Volume 39 - Issue 2
What Are Gospel Issues?By D. A. Carson
Today it is very common to hear that such-and-such a topic is “a gospel issue.” We must hold to the eternal generation of the Son: it is a gospel issue. We must defend inerrancy: it is a gospel issue. We must espouse complementarianism: it is a gospel issue. We must be sabbatarians: it is a gospel issue. We must hold to a specific eschatological vision: it is a gospel issue. We must hold to substitutionary penal atonement: it is a gospel issue. Alternatively, the weight of some doctrines may be diminished by our pronouncements if we declare that something or other is not a gospel issue. We then hear statements like these: Inerrancy may be important, but it is not a gospel issue. I disagree with your understanding of the role of the nation of Israel in the history of redemption, but that’s all right: it’s not a gospel issue. Why do you make such a fuss over complementarianism? After all, it’s not a gospel issue.
Not only do we not agree on what things are gospel issues, I suspect that sometimes we do not agree on what “gospel issue” means. The following reflections provide the merest introduction to some of the factors that strike me as relevant:
(1) The statement “X is a gospel issue” is simultaneously (a) a truth claim and (b) a polemical assertion attempting to establish relative importance. The latter clearly depends on the former. Both parts bear thinking about. 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 as used by most people, “X is a gospel issue” is more than 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.
These initial observations may seem a bit theoretical, but we must see that they carry significant practical consequences. Many people use statements of the sort “X is a gospel issue” in order to establish the boundaries of Christian fellowship. We may not want to admit Bob to the leadership of our local church or our Christian group because he denies X and X is a gospel issue. We may decide to admit Rosamund to something or other, because although she disbelieves Y, in this case Y is not a gospel issue, so the topic is not properly used as a criterion of admission or exclusion.
(2) What we mean by “gospel issue” 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.
“In the gospel, Jesus saves us from sin. Sin is comprehensively given clarity by the Ten Commandments. To ignore the Sabbath law is to ignore one of the Ten Commandments. To ignore it or annul it is therefore to break the moral law of God, and such a stance surely demonstrates that one is not seriously confronting sin, the sin from which the gospel saves us. If one claims to be a Christian but does not fight against sin, the ostensible gospel in which we believe is really no gospel at all. So observance of the Sabbath is a gospel issue.”
“Our generation is notable for the clever hermeneutical dodges it invents to sidestep what Scripture clearly says. Scripture clearly teaches complementarianism, a conclusion that can be ducked only by the hermeneutical tricks that betray a heart far removed from confessing that Jesus is Lord, which is part of what it means to confess the gospel. To confess Jesus is Lord and not bow to his Word is to deny the gospel. Complementarianism is a gospel issue.”
“The filioque phrase is necessary to preserve the truth that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Without that confessional point, our understanding of the Trinity is adversely affected, and sooner or later that in turn affects our understanding of the work of the persons of the Godhead in redemption itself. Is it any wonder that Eastern Orthodoxy, which repudiates the filioque clause, puts far more weight on Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection than on his atoning work on the cross, despite the apostle Paul’s insistence that the cross is central? Thus the filioque clause is a gospel issue.”
I am not arguing that any of these three arguments is necessarily valid. It is easy to imagine how another person might look at the texts and arguments and reach quite different conclusions. For example, someone might hold that Scripture does not teach complementarianism and that for some Christians, at least, no hermeneutical tricks are consciously deployed to reach this conclusion. Therefore the egalitarian may hold that Jesus is Lord with a perfectly clear conscience. If so, then complementarianism is not a gospel issue. Once again: at this juncture I am not arguing for the validity or invalidity of either pole. All I am saying is that virtually any topic can be tied to the gospel in some way or another. 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.
(3) Clearly “X is a gospel issue” is a useless argument where there is little agreement as to what the gospel is. For example, if by “gospel” we mean the sort of thing that is often taught in lowest-common-denominator evangelicalism—e.g., “Jesus died on the cross for my sins,” without any attempt to establish what is meant by the confession—then in what sense is penal, substitutionary atonement a gospel issue? It may be a gospel issue in that in some sense or other it is tied to Jesus’ death, but that is not enough to make the statement “Penal, substitutionary atonement is a gospel issue” say anything important (my second point, above). More precisely: if “Jesus died on the cross for my sins” is a sufficient definition of the gospel, then it is not clear that failing to believe in penal, substitutionary atonement adversely affects or threatens the gospel, for in itself this formulation of the gospel does not specify with any precision what understanding of the atonement the formulation presupposes. By contrast, if by the gospel we specify something a bit more robust (though scarcely comprehensive)—e.g., “the gospel is the good news that in Christ, and especially in his death and resurrection, God has taken decisive action to save his people from their sins, such that by Jesus’s death sin is cancelled, the judicial wrath of God is averted, believers receive what Christ merited while he receives what we sinners merited, the devil is defeated, and God displays his incalculable love, pouring out his Spirit upon us so as to convict us, regenerate us, and transform us, in anticipation of the consummation still to come” (or something of that order)—then clearly penal, substitutionary atonement is a gospel issue in a tight sense. It is a gospel issue in the sense that if we deny or disown penal, substitutionary atonement, the gospel is adversely affected.
