Connecting the Church and the Gospel: A Reformation Perspective


Anglican theologian Paul Avis observes, “Reformation theology is largely dominated by two questions: ‘How can I obtain a gracious God?’ and ‘Where can I find the true Church?’ The two questions are inseparably related.”

Evangelicals have not been particularly known for their interest in ecclesiology. There are many reasons for this. One is the fact that, as a theological tradition, it represents the confluence of Anabaptist, pietist, and revivalist streams as well as the magisterial Reformation. At least in official teaching, when it comes to the formal and material principles (sola scriptura and sola gratia/Christo/fide) evangelicals look to Protestant orthodoxy.

Yet when it comes to the doctrine of the church and the ministry of Word and sacrament, as well as discipline, the movement’s “low church” heritage becomes especially evident. In fact, salvation by grace alone is frequently set over against all institutional elements as man-made “churchianity” and trust in formal rituals. “Getting saved” and church membership, a personal relationship with Jesus and communion with his visible body, direct experience and public accountability, are frequently treated as antitheses rather than consistent and in fact integrated aspects of union with Christ.

So, in an age marked so radically by individualism and autonomy, it is not surprising that in recent decades, younger evangelicals have discovered ecclesiology with considerable delight, intrigue, and in some cases creative as well as biblically faithful applications for contemporary church life. And, as is often the case with new discoveries, this renewed interest in ecclesiology has encouraged many to move in “high church” directions—that is, toward Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions.

In a number of learned and creative explorations of ecclesiology by evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal scholars, I have noticed a tendency to skip over the Reformation. The assumption seems to be that reformers like Luther and Calvin were interested in soteriology, not ecclesiology, and that even if one finds their emphases helpful, one will have to look elsewhere for robust accounts of the latter.

However, Avis is exactly right: ecclesiology and soteriology were integrally related in the teaching and practice of the magisterial reformers. One may even say the Reformed tradition was particularly concerned with ecclesiology.


Under King Edward, Archbishop Cranmer solicited the assistance of Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli in further reforms, resulting in the revised Prayer Book and various changes in discipline and government.

While Lutheran pietism tended to ignore the formal ministry and government of the visible church in favor of informal gatherings of the truly committed, Puritanism was distinguished by its commitment to reforming the visible church itself. Rather than separating into conventicles and avoiding the official church as much as possible, Puritans were just as concerned as Orthodox, Roman Catholics, or non-Puritan Anglicans in the public forms, rituals, and government of the visible church. In fact, they were devoted to the established church, whether as episcopalians, presbyterians, or independents.

Even critics of the liturgy established under Queen Elizabeth I did not make their arguments based on the principles of informality, spontaneity, and individualism but on the principle of sola scriptura: the refusal to bind consciences to any form of worship not expressly commanded in Scripture. Precisely because the visible order, government, liturgy, and discipline of the church mattered so much, Puritans were willing to give up their livelihood and even their lives, if necessary, for the further reformation of the church.

It is this gospel that makes the church one (with a faith that is personal but never private), holy (sanctified by the Word of truth, [Jn. 17:17]), catholic (across all demographics and generations), and apostolic (anchored to apostolic doctrine rather than a supposedly contemporary “apostle”). Thus, this true church—the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church—is “the congregation of all believers” (Augsburg VII; Belgic XXVII), “the communion of all the elect” (Heidelberg Cat. q. 54). For the time being, however, the catholic church comes to visible expression in “particular churches, which are members thereof . . . more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them” (Westminster Confession, XXV.IV).


Consequently, there are two extremes to be avoided in interpreting the relationship of the Reformation to ecclesiology. The first is to underestimate the reformers’ interest in ecclesiology, as if they only cared about recovering a few solae. A cursory review of the Lutheran and Reformed confessions and catechisms will dispel that misunderstanding. In a strange irony of history, Luther included discipline as a mark of the church in On Councils, although Calvin did not, the Lutheran Book of Concord did not, and the Reformed churches did! There is no article given to the doctrine of election, much less “the five points of Calvinism” in Calvin’s Geneva Catechism, but there are several on the sacraments. This is not to downplay the importance of the doctrines of grace: Calvin certainly defended double predestination with Augustinian vigor. It is instead to point out the sense of proportion that the Reformation gave to the whole teaching of Scripture and, within that, the remarkable importance it gave to the doctrine of the church.

The second mistake is to exaggerate the role of ecclesiology, as if the Reformation was really about the doctrine of the church rather than the gospel. Both of these assumptions results from a false choice between gospel and church. For the reformers, these were not hermeneutically-sealed compartments. Again, Avis’s point above is exactly right: Lutheran and Reformed traditions emphasized that the gospel is a message about a historical event outside of us and our experience, the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to sinners through faith alone.

Furthermore, they insisted that the means through which this gospel comes to us is external. We do not discover the truth by looking within our individual souls, but through the public proclamation of the Word and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—by submitting to the discipline that keeps us in the care of Christ to the end of our life. Luther and Calvin were fond of appealing to Cyprian’s dictum, “He cannot have God as his Father who takes not the Church as his Mother.” Like her individual members, the church collectively is simultaneously sinful and justified. She is not yet the spotless wife, but the bride who must always confess her sins. Against all perfectionism, which they detected especially with the Anabaptists, the reformers urged believers not to imagine that they could be in communion with Christ while excommunicating themselves from the communion of saints.

While church and gospel were inseparable, the reformers did believe the latter was the wellspring of the former. The church is the creatura verbi—creature of the Word, they insisted. It was not surprising that Rome regarded itself as the mother of Scripture, since it also saw itself as the dispenser of grace. The keys of the kingdom were given to St. Peter and his successors, it was believed, and this meant—especially by the fifteenth century—that the “treasury of merit” (the accumulated rewards of Mary and the saints) was analogous to a central bank to which the pope had been given the power of attorney. If salvation is of the church, then it makes sense to say that the church is the source of the gospel and therefore gives birth to itself.


