“Is the Gospel the only truth worth defending?” Odd as it may seem, this has become the stance of many Christians in our day. Surely “Gospel-centrality” is heartily welcomed, since the Gospel is the doctrine of first importance (1 Cor. 1:17; 15:3-4). Those who have had their sins forgiven and have been transformed by the power of the Gospel scarcely need to be told that the Gospel is supremely worth defending. All the other doctrines of Scripture are intricately related to it, either by logical consequence or for its defense and propagation. The doctrines of Scripture move in and out of the Gospel like spokes in a wheel. The doctrine of the Person and work of Christ is the foundation of all true religion (1 Cor. 3:11). For this reason, keeping the Gospel at the center—and defending it against all perversions—is most necessary. “Gospel-centrality” is to be commended, but “Gospel-reductionism” is not.
“Gospel-reductionism” is often an overreaction to the hyper-polemical atmosphere created by “Distinctionism” and “Traditionalism.” The Gospel reductionist keeps the Gospel in the driver’s seat, while caring little about what is in the passenger seat. The “Distinctionist” puts any and all biblical doctrine in the driver’s seat, thereby jeopardizing the unique place of the Gospel. The “Distinctionist” finds it difficult to categorize biblical doctrine according to order of priority. Many of the doctrines that ought to be in the passenger seat, make their way into the “Distinctionists” drivers seat. There is no heirachy of primary or secondary, etc. importance for the “Distinctionist.”
Along with the theological imbalance of the “Distinctionist” there is the danger of “Traditionalism.” The “Traditionalist” starts out like the “Distinctionist”—putting doctrines of secondary importance in the driver’s seat, while relegating the Gospel to the passenger seat. Once a man puts doctrines of secondary importance in the place of those of first importance, he will also put matters of personal preference (which usually comes in the form of traditional practices in church history). This often leads an individual to defend personal preferences from church history as if they were biblical doctrines. Because they are not biblically defensibly, the intensity with which they are defended increases. If a preference can’t be defended from the biblical authority behind it then the proponent often seeks to produce authority with emotional, rhetorical and condescending argumentation.
While it would be fair to say that “Gospel-reductionism” and “Distinctionism” are less dangerous than “Traditionalism,” all three approaches are erroneous and liable to unique dangers. So how do we spot these dangers, and are there any rules of engagement to help us know when to “pick a battle” for truth?
The Dangers of Gospel-Reductionism
“Gospel-reductionism” can lead to the promotion of a truncated Gospel. The “Gospel-reductionist” is at risk of reducing the Gospel to one particular aspect of the Gospel (e.g. either we defend union with Christ, or justification, or adoption, or definitive sanctification, etc.). So, we might reduced the Gospel to justification by faith alone (which is incontrovertibly a central tenet of the Gospel!) and so defend an asymmetrical Gospel. Once fallen into this error, the “Gospel-reductionist” will inescapably solely preach or write about justification by faith alone. There are other important aspects of the Gospel worth defending along with the all-important doctrine of justification (e.g. adoption, definitive sanctification, etc.). It can actually end up hurting our defense of the Gospel if we believe that the Gospel—or some particular aspect of it—is the only truth worth defending. The same can be true of those who only emphasize “sanctification” or “union with Christ” to the exclusion of the benefits of the Gospel. They may fixate on it so much that they fail to defend the doctrine of justification sufficiently. Once fallen into this error, the “Gospel Reductionist” inevitably preaches or writes only about that one particular aspect of the Gospel. This can inadvertently hurt our defense of the Gospel.
“Gospel-reductionism” is also a catalyst for leaving the door open for error with regard to those doctrines that are not properly considered part of the Gospel. This in turn can distort our understanding of the Gospel. If all the truths of Scripture move in and out of the Gospel hub then downplaying the importance of a biblical doctrine that we deem to be of secondary importance can easily affect our understanding of the Gospel. For instance, the doctrine of election can never been viewed as unimportant since the Scriptures tell us that it was for the elect that Jesus died (John 10:15, 26; Rom. 8:33-34). Likewise, the Scriptures’ teaching concerning God’s demand for perfect obedience is logically connected to the Gospel. Jesus had to be born under the Law in order to keep the Law’s demands for us (Gal. 4:4). Since God requires perfect and continual obedience to His Law (Gal. 3:10), and will punish every transgression of it (Heb. 2:2), Jesus had to die for each and every one of our violations of that Law (Gal. 3:13). If we don’t defend these doctrines we may be inadvertently leaving them vulnerable to error and, in turn, end up affecting our own defense of the Gospel.
