Abolitionists receive a surprising amount of push-back from fellow Christians. Sometimes they have a problem with our use of graphic abortion images; other times our call to church-wide repentance rubs them the wrong way.
Often the problem is ideological, especially when interacting with pastors and theologically astute individuals. The usual concern is that focusing on acts of social justice will dilute, divert, or distract from the more important concepts of the Christian faith, such as the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ. We face objections like the following:
“I can’t get distracted by fighting abortion; I just try to keep the main thing the main thing.”
“The Church isn’t called to effect magisterial reform; we are here to save unbelievers from an eternity of Hell.”
“Women aren’t saved by not having an abortion; women are saved by the gospel of Jesus Christ, so I’m going to focus on that.”
“Even if we stopped all women in the United States from having abortions, they would still go to Hell without Jesus; we should just preach the gospel.”
Many of these objections can sound very spiritual and wise. The present writer once believed in all of them. The basic assumption that undergirds this kind of thinking is that God only cares about the salvation of individual souls from eternal hellfire. He is not concerned with impacting governments and legislation, because He came to earth exclusively to save sinners, and give them eternal life.
Abolitionists disagree with this kind of reasoning however, viewing it as a truncated gospel. We believe that the good news of Jesus Christ is broader in scope and impact than exclusively personal, individual salvation, and that Christians are both permitted and required to address the whole issue of sin that has taken root in our world, not just one aspect. In this article, we will look at Jesus’ ministry, His purpose in coming to Earth, and how the good news of His kingdom relates to our national sin of child sacrifice.
At the time of this writing, if you toss the above question into Google, Ligonier Ministries’ page on the gospel floats to the top. The page is actually pretty solid, in my opinion; I particularly appreciate their opening paragraph, which reads,
There is no greater message to be heard than that which we call the gospel. But as important as that is, it is often given to massive distortions or over simplifications. People think they’re preaching the gospel to you when they tell you, ‘you can have a purpose to your life’, or that ‘you can have meaning to your life’, or that ‘you can have a personal relationship with Jesus.’ All of those things are true, and they’re all important, but they don’t get to the heart of the gospel.
The page then goes on to give a textbook presentation of justification through Christ’s death and resurrection, which truly is at the heart of the gospel, without question. How can a wicked sinner like me be reconciled to a perfect, flawless, holy God? Only through the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross, taking my sin and its punishment on Himself, and giving me His righteous standing before God the Father.
Many of the other search results from Google offer a similar presentation of justification through faith alone, which is an important emphasis to maintain. That justification is at the heart of the gospel is evidenced in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you…For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
However presenting the heart of a thing does not equate to presenting the entire thing. Does a biblical view of the gospel restrict it to the doctrine of justification, or is there more to the gospel than that?
I did a word study in preparation for this article, looking at how “gospel” is used throughout the Bible, to see if it is always restricted to personal justification, or used in a broader way. Even expecting a more comprehensive definition, I was nevertheless surprised to find some unexpectedly broad passages like the following — one of God’s angels presenting the gospel to humanity:
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Revelation 14:6-7)
“Fear God, because judgment is coming,” this passage basically says, without even mentioning Christ’s propitiation on the cross. It reminded me of Jonah’s graceless message (“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”), which resulted in the single greatest revival in scripture, and probably history. With no mention of justification, how can these kinds of things be considered a presentation of the gospel?
The gospel seems to be broader in scope than describing just the atonement that Jesus provides for our sins. Our right standing in Christ has nothing to do with our works (Ephesians 2:8-9), for example, yet the gospel is viewed as something to be obeyed (Romans 10:16, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, 1 Peter 4:17), and something that results in obedience to God (Romans 1:1-5, 15:18-19, 16:25-27). It includes doctrines that Christians often consider secondary, such as eschatology (Romans 2:16), or the lineage of Christ (2 Timothy 2:8).
Mark does something interesting in the opening of his book — he refers to the entire document as, “the gospel.”
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)
This includes far more than chapters 14-16, the death and resurrection of Christ. It includes His life, His miracles, His law, His coming judgment, the example that He set for us to follow, and His teaching on numerous other topics. We call the first four books of the New Testament “gospels,” but I don’t think we always take seriously how far beyond justification that description really takes us.
