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What is a ‘salvation issue?’

Using the term as a shorthand to separate important commands from lesser ones begs the question: Who decides the list?

The term ‘salvation issue’ typically pops up when individuals differ on a point of Christian teaching. 

One says, “Oh, this isn’t a salvation issue. Let’s agree to disagree on this.” The suggestion is that this particular teaching is not important to one’s salvation. Conversely, if something is a salvation issue, then we must get it right in order to be saved.

Benny Tabalujan

Benny Tabalujan

I’ve been wondering whether I should use the term. After mulling this over, I’m leaning against it. Let me give three reasons for my reluctance:

First, “salvation issue” seems to me to be a well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful shorthand. Many who use it believe that some biblical commands are more important than others. They use “salvation issue” to focus on God’s key commands, while creating freedom for Christians to have different views on lesser commands. 

I applaud the intention. After all, Jesus said the two greatest commands are to love God and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). Elsewhere, he noted that practicing the “weightier matters” of justice, mercy, and faithfulness is more important than giving “a tenth of your spices” (Matthew 23:23).

However, using “salvation issue” as shorthand to separate important commands from lesser ones begs the question: Who decides the list? 

In the absence of a biblical checklist, humans tend to make up their own based on cultural norms, denominational distinctives and personal preferences. Many today have reduced the list to two: loving God and loving others. They then leave it to you to decide what these two commands involve. 

Second, using the term “salvation issue” seems to approach the Christian life in a more static than dynamic sense. It tends to focus on whether a person is right before God at a specific moment. 

In contrast, Scripture suggests that salvation is a process incorporating both justification (being made right with God) and sanctification (being made holy). The dynamic process of sanctification suggests increasing knowledge and action. We’re to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). 

Even though sin can stain us each day, as long as we’re walking in the light, confessing our sins, Jesus’ blood washes away all our wrongdoing (1 John 1:7-10).

Third, even if we can get most people to agree on a list of salvation issues, there’s the trap of making light of matters which are not on that list. If attending Sunday church services isn’t a salvation issue, why not skip some (or most) services? If having church elders isn’t a salvation issue, why strive toward having an eldership? 

The fact that some commands are more important to us than others does not free us to focus on the former and disregard the latter.

Having a list of salvation issues can thus foster a dismissive attitude toward other commands.

In Romans 14, Paul addressed the mixed Jewish/Gentile church in Rome on the question of keeping dietary laws. (You also can find this discussed in 1 Corinthians 8.) Paul’s teaching is clear: No food is unclean in its essence, and so eating meat is fine. Yet we should not be contemptuous towards a Christian who is a convinced vegetarian or cause them to stumble. To such a person, eating meat is sin and results in condemnation. If need be, we should exercise self-restraint and avoid eating meat, at least in their presence. 

This suggests that what we see as a “non-salvation issue” for us can be a “salvation issue” for others. 

More than that, Paul tells us not to make light of that issue — lest we “destroy someone for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15). Non-salvation issues can be that serious.

Some conclusions for reflection:

• As we study Bible questions, let’s resist the temptation to major in minors and fall into legalism. 

• It’s better to use the term “weightier matters” instead of the non-biblical term “salvation issue.” Using biblical terms for biblical concepts helps us stay close to the Scriptures.

• Even the not-so-weighty matters are not to be neglected. The fact that some commands are more important to us than others does not free us to focus on the former and disregard the latter. We’re called to uphold all commands and eschew all sin.

• In one sense, it seems that any sin can become a “salvation issue” because sin separates us from God. Conversely, is it possible that grace can trump a “salvation issue?” 

Salvation appears to be a dynamic process. We do well to walk in the light, abiding in Christ and being strengthened by the Holy Spirit, all to God’s glory.

Benny Tabalujan is editor of InterSections, a publication for Churches of Christ in Australia and the South Pacific. Read an expanded version of this piece at www.intersections.com.au/food-for-thought. Tabalujan and his family worship with the Belmore Road Church of Christ in Melbourne, Australia.

Filed under: benny tabalujan Opinion salvation Views

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