It seems that just about every week a new book comes out on the subject of how we are getting the Gospel wrong. I am getting tired of it. Once I read a book and adjust my thinking to getting the Gospel right, I find out in the next book I read that I got it wrong again! Is the Gospel that difficult? Does every generation get the Gospel wrong, thus requiring the next enlightened generation to get them back on course?
Last week, I wrote a post about whether or not Roman Catholics are saved. I chose this topic because, within the past couple of weeks, I had been asked this question (or some variation of it) four times. It is an important question, which caused quite a conversation. I had to close the comments down on this blog topic within 24 hours of posting it! The reason for closing the comments was not so much the belligerence of Roman Catholics who did not agree with what I had written, but because of some very (ahem…) committed Protestants who were being less than gracious. James White did a thoughtful Dividing Line broadcast, where he strongly disagreed with me. Over the last week, the most common objection I received about what I had written was that I had been asking the wrong question. What is the right question? Well, the consensus seemed to be this: “Does the Roman Catholic Church have the right Gospel?”, not, “are Roman Catholics Saved?” There are myriad ways I could have phrased it:
“Are Roman Catholics saved?”
“Can Roman Catholics be saved?”
“Does the Roman Catholic Gospel save?”
“Does Roman Catholicism have the right Gospel?”
All of these require a slight variation in response. Most of my Protestant friends are more than willing to admit that Catholics could be saved, and that some are saved. However, they are quick to point out that “Rome’s Gospel does not save.” Of course, in order to make such a comment, the assumption is that we already have the “right” Gospel, which begs the question: “How much of the Gospel do we have to get right?” Another way to put it: “How much of the Gospel can we get wrong and still have the right Gospel?”
Head hurt? Mine too. But stay with me.
The Gospel is simply the “good news” of God. However, there is so much to it. We can boil the Gospel down to its basic essentials, or we can expand it to include all of its implications and benefits. If we take the former, then it is absolutely necessary to have the right Gospel. However, if we take the latter, how can we ever expect to have the “right” Gospel? I don’t have everything right. I don’t necessarily know what I have wrong, but I like to think that I am open to change, and am willing to nuance my views as I learn. In other words, “Do we have the right Gospel?” is not as black and white an issue as we may be inclined to assume. There is so much of the Gospel in which all of us can improve our understanding. In other words, I think we could all have a “righter” Gospel today than we did yesterday.
Paul speaks of the Gospel in two ways. His letter to the Romans, the entire book, is the Gospel (Rom. 1:15-17). Romans 1:17 makes it clear that, in this context, the vindication of God’s righteousness (which is, I believe, the essence of chapters 1-11) is part of the Gospel message. Here, sin (Rom. 3:23), justification by faith alone (Rom. 3:21), imputation of sin (Rom. 5:18), imputation of righteousness (Rom. 4:1-5; Rom. 5:18), the vindication of creation (Rom. 8:16), the freedom from bondage (Rom. 7), the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8), the security of the believer in Christ (Rom. 8:28-39), and, I believe, the eternal elective decree of salvation which vindicates God’s faithfulness (Rom. 9-11) are all part of the Gospel message. However, in 1 Cor. 15:1-8, Paul seems to suggest that there are issues within the Gospel that are of “first importance.” These issues surround Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Was Paul saying that these were the only issues which were of “first importance”? Here, he does not mention (much less emphasize) faith, grace, imputation, Christ’s humanity and deity, or Christ second coming. All of these, we would say, are integral parts of the “good news.” All of us would say that getting the Gospel “right” needs to include these things.
We could also do a study based on the sermons in Acts. I count thirteen evangelistic sermons in Acts (meaning they were speeches given to those who were unbelievers). Most likely, Luke summarized these sermons, frequently giving just the essence of what the Apostle taught (Acts 9:20; Acts 10:42; Acts 20:21). Therefore, it is difficult to make too many theological conclusions, or even draw out a definite kyrugma (essential preaching). Similarly, these sermons were highly contextualized, often being given exclusively to Jews, Gentiles, philosophers, or kings. For example, I can only identify one place where freedom from the law is explicitly mentioned (Acts 13:39). In a similar sense, I don’t find substitutionary atonement explicitly mentioned in any sermons recorded in Acts. In addition, it is interesting that the deity of Christ, in the strictest sense of the term, is mentioned on just one occasion (Acts 9:20). In all but two sermons, I find the subject of the death and resurrection of Christ addressed. In about half of the sermons, I find repentance and forgiveness being part of the focus. And in many messages (especially to the Jews), Christ’s messiahship (kingship) is mentioned. It is of further interest to note what aspects of the Gospel are included, but it is just as interesting to see which are left out.
What does all of this mean? How do we know when we have the right Gospel? Are we supposed to find the least common denominator and then focus exclusively on that? Or are we supposed to see letters, like Romans, as the most developed and comprehensive of all, and use them as models?
