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Doctrinal Thoroughness

This entry is part 5 of 32 in the series

"Toward Conservative Christian Churches"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Google ‘Gospel-centered’ and you will find thousands of churches and Christians who have adopted this nick as descriptive of themselves. No one wants to be law-centered, I assume, or gospel-peripheral, and so we find that gospel-centered has become something of a new Shibboleth in evangelical circles.

In previous posts, I’ve already expressed solidarity with the truth of the gospel’s relevance for Christian living. While a renewed emphasis on the importance of the gospel is something to applaud, we must beware lest this virtue becomes a vice. There is sometimes an unhealthy under-current in what some mean by gospel-centered. For some, it is an abbreviation for doctrinal minimalism. That is, such people believe that the Christian faith is equivalent to the gospel, making all teaching not essential to the gospel extraneous. They want Christians to be less concerned with such doctrinal matters as angelology, eschatology, polity, or cessationism, if such do not touch directly on the gospel. For many, the gospel alone should become the measuring instrument for doctrinal importance.

To a certain degree, I agree that the gospel is a very reliable guide for determining doctrinal weight. However, I disagree that the gospel is the center of Christian doctrine from which all else radiates.

Rather, the gospel is the boundary which allows one into the Christian faith. The center of the Christian faith is where Jesus said it was: to love God ultimately and supremely (Mk 12:28-29). Therefore, we must beware lest our love for the gospel become a too-vicious pruning tool on Christian doctrine. There is much more to Christianity than the gospel.

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Christianity is concerned with more than the question of how to become a Christian. It is concerned with the question of what it is to be a Christian. Since all Scripture is given to that end (2 Tim 3:17), Christianity worth conserving will conserve and pass on all that Scripture teaches. This is the second mark of a conservative Christian church: it will understand, defend and teach biblical, systematic, historical and practical Christian theology as comprehensively and cohesively as possible.

By contrast, much in modern Christianity tends to be eclectic and faddish in its approach to Christian teaching. Rare is the shepherd who is not pulled by the tide of clerical opinion in his time, who is not swept up by trends, fashions, and double-barreled buzz words. Scarce are the pastors not influenced by the personality and celebrity cults in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Uncommon is the kind of independence needed in a faddish age. This causes many a church leader to fall short of the goal of a comprehensive and consistent articulation of Christian doctrine. Too often he’s pulled by man-pleasing forces more than the desire to properly harmonize his system of faith. A bit chosen from the hot new book, a bit from Coalesced for the Gospel 2016, a copy-‘n-paste from GoodBlog, a deferring reference to Pastor Bigname, and a resulting quilt-work of theology that is consistent only in the mind of the pastor (if there).

Now, this is not to say that we must accept our theology in non-negotiable package-deals, or that we are not responsible to test and examine the theological tradition we are in. This we must do. However, our goal is to understand and teach Christian doctrine as cohesively and comprehensively as we can. A conservative Christian Methodist must teach his Methodism uniformly and thoroughly. A conservative Christian Presbyterian must set out a Presbyterian understanding of biblical, systematic, historical and practical theology. A covenant theologian must apply and teach his system of faith as consistently as he is able. Such is the integrity of Christian character; such should be our respect for the Word of God.

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In fact, it is this kind of attention to doctrinal detail that will actually promote Christian unity. When differences are properly articulated, conservative Christians will quickly be able to see where fellowship is possible and where it is not. It is when differences are blurred through garbled articulations of doctrine that real tensions may later arise. Feigned unity built upon doctrinal agnosticism will inevitably crumble, or else be held together with the Scotch tape of good intentions.

Conservative Christians want the whole Christian faith, not just the door. Conservative Christianity wants all inspired Scripture taught and explained for life and godliness. In the next post, I would like to suggest several practical ways to grow this comprehensive approach to Christian doctrine within the local church.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn currently pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

11 Responses to Doctrinal Thoroughness

  1. David,

    Proponents of Gospel-centered Christianity would contend that you have failed to grasp the breadth of the Gospel. By describing it merely as "the boundary" or "just the door" to Christianity you minimize the Gospel simply to justification by faith alone. This is not what is meant by "the Gospel" when referred to by men like Bridges, Keller, Dever, Mahaney, Chapell, et al. They refer to a much broader Gospel that encompasses justification, sanctification, and glorification. They believe that there is not a single fundamental doctrine which the Gospel does not touch (e.g. eschatology = the completion of the Gospel, bibliology = the communication of the Gospel, ecclesiology = the people of the Gospel, etc.).

