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Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal

What does it mean to be Evangelical? That term is undergoing a crisis of definition in this generation as the term has been coopted by political and sociological voices to define a people group rather than a character quality of the Spirit-filled people of God in Christ. As self-identified Evangelicals (in case you didn’t know, The Bridge would be categorized by most people as an ‘Evangelical’ congregation) it’s important for us to understand just what that means and why it’s a good thing (despite the way the term may be applied to others) that we are.

It’s also important for us to understand that being Evangelical is not all that there is to being Christian, as if that was the litmus test for what true fidelity to the call of Jesus Christ was. There is more to faithful discipleship than living into the Evangelical moniker, which is why I think that Gordon Smith’s new book, Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three is such an important read for Evangelical Christians today.

In this book (which is really just a consolidation of many threads from other works that Smith has penned over the years. People familiar with his writing will find this book comfortably familiar) Smith takes the idea that we are to be a people of the word (which is how he defines Evangelical) and balances that emphasis with our need to also be people of the sacraments, and people of the Spirit. In making his argument Smith wisely structures the book in such a way as to argue for the importance of each side of this experience, and then to illustrate how each aspect is insufficient without the proper acknowledgement of the other two.

For example, to be evangelical is to understand that God has chosen to reveal himself through the “Word” (Christ) and that he has mediated that revelation through the “word” (scripture). It is impossible to be a faithful follower of God without recognizing the centrality of the word therefore and the way it is how we come to know God and his plans for us and the world. Most of us would quickly agree with that, and would confidently claim that the Bible is all we need to faithfully respond to Jesus. But Smith pushes back on that idea by drawing to our attention the importance of sacrament and Spirit in mediating the word. The word finds its expression through the prophets and apostles. There is no such thing in scripture as an unmediated word - red letter Bibles notwithstanding. Jesus entrusted the telling of his Gospel to the Apostles. And it was their teaching that the Church committed themselves to (Acts 2:42). In so doing, God has imbued his word with a remarkably human character. That human character can rightfully be understood as a sacramental character.

Sacramental merely means that God has imbued physical and tangible realities with holy purposes and qualities. Christians are not supposed to be Gnostics – platonic dualists who separate spirit and matter as distinct realities with one (physical) being mundane, and the other (spirit) being holy. Rather the testimony of scripture from Genesis to Revelation is that God has created a physical world, and has made physical people the bearers of his holy image. The very fact that no words of Christ come unmediated (i.e. written by the hand of Jesus, but rather re-told by the apostles) is testament to this reality. The same goes for the water of baptism, and the elements of the communion table. These are physical, tangible realities by which God works out spiritual purposes through the church.

"The New Testament witness suggests that the sacramental actions of the church are essential--not secondary, but essential--to the capacity of the Christian community to receive the Word, specifically the Word proclaimed or preached. Thus the necessary counterpoint to the initial proclamation, to evangelism, is baptism; the equally necessary counterpoint to the proclaimed Word in the weekly liturgy is the Table. Word and Table. Each needs the other. The Word preached is not for a moment diminished by the engagement with the Living Word at the Table that follows; rather, the two strengthen and reinforce each other." (Page 66)

The Evangelical experience is further qualified by the pentecostal quality of the faith. The quality that is guided and shepherded by the real presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the world and the people of God. One of the things that I too often see omitted by pastors working on ordination is a failure to acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s role in communicating God’s word to his people. People are quick to acknowledge the work of the Spirit in the inspiration (creation) of the sacred texts (usually as a way to downplay, or outright deny the significance of the sacramental aspect just discussed), but too infrequently do I see a robust treatment of the way the Holy Spirit mediates those texts to the church today. The doctrine of illumination is one of the most important doctrines of the faith because it protects the church from bending the words of the scriptures to their own purposes (something that we are all too ready and willing to do uncritically). Being open to the pentecostal side of the faith guarantees for us that God is the one who governs our interpretation and that God sets our theological (and pastoral) agenda.

“We are inclined to be open to the work of the Spirit as long as the Spirit follows the rules—learns the prayer book; respects our liturgies; agrees with our hermeneutic and thus our reading of Holy Scripture; and affirms our structures of good governance. But the witness of the New Testament suggests otherwise: however important it is that we turn to our prayer books, learn to read Scripture with a mature hermeneutic, and attend to the wisdom of good administrative structures, the Spirit is “free.” That is, the Spirit is able and willing and insistent on bypassing all of this and surprising us. And this happens as a subtle reminder that ultimately all is from the Spirit.” (Page 118)

I am a sacramentalist. Now that may sound odd coming from an intellectually minded, pastor in an evangelical tradition - a tradition that is desperately trying to recapture it’s pentecostal (small “p”) roots of late - but that’s what I am. I love the “smells and bells” as some people call it, I love the rhythm of liturgy, the earthiness, and tangibility of the water, bread, and wine. Perhaps you are a closet Pentecostal, living uncomfortably within a movement that is not anywhere near as charismatic as you would prefer. Or perhaps you are a dyed in the wool Evangelical; and the things you have read in the preceding paragraphs is making the firm foundation of your scripture-shaped faith journey feel a little uneasy or unsteady. We all lean to one aspect or another of this dynamic, but the helpful message that Smith brings in this book is that the church needs to be a community that values and practices all three of these characteristics. Your expression matters, but so does your neighbour’s, and so does mine – because it is ultimately all about Christ. As Smith lays out early in the book:

Our ultimate longing is not to know the Word, but the one who is revealed to us through the Word, the risen Lord. Then also, at the meal, the meal is not an end in itself but a means by which we enter into fellowship with the risen and ascend Christ, who is the host at the meal. And our experience of the Spirit is not, ultimately, about an encounter with the Spirit. Rather the Spirit is the one by whom and through whom we live in dynamic union with Christ Jesus.” (Page 35)

That’s a message that the church needs to hear today.

No book is perfect however, and if you are going to pick up this book and drink deeply from the well of Smith’s wisdom (and I recommend you do!) you should be aware of one unhelpful habit that Smith indulges. He (much to my chagrin) has chosen to capitalize "Word" when speaking of both the Scriptures and Christ the eternal Word (logos) of God. I have personally advocated for a distinction between the two terms for clarity when teaching. Smith's decision is unhelpful and even confusing at times so the reader should pay extra close attention to the context in those sections.

All in all, this is a book that I wish everyone would read. It’s written at a lay-accessible level, and is short and easy to get into. There is nothing that requires a theology degree to understand and terms that may be unfamiliar are explained as soon as they are used. I would strongly recommend that you either pick up a copy of your own, or borrow the copy from the church library. I think you will be blessed if you do.

#BookReviews #AvailablefromChurchLibrary #Communion

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