Be Wary of Gospel-Onlyism


There’s been a general trend in the last twenty years or so towards the idea of being “gospel-centered”. This has obviously been a pleasant development, especially contrasted with the seeming prevalence of legalism in the years preceding. To gospel centrality we give an enthusiastic “yes and amen” – the gospel is the crown jewel of the Christian faith. It is the great hope that all of Scripture is pointing towards, and will be the focus of our worship for all of eternity (Rev. 5:12). We will never be able to begin to exhaust the depths of its riches.

In rightly avoiding the one ditch of legalism, however, there can be the tendency to overcorrect from that one ditch of “law-onlyism” into another ditch which could be called gospel-onlyism. This is when the gospel is rightly made central, but either there is nothing at all in which the gospel is centered around, or the things that the gospel is centered around have been dictated by the unbelieving culture around us. Often, the former leads to the latter.

Gospel as a Cathedral Entryway

The gospel saves us to something. If the Christian life is likened to a grand cathedral, the gospel is the intricate, beautiful entryway. The question then is: What good things does the gospel lead us to inside of this cathedral?

To answer that question, it would be helpful to look at a tongue-twister of a quote from Geerhardus Vos: “The eschatological is an older strand in revelation than the soteric.” What Vos is stating here is that prior to the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation, we see in Genesis that there was an intended end, or goal, to the created order. Put another way, before there was Genesis 3, there was Genesis 1 and 2.

We know from Scripture that as image-bearers of God, man was endowed with God’s moral law written on our hearts (Rom. 2:15). We were also to image the creation work of God, particularly the pattern set forth of work followed by rest. Adam and Eve were to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28), forming and filling the earth just as God had done in the creation week.

These truths lead us to two conclusions regarding the intention of creation: the first is that the natural order was created as good, which God declares to be the case seven times in Genesis 1. Adam and Eve were not tasked with escaping their physical reality to ascend to a spiritual one. The physical world is not, as the Gnostics claimed, inherently evil.

God’s Moral Law is Good

The second conclusion is that God’s moral law is also good. We see several occasions throughout Scripture where God proclaims “be holy, as I am holy.” This shows us that God’s moral law proceeds from His very nature. And we know, of course, that God is goodness itself.

After the creation account comes Genesis 3 and the fall into sin, where we see God’s good created order become corrupted, and the heart of man begins to rebel against the moral commands that were written on his heart.

Thankfully, this is not where the story ends, and we begin to see the plan of redemption unfold and culminate in the person and work of Christ. This brings us back to our original question: “what’s inside this cathedral of the Christian life?” What is the gospel redeeming us to? In short, the gospel redeems us back to the goodness of God’s law and to the goodness of His created order.

Where gospel-onlyism gets especially problematic is when it leads to the often implicit belief that, rather than sending us to God’s good commandments and good creation, the gospel renders God’s law and the natural created order as irrelevant, or even bad. This is typically seen when God’s commandments are compromised for the sake of a basic unity around the gospel, or when a focus on earthly things, such as politics, wealth, and the natural family, are discouraged or warned against, as they are not seen as “gospel issues.” A basic definition of gospel-onlyism is this: “A failure to apply the law of God to the things of earth.”

The moral law is not abrogated by the gospel. The physical realm has not been declared unimportant by the gospel. Rather, the gospel restores these corrupted things to their original God-given design. The moral law is condemnatory to us outside of Christ, but through the gospel it becomes a way of life worth pursuing and something that, like David, we can delight in day and night (Psalm 1:2).

The Gospel Gives Purpose to Life Today

The gospel doesn’t just give us hope in the next life, but also brings our temporal existence into its intended purpose and order. It enables us to fulfill the original creation mandate given to mankind in the garden. This proper worldview has many practical outworkings. If the created order is good, then gender distinctions are good, and they matter. Physical health and nutrition matters. Civil law and government matters. Rightly ordered natural affection matters. Beauty matters. There are temporal blessings for obedience. The list could go on. To summarize: The gospel does not destroy creation; the gospel restores creation. God is the author of both. God has ordained for His good natural order to be governed by His good moral law.

To be clear, this is not a call to be so focused on our earthly existence that we lose sight of our future hope of glorification, or to forget about the fleeting nature of this life (Ecc. 1:2). It is, rather, a call to be faithful to obey God in the times, places, and spheres in which He has providentially placed us.

So, glory in the beauty of the gospel, while avoiding the gnostic and antinomian tendencies of gospel-onlyism. God, through His Son, has saved us for good works. We honor Him by trusting that His commandments are not burdensome and obeying His law. He has given us a good and beautiful creation in which to obey Him, filled with distinctions and kinds, unity and diversity, variety and abundance.

Enjoy these things to the glory of God. Pursue virtue. Build your household. Bake a pie. Get involved in local politics. Compose a piece of music. Plant a garden. Learn a trade. Fight for a more godly society. The things of earth still matter for the Christian.

In the cathedral of God’s goodness, enter through the doorway, and keep walking. Continue to admire that doorway, and never forget that it is the only way in. But keep going, come and see the goodness of who God is as revealed in His commandments. Come and see the goodness and beauty of His creation. Come, taste and see that the Lord is good! (Psalm 34:8).

article by Doug Steffy, an elder at Kutztown BFC, where he attends with his wife of 6 years, Tiya 


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