Gospel Issues: An Open Letter to Western Evangelicals

With a small amount of interest, I have occasionally turned my gaze on the provocative happenings in the world of Evangelicalism. Just to be fair, by a very loose definition, I would be considered an Evangelical, though I prefer the term Protestant or, even better, Reformed Baptist. Read me right, though. I’m not bashing the movement. As one whose hope is set intently on the inheritance being kept for me, which works to embolden my faith in Christ Jesus, I have a love and fervent concern for all the saints (Col. 1:3-5). However, I grow weary when exposed too long to the internet sensationalism surrounding much of Western Evangelicalism. I trust that many of our readers can relate.

Gospel Minimalism

Evangelicals, at the very least, are marked by a central concern for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By this definition of Evangelicalism, I consider myself among the fold. However, many in recent days have taken to a minimalistic practice of Evangelicalism in which Christians are encouraged to focus almost exclusively on the Gospel, with very little emphasis on other very important doctrines in the Christian faith. Within this same fold are those who, wanting to minimize all non-Gospel issues as far secondary, have taken to labeling every issue under the sun a “Gospel issue.” So, they minimize all Christian doctrine that is not the Gospel while, at the same time, broadening the Gospel so that it encompasses far more than what the Bible teaches.

This is an understandable position to take if you are a Gospel-minimalist. If all issues are unimportant, or of minimal significance, unless they touch the Gospel in some way, you must demonstrate how any issue that is important to you touches the Gospel. As a result, Gospel-minimalists seem to be bending over backward to demonstrate how their pet issues are Gospel-issues. This hermeneutical technique requires such interpretive gymnastics in order to arrive at the intended conclusions that it can easily leave onlookers’ heads reeling.

I’m not arguing that the issues in question shouldn’t come under the umbrella and influence of the Gospel. They should, and all issues in that sense are Gospel-issues. Everything for the Christian, to a certain degree, is subject to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether we’re talking about race relations, the environment, gun control, taxes, family life, work, etc., etc., etc., the Gospel impacts every area of life. The problem arises when someone comes to endorse one particular solution to one of these issues—a solution that is not the direct result of their study of the Gospel—and then they claim that, because the issue itself is a “Gospel-issue,” Christians must without exception adopt the same solution to addressing the issue that they do.

Gospel-Issues or Gospel-Solutions

This line of argumentation fails to account for certain very important nuances within the Christian community. To say that racism is a Gospel-issue is not an incorrect statement. However, to say that only one approach to alleviating the church of racism is the correct “Gospel” approach is dishonest at the very least. Nor is it incorrect to say that orphans and widows are a Gospel-issue. However, to say that others don’t have a proper handle on the Gospel because they are convinced of the merits of a different solution than you is disingenuous at best.

The difference is a categorical difference. Simply because a brother in Christ has a different approach to solving the problem, which you both recognize as a problem, does not mean that he doesn’t recognize the implications the Gospel brings to bear on that issue. Rather, it means that his culture, his education and, more generally, his life experiences bring him to vastly different conclusions as to how to solve this Gospel-issue.

The issue itself is a Gospel-issue insofar as all things in the life of the Christian touch the Gospel at some point. However, the approach to solving it may not be shaped by the Gospel. In fact, the Gospel message itself often offers no practical, “how-to” solutions for the woes of society. It simply exposes them as woes in the minds and consciences of believers. The Gospel will often compel us to act without giving us the necessary guidelines on how to act in every particular instance.

Gospel Zeal

For instance, we understand that the two Great Commandments teach us to love God and love our neighbor. As a result of the regenerating work of the gospel and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christians are now enabled to recognize where we need to grow in our love for God and love for neighbor, and we are now enabled to act out of love for God and love for our neighbor. The grace of God makes us zealous for good deeds (Tit. 2:11-14), but zeal without reason is foolhardy.

