Jason Micheli, “Why Be Protestant?,” review of The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel That Gives Us Christ, by Phillip Cary, Christian Century, May 18, 2020 https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/why-be-protestant.


Cary locates the distinctive contribution of Protestant theology to the body of Christ not in its divergence from the great sacramental traditions of Cath­olicism or Orthodoxy but in its correspondence to them. The gift of Prot­estantism to the whole church is not its ceaseless innovation. It’s in Protes­tantism’s application of sacramental theology to the gospel itself.

The promise of the gospel is—as much as water, wine, and bread—a means through which God gives to us nothing less than God’s beloved Son. Thus the gospel functions as an auditory sacrament, enacting the very reality of the thing signified, such that to believe the gospel is to receive Christ himself.


… Particular doctrines, such as justification by faith alone or sola scriptura, are not merely parts of the Protestant message. They’re means of understanding the gospel as the promise that gives us Christ.https://ads.christiancentury.org/ads/ad.lasso?spot=20

What sets this book apart is the way Cary shows how Luther’s grace-centered gospel produces the very thing many critics assume it fails to provide: changed and transformed Christians.

The words of the gospel, the promise that gives us Christ, make us new from the inside out, Cary argues. Christ enters our hearts through our ears. To make his case, Cary explicates how Luther turned to Aristotle’s theory of perception to show how the mind gradually takes on the form of the external thing it perceives. Faith makes us truly and inwardly righteous, Cary insists, “because by faith our hearts take on the form of Christ himself.”

We become more compassionate not through the practice of serving the poor but by hearing again and again how Christ became poor and emptied himself for us, his enemy. Learning the message of done for you is what equips and emboldens us to go and do likewise with gladness. The gospel alone can produce what the law commands. It does so by working on us like a favorite song, Cary explains. “When Christ the Beloved gives himself to us in the gospel, he gets into our hearts through our ears, like music, reshaping everything and remaking us from the bottom up.”

Published in June 3 issue of Christian Century.

Jason Micheli is a pastor at Annandale United Methodist Church in Annandale, Va.

One thought on “Book review: Luther, Protestants on Gospel as ‘auditory sacrament’

  1. Curious. How does this make it distinctively Protestant when we hear the Gospel every Sunday in the Catholic church? That question sounds hostile, and I don’t mean it to be. Tone is hard to convey in texting. I am curious actually.


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