If It Is Not a Gospel Issue, What about Gospelly?

The Gospel Allies are not helping to clarify what is and what is not a gospel issue. Their brand is slipping away.

Kevin DeYoung comes the closest to adding clarity when he writes:

“gospel issue” should not be shorthand for “you must be passionate about all the same things I’m passionate about.” Nor should it be synonymous with notions of “building the kingdom” or “transforming the culture.” By the same token, preachers must be careful lest they allow CNN and Fox News, not to mention Twitter and Facebook, to set the agenda for their weekly pulpit ministry. If pastors in our day let cultural concerns crowd out the preaching of new birth, repentance, and justification by faith alone, it wouldn’t be the first time in the church’s history that the “gospel” became more social than gospel.

But then he the North Carolina pastor taketh away with this:

And yet, “gospel issue” need not mean any of these things. If “gospel issue” means “a necessary concern of those who have been saved by the gospel” or “one aspect of what it means to keep in step with the gospel” or “realities without which you may not be truly believing the gospel,” then social justice is certainly a gospel issue. When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s part of keeping the second table of the Decalogue. It’s part of doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10).

So there is the gospel issue of preaching the new birth and justification by faith alone, which leads to the gospel issue of good works that are the fruit of saving faith, and those good works or the third use of the law bring social justice into view or the views of social justice warriors into view.

In a similar way (as Justin Taylor observes), D. A. Carson says something good:

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 other words, the nature of salvation is at stake either explicitly or implicitly in debates about the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ on the cross.

Then Carson raises matters of politics and social relations to the level of “gospelly”:

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.

Carson seemed to recognized that doctrinal matters are properly theological and concern the way that man becomes right with God. But then he gives ground an allows that questions surrounding social relations, and specifically societies that are comprised not simply of Christians but of non-Christians, are “gospelly.” He does not seem to consider why should non-Christians ever consent to be governed by the “gospel issues” defined by Christians. And whatever happened to allowing those with expertise in public policy, law, governance, and electoral politics set the debates about race relations and laws about bigotry rather than thinking any Christian whose read a book by Keller or Carson think he is competent to pontificate about laws governing hatred or prejudice (which is kind of complicated in a society where freedom of thought is a long and cherished ideal).

And then, a golden oldie from Thabiti Anyabwile on how a matter of policy becomes “gospelly.” After the federal grand jury’s determination not to indict Ferguson police offer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, Anyabwile told readers (I am assuming they are Christian because of that “gospelly” thing) that they have three options:

We may turn the television and turn our heads and continue the unusual business of business as usual. . . .

Or, we may declare the matter resolved and proclaim from the burning rooftops, “The system worked.” . . . Our civic ideals require we remain involved in an open, honest discussion about what worked and what didn’t so that what we cherish isn’t slowly eroded by our inattention. That inattention is no option for the righteous, either.

The only course forward for all of us is that active engagement that applies and seeks to live up to our highest ideals. The debate about what constitutes “justice” is part of the process. The review of our systems and the amendment of laws is part of our highest ideals. The righteous must work to keep the foundations from being destroyed. They must walk by faith and they must do the good deeds that lead to life.

Notice the move back and forth between we “the righteous” and “civic ideals.” I assume and have heard Anyabwile enough to know that he believes a person is only righteous because of faith in Christ imputes that righteousness to the Christian. So why mix a theological category with a political one — righteous with civil? This is not clear, but it does in lean in a Social Gospelly direction. The mixing of civil and theological categories becomes even more intermingly:

There is no way people of good conscience or people of Christian faith can look at the events in Ferguson and conclude there’s nothing left for us to do or nothing that can be done. No, both pure religion and good citizenship require we not settle for what’s happened in the shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision. The Ferguson grand jury has given us our marching orders. They have ordered us to march for a more just system of policing and the protection of all life. We are obligated–if we love Christ or love this country–to find a way forward to justice, a way suitable to the dictates of our individual consciences and the word of God.

If the United States is a Christian country, maybe this sort of co-mingling of theology and law works. But we are not in Christian America anymore.

If you listen to Anyabwile’s comments about the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, you hear him complain about the failure of the statement to define terms like “social justice,” “intersectionality,” Marxism, and the like. It doesn’t seem particularly fair or just to be prissy about words when after four years you are not any more clear about the gospel and social justice than John MacArthur.


