It is the man of God, who disobeyed the command of the Lord; therefore the Lord fins given Him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him, according to the Word of the Lord which he spoke to Him. (1 Kings 13:26)
Though it is an obvious misapplication of the text, whenever I hear the phrase, “It’s not a salvation issue,” I am reminded of the women who came out of all the cities of Judah to meet King Saul, singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7). This little, beguiling and often unexamined expression, “It’s not a salvation issue,” triggers the memory of this incident in Israel’s history because it seems to it seems to have slain, not thousands but literally tens of thousands, of good biblical and confessional arguments against one or another kind of deviation from the truth of God’s Word.
For example, within the context of recent debates within the Christian Reformed Church regarding a number of issues—women in ecclesiastical office, homosexuality, the practice of Reformed worship, the approach to local evangelism, Christian education—this little expression has become a kind of ecclesiastical mantra that dulls all biblical and confessional sensitivity. If the matter under discussion or in dispute is not a salvation issue, then it follows—or so this neat little phrase invites us to believe—that all differences of conviction are relatively unimportant. How many debates in council rooms, on the floor of classes and synods, and around the kitchen table, have been prematurely interrupted and terminated by this little phrase, is impossible to determine. My suspicion, however, is that it has probably slain more biblical arguments offered in such debates than any other single factor.
Before this phrase is allowed to arrest any further such debates, I am persuaded that it demands careful analysis. What exactly does it mean to say that something or another is “not a salvation issue”? What is a “salvation issue” anyway? Because this little phrase functions almost like a mantra (the vain repetition of the same words, over and over again, so as to lose the ability to think distinctly and clearly), it typically gets used; but seldom does anyone bother to figure out what it means.
In order to contribute to such an analysis of this phrase, I would like to propose several theses regarding it. I will begin with two theses which might possibly capture a legitimate sense in which this phrase could be used. I will then conclude with several theses as to why it is a dangerously misleading phrase at best, positively disastrous at worst. The gist of my argument will be that the improper use of this phrase betrays an attitude diametrically opposed to the attitude and posture of true faith, one with the most deadly of consequences.
Some biblical teachings are more basic than others
My first thesis is that this phrase might only mean to affirm that some biblical teachings are more basic than others. Not all of the truths taught in the Word of God are of the same foundational significance and importance. Some are more foundational than others. Now this may be the point that some people legitimately want to make when they speak of something not being a “salvation issue.”
When we speak of a teaching being more or less basic, two comparisons are often drawn. Utilizing the analogy of a house, you could say that some biblical teachings are foundational, whereas others are not. There is a difference in degree of importance between the foundation and the superstructure. Or utilizing the analogy of a circle, you could say that some biblical teachings are closer to the center, whereas others lie more on the periphery. Thus, when it is declared that some or another teaching is “not a salvation issue,” it may be that it is regarded as not belonging to those things that are foundational or which lie close to the center of biblical truth. Non-salvation issues are issues that are non-foundational or non-central.
This kind of distinction has a long history in the church. John Calvin, in his discussion of the marks of the true church, acknowledges that we may acknowledge as a true church one which has faults in its doctrine and practice, provided that it maintains the “proper articles of religion” such as: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like.”1 In distinction from these kinds of “proper articles,” Calvin mentions a difference between churches as to the place of the souls of believers in their fellowship with the Lord upon death. On this latter issue, there might be a difference of doctrine that does not necessitate a breaking of fellowship or a refusal to recognize the other as a true church.
