Concerns About The Rhetoric: “X Is A Gospel Issue”

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.

RESOURCES

Why Complementarianism Can’t Be A Gospel Issue

The Gospel Is Not Social

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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20 comments

  1. Do you MEAN John Marshall, rather than Walter Marshall? (I don’t blame you for citing the former by mistake – He was one of the finest Christians the 20th Century gave us)

  2. I think Fred is referring to your second to last paragraph where are you state that John Marshall says that sanctification is a gospel mystery. In your reply your link leads us to the book written by Walter Marshall.

  3. Thank you for this. The “racism is a gospel issue” meme this week really bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but this article provides clarity.

    Sadly, I think elevating a particular sin to a “gospel issue” (besides denying the gospel) leads to Judaizing. The articles I read this week that said “racism is a gospel issue” can be summarized as follows: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector (racist).’

    Sadly I found no articles saying that faith in Christ provides forgiveness for ones sins… even for racists.

    • I think it’d be easier to believe that racism was a gospel issue if the church had always maintained that it was. The reality is that the church has blown with the cultural winds on this issue and many of our Reformed/Presbyterian predecessors were ‘racists’ according to the ever-shifting postmodern definition.

      The GA of the Presbyterian church (USA) defended slavery before the Civil War. Afterward, the GA reversed itself. The PCA is nowadays siding with the SJWs on issues of race and gender. When this cultural wind blows-through, it’ll reverse itself if it remains as an institution.

  4. This is a tremendous and clarifying work. I will be sharing it. Thanks for taking the time to put these thoughts together.

  5. One doesn’t lose their salvation if they sin, and we shouldn’t provide Judaizing, legalistic standards for folks. We should be concerned, though, if someone is *persisting* in and make a practice of sin (1 John 3:4-10). We’re not under the old covenant, but 1 John is a whole letter that speaks to our behavior in light of the gospel and seeks to provide assurance regarding our security in eternal life (1 John 5:13). Sure, one could take John’s words and wield them legalistically, but we cannot side-step the fact that John is saying, in a way, “If you act this way, you’re acting antithetical to the gospel.” He makes behaviors “gospel issues.”

  6. Dr. Clark,

    You said, “The law does not sanctify us. The Spirit sanctifies us through the gospel.”

    Does this statement imply that in the Christian life, the law can never motivate us to obedience? Or do you mean to say that in the Christian life, all our motivations to obey is rooted in the gospel (even though we may not psychologically be aware of it). Please clarify.

    Also, if you have time, could you point to a few resources which expand on this topic (the law does not have power to sanctify).

    • Venkatesh,

      I understand the structure of the book of Romans to be the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. Christians obey as redeemed people, as those who have been through through the Red Sea (in the Belgic Confession we confess that Christ IS our Red Sea!) by sovereign grace. We live our life in light of the gospel. We begin where God begins, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out” (Gospel) and then we move to seek to obey the law. We are never outside or beyond the gospel. It is the shaping, conditioning reality of our existence.

      There are only two motivations to obey the law: legal and gospel. We call the legal motive, the covenant of works. Christ has fulfilled the covenant of works for us. That is the gospel. We, who have been given new life and true faith and through it union with Christ, are in a covenant of grace.

      This conditions what we mean when we say “fear of God.” We have no servile fear of God because we are no longer under condemnation. We cannot be under condemnation. “There is therefore now no condemnation” is unequivocal. That’s the gospel.

      The law is the law. It is holy, righteous, good, and beautiful. It is perfect in every way but it never becomes the gospel, Only the gospel says: Christ has done for you.” When we say, “I shall have no other gods” it is only because Christ has redeemed us from the curse that belonged to our idolatry.

  7. The law is inert. It abides. It is what it is. Its one “power” in relation to sinners is to condemn, and believers are still sinners.

    2Cor.3:6, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
    Rom.8:3, “What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh…”
    Gal.3:21, ” If there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.”

    Rom.7 is an exposition of the reality of indwelling sin in believers. One of the painful facts of living the life of the redeemed is coming to grips with the fact: Even now, that I am a Christian and have a heart of love toward God, I cannot obey his law.

