Thinking About the Gospel, Part 6

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

by Kevin T. Bauder

Demeaning the Gospel

We have to answer two questions about every doctrinal assertion. The first question is, “Is it true? Is this doctrine biblical?? The second question is, “How important is it? To what extent does this doctrine influence Christian faith and fellowship?”

When we speak of “doctrinal differences,” we usually mean disagreements over the first question. One person asserts that a doctrine is true, while another insists that it is false. That is a doctrinal difference.

Disagreements over the second question, however, are also doctrinal differences. Two people may agree that a doctrine is true, but they may weigh it differently. One person may think it is essential to the faith, while another believes that it is incidental. This disagreement is as much a doctrinal difference as any disagreement over the truth of the doctrine.

We have already noted that the gospel is doctrinal. If it were not for doctrines, the events of the gospel would remain abstract and meaningless. “Christ died” is completely irrelevant until we add, “for our sins.” This explanation constitutes doctrine.

Doctrine is at the core of the gospel. All of the essential truth of the gospel is doctrinal. We are sinners. As sinners, we merit God’s just condemnation. A holy God could not simply overlook our sin. God sent Christ to be our sin-bearer, our substitute. Jesus Christ, the God-man, was a qualified sin-bearer. He actually did bear our sins on the cross. He rose again from the dead. He offers us salvation as a gift, by grace alone. We receive that salvation through faith alone, at which time God imputes to us the righteousness of Christ and justifies us.

These are the sort of propositions that summarize the gospel, and they are all doctrines.

For this reason, at least some doctrines are essential to the gospel. To disagree with these essential doctrines is to reject the gospel itself. Any putative gospel that denies any of the essential doctrines is another gospel of a different kind. The Scriptures pronounce an anathema upon those who preach such a different gospel.

Fellowship is what is held in common. Christian fellowship, in order to be Christian, must rest upon the gospel as a minimum. Those who deny the gospel (substituting another gospel of a different kind) are under the biblical anathema and, therefore, are not suitable subjects for Christian fellowship.

In other words, a disagreement over the truth of the gospel is a fatal disagreement. No one who denies the gospel can be recognized as a Christian. But all those who deny the doctrines of the gospel (the essentials or fundamentals) deny the gospel itself. Thus, no one who denies a fundamental can be recognized as a Christian. Christian fellowship with such a person is not possible.

So far, we are describing two kinds of people: those who agree with the gospel and those who disagree with it. The difference between them is a doctrinal difference. A further distinction needs to be drawn, however. It involves a difference between those who agree with the gospel.

People who believe the gospel may disagree very seriously about how important it is for Christian faith and fellowship. Some insist (I think rightly) that the gospel is definitive for minimal Christianity. Genuine Christianity ceases to exist where the gospel is denied, and no one who denies the gospel can rightly be recognized as a Christian.

Others, however, contend that the gospel—and especially the doctrinal affirmations of the gospel—are not that important. These people are willing to extend Christian fellowship and recognition to at least some who deny the doctrines of the gospel. They are willing to engage in Christian cooperation with at least some who preach what Paul calls “another gospel” of a different kind. While they acknowledge the gospel to be true, they are indifferent to its importance. That is why J. Gresham Machen labeled them “indifferentists.”

This is a serious difference, and it is doctrinal as much as it is practical. Granted, indifferentists do not deny the gospel, and in that sense they are unlike apostates. Nevertheless, they refuse to give the gospel its rightful place as a demarcator between Christianity and non-Christianity. By doing so, they greatly diminish the importance of the gospel. While they do not deny the gospel, they do demean it.

This demeaning of the gospel directly contradicts the anathema that Scripture pronounces in Galatians 1:8-9. It also has another severe consequence. John, in his second epistle, is very specific about how we are to treat people who name the name of Christ but who deny essential doctrine. We are forbidden to receive such apostates into our houses, or even to give them a civil greeting (the word chairein in 2 John 10 is merely the standard Greek expression of greeting). When we violate these norms, says John, we become complicit in the evil deeds of the apostates (2 John 11). This complicity or fellowship in evil is a serious enough matter to cost us reward from Christ (2 John eight).

To put it plainly, an indifferentist (who believes the gospel) commits a serious error by extending Christian fellowship to an apostate (who denies the gospel). That does not mean that indifferentists lose all standing as Christians, but they do become guilty of egregious conduct. To become complicit (to fellowship, 2 John 11) in the evil deeds of the apostates is one of the worst things that a Christian can do. It is no exaggeration to suggest that this demeaning of the gospel is just as scandalous as drunkenness, adultery, or murder.

The question is, what are we supposed to do about the Christian who is indifferent to the importance of the gospel? At minimum, I think we can say this. In the nature of the case, indifferentists betray an appalling lack of discernment and integrity. Such people should never be placed in positions of Christian leadership and should never be pointed to as models for other Christians.

Some people call this approach “secondary separation.” The label is unfortunate. It tends to mislead. On the one hand, indifferentism is not an insignificant or “secondary” problem. It is a scandal, probably the worst scandal in which a Christian can engage. On the other hand, the label “secondary separation” is sometimes taken to mean that good separatists must separate from people who won’t separate, and so secondary separation turns into tertiary separation, quaternary separation, and so forth.

Secondary separation is not about separation. It is about the gospel. It is about insisting that the gospel is paramount within Christian teaching, that the doctrines of the gospel are absolutely indispensable, and that the essential doctrines of the gospel mark out the boundary of Christian faith and fellowship. A difference over the importance of a doctrine is still a doctrinal difference. A difference over the importance of the gospel is a very significant doctrinal difference. So-called “secondary separation” is exactly about this difference.

Jehovah Our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6)

William Cowper (1731-1800)

My God! how perfect are Thy ways!
But mine polluted are;
Sin twines itself about my praise,
And slides into my prayer.

When I would speak what Thou hast done
To save me from my sin;
I cannot make Thy mercies known
But self-applause creeps in.

Divine desire, that holy flame
Thy grace creates in me;
Alas! impatience is its name,
When it returns to Thee.

This heart, a fountain of vile thoughts,
How does it overflow?
While self upon the surface floats
Still bubbling from below.

Let others in the gaudy dress
Of fancied merit shine;
The Lord shall be my righteousness
The Lord for ever mine.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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