A Radical Narrowing of the Gospel

By Rev. Doug Barnes

Of necessity, most ministers develop a fairly thick skin.

Any minister who preaches the truth of God’s Word is sure to offend people at times. And at least some who are offended will attack the messenger.

Receiving criticism is never easy; but any minister who would faithfully fulfill his calling must learn to handle it. Ideally, criticism should prompt the minister to carefully evaluate his message and his manner, improving his ability to serve the Lord.

But sometimes, the criticism simply hurts.

I remember one that took my breath away. In a church I formerly served, a family had been absent for a time – and it was not a family that missed worship. An elder checked on them.

The absent brother said he was visiting other churches, because “Rev. Barnes doesn’t preach the gospel enough.” When he was pushed for details, he acknowledged that I did preach the gospel – but said that my preaching often wasn’t gospel-focused.

It’s hard to imagine a more painful allegation for a minister to hear than the claim that he’s not faithfully preaching the gospel.

The elders assured me that the claim was unfounded. But still, it hurt!

Upon further investigation, I learned that the absent brother had been influenced by the Radical Two Kingdoms (R2K) view. As I explained in my last column concerning this viewpoint, the R2K view divides life into two kingdoms: the spiritual realm and the secular realm. The spiritual kingdom is eternal; whereas the secular kindgom is just temporary, having no ultimate import.

And the gospel, according to R2K advocates, stands at the heart of the spiritual kingdom.

But … what is the gospel?

The Rev. Dr. R. Scott Clark, URC minister and professor at Westminster Seminary California, defines the gospel clearly but narrowly: “The Good news is the message that Jesus Christ is God the Son incarnate, who obeyed in the place of his people, suffered for them, was crucified, dead, and buried for them, was raised for their justification, and is coming again. We receive Christ and his benefits by God’s free favor (grace) alone, through faith (resting, receiving, trusting) in Christ alone. That is the gospel” (heidelblog.net/2017/08/why-the-x-is-a-gospel-issue-argument-fails/, accessed on 7 July 2022).

Clark’s colleague, the Rev. Dr. Michael Horton, defines the gospel similarly. “The gospel never tells us something to do. The gospel tells us about something that has been done,” Horton explains (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=caMVMayR690, accessed 9 July 2022). “You can’t ‘do’ the Gospel. That’s a category mistake. It’s the most fundamental, basic, theological mistake that you can possibly make to confuse the Law with the Gospel. Now the Law is good. … But it’s not the good news; it’s not the Gospel. And if we confuse those two things, we’ll make ourselves, partly, our own saviors.”

Most R2K advocates emphasize that the gospel thus-defined alone has a place in the pulpit. “The church, as a visible institution, as the embassy of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven, has no social agenda for the wider civil and cultural world. … Christians are free to form what the Dutch Reformed used to call societies … to achieve this end or that, but they are not free to impose those agendas on the visible, institutional church by way of programs or in public worship” (heidelblog.net/2015/06/the-gospel-is-not-social/, accessed on 7 July 2022).  

In defense of this radical disjunction between “gospel” and “social” messages, Clark explains: “The teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day” (ibid.). While issues like slavery, excessive taxation, and racism are noted in Scripture, Clark says, the writers of Scripture neither commented on government policies nor instructed the church on transforming the world.

Instead, R2K adherents cite Paul’s boast that he “determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

Clark, in fact, goes so far as to declare: “It is not possible to harness the Christian faith or Christ to some social agenda without imperiling the fundamental message, doctrines, and practices of the church” (ibid.).

It’s a shame no one warned the authors of Scripture. After all, sizeable chunks of John’s Revelation condemn the wicked works of the Roman government, while Daniel was not shy about calling out the social sins of four world empires. Amos and Isaiah, among others, were bold in addressing the social sins of the nations that surrounded Israel.

But someone will say: those examples are either from the Old Testament or are disputed. Setting aside for a moment that the Old Testament and the New were inspired by the same Spirit, the New Testament openly teaches that the gospel we are called to preach extends beyond the bare proclamation of Christ described by Rev. Clark and Rev. Horton.

Consider, for example, 1 Tim. 1:8-11. There we’re told that God’s Law addresses all manner of sins, public and private, “according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.” In other words, the gospel encompasses not only the salvific works of Christ, but also the sins and struggles that must be exposed in order to turn us to Christ.

And it’s even broader.

Jesus warns in Matt. 7:21-23 that those who call Him “Lord” yet decline to do the Father’s will shall be denounced and rejected as hypocrites at the Judgment. What does it look like to do the Father’s will, as one who has embraced the gospel? According to Jesus in Matt. 25:31-46, it involves providing for the hungry and thirsty, clothing the naked, taking in the stranger, visiting those who are sick and in prison. You know: social things.

In fact, Jesus even says that the church’s calling to “make disciples of all the nations” involves “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). That includes things like preserving marriage (Matt. 19:1-12), paying taxes (Mark 12:16-17), and advocating for justice (Luke 11:42). Perhaps that’s why Paul urged: “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col. 3:17).

To be sure, we can do nothing to contribute to our salvation. But the faith that joins us to Christ reveals itself in our works – invariably. And if it doesn’t, it’s not real faith. That too is the gospel!

Back in the day, I was deeply offended by the allegation that I was not faithfully preaching the gospel.

But ultimately I discovered: proponents of the R2K view are the ones skewing the gospel. The Apostle Paul testified, in Acts 20:26-27, that he was innocent of the blood of all men – “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

“The whole counsel of God” – the Scripture “given by inspiration of God” to render the man of God “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) – addresses matters encompassing all of life. To be sure, the heart of that instruction is the testimony of who Jesus is and what He has done. But that is not the full extent of the gospel.

Scripture also speaks to us about properly raising a family, righteously running a business, serving as a magistrate, managing money, and innumerable other matters. The minister’s calling is to preach it all, carefully and faithfully applying it to the heart and life of God’s people.

To decline to do the hard work of applying the gospel to all of life is to neglect part of the Christian minister’s duty. It is to narrow the gospel in a way that the Bible does not. And this we must never do – lest we become guilty of failing to disciple the nations by declining to teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded His people.

May God preserve the ministers of His church from such a dereliction of duty!