When Augustine found himself in controversy with fellow believers, he remarked on more than one occasion to his friend Alypius, 'Remember, we are washed in the same blood.' The great Church Father was not downplaying the importance of accurate doctrine. Rather, he was highlighting the foundational truth that, whatever their differences, believers are one in Christ. There is, as Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus, but 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism.'
Why mention this? For this reason: It is only too easy to so prize accurate doctrine that we lose sight of our unity in Christ with all believers everywhere. I am very conscious that this is easy to say and harder to put into practice. We, at least I, instinctively think in terms of theological, even denominational, distinctives. We become suspicious of professing Christians who are not 'one of us' (read Mark 9:38-41). I have been wonderfully privileged, as I truly believe, to have been embraced by the Reformed Faith. Like many of you, I am persuaded it is the most accurate and enriching explication of the teaching of Godís holy Word. But precisely here lies a danger: the Reformed Faith is not the Christian Faith - unless you believe that everyone who is not a Calvinistic Presbyterian is not a Christian at all! Sadly, some give the impression (and more than the impression) that if you are not wholly committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, you are deeply suspect. I would guess that an incipient sectarianism is more widespread in our circles than we would imagine. In some places there is almost the mentality that says, the smaller your church is, the purer and more orthodox it must be. How can we counter this profoundly unbiblical and un-Christian attitude?
John Calvin has a wonderful passage in Book 4.10.30 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, that points us in a wholesome and deeply Christian direction for an answer. While acknowledging that in the ordering of our worship 'we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly,' he also tells us, 'it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones.' No doubt conscious that what he has just written could be misunderstood, Calvin concludes, 'but love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.' Calvin is implicitly acknowledging that Christians will not always see things the same way or do things the same way. When we differ, 'let love be our guide and all will be safe.' How you react and respond to those words will say a lot about you.
Of course they are 'dangerous'. Often Christians have used 'love' as a pretext for not publicly opposing error in the church and for glossing over doctrinal aberrations. But - and it is a BIG Ďbut' - didnít our Lord Jesus say, 'By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another'? Our Saviour was not advocating that his disciples ignore differences, turn a benign eye to heresy, and embrace everything and anyone who says they are Christians. He surely, however, was saying that his disciples, imitating him, were to embrace everyone born again of his Spirit and loved by his Father. If a Christian is someone who trusts in Christ alone for salvation (John 3:16; 3:36, Acts 16:31, etc.), then we are duty bound to treat as brothers and sisters all who have been 'brothered' by Christ - 'we are washed in the same blood.'
This is our Christian starting point. Of course we will seek to challenge our less-than-Reformed brothers and sisters to embrace the riches of Godís sovereign grace in the gospel. Of course, if you are anything like me, you will want to help and challenge fellow believers to see the rich biblical truth of Godís covenant grace to families. But our starting point will always be, 'These are my people; we have been washed in the same blood, sanctified by the same Spirit, and loved by the same Father.' Such a view may strike you as uncommonly naive. You are probably right. However, it is the naivetť of Godís Word. It makes the Christian life less clinical and more'messy' and certainly more demanding. But it also expresses something of the Fatherís love for all his children.
I have no easy solutions. But our Saviour prayed for the unity of his family. If he prayed for it, we should labour to realise it. If it was worth his blood, it is worthy of our effort. 'Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God' (Ephesians 5:1-2).
A fellow blood-washed sinner,
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church.