When Christians talk together about what is or what is not a gospel issue, very often they are conversing with fellow believers who share, pretty closely, the same understanding of what the gospel is. For example, when members of the Council of The Gospel Coalition talk about whether X is or is not a gospel issue, at least they share a common mind as to what the gospel is. Such discussion may be useful. But others may conclude that the X in question is not a gospel issue precisely because they hold to a different or at least a reduced definition of the gospel.
(4) Some issues are very important but are not usefully labeled gospel issues. For example, there are important epistemological issues with which thoughtful Christians must wrestle. Again, some issues—e.g., what we mean by “person” and “substance” in discussions on the nature of the Trinity—certainly stretch back into elements of exegesis of the biblical texts, and can in some sense be tied to the gospel, but might more usefully be thought of as important metaphysical issues. Some topics might be though of as both gospel issues and other kinds of issues. For example, Lutherans and Calvinists (to go no further) will defend somewhat differing views on the relationship between law and gospel: doubtless these can be called gospel issues (indeed, they are sometimes so labeled), but it is probably more helpful to think of them as canonical and systematic issues.
This is merely a way of saying that when 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?
(5) 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.
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.
For some Christian observers, cessationism is a gospel issue. In their perception, the charismatic movement is characteristically afflicted by one brand or another of health, wealth, and prosperity gospel that distances itself from the gospel of the cross: this makes the matter a gospel issue. Some forms of the charismatic movement so construct a two-stage view of spiritual wholeness, the second stage attested by one or more particular spiritual gifts, that the nature of what Jesus achieved on the cross is in jeopardy. Others, it is argued, adopt a view of revelation that jeopardizes the exclusive, final authority of Scripture, and this threatens the gospel that the Scripture heralds. But other Christian observers, fully aware of these dangers and no less concerned to avoid them, nevertheless remain convinced that at least some charismatics manage to display their gifts without succumbing to any of these errors, while self-consciously holding to the same gospel that the observers hold. In other words, for them the charismatic movement (or, from the obverse direction, cessationism) is not necessarily a gospel issue. They want to avoid building legalistic fences around their positions. Once again, it is difficult not to see that personal experiences and sustained habits of assessment have entered into one’s judgments. Determining whether X is a gospel issue is often more than a narrowly exegetical exercise.
To put the same matter another way, another sort of example might be introduced. We have seen how the doctrine of penal, substitutionary atonement is usefully considered a gospel issue provided (a) that we have adopted a robust definition of the gospel, such that (b) to disown that facet of the cross-work of Christ necessarily diminishes or threatens the gospel. But I have not heard anyone recently suggest that the exemplary function of the cross is a gospel issue, even though Peter unambiguously insists that Jesus died leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps. This is as much a gospel issue as is penal, substitutionary atonement, even though it is not treated in that way today, precisely because it is not one of the controverted points. In other words, the things that we debate as to whether they are gospel issues reflect the hot topics, and especially the denials or errors, of our age. That is one of the reasons why I mentioned the filioque clause and the eternal generation of the Son at the head of this editorial: at one point, they were very much considered gospel issues. The second of these two is currently making something of a comeback—but certainly if we are careless about them, our carelessness suggests how our own theological foci have shifted with time and demonstrates once again that discussions of the sort “X is a gospel issue” commonly address the errors and dangers of a particular age. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it is in any case an inevitable thing. But it should be recognized for what it is.
In sum, to affirm something is or is not a gospel issue is not a transparent expression. It is likely to be clearest among those who share a common confession as to what the gospel is. It is useful only when it means something more stringent than that X can be tied in some way to the gospel: one must show that without this X the gospel itself is seriously threatened. And it is always wise to recognize that some topics are hugely important on grounds other than gospel issues and that our choice of topics is generated in part by our perception of the threats and errors of our own age.
D. A. Carson
D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and founder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.
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