Have you ever been involved in a disagreement over something the Bible teaches when suddenly someone exclaims, “But that’s not a salvation issue!” And that’s where the conversation stops short. Someone will bring up, say, theistic evolution and after a few rounds of discussion about whether it’s scriptural or not one person will say, “Well, anyway, it’s not really a salvation issue, right?” In other words, you don’t need to worry about it. The same is done at times when believer’s baptism comes up or women serving as office bearers or how to discern the true church from sects. The slogan is a channel changer: next issue please!
The motive behind speaking of salvation issues may well be laudable. The person may want to concentrate on what unites Christians and stay away from controversial topics. Or the speaker may be laser-focussed only on matters believed to be of eternal consequence, on the saving of souls. Surely it is good to desire unity (Ps. 133)! And absolutely, God commands the church to spread the gospel so that his elect might be gathered in (Matt. 28:19-20). But there is more to what God commands of us in this life, isn’t there? Doesn’t the Lord command us to carefully discern truth from error (Rom. 12:2), false teacher from true (Matt. 7:15-23), to test the spirits (1 John 4:1), and stay grounded in the truth of his Word (Prov. 23:23; Eph. 6:10-18; Jude 3)? Aren’t we called to be united in the truth of God’s word and be obedient to all the Lord’s commands (John 17:17-21; Matt. 28:20)?
With that in mind I’d like us to examine this catch phrase and ask: does God instruct us to divide his teachings into “salvation issues” and “non-salvation issues”? Is it biblical to declare something taught in Scripture to be “not a salvation issue” and therefore not worthy of further discussion? As Christians we all agree that the Bible is our guide for faith and living. It’s our litmus test. So, where in Scripture is this concept put forward that we are only to push through challenging points of biblical doctrine to the point of clarity and conviction if those issues are salvation issues? I’ve looked high and low and can find no such instruction or example. From Moses to Jesus to the Apostles, I see no hint of any of the Lord’s servants indicating that something they taught is not worth discussing and understanding, believing and practising because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t concern anyone’s salvation.
What is a Salvation Issue?
This naturally leads to the further question: what precisely is “a salvation issue”? For starters, that phrase is not found anywhere in Scripture. What people seem to mean by it is to distinguish between those biblical teachings which must be believed for a person to be saved from everlasting damnation, and those teachings which do not. Certain things that God reveals in Scripture must be believed for salvation but other things must not. Teachings that fall into the latter category, then, however beneficial they might be, become essentially optional for the Christian. The reasoning goes like this: whether you are convinced of six day creation or not has no effect on your salvation. The same is true for infant baptism, women in office, the true church, and a host of other biblical teachings. So in the end it matters very little what you believe on these points. You’ll still end up in heaven. They are simply not salvation issues.
So, does the Bible distinguish between salvation issues and non-salvation issues? Between optional and non-optional beliefs and practices? The latter question is easier to answer: I can find nowhere in Scripture that any of its teachings are optional. And that makes sense when you consider that the Bible is not a human production but a divine one. It is almighty God who is our Teacher all throughout Scripture: whatever he instructs us to believe and do, we are bound to obey. He does not allow us to opt out based on what we think is beneficial or necessary or not.
This is what so offended the Lord about Saul’s actions in taking plunder from the Amalekites which he was commanded not to take. Though Saul thought the plunder would yield many more sacrifices to the Lord (and thus be pleasing to him), the Lord’s response is telling: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). The Bible is God’s book, his word to us, and so when he teaches (as he certainly does) that he created the world in six days, that children are included in his covenant and ought to be baptized, that women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men in the church, and that the true church needs to be and can be clearly distinguished from all manner of sects (groups) which claim to be church, then his people must accept, believe, and (where action is involved) obey all of them.
Distinctions ≠ Optional
But are all points of the Bible’s teaching of the same weight? Do they all pertain to our salvation? Must everything be believed in order to be saved? Here the answer needs to be more nuanced. Scripture does teach us a distinction in terms of more or less weighty matters in God’s law. From God’s answer to Saul we can see that to obey is better than sacrifice—and yet that didn’t mean sacrifice became optional! Distinctions in terms of levels of offense can also be seen in the different punishments commanded for different transgressions. The sin of the rape of an unmarried girl called for a financial penalty but the sin of homosexual activity called for death (Deut. 22:27–29; Lev. 20:13). Also, the latter sin is called an “abomination” as is idolatry (Lev. 18:22; Deut. 7:25) but that description is never applied to rape or adultery. Does that mean that rape and adultery were more tolerable to God than homosexuality or idolatry? Of course not! To make distinctions in terms of the repugnance of a sin or what is more important to the Lord does not make the so-called lesser sins of no matter to God or the so-called lesser commandments optional for the people.
