Distinguishing Between the Gospel and Its Consequences

I’ve recently run across some helpful comments penned by New Testament scholar D. A. Carson regarding the necessity of distinguishing between the gospel and the fruit that springs from its acceptance, namely, deeds of service and mercy. Carson is a longtime faculty member of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (from which our own Keith Simon and Shay Roush received their seminary training), and it’s no stretch to say he’s one of the finest biblical/theological scholars in the world. As such, virtually everything he writes is worth at least a careful hearing. This short piece was no exception.

Though I’d encourage you to read the whole thing (it’s short), here are some thought provoking excerpts:

I’d like to underscore another distinction that is still worth making. It was understood better in the past than it is today. It is this: one must distinguish between, on the one hand, the gospel as what God has done and what is the message to be announced and, on the other, what is demanded by God or effected by the gospel in assorted human responses.
………
The first two greatest commands—to love God with heart and soul and mind and
strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—do not constitute the gospel, or any part of it. We may well argue that when the gospel is faithfully declared and rightly received, it will result in human beings more closely aligned to these two commands. But they are not the gospel.
………
We may even argue that some…list of moral commitments is a necessary consequence of the gospel. But it is not the gospel. We may preach through the list, reminding people that the Bible is concerned to tell us not only what to believe but how to live. But we may not preach through that list and claim it encapsulates the gospel. The gospel is what God has done, supremely in Christ, and especially focused on his cross and resurrection.

He concludes his thoughts by identifying the overriding importance of making the above distinction:

Failure to distinguish between the gospel and all the effects of the gospel tends, on the long haul, to replace the good news as to what God has done with a moralism that is finally without the power and the glory of Christ crucified, resurrected, ascended, and reigning.

This are timely thoughts, given the debate taking place particularly among different groups within the big tent of American evangelicalism, broadly. In an earlier, related editorial (also short and worth reading in full), Carson framed the crucial contemporary question this way:

In many parts of the evangelical world, one hears a new debate—or, more precisely, new chapters in an old debate—regarding the precise place that “deeds of mercy” ought to have in Christian witness. I am not talking about the perennial debate between left-wing and right-wing economic solutions…. I am talking, rather, about the debate between those Christians who say that we should primarily be about the business of heralding the gospel and planting churches, and those who say that our responsibility as Christians extends to the relief of oppression, suffering, and poverty in all their forms.

Carson goes on to touch on historical examples in which, on the one hand, great social progress resulted from movements that kept the preaching of the gospel in primary focus and, on the other, Christian social action that eventually obscured or replaced such preaching. With the remainder of the essay, he recounts a recent discussion among about fifty pastors in which the participants sought to answer the following question:

Granted that we ought to be engaged in acts of mercy, what safeguards can be set in place so as to minimize the risk that the deeds of mercy will finally swamp the proclamation of the gospel and the passionate desire to see men and women reconciled to God by faith in Christ Jesus and his atoning death and resurrection?

Carson mentions two suggestions that arose in the discussion:

1. Distinguish between the responsibilities of the Church as the Church and those of Chrsitians. In line with the example of the apostles themselves (see Acts 6), “Ministers of the gospel ought so to be teaching the Bible in all its comprehensiveness that they will be raising up believers with many different avenues of service, but they themselves must not become so embroiled in such multiplying ministries that their ministries of evangelism, Bible teaching, making disciples, instructing, baptizing, and the like, somehow get squeezed to the periphery and take on a purely formal veneer.”

2. Preach hell. “By adopting this priority we remind ourselves that as Christians we desire to relieve all suffering, from the temporal to the eternal. If we do not maintain such a panoramic vision, the relief of immediate suffering, as important as it is, may so command our focus that we fail to remind ourselves of Jesus’ rhetorical question, “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world yet forfeit your soul?”

You can find more thoughts from Carson on this topic here.

HT: Between Two Worlds

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