of Acts 15, con­vened to clar­i­fy the grounds of sal­va­tion for Gen­tile dis­ci­ples. (We might wish that all of the sub­se­quent gath­er­ings had the same Spir­it-dri­ven unity.) 

The debates at these ecu­meni­cal coun­cils were high­ly sig­nif­i­cant, for oppos­ing posi­tions abound­ed: Gnos­ti­cism and Mar­cionism and Mon­tanism and Ari­an­ism and Nesto­ri­an­ism and Pela­gian­ism and more.6 Per­haps the three most impor­tant coun­cils were Nicea in A.D. 325 (which con­fessed Christ as ful­ly divine), Con­stan­tino­ple in A.D. 381 (which con­fessed Christ as ful­ly human), and Chal­cedon in A.D. 451 (which con­fessed the uni­ty of Christ two natures, one person). 

These were mat­ters of no small con­se­quence, and what the coun­cils con­clud­ed in regard to them has defined and clar­i­fied the Christ event for the Church ever after. For exam­ple, the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty has for fif­teen hun­dred years looked to the Coun­cil of Chal­cedon as pro­vid­ing the foun­da­tion of the doc­trine of sal­va­tion in the unique God-man, Jesus Christ. 

Prob­a­bly the most famous of the clar­i­fy­ing state­ments from these ecu­meni­cal coun­cils is the Nicene Creed, which grew out of and was named after the Coun­cil of Nicea. In its words we can see how care­ful­ly and forth­right­ly it was cor­rect­ing the Ari­an notion that Christ was a cre­at­ed being and the Nesto­ri­an idea that Christ was two dis­tinct beings. This state­ment is so pow­er­ful and so foun­da­tion­al to Chris­t­ian con­vic­tion that it is best quot­ed in full: 

We believe in one God the Father All-sov­er­eign, mak­er of heav­en and earth, and of all things vis­i­ble and invis­i­ble; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begot­ten Son of God, Begot­ten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begot­ten not made, of one sub­stance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our sal­va­tion came down from the heav­ens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spir­it and the Vir­gin Mary, and became man, and was cru­ci­fied for us under Pon­tius Pilate, and suf­fered and was buried, and rose again on the third day accord­ing to the Scrip­tures, and ascend­ed into the heav­ens, and sit­teth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glo­ry to judge liv­ing and dead, of whose king­dom there shall be no end: And in the Holy Spir­it, the Lord and the Life-giv­er, that pro­ceedeth from the Father, who with Father and Son is wor­shipped togeth­er and glo­ri­fied togeth­er, who spake through the prophets: In one holy Catholic and Apos­tolic Church: We acknowl­edge one bap­tism unto remis­sion of sins. We look for a res­ur­rec­tion of the dead, and the life of the age to come.6

These affir­ma­tions and creeds, which seek to inter­pret and clar­i­fy the Christ event, must nev­er car­ry the same weight and author­i­ty as Scrip­ture, for evan­gel­i­cal con­vic­tion always calls for the pri­ma­cy of Scrip­ture as the for­mal norm in mat­ters of faith and prac­tice; but they are con­fes­sion­al state­ments of immense impor­tance. Authen­tic evan­gel­i­cal wit­ness is root­ed in doc­tri­nal fideli­ty as well as the trans­form­ing expe­ri­ence of con­ver­sion. What we believe mat­ters, and the Evan­gel­i­cal Tra­di­tion has always con­cerned itself with clar­i­ty in belief. (Did you notice how much of this clar­i­fy­ing work Augus­tine did through­out his ministry?) 

Such doc­tri­nal con­cerns as the deity and human­i­ty of Christ, his res­ur­rec­tion from the dead, and the doc­trine of the Trin­i­ty are of prime inter­est to evan­gel­i­cal wit­ness. Why? Because they, and oth­er doc­tri­nal beliefs like them, hold us to a faith­ful inter­pre­ta­tion of the Christ event. This in turn enables us to pro­claim the good news of the gospel, the evan­gel, with fideli­ty and integrity.