When we ask questions like, “Does Rome have the right Gospel?”, I am not sure what is being implied. “Do they have a right enough Gospel?” Right enough for what? Normally, we mean “right enough to save.” Which aspects of the Gospel are we questioning? Are we getting the essence of the Gospel from Acts? If so, then yes, Catholics seem to be OK. Are we getting it from Paul in Romans? If so, I would say comme si, comme ca. However, if that is the case, one could just as easily assert that Arminians receive the wrong Gospel, since they fail to see (generally speaking) the “good news” of security and/or the “good news” of sovereign election. Furthermore, is a Gospel that does not support the doctrine of the security of the believer really a Gospel at all? Well, yes and no. It could be “more right”. It could be “better news.” Finally, to those who deny these aspects of the Gospel (security and eternal election), using the standard above, one could call upon them to experience a “righter” Gospel.
When it comes to the Gospel, I believe Calvinist Evangelical Protestants have the “rightest” points of view, but I think there are certain aspects of the Gospel we can overemphasize to such a degree that we lose focus on more central components. Moreover, I think we can also lose sight of important (not central) components that other traditions are more faithful to preserve. For example, I believe that substitutionary atonement is the essence of the “for” in Christ, who gave himself up “for me” (Gal. 2:20) as payment for sin. Protestants and Catholics do well to see this doctrine, while the Eastern Orthodox church outright deny this substitutionary aspect of the Gospel in particular. Do they have the wrong Gospel? In one sense, yes. However, in another sense, I think they have a “righter” Gospel in that they call upon people to see the “recapitulation” aspect of Christ’s life. Protestant and Catholics, in my opinion, are very deficient in understanding how Christ qualified to be our substitute. Therefore, Eastern Orthodox traditionally have “better news” with regard to the humanity of Christ.
What is the solution? Well, I don’t like the least common denominator approach, since it suggests that having the entire Gospel is not that important, i.e., only those things to which we can boil it all down (i.e. sin, messiahship, death, burial, resurrection, faith). The entire message is the Gospel. Therefore, “getting the Gospel wrong” is not an option. Yet, it has to be. Catholics miss grace and, in this sense, have a different Gospel. Their Gospel needs to be “righter”, and this causes serious concern. Preterists, who deny Christ’s future coming, have a different Gospel. Their Gospel needs to be “righter” and their position should be considered serious. Universalists, who deny the reality of an eternal punishment, have a different Gospel. Their Gospel needs to be “righter” and its ramifications are similarly serious. Arminians, who deny sovereign election, have a different Gospel. Their Gospel needs to be “righter”, and it is (Are you getting my point?) serious. From a charismatic perspective, cessationists, who do not believe in the continuation of certain gifts of the Spirit, have a different Gospel. Maybe our Gospel needs to be “righter.” Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox all have different Gospels in some respects. All of these traditions emphasize different aspects of the Gospel and need to be anathematized in some ways.
So, “Does the Roman Catholic Gospel save?” is such a loaded question for me. People can antagonistically ask everyone all of these questions: “Does the Calvinist Gospel save?” “Does the Arminian Gospel save?” “Does the fundamentalist Gospel save?” “Does the Church of Christ Gospel save?” “Does the Eastern Orthodox Gospel save?” “Does the Universalist Gospel save?” I don’t even know what the Roman Catholic Gospel is these days. It has quite a bit of dynamic progression throughout history. Is there one sentence you could write which would clearly articulate the essence of their Gospel? I doubt it. And if you did, the next Roman Catholic apologist would write it down differently. “Does Rome have the wrong Gospel?” Certain aspects of their doctrines are wrong, yes. However, in the real world, people are not asking these questions. They are asking something more specific. Concerning Calvinism, what one is really saying is, “Can one deny libertarian free will and be saved?” Concerning Arminianism, “Can one believe that salvation can be lost, yet still be saved?” Concerning fundamentalism, “Can one who is a separationist be saved?” Concerning the Church of Christ, “Can one believe in baptismal regeneration and still be saved?” Concerning Eastern Orthodoxy, “Can one believe in deification and be saved?” Concerning Universalism (of the Christian variety), “Can one deny hell and be saved?” And concerning Roman Catholics, “Can one who believes that works contribute to their justification be saved?” That is what people are really asking.
The broader question is always: “Can one have bad doctrine and be saved?” All but the most ardent maximalists would say “yes.” But where do we cross the line? And I don’t really like the false dichotomy which says, “doctrine does not save . . . God does.” That misses the point of the conversation, as it discredits the necessity of faith in God altogether. If faith is necessary in any sense, that faith must have content. And it is that very content on which this discussion centers. In other words, if faith is important, then content is, as well.
There is definitely a line that can be crossed. I can’t always tell you where that line is, exactly. I know that the center of the Gospel is the person and work of Christ. In addition, I would contend that one must accept who Christ is (the God-man), and what he did (died for our sins and rose from the grave). Acceptance of these requires, I believe, the presence of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14). I believe that it is a “wronger” Gospel when works are added as a factor to justification. I believe that Protestant Evangelicals have the “rightest” Gospel. I think that Evangelical Protestants have a better answer for the history of the church, the development of doctrine, and the systematic nature of canonical truth. That said, I also know that we can all have a “righter” Gospel. Indeed, one day we will all stand before God and see this “righter” Gospel more clearly. Does the Roman Catholic Gospel save? To the degree that the individual Catholic is trusting in the God-man who takes away the sins of the world, it can. All of us (Protestant and Catholic) can and should trust Christ more, but Catholics need to get the Gospel “righter” by abandoning their denial of justification by faith alone. Their application of the Gospel is not very good news.
Grace is incredibly mind blowing.