    Frustrated by the sting of death: sin, and the strength of sin: the law (1Cor.15:56), I came running to Christ for grace. I said, “Hallelujah! Accepted by God because of Christ, at last I will be able to obey and satisfy the Lord by my obedience.” Only to find that my new heart is opposed by the fetid corpse of my flesh.

    “Who will save me from this body of death?” God, through Christ my Lord, whose law I serve by walking in the Spirit. Rom.7:25 & 8:1. It is not by living according to the law that you will thrive, because that is attempting in the flesh and you will die instead; but by living according to the Spirit you will put to death flesh’s deeds, thriving thereby, Rom.8:13.

    God’s law as belonging to the Spirit of life, Rom.8:2–and ONLY by this avenue, being mediated through the gospel relation–can thus motivate the believer. The moment we make the law itself our motive, we must fail.

    The recommendation (from RSC’s first response) is indispensable. Here it is again:
    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0006RAVUQ/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_lPBNzbN4FTDHF

    • Hello Burce,

      Thanks for your reply.

      Dr. Clark wrote, “The Spirit empowers us to love the law and to seek to obey it.” I am not sure whether Dr. Clark intended any causal relationship between loving the law and seeking to obey the law. You seem to be saying that there can be no such relationship. I appreciate your passion for the Gospel, but I wonder whether we are diminishing multiple motivations to obey the Law — all of which are rooted in the Gospel.

      Sometimes I struck by the sheer beauty of wisdom of God’s law, and this love some time leads me to obey it. Now when I am being motivated this way, I am in no way being “purely” motivated by the law. The Gospel is always there in the back of my mind (sometimes in the front of my mind), which enables me to even love the law.

      So, I am more comfortable saying that all motivations are rooted in the Gospel, but motivations to obey the law could be more varied and nuanced.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your reply. I generally agree with you in all that you have written. However, I am not sure how to interpret you answer with respect to my question. So, let me ask you another question. Again, I ask this question because I want to learn more on this topic.

    1) Does gospel motivation include love for the law?

    • Venkatesh,

      I am not satisfied with the adjectival use of “gospel” and “evangelical.” This way of speaking has a long but mixed history. What has too often happened is that the noun qualified by “gospel” or “evangelical” has changed the gospel, were that possible. It is colored or even corrupted the biblical understanding of the gospel.

      Christians are being graciously and gradually sanctified by the Spirit, i.e., being renewed in the image of Christ. One of the fruits of that mysterious work is a growing love for God’s holy law.

  9. So what about 1 Timothy 1:8-11, in which Paul lists a bunch of sins, and then lumps everything together under the “gospel issue” banner by stating, “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE GOSPEL OF THE GLORY OF THE BLESSED GOD.”

    Seems to me that according to this statement by Paul, everything is in fact a “gospel issue”. Paul’s clear line of thinking here is that these sins stem from living contrary to sound doctrine, and sound doctrine is that which is in accordance with the gospel. The linkage seems to be pretty clear.

    • G,

      That’s a fair point. Part of the problem is the inherent ambiguity in the adjectival use of gospel as in “gospel issue” or “gospel obedience.” As I mentioned above in the combox this way of speaking goes back to the medieval expression, “evangelical (gospel) obedience.”

      Let us agree that sin is out of accord with the gospel. Obedience befits those who believe the gospel, who have received the gospel. We ought to live “in step with” the gospel, with the Spirit.

      But the gospel is the gospel and we ought not try to leverage a sin, i.e., to raise its significance so that committing it is a denial of the gospel unless it is what Peter did as Paul recounts in Galatians or unless it is an explicit denial of the gospel.

      If if concede this approach, “x is a gospel issue” we will redefine the gospel to include my obedience. The good news is not that I am obedient. The good news is that Jesus was obedient for this sinner. All manner of benefits flow from the gospel but those benefits are not properly the gospel.

  10. When I consider my inability to obey the law, I am in despair. But when I see what God in Christ has done for me to provide the perfect obedience I need to stand righteous before a perfect and holy God, and suffered the punishment and death I deserve for my disobedience, I cannot help but love God and strive to obey His holy law. Not that my obedience makes me any more acceptable to God, but because in love and gratitude I WANT to obey Him.

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