Related Podcast

Excerpt­ed from Streams of Liv­ing Water by Richard J. Fos­ter, pub­lished by Harper­One. Copy­right Richard J. Fos­ter. Used with permission.

[1] The word we trans­late repent is meta­noeo. Meta,” in this con­text, means to turn around or to go in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion, while noeo” or nous” means the mind, the under­stand­ing, the intel­lect hence turn around in your mind.” Jesus is telling us to reeval­u­ate every­thing we have under­stood about life, for his pres­ence and his mes­sage of the king­dom change absolute­ly everything.

[2] Some may won­der why I do not say more about the vic­ar­i­ous, sub­sti­tu­tion­ary death of Christ on the cross for the for­give­ness of sins. The answer is not that I feel these mat­ters are unim­por­tant, but that I do not want peo­ple to mis­take a the­o­ry of the atone­ment for the expe­ri­ence of sav­ing grace. Per­son­al­ly, I hold that Christ’s death on the cross sat­is­fied the jus­tice of God and opened the way for our rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with God, depen­dent upon our repen­tance and accep­tance of the free gift of sal­va­tion. But again, this is one the­o­ry of the atone­ment, and many peo­ple have no doubt expe­ri­enced sav­ing grace and abun­dant life with Christ as his dis­ci­ple with­out believ­ing every jot and tit­tle of this par­tic­u­lar the­o­ry. Of course, if I were writ­ing a the­ol­o­gy of the cross, I would delve into the doc­trine of the atone­ment in detail.

[3] As quot­ed in Don­ald G. Bloesch, Essen­tials of Evan­gel­i­cal The­ol­o­gy, vol. 1 (San Fran­cis­co: Harp­er & Row, 1978), p.7.

[4] This pri­ma­cy list is tak­en from Don­ald G. Bloesch, who has an extend­ed dis­cus­sion of each item list­ed. See Essen­tials of Evan­gel­i­cal The­ol­o­gy, vol. 1, chap 4.

[5] For a list­ing and dis­cus­sion of each of the sev­en ecu­meni­cal coun­cils, see Appen­dix A in Streams of Liv­ing Water.

[6] Doc­u­ments of the Chris­t­ian Church, 2nd ed., sel. and ed. Hen­ry Bet­ten­son (Lon­don: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1963), p. 26. The Nicene Creed went through sev­er­al stages of devel­op­ment, from the gath­er­ing at Nicea ( A.D. 325) to Con­stan­tino­ple ( A.D. 381) to Chal­cedon ( A.D. 451), where the creed took the form that is quot­ed in the text. If you com­pare this state­ment to the creed as we find it today, you will note some fur­ther devel­op­ment, although the sub­stance is the same. 

There are four ecu­meni­cal” creeds: 

1. The Apos­tles’ Creed, attrib­uted to the orig­i­nal apos­tles but most like­ly adapt­ed from an ancient Roman bap­tismal creed of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry. The present form of the creed appeared around the sixth century. 

2. The Nicene Creed, giv­en in the text. 

3. The Chal­cedon­ian Creed, for­mu­lat­ed in A.D. 451 to clar­i­fy the two natures of Christ — the rela­tion­ship between his human­i­ty and his divinity. 

4. The Athanasian Creed, wrong­ly attrib­uted by tra­di­tion to Athana­sius. Though the real author and ori­gin are unknown, this creed was prob­a­bly writ­ten between the fifth and sev­enth cen­turies. The doc­trines of the Trin­i­ty and the incar­na­tion are devel­oped in it. 

Still oth­er faith state­ments have been devel­oped through the cen­turies, such as the Augs­burg Con­fes­sion (Luther­an), the West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith (Reformed), and the Rich­mond Dec­la­ra­tion of Faith (Quak­er). These should be thought of as ancil­lary teach­ings rein­forc­ing par­tic­u­lar denom­i­na­tion­al dis­tinc­tives rather than as essen­tial to evan­gel­i­cal faith and witness.

Text First Published October 1998

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

View Selections & Learn More >