A biblical understanding of the gospel shows us that it is more than just a doctrine, a book of the Bible, or a set of propositional truths that we accept or believe. The gospel is a Person, Jesus Christ, the divine good news that God spoke into the world as His final Word to humanity (Hebrews 1:1-3). When we recognize that the gospel extends beyond personal justification to include the whole person and work of Christ on the earth, it broadens our understanding of what gospel-centered Christianity should impact. Did Jesus come to Earth to rescue individual sinners from an eternity of Hell and torment? Absolutely (Luke 19:10), an expression of indescribable love for which I will be eternally grateful.
But is that all He came to do? Or is there more to the gospel of Jesus Christ than personal salvation? The Apostle John summarized Christ’s work in the following, more comprehensive way:
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8)
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. This is a much broader statement than most common definitions of the gospel. What is abortion? It is a work of the devil, the shedding of innocent blood. Did Jesus come to destroy abortion? Yes, and that truth is a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If we want to understand the gospel — understand sin, and redemption, and the impact that these warring themes have had on the heavens and the earth — then we need to recognize that the effects of sin, and the effects of redemption go far beyond the lives of individual people.
The world around us, for example, was subjected to futility because of our sin, so a comprehensive redemption would include the redemption of creation (Romans 8:19-21). Human government was subjected to Satan’s principal city of Babylon (Genesis 11), so a comprehensive redemption would include the elevation of God’s city, Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22). Other aspects of our fall and redemption abound in scripture.
Overall, God describes this historic struggle of good and evil as a separation of darkness from light. The apostle John especially took to this theme in his gospel, describing Jesus as the light of the world that dispels darkness.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:16-21)
John’s understanding of the gospel describes Jesus as a light that brings life to men, and that exposes the wicked deeds of darkness. This goes beyond the justification of sinners — rescuing individuals from the domain of darkness and transferring them to the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13). Jesus’ advent to the earth also involves exposing the works of darkness, and ultimately judging those who love darkness more than light.
Similarly, those who “come to the light,” who “renounce disgraceful, underhanded ways,” also become light-bearers that work to dispel darkness, through their union with Christ.
“You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14,16)
For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light…Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. (Ephesians 5:8,11)
Because of these truths, abolitionists recognize that the gospel is more than just fire insurance that saves us from an eternity of Hell. The gospel is light, and that light is the life of men. As children of the light, we are to shine into the darkness of the world around us, exposing the unfruitful deeds of darkness, so that others may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.
So when a Christian claims that fighting abortion is a distraction from the gospel of Jesus Christ, the abolitionist would view that position as embracing a “truncated gospel” — an abbreviated, or deficient form of the gospel that doesn’t tell the whole story. Exposing unfruitful deeds of darkness is an integral part of the gospel; it’s a huge part of what Jesus came into the world to do.
As children of light, Christians are saved from our own works of darkness by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Now we bear His image, and bear His light into the world around us, exposing works of darkness like abortion, just as He did. The practice of abolition is nothing more than the Christian response to evil in the world — bringing the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ into conflict with the evils all around us. It flows from our own personal salvation, and is an integral part of the gospel story.
When the objector sets abolition in contest with “the gospel,” what he is actually saying is, “I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is constrained exclusively to the doctrines surrounding personal salvation, so I will leave out and/or disobey Jesus’ other work and teaching because I don’t think it is relevant to my form of Christianity, or necessary in preaching my version of the gospel.”
This gospel is truncated on multiple levels. The first, more obvious error that often flows from this reasoning is known as “antinomianism” – the belief that the law of God should have no role in a Christian’s life, or in the presentation of the gospel. As a result, this error can lead some people to remove God’s law and standard of righteousness from the discussion when sharing Christ with individuals.
Of course when Jesus gave the Great Commission — His mandate to preach the gospel to all of creation (Mark 16:15) — He included “teaching [the nations] to observe all that I have commanded you” as part of that gospel presentation (Matthew 28:20). Sharing the law of God with individuals is extremely important, because the law shows us that we are sinners, in need of a savior (Romans 3:20). Thus when addressing individuals who are guilty in the area of abortion (one in four women in our culture), it is eminently biblical to bring abortion into the discussion as an exposing light to demonstrate their need for Christ (John 4:13-29).