    Essentially these preachers have done a number of things by elevating the Gospel. I will note two examples as follows:

    (1) They have refocused Christians on the breadth of soteriology. In other words, the Gospel is not merely about justification (i.e. "the door" or "the boundary"). The Gospel is a complete plan of justification, sanctification, and glorification. The beauty of this explanations is that this understanding does away with the legalistic concept of the sanctification (i.e., "I've been saved by grace and must now sanctify myself by my works"). The whole scheme of the Gospel is a process which relies on God's working and God's grace, not on works righteousness (Gal. 3:3). The Gospel produces whole-man (intellectual, volitional, and emotional) change rather than the merely external fruits of legalism (2 Cor. 5:17). A return to such a Gospel-centered approach will help us avoid the extremes of legalism and licentiousness.

    (2) They have provided an objective means for the evaluation of all doctrines. By this I mean that they have given us a scale to weigh the doctrines which should count as the fundamentals of the faith. Rather than the reactionary method employed by many in past debates, the Gospel-centered approach sees certain doctrines as essential and others as non-essential. If we recall even within our own stream of Fundamentalist history, there was a time where doctrines such as two which you have noted (viz., "polity" and "cessationism") were not considered fundamentals of the faith (i.e. consider the breadth of church polity within the early Fundamentalist movement and the inclusion of Holiness charismatics). In this sense, the Gospel-centered evangelicals represent a much purer form of Fundamentalism than most who still claim hold to the title. A return to such a Gospel-centered approach will help us evaluate the true essentials of the Christian faith in a proactive rather than reactionary method.

    In these two areas, I would argue that this group is anything but doctrinal minimalists (just as the early Fundamentalists who derived a handful of "fundamentals of the faith" were not doctrinal minimalists). They have rather contributed to maximization of doctrine rather than the opposite. In a certain sense, it could be said that they certainly understand the doctrine of sanctification better than many (most?) Fundamentalists. My point is this: if the gospel is as small as you say it is, then our brothers certainly fall prey to minimizing other doctrines; however, if the Gospel is as big as they say it is, then we fall prey to minimizing the Gospel itself.

  2. Philip, I think you are probably correct in your analysis of what these men consider "the gospel," but the problem is that when everything becomes the gospel, nothing is is the gospel.

    But the biggest problem with their method is that they are quite picky and choosy about what they consider part of "the gospel."

    For example, for them, it is a Calvinistic gospel. I happen to agree with their theological perspective here, but I would be quick to admit that Calvinism is more than the simple gospel.

    Or, they insist that complimentarianism is a necessary component to the gospel. Again, I happen to agree with them on this issue, but it more than the simple gospel.

    Or, they insist on a Lordship salvation gospel, which I agree with as well, but it is more than the simple gospel.

    They also (at least the TGC documents) insist that Kingdom Now is part of their gospel. This is an area with which I would disagree, but one that significantly affects how they view the gospel.

    I could go on.

    But then, when it comes to other issues, like eschatology, ecclesiology, baptism, or worship, they insist that these things are not part of the gospel enough to make them an issue. I would agree with them that these are not essential to the gospel, but I would argue that they AFFECT the gospel. In fact some of these (baptist and worship, for example) affect the gospel more in my opinion than something like complimentarianism.

    So I think David is on to something in this article. We should be willing to say: "This is the simple gospel; it is the door to Christianity and if you deny it, you are not a Christian.

    Now, here are some other issues (gender roles, Lordship salvation, Calvinism, Eschatology, worship, ecclesiology, baptism, etc.) that significantly AFFECT the gospel and Christian living, and here is how and why we think they matter."

  3. I recently used the following points in a book discussion. Several of the points are well-related to the objections you offer.

    5 Myths about Gospel-living:

    1. It’s just a fad. This statement is code for: All the preachers outside my camp are all about it, so I must be against it. Has the Gospel regained centrality in our discussions about sanctification? Yes. Does it run through the majority of conservative devotional literature today? Certainly. Does this negate its value or significance? Most emphatically not. Just as the rediscovery of the Gospel’s relation to justification by the Reformers was significant in their day (yet not a passing fad), neither is the rediscovery of Gospel-based sanctification in our day. Should Fundamentalists then reject Dispensationalism because of its relative youth? To conclude, this objection is flawed because it focuses on the supposed “newness” of the teaching rather than on the significant contributions of the doctrine itself.

