Clarity about the gospel of Jesus Christ is a part of who we are in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. J. Gresham Machen and his associates organized our denomination in 1936 because they would not passively cohabitate in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. with those who preached a different gospel. Put another way, our forebears simply could not tolerate ambiguity regarding the gospel. Who Jesus is, what he did to rescue us, and how we must respond are far too important to make clear.
A passion for the clarity of the gospel remains a cornerstone of our denomination’s Christian identity today. In an age of rapid defection from the truth, in a day when the serpent’s whisper, “Did God actually say …?” is echoed even by many professing Christians, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church must be clear about the gospel of Jesus Christ. It isn’t just our heritage. It is our only hope—our only comfort in life and in death.
But the question I want to explore in these articles is not “Are we clear about the gospel in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?” Rather, the question I wish to explore is a related question: “Are we making the gospel clear to others?” The question I have in mind is not a matter of our confession, but rather of our communication.
The question of how we communicate the gospel becomes all the more urgent as we consider our shifting cultural landscape. Even within my relatively brief lifetime, the changes have been dramatic, rapid, and widespread. Whether or not the United States, Canada, and other Western nations were ever “Christian nations” is a debatable question, both historically and theologically. But regardless of bygone history, our present situation is far different. Whether or not we ever lived in “Christendom” in the past, the reality is that we now live on a mission field.
The fact that Western societies are now mission fields should encourage us. Why? Because we serve a missionary God! Yes, a secular culture presents various obstacles. But it also presents opportunities. Michael Green, a historian of the early church, has observed that pluralistic Greco-Roman people of the first century felt a desperate need for “cleansing, security, and immortality” (Evangelism in the Early Church, p. 22). For all our technological sophistication, are twenty-first century Westerners that much different? In every age, people are still people. And, more importantly, God is still God.
If we remember these two facts, then we have every ground for encouragement in evangelism. Now as then, the gospel will change life and destiny forever. Now as then, the church bears the same witness: “Here were men and women of every rank and station in life, of every country in the known world, so convinced that they had discovered the riddle of the universe, so sure of the one true God whom they had come to know, that nothing must stand in the way of their passing on this good news to others” (Green, Evangelism, p. 236).
Yet it is at this point—the point of passing on the good news to others—that our new missionary context presents us with a challenge. In a context where our surrounding culture no longer takes its moral or spiritual assumptions from the teachings of Christianity, how do we most effectively communicate the good news? How do we make the gospel clear? This is our challenge.
In facing this challenge, we can learn much from two earlier periods in the history of the church where the gospel faced extensive cultural barriers. The first of these was the early church—the centuries in which the gospel exploded into the darkness of Greco-Roman paganism. The second was the period of the Reformation—when the gospel was rediscovered amidst the darkness of Roman Catholic ritualism.
Although both of these periods were different in many significant ways, they faced a similar challenge of communication: how can Christians proclaim Christ clearly to people whose notions of biblical truth are either completely lacking or seriously flawed? For the remainder of this article, let’s take a brief look at the period of the Reformation.
How did the Protestant Reformers seek to make the gospel clear in their day? Two things stand out. First, they translated and disseminated the Scriptures in the common language Second, they crafted confessions and catechisms that articulated the teachings of Scripture with clear definitions and real-life connections.
Have you ever noticed how extensively the Westminster Shorter Catechism employs definitions? Before getting too far along in telling us about what God has done (questions 7–38), the catechism tells us who God is (questions 4–6). Likewise, before going on to talk about the benefits of justification, adoption, and sanctification (questions 36–38), it pauses to give us a definition of each term (questions 33–35). The catechism always insists on defining its terms clearly.
Also, the Shorter Catechism isn’t shy about showing how God’s truth connects to the real issues of life. In a day when accrued tradition misled people into gross superstitions, the catechism taught that Scripture “is the only rule to direct us” (question 2). In a world where the papacy directed the faithful to trust in saints and the Virgin Mary, the catechism insisted that “the only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ” (question 21). The Westminster divines wanted even children to understand how and why God’s truth mattered to them.
Because the wording of our catechism has not been updated in 350 years, it’s easy to miss these points. Yet close examination demonstrates that clarity of communication is an integral part of our Reformed heritage. Have we lost some of that clarity today? If so, how can we leverage lessons of our heritage to help us make the gospel clear(er)? We’ll explore these questions in our next installment.
The author is the pastor of Resurrection OPC in State College, Pa.