“It’s All About the Gospel,” Said the Reformed Papalist

Here’s a follow-up to my post below, “Is Western Culture Worse than Sodom and Nineveh” -

It occurred to me that those Calvinists whose final recourse when discussing cultural topics is “It’s the Gospel that really changes people ” may be, despite their honorable intentions, actually truncating “the Gospel.” A lot of times, such Calvinists are referring to the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide) – which, in the Reformation disputes was frequently called “the Gospel.”

However, there is more – a lot more – to “the Gospel” than “just” justification by faith alone. In fact, the Apostles – whom we may surely presume were preaching “the Gospel” in the Book of Acts – got in trouble not just for talking about how souls could be made right before a holy God, but for saying that “there is another King named Jesus” (Acts 17:1-9). The post-apostolic Christians followed their lead. Polycarp, that magnificent martyr, was killed not because he stood in the marketplace doing apologetics debates and pounding his pulpit for justification by faith alone, but because he refused to say “Caesar, Caesar” while performing a political act of submission to Caesar as “Lord.” If you know anything about Roman history and Roman politics, you will just see that Polycarp died for a “Gospel” that was about far, far more than how his soul could stand righteous before a holy God. It was about that, to be sure, but it was not only about that.

Now, if we were talking about Systematic Theology, these Calvinists would immediately agree that justification by faith alone necessarily produces the very practical fruit of sanctification. They would also agree that sanctification is about daily living, and that daily living involves quite a lot of use of the body to interact with the physical world. Yet somehow outside of “theology wonk” conversations, all this gets lost, and talk about “It’s the Gospel that changes people” becomes an, ahem, justification for sitting around lamenting the “sad decline” of our culture while doing nothing about it except “preaching the Gospel.” Essentially, justification gets divorced from sanctification when the locus of conversation changes from Systematic Theology to questions about Christian involvement in culture.

On the contrary, in the same way that the Reformation (biblical) doctrine of justification by faith alone necessarily produces the very bodily activity of seeking sanctification, it also has definite concrete political and social implications. Contra to what Luther derisively called the “hyperspiritual” view of the papalists that “real” Christian life consists of shunning the “merely worldly” and seeking “higher” things, the Reformers understood that justification by faith alone immediately and politically frees the Christian to do all manner of “worldly” things without justifying them as largely time-wasting, and probably even disposable, appendages to “preaching the Gospel” and other so-called “spiritual” things.

This is why Luther is reported to have replied to a cobbler who asked him what he should do now that he had become a Protestant: “Make a good shoe, and sell it at a fair price.” Likewise, when someone asked Luther what he would do if he knew Christ was coming back tomorrow, he said, “I would plant a tree.” This is why Calvin spent so much time in his writings talking about supposedly “merely mundane” things like political theory and the lawfulness for the Christian of various modes of cultural activity.

These implications of “the Gospel” seem to be radically counterintuitive to a lot of professing Reformed people. Yes, indeed, it is “the Gospel” and only “the Gospel” that changes men on the inside. However, interior change is not the whole of redemption. Interior change necessarily produces exterior change – as one has colorfully said, “Theology always comes out your fingertips.” The question that arises, then, is what mode a justified person’s exterior change should take. As I have explained elsewhere,[1] because of what “culture” is, cultural work is simply inescapable. The question is not “Should we do cultural work?, but “What kind of cultural work should we do?”

Alas, a whole lot of “It’s all about the Gospel” Reformed-types these days hold a view of “the Gospel” that assumes the same spirit/body dualism that the papalists held against the Reformers. It’s a sad irony that some of the most passionate defenders of “the Gospel” manage to mess it up by confining it to thundering propositions about the state of the soul, all the while “fiddling while Rome burns.” And it’s an even sadder irony that the specific way in which they mess “the Gospel” up is exactly the way the papalist opponents of the Reformers messed up the biblical concept of the Christian life.


[1] See my old series “The Biblical Necessity of A Christian Culture” – Part I, Part II, and Part III.

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