    2. The gospel is just about justification, getting saved, or evangelism. The majority of the writers on the subject (Bridges, Piper, Keller, Chapell, etc.) have been quite clear in their objections to this point. The whole purpose of their writings on the topic is to assert that the Gospel is to be central not only in justification but also in sanctification. As defined by these and other writers, the Gospel is that doctrine that teaches that we are unable to merit God’s favor due to sin, that we must come to God simply through faith in His Son, and that God, through Christ, gives us everything we need for life and godliness. This objection is flawed because it fails to understand the source material on the topic.

    3. It’s all about Calvinism. This objection is often presented because the chief proponents of the movement are Calvinists. On a surface level, this statement seems to have much merit, but in reality it is quite lacking. Should we reject the teachings of Luther because of his "Calvinism"? Should we burn our copies of Pilgrim’s Progress? Should we ignore the contributions of men like Jonathan Edwards? No! Should we reject the use of Nouthetic counseling? Just because someone may believe in what may or may not be a flawed system, it does not negate the entirety of their dogma. In other words, this objection is flawed because it attempts to negate the doctrine by questioning another aspect its sources rather than wrestling with the argument.

    4. Unity cannot be achieved around the Gospel; unity must be achieved through doctrinal affirmation. To some extent, our problem, once again, is a flawed understanding of the doctrine as it has been presented. When referring to the Gospel, we are not simply referring to the concept of justification through faith alone (the simplistic view), but rather the fact that the whole of Christian doctrine finds its source in the Gospel and the whole of Scripture focuses on the Gospel. For example, how do we learn that God is love outside the Gospel (I John 4:10)? How do we worship without an understanding of the Gospel (“Word of Christ” – Col. 3:16)? What was the purpose of the prophecies and the moving of the Holy Spirit in the work of inspiration but to proclaim the Gospel (I Pet. 1:9-12)? Through the lens of the Gospel, there is no doctrine, whether eschatology, anthropology, ecclesiology, hamartiology, or even angeology, that remains untouched. So when a pastor calls his people to Gospel unity, he does not call them to unify around justification through faith alone (and thus to unite with Pentacostals, Presbyterians, Methodists, Luthrans, Baptists, and cool church up the block), he rather calls them to unity around the full implications of the Gospel in every area of doctrine that it touches (which is essentially analogous to the fundamentals of the faith).

    5. Gospel-centered sanctification will lead to lawlessness. Wasn’t this the objection of the Catholic Church when Luther proclaimed justification through faith alone? They objected that if people were taught that they would be saved simply through faith, they would leave off the mass, almsgiving, prayers, confession, and all other good works and sacraments. To this we all object that the Gospel in justification does not keep us from doing what God commands, but all the more motivates us to do what God’s Word teaches. And why not so in sanctification as well as justification? If the recognition that I can offer God nothing that will gain me merit in my justification does not lead to lawlessness, then why should the same recognition in regard to my sanctification do the same? No one is looking to make grace abound because of sin, rather, we look to the Gospel as the powerhouse of sanctification. Being good and glorifying God does not result from my intense self-discipline. It is a result of the Gospel. The more I come to see His righteousness in my place, the more I will be motivated, no, find the power, to live out who I really am in Christ.

    It seems that you embrace the use of the Gospel as a measuring stick for doctrine, which is one mark of the Gospel-centered folks. This is a big step. The second part comes when you see the breadth of the soteriological ramifications of the Gospel (especially in regard to sanctification by grace through faith and not works). It is this facet which Fundamentalists, I believe, let go of in the 20th century as they began to focus more on combating culture through politics and outward rebellion through legalism. I thought that the following clip was rather insightful: (

    ). As for "Kingdom Now" teaching in The Gospel Coalition, could you please provide your source on this?

  4. Philip,

    I said:

    "I’ve already expressed solidarity with the truth of the gospel’s relevance for Christian living."

    I said:

    "To a certain degree, I agree that the gospel is a very reliable guide for determining doctrinal weight."

    What part of these statements would have led you to write your response? It seems your comment is a elaborate sermon to the choir. I'm all for a return to seeing the essential nature of the gospel for life and godliness.

