What is a ‘salvation issue’?

Over the last few weeks I’ve seen a few people talking about the question of what is and is not a “salvation issue”. The presenting issue is sexuality and marriage (yes, again). Jayne Ozanne, who is a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage within the church, wrote an article in Premier Christianity arguing that sex outside marriage is not a “salvation issue”. In that piece, she maintains that repentance is not necessary for salvation:

Of course, repentance is important. It is something we do when we are so overwhelmed by love that we want to change, in order to become more like the source of that love. It is not, however, the condition on which our salvation hinges. We see that in Jesus’ act of abundant grace while he was dying on the cross. We know it from his proclamation in John 3:15: “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. No caveats. It is simply what God does for us.

I think she makes an important point here. Salvation is ultimately about God’s love for us: it is a gift from first to last. The question from our perspective is how we respond to that love. Jayne rightly points out that God’s love brings about real change in us – repentance. However, I would disagree with her about the necessity of repentance in the Christian life.

What I want to do in this post is to think through this issue from the Bible. I believe the way people tend to think about salvation issues is misconceived, and I’d like to suggest a more helpful way of framing the issue.

What is a salvation issue?

A salvation issue is an issue which is so important that it is critical to believe in order to be saved. Traditionally this has included belief in the Trinity. Take the Athanasian Creed, for example. This creed is one of the three creeds which are officially recognised by the Church of England. You can still find it in the Book of Common Prayer, even if it is rarely used these days. This is how it begins:

Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.
Which Faith except everyone one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

Book of Common Prayer

In a nutshell, this is saying that you are not saved unless you hold to the whole of the Christian faith, including the doctrine of the Trinity (as explained in the rest of the Athanasian Creed). In my opinion, this is not far from how a lot of people think about salvation issues: you must subscribe to a certain set of beliefs, otherwise you are out.

The problem with this approach it that it seems almost arbitrary. If understanding the finer points of the Trinity (for example, hypostatic union) is necessary for salvation, then many people are not going to be saved. I didn’t study the Trinity until I was at theological college – many churches simply don’t go near anything theological (sadly – it’s so important!)

And, let’s be honest – how many people understand everything they need to understand about Christianity when they become a Christian? We don’t start out with our theology fully formed. For all of us, Christianity is a lifelong journey of learning.

I appreciate that a subject like the Trinity might seem academic – for a lot of Christians, it’s something that you just have to believe even if you don’t understand it all. (They obviously haven’t come across my series on the Apostle’s Creed yet!) But clearly Christianity is not simply a matter of belief but behaviour. At the end of the day, our beliefs are demonstrated by the way that we live. Let’s home in on those moral issues.

How moral issues matter

All Christians agree that some behaviour is right and some is wrong. Jesus’ summary of the gospel message, according to Luke, is “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47). We know that we need to be forgiven and that we need to repent of our sins. But the question is, where are the red lines? And are all red lines equal? For example, someone who steals something trivial from their friend has done something wrong, but that’s clearly not as wrong as murdering them. Is stealing a salvation issue? Is murder a salvation issue? The second is clearly more serious, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for us to become burglars.

We also know that everyone falls short of what God requires – as Paul puts it, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Everyone needs forgiveness. So, someone could steal or even murder, then be genuinely repentant and find forgiveness. There are examples of both in the Bible – Moses and David, for example, were guilty of murder and adultery respectively. In fact, almost everyone God used in the Bible was guilty of some egregious sin at some point.

So, how do we know which moral issues are the key ones? And how do we know how far past the red line we’re allowed to go before we’re out? These are both good questions – but both of them stem from a misunderstanding. Let’s think about morality in general.

Which moral issues are salvation issues?

Perhaps the biggest reason why people have a problem with moral issues being salvation issues is that it seems so arbitrary. People imagine that there are two lists, “salvation issues” and “non-salvation issues” – and they have been distributed almost at random. So, someone who crosses one boundary is safe, whereas someone who crosses another is condemned to judgement. If this was how it worked, I would agree this would be grossly unfair.

Fortunately, this is not at all how it works – God doesn’t have two separate lists. The whole law (i.e. the Ten Commandments) is actually an integrated whole. Jesus sums up the law in two commandments: firstly, to love the Lord with our heart, soul, mind and strength; secondly, to love our neighbour as ourselves. As he says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40). This is repeated elsewhere in the New Testament: Paul says twice that love is the fulfilment of the Law (Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14).

If you want more about the Law and how it is fulfilled by love, check out my book: Confused by Grace!

The problem people have is that they see the commandments as being ‘standalone’, a simple list of arbitrary rules that God has made. However, this is the opposite of the truth. The commandments simply express God’s will for us – to love him and one another – in ways we can understand. But, as Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, they are not the sum total of what God requires of us! All of us fall short all the time of the love that God requires of us. It’s not the case that there are some issues that God puts in the “salvation issue” box, and others that God doesn’t. There is only one issue in the “salvation issue” box, and that’s love.

Is sexual sin a special case?

As we have seen, in a sense all sins are equal – because all sin comes from a lack of love. Some people argue that sexual sin is just like any other sin, and it’s not something to get worked up about – any more than, say, gossip or slander. However, I believe this is not paying enough attention to the Scriptures. Sexual sin does seem to be given particular attention in the New Testament. For example, Paul says:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.

1 Corinthians 6:18

Paul says that sexual immorality is a sin against our own bodies. This is in line with the rest of the New Testament teaching – let me quote a few other examples:

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-6

Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

Hebrews 13:4

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.

