Lent 1919 Revisited
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, NIV).
This term is the centenary of a meeting of two groups of students here in Cambridge whose consequences reverberate to this day.
The two groups were the leaders of the SCM (Student Christian Movement) and CICCU (the Cambridge-Inter-Collegiate Christian Union). Nine years earlier, CICCU had disaffiliated from SCM because SCM did not want to insist on Bible doctrines. But now, with numbers depleted by the First World War, the question was raised whether it would be better to join forces again.
The pressure to reunite was strong. SCM was larger than CICCU, and more popular with deans and chaplains. Ridley Hall, a local theological college, and several local churches were with SCM.
The CICCU students held an all-day prayer meeting while their leaders met with the SCM in a room in Trinity College. The CICCU secretary, Norman Grubb, recounts: ‘After an hour’s conversation, which got us nowhere, one direct and vital question was put: “Does the SCM consider the atoning blood of Jesus as the central point of their message?” And the answer given was, “No, not as central, although it is given a place in our teaching.” That settled the matter, for we explained to them at once that the atoning blood was so much the heart of our message that we could never join with a movement that gave it lesser place.’
From this point on, CICCU continued as a separate organisation: it never re-joined SCM. Were the CICCU executive being nit-picky in missing the chance of unity?
Actually, they were defending the essence of the Christian gospel - as Paul does in his letter to the Romans. When we say that Jesus’ atoning blood is central to our message we are including what that great truth presupposes: that Jesus (now risen and ruling) is fully God and fully man; that humanity’s deepest problem is the wrath of God; that Jesus took our place on the cross, bearing God’s wrath in our place as a propitiatory sacrifice; that we are saved through trusting in Him alone, and not by our works. Here is what is of first importance, as the verses above from 1 Corinthians (precious to CICCU at the time) say.
In 1919, CICCU was small and vulnerable. But as John Stott shows, as he also recounts this meeting in his great book The Cross of Christ, this brave decision ultimately led to the formation of today’s UCCF (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship) and IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students).
By contrast, SCM slowly withered away: for in its search for breadth and respectability, it was gradually abandoning the heart of the Christian message. It lost the gospel.
We still need the lessons of history. Do we consider the atoning blood of Jesus as central to our beliefs - and, as the CICCU put it then, to our message? The temptation to be easy-going, inclusive and respectable never goes away.