On November 20, 2009, a document called the Manhattan Declaration was presented to the public by a coalition of cobelligerents. The document is concerned primarily with three very important biblical and cultural issues: the sanctity of life, the meaning of marriage, and the nature of religious liberty. Without question, these issues are up for grabs in our nation.
As anyone familiar with my ministry will know, I share the document’s concern for defending the unborn, defining heterosexual marriage biblically, and preserving a proper relationship between church and state. However, when the document was sent to me and my signature was requested a few weeks ago, I declined to sign it.
In answer to the question, “R.C., why didn’t you sign the Manhattan Declaration?” I offer the following answer: The Manhattan Declaration confuses common grace and special grace by combining them. While I would march with the bishop of Rome and an Orthodox prelate to resist the slaughter of innocents in the womb, I could never ground that cobelligerency on the assumption that we share a common faith and a unified understanding of the gospel.
The framers of the Manhattan Declaration seem to have calculated this objection into the language of the document itself. Likewise, some signers have stated that this is not a theological document. However, to make that statement accurate requires a redefinition of “theology” and serious equivocation on the biblical meaning of “the gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4).
The drafters of the document, Charles Colson, Robert George, and Timothy George, used deliberate language that is on par with the ecumenical language of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) movement that began in the 1990s. The Manhattan Declaration states, “Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s Word,” and it identifies “Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelicals” as “Christians.” The document calls Christians to unite in “the Gospel,” “the Gospel of costly grace,” and “the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness.” Moreover, the document says, “it is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season.”
Without question, biblical truth must be proclaimed and the gospel preached prophetically to our nation. But how could I sign something that confuses the gospel and obscures the very definition of who is and who is not a Christian? I have made this point again and again since the days of ECT. Though the framers of the Manhattan Declaration declaim any connection to ECT, it appears to me that the Manhattan Declaration is inescapably linked to that initiative, which I have strenuously resisted. More than that, this new document practically assumes the victory of ECT in using the term “the gospel” in reference to that which Roman Catholics are said to “proclaim” (Phil. 1:27).
The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of using studied ambiguity in order to win over opponents. Let me be unambiguous: Without a clear understanding of sola fide and the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, you do not have the gospel or gospel unity (1 Cor. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:21). The ECT initiative repeatedly avowed that the signatories had a unity of faith in the gospel. This included Roman Catholic signers who affirm the canons and decrees of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, which anathematizes sola fide. I believe there are true and sincere Christians within the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches. But these people are Christians in spite of their church’s official doctrinal positions.
At least one of the document’s framers, Mr. Colson, sees the Manhattan Declaration as a way to revitalize the church in America. In his commentary on November 25, Mr. Colson said the Manhattan Declaration is “a form of catechism for the foundational truths of the faith.” He suggests that the Manhattan Declaration is an antidote to “biblical and doctrinal ignorance” within the church. However, true reformation and revival within the church and the winning of our culture to Christ will come only through the power of the Holy Spirit and our clear, bold proclamation of the biblical gospel, not through joint ecumenical statements that equivocate on the most precious truths given to us. There is no other gospel than that which has already been given (Gal. 1:6–8).
The Manhattan Declaration puts evangelical Christians in a tight spot. I have dear friends in the ministry who have signed this document, and my soul plummeted when I saw their names. I think my friends were misled and that they made a mistake, and I want to carefully assert that I have spoken with some of them personally about their error and have expressed my hope that they will remove their signatures from this document. Nevertheless, I remain in fellowship with them at this time and believe they are men of integrity who affirm the biblical gospel and the biblical doctrines articulated in the Protestant Reformation.
Lastly, I stand with the sentiments expressed by my friends Alistair Begg, Michael Horton, and John MacArthur, and I appreciate their willingness to say “no” to the call to get aboard this bandwagon as they continue to stand firm in their proclamation of the gospel and the whole counsel of God as it pertains to all matters of faith and life, including the sanctity of life, the meaning of marriage, and the nature of religious liberty. It is only in our united proclamation of the one, true gospel of Jesus Christ that any heart, any mind, or any nation will truly change, by God’s sovereign grace and for His glory alone.
—Dr. R.C. Sproul