Whatever Happened to Mortal Sin?

Austen Ivereigh is another of those papal interpreters who explain to the rest of the world what the bishops and pope really mean. His advance copy for the upcoming synod of bishops on sexual abuse is the sort of piece Harry Emerson Fosdick could have composed:

The church’s task is not to lament and condemn, but rather to discern and reform.

We’re so used to hearing that Francis is “behind the curve” on the abuse issue. In truth, he is well ahead of it. While most Catholics, not least bishops and religious orders, remain fixated on cleaning up the institution, demonstrating that it is now transparent and accountable and regulated by new measures, the pope has grasped that keeping the focus on the institution in this way is precisely the problem. This is apparent in the texts he addressed to the Chilean bishops and the people of God last year, which in turn draw on his meditations on institutional desolation as a Jesuit back in the 1980s. Both those texts of three decades ago and last year’s letters have been collected and commented on by his Jesuit collaborators in Rome, Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Fr. Diego Fares, in a new book published in Italian and Spanish, Las Cartas de la Tribulación (“The Tribulation Letters”). If the book had come out later, it would doubtless have included Francis’s letter to the U.S. bishops at the start of their retreat at Mundelein seminary.

The heart of the pope’s message is a pithy little sentence that occurs back in his 1980s writings and again in his letters to the bishops of Chile and the United States: “Ideas you discuss, but situations have to be discerned.” Whenever the church faces a time of tribulation, there are various temptations it can succumb to: to recoil into itself, to put up defenses, to blame others, and essentially to argue—with others, and within itself. The church is prone to “ruminating” on its own desolation, lamenting and blaming, and at its worst falls into “victimism,” which, says Francis in his preface to the book, “conceals in its breast the resort to vengeance, which only feeds the evil it pretends to eliminate.”

All these are means of evading the real task, which is to seek the grace that is always on offer in desolation and tribulation: the grace of conversion. By accusing ourselves, not others—in humility, repentance, and self-correction—we open ourselves to that grace. We change. We are converted. We see where we went wrong. And with that new sight comes the chance to change course. The church’s task is not to lament and condemn, but rather to discern and reform.

What is so hard to discern about the sin of sex outside of marriage? Or how tough is it for bishops to tell the truth and be responsible with those under their oversight? It may require a little extra discernment to ponder the sort of sin that proceeds from victims for resenting their abusers or the bishops who covered up the tawdry activity. But do you really need to look to systems and cultures to figure out sinfulness or that the wages of sin is death?

It is breathtaking to see how much Rome has changed since Benedict XVI and John Paul II. It is even more staggering to see people like Ivereigh whitewash popes and bishops’ actions and responsibilities in the current climate. It makes you think the gates of hades are winning.

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Mainline Protestantism’s Elder Brother

Boniface takes the temperature of Roman Catholicism in the light of Governor Cuomo and Archbishop Dolan:

the purpose of excommunication is not merely for the good of the sinner’s soul; it is also for the edification and protection of the community. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump.” St. Paul teaches that excommunication helps purge the body of “leaven”, and that without this purging such leaven will cause a rot throughout the body. When the offender is singled out and has judgment pronounced upon him, the faithful at least see that such behavior is proscripted. St. Paul is not only worried about the sinner, but about the boasting of the congregation, that is, their attitude about the sinner. By excommunicating him, St. Paul judges not only the sinner, but the broader attitude that allows sin to flourish unchecked.

To bring this back to Governor Cuomo: from the biblical perspective, whether Cuomo will repent or not, whether he respects the authority of the Church or not, whether the Church can claim any socio-political leverage in these matters, is not ultimately the main concern. The fact is, the good of the Catholic Church in America demands that this man be thrown out. At least make an attempt to purify the lump of its leaven. If we don’t, we are celebrating with the old leaven. It’s about the integrity of the community as much as it is about the sinner.

* * * * * *

There have often been times in Church history where discipline has been lost or seriously eroded. We can think of various monastic reforms throughout the centuries. Or the era of the Counter Reform and the Council of Trent when the Church had to fight an uphill battle to transform the episcopacy from a class of political courtiers into something more in line with what Christ intended. Countless regional synods from the first millennium and the era of the barbarian invasions attest to the Church’s commitment to maintaining or restoring discipline in an age of chaos when order seemed to be falling apart everywhere.