Revelation 2:20-22

Many sins are condemned in the New Testament, but it does seem that the NT writers seem to give particular attention to sexual sin and often make reference to punishment about it (something which they don’t tend to do for other sins). Why should this be the case? Two reasons: (1) sex is a hugely powerful thing; (2) God intended sex to be all about love.

No-one doubts that sex is a powerful thing, it’s simply not the same as any other human activity. This is a point that many feminists such as Louise Perry have made repeatedly – e.g. ‘sex work’ is not the same as any other kind of work. Why is sex so special? Because sex is supposed to be the high point of love – it’s the most love you can give to someone with your body. In fact, we used to use the term “making love” – which seems quaintly old-fashioned these days.

When sex and love go together, it’s a beautiful thing. However, when sex is divorced from love, it becomes hugely destructive. When sex becomes about lust – that is, wanting to use someone for our own gratification – it can cause deep damage and trauma. This is why it’s given such a prominence in the Bible. Treating someone badly sexually is on a deeper level than, say, stealing from them – even though both are wrong.

So, sin is a big deal – but, as we have already said, all of us are guilty of it. We know that we need to repent of our sin, but how do we know when we’ve repented enough?

How much repentance is enough?

We started out this post by quoting Jayne Ozanne, who argued that repentance was not necessary for salvation. I have already quoted Jesus’ summary of the Christian life, which – by contrast – says that repentance is fundamental to the Christian life. Take her example of the thief on the cross: he recognised Jesus as Lord, and then his life began to change – he rebuked the other criminal. Although his life didn’t last long enough for him to change, it’s clear that from that point onwards, he wasn’t the boss any more – Jesus was. This is absolutely crucial.

Someone who has lived a very immoral life might find their life changes overnight when they become a Christian. Many people have testified that their lives changed almost instantly when coming to Christ. But the truth is, for most people that’s not the case: for most of us, life is a long journey of slow transformation. As we worship, pray, read the Bible, and ask God for his help, we gradually come to understand the sin in our lives and recognise where we need to repent. Maybe there are things which God wants to get out of the way immediately (e.g. if you’re a bank robber or prostitute!), but maybe there are other things which can wait. The point is not whether we have repented enough, but rather – who’s the boss?

Jesus said:

Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.

Mark 3:28-29

What is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”? Jesus means to attribute the work of God to the work of Satan instead. This is clear from the context: he spoke while people were saying that he was driving out demons by the power of Satan. But his words show us more broadly how we can be guilty of this sin.

The Holy Spirit makes God and the gospel ‘real’ to us – he helps us to do more than simply know information about God, but to really know God. One of the things he does is to convict people of sin (John 16:8-9). If we start to feel guilty about something, it is probably the Holy Spirit. Of course, Satan can also make us feel guilt – there is such a thing as false guilt. This is why we need the Bible to guide us as to whether something is wrong or not. But the Spirit helps us to repent day-by-day, to lead us to grow in the ways that God wants us to.

Sanctification – the process of growing in holiness – is a work of the Holy Spirit. The love we need is the fruit of the Spirit working in us. We need to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25) every day, and allow him to shape us and mould us according to God’s will for our lives.

Therefore, to resist this process is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit is persistently warning you about a particular sin, calling you to repent of it, then to ignore that warning and continue to sin is ultimately to blaspheme against God. This is why passages like this one from Hebrews 10 sound such a stark warning:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

Hebrews 10:26-27

If we deliberately keep on sinning, we show that we love our sins more than we love God. We show that we are not willing to let Jesus be Lord of our lives, and we show that ultimately we fall foul of the first greatest commandment.

Conclusion

A few years ago, I attended a training event by Living Out. Sam Allberry – who is himself same-sex attracted, and seeking to live by the traditional teaching of the Scriptures – recounted working with a young man who was struggling with these issues. He said that they met every week for about six months, until it got the point where Sam had to say: “if I could convince you from the Bible that marriage is between a man and a woman, and sex is for marriage, would you believe it?” For this young man, it was too much – ultimately he loved his own sin more than he loved God.

Jesus said:

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 10:37-39

Being a Christian is not an easy path – Jesus never promised it would be. We need to love him and listen to him more than anything or anyone. If Jesus calls us to a difficult life (which is all of us, by the way) – then we need to embrace it, whatever that means for us. The point is, Jesus is the King of my life, not me. If anyone doesn’t submit to him about what he tells them to do, they demonstrate that they are not living with him as the King. Therefore – not Christian.

It’s not about having a list of moral issues which are on the “salvation issues” list, and if you’re unlucky enough to do one of them you get sent to hell. Rather, through our daily moral choices – under the guidance of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit – we demonstrate who is really Lord of our lives.

Postscript: Are lockdowns and safeguarding salvation issues?

Over the last few years, I’ve disagreed with many established churches and church leaders about various issues, in particular lockdowns and safeguarding (these are topics I talk about on Sacred Musings a lot). Could these issues be salvation issues as well? I believe so.

Take lockdowns, for example. At the start of the first lockdown, most of us were caught napping. Most of us didn’t have a thought-through theology of government, or of what churches should do when the government asked them to close. That’s fair enough. But more than three years have passed since then. Churches and church leaders have had ample opportunity to think through these issues. Is there any sign of thinking through the role of government, and how Christians should relate to a secular world? Is there any sign of genuine sorrow for the way that they acted, and repentance?

As I said earlier, how we respond to these things shows who we really believe is the Lord. Have churches shown that the State and the secular establishment is really Lord? Have they sided with the chief priests, who in one of the most shocking moments in John’s Gospel shout out: “We have no king but Caesar!”

I leave that to your judgement to decide.


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