Denominational theologians use the phrase in the religious world to try to smooth over the deep doctrinal divides between religious groups. Sometimes even leaders in the Lord’s church have used the phrase in an attempt to avoid splits and divisions. But what is it?
The phrase “salvation issue” (never used in Scripture) refers to teachings about how to become a Christian. In the denominational world “salvation issue” usually refers to “believing in God the Father and Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God”. All other teachings get demoted to the “they don’t matter” category, because they’re not “salvation issues”.
In the Lord’s church there are those who will sometimes defend a controversial teaching by suggesting to everyone that it is not a “salvation issue”. And this is precisely where faithful disciples need to ask the question, “How would the Lord define a ‘salvation issue’?”
There are three categories into which most Christian teachings will fall: traditions, opinions, and commands.
Traditions are a set of teachings that leaders pass on to their students to help them keep God’s law, and they can be very helpful (1 Cor. 11:2 / 2 Thess. 2:15 / 2 Thess. 3:6) as long as they aren’t being taught as God’s commands (Matt. 15:1-9).
Opinions (aka, judgments, liberties, or even conscience) include a wide range of persuasions that we humans hold about how to obey the Lord; they can include tastes, cultural norms, human “think-so”, scruples, or someone’s experience-informed conclusions.
We are allowed by God’s word to hold traditions and opinions as long as they lie within the boundaries of God’s pattern and don’t become divisive. But as we hold them we must remember that traditions and opinions—according to the Lord (e.g., Matt. 15:1-9 / 1 Cor. 8-10)—are not binding and can be altered or changed.
To illustrate, we are commanded to meet on the first day of the week, but each congregation has its own traditions about meeting times and meeting places. Some congregations (for example, Italians) hold to a tradition that uses fermented wine for the Lord’s supper, while others (for example, the U.S.) hold to a tradition of unfermented “new wine”. And some hold the opinion Christmas shouldn’t be celebrated, while others do celebrate. These traditions and opinions are not matters upon which our salvation might be endangered—“salvation issues”.
Commands, on the other hand, are a different category. A command can be recognized through direct command, necessary inference, or approved example; and once a command is given through God’s word, it is neither changeable nor optional. It simply needs to be obeyed. And obedience is important (Matt. 7:21ff). The very definition of sin is disobedience to the Lord’s command (e.g., Lev. 26:21; Isa. 42:24; Rom. 6:16).
And obedience to the Lord’s commands is why the meaning of “salvation issue” needs to be reexamined by those who use it. The Scripture teaches us: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,” Hebrews 10:26. Willful, deliberate disobedience in a Christian, according to this very clear, inspired verse, will result in no further forgiveness for sins. This makes the many Biblical teachings beyond “faith, repentance, confession, and baptism” into “salvation issues”, too—including some of the hotter worship topics of our day, a cappella singing and male leadership.
While some might want to limit “salvation issues” to only what one must initially do to be saved, the rest of God’s will cannot be demoted and dismissed so quickly. The truth is that obedience is a salvation issue.