    The point, which it seems you've missed, is that some are taking this healthy element and using it to mask their desire for doctrinal minimalism. I didn't name names (and I don't plan to, even if requested to) or accuse any of the people you named as guilty of this. To me, it's as plain as day that doctrinal clarity and thoroughness is not the order of the day. Those that want their doctrinal minimalism are happy to hijack the term gospel-centered to give credence to their approach.

  5. @David:

    Yes, I noticed those statements. My point is that if you really understood what they are saying the Gospel is (in all of its breadth and depth), you would not mistake it for (in your words) "doctrinal minimalism." In fact, by relegating the Gospel to (in your words) "just the door" or "the boundary" belies a minimalization of the doctrine of the Gospel itself! I haven't seen anyone in these Gospel-centered groups doing this and if you are going to make such a charge against them (the nameless ones), you may want to bring some evidence. I could just as easily (without evidence or proof) state that the Fundamentalist backlash towards their Gospel-centered brothers evidences a jealousy that we didn't stake claim to the concept first. But I have no proof of this, so I digress….

  6. Leaving aside the unChristian innuendo laden in the last remark, the burden of proof does not rest on me to start naming people I think are doctrinal minimalists purely for your satisfaction. I would say it rests on you to show that Christianity is as doctrinally thorough and rich as you seem to think it is. That is, after all, the point of the post. Remember?

    The fact that I see the Gospel as the boundary and the door to Christianity does not mean I think it unrelated and inapplicable to the rest of the Christian life. I've made that clear. My point was to speak of doctrinal minimalism, using the popular gospel-centered buzz as an example of where some do so. Instead, you read this post as some kind of veiled attempt to disparage the work of people like Bridges, Keller, et. al. Either you have some kind of hostility toward this site which leads you to assume the worst possible motive behind each post, or you do not read well.

    Finally, if someone thinks that the gospel is the heart and essence of Christianity, he or she needs to explain Christ's words in Mark 12:28-29 in light of that thinking.

  7. @David:

    As to my concluding line: Thank you for noting how unChristian the last remark was. If you re-read my post carefully, you will note that it was intended to be such. It is, by its own admission, not a fair characterization of Fundamentalists. It paints with a broad brush (i.e. IFB) and without proof or substantiation. It assigns hidden motives. It accuses of sin. It is an unfair and improper accusation. For these factors, it could fairly be characterized as unChristian. Now to turn the tables… You have accused your conservative evangelical brethren who advocate Gospel-centered Christianity as doctrinal minimalists (certainly sinful and likely unorthodox). It paints a very large movement with an even larger brush without proof or substantiation. It assigns hidden motives. It makes a very serious accusation. It is an unfair, improper, and unChristian accusation.

    As to my assumptions going into this discussion: Over the past several years I have heard prominent leaders in my local stream of Fundamentalism decrying the evil of the Gospel/Christ-centered movement. According to Bob Jones III, it's just a fad that is essentially a cover-up for lawless "Christianity." According to Jim Berg, its simply "being passionate about being passionate about the gospel." On the heels of these remarks, I read here that it's essentially a "buzz" that promotes "doctrinal minimalism." I find these charges baseless because no proof or facts are offered to substantiate the claims. When our evangelical brothers are making some of their greatest strides towards conservative orthodoxy and orthopraxy, I would think that we Fundamentalists would be more supportive of their contributions rather than sitting on the sidelines complaining about their nomenclature.

    I do not assume the worst possible motive of you or the other writers here (your accusation here is, however, an assumption of motives). I appreciate your conservative theology of worship and other points of theology; however, I do disagree with various principles which are claimed to be normative applications for worship and I also disagree with some of the disparaging remarks directed towards our conservative evangelical brethren (though not specifically, of course). You will find no ill will in my remarks. I wish only to offer a rejoinder from time to time on matters with which I find some deficiency. I hope, given the format here, that this is permissible. Thus far I have had several pleasant and logical discussions with some of my brothers here and have not been called unChristian, fleshly, carnal, neo-evangelical, apostate, or the like. I don't have any notion of changing the writers' minds, but I do wish to offer a counterpoint for those who may wish to consider one.

    As for Mark 12:28-31 (please pardon the sermon…but you did ask); Christ lays out the great expectation of God for mankind as detailed in the law. "Love God." "Love others." These commands are the divine standard which all of humanity has fallen short of. We have failed to love God with all our hearts. We don't maintain vital communication with Him in prayer and in the reading of His Word. We desecrate His name by claiming to be one of His chosen ones while behaving like children of disobedience. We have all failed to love our fellow man as we ought. We malign and assume less than the best. We defraud and cheat. We lie and lead astray. We fail to provide for the orphan and the widow. We have all fallen short.