…And that’s the sad truth here. Cardinal Tobin, Dolan and the like don’t care what the optics are here. They don’t care whether the House of the Lord is an eye sore, an abomination to the people. “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24); but they don’t care. If discipline has been lost, then the common sense approach is to restore it. You restore it by making examples of people and actually asserting your will to enforce discipline. If you can’t do that or refuse to, it simply means you don’t even want discipline restored. You’re happy with the status quo. This is the inescapable conclusion: Cuomo will not face excommunication because the princes of the Church are content with the current situation.

So why convert? Protestants are supposed to think this is the church founded no matter how much it resembles mainline Protestantism? When the successors to the apostles are so far from following the apostles, we’re supposed to see nothing and come back to mother church?

Social Justice circa 2009

If you read some people, you might get the impression that the gospel and social justice are synonymous. But words change meanings, even if some people have trouble understanding that a reference to “race” in the 1930s is not the same as one in the 1880s or the 1980s.

Consider how only a decade ago, the Gospel Allies were talking about social justice in ways that no one could use after Michael Brown, Ferguson, and Black Lives Matter. For instance, Kevin DeYoung wrote a series on social justice in Scripture that found almost no reference to race. Here is how he summarized it last year (even!):

Several years ago, I worked my way through the major justice passages in the Bible: Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25, Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and Luke 4. My less-than-exciting conclusion was that we should not oversell or undersell what the Bible says about justice. On the one hand, there is a lot in the Bible about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. There are also plenty of warnings against treating the helpless with cruelty and disrespect. On the other hand, justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. Doing justice means following the rule of law, showing impartiality, paying what you promised, not stealing, not swindling, not taking bribes, and not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you.

So for simplicity sake, let’s take biblical “social justice” to mean something like “treating people equitably, working for systems and structures that are fair, and looking out for the weak and the vulnerable.” If that’s what we mean, is social justice a gospel issue?

Even Thabiti Anyabwile seemed to be persuaded:

We seem to put social justice at odds with gospel proclamation. Many today don’t think these can easily coexist. They think that to fight for justice as the Christian church inevitably means the abandonment of the gospel. They may be correct. For since the Civil Rights Movement, the gospel has been thoroughly confused by too many in the African American church with liberation and justice itself.

To be sure, Anyabwile went on to question those who make too strong a contrast between the gospel and social justice:

to preach the gospel and have no concern and take no action in the cause of justice is as much an abandonment of the gospel as mistaken the gospel. How can a faithful gospel preacher preach the gospel before slaves and never wince at the gross barbarity of that peculiar institution? How can a man claim to live the gospel with fellow brothers in Christ and yet uphold laws that disenfranchise, marginalize, and oppress those same brothers?

Well, what exactly counts as taking action? Is it tweeting? Writing a post for a parachurch website? Calling a legislature? Standing outside an office with a placard?

What also is “upholding” laws that disenfranchise? If someone says nothing are they guilty of upholding existing laws? Or is it a case of speaking out or “taking action” against some laws but not others?

Abandonment of the gospel is a tad strong for a condition — “taking no action” — that is so arbitrary and inexact.

At the same time, once upon a time Anyabwile fully endorsed DeYoung’s point that Christians should stop using the phrase social justice:

Stop Using the Term “Social Justice”!

Not even John MacArthur and fellow signers went that far.

Something changed between 2009 and 2019. It could be that history clarified all the ambiguity (even if it did not change what the Bible — a fixed set of texts — says. Or it could be people have changed their minds. If Ferguson is the turning point, it sure would help to hear some reflection on ways in which a country that has persistently practiced racism only in 2014 became so egregious that now some people had to build up word counts and twitter followers.

What Would it Take for a Minster to Go to Jail?

These days the short answer has something to do with children (or not reporting someone who had something to do with children). But for high minded ministers, what about the ministering word and sacrament could get you locked up?

