3 Ways to Spoil the Gospel

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A few weeks ago I published a short post explaining why I feel led to address the social justice debate at this point in time. I then followed with a post reminding us that God has given us both an evangel and an ethic, which was my way of suggesting that what’s fundamentally wrong with social justice discussions is the severing of ethics from evangel.

My last two posts made an assertion that I hope to illustrate further in this post. To do so, I need to get more specific about some disagreements. And to do that, I think I need to begin with an issue raised in my April 2018 post, “We Await Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King,” and subsequently engaged by John MacArthur in his four-part blog series and four-part sermon series on Ezekiel 18 (I’ve linked to the first in each of those series).

Given that John mentioned me by name in some of his public comments, that we have sometimes served together at conferences, and that I’ve expressed my appreciation for him on multiple occasions on this blog (here and here, for examples), I trust the fair reader will understand that my mentioning him directly is (a) but returning his friendly critique, (b) is in the context of overall appreciation, and (c) is done with the hopes of being specific about issues. My aim is not to personally attack John, simply to clarify where our disagreement lies and to do so in a way that draws the circle of conversation to a smaller, tighter circumference. That’s my hope anyway.

The contested point has to do with repentance. Specifically, whether personal repentance is in any way tied to what might be called cultural sins or sins characterizing a generation.

So let’s begin . . .

John’s Concern

John began his contribution to the social justice debate by asserting, “Over the years, I’ve fought a number of polemical battles against ideas that threaten the gospel. This recent (and surprisingly sudden) detour in quest of ‘social justice’ is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far.” It was a bold claim, as you would expect from him. It’s an assessment that dials up the issue to first-order dispute insofar as we’re talking about the nature of the gospel itself. At least that’s how John sees it.

For his part, John argues that “social justice” (in my opinion, ill-defined in his sermons and writing) represents an addition to the gospel or another gospel altogether. He sees current advocacy for “social justice” as essentially a pragmatic re-hashing of the social gospel. He thinks vague “social justice” demands, like repenting for the sins of prior generations, are being added to the gospel as a necessary part of repentance. His contributions to the discussion aim most pointedly at rebutting this notion.

There Are Actually Three Errors to Avoid

Theologian Graham Cole, writing about praying to the Holy Spirit in his book Engaging with the Holy Spirit, provides a helpful comment when thinking about threats to the gospel:

There are many ways to spoil the gospel. One such way is by addition: Christ plus Mosaic circumcision as the gospel for the Gentiles. Galatians addresses this error. The gospel may also be spoiled by subtraction. Christ is divine but not human. . . . This docetic error was the problem facing the original readers of John’s first letter (1 John 4:1-3). But the gospel may also be spoiled by a lack of due weight in theological emphasis, by giving an element in it either too much or too little accent. A biblical truth may be weighted in a way that skews our thinking about God and the gospel. (p. 64; italics added)

By addition, by subtraction, by a lack of due weight in theological emphasis. Three ways to spoil the gospel.

John appears to think I and others are threatening the gospel by adding to the Good News an unbiblical view of repentance. Consider his emphasis in his series on Ezekiel 18. In each sermon, he drives home the idea that each person is responsible for their own sins before God. He rejects the idea that any person can or should repent for the sins of a previous generation or the characteristic sins of the culture.

I completely agree with John that each person must give an account to God for the sins they have personally and actually committed in the body. Full stop. See, for example, Romans 14:12 and Hebrews 4:13. This is not in dispute.

However, I think John makes his argument in a way that risks committing errors two and three listed by Cole. He risks spoiling the gospel both by subtracting from it and by a lack of proper balance in theological emphasis where the doctrines of sin and repentance are concerned.

Subtracting from the Gospel

I think John’s way of making his argument risks subtracting from the gospel in two ways. First, by reducing everything to sins actively and knowingly committed and to individual culpability and accountability before God, John risks shrinking what we know about the nature of sin and accountability itself. He puts forth an individualistic understanding of sin that:

  • omits consideration of unintentional sin (see Lev. 4, for example),
  • fails to give attention to sins unknown to us (Ps. 19:12; 1 Cor. 4:4),
  • seems to minimize the ways individuals share the characteristic sins of their forebears (Matt. 23:34-36, for example), and
  • seems to overlook the ways people can be held complicit in the actions of their contemporaries even when they were not the immediate perpetrators (Acts 2:22-23, for example).

