Here is no unanchored liberalism—
freedom to think without commitment
Here is no encrusted dogmatism—
commitment without freedom to think
Here is vibrant evangelicalism—
commitment with freedom to think within the limits laid down
- Dr. Vernon Grounds, Chancellor Denver Seminary
This statement is the benchmark that has defined Denver Seminary for nearly 50 years. During my time there, I was struck by the balance and beauty of this statement. Since graduating from seminary my spiritual life has gone through significant changes, as have my ecclesiology, my understanding of scripture, and my theology of worship. But, as I reflect on my beliefs today, this statement is why, despite all the myriad of changes my journey has brought, I am still an Evangelical.
In the Emerging Church there has been a lot of discussion about moving towards post-denominationalism and post-evangelicalism. Rooted in both of these movements is a dissatisfaction of the structures, missiology, worship, and leadership in most denominations and in evangelical circles. There has been a push to adopt a stance of having left or having emerged from evangelicalism. But, after engaging in this discussion for the past 5 years, I have come to a conclusion: I still have hope. I don’t think evangelicalism is dead or lame or passé. (I also don’t think that denominations are without hope, but that discussion is for another time.) In fact, I believe a reawakening is already beginning within evangelicalism as it ventures into a new millennium.
The reason I believe this, and that I have committed my life to see this transformation take place is rooted in the beauty of this statement from Dr. Grounds. There is a balance that I think we can find in evangelicalism, a balance that has been missing for quite some time, and it is a balance I believe evangelicals are more likely to strike than those in mainline or liberal camps. The balance is between freedom and commitment. Our faith is built upon this balance. We only find freedom when we experience commitment. Outside a committed and dedicated faith in God we will never know freedom. Within the will of God there exists a freedom that profoundly frees us for joyful obedience. No where else can this freedom be found. There are limits to our freedom, and that is what sets us free. Without obedience, we can never know the true joy of freedom God provides.
In Romans Paul talks a lot about the freedom God’s grace provides. God’s grace is sufficient to atone for any sin, but we are not saved by this grace so we can go out on a rampage of self indulgent behavior just to prove this point. God isn’t glorified by our efforts to test the boundaries of his grace. God is glorified when his grace shows itself to be at work within our lives and he is revealed as we are formed into the image of his son. 2 Corinthians 4 says that we carry the death and resurrection of Christ within us, the very glory of God, and that it is at work and is displayed through our lives. That is a freedom and glory we could never experience without obedience.
In looking once again at Dr. Ground’s statement, we find the balance of God’s freedom within its words. There is freedom to think, to explore, to use our imaginations, spirituality and cognitive abilities to understand God and his creation. Our lives can be an exciting and ever surprising dance with God as we experience this freedom. There are no bounds to the enthrallment we can find as children learning about their Father. But, this freedom is shaped by God’s revelation to us. God reveals himself through his creation, through his word, and most perfectly through Jesus Christ our Lord. We can not afford to mistake our ideas or imaginations with the realities God has already revealed to us. The revelations of God are the launching pad for our creativity and understanding. We don’t have to or get to make God up. God is real, he is known, and he is unchanging.
We do not, however, ever have a perfect understanding of who God is or how God works. In the midst of God’s revelation we understand our own limitations. As Isaiah reminds us in chapter 55 of his prophecy, God’s ways are higher than our ways. Our ways are not the ways of God. Even though we hope them to be and we long to make our ways the same as God, we will never have a perfect understanding of God’s ways. Our freedom is rooted in that reality. We understand that as the church, we will understand God in different ways. We will worship God in different ways. We will read and interpret scripture in different ways. But, if we are committed to the same thing, the glorification of God through the living into and the sharing of the Gospel of Christ, then we can accept each other and find unity despite these differences.
That is why I am still an evangelical. There is a passionate commitment to the gospel among evangelicals. It is a passion and commitment that I have not found anywhere else. It is a passion that has shaped my life in a profound way. That passion is often misdirected. Too often it has led us to take the wide path instead of the narrow road. Too often our desire to share the gospel with our culture has caused us to look like our culture more than our savior. Too often our comfortable lives and exterior signs of worldly success have dulled our sensibilities towards the desperate, the poor, the homeless, and the suffering. Too often our own security of belief has removed our understanding of the freedoms of our faith. Too often our love of God’s word has turned to a worship of God’s word rather than a worship of God.
But, there is hope. I became engaged in Emerging Church conversations because I needed hope. I needed to find other Christians who had a vision for a better church. I needed to find others who wanted to recapture a 2000 year old perspective on worship. I needed to find others who in their freedom asked the same questions I asked. And so I did, and my life has been transformed by it. But, this transformation has brought me not disdain or disease with the evangelical community, but instead a deep hope that a movement of God’s Spirit is at work among it. I come back to Vernon’s statement and I hope for a new future for evangelicalsim….. Here is vibrant evangelicalism— commitment with freedom to think within the limits laid down in Scripture.