Perhaps you’ve heard someone say recently, “this is a gospel issue.” Maybe it was said about a secondary or tertiary theological topic like baptism or church leadership. Maybe it was said about a social issue, such as race or creation care. Connecting anything to the gospel means we need to be clear with what we mean, and certainly different things can be meant by this phrase. Here are two such meanings:
- In some instances, you may mean, “If you get this topic wrong, then you distort the gospel.” For instance, if you get sanctification wrong, you might end up with a works-righteousness false gospel. If you get suffering wrong, you may end up with a prosperity theology false gospel.
- In other instances, you may mean, “The gospel has implications on this topic.” For instance, the gospel breaks down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (and all ethnicities), and therefore, it calls for unity within the body of Christ across such ethnic lines.
Now, these are two very different ideas. You can think of it this way, the first set of “gospel issues” are like streams that flow into the gospel, they are upstream. If those streams are poisoned, they poison your gospel. They alter and shape the gospel you believe. These are areas in which we must be very careful because they affect the gospel itself.
The second set of “gospel issues” are different. The Gospel isn’t affected by them, but instead speaks to them. They are downstream from the gospel and, therefore, ought to be shaped by the gospel. Having a poor view of creation care or economic disparity, while sad and possibly sinful, doesn’t altar the gospel like having a misunderstanding of good works in the life of the believer.
Now, if you haven’t been living under a rock, you will have noticed that many times the phrase “this is a gospel issue” is stated, it is often followed by an anathema (“you don’t have/know/believe the gospel”) against people who see things differently. Here’s where discernment is important. If the issue is upstream from the gospel, then indeed, the accusation could be true. However, if the issue is downstream from the gospel, that’s a different ballgame.
For instance, currently we have been hearing that racial injustice is a gospel issue. If what is meant by that is that it’s downstream from the gospel and that the gospel shapes what we think and do about it, then I agree. If, however, we are saying that what you think and do about this topic changes the gospel (and therefore our standing in the gospel), I disagree. This doesn’t deny the fact that many who call themselves Christian are, in fact, not converted, and their racism (for example) illustrates that. It does, however, guard the gospel from any of our additives and preservatives – other ideas, stances, and opinions that we, in our flesh, want to add to Christ alone, faith alone, and grace alone.
The gospel should shape what we think and do about racial injustice, but it may do so in a variety of ways. There are, perhaps, many outlets for the gospel river as it flows into the delta of racial reconciliation. The gospel may lead one person saying, “Christ came to me when I was dead in transgression, so I will go to those who need reconciliation.” It may, however, lead another to say, “Lord, if there is any hidden/dormant racism in my heart, purify me.” It may lead to some lobbying against the abortion of thousands of black boys and girls, while leading others to seek reform in the penal system to bless black men who find themselves there.
Here’s the deal. All of those things can be good, if it’s done as an overflow of gospel love. However, all of those can be from the pit of Hell if they flow out of, “you have to do some/all of these or you aren’t a believer.” That’s a false gospel. That’s making an issue that is downstream into one that is upstream of the gospel.
This is how the Church has, in her better moments, throughout history dealt with disagreements on secondary and tertiary issues, including many social, economic, and political issues – those downstream issues. Even during unbelievably tumultuous times! There’s charity, there’s generosity towards our brothers and sisters who differ from us. They knew the difference between upstream and downstream gospel issues. I think we could benefit from remembering that once again.