…reviewing what took place in Scotland would be to understand how easily the church slips into turning on its head what theologians would call the indicative of the Gospel and the imperative of the Gospel: focusing on the administration of rites rather than the ministry of the Holy Spirit as the means by which salvation is applied. And I would actually put it this way: Substituting the idea of grace for the person of Jesus Christ. And I think as you trace the history in Scotland, again and again and again people would even speak about grace, but it would be detached from the person of Christ.
At the 41st PCA General Assembly in Greenville, S.C., in June, Ligonier Ministries hosted a panel discussion entitled “Christology in the 21st Century: A Discussion.”
The panel included Ligon Duncan, Robert Godfrey, Richard Pratt, R.C. Sproul, and Sinclair Ferguson. While the entire hour-long discussion is well worth one’s time (it can be found here), the opening minutes contained a question posed to Sinclair Ferguson, whose concise and probing answer deserves as wide an audience as possible within Western evangelical circles.
Reflecting on what the lessons the contemporary American church could draw from the waxing and waning of the church in Scotland since the Reformation, Dr. Ferguson homed in on how the preaching and presentation of the Gospel often disconnects grace from the person of Christ. Or, as he put it, how often those preaching and presenting the Gospel fall prey to ‘substituting the idea of grace for the person of Christ.’
Here is the whole of Stephen Nichols’s question and Dr. Ferguson’s four-minute answer for the benefit of those who have not seen or heard it. I believe it is a critique we desperately need to receive:
Stephen Nichols: “As we look through church history we see different examples of places where the Gospel thrived, and may not thrive as much today. Buffeted by centuries of secularism, a once-thriving church no longer thrives. Of course, I’m thinking of what you (Dr. Ferguson) affectionately refer to as ‘the only country,’ your homeland of Scotland. But I didn’t know, Dr. Ferguson, if you could give us some perspective – as [one familiar with] a place that may reflect more of a post-Christian era. And obviously, you’re very familiar with the American church. What observations do you have for us as we think about Christology?”
Dr. Ferguson: “Well, I think answering that question would actually take us back to the time of the Reformation.
“I have never read this in either a church history or a social history in Scotland but I don’t myself believe that Scotland was ever fully captured by the Gospel. I think medieval Roman Catholic theology was almost endemic in Scotland. And the Reformation obviously delivered many people from that. The season of the Great Awakening, which was also experienced in Scotland, and the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century, created great advance for the Gospel. But my own conviction is that the basic notion that justification came by a process, [and] that that process was attached to the activity of the visible church, has been dominant in Scotland – at the time of the Reformation and ever since the time of the Reformation.
“In that sense I think the contribution you would make from reviewing what took place in Scotland would be to understand how easily the church slips into turning on its head what theologians would call the indicative of the Gospel and the imperative of the Gospel: focusing on the administration of rites rather than the ministry of the Holy Spirit as the means by which salvation is applied. And I would actually put it this way: Substituting the idea of grace for the person of Jesus Christ. And I think as you trace the history in Scotland, again and again and again people would even speak about grace, but it would be detached from the person of Christ.
“And my own conviction is that is so endemic in the Western culture that it may actually be one of the most characteristic phenomena of evangelicalism – the departure from Christ himself as ‘full of grace and truth’, to something Christ can give us as itself our salvation.
“And one of the things that you notice in the preaching in Scotland is that more and more in the exposition of the Scriptures the focus is more and more not on the Christ that is in the Scriptures, but on how we put ourselves in the Scriptures to do what the Scriptures tell us to do. And my own conviction is that that’s just endemic in Western Christianity.
“Schleiermacher was hugely popular in Scotland – phenomenally influential in Scotland. And the place I see Schleiermacher most evidenced in the contemporary church world is among evangelicals. They would hate the name of Schleiermacher, but actually their whole approach to the Gospel is dominated by the kind of subjectivism and reading the Gospel out of your own experience that you find in Schleiermacher.”
Rev. Matthew S. Miller is the Senior Pastor of the Greenville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.