Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

16 Sep 2014

Gospel Issues and Weighing Doctrines

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One of the issues that still needs clarification in Christianity is how to weigh doctrines. Christians have historically recognized that certain truths are fundamental or essential to Christianity, while others have less importance. But how do we know which doctrines are which?

In the last issue of Themelios, D. A. Carson writes an editorial offering some thoughts on what we mean when we talk about “gospel issues,” concluding that the category of “gospel issues” is helpful if it refers to “biblical and theological topics the denial of which clearly affect our understanding of the gospel adversely.” The point is that you cannot deny a certain truth or else you’ve seriously undermined the gospel. Other truths may be important, but they do not rise to the level of upmost importance like gospel issues.

I’ve heard a professor put it this way before: if you put a gun to my head and said “Deny the deity of Jesus or you’re dead,” by God’s grace I would hope to respond by saying “pull the trigger.” If you put a gun to my head and said “Deny the pre-tribulational return of Jesus Christ or you’re dead” I would say “Put the gun down and we’ll talk.” Some truths really are worth dying for.

Yet there still seems to be a lot of confusion about what qualifies for those kinds of truths. Recently, TGC (the same organization that publishes Themelios) ran a post discussing how “scholars” approach inerrancy. In the article, the author reached a startling conclusion:

Belief in the truthfulness of the Bible, then, like belief in the truthfulness of Christianity or materialism or anything else, is provisional—scholars hold to it (or not) on the basis of the evidence they’ve seen. Affirming the Bible is true, just like affirming the Christian creeds, is a statement of current conviction.

Dan Phillips picked up on one of the issues with this mindset: if all of our beliefs are merely provisional, is there anything worth dying for? Why die for what you believe today when tomorrow you may very well change your mind?

Though more could be said about the matter of the truthfulness of the Bible and Christianity, I’d like to consider a different doctrine and whether or not it would qualify as a “gospel issue.” The kinds of doctrines that usually fit in this category are things like the deity of Christ, salvation by grace, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, the second coming of Christ, substitutionary atonement, etc. What about the bodily resurrection of believers? Is that a “gospel issue”?

If you are like me, your first inclination would probably be to say “I don’t think it reaches first level importance.” But it seems like the Apostle Paul would put it in the category of “gospel issues” based on his discussion in 1 Corinthians 15.

Paul begins by noting the common ground shared by him and the Corinthians. He had preached the gospel truth held by all Christians—that Christ died for our sins, evidenced by his burial, and that he rose again on the third day, evidenced and testified by those who saw him after the resurrection. This was the gospel they believed—the gospel that would save them.

Having reminded the Corinthians of their shared faith in the resurrection of Christ, Paul moves to confront the problem in Corinth. Some in the church at Corinth were denying the bodily resurrection of the dead. We can’t know for certain why they were denying this. Perhaps it stemmed from a false understanding of the new life they had in Christ, so that they believed they were already experiencing a spiritual, resurrected life. Perhaps it stemmed from the philosophical belief of the time that the spirit was immortal but the body was not, so that the idea of resurrected bodies was absurd. Maybe it was a combination of sorts. What we do know is that some were denying that Christians would be bodily raised from the dead.

Paul responds to this false teaching by demonstrating the necessary conclusion of their belief in 1 Cor 15:12-13. He does so by offering a syllogism of sorts.

  • Dead people do not rise (their belief)
  • Jesus was a dead person
  • Therefore Jesus did not rise

This is an airtight argument. The unspoken premise is the second, but since no one (Christians and non-Christians alike) questioned whether or not Jesus was a dead person, Paul does not need to address it. The Corinthians denied the conclusion of C (as Paul had already stated, they all believed that Christ rose from the dead), but Paul shows that they can’t deny C and affirm A. In other words, denying the bodily resurrection of the dead adversely affected the gospel. It seems like it’s the kind of doctrine that would be worth dying for.

How does this help us with thinking about gospel issues? First, it should warn us about too quickly dismissing certain truths as unimportant just because we fail to see their significance. Second, it provides a biblical example of how certain doctrines that do not seem to be at the heart of the gospel are so closely connected that denying them means effectively denying the gospel. Perhaps we can use Paul’s discussion as a model for evaluating other doctrines to determine whether or not they are gospel issues.

12 Responses

  1. Don Johnson

    Might it be possible that the term gospel has been stripped of much meaning in English by its overuse? For example, TGC had this post today: WHAT’S ALL THIS ‘GOSPEL-CENTERED’ TALK ABOUT? —

    My reaction to that post was “gobbledy-gook” – seemed pretty meaningless.

    Perhaps, after all, we should go back to the term “Fundamentals”, which may have more clarity in this discussion.

    Not that I rejoice at this, but the term ‘gospel’ has become everyone’s plaything and has been robbed of its meaning, or at least its clarity, in most contexts.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. BE


    I’m not sure that Fundamentals is clearer than gospel issues. Both terms seem to require some explanation in our day. Either way, I don’t think it changes my basic point. Whether you call them fundamentals, essential truths, gospel issues, first order matters, or something else, there are certain Christian teachings that are vital to the being of Christianity. And we need to figure out a way to determine what those truths are.


