20 July 2012

Is The Gospel a Sufficient Ground for Christian Unity?

by Phil Johnson

"The relentless neo-evangelical campaign to eliminate doctrinal boundaries has caused division rather than true unity. If you want proof of that, just look at all the broken relationships and ill will left in the wake of the recent Elephant Room fiasco." —Phil Johnson

Here's another in our series of reposts and retrospectives from Phil Johnson. This material comes from the transcript of a session taught by Phil at the most recent Shepherds' Conference. A recording of the complete seminar may be downloaded here:

Is Justification Enough?

The message takes a look at the parallel meltdowns of the fundamentalist and evangelical movements, suggesting that both movements failed because they forgot their original distinctives. The current generation is reaping the bitter consequences of that dual failure.

Phil is critical of evangelicalism's quixotic quest for admiration and stature in the secular academic world. He also has harsh words for the profound ignorance of so many fundamentalists regarding the true fundamentals of biblical Christianity. And he decries both movements' preference for showmanship rather than substance.

He also warns that all the current talk about "gospel unity" is wasted breath if we're not actually willing to stand together in defense of the gospel.

Here's a generous excerpt:

"Gospel Unity" assumes a thorough, accurate, biblical understanding of the gospel and its implications—with a wholehearted commitment (not merely intellectual assent) to the truths of the gospel. We can say we're committed to the same gospel, but without a clear understanding of what the gospel is, that statement is meaningless.

If your view of the gospel is so broad that a Mammon-worshiping prosperity preacher qualifies as someone with whom you will publicly join hands and declare yourself committed to the same master he serves, then I question whether you have a sound enough grasp of the gospel to begin with.

What is the gospel? The Gospel is an announcement that Christ has triumphed over sin and Satan. It includes everything the Scriptures treat as essential, starting with the truth that Christ is God in human flesh (2 John 7-11). Of course, at the very center of the gospel message is the doctrine of justification by faith (Galatians 1:6-9).

The gospel furthermore includes all the historical facts and doctrinal principles Paul named and said are "of first importance" in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8—including the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Christ, his substitutionary death "for our sins according to the Scriptures," and the promise of our physical resurrection.

The gospel also includes these essential truths:

  • All three Persons of the Trinity are involved in the outworking of the gospel. In the words of Hebrews 9:14, we are redeemed and sanctified through "the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God"
  • The gospel teaches that Christ has turned justice in our favor. First John 1:9: "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins."
  • So at the heart of the message is the truth that Christ has redeemed us from sin—not merely the penalty of sin, but the bondage and corruption of it as well. Romans 8:21: "The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God."
  • Christ accomplished all this by acting as our proxy. First Peter 3:18: "Christ . . . suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God."
  • His one-time sacrifice is sufficient for all who believe. Hebrews 10:12: He "offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, [and then] sat down at the right hand of God."
  • His righteousness is the sole ground of our justification and the only merit we need for a right standing with God. Second Corinthians 5:21: "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
  • He is coming again to bring us to glory. Hebrews 9:28: "Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."
  • In short, the gospel is "the good news about salvation"; and more than that, it is a declaration that evil is overthrown (in the words of Hebrews 2:14-15) because Christ partook of flesh and blood so "that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery."

I could probably go on for hours in the same vein, because the gospel is full of important truths and implications like that.

A question I'm often asked is this: Can we have a complete and exhaustive list of doctrines and propositions that are essential? Frankly, I don't believe that's possible, because truth itself is not a finite commodity, and the minute you think you have nailed down a simple list of all the essentials, the powers of darkness will challenge some underlying point of doctrine you never imagined would be controversial. Then you'll have to add a new item to your list.

Also, the wish for a finite list is itself exactly the kind of minimalist approach to truth that has got us into the mess we are in today anyway. It's like asking: "What's the least I can believe and still go to heaven?"

Indeed, there are two competing wrong tendencies that undermine our evangelical consensus when it comes to the gospel.

