Part IV of Prof Stephen Noll’s exegesis of the GAFCON Letter to the Churches
In this fourth entry, I shall exposit the first main section of the Letter titled: “Proclaiming God’s Gospel.”
We met together around the theme of “Proclaiming Christ Faithfully to the Nations”. Each day began with common prayer and Bible exposition from Luke 22-24, followed by plenary sessions on God’s Gospel, God’s Church and God’s World.
As agreed at our first meeting, the Statement Group followed the topics of the Conference plenaries. The first section on “Proclaiming God’s Gospel” falls into two main segments: the first part defines the Gospel and the second part defends it from false teachings and substitutes.
We renewed our commitment to proclaim the gospel of the triune God in our churches and in all the world. Our Chairman reminded us in his opening address: “God’s gospel is the life-transforming message of salvation from sin and all its consequences through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is both a declaration and a summons: announcing what has been done for us in Christ and calling us to repentance, faith and submission to his Lordship.” It involves the restoration and reaffirmation of God’s original creative purposes. It is addressed to men, women and children and it is our only hope in the light of the final judgment and the reality of hell.
This is God’s gospel, the gospel concerning his Son (Romans 1:1–3). The centre of the gospel message is this one person, Jesus Christ, and all that he has done through his perfect life, atoning death, triumphant resurrection and glorious ascension. In our daily expositions, we followed Jesus’ path from the judgments by Pilate and the Jewish leaders, to his death for us on the cross, to his breaking the bonds of death on Easter morning and to his commission to the disciples to proclaim “repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). The uniqueness of Jesus Christ lies at the heart of the gospel: “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The gospel confronts us in the midst of our confusion and sin but it does not leave us there. It includes a summons to repentance and a call to believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15), which results in a grace-filled life. The ascended Christ gave his Spirit to empower his disciples to take this gospel to the world.
This section begins with a quotation from the keynote exposition by the Gafcon Chairman, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, defining briefly what is meant by “God’s Gospel.” The expression “God’s Gospel,” while unusual in the New Testament, sets the theme of the Epistle to the Romans (1:1). Paul goes on to identify the Gospel with the Person and Work of Jesus Christ the Son of God (1:2-4), who commissioned Paul and the Apostles to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (1:5-6).
Proclaiming God’s Gospel is a “performative” act, that is, it evokes in those with ears to hear faith and obedience through the Holy Spirit. Gafcon is thus Evangelical in its teaching and evangelistic in seeking hearers to be born again in water and the Spirit (John 3:5). So also Archbishop Okoh states: “It is both a declaration and a summons: announcing what has been done for us in Christ and calling us to repentance, faith and submission to his Lordship.”
God’s Gospel comes to us not just in human rhetoric “but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4). For those who attended Gafcon 2018, the proclamation of the Gospel cannot be separated from the experience of daily reading and meditating on Jesus’ trial, death, resurrection and ascension in Luke’s Gospel, by trips to the holy sites where he walked and taught, and from choruses of praise, with 2,000 believers exclaiming, “we shall proclaim Christ faithfully to the Nations.”
As Paul demonstrates at length in Romans 1-3, God’s Gospel can only be understood in the context of the universal reality of human sin and rebellion against God, the gracious offer of forgiveness through God’s grace and Christ’s atoning death on the cross, and the awesome reality of final judgment. Hence the Gospel “is our only hope in the light of the final judgment and the reality of hell.”
Yet faithful proclamation of this gospel is under attack from without and within, as it has been from apostolic times (Acts 20:28-30).
External attacks include superstitious practices of sacrifices and libations that deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. Some religions deny the unique person and work of Christ on the cross, and others are innately syncretistic. Secularism seeks to exclude God from all public discourse and to dismantle the Christian heritage of many nations. This has been most obvious in the redefinition of what it means to be human, especially in the areas of gender, sexuality and marriage. The devaluing of the human person through the advocacy of abortion and euthanasia is also an assault upon human life uniquely created in the image of God. Militant forms of religion and secularism are hostile to the preaching of Christ and persecute his people.
Internally, the “prosperity gospel” and theological revisionism both seek in different ways to recast God’s gospel to accommodate the surrounding culture, resulting in a seductive syncretism that denies the uniqueness of Christ, the seriousness of sin, the need for repentance and the final authority of the Bible.
Tragically, there has been a failure of leadership in our churches to address these threats to the gospel of God. We repent of our failure to take seriously the words of the apostle Paul: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number, men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30).
Proclaiming God’s Gospel is also an apologetic act, explaining and defending it against false teachings. The second part of this section draws from Paul’s farewell speech to the elders of the Ephesian church:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30)
The Letter to the Churches is, among other things, a letter to ourselves. Most of the attendees at the Conference are “elders” in the church, whether bishops (and their wives), or clergy or lay leaders. Anglican clergy will hear echoes of their own ordination oath here:
For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his Spouse, and his Body. And if it shall happen that the same Church, or any Member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.
Paul had fought the good fight for the Gospel in his ministry, but he makes clear that this fight will go on throughout the church’s history and that attacks will come from outside and from inside. The Letter lists a number of contemporary attacks from outside: residual superstition in traditional cultures; denial of the uniqueness of Christ, most obviously Islam but equally postmodern “pluralism”; the distortion of human nature in false sexuality; and the destruction of that image in abortion and euthanasia.
These attacks, the Letter points out, are not mere debating points but include militant extremism. This reality was illustrated less than a week later when militant Islamic tribesmen burned churches and killed Christians in Jos, Nigeria, the home of the Archbishop Ben Kwashi, Gafcon’s General Secretary-elect. And of course, they are tokens of the wider persecution of the church in recent decades. The response of the Christians in Jos was not only endurance of suffering but a renewed commitment to witness to Christ.
The Letter then cites internal attacks from the “prosperity gospel” and theological revisionism. I particularly liked this linking of liberal elites with “name it and claim it” snake-belly preachers, since at heart both groups take offense at the Gospel and try to reshape it to fit worldly concerns. One speaker at Gafcon mentioned that some Pentecostalists have rewritten the wedding vows to eliminate the phrase “for richer for poorer”; in the West revisionists have replaced marriage of “this Man and this Woman” with “Person A and Person B.”
In another striking moment, Church of England evangelist Rico Tice explained his recent resignation from the Archbishop’s Commission on Evangelism, headed by a revisionist bishop:
I think it is a great wickedness to tell people who are on the road to destruction that they are not. To tell them that they are safe when it comes to God’s wrath when they are not… If we have church leaders that are putting people on that road to destruction it is a salvation issue. That is why we have to distance ourselves.
In 2008 Gafcon explained the compelling cause for its assembling in terms of a “false gospel” that was being taught in the Anglican Communion and condoned by the “Instruments.” Sexuality may be the presenting issue in our day, but it is the precious Gospel of salvation for which we stand. As St. Paul puts it: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
This gospel is not merely a matter of personal salvation. It is corporate as well, given as a Commission by Christ to His apostolic church. This section of the Letter to the Churches concludes with a commitment by all the churches represented in Jerusalem: “We dedicate ourselves afresh to proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations, working together to guard the gospel entrusted to us by our Lord and his apostles.”