Yet the Anabaptists were no less in error than Rome with respect to the gospel. As Anabaptist theologian Thomas N. Finger observes, attitudes toward the Reformation’s teaching concerning justification ranged from disinterest to outright hostility.

Basically Manichean in its worldview, the Anabaptist movement drew a sharp contrast between creation and redemption; between everything that is physical, external, apprehended by the senses, public, and formal to everything that is spiritual, inward, apprehended directly and immediately by the soul, personal, and spontaneous. The goal of salvation was the merging of the individual’s will with God’s–full surrender, or Gallasenheit.

As it often was in late medieval teaching, grace was seen as medicinal substance infused into the soul directly—that is, apart from preaching and sacraments—by the Holy Spirit to aid the believer in his or her struggle to break free of everything human and to become one with divinity. The gospel, therefore, was an internal message of mystical absorption into God.

Consequently, Anabaptist ecclesiology was sharply dualistic, opposing their “inner light” to the external means of grace and the visible church. In a moving letter to Cardinal Sadoleto, Calvin complained of being assailed by “two sects”—“the Pope and the Anabaptists”—which, though quite different from each other, “boast extravagantly of the Spirit” in order to distort or distract from the Word of God.

The reformers had a name for this: “enthusiasm.” Meaning literally “God-within-ism,” this penchant for confusing ourselves with God was a perennial temptation, they lamented. In his Smalcald Articles (III. 4–15), Luther argued that Adam was the first enthusiast. His point was that the craving to identify the Word of God with our own inner voice rather than heed Scripture and preaching is part and parcel of original sin.

We’re all enthusiasts. Müntzer and other radicals claimed the Spirit spoke directly to them, above and even sometimes against what he had revealed in Scripture. The secret, private, and inborn “word” was contrasted with the “outer Word that merely beats the air.” The reformers pressed: is this not what the Pope does? While enthusiasm works from the inside out (inner experiences, reason, and free will expressed outwardly), God works from the outside in (the Word and the sacraments). “Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point,” Luther thunders, “that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and the Sacraments (SA III. 8.10).”


We see the triumph of this radical mysticism in American religious experience, which has been characterized generally by some scholars as “Gnostic.” This is perhaps not surprising, especially given the fact that our new nation had become a harbor of freedom for radical sects expelled from the Old World to pursue their experiments without molestation. Restorationist movements proclaimed the dawn of genuine Christianity, which had run underground since the death of the apostles.

Revivalism also championed the antitheses of the radical Anabaptist and pietist sects. Exemplifying this outlook, Southern Baptist theologian E. Y. Mullins developed the doctrine of “soul competency” as an outgrowth of the broader Transcendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. The idea is that no one and no thing can stand between God and the individual soul. Religion is intensely individual and personal (i.e., autonomous) and no one can tell another person what to believe or how to live.

More recently, in his Revisioning Evangelical Theology, theologian Stanley Grenz argued for a retrieval of evangelicalism’s pietist heritage over Protestant orthodoxy. “In recent years,” he wrote, “we have begun to shift the focus of our attention away from doctrine with its focus on propositional truth in favor of a renewed interest in what constitutes the uniquely evangelical vision of spirituality.” He invokes familiar contrasts: “creed-based” versus “piety” (57), “religious ritual” versus “doing what Jesus would do” (48), “our daily walk” over “Sunday morning worship attendance” (49), and individual and inward commitment over corporate identity (49–53). “A person does not come to church to receive salvation,” but to receive marching orders for daily life (49). Grenz adds, “We practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but understand the significance of these rites in a guarded manner.” They are “perpetuated not so much for their value as conduits . . . of grace from God to the communicant as because they remind the participant and the community of the grace of God received inwardly.” They are part of “an obedient response…” (48). Thus, the emphasis is not on God creating a communion of saints by gift-giving through his means of grace, but on the people’s work of creating a society of pious individuals through means of commitment.

Given the history of enthusiasm, Wade Clark Roof’s findings are hardly surprising when the American sociologist reports, “The distinction between ‘spirit’ and ‘institution’ is of major importance” to spiritual seekers today. “Spirit is the inner, experiential aspect of religion; institution is the outer, established form of religion.” He adds, “Direct experience is always more trustworthy, if for no other reason than because of its ‘inwardness’ and ‘withinness’—two qualities that have come to be much appreciated in a highly expressive, narcissistic culture.”


The connection between gospel and church runs deeper even than Paul Avis’s comment above. If Christ creates the church through his gospel (Rom 10:14–15), then especially in the context of a divided church, the question of finding the true church becomes acute.

But the connection runs deeper still. Rome’s interpretation of the gospel message cannot but generate an ecclesiology that confuses Christ the head with his ecclesial ministers. If salvation comes from the church, then it cannot fail to be the church that is the mother not only of the faithful (which we affirm) but of the faith itself. Similarly, the Anabaptist’s gospel, centered on the inner birth and inner light, cannot fail to generate an inner church, where the external institution’s means and ministers of grace are seen as threats to the personal perfection of the individual.

Despite varying emphases of different traditions, the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Reformation reflect distinct convictions concerning the gospel message. Salvation comes to us from outside ourselves and forms a communion of saints. It is not by the individual’s ascent to God, but by God’s descent to us—in the flesh—that we are reborn, justified, sanctified, and finally glorified. The church is the creation of the Spirit, to be sure, but by the Word. Thus created in a public event of hearing, it is sustained and grows in its orderly way according to that Word.

Michael Horton

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California.

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