21 thoughts on “If It Is Not a Gospel Issue, What about Gospelly?

  1. Is adultery a Gospel issue? Or should we accept the confession of faith of those who have no plans to repent from adultery as being legitimate?

    If adultery is a Gospel issue, then is social justice a Gospel issue? If not, then the implication would be that social justice issues do not deal with sin. But the Scriptures are clear that to neglect or oppress the vulnerable is sin. And thus, if adultery is a Gospel issue, then why isn’t social justice a Gospel issue?

    We need to make sure that our confessions and theological models are not to us what the traditions were to the Pharisees in Mark 7.


  2. Curt, “should we accept the confession of faith of those who have not plans to repent from adultery as being legitimate?”

    Now you only want Christians to emigrate to the U.S.?

    My you are a tribalist.


  3. If you say that the visible church being neutral on political issues is a gospel issue, maybe you can be Lutheran. If you say that the Mosaic covenant being an administration of the substance of the covenant of grace, then maybe you cannot be Lutheran. If you say neither election nor the law-gospel antithesis are gospel issues, then you can be OPC.

    D A Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, Crossway, 76—-”If one holds that the Atonement is sufficient for all and effective for the elect, both sets of concerns are accommodated.”

    Richard Gaffin, by Faith not by Sight, p 10—This expression obedience of faith is best taken as intentionally multivalent…In other words, faith itself is an obedience, as well as other acts of obedience p 103–“The law-gospel antithesis enters not by virtue of creation but as the consequence of sin…The gospel is to the purpose of removing an absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of the believer…

    Gaffin, lecture on Romans 2:13: That judgement decides…the ultimate outcome for all believers and for
    all humanity, believers as well as unbelievers. It’s a life and death situation that’s in view here. Further, this ultimate judgement has as its criterion or standard, brought into view here, the criterion for that judgement is works, good works. The doing of the law, as that is the criterion for all human beings, again, believers as well as unbelievers. In fact, in the case of the believer a positive outcome is in view and that positive outcome is explicitly said to be
    justification. So, again the point on the one side of the passage is that eternal life… depends on and follows from a future justification according to works. Eternal life follows upon a future justification by doing the law.

    I hope none of them coalition “others” teach “once justified, always justified”!

    Bnonn Tennant elaborates on the now and the not yet– I have argued that Reformed histrionics over final justification are misguided, being grounded in an obviously mistaken view of faith as a one-time (“synchronic”) act, If faith is a synchronic event (preceded by the synchronic event of regeneration, followed by the synchronic event of imputation), it is impossible to fall away. You are moved from one box (unregenerate/unbelieving/unjustified) to another
    (regenerate/believing/justified). This scheme is purely spatial; it has no temporal dimensions, so it doesn’t account for the continued/diachronic exercise of faith..No one really thinks that faith is a one-time event. We all agree that it is something that must continue throughout life. ..The Reformed view is not primarily that those who fall away never had
    faith, but rather that those who fall away were never regenerate.

    John Owen: “Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny… Of all the poison which at this day is diffused in the minds of men, corrupting them from the mystery of the gospel, there is no part that is more pernicious than this one perverse imagination, that to ‘believe in Christ’ is nothing at all but to ‘believe the doctrine of the gospel!’

    Charles Hodge, ST 3:226 —“Sinful acts become more infrequent and habitual acts become more frequent and controlling” 230–“The best Christians are in general those who from love to Christ and zeal for his glory, labor most and suffer most in his service


  4. You can avoid both Hilary and theonomy (Moses) by voting for Trump not as a Christian but but as an American. You know, the way Sasse votes but not as a Republican….what’s the gospel got to do with family values?

    Luther–“Here Paul speaks about the law of Moses proper, not about the Decalogue, since the latter pertained to all nations. For the nations did not hate the Jews because of the Decalogue, but because the Jews separated themselves from the remaining nations by way of unique worship and cer­emonies, and called themselves alone the people of God, … finally Christ came and destroyed this obstruction.”