A more subtle, and prevalent error that flows from this truncated gospel is the false gospel of pietism, which has been the dominant form of Christianity in America for hundreds of years. Pietism places all emphasis on the personal, inward life of a believer (focusing on personal salvation, personal holiness, a personal relationship with Christ etc.) while denouncing as unspiritual any attempt to influence the collective life of a nation.
For example, if a Christian becomes involved in working to abolish abortion through the laws of a nation, the pietist will often criticize this attempt by saying something like the following:
“Laws don’t save people; Jesus saves people. Even if we stopped all women in the United States from having abortions, they would still go to Hell without Jesus; we should just preach the gospel.”
This can sound spiritual, however the pietist fails to recognize that unrighteous law actually has an impact on the spiritual life of individuals; it causes them to turn away from Christ (Ecclesiastes 8:11). God is the one who establishes governing authorities (Romans 13:1), and He does so for a reason, so to sustain his position the pietist has to also criticize God for investing time and ink into things like human government.
By restricting the gospel to a doctrine that addresses exclusively the personal salvation of individuals, the pietist has to discard or devalue other parts of scripture that deal with other aspects of the problem of sin. The abolitionist on the other hand recognizes that the light of the gospel of Christ touches all areas of life, from the personal lives of individuals, to the public arenas of government, education, economics etc.
Denying the Power Thereof
This is where the abolitionist movement diverges from the ideology and strategy of the pro-life movement; we seek to present a gospel-centered approach to addressing the darkness of abortion; the pro-life movement does not. In the light of what has been developed thus far, allow me to explain more fully what that means.
First, much of the pro-life movement discards the gospel as the power to defeat abortion in the personal lives of individuals. When interacting with individuals (e.g. outside of an abortion mill, on a college campus etc.), most pro-lifers will do things like offer a woman an ultrasound, discuss the hidden health problems that can come with abortion, talk about various scientific facts, pray the rosarie etc.
A few will share the truth about sin, judgment, and redemption through Jesus Christ, so given the common definition of the gospel, it could be said that their pro-life ministries are gospel-centered; they share the gospel with individuals. (And to be clear, I would in no way devalue their efforts in that regard. I wish that there were more!)
However when we say that abolitionism is a gospel-centered movement, we are talking about more than just the personal salvation of individuals who are caught up in the sin of abortion. Abolitionism includes that, but we believe that the whole gospel of Christ speaks to the whole issue of sin in our land, from the sins of individuals, to the wicked laws of the nation at large. This is where we differ from almost all pro-lifers.
“We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:2-6)
The pro-life movement has never put forward a gospel-centered law that addresses the sin of abortion. By “gospel-centered,” I am referring to that gospel of Jesus Christ where the light of His truth exposes the wicked deeds of darkness for what they are. Rather than call abortion murder, presenting the issue as God views it, the laws of the pro-life movement have instead regulated child sacrifice. They describe the various methods that can be used to murder children, or the necessary safety precautions that must be in place to murder children, or which sets of children are allowed to be legally murdered (those before twenty weeks, those who have criminal rapists as fathers etc.)
Why hasn’t the pro-life movement put forward a law calling abortion murder? The reason is that they don’t believe that such a law is practical, citing e.g. SCOTUS as a deterrent to any law that would call abortion what it is, and call for its complete and total abolition. Rather than openly state the truth, and commend themselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God, “pro-life” legislators and leaders have instead chosen to practice cunning, to tamper with God’s word, believing that it is not powerful enough to destroy the works of the devil.
This is why we say that the pro-life movement is not a gospel-centered movement. Even those who use the gospel in personal interactions with individuals abandon it when it comes to the legislative sphere. There are a few exceptions that I am aware of — people who go by the pro-life label, and yet have a consistently Christian mindset and theology. However like the waning church in America, the pro-life movement at large has not failed to be “pro-life.” They have failed to be Christian.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,
“Having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
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