Wednesday, September 14, 2016

But is it a gospel issue?


Last week, I read an article posted by Christianity Today entitled "Why conservation is a gospel issue."  The article was an interesting article about environmental stewardship, and I don't have a lot of complaints about the content.  It was the title that bothered me.

I've heard the phrase "it's a gospel issue" before.  Creationists have been known to use it to describe young-age creationism.  I personally find the phrase a little alarming, especially in light of the gospel itself.  Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians,
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor. 15:1-5)
Notice what is contained in this biblical definition of the gospel: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again.  In other passages of the New Testament, we find the gospel used to describe Jesus Christ.  Indeed, we use the word gospel to describe the first four books of the New Testament, all of which discuss the life and work of Jesus.  Jesus is the gospel.

I find it alarming to describe conservation or creationism with the term "gospel issue" because they are not directly the gospel.  The gospel is not about when God made the universe, and it is not about how we care for creation today.  The gospel is about Jesus and how we obtain life through Him.  We ought not add to the gospel other things, important though they may be.

Another reason for my discomfort regarding the "gospel issue" is that it is too often used as a weapon to beat up those who disagree with the person using it.  The implications should be obvious (and they are): When I say that my favorite doctrine is a "gospel issue," I am implying that people who disagree with me are probably heretics and maybe not even Christians.  That's not a very gracious thing to do, but Christians do it all the time.  Just google "gospel issue" and see the range of issues described by that phrase.  It really should bother you.

I'm not suggesting that these issues are not important, but we need a different way to say that issues are important.  D.A. Carson wrote this recently in a paper in Themelios:
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.
Here's a silly example of what he's talking about: Since the Bible reveals to us the story of Jesus we must believe it to be saved.  So if you don't believe that King Amaziah's mother was Jehoaddin, then you're questioning the authority of the Bible and that's a gospel issue!  Most of you probably don't even know who I'm talking about.  I just skimmed 2 Kings to find some obscure trivia to illustrate my point (she's mentioned in 14:1-2).

You can see how silly that is, and you might want to say that there are really important doctrines that are gospel issues.  For example, I happen to think that the doctrine of the Fall is a really important doctrine that directly relates to the central Christian theological message of creation/fall/redemption.  But the Fall is not itself the gospel, and according to 1 Corinthians 15, it doesn't even seem to be part of the gospel.  Does that make it unimportant?  Only if you see theology as having two dimensions of importance: Gospel issues and everything else.

This is yet another one of my pet peeves. It seems like Christians desperately want to categorize doctrines as vitally important or not important at all, usually depending on whether you're on the offense or defense.  I can't remember how many times I've heard someone condescendingly tell me that creationism is a "secondary issue."  What they really mean by that is, "It's not important so you shouldn't get all worked up about it."  But that's not true at all.  The Apostle's creed starts right off with "I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth."  The doctrine of creation is important, and insofar as the method of creation reflects the divine power and character of God, how He created is also important.

Does that mean I should say that it's a "gospel issue?"  Not at all.  That would be just as wrong.  The gospel is the story of Jesus' salvation.  The question of how God created is important because it is connected to salvation, but it is not itself the way to salvation.  It is not the gospel.

The most alarming part of all of these "gospel issues" is that they seem to be adding to the gospel.  The gospel is not the story of Jesus' salvation + my favorite doctrine.  Even if those doctrines are true (and important), we should not attach them directly to the gospel.  The Bible has very strong words for people who try to place extra burdens on people in addition to the gospel.  That makes a false gospel.  Ironically, it seems to me that calling things "gospel issues" is an actual gospel issue.

So please, let's find some other way to describe how important things are.  Let's be specific about the theological implications that we see.  Let's not just beat up our ideological enemies by declaring our position a "gospel issue" when it really isn't.

(Photo courtesy Pixabay.)

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.