A good doctrine of sin must include unintentional sin, unknown or unconscious sin, and give attention to complicity in the cultural or characteristic sins of a people. Such complicity should be clearly acknowledged even if we think the solution still comes back to individual repentance–as one of my critics, Doug Wilson, does here. My disagreement with Doug at the time was simply that not every post needs to include a gospel call to repentance and faith. Doug and I were not disagreeing about the biblical reality of culture-wide sins or complicity in them. Nor were we disagreeing about whether personal repentance should somehow be redefined. But John seems to think repentance was being redefined.

To be clear: Repentance should not be redefined.

The disagreement is about what things should prompt us to repentance. John appears to shrink those prompts down to an individual’s acts of personal and conscious sin. Based on Scripture, I also would include the discovery of unintentional sin as well as sharing in the characteristic sins of forebears and contemporaries. If the Lord himself teaches that collapsing towers that kill people or murderous actions of dictators should be prompts to personal repentance as in Luke 13:1-5, one would think that sins closer to home in one’s own cultural and national history would be even stronger prompts to repentance. But reducing everything to the personal and conscious subtracts these inducements to repentance.

Second, I think John risks subtracting from the gospel by taking an approach that minimizes God’s social and ethical demands. John frequently argues “none of us are victims” of injustice, but ultimately all are guilty of injustice against God. But that seems to miss the fact that there are two tables of the Law—the first defining our responsibility to God and the second our responsibility to each other. By collapsing love for God and love for neighbor this way, John effectively minimizes the second table of neighbor love (which is where justice issues arise).

But biblical ethical teaching is integral to the gospel. Those ethical considerations come in two forms: (a) the prior requirements of the Law that make the gospel so necessary in the first place and (b) the holiness that conforms to the gospel subsequent to conversion. So, ethics (or holiness, if you like) condemns us prior to conversion and ethics comes to define us after conversion. When Christians speak of social justice, they mean God’s biblical requirements for holy and righteous living in social relationships.

I’m quite certain John would say that our lack of holiness means we need the gospel and that holiness subsequent to conversion is indeed an “implication” of the gospel, though not the specific propositional content of the gospel message itself. To which I would heartily agree.

However, we need to be careful with “implication” language. Saying something is an “implication of the gospel” does not mean it is unnecessary to the gospel. Some people seem to use the term “implication” that way, almost as a synonym for “optional.” They treat the gospel’s implications the way one might treat an appendix that can be safely removed without damage to the human body.

It’s better to think of implications in the mathematical or logical sense, as something following necessarily from the proposition itself. In that sense, we can distinguish the proposition from the implication, but removing the implication distorts the proposition. So diminishing the gospel’s implications is like removing rays from the sun. Without rays the sun ceases in a meaningful sense to be the sun. Removing rays from the sun diminishes its reach, heat, and power. Or, to switch metaphors, you can tell a tree by the fruit it bears (Luke 6:43-44). The fruit is not the tree, but the tree can only meaningfully be identified by its fruit. Whether it’s rays of the sun or fruit on a tree, take away the implication and you distort the proposition or thing itself.

This is the kind of subtraction I think John risks by driving too wide a separation between the gospel and its entailments and by collapsing the sin of injustice into “we are all rebels against God.” We have received from God an evangel and an ethic. The two should not and cannot be separated without risking harm to the evangel.

Imbalance with the Gospel

John also emphasizes personal culpability and accountability beyond proper balance, committing the third error listed by Cole. Ezekiel 18 focuses pretty clearly on whether “a man is righteous and does what is just” (v. 5), which includes “does not oppress anyone” and “withholds his hands from injustice, executes true justice between man and man” (vv. 7, 8). God does not require a vague individual repentance but repentance that specifically turns to justice.

This truth receives “too little accent” and is “weighted in a way that skews our thinking about God and the gospel” (to use Cole’s phrases). In John’s accounting of both the text of Ezekiel and the gospel-shaped Christian life, he opts for an overly individualistic emphasis, downplaying the complete social rot of Israel into idolatry and every form of sin and injustice. Consider, for example, how “the city” is described in Ezekiel 22:1-12. Or recall the Lord’s assessment in Ezek. 22:29-30:

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.

The cultural rot was so widespread and deep that God found no one who was righteous!

Ezekiel 18 and 22 must be read together. They are part of the same book. Emphasizing one section (“A man shall die for his own sins”) as if the other does not exist (“The entire city was corrupt in idolatry and injustice”) is to strike an improper balance. Surely each person will give an account for their own life, but just as surely each person must be careful they do not share in the sins of their age. We ought to imagine the entire message of Ezekiel being given to the entire people of Israel in balance rather than exalting one part well beyond the other.

