The Ecology of Grace
Gordon T. Smith shows why the Church should be evangelical, sacramental, and Pentecostal
A few years back, I made friends with some young men who were leaving the Assemblies of God (my denomination) for the Episcopal Church. They had grown up in AG congregations and attended AG schools, but they felt something was missing. That something was tradition, liturgy and the sacraments.
Growing up in an AG church in the 1970s and '80s, I knew people whose spiritual journeys were moving in the opposite direction. They were leaving liturgical churches and joining Pentecostal ones because tradition, liturgy and the sacraments seemed like lifeless forms compared to the life-giving power of the Spirit they experienced in the Charismatic Renewal Movement.
And then there were the Baptist Calvinists I debated online who argued that Pentecostalism was overrun by touchy-feely emotionalism, health-and-wealth hucksters, and preaching that’s Dr. Phil and Oprah and Tony Robbins with a patina of Bible proof texts. They thought we’d lost the gospel — and, as a result, lost everything.
I have come to realize that each of these people had a point. The gospel is central. The sacraments are important. Pentecostal experience is vital. The question Gordon T. Smith asks in his new book is why Christians identify as one or another. Why must we choose to be evangelical or sacramental or Pentecostal? Why can’t we be all three?
Smith argues that each is necessary to an “ecology of grace,” which he describes as “ ... a dynamic, a kind of ecosystem, with distinctive contours that brings us to an appreciation of the very way that grace functions, with a generative counterpoint between Word, sacrament, and the immediate presence of the Spirit, with each known and experienced in the fullness of grace precisely because this is how grace works.”
Why must we choose to be evangelical or sacramental or Pentecostal? Why can’t we be all three?
He goes on to define three principles that should exist in every church.
1. Evangelical Principle. “Scriptures play an animating role in the life of the church, not in a secondary sense, but as a primary means by which the church appropriates and lives in the grace of the risen and ascended Christ.”
2. Sacramental Principle. “God is revealed and God’s grace is known through physical, material reality, including, most notably, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”
3. Pentecost Principle. “[T]he Christian life is lived in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit and that is experienced immediately.”
Put that way, the necessity of each principle seems almost self-evident, at least to me. Think of Acts 2, a passage we Pentecostals love. It begins with the disciples’ experience of the Holy Spirit (verses 1-11), continues with Peter’s Scripture-filled sermon that calls hearers to repentance and salvation (verses 12-40), and concludes with the description of a Church that, among other things, baptizes converts and shares the Lord’s Supper among disciples (verses 41-47). In other words, the Acts 2 Church was Pentecostal, evangelical and sacramental.
Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal is a short work readers can finish in a couple of hours. It is a suggestive treatment of the issues rather than a definitive one. And, no doubt, readers will find nits to pick — points where Smith doesn’t do their tradition full justice, in their opinion.
Still, it is an important book that left me longing for a church with an ecology of grace that includes Word, sacraments (or ordinances, as Pentecostals like to call them), and Spirit. If the Acts 2 Church embodied all three principles, shouldn’t contemporary Acts 2 churches do so, too?
Book Reviewed: Gordon T. Smith, Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2017).