The Good news is the message that Jesus Christ is God the Son incarnate, who obeyed in the place of his people, suffered for them, was crucified, dead, and buried for them, was raised for their justification, and is coming again. We receive Christ and his benefits by God’s free favor (grace) alone, through faith (resting, receiving, trusting) in Christ alone. That is the gospel. Any doctrine that denies this message is a “gospel issue.”
The law says, “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). It says, “cursed is everyone who does not do everything which is written in book of the law” (Gal 3:10; Deut 27:26). It says, “You shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second like it is this, you shalt love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments the whole law hangs, and the prophets” (Matt 22:37-40).
I understand the temptation to say: “X is a gospel issue.” People use this language because they believe that a particular sin is so grievous that it compromises or contradicts the gospel witness of Christians individually and of the church visible and corporately. They want the sin to stop right now. So, they categorize X (pick a sin) and call it a “gospel issue.” Thus named, it is thought that Christians who care about the condition and future of the lost must repent immediately and change their behavior accordingly.
The only proper “gospel issue” is the gospel itself. When the Judaizers said that resting or trusting in Christ alone was insufficient for salvation, that was a gospel issue. When Peter implied that the Judaizers were right, when he refused to eat with Gentile Christians because they were not keeping the typological ceremonies, that was a “gospel issue.” Paul writes,
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:11–16; ESV).
Paul addressed a number of sins in the various congregations. When he confronted Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2, he did not make it a “gospel issue.” He did make a “gospel issue,” however out of the lies of the Judaizers in Philippians 3:2–11. Them he called “dogs” (as they called the Gentiles “dogs”) and warned against their corruption of the gospel in the strongest terms. We know Judaizing is a “gospel issue” because Paul contrasts their view with the gospel: “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (v. 9; ESV).
For all the sins of the Corinthian congregation, the factions, the class distinctions, and even gross sexual immorality, he did not “go nuclear.” He confronted racism (a fruit of Judaizing) among the Galatians and the Colossians but, in those instances, he did not speak as he had about the Judaizing corruption of the gospel. These sins he addressed under the heading of sanctification, which flows from new life, true faith, and union with Christ. These are sins that must be put to death daily (mortification) and relative to which we must, by grace alone, through faith alone, be made alive daily (vivification) as we are renewed in the image of Christ.
However tempting it might be to speak this way, Christians should refrain—one is tempted to say, “because it is a gospel issue—because it is not how Paul spoke. When Christians sin, they do contradict the gospel. They are not living in step with gospel nor in step with the Spirit. This is how Paul addresses it in Galatians 5:16–26:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (ESV).
According to Paul those who are united to Christ are free to obey because they are not under the law (in its first use). They are no longer under condemnation. They are under the law of the Spirit, who has freed them, who is at work in them. Paul’s approach to dealing with the sins of the Galatians is to point them back to Christ, to the gospel, and the new power they have in Christ to obey God’s holy law to love God with all their faculties and their neighbor as themselves. We are free to do with because Christ has fulfilled the law for our salvation and he has given the Spirit of freedom to us.
The argument, “X is a gospel issue” (with the caveat given above) fails because it mischaracterizes the nature of the Christian life. The law does not sanctify us. The Spirit sanctifies us through the gospel. The Spirit empowers us to love the law and to seek to obey it but the law (i.e., “do this and live”) never has the power to give to us what it demands.
So 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. Implicitly, anyone who denies the gospel is eternally condemned. Paul says in Galatians 1:8–9, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema. As we have said before, so say I now again, if any man preaches unto you any gospel other than that which ye received, let him be anathema.
To enlarge the category of gospel denying sins is to put all of us back under the law and under condemnation. That will not produce the desired fruit of sanctification. Further, the rhetoric, “X is a gospel issue” is vague. When the expression “gospel issue”? I do not know but it is not a traditional Reformed way of speaking. It seems like a short-hand expression that is probably too compact to be very useful.
Sin is grievous. It offends God and neighbor. Sin is death dealing: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The good news is that “the gift of God is eternal life” (Rom 6:23). We do not refrain from sin or die to sin because if we do not, we shall lose favor with God. To say that is to deny the gospel. We fight against sin, we die to it by grace alone, because Christ has saved us and is freely sanctifying us.
Walter Marshall was right. Sanctification is a gospel mystery. There is no calculus, no lever, no straight line between “do this” and sanctification. God is gradually, graciously at work in us, bringing us who believe into conformity to Christ. God’s people need to know and learn to love the law but they only gain power to do it, they are only set free to do it, by the power of the gospel.
Christian, if you want to see other believers sanctified, preach the good news because that is how God sanctifies his people.