However, though it seems easy to state abstractly the legitimacy of some such distinction between basic and non-basic articles of the Christian faith, it remains notoriously difficult to designate precisely the line of distinction when there are articles of biblical teaching in dispute. But it does express the truth acknowledged in the Westminster Confession of Faith that all true churches of Jesus Christ are more or less corrupt in their doctrine and practice, so that, not every deviation from Scriptural truth warrants the ultimate judgment that a church has become so corrupt as to become a synagogue of Satan.2
The simplest way to summarize this rather difficult thesis would be to acknowledge that Reformed churches recognize as “true churches of Christ” those which hold to the “proper articles” of the Christian faith, though their doctrine and practice may not be wholly conformed to the doctrine and practice required of a Reformed (biblically obedient) church.3
Some genuine believers may hold mistaken, even inconsistent convictions
There is also another legitimate sense in which the phrase, “It’s not a salvation issue,” might be used. And that is to affirm that some believers may hold mistaken, even inconsistent convictions that are in conflict with Scriptural teaching. Though this may be the case, such believers are not to be regarded finally as our enemies or in no respect genuine brothers or sisters in the Lord.
Most Reformed believers have on occasion met and discussed the Christian faith with believers who are not fully Reformed in their confession and conviction, but who are undeniably fellow believers and members of Christ’s church. Such believers may hold views that are not in accord with the Scriptures at some point. This may be the case either because of poor instruction or a failure to be consistent or a misunderstanding of the Scriptures. A Reformed baptist believer might reject the teaching that the children of believers are rightfully recipients of the promise of the covenant and therefore reCipients of its sign and seal in baptism. Though a more consistently Reformed believer may not be able to receive such a person into the fellowship of a local, confessionally Reformed church, he nonetheless will realize that this is a fellow believer and member of Christ whose doctrinal error does not imperil his salvation.
Now the biblical teaching regarding the covenant of grace and the place of the children of believers in the covenant is only one, but very important example of how there may be real differences of conviction between believers that do not necessarily imperil their salvation. But there are others as well.
I have also used the example of a fellow believer who may be convinced that the ordination of women to ecclesiastical office is permissible. Though I would not want in any way to minimize the seriousness of this error, such a believer could simply be genuinely confused about the teaching of the Bible on this issue. Indeed, it seems there are many in the church today who make it their business to sow as much confusion on the matter as they possibly can! No wonder some are confused! Or such a believer could be unwittingly inconsistent in his understanding of the teaching of the Word of God. On this and other teachings of Scripture, it is possible that genuine believers hold views that a more consistent and faithful understanding of Scripture would oppose. When this is the case, we are not obliged to insist that such believers are not genuine, but hypocritical. and therefore their salvation must be in peril.
DANGEROUS MISLEADING USES
All biblical teachings summarized in the confessions ought to be defended
However, having granted that the expression, “It’s not a salvation issue,” may have at least these two legitimate uses, I have to turn now to the more significant ways in which it is a highly dangerous and wholly unsatisfactory one. The first of these (and my third thesis) is that this expression contradicts the truth that all the teachings summarized in the Reformed confessions ought to be defended by Reformed believers, and particularly by Reformed officebearers.
Perhaps to clarify the significance of this thesis in relation to the expression, “It’s not a salvation issue,” let me pose the question: What would become of the Reformed faith or of a confessionally Reformed church, were it to live by the implications of this expression? What implications does this expression have for the testimony of a Reformed church?
My answer would be that this expression, were it to be followed consistently, marks the end of any meaningful use of the confessions as a legitimate standard and form of unity among the circles. This expression sounds the death-call to Reformed, confessional church life, at least in any meaningful sense of the term. Why do I say this?
I say this because Reformed believers and Reformed churches are united together by their common confession of what the Bible teaches. This is what defines the term “Reformed.” To be “Reformed” is not simply to be a member of a church that happens, in God’s providence, to have the name “Reformed” on the church sign out front, but to be a member of a church that adheres to the Reformed confessions as “fully agreeing” with the Word of God. On the basis of such a confession, believers and churches that are Reformed are able to enjoy the fullest and richest communion and fellowship together.
It is noteworthy that the two earlier points that I have made amounted to the contention that Reformed believers and churches can legitimately acknowledge as true churches and as true believers those who adhere to the “proper articles” of the Christian faith, but not necessarily to the Reformed confessions in full. In these respects, the expression, “It’s not a salvation issue,” may have a proper meaning and use. This expression only suggests that one can hold unReformed and unbiblical views at certain points without ceasing thereby to be Christian.