The Lord calls for obedience to all of his commandments and holds his people to account for every offense. The Lord Jesus taught this clearly when he rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23). He taught something similar in the Sermon on the Mount, “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). Perhaps to the surprise of some, Christ also emphasized total obedience for Christians in the Great Commission. The Lord’s concern for the salvation of souls did not come at the expense of any of God’s commands: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20 NIV).
Trinity & Resurrection
So are there no “salvation issues” at all then? Don’t we confess in the Athanasian Creed that “Whoever desires to be saved must above all things hold to the catholic faith. Unless a man keeps it in its entirety inviolate, he will assuredly perish eternally”? That creed goes on to specify a belief in the Trinity, the incarnation of the Son of God, the two natures of Christ, as well as the suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and return of Christ in judgment. And what about the fact that the apostle Paul points out that if anyone denies that Jesus was raised from the dead, his faith is in vain and he is still in his sins (1 Cor. 15:12–19). Aren’t these, then, the “salvation issues” that are to be distinguished from non-salvation issues? Isn’t it true that outside of these limited number of truths the other doctrines may have good value but are not strictly required in order be saved?
And yet that’s where the reasoning goes too far. The logic breaks down. It is true that we must believe in Christ’s resurrection to be saved. And in the Trinity. And in the other points itemized in the Athanasian Creed. Yet, neither the Bible nor the church’s confessions reason from what is necessary to believe to what is unnecessary to believe. There is no church creed or confession which lists the teachings that are optional for Christians because none of God’s teachings are ever optional! God is no minimalist! Nor does he waste words or commands. When he reveals his will, he expects total submission and complete obedience. He doesn’t ever say in the Bible: Okay, you must believe these things but if salvation or unity is on the line, you can ignore the rest. On the contrary, everything the Lord reveals is worthy of and thus demands our attention, our acceptance, and (with respect to all his commands) our obedience! And if we fail in any point, God will be our Judge and determine what happens to us. How do we even know how God will judge a believer’s neglect, ignorance, or disobedience of any of his teachings? That’s up to the Lord, isn’t it?
God in the Centre
I’m convinced that the very root premise behind claiming “that’s not a salvation issue” is unbiblical and needs to be abandoned, along with the slogan. The assumption is that our primary concern in every point of debate is: will this lead to a person’s salvation or not? That overriding concern forces a person to look at all teaching, belief, and lifestyle as if the main concern is whether a person is going to be saved or not. But in Scripture, the main concern is always: will God’s name be glorified or not? The question of so-called salvation issues puts mankind in the centre but the Bible only ever puts God in the centre. According to Scripture the most important thing in the world is not whether this person or that person gets saved but whether the Triune God is glorified in all things. “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory!” (Ps. 115:1; see Rev. 15:3–4). As Jesus taught us, the very first petition we are to make of our heavenly Father is, “Hallowed be your name.”
Does having God’s glory as top priority suggest that the salvation of people is of little concern to God and thus of little interest to us? Of course not! God himself tells us in the Bible that he is greatly concerned for the salvation of his elect—that is why he sent his only-begotten Son to die on the cross. That is why Good Friday and Easter Sunday are such precious days to believers. That is why the church is charged to preach the gospel to all nations so that the countless elect from around the world may be brought into salvation. And yet, the goal of their salvation itself is the honour and glory of God! Saving people is not an end itself but is a means to exalt Father, Son, and Spirit who have given everything that sinners like us might have eternal life with God! Peter speaks of this highest goal, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Trying to sort out which doctrines must be believed and which ones can be safely discarded as secondary and unnecessary for man’s salvation is to take the focus off the Lord and place it on people. That’s backwards. It’s also quite risky and offensive. How do we know which doctrines are secondary? Where does God spell out for us which doctrines are secondary and thus dispensable? If we teach people not to be concerned about certain doctrines of God’s word because we think they don’t really matter in the final analysis, don’t we risk insulting the Lord? And if we make our own divisions in this regard, are we not placing ourselves in the Judge’s shoes and taking on a task we have no business taking on?
As Christians we should be passionate about following Christ in all things, passionate to believe every word of God and obey every instruction with a heart filled with love and gratitude, and to teach others to do the same. Isn’t this his clear command to us and won’t this be sure to bring honour to the Lord?
By Rev. Peter H. Holtvluwer
This article is published here with the kind approval of Rev Holtvluwer. It also appeared in Clarion May 1, 2020.