Evangelicals love the Gospel.

They also love to define it. And while that’s certainly important, it often results in bickering over the very thing that should draw all people together. The gospel is about Jesus, and Jesus says “I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

Gospel Showdown

Most recently this bickering has been seen in an exchange of articles by Matthew Bates, Scot McKnight, and Greg Gilbert.[1]

Gilbert is worried that Bates and McKnight have emptied the gospel of personal salvation, as if Jesus were merely King. As a Reformed Christian, Gilbert holds dear the Reformation teaching that the gospel is the good news that believers are justified, not by their works, but by faith in Jesus.

He wants to say this as simply and biblically as we can. God made us and we’re accountable to him, but we have a sin problem that separates us from God. And this is God’s answer to that sin problem: Jesus—fully God and fully man—came to live, die, and rise again for us. How will we respond?[2]

But Bates and McKnight see Gilbert as reducing the gospel to a series of facts—the four spiritual laws, or the Romans Road—a kind of assembly line approach to preaching the good news. Just go through the steps and, voila! you’re saved. They see this approach as too mechanical and reductionist, cut off from the broader story the Bible tells of God’s saving work in Christ. “The Romans Road is best regarded as the contemporary church’s rearrangement of a few salvation-related facts,” Bates writes. “It is definitely not the gospel.”[3] So, they would say, they’re not trying to diminish personal salvation, but to place it in its full biblical context, the full story of Jesus. “When we begin saying that [justification by faith alone] is the gospel, or even part of the gospel,” Bates writes, “we seriously distort the Bible’s presentation.”[4]

And Gilbert is thankful for the reminder to present Jesus in the wider story of the Bible, but he thinks Bates and McKnight undercut this reminder by saying that forgiveness and salvation aren’t part of the gospel at all. “They seem to be saying that ‘Jesus is king’ is the gospel, and that personal salvation, atonement, and justification are not.”[5]

Gilbert isn’t saying that the gospel isn’t that Jesus is king—in fact Gilbert thinks that Bates and McKnight actually sell short the kingship motif of the Old Testament. “To represent and to suffer for your people was what the kingship in Israel meant. It’s what the king was expected to do.