One is that minimalistic tendency: a push to pare the gospel down and reduce it to the barest list of essentials in order to make our consensus seem broader and more influential than at really is. The gospel ends up so small and insignificant that it's really no gospel at all.

D. L. Moody once famously said, "I could write the gospel on a dime." I think I know what he was trying to say: You don't have to be an advanced theologian to believe the gospel and be saved. Yet the gospel itself is deep and wide—not a postage-stamp-sized truth. The kind of thinking Moody's statement suggests has been a bad influence on the evangelical movement since long before Moody's time.

It's not just that we tend to fall back on canned, abbreviated gospel presentations, or that the superficial way we present the gospel generates shallow, unbiblical, decisionalistic false conversions. Those trends would be bad enough by themselves—certainly reason enough to reject evangelical minimalism. But this is also the trend that opens the door for someone like T. D. Jakes to be welcomed into the circle of evangelical unity.

The second wrong tendency operating in the evangelical community today is a push to define the gospel in the widest, most expansive terms you can think of, so that basically any cause you want to champion can fit under the rubric of gospel truth: social justice, the redistribution of wealth, or even gay rights.

That is the approach the classic modernists took. Reimagining the gospel was one of the favorite activities of modernist and liberal religion, and the effects were disastrous. The World Council of Churches became a left-wing political advocacy fraternity. Liberation theology is a direct fruit of this kind of thinking.

Loading the gospel with moralism, humanistic goals, and political agendas has always strewn wreckage and decline—not unity—in its wake, and invariably, the true gospel gets eclipsed.

More recently a number of the leading champions of Emergence religion and other postmodernized (yet nominally "evangelical") theologians have adopted a similar approach to reworking the gospel in order to make it broad and inclusive as possible. You can see that trend in varying degrees from a number of popular authors ranging from Ron Sider to Brian McLaren. The argument typically goes like this: The gospel is not primarily about personal salvation from the guilt and bondage of sin. Our focus too narrow. We should be less focused on divine perfection in the sweet by-and-by; more concerned with overthrowing human injustice in the nasty here-and-now. After all, Scripture says Jesus preached "the gospel of the kingdom," and since he is Lord of all, the kingdom includes all that ever has been, all that is, and all that ever will be. The gospel is the sweeping story of everything.

Scot Mcknight, for example, dismisses the classic Protestant emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith by labeling it "the soterian gospel." It's self-centered, short-sighted, and deficient, he says. "It is too much shaped by a selfish concern of what God has done for me. . . what God has done to save me." The gospel is MUCH bigger than that, he says. "The Bible's emphasis on resurrection is cosmic, creational and has to do with Jesus reigning (and our reigning with him)."

OK, there's a germ of truth in parts of that. I've already said that gospel truth is not finite. The drama of redemption does indeed extend from eternity past to eternity future, and in one way or another, there's not a molecule or even an isolated quark anywhere in the universe that will not in some way ultimately be affected by the gospel.

But the gospel is emphatically all about "what God has done for me. . . what God has done to save me." It is not at all about my work, my righteousness, or anything I have done in order to be saved—except in the sense that true gospel faith emphatically renounces every claim that "my own righteousness" might somehow figure in the equation (Philippians 3:4-11).

Furthermore, Scripture shows with undeniable clarity that the gospel has a distinct focus, and it is the story of redemption. The gospel message is first and foremost good news about the finished work of Christ in gaining atonement and redemption for everyone who believes. In presenting this truth to us, Scripture looks backward and forward simultaneously. The historical facts of gospel truth are as vital as the eschatalogical triumph it announces. The individual dimension is as important as the "cosmic, creational" features.

Marginalizing the redemptive and personal aspects of the Christian message misshapes and severely diminishes the gospel; it certainly doesn't enlarge or enhance it in any way.

Note: in Acts 20:24, Paul called it "the gospel of the grace of God." In 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul gives that short list of things that he says are "of first importance," he makes it clear that the heart of the gospel is the atonement Christ offered on the cross. He told the Corinthians "We preach Christ crucified." He said, "When I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."