Doug Wilson’s recent encounter with FBI agents got me thinking:

A few weeks ago, I got a call from an FBI agent (apparently on the road) to see if I would be in my office later that afternoon. I acknowledged that I would be, and we arranged a time. At that arranged time, two field agents showed up, very personable, professional and polite. As far as I knew, it could be anything from running a security check on someone who had me down as a reference to hauling me off for thought crimes against our Brand New Republic.

I asked them if I should have a colleague sit in, and they said that would not be necessary. So then, we sat down, and though I may not have looked like I was all agog, I was all agog on the inside. Imagine my delight when it turned out that our topic was “No Quarter November,” specifically the first post in that series, and more specifically than that, the first paragraph in that post. As you may recall, the title of that post was “Burn All the Schools.” And here is the offending paragraph.

H.L. Mencken once suggested a shrewd educational reform that has somehow not caught on. He said that there was nothing wrong with our current education establishment that could not be fixed by burning all the schools, and hanging all the teachers. Now some might want to dismiss this as an extreme measure, but visionaries are often dismissed in their own day. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . .”

From this Wilson deduce that:

There are two kinds of Christian leaders in the world, dividing them broadly into two camps. Mention that someone has gotten a visit from the FBI on the basis of something he said in a sermon, on a podcast, on his blog, or in the church newsletter, and Christian leaders will sort themselves out accordingly. One group shakes the head disapprovingly, worried about the testimony, and what does this do to the good reputation among outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7)? The second kind of Christian leader hears of something like this, and his heart sinks. “Why can’t something like that ever happen to me?” And his wife says, “Honey, don’t . . .”

One kind of Christian leader thinks that it is an honor to be honored. The other believes that it is an honor to be dishonored, a grace to be disgraced. There is obviously more to it, but that basic division explains a lot of other things too.

Now someone might be ready with a quick comeback. “Yeah, Wilson, but you didn’t get visited by the FBI because of Jesus. You got visited because you quoted that old reprobate Mencken.”

To which I reply that perhaps a lot more pastors ought to be quoting Mencken.

That’s a strange admission that preaching Christ and him crucified will not land you in jail. It may in China. It may in Eritrea. But in the United States it won’t. Even the little old ornery OPC, for all of its warts and few crackpots, is able to minister scripture as a confessional Presbyterian communion without fear of police raids or federal penalties. Is the United States great, or what?

And yet, to maintain the narrative that the United States (and liberalism) is the second coming of the fall, and to prove their bona fides as “real” male ministers, some pastors get Chris Matthews tingle up the leg at the thought of going to jail.

Now, I like Mencken as much as the next white male Protestant, but I have never advocated preaching him. Yet, while Wilson entertains preaching Baltimore’s bad boy, Tim Bayly reached for Herman Melville:

In my first message at the conference, I quoted Melville’s maxim, “the pulpit leads the world.” During the Q&A afterward, a pastor ministering in a hipster neighborhood of an eastern seaboard city was quite exercised over the statement, calling out “what’s your authority for saying ‘the pulpit leads the world’?”

I answered that I hadn’t cited it, but my source was Melville’s Moby Dick, leading him to interrupt saying he didn’t care where the quote came from, following with “where does it say that in the Bible?”

To which I responded that the entire Bible says it, from the prophets through the book of Acts where we read of the preaching of the Gospel turning the ancient Roman Empire on its head and getting the Jewish leaders to gnash their teeth.

He continued adamant in his denial, at which point I probed whether he was an R2K acolyte of men like Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen?

Bingo. And later in the conference, this pastor interrupted my message on the sin of effeminacy, saying I should stick to preaching the simple Gospel. He was quite adamant about it and I had to ask him if he’d please let me finish and we could talk afterward?

This is the preaching of Reformed pulpits in our nation today, and it leads me on this morning following our midterm elections to make the obvious point that everything going on in these United States right now, from our White House to our Congress and Supreme Court down to our state capitals and governors’ mansions down to our mayors and school district superintendents, even to the words squawking in our police cars and the smiles and frowns of our crossing guards, is the product of our pulpits.