    But there is good news. In the Gospel, Jesus Christ loved the Father perfectly where we could not. In His perfect love of the Father, He obeyed all of the Father's commands in their totality (1 John 5:2) and was declared righteous (1 Pet. 3:18). He not only obeyed righteously, but He had righteous motives for His righteous behavior (Heb. 1:9)! He exhibited perfect love for the Father in our place (1 Pet. 3:18). He achieved what we could not. In His perfect love for man, Christ showed his compassion on the multitudes. He demonstrated honor to his parents even unto His dying breath by providing a caretaker for His mother. He gave the ultimate demonstration of love in His cross-work (1 John 4:10) wherein He showed what it means to love others in a wholly divine sense (Rom. 5:7-8).

    So, in the Gospel we find that Christ has completed the highest commands of God (Mark 12:28ff) for us…in our behalf. He did what we could not so that God would look on us and see us wrapped in the righteousness of the only One who could fulfill His righteous demands. Now we seek to follow God's commands not out of a sense of attempting to earn merit or trying to meet a standard. Full merit has been given. The standard has been met. We now follow the commands of love…imagine this…out of love! We now follow His commands out of childlike joy, not fearing His wrath but seeking to be like Him…seeking by faith His grace to empower us to be who He has declared us to be. Only in the Gospel can we understand how the commands of Mark 12 were achieved and how we are enabled to do the same.

    This is the heart and essence of Christianity…nay, the very revelation of the written Word of God. Every facet of Scripture can be seen through the lens of the Gospel (as Chapell has argued in his "Christ-Centered Preaching"). Every corner, every alleyway, every jot, and every tittle points to a fallen creation, hopelessly lost, and the revelation righteous Redeemer come to restore the marred creation to (and beyond) its former glory through the greatest event in human history – the death of God incarnate on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem. Furthermore, if this analysis of the whole of the divine revelation is indeed accurate, then we must ponder in what way the Gospel is an insufficient ground for unity. We must wonder in what way an emphasis on the Gospel (the unique message of Christianity and the whole of Scripture) in any way minimizes doctrine. The Gospel is doctrine! It infuses all that we know of God. It infuses all that we know of His persons (Theology Proper). It shows us the character of God (Theology Proper – Person). It shows us the purpose of creation (Theology Proper – Works). It explains theodicy, sin (Hamartiology), and fallen angels (Angeology). It shows us the nature of redemption and atonement, justification, sanctification, and glorification (Soteriology). It shows us the heart and nature of the church (Ecclesiology). It points us to the future re-creation (Eschatology). There is no essential doctrine of Scripture that remains untouched by the reach of the Gospel.

  8. Here are the points as discussed:

    1. The illegitimacy of an argument founded on nothing but a personal whim or supposition (par. 1). This is in response to your first paragraph and your concept of "doctrinal minimalism" in the group in question.

    2. An explanation of my assumptions leading to this discussion (par. 2, 3). This is in response to your second paragraph.

    3. A refutation of the idea that Mark 12 teaches that the Gospel is not the heart and essence of Christianity (par. 4-7). This is in response to your third paragraph.

  9. Is it possible that the gospel can be both the center and a boundary? In understanding and believing the gospel in its fundamental, non-deniable minimums it forms true Christianity's boundary. Yet within the boundary, scripture teaches us how to understand the fuller implications of the gospel in every aspect of our life. Probably a better way to say that. It's within the boundary that our attempt to understand all that scripture teaches, teaching that is centered on God's grace displayed in the gospel, could lead us to differ from other believers who are within the boundary. I think a needed caution is given in this article not to let gospel-centeredness deter us from pursuing understanding the whole counsel of God.

  10. Paul,

    Good question. Yes, the image of boundary is only as useful as far as it goes. The Christian life must certainly be grounded in and lived through the power of the gospel. As we know, loving God is the fulfillment of the Law, but the Law can only be fulfilled by the power of the gospel. That's where a book like The Discipline of Grace by Bridges is so helpful- showing how the gospel enables us to obey the Great Commandment. I suppose we could say that loving God is the priority of the Christian life, while the gospel is the position and posture of the Christian life.

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