    1. Don Johnson

      Agreed on your point, but I would still contend that “fundamentals” or “essentials” are still a less fuzzy term.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Ken Lengel


    A quick thought comes to mind. . . What about doctrines such as baptism? Is this a weightier matter? Is it an essential? Baptism has many ramifications, because it demonstrates the surrender that a believer has made to Christ in the presence of a local body of believers. I was taught that baptism was a first step of obedience. If it is not essential, does one need to do it? If it is essential to the faith, doesn’t the mode then matter? What if others disagree? Which brings me to the conclusion, are only matters related to salvation essential? Curious to your thoughts because this seems at face value very minimalistic. From a reformed point of view, that might be the case. But as a dispensationalist, who desires to give glory to God, my life is more than my salvation, it is about doing all to the glory of God? It would seem giving to glory to God beyond my salvation would demand observance and practice of non-essentials as they relate to the “gospel”. Wouldn’t that demand now make them essential to my faith? Or is it simply that essentials are what some believe we must believe to be a genuine believer and non-essentials the things we are permitted to have differences on because many more do not agree on these?


  4. BE


    Baptism, including the mode, was something that people have been willing to die for in history. Perhaps you could apply Paul’s argument that I mentioned in the post to the issue of baptism and share with us your conclusion.

    For your second broad series of questions, I would point you back to the post where I mention the idea that essentials are things that cannot be denied without seriously undermining the gospel (i.e., I did not provide either of the options you give in your final question).


    1. Ken Lengel


      Before I can even attempt to answer your question, I want to validate some facts and inferences from your article.

      Your article seems to want to defend that some doctrines are more important to Christianity than others.

      Your article also suggests that historically, believers have recognized certain truths to be fundamental or essential.

      The question of how do we decide which are fundamental, essential, or even “weightier” and which are not, in my opinion, was not directly addressed. It may have been inferred that “gospel issues” are fundamental. But how to decide which are which was not outlined.

      It was also suggested that some doctrines are so closely related to “gospel issues” that they too may be essential or fundamental.

      I guess I want to know where from the Scriptures that only “gospel issues” are essential to Christianity. I fail to see the connection. I am not denying that believers over the centuries have defended the truths of certain doctrines. However, I wonder if that was more due to the need of the specific times in history, rather than a declaration of what is essential and what is not.

      Your article also infesr that 1 Corinthians 15 provides an understanding of the gospel as of “first importance”. What if that is not the case? I do not believe this is a historical understanding of those verses. Finally, I think one imposes on the authorial intent of the passage when stating “Paul begins by noting the common ground shared by him and the Corinthians. He had preached the gospel truth held by all Christians…” I do not see that as his intent. (but I don’t see it as of first importance either.)

      I understand that your conclusion making this passage about first importance requires you to conclude as you do, but I see it as circular logic.

      Tell me if I am correct in understanding your perspective.

      So, how does one decide the weightier matters. Wasn’t that the purpose of your article? Is it “Gospel issues” plus those directly related? I am honestly curious how one decides what is weightier. While I may disagree somewhat, please show me how one truly decides that certain doctrines are weightier and how we decide that from the Scriptures.

      The article left me wanting more.

      Many thanks,

  5. BE


    It seems like you’re bringing a lot of ideas with you as you read the post, which is leading you to infer things I did not imply. Much of what you said in your last comment has nothing to do with what I wrote. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time right now to write a second post trying to explain the first, so I will not be able to satisfy any desires for more. Perhaps in the future I’ll try to further the discussion.


  6. g

    How about 1 Tim 1:10-11, where Paul specifically links “sound doctrine” as that which is “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God”?

    In other words, when someone asks about “the essentials” there’s no particular list anyone can point to because the Bible makes no distinction on anything being essential or un-essential in terms of “weighing doctrines”.

    All of it is “essential”. The question is, “Essential for what?” Some doctrines are essential for the salvation (deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, regeneration, repentance, conversion, etc.), some doctrines are essential for continuing sanctification, etc.

    The point is, when we start to “strip away” doctrines and labelling them as “non-essential”, we need to realize that’s a comment we’re making about God’s Holy Word, and thereby a reflection of what we’re saying about God Himself! When we rationalize something away as non-essential, we’re essentially accusing God Himself of being something less than necessary and sufficient. And if we boil “the Gospel” down to simply the “moment of salvation”, then we’re really doing the same thing those immature believers were doing in Hebrews, when the writer commanded them in ch. 6 to leave “the elementary doctrine of Christ” (i.e., the “essentials”) and be mature believers.

    By the way, that chapter goes on to indicate that not doing so is evidence of being unregenerate.

    Another way to view this is to look at the whole picture of the Bible: the OT points forward to Christ, and the NT points backward to Christ. I think we’d all agree that Jesus Christ is an “essential”, or more appropriately, THE essential. But if the entire point of the Bible is to illustrate God’s redemptive plan (the grand “meta-narrative” if you will, I know dirty word, but get over it), then the entire Bible must be essential to that narrative in some way.

    It’s simply up to us to do our due diligence in connecting the dots and figuring out how.

    So, enough of this “essential” vs. “non-essential” crap!

  7. Byron H

    Please allow me to try this example.

    1. God made future promises to national Israel.
    2. God never changes.
    3. National Israel will receive those promises.

    So if I am an a-mill/replacement theologian, i believe the church and/or Jesus replaced Israel, meaning the promises were never really meant for national Israel, meaning I disagree with C. Did God change? Was God kidding with national Israel? By my replacement theology, i am denying Gods immutability at least, maybe even His sovereignty. Opens the door to many other things we could then question about Gods character. Should we maybe move proper eschatology to the “essential” category?

    Thoughts? Not trying to be divisive, am really struggling with this issue.