    Bnonn Tennant—-What happens when you spend a generation insisting that God’s law is not part of God’s gospel, and that God’s gospel has nothing to do with politics—but then you still want to talk about righteousness and justice in society? You give up Moses in favor of Marx. https://bnonn.com/the-fruits-of-two-kingdoms-theology/

    BT: ’ I think the real engine behind capitulating to Marxism is evangelicalism’s radical Two Kingdoms theology –the advantage of r2k is seen—even by its moderate critics from within—as creating a “bulwark against theonomy”?—
    In other words, r2k rejects the law of Moses as having any interesting relevance to our modern social order. When forming our views of how society should be structured and governed, we have no need to ask how God structured and governed his own society. The fact that Israel’s law was to be a light to their neighbors surely has no bearing on whether it should be a light to ours (Deuteronomy 4:5–8). …We only need natural law. What we know innately about God’s design is good enough. Our intuitions and inbuilt moral compasses are sufficient. The church is distinct from the civil realm, and has no authority over it, and therefore God’s law has no authority over it. Or something. This isn’t historic 2K. It’s radical

    BT–The fruits of this doctrine are now on full display, as they rot on the withered tree of evangelicalism and waft their putrescence across the inter-tubes for all to savor. Our intuitions and moral compasses are conditioned by the culture we live in. And the culture we live in is now the culture of partiality: of victims and oppressors… It is Marx’s class warfare translated to the grievances of Western special interest groups… it is a brazen irony indeed—this is a social theology which is always dividing and ever divisive.

    mcmark—everything you need to know about “anabaptists” is that they took over this city and tried to govern by Moses, and everything you need to know about Calvin and Luther is that they did not attempt to govern by Moses but instead resisted peasant rebellion against the magistrates (the nurses of the visible church)


  5. Adultery and Social Justice as comparable is hard to swallow. Here’s why. Adultery = sex with someone other than your spouse. Social Justice = what… a second life for Michael Brown? Or Trayvon? These guys got shot after voluntary getting into brawls. Injustice. Hardly. More like real life. Whether they were black or white. I can’t imagine an Old Testament prophet giving a fig. Unless they are being conjured from the pages of Eugene P’s The Message.


  6. D.G.,
    The size of your jumps in logic are approaching Olympic records.

    So how did you get from my saying:

    should we accept the confession of faith of those who have no plans to repent from adultery as being legitimate?

    to concluding that I believe that:

    Now you only want Christians to emigrate to the U.S.?

    But before you answer that question, tell me, should we accept the confession of faith of those who have no plans to repent from adultery as being legitimate? After you answer that question, then you can explain your jump in logic.


  7. DeYoung says “When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
    So there is the gospel issue of preaching the new birth and justification by faith alone, which leads to the gospel issue of good works that are the fruit of saving faith, and those good works or the third use of the law bring social justice into view or the views of social justice warriors into view.”

    Amen. The Lord tells us earth is a training ground

    1 John 2:29 If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.

    Isaiah 9: 7 There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,
    On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness
    From then on and forevermore.
    The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.


  8. DGH – your last paragraph nails it. Definition of terms is critical, and that’s where MacArthur especially, and Anyabwile to a lesser extent, have failed in articulating this issue. They are part of two camps that mostly agree, but are talking past each other because they define their terms differently. If everyone agreed on the terms, I doubt there would be significant disagreement on the gospel as it relates to social justice. I appreciate DeYoung’s effort to that end.


  9. Silly me. I always thought that the term “gospel issue” related to the gospel and justification by faith alone. Now I see that it is kind of wax nose that is shaped by one’s concerns.

    I guess this explains how the 2016 PCA overture on race relations included terms like “gospel-mandate” and “gospel-imperative.” I argued then, as I argue now, that such terms are oxymora in the sense that they confuse law and gospel. It would have been far better to adopt the language of “biblical mandate” and “biblical imperative” which preserves the distinction between law and gospel. Of course, that suggestion was made and rejected by the Overtures Committee.

    The flip side of “gospel issue” is that it is used to excuse all sorts of things contrary to our confessional standards: Intinction, Lord’s Day observance, use of images of the 2nd person of the Godhead, and more. The constant refrain is “that’s not a gospel-issue!” Of course, that is code for “that issue isn’t all that important and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of the things that I think are gospel-issues.”

    In the end the use of the term “gospel issue” undercuts what it means to “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?” It is another form of subscription that competes with what has been historically understood as subscribing to the creeds and confessions of one’s church.