Christians are to temper our zeal with sound judgment. The gospel and the grace it bears emboldens Christians with a godly zeal necessary to live lives that are pleasing to our Father in heaven. However, without the tools for navigating the nuances of cultural discernment, many of us will fall into pitfalls and commit our Gospel-fueled zeal to unprofitable ends. We recognize that the Gospel emboldens us to take action and be “salt and light” in the world, so we ride off into battle without the proper weapons and armor of our warfare.

As a result, we call for action that does the opposite of what we intend. We don’t rightly understand economics, so we call for actions on the part of the government that we think help the poor when really they are the very things doing them the most harm. We don’t rightly understand the best means for preserving human life, so we call for measures to be put in place by the government that we think will minimize violent crimes and death, but those very measures make people more vulnerable to violent criminals and devalues human life. We don’t rightly understand the biblical teaching on ethnicity, so we call for measures from state and church authorities that encourage deeper divisions rather than promoting unity across ethnicities. And those are just three issues of concern.

The Gospel Hammer

Worst of all, many who promote these counter-productive solutions seek to reinforce their arguments for them by appealing to the Gospel. They (rightly) recognize that every Christian must come under the shadow of the cross when considering the issue about which they are concerned. Subsequently, they recognize that this issue touches the Gospel, in one way or another, the moment a Christian comes to consider it. Wrongly, though, they assume that their approach must be the only Gospel-centered approach to solving their issue.

This approach to addressing issues within our cultures and within our local churches has an undercurrent of gracelessness. It assumes, “If someone else’s approach to solving this Gospel-issue is different than mine, this person is not as Gospel-centered as I am.” Allow me to play the role of peacemaker, here, and call for a little more Christian charity and mercy in regard to these issues.

Simply because someone recognizes the Gospel compels us to act on an issue does not make their subsequent action necessarily right. Just because someone disagrees with your action when you were the first to point out the fact that the problem at hand is a Gospel-issue does not mean the person in question is not Gospel-centered. You don’t have the right to use the Gospel as a hammer to bash your brother in the faith simply because he endorses a different solution to the problem you both recognize. So allow me to call for a moratorium.

A Call for Gospel Grace

Let’s stop saying issues are Gospel-issues, as though not all issues should come under the authority of the cross in the Christian life. Let’s recognize that all issues to one degree or another are Gospel-issues, which means none of them are Gospel-issues in the way Western Evangelicals use (more appropriately: abuse) the term. Let’s stop telling Christians they have to endorse the exact same solutions we do, or they aren’t Gospel-centered enough. The world is more nuanced than that.

We should feel free to point out problems in our world, but then we should be humble enough to ask, “What can be done about this?” rather than shouting one another down when we have difficulty arriving at a consensus. Wasn’t it our Savior who said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy”? Let’s endeavor to show one another a little more mercy. Let’s stop using the Gospel as a hammer to bash one another when we disagree on how to solve problems. Rather, let’s commit to listen to one another, pray, submit ourselves to the Gospel, educate ourselves so we can make the most informed decision possible, and commit to following our consciences in the zeal God has granted us by His grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – The Reformed Confessions (Part I)

Read the first three posts here, here, and here.

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When discussing the idea of the Two Cities and Two Kingdoms paradigms for understanding public theology, many leave a tremendous gap between Luther and modern scholarship. We would be negligent to do so here, though. For a uniquely Reformed Baptist perspective on these issues to be well informed, one must be aware of the fact that there is more than just a Lutheran perspective of public theology to draw upon. There is also a Reformed tradition, which just so happens to be the tradition from which Baptists sprung.

Luther’s further development of Augustine’s paradigm certainly plays a large role in the development of Calvinistic, Reformed, and Reformed Baptist approaches to public theology. However, Calvin and his predecessors did not adopt Luther’s theology without some contributions of their own. Luther’s views on the subject evolved throughout the course of his life and the life of Saxony. The same could be said of Zwingli in Zurich, Calvin in Geneva, and the Dutch, British, French, German, and American Reformers that would follow in their footsteps.