However, when someone is a member of a Reformed church which adheres to the Reformed confessions as true summaries of the teaching of God’s Word, not one article of doctrine in the confessions can be waived by appealing to the phrase, “But if it’s not a salvation issue.” Were it possible to waive any article of doctrine affirmed in the Reformed confessions by appealing to this expression, there would no longer be the possibility of a confessing Reformed church or church life. To use this expression, as is often done today within the framework of the Reformed churches, represents a betrayal of the Reformed faith.4
This paint is not difficult to illustrate. Take any selection of articles of doctrine found in the Reformed confessions and test them by this expression. Is the distinction between “general” and “special” revelation a salvation issue? Is the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible a salvation issue? Is the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper a salvation issue? Is the baptism of infants a salvation issue? I could go on. But the point seems inescapable: Any use of the expression, “It’s not a salvation issue,” within the context of the Reformed churches to permit teachings or practices that are not in accord with the confessions, is inimical to what it means to be Reformed.
All genuine believers “hold for truth all that God has revealed in His Word”
So far my theses on the meaning of this phrase have not been (I hope) too controversial. Not only have I found some senses in which this phrase may have a legitimate use, but I have only made one negative assertion that should not provoke much, if any, disagreement. Surely to be a Reformed believer means that you are committed to those things that are distinctively Reformed, even though not all of them may be so important as to require an ultimate separation from all those who do not agree with them completely.
However, my fourth thesis will likely prove more controversial: All genuine believers, whether confessionally Reformed or not, “hold for truth all that God has revealed in His Word” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7). This thesis really should not be that controversial, since it only repeats a common confession of the Reformed churches about the distinctive nature of true faith, that faith by which we are joined in fellowship with Christ and be come partakers of all His benefits.
I cite this confession regarding true faith, however, because it has an obvious and direct bearing upon the expression, “It’s not a salvation issue.” If this expression means that it doesn’t matter whether we hold for truth all that God has revealed in His Word, then it could not be more pernicious. A believer is, by definition, a person who has the fullest confidence in God and the truth of His Word. Following the example of Christ Himself, the believer is a person who confesses that “God’s Word is truth” John 17:17). He says “amen” to whatever God reveals in His Word. As a member of the flock of Christ, the believer hears the Good Shepherd’s voice and subscribes to it wholeheartedly John 10:4). For this reason, Christ teaches in John 9 that the children of God are able to be distinguished from the children of the devil by their readiness to hear the Word of God:
Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My Word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth you do not believe Me…He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God. (John 8:43–47)
I am not suggesting by this that believers never sin by disobeying or disbelieving God’s Word. Nor am I saying (I have already admitted it in my first two theses) that believers are never mistaken about the true meaning of God’s Word. But I am saying that no believer will ever endorse, as a matter of policy, a statement that authorizes disobedience to the known truth of God’s Word. And it is exactly this that the expression, “It’s not a matter of salvation,” does. It asserts, as a principle of conduct, the permissibility of going against the truth of God’s Word, provided that truth is not a matter of salvation.
This, however, is not an expression of true or genuine Christian faith. A true believer may hold mistaken views about what the Bible teaches; a true believer may not be knowledgeable about all the truth taught in the Bible; a true believer may even fail to understand in a consistent way the implications of all that he knows the Bible teaches—but a true believer will not embrace the principle that it is ever permissible to disregard any feature of biblical truth because it is not a matter of salvation.
How else could we make sense, for example, of the preface to the Belgic Confession, where its authors declared that they would “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire,” rather than deny the biblical truths summarized in this Confession. Surely, as true believers and as those who meant what they declared for truth in their confession, there is not a hint in these words, of the policy set forth in the expression, “It’s not a matter of salvation”! Such an expression, where and when it is used to cover disobedience to the truth of God’s Word in the Scriptures, is at best a disgraceful denial of our confession as Reformed believers and at worst, as I am now suggesting, the testimony of unbelief.