Notice the concession to the spirituality of the church (and its foundation in the sufficiency of Scripture). If you want to preach about politics, you need to look beyond the Bible to American authors. Mencken and Melville are preferable to Charles Dickens and Flannery O’Connor, though Christians reading non-Christian fiction is generally a good thing. But not in the pulpit, not even The Wire.

How To Avoid Christological Heresy this Christmas

It has become a cliche to regard the incarnation as providing an upgrade for humanity and even all of creation. Consider this from Michael Sean Winters:

We Catholics believe that human nature is changed and uplifted precisely because our God chose to don it. Human nature, you might say, was the first “gay apparel” of Yuletide. If the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord relativizes our humanity to his divinity, Christmas celebrates the relativization of his divinity to our humanity. It is because of this twin relativization that Jesus was able to overturn manmade precepts with such determination, to cut away the cultural encrustations and get to the kernel within, to proclaim a new day of favor

Truth be told, divinity does not merge with humanity, not even in Jesus himself. Remember what the bishops affirmed at Chalcedon:

begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved

The hypostatic union does not blur or merge or combine Christ’s human and divine natures. The Westminster Divines were also explicit about keeping the human and divine distinct even though in one person:

The only mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fullness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever. (WLC 36)

In which case, if the incarnation did not divinize Christ’s human nature, then how could it Christ’s birth and life conceivably sacralize the rest of humanity and human civilization?

Be careful out there.

When Will the Gospel Coalition Police Evangelicalism’s Mean Streets?

Justin Taylor wants to parse the numbers of Trump voters to remove the EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT mantra (which is a tired and cliched understanding of the 2016 vote and allows Never Trumpers to have a target). Here‘s how to save evangelicalism from Trump:

Third, we know almost nothing about the 80 percent beyond a religious label they affirm or an experience they claim.

Do they go to church? Are they Protestant? Unless we are willing to say that “an evangelical is anyone who says he or she is an evangelical or says he or she has been ‘born again,’” then we have to admit that we are talking more about a label of self-designation than an actual movement or network, much less a reflection of theological belief or religious practice.

For example, an array of theological traditions outside of the traditional evangelical movement have adherents who say they are “evangelical” or have been “born again,” including:

mainline Protestants (27 percent)
Roman Catholics (22 percent)
Orthodox (18 percent)
Mormons (23 percent)
Jehovah’s Witness (24 percent)
spiritualist Christians (24 percent)

So, evangelical is a plastic word. It doesn’t identify much. Then why does TGC identify as evangelical if the term is so bad, which everyone has known for a while? The problem is that the term is the best for gaining as many followers as you can. If you use Baptist or Presbyterian, you cut down on potential followers, readers, and donors. So you go with the broad term and then qualify TGC further as “broadly” Reformed.

Only now when such breadth looks pretty bad out there in the mainstream media to you object how easy it is to be evangelical. Well, are TGC’s memberships requirements all that demanding?

Church as Start-Up or Farm?

He who has eyes, let him see. She who has ears, let her hear.

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.[b] 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds[c] among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants[d] of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

In contrast:

Because if you start a ministry at a university, for example, that group will need money forever. If you start a ministry to help the homeless, it too will need money annually as long as it exists. But if you start a church, it only needs start-up capital; then it becomes self-funding.

If it’s done right, the start-up period (in America) is only about two years. So, you’re putting money into the church for two years, and then it gets to the place where it is supporting itself. And as that church grows it will start giving money to other good works. There aren’t many philanthropy projects that multiply like that. It took about $200,000 to start Redeemer Church. Now it gives away millions of dollars outside of the congregation annually. It attracts many new followers who become important volunteers and workers for the rest of their lives. There was a man in the Midwest who gave $50,000 as part of starting Redeemer. How many times have his philanthropic dollars been multiplied?

In the U.K., it takes about three years for a new church to become self-funding. It’s about three to five years in northern and western Europe, and seven to ten years in eastern and southern Europe. If the church is in China, it can be very fast. You could start a church in a village in Thailand with a few hundred American dollars, while it might cost you $500,000 to start a church in Paris. You have to be careful about all of this, though. If you simply calculate bang for your buck, what you’re really saying is that a soul in Paris is too expensive, so I only want to win souls in a village in Thailand.