According to Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood, Calvin intermingled aspects of the patristics, the scholastics, and Luther in the development of his public theology with ideas and methods he’d received from classical political philosophy as well as humanist literary, historical, and legal scholarship (O’Donovan and Lockwood, From Irenaeus to Grotius, 662). Calvin’s take on public theology took into account not only the collective wisdom of church history and Western Civilization, but it also brought several disciplines to bear on the matter. Thus, it would be highly inappropriate to attempt to transplant Luther’s theory into the Reformed tradition without any consideration of nuance or further development by Calvin and his theological predecessors.

Recognizing the willingness of the Reformers to shift understandings of these matters to meet the ever changing political structures of their times and cultures, it’s important that we as 21st century Westerners seek to discern as best we can the most universal elements of the Reformed take on Public Theology. Perhaps the best place to look to find these universal elements are in the development of the Reformed confessions of faith. For the purposes of this series, we will look at four such confessions that particularly pertain to the Reformed and Reformed Baptists: The Belgic Confession, The Baptist Confession (1644/1646), The Westminster Confession, and The Baptist Confession (1677/1689). As we examine these confessions, we will see how historical considerations over time forced the Reformed to continue to revisit the biblical texts most pertinent to the subject matter at hand and further Reform their views on public theology. Semper Reformanda!

Separation of Church and State

Some would take issue with there even being a chapter on magistrates in the confessions. They argue that there should be a complete separation of church and state neither where the state speaks with authority to the church nor where the church speaks with authority to the state. Sam Waldron has offered a response to such reasoning.

“Does it surprise you that the Confession contains a chapter on the subject ‘Of the Civil Magistrate’? Are you inclined to ask, ‘What does politics have to do with Christ?’ If that is something of your response, may I suggest that you are a victim of a religious background which has retreated from its social responsibilities under a wrong view of the separation of church and state? Such an attitude has virtually denied the sovereignty of God over all areas of life. To restrict Christianity to the ‘spiritual’ realm is, ultimately, to destroy it” (Waldron, A Modern Exposition, 284).

The concept of the separation of church and state was a concept unique with Baptists in England and America. It was framed as a larger concept in which to set the gemstone of liberty of conscience, yet another uniquely Baptist doctrine. This concept was never meant to be taken as a separation of God and state. It is important to note at this juncture that not all Reformed confessions championed these concepts. Of course, we’ll see that quick enough as we examine our first Reformed confession: The Belgic Confession.

The Belgic Confession (1619)

589Reformed confessions have always dealt with the subject of the civil magistrate. Specifically regarding this subject the Reformed confessions are in general agreement that the role of government is to wield the sword granted them by God for the punishment of evil and the promotion of good (cf. Romans 13:1-7). Also, shared among the confessions is the recognition that duty is owed by the governed subjects to their magistrates, those magistrates having been given their office by God. The Belgic Confession goes quite a bit further than this, though.

“And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word” (The Belgic Confession, Article 36).

Thus, the Confession most commonly held by the Dutch Reformed community promotes the use of the magistrate to enforce church discipline and promote the furtherance of the gospel. Without doubt this is seen, at least in seed form, in the practices of Zwingli and Calvin. In fact, it was over this issue that Zwingli’s disciples eventually separated from him birthing what would eventually come to be called the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland. Tellingly, The Belgic Confession takes a clear stance against the Anabaptists, anarchists, and revolutionists in its pronouncements.

“Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.

And on this matter we reject the Anabaptists, anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings” (Ibid.).

This being the earliest of the Reformed confessions, the Westminster Assembly and the Particular Baptists developed much of their public theology upon it. While an argument can be made that it is the most Reformed position, in that it is most faithful to the views and conduct of Calvin and Zwingli, such an argument does not allow for the application of the Semper Reformanda (always reforming) principle. As circumstances changed in Luther’s and Calvin’s political and cultural situations, their understandings of these matters adapted. The Reformed tradition moving forward into the 17th century also adapted to the changing times, returning again and again to the Scriptures to determine the best approach to new considerations as they arose.

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In our next article, we will continue our discussion of public theology in the Reformed confessions by examining developments in some of the English confessions of the 17th century.