The Dangers of Distinctionism
The “Distinctionist” falls into exactly the opposite ditch of error. Because the “Distinctionist” is zealous for biblical truth he will often times fight with brothers who disagree anytime they hold a different position than him. When the warning is raised against “Distinctionism,” the “Distinctionist” will hear the warning as an attack on the truth. The thought process of such an individual is as follows: “Because all biblical truth is God’s truth, and because He has chosen to reveal it to us in the Scriptures, all biblical truth must constantly be defended no matter what the circumstance and with the same intensity as we would defend the Gospel.” This actually sounds like a strong argument in favor of “Distinctionism.” Sometimes the “Distinctionist” might even cite a verse like Matthew 5:18 in support of their approach. The argument would run thus: “Not one jot or title will fail. This means that every jot and title of doctrine is equally important and must be equally defended.” But this is to forget that it was the apostle Paul who taught that there was such a thing as doctrine of primary importance. The “Distinctionist” is ready to go to the mat over any doctrine that he sees taught in Scripture. This is not to say that every doctrine taught in Scripture is not to be defended. It is, however, to make the important distinction between doctrines that always need to be defended against any attack (i.e. the Gospel, the Person of Christ, the Trinity, the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, etc.) and those that may be patiently taught and defended at particular times (i.e. parties to be baptized, views of the millennium, head coverings, church government, political and economic ethics, etc.) The greatest danger of the “Distinctionist” approach is that he usually allows his defense of certain biblical distinctives to be the overarching focus of his ministry. These distinctives are what he always talks about, writes about and preaches about. Somehow they always make it into the sermon–even when it is extremely forced into a text. The “Distinctionist” cannot honestly say with the apostle Paul, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Whenever the “Distinctionist” defends a distinctive he usually defends it under the assertion that he is seeking to defend a robust Gospel. In this way, the “Distinctionist” usually ends up putting the Gospel in the passenger seat, while leading with distinctives. When this occurs, others–who are biblically educated enough to know that the Gospel should be in the driver’s seat–actually stop listening to and learning from the “Distinctionist.” The “Distinctionist” actually hurts his defense of biblical distinctions by leading with them. It’s the theological version of what journalists have termed “Burying the Lead.”
The Dangers of Traditionalism
In contrast to “Gospel-reductionism,” and in addition to “Distinctionism,” there is the most dangerous error of “Traditionalism.” It is right and good for us to have a have a healthy love for, and adaptation of, Christian tradition; but “Traditionalism” is toxic. While the Holy Spirit has worked throughout the history of the church in godly men and women so that we have an enormous repository of theological writings and hymnody, those men and women were not inerrant. The “Traditionalist” often finds the best expression of Christian tradition (i.e, the Reformation or Puritan movement) and tries to reconstruct and defend every aspect (style of music, ministerial clothing, architecture, etc.) of these special times when God’s Spirit was doing a great work. When everything in our theological system becomes of equal importance, we will put secondary doctrines on par with the Gospel and will more easily put ecclesiastical traditions and personal preferences in there too. “Traditionalism” often results in the acerbic, distinctive-championing, polemic-loving, heavy-handed, judgmentalism we have all too frequently observed in sermons, articles and blog posts. Sometimes it is driven by an honest desire to defend biblical truth; but more commonly, it is driven by a desire to defend some personal preference from within our tradition. When someone is willing to “die on every hill,” so to speak, they will most certainly die on the hill of their traditions and personal preferences. The “Traditionalist” finds it too difficult to practice a particular tradition out of pastoral wisdom or love of a practice without attempting to bind everyone else’s consciences to this tradition. It is certainly not a bad thing to have traditional preferences, provided we hold them for ourselves without attempting to bind others with them.
Rules of Engagement
Know your weaknesses. If you tend to “Gospel-reductionism” labor to give yourself to a careful study of the Scriptures and historic theology. The Protestant Confessions of the 17th Century are still the best articulations of the doctrines of Scripture. Acquaint yourself with the doctrinal formulations in them so that you will be better prepared to defend specific doctrines that habitually come under attack (e.g. the doctrine of Scripture, doctrine of God, and the doctrine of creation).
If you tend to put doctrines of secondary importance in the place of those of first importance, labor to retrain yourself. Study the Gospel routinely. Make sure it’s in the driver’s seat. Labor also to restrain yourself. Take the high road of not responding to everything you perceive to be erroneous, unless you absolutely have to do so.
Ensure that what you are seeking to defend is actually biblical. There are many who think they are defending biblical truth when, in reality, they are merely defending some personal preference. Those who value Christian tradition the most are most susceptible to falling into “Traditionalism.” When we criticize others for not practicing a distinctive with roots in church history—and not in the Scriptures—we have fallen into the ditch of “Traditionalism.” In addition, even if the doctrines we hold to are clearly taught in the Scriptures, if Jesus and the Apostles did not champion your distinctives, then they are probably not biblical distinctives that need to be championed to the degree you might tend to champion them.
Defend particular truths in a manner commensurate with their biblical importance: As “the punishment fits the crime;” so too, “the intensity fits the doctrine.” We don’t want to defend matters of secondary importance with the same intensity as we would the Gospel. When the Gospel is attacked we get out the M-16. When a doctrine of secondary importance is attacked we might pick up a taser. Even when we’re tempted to pick up the taser, we must think long and hard about whether the intensity of our response is equal to the importance of the doctrine.
Discern where people are before you engage them on a particular doctrine. My dear friend, Stephen Burch, once made the following astute observation: “If the Gospel is not the thing of first importance to the person you are seeking to engage then they will almost certainly be too touchy to receive your defense of matters of secondary importance. In most cases, such individuals will break fellowship with you openly—or at least in their heart. If they get their functional approval from matters of lesser doctrinal importance than the Gospel—or especially from personal preferences—then they need to be brought back to square one. Before someone can be taught to spell words they need to be taught the alphabet!”
Be slow to criticize a brother who enters into a battle that you will not. A brother who publically defends a doctrine you are not willing to defend may actually have more courage than you. We must pick our battles carefully; but we must be careful not to impute guilt to others when they “pick a battle” for which we are not willing to engage.
Be courageous even when all around you are not. Criticism is commonly the default attitude of individuals toward others who defend biblical truths that they are not willing to defend. It takes courage to defend truths that others are unwilling to defend. Men will criticize you when you’re alive and praise you when you are dead. We must “play the man for Jesus” after we’ve carefully considered the costs.