But neveh eveh be conformed to this modern world:

It is a mistake to think that faithful believers in our time are not profoundly shaped by the narratives of modernity. We certainly are, and so when you unveil these narratives and interact with them in the ordinary course of preaching the Word, you help them see where they themselves may be more influenced by their society than by the Scripture, and you give them important ways of communicating their faith to others.

Bigly

Chortles Weakly tweeted a link to an old (2014) article by Kevin DeYoung and Ryan Kelly about denominations and parachurch organizations. One paragraph stood out:

The ministries of T4G and TGC are distinct and prominent on the landscape of American evangelicalism, but they are not novel or unique. Other ministries share many of the same aims and inhabit the same theological universe of evangelical Calvinism. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE), founded by the late James Montgomery Boice in 1994, is something of a forerunner to today’s most popular partnerships. This multi-dimensional networking and resourcing ministry is similar in many respects to TGC. Several church-planting networks also contribute to the scene, including Acts 29 (now led by Matt Chandler) and Redeemer City to City (under Tim Keller). While some such church-planting networks function as something closer to denominations, with pastoral training and a vetting process, they nevertheless together represent this growth of intentional collegiality that is not merely denominational.

Notice that one parachurch organization is insufficient for all the interested parties. TGC wants unity. Its members want to be the voice of broadly Reformed evangelicalism:

A part of the criticism of TGC has centered on its perceived desire to dominate the evangelical scene, to become “the voice” of Reformed evangelicalism, or to “set the church’s agenda.” Perhaps one reason for this concern is the sheer size of TGC’s footprint on the web and social media. The numbers involved, already mentioned, are quite remarkable. In as much as these pageviews represent people reading good, thoughtful material, we rejoice that Christ may use those efforts to strengthen his church. The same would go for the number of TGC conferences and their attendees. Many have come. Conferences have been added. Hopefully those labors have borne true fruit, by God’s grace. We believe that they have, along with many other good conferences of our day.

But it can’t satisfy the appetites of its own members who not only belong to other parachurch organizations and denominations, but also have embarked on other church planting efforts.

What we are witnessing is paraparachurch.

But imagine if all the members of TGC’s council devoted their energies to making TGC the one-stop shop for broadly Reformed teaching and encouragement about broadly Reformed ministry.

As it stands, one of the council’s members has his own congregation, perhaps a regional meeting of his communion, then an annual one, plus TGC, plus a church planting network, and then a book contract or two.

At some point, simple wisdom suggests something about the danger of spreading yourself too thin. I guess that explains what makes TGC broad.

And yet, we’re supposed to look to these gents for wisdom?

If You Add to Scripture, How Do you Stop?

Here’s what Jesus said:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

Here’s how you update Jesus for contemporary America:

Woe to you, racists and racial moderates, hypocrites! For you hold events to commemorate Civil Rights activists and read books about the martyrs of anti-racism, saying “if we had lived during the Civil Rights movement we would not have taken part with the racists in shedding the blood of the protesters.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons and daughters of those who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. Fill up then the measure of your slave holding and segregationist fathers and mothers. You racists and racial moderates, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you social justice warriors and community organizers and activists, some of whom you will put in jail and some you will call Marxist in your churches and troll on social media so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth from the blood of the righteous Medgar Evers to the blood of Emmett Till who you lynched in Mississippi. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon Millennial and GenZ generations.

What if non-Christians wanted (trigger warning) to appropriate Jesus?

Woe to you, black and white Christians and Americans, hypocrites! For you don’t even hold events to commemorate Black Muslims or Black Panthers, and you refuse to read books about black nationalism, saying “if we had lived during the 1960s Rights movement we would not have taken part with the criminal justice system that sent Huey Newton and Angela Davis to jail.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons and daughters of those who murdered Malcolm X. Fill up then the measure of your nationalist and Christian fathers and mothers. You black and white Christians and Americans, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson, some of whom you will mock and some you will call anti-American in your churches and troll on social media so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth from the righteous Fred Hampton to John Africa whom you burned in Philadelphia. I say to you, all these things will come upon Baby Boomer and Millennial generations.

Or is the idea that only Christians get to add to Scripture?

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.