It’s always a temptation in polemics to stress one thing to an excess when we view ourselves as correcting excesses elsewhere. But over-correction tends to do harm as well. We have to prayerfully work against such extremes, or we risk imbalances that harm the gospel.

What’s in Dispute from My Perspective

In my opinion, John gives us a view of the gospel and repentance far too complacent about oppression, injustice, mistreatment, and indifference. In writing this, I am not saying that John or anyone in the discussions would affirm those things as “good” or “acceptable.” I’m suggesting that their conception of the gospel and its requirements are too narrow and subjectively pietistic, too imbalanced toward American individualism, and too sanguine about the differences of our day compared to previous generations. Consequently, their conception of the gospel fails to actually account for the socially and culturally characteristic sins that require repentance.

To put it another way: I think this view of the gospel leaves a significant blind spot. Specifically, the reduction of sin to the individual’s conscious action leaves one blind to (sometimes even opposed to the notion of) cultural sins, systemic sin and injustice, and the possibility of complicity with a generation’s sinful actions (for NT instances, see Matt. 23:34-36; Acts 2:22-23).

What I have been attempting to argue over the last couple of years is that the evangelical and fundamentalist church shares in the sins of the wider American society to such an extent it has sometimes been indistinguishable from the world and has yet to demonstrate any fruit of repentance (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8; Act 26:20) worth remarking. There are exceptions. But speaking in general terms, evangelical and fundamentalist churches have been worldly churches committing the sins of the culture and age. This is particularly true regarding matters of racial justice. Indeed, at various points in history evangelical and fundamentalist churches have been leading the world in race-based sin and oppression. (For more on this last point, see, for example: Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races; Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews, Doctrine and Race; Rebecca Anne Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia; Richard Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England; Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise; Katharine Gerbner, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World; Alan Cross, When Heaven and Earth Collide; Kevin Jones and Jarvis J. Williams, Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention; or The Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).

Individual accountability before God and the necessity of repentance for one’s own sin were never in dispute. What’s in dispute is whether one’s claim to repentance and the gospel can be regarded as genuine if one does not break from the characteristic sins of their era and culture, including the besetting sins of their church culture.

The actual debate is about the extent to which the sins of previous generations still mark this generation, and, if so, whether people today will acknowledge and repent of it. What is in dispute is whether a mere claim to not being guilty of certain sins constitutes either repentance or innocence when the sins in view actually require active opposition and when we may be unaware of some sins (Ps. 19:12; 1 Cor. 4:4). The life the gospel produces ought to be actively anti-racist, anti-oppression, anti-family destruction, and so on. At least that’s the view of the Bible (Isa. 1:17; passim).

Conclusion

At the 2016 T4G conference, I listened as John preached powerfully on repentance. In his introduction, he asked the audience of mostly pastors and seminarians:

Have you ever heard of a church that repented? A church, a whole church, that repented? Have you ever been part of a church that repented? Openly, genuinely, collectively, with sadness and brokenness—a church that repented for sins against its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.

John speculated that the audience probably had not. “We all like calling the nation to repentance,” he said, “but what about the church?”

Over the last couple of years, I’ve wondered why his call to church-wide repentance has been missing when it comes to the racial history and guilt of evangelical churches. I’m sad to say nearly all of John’s comments regarding social justice since his 2016 T4G talk have actually opposed calls for the church as a whole to repent, especially when those calls involve the Church doing justice (Mic. 6:8) on racial matters.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised since John also maintained in 2016:

Churches rarely repent. Rarely are they broken over their collective sin. Rarely do they cry out from the depths of their heart for forgiveness, purity, cleansing, and restoration.

I lament to think how right John’s words were in 2016 and now. I think John was correct in 2016, both in his call for the church qua church to repent as well as his assertion that churches rarely do.

But now he seems to have changed his view. Now it seems he thinks calls to “collective repentance” represent a threat to the gospel. If that’s so, then that’s the nub of any continuing difference we have. I still think the church needs to repent and bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8).

I think John would be more consistent with himself and with the Scripture if he applied his 2016 sermon to the church and matters of racial justice. But we all have places of inconsistency and areas where we need to grow. John and I both need the Lord’s grace to be faithful to the whole counsel of Scripture. May the Lord help us both and sanctify his church.

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