ALL KNOWING, DELIBERATE DISOBEDIENCE TO GOD’S WORD IS DEADLY
The final thesis that I would like to propose regarding this expression is: It fails to acknowledge the consistent biblical teaching that all knowing, deliberate disobedience to God’s Word is deadly.
At the head of this article, I cited a verse from 1 Kings 13, describing the death of the man of God from Judah who disobeyed the command and Word of the Lord. In 1 Kings 13, we are told that this man of God from Judah had been told by the Word of the Lord that he should not stop to eat on his way home from Bethel to Judah. However, on his return trip, he is met by an old prophet who lies to him, saying that the Lord had told him to invite the man of God from Judah to his home to eat with him. Because the man of God from Judah listened to this new word spoken by this old prophet, rather than obeying the clear and simple instruction given him by the Lord, he was killed by a lion as an expression of God’s judgment.
What is the point of this passage? The answer is not difficult to discover. Like many such passages in the Old and New Testaments, the point has to do with the serious and deadly consequences of any knowing, deliberate disobedience to God’s Word of truth! Even when that Word concerns something so paltry as stopping on the way home to eat with an old prophet who has extended an invitation! Students of the Scriptures know that this theme runs throughout the Scriptures. Think only of the sins of such biblical figures as: Adam and Eve (ate from the forbidden fruit); Cain (offered an unacceptable sacrifice); Achan (took of the wealth of Jericho); Uzzah (reached out to stop the Ark of the covenant from falling from the ox cart); Ananias (lied about the disposition of the proceeds of their sale of land). Were any of these sins and the sins of many other biblical figures in defiance of the truth of God’s Word, sins in respect to “matters of salvation” or “salvation issues”? Do the biblical accounts ever suggest that the Lord regards as a trifling matter, disobedience to His Word when it is the disobedience of a privileged people to whom His Word has been given and who know its truth?
To ask this question is to answer it. The expression, “It’s not a salvation issue,” betrays an attitude of indifference and even hostility to the Word of the Lord that cannot be squared with the teaching of Scripture. It betrays an attitude that can only bring God’s judgment upon those (and also the generations coming) who enter upon the way of blithely ignoring the Word of the Lord. For, when those who confess themselves to be believers begin to live by the motto, “It’s not a salvation issue,” there is something profoundly wrong with the relationship between such believers and their God.
This is the perniciousness of this expression: It authorizes a policy of indifference to the truth of God’s Word, ostensibly in matters that do not pertain to salvation. But to grant such an authorization is to declare one’s autonomy and freedom over against God and His Word of truth. And that we may never do.
1. John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV. vi.i (John T. McNeill, cd; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960).
2. Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV, v: “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.”
3. This is obviously a very general way of putting the matter. It does not however, as we shall sec, answer to the question whether we should have full communion and fraternal relationship with those! churches which may deviate from the teachings of the Word of God as they are summarized in the Reformed confessions. There are obviously levels of communion between churches. A Reformed church might recognize as true church a church whose doctrine and practice falls so far short of the Reformed confessions as to prevent significant fellowship with it. However, this inability and unwillingness to have (denominational) fellowship with such a church is a kind of penultimate judgment which does not have the same character as the ultimate judgment that it is a false church or no church at all because it has abandoned the proper articles of the faith. Unless one is prepared to argue, in a sectarian fashion, that only one’s own denominational fellowship represents the true church of Jesus Christ, denominational differences between communions in which there are true churches cannot be so foundational as to require this ultimate judgment.
4. This is one of the most distressing features of the use of this expression. It is often used by officebearers and members of Reformed churches who have expressed their wholehearted agreement with all the articles of doctrine in the Reformed confessions. So far as I am aware, no subscription to the confessions in the Reformed context permits the subscriber to distinguish between “salvation” and “non-salvation” issues so as to absolve him from the duty to defend those doctrines that fall under the latter heading.
Dr. Venema, editor of this department, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.