    I suppose that this doesn’t pose a problem for those in churches that do not have creeds and confessions, but it certainly poses problems for those that do. I guess I’m still trying to figure out why some guys in NAPARC churches feel more affinity for non-NAPARC folk than their NAPARC brethren who adhere to common creeds and confessions.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Curt, you asked if “we” should accept a profession of faith in the context of “social justice.” Social justice implies the society in which we live. Your question presumes that the people in our society make professions of faith.

    homework done.


  11. “The Statement on Social Justice was not produced by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Some of its defenders have close ties to the Alliance, while others have convictions that lie outside of the boundaries of the confessions to which we subscribe. ”

    Credobaptists (Founders) and the Alliance of Confessing EVANGELICALS together ask if it’s outside the boundaries of the confessions to make negative (or positive) “chirpings and mutterings” about those who write “chirpings and mutterings” outside the boundaries of the confessions.

    Why talk about the gospel if you don’t agree about the gospel? Maybe you can agree on the law.

    And if you can’t agree on the law, how could you agree about the gospel? And if you can’t agree that all sin is against grace (or the offer of grace), then how could you possibly begin to teach anybody outside the covenant anything about law?

    As Erasmus said to Luther, first we got to get that law and responsibility part—we live in a lawless age. Now is not the time preach about God’s sovereignty making all things that happen necessary.



  12. D.G.,
    Your homework might be done but the question went unanswered. You get an ‘F’ for your effort. You would have passed if you tried to answer the question.

    In addition, you attempt to glibly paint social justice issues and activists with a single broad brush. Again, you might think your homework is done, but it is found inadequate.

    Write again when you want to be serious rather than play these games meant to demean those you disagree with.


  13. Curt, I do believe the social justice warriors were the first to use the broad brush — as in racial, gender, and religious profiling — white Christian men. Those same warriors express horror (and would be correct without the volume) when some talk about Muslim men and women.

    You use double standards.


  14. D.G.,
    As usual, you avoid the question whose answer undoes your position. Again, the question is:

    Should we accept the confession of faith of those who have no plans to repent from adultery as being legitimate?

    Regardless of he faults of some SJWs and some White men, the answer to that question is important.


  15. Well, it was not always a gospel issue, but then the pope made it a gospel issue. The pope once was the antiChrist, but that was before abortion was legal and we needed Romanists on the Supreme Court. And back in the distant past the Synod of Dordt had some very harsh (non-pastoral) things to say about the false gospel of those who taught universal atonement conditioned on the sinner, but now we live in a a time and place when we need to unite with Erasmus against the lawlessness of our society. Let’s not get distracted with “the bondage of the will”, neither when we talk about the gospel or about biblical justice.

    Ian Murray biography of John Wesley—It was not Wesley’s fault that he was Arminian because it was all caused by the antinomian “truly reformed” people….



  16. 1940?

    As a preliminary step toward the printing of the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Seventh General Assembly (1940) established a Committee on Texts and Proof Texts (consisting of John Murray [chairman], E. J. Young, and Ned B. Stonehouse,)… The proof texts prepared by the Committee were accepted for publication. The Confession was then published with these proof texts (as citations, not full texts) by the Committee on Christian Education and reprinted by Great Commission Publications

    Click to access Preface.pdf

    WCF 19:6 “The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof; although not as due to them by the law, as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourages to the one and deters from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and not under grace.”

    Leviticus. 18:5. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord.
    Matthew 19:17. And he said unto him, Why call me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.


  17. Keeping Abraham’s circumcision is not only a question about history or racism

    Galatians 5:2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no gain or profit to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ,you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

    Scott Clark—The “gospel issue” argument is self-defeating. By raising whatever sin irritates us most at the moment to a “gospel issue” and by saying (implicitly or explicitly) “if you continue committing X sin, you are denying the gospel” one is putting another back under the law.



  18. Earlier. The reference to Pope as Antichrist was removed in 1903, affirmed in 1936 with the formation of the OPC. So no relation to the abortion issue.

    Mark: And back in the distant past the Synod of Dordt had some very harsh (non-pastoral) things to say about the false gospel of those who taught universal atonement conditioned on the sinner, but now we live in a a time and place when we need to unite with Erasmus against the lawlessness of our society.

    So would you say that Dordt was well-attuned to the issues of universal atonement and the works-gospel issues that attend it?


  19. Curt, not a good analogy. Someone is dead. Now you want to excommunicate?

    You know you’ll have to excommunicate about 90% of the church. I’m sure that won’t bother you since you commune in the pure wing.


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