The Gospel According to the Sacraments, Part 1
December 12, 2017

My first title for this series of posts was “Evangelical Sacramental Ecumenism” – not exactly a clickbait title. But those three words, evangelical, sacramental, and ecumenical, say a lot: The centrality of the gospel; a focus on baptism, bread, and wine; and the quest for visible unity among diverse churches. When they are put together they say even more: The visible unity of the churches is located in our shared participation in a common baptism and in the Lord’s Supper precisely because baptism and communion are signs of the gospel. Still a mouthful and we haven’t even gotten to the problem yet—and it’s a big one. Evangelicals tend to be somewhat indifferent to the sacraments, and largely suspicious or unaware of the ecumenical movement.((There are exceptions, of course, the evangelical pastor-theologian John Stott wrote frequently on the sacraments and in 1994 a number of evangelicals signed an ecumenical document entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Also notable is the recent Reforming Catholic Confession that many evangelicals signed. For an excellent history of the evangelical movement as well as an examination of evangelical participation in it, see R. David Nelson and Charles Raith II, Ecumenism: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2017).)) For diverse reasons, evangelicalism has coexisted in the larger Christian world alongside sacramentalism and ecumenism with minimal interaction for over a century.

What I hope to accomplish in this three-post series is to nudge evangelicalism, sacramentalism, and ecumenism closer together. There is a largely unrealized correlation between the evangelical movement’s passion for the gospel and the ecumenical movement’s pursuit of visible unity that both converge in the sacraments of baptism and communion. However, before demonstrating how these three entwine, it will be necessary to independently define each.

Evangelicalism, Sacramentalism, and Ecumenism Defined

First, David Bebbington famously identified evangelicalism with four marks: an emphasis on personal conversion, actively living out the gospel, a high regard for scripture, and the centrality of cross for salvation.((These four marks are commonly referred to as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.” See, Robert Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1988), 2-3. This fourfold understanding of evangelicalism continues to be influential as seen in the 2015 National Association of Evangelicals and LifeWay Research definition. See, “NAE, LifeWay Research Publish Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition,” I think these four marks, frequently called the Bebbington quadrilateral are mostly right. However, I want to offer a slight nuance. These four characteristics describe how evangelicals seek to centralize the whole of the Christian life around the gospel, but the gospel is what orients evangelicalism. It is after all the gospel (euaggelion) from which the evangelical movement derives its name. As people who are passionate about the gospel, conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism name ways of organizing life around the good news of Jesus Christ.

Secondly, sacramentalism examines the doctrinal significance of the rituals that make the church sacred. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic churches all recognize seven sacraments in their ecclesial life while Protestants have historically only recognized two. However, across these diverse traditions, baptism and communion are held in a special place of honor in the life of the churches. Lastly, ecumenism is a global movement desiring visible unity within the fractured church. As such, ecumenism is expressed in diverse forms. Most common are the quest for institutional, doctrinal, or ethical unity.

Evangelicalism, Sacramentalism, and Ecumenism Entwined

            At first glance, it is not immediately apparent how the evangelical movement, sacramental theology, and the ecumenical movement entwine together, but it is precisely in the gospel expressed and remembered in baptism and communion where the evangelical and ecumenical movements meet. A gospel can take two different forms in the ancient world: 1) a succinct statement, “The enemy is defeated” or “Caesar is Lord”; 2) the narration of a story that highlights particular events as critical revolutionary moments (such as a birthday or a battle) when the tides shifted in favor of a particular ruler. In sum, a gospel is an announcement of enthronement.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is no different. It is both a statement – Jesus Christ is Lord; and a story – Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus has defeated sin, Satan, and Caesar and been enthroned as the cosmic Lord of heaven and earth. Different passages of scripture highlight different dimensions of the one gospel. Texts such as Romans 1:1-6, 1 Cor. 15:1-11, and 2 Tim. 2:8-10 are places where Paul summarizes the gospel as the prophetic promise concerning the Son of David, raised from the dead, enthroned as Lord, and the call of all people to place their faith in him. Other texts such as Gal. 3:26-29; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 2:11-22 announce the tearing down of the wall that separated races, classes, and genders uniting them as co-heirs to the kingdom and co-members of the one body in Christ. Thus, there are simultaneously two dimensions to the gospel: union with the enthroned Christ by faith and the unity of Christ’s people with one another.

The place where union with Christ and the unity of the body of Christ is visibly expressed and remembered is in the gospel signs of baptism and communion. Baptism is a sign of Christian union with Christ (Rom. 6:4) and of the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16). It is also a sign of the unity of the body of Christ: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free” (1 Cor. 12:13). Similarly, communion is the sign of the new covenant in Christ’s blood (Lk. 22:20) and of the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:28). At the same time, it is a sign of Christian unity: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).

Situating baptism and communion as the location of visible unity in the church is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it cuts through the doctrinal divisions in the churches. There is a difference between a disagreement over the statement and story of the gospel and disagreement over the interpretation of the gospel. If we share in a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord—sent from the Father, empowered by the Sprit, crucified for sinners, raised to life, ascended in glory, and returning in power—then we must share in the signs of that gospel despite our differences of interpretation of the statement and story of the gospel. If, however, we do not agree on the very content of the gospel statement and story, as we do not with communities like the Unitarian and Mormon churches, then we respectfully disagree and dare not share in the gospel signs of baptism and communion with them.((For more on the difference between agreement on gospel content and intpretation of that content, see Kevin Vanhoozer’s helpful book Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016).))


If the gospel is the unifying principle to the entire Christian life, and if baptism and communion visibly enact and remember that gospel as simultaneously union with Christ and the unity of the body of Christ, then the pursuit of visible unity among the Christian traditions that all confess “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” is, indeed, a gospel concern. This is precisely where evangelicalism’s passion for the gospel can drive us to ecumenism. In the next post, I will examine the problems and failures of both the evangelical and ecumenical movements and propose a possible way forward for the pursuit of unity.

Michael Spalione is a Ph.D. student at Trinity College, Bristol.

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