People sometimes call something a Gospel issue. Such statements seem to mean that the Gospel implies or perhaps requires adherence to some activity or belief. Probably the most common claim is that social justice is a Gospel issue.
I know these discussions have a lot of depth to them. So here I do not want to directly engage them but work to define the phrase Gospel issue. In my view, some debates around this slogan become mired in confusion because two sides privilege different senses of the words Gospel and issue.
Defining the Issue
In the first place, the phrase Gospel issue by definition can mean something that flows out of the Gospel—issues forth. Issue can mean the result of some action. While somewhat pedantic, I think this definition of issue works better than the alternative: issue as meaning topic or subject.
The difference is this. The first definition of Gospel issue speaks about beliefs and activities that flow from the Gospel. It means the Gospel is for all of life, but it does not define all of life as the Gospel. The second definition basically implies that any issue called a Gospel issue is included in the Gospel.
I wonder if people debating Gospel issues sometimes miss each other because they use different senses of the world issue. In fact, that seems almost certain.
Defining the Gospel
In Scripture, the Gospel or Good News means a message preached (e.g., Acts 15:7; 1 Cor 15:1–4) or an entire Gospel Book. Each Gospel book takes the title The Gospel according to Matthew or Mark or Luke or John. They are not Gospels—but each the Gospel according to so and so.
As a whole, early Christians meant the Gospel books when they said the Gospel. This is because that is what they are titled. And the first words in the Gospel according to Mark are: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1). It is hard to be plainer than that. Whatever is in Mark is the Gospel—beginning with John preparing the way for Jesus.
When the Good News of Jesus is preached in Acts, Peter for example includes “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). That is to say, the message of the Gospel can be as simple as “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31) or as lengthy as reading the four accounts of the one Gospel.
Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15:1–4 highlights the climactic events of death, burial, and resurrection. These sit at the core of what must be preached. But in fuller detail, one can also start with the birth of Jesus up unto his ongoing high priestly activity in heaven as the letter of Hebrews does with great depth!
The simplest way to put it is that the Good News is whatever Jesus is and does; the Nicene Creed for example summarizes the Gospel in this way. When put in bullet point form, one must mention the death, burial, and resurrection. But in fuller form, one must mention the birth, the life, the death, the burial, the resurrection, the ascension, the session, and the ongoing high priestly ministry of Jesus.
All that to say, the ministry of Jesus to real people comprises an important part of the Good News as Jesus makes his way to the cross. We need to know who God is in Jesus to understand what it means for the cross to be the cross. We need to know how the incarnation makes Jesus a genuine human to redeem humanity before the cross and resurrection can truly make sense. The life of Jesus matters. And it matters that he pursued love and good deeds, that he healed and helped.
The Good News proclaimed issues in a life transformed. More specifically, it issues in a life whose identity becomes so wrapped up in Christ that we say, “It is not longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Christ lives in us; we live in him. We live in him by the Spirit who indwells us to make Christ present in us.
So justice must issue from the Gospel, or the Gospel does not have its intended effect. The apostles asked Paul and Barnabas, “Only, … to remember the poor,” and Paul affirmed that this was “ the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:10).
No (or perhaps very few) Christian living before this century would say that the Gospel does not issue in justice. That said, the questions today about the Gospel and justice involve complex discussions that I have not even begun to unravel. (And I won’t even try!)
So I do not share an opinion here about forms of social justice, racism, and so on. My point is simple really. The word issue can either mean flows out of, or it can mean something identified with the Gospel. If we think the latter, we might accuse someone who uses the former definition of deluding the Gospel when they in fact intend to follow Paul’s readiness to remember the poor. If we think the former, we may see other Christians as living a disobedient Christian life, uncaring about justice. Understanding how we use the word issue can clear up miscommunication and perhaps make debates less fiery!
The Good News summed up in the message preached must include the death, burial, and resurrection. But as the four accounts of the one Gospel show, as the preaching of that Gospel in the Acts of the Apostles demonstrate, and as the letter to the Hebrews notes, the good news has a fuller context that includes the birth up to the ongoing high priestly ministry of Jesus.
I suspect here too some privilege one or the other understanding of the Gospel during justice debates, and so we sometimes accuse each other of misunderstanding the Gospel because of differing definitions—not because of differing Gospels!