“Woe Is Me If I Preach Not the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16)
St. Paul’s heartfelt exclamation of his calling before God has echoed down through the ages. The Christian church in all its many forms is called to preach the gospel—that is its purpose. There are many subsidiary activities that the church engages in, such as education, health care, and social justice. But the one constant factor that grounds the church is preaching the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Without this, the church has no purpose. If it loses its message, it will rapidly dwindle into irrelevance, if not complete nonexistence. But what is the gospel? How do we recognize it and determine whether we are being faithful to it or not?
Anglicans (Episcopalians) are just as concerned with this question as other Christians, but our history gives it a special resonance. At the time of the Reformation, England was the only country in the world where it was illegal to translate the Bible into the language of the people. That was because one hundred and fifty years earlier, John Wyclif (1328–84) had initiated a reform movement in the church that made Bible translation (and reading) central to its platform. As a result, English society was upturned and both church and state had to respond. They did so by banning translations of the Scriptures and subjecting the clergy to a licensing process that was designed to weed out troublemakers.
Thus, in the early sixteenth century when the Reformation spread from Germany to England, it arrived in a country that was unprepared for it. King Henry VIII (1509–47) broke with the papacy not because he became a Protestant, but because he wanted his marriage annulled and the pope would not oblige. England therefore found itself as a “Protestant” country with no Protestants in it! However, there was a small number of people who had read Martin Luther and his colleagues who were gradually persuaded of their teachings. England’s break with Rome gave these men the opportunity to preach that people are justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ and that no amount of human effort can earn their salvation. As this message sank in, the structures and worship patterns of the church changed to accommodate them. The English Reformers knew what they had to do: preach the gospel of justification by faith alone to their people and explain to them what it means.
To achieve their aim, they not only translated the Bible but also produced a number of supplemental teaching aids. In order to help any clergy who had difficulty with preaching, they produced a set of ready-made sermons called “Homilies.” They also developed English-language liturgies that eventually became the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the most characteristic feature of classical Anglicanism. At the heart of the Prayer Book is the Lord’s Supper, which reenacts the dramatic events surrounding the death of Christ on the cross and brings the Reformers’ message home. To read the service in the BCP is to come face-to-face with the gospel as the English Reformers believed it should be taught in their churches.
In its standard form, the Lord’s Supper begins with the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a plea that the hearts of the worshipers will be cleansed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that they might approach the Table in the right frame of mind. After that comes the Ten Commandments, the summary of the law of God that establishes the standard he expects from his people and from which we have all fallen away. We then move on to further prayer, readings from the Bible, the recitation of basic Christian doctrine in the Nicene Creed, and the sermon, which was placed at this point in order to emphasize that true preaching is the exposition of Scripture filtered through the framework of the church’s trinitarian and christological doctrine.
After that, we pray for the church, asking God to bind us together in unity by giving us his grace to live as we ought and receive his instruction in a humble spirit. Next there is the Exhortation, a somewhat lengthy warning from the minister about the solemnity of the Lord’s Supper. Although the Reformers made this Exhortation compulsory, for generations now it is usually passed over in silence; in modern liturgical revisions, it is omitted altogether. The result is that the heart of the Supper has been torn out and worshipers no longer receive any real guidance about what they are supposed to be doing. All that is left is the Invitation, which presupposes the Exhortation and must be recognized as a direct challenge to the congregation. In it, we find all the essentials of true Christian worship: first, we must repent of our sins—sincerely, not superficially; second, we must show love and charity to those around us; third, we must determine to lead a new life; and fourth, we must order our behavior according to God’s commandments—what Reformed theology has traditionally called the “third use of the law,” meaning that God’s commands are not merely a condemnation of our sinful ways but also a blueprint of instruction for leading the Christian life, or what has traditionally been known as “sanctification.”
The rest of the service works out these principles step by step; taken together, they inculcate the gospel in our hearts and minds. It will not all sink in at once. We do not always feel the urge to pray, and it is easy for familiar words to become monotonous to those who have learned them by heart. But it is also true that this kind of discipline implants a deep and instinctive knowledge in the mind of the recipient; and that as time goes on, the words and their meaning sink more deeply into the soul. Liturgy is not something for amateurs to dabble in, as a search for ever-new excitement, but a spiritual program designed for leading the new life we have been invited to share.
It is through the filter of this self-discipline, taught by the BCP, that questions concerning the gospel and its message are raised and discussed among Anglicans. We start with repentance, the indispensable foundation of all Christian experience. Repentance follows on what the Bible calls “conviction of sin” (John 16:8). Without that, no salvation is possible because the need for it is not recognized. Sin is not to be confused with unhappiness, frustration, or low self-esteem, as it often is in the modern world. Sin is disobedience to the commands of God, which incurs guilt on our part. We repent because we are guilty, and we seek forgiveness from God for the same reason. If we do not come to him with a repentant heart, we are wasting our time. Worse, we are in effect mocking the gospel message by demonstrating that we do not understand what it is.
The second stage involves love and charity toward our neighbors. This sounds easy, but in fact it is very difficult—perhaps the most difficult part of the entire exercise. Yet it is a fundamental part of the famous Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:23–24). It is also a reminder to us that the gospel is not a private affair between an individual and Jesus, but a public commitment that involves reconciliation with other people as well as with God. For a variety of reasons, such reconciliation is not always possible—those with whom we have fallen out may not be readily accessible or may be unwilling to reciprocate. Although to be in love and charity with our neighbors does not always lead to reconciliation, we still need to be open to it and not seek vengeance for wrongs that have been done to us.
The third stage is that we must intend to lead a new life. In the modern world, this has become a stumbling block for many. Today, we are constantly being told that we must accept people as they are, because that is what Jesus supposedly did. Like many things, that is a half-truth. For example, Jesus “accepted” the woman caught in adultery, and although he did not condemn her, he did not bless her behavior either. His message to her was “Go and sin no more” (John 7:53–8:11). Struggling against sin is never easy, and Christians have a harder time of it than others because they have a clearer understanding of what sin is. But the gospel demands that it be struggled against. Failure to preach the gospel of the transforming power of God is to deprive people of access to that heavenly gift and to betray the gospel.
Finally, the gospel message is that in Christ and by the power of his Holy Spirit, we can follow the commands of God and walk in his holy ways. The gospel is not a temporary fix for an essentially insoluble problem. The Reformers rejected the medieval system of confession and penitence because it was an endlessly repeated cycle with no real hope of deliverance. Sinners were not set free from the burden of their sins; they were locked into a system where they had to keep returning to the priest, seeking more grace to pay for the wrongs they had committed; hence the insistence in the BCP’s Words of Institution that the offering of Christ on the cross was “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” Nothing more and nothing else is required.
This is the heart of the gospel and the heart of Anglicanism. You can believe the gospel without being Anglican, but you cannot be Anglican without holding to the gospel that the BCP so clearly and comprehensively sets out before us in the Lord’s Supper.
Gerald Bray is research professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.