And the central meaning of the cross is likewise clear: "The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I [an individual] am the foremost."

First Peter 1:9 states that "the outcome of your faith [is] the salvation of your souls." Peter goes on to say that this salvation is what the prophets prophesied about. They were writing about the grace that was to be ours. And Peter says they searched and inquired carefully, seeking to understand what the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. Atonement. Grace. The salvation of your souls. The suffering of Christ and the glory that follows. Those things are the proper focus of the gospel.

If you supplant the nucleus of that message with a lot of politically-correct values like a socialist notion of "economic justice," or a campaign to stop human trafficking, or boycotts of Disney, or anti-abortion lobbying, or "God Hates Fags" posters (or anything else, whether you are crusading for legitimate virtues or twisted ones)—if you supplant the proper focus of the gospel with any other agenda—you have twisted and corrupted the gospel just as surely as the Judaizers and gnostics did, and your efforts will undermine true unity in the visible church, whether that is what you intend or not.

History is filled with proof of that assessment. Recent history alone offers sufficient cautionary lessons. I'm thinking especially of just the past decade, looking at the wreckage in the church left by the Emerging Church movement.

In short, the gospel, properly understood, is a sufficient basis for unity. But that doesn't mean we can automatically forge bonds of fellowship with everyone who puts his signature on a sound and biblical statement of evangelical conviction.

We must not only affirm the truth but also proclaim it. And we must not only proclaim it but also defend it. That is the true, biblical prescription for unity.

Phil's signature


Nash Equilibrium said...

Fantastic teaching! The point about joining hands with a mammon-worshipping preacher, the points about either simplifying the gospel message too much in order to broaden "unity," or broadening the range of what Gospel-believers can believe and still be Gospel-believers are cogent and really resonate with me. It's a great analysis, from a really great teacher. Thanks Phil.

Frank Turk said...


Tom Chantry said...

Oh shoot. Frank posted. I thought that leaving the ClassicPhil® thread open was an oversight. Was looking forward to misbehaving unmonitored in here today. Oh well.

Frank Turk said...

I have other things to do today, Chantry. Carry on.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Can someone tell me how one rates the articles? I don't see that on the blog page. Thank you.

Frank Turk said...

Nash --

If your browser is something post-2010, and your network doesn't have vault-like security settings, there is a Blogger script that causes a star rating to appear under the post title. The cumulative rating is on the left, and your personal rating appears on the right -- immediately under the title. You can rate the post there.

My complaint to Blogger/Google, if they are monitoring these comments, is that we can insert a widget to list the top 10 most-viewed posts (all time and this month), but we don't have a widget which will list the highest-rated posts. Why offer post ratings if we can't tell the readers which posts are the highest-rated?

Ted Bigelow said...

"In short, the gospel, properly understood, is a sufficient basis for unity."

I’d like to challenge this, if I might. Consider a simple question: Will those who baptize infants babies be unified with those who claim it is serious error even though both affirm the 5 solas with equal vigor and conviction? The answer is, well, no they won’t. At least not as Scripture teaches unity. Nor will those of us who refuse to baptize infants be unified with those who claim that to do so is the will of God. (this post is not about baptism!)

Spiritual unity, biblically speaking, is being a part of Christ’s universal body (Ephesians 4:4: There is one body and one Spirit…”). Christ has made all believers unified in the most intense spiritual reality – He has brought us into His own fellowship with the Father (John 17:20-26). No greater unity could there be than to know the pleasure, intimacy, and love of the Triune God, one for each other.

But there is more than spiritual unity. At the same time, physical unity is a necessary aspect of our Christian unity in this physical world, and this unity is only fleshed out in a local church where we worship the same God together. Because we are created both spiritual and physical, we require a physical local church to live out our spiritual unity: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love” (Ephesians. 4:2-3). The necessity of bearing with one another and striving to maintain the unity of the Spirit does not happen when only our most mature saints share sporadic conferences with each other. It takes a church.

So, for example where I live there is a fine PCA church where they hold to a solid view of the gospel (correctly, I may add) but they are not unified with our church which also teaches a gospel of justification by faith.

What unity is that? Though we hold to the same gospel, they would not share their Christ-gifted leadership with us (Ephesians. 4:11-13). Nor would they submit to ours.

In other words, for us flesh and blood mortals, unity in this world requires a physical expression that demonstrates, well, unity. I maintain then that correct soteriology (doctrine of salvation) isn’t a sufficient basis for unity. It isn't sufficient spiritually, for our spiritual unity is already accomplished by Christ, not on our perspicuity of the gospel.

Nor is the gospel itself sufficient for physical unity. This requires believers worshipping together in the same local church under the same biblically qualified leadership.

For unity we need to insist upon the apostolic doctrine of the local church (ecclesiology). If we avoid the local church we likely do so because it is so hard for all of us to reconcile unity yet separation. After all, the New Testament knows nothing of two or more soteriologically correct churches within walking distance of one another.

Frank Turk said...

Ted: I think you should re-read Phil's text. I don't think he disagrees with you.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Thanks Frank. That explains it; my IT guy is a virus nazi and I don't want to micromanage him because he's pretty good, too. Hence I'll rate it when I'm at home!

Nash Equilibrium said...

Building off of Phil's excellent points, it seems to me that every local church is a unification of people who probably disagree on a lot of things, but find the Gospel as enough basis for agreement that they can worship and serve together. If they can't agree on what the fundamentals of the Gospel are, then they quickly become two or more local churches.

Ted Bigelow said...

Thanks Frank, maybe you're right. Phil did mention "true unity in the visible church."

But the context of what he wrote leads me to think that what he meant was not "local churches," but "Universal Church." Because after all, what is “true unity in the visible church?” True unity in the universal church? Got it, in Christ. True unity in our local churches? Not so much. The statement as written is a bit of a conundrum. Phil was shooting higher than the local church, no?

Yet the vast majority of apostolic teaching in the NT on unity is aimed at the local church. Skipping past is can't bear a lot of fruit. Forgive me and correct me if I’m wrong on Phil’s post, but if we don't have unity at the local church level, and we’re trying to create it based on good and godly doctrinal formulations of the gospel, all we're left with is some ether-floating-in-the-air unity. Nothing tangible. We have ignored, perhaps for the sake of such unity, that right in our own towns are men who agree on the gospel but who are not in NT unity. Christian unity, considered apart from a biblical ecclesiology should feel almost naked to us - unknown to our experience - like a soul without a body, 2 Cor. 5:3.

Just as your messages on evangelism were so spot on (!) because you incorporated evangelism into the terra firma of ecclesiology, so too any discussion of gospel unity must be likewise grounded in the church. It isn't the destination. It's the starting point.

Johnny Dialectic said...

"In essentials, unity" has always been a nice plea but, as Phil points out, almost impossible to actuate in real life. The moment you set something to creed you crowd something out.

I've not been able to authenticate the D. L. Moody quote, BTW, so I'm not sure how "famous" that sentiment can be. Even so, it would be wrong to claim Moody preached a gospel as anything less than "deep and wide" in the greatest possible sense, along with the need for church affiliation and discipleship.

pastorbrianculver said...

Very good article here Phil,this is what I have been saying all along. Way too many professing Christians have no problem aligning themselves with an Osteen, Warren, Hybels or any of the emergent leaders. Discernment is truly lacking in today's version of christianity.

GiftsandGiggles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dac said...

such a change. In Jesus's time it was the legalists that were the biggest threat to unity and belief. I guess not so much anymore

mitch irons said...

Very informative and clear elaboration of unity or maybe disunity among Christians. Maybe this article is a wake up call for all of us Christians. Thank you so much.