One of the reasons many people resonate with Kevin DeYoung’s writing is that he has a mind that likes to define terms and make distinctions. When that happens, fog begins to clear away among people of goodwill.

So, on the question, “Is social justice a gospel issue?” he avoids the easy answers of Yes or No and rightly responds: “That depends on what we mean by ‘social justice’ and what we mean by ‘gospel issue.’

Kevin’s article reminded me of a 2014 Themelios editorial by D. A. Carson. I wonder if we might be having more clear and productive conversations these days if we had taken to heart Carson’s careful definitional distinctions.

Carson argues that when we say “X is a gospel issue” we are doing two things at once:

  • We are making a truth claim.
  • We are making a polemical assertion in order to establish its relative importance.

On the “truth claim,” he writes:

The statement is a truth claim in that it asserts that something either is true about X, namely, that it is “a gospel issue.”

The claim is either valid (if X really is a gospel issue) or invalid (if X is really not a gospel issue).

But, he points out, most people who say “X is a gospel issue” are doing more than making a truth claim:

If the truth claim is valid, the statement implicitly asserts that X is a more important topic than others that are not gospel issues: it is designed to establish the importance of X relative to other topics that are not understood to be gospel issues.

What is presupposed in the statement, of course, is that the gospel has a very high level of importance, perhaps supreme importance, such that if X is a gospel issue, it too is similarly elevated in importance.

It follows, then, that to abandon X, when X is a gospel issue, is somehow to diminish or threaten the gospel. . . .

Carson goes on to argue that the meaning of “gospel issue” itself needs clarification.

On the one hand, because of the complex entanglements of theology, with a little imagination one might argue that almost any topic is a gospel issue. At one level or another, everything in any theology that is worth the name is tied to everything else, so it is possible to tie everything to the gospel. In that sense, well-nigh everything is a gospel issue. . . .

If that is all we are doing, the argument “X is a gospel issue” is a well-nigh useless argument, because the claim could be advanced for almost any topic, irrespective of that to which X refers. The choice of X will in that case reflect rather more the identity of the individual or group that is making the claim, than the persuasiveness of the argument.

On the other hand, “gospel issue” may continue to be a useful category if it refers not to any biblical or theological topic that can be tied in some way or other to the gospel—for the organic nature of biblical and theological truth demonstrates that just about every topic can be tied to the gospel—but to biblical and theological topics the denial of which clearly affect our understanding of the gospel adversely.

Carson makes three additional points in this discussion:

  • Clearly “X is a gospel issue” is a useless argument where there is little agreement as to what the gospel is. . . .
  • Some issues are very important but are not usefully labeled gospel issues. . . . [W]hen we decide to talk about the relative importance of topics, we need more than the formula “X is a gospel issue.” Issues may be hugely important even if they are not gospel issues. Indeed, if our only criterion is whether X is a gospel issue, then if we decide that X is not a gospel issue, we may unwittingly generate the impression it is not an important topic. It is always worth asking: Important for what? Important in what domain?
  • We must squarely face the fact that what we judge to be a gospel issue is shaped in part by our location in history, in a particular culture. In other words, the issues are not to be determined by logic alone. Our place in time and space entices us to evaluate whether a particular topic is a gospel issue; believers in another time and place might come to quite different conclusions, even though they share a common understanding of what the gospel is.

On this last point, he considers the question of race in America as an illustration:

Certainly the majority of Christians in America today would happily aver that good race relations are a gospel issue.

They might point out

that God’s saving purpose is to draw to himself, through the cross, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation;

that the church is one new humanity, made up of Jew and Gentile;

that Paul tells Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as his brother, as the apostle himself;

that this trajectory starts at creation, with all men and women being made in the image of God, and finds its anticipation in the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

Moreover, the salvation secured by Christ in the gospel is more comprehensive than justification alone: it brings repentance, wholeness, love for brothers and sisters in the Christian community.

But the sad fact remains that not all Christians have always viewed race relations within the church as a gospel issue.

More worrying, survey after survey has shown that in America today, even among those with a robust grasp of the gospel, black Christians and white Christians do not view these matters exactly the same way. Even where both sides agree, on biblical grounds, that this is a gospel issue, black Christians are far more likely to see that this is a crucial gospel issue, an issue of huge importance, one that is often ignored, while white Christians are more likely to imagine that racial issues have so largely been resolved that it is a distraction to keep bringing them up.

In other words, even where both sides agree that we are dealing with a gospel issue (and in that sense, an important issue), they do not agree on the relative importance of this gospel issue. It is impossible not to see that our judgments on these matters are not shaped by Scripture alone, in the same sense in which a mathematician may be shaped by Pythagoras’s theorem. They are shaped by our relationships, by our race, by our culture, by where we have been brought up, by the income levels we have experienced, by the affronts we have experienced, and much more.

In other words, for many topics that we have designated X, whether X is a gospel issue is not a zero sum game.

The whole article is worth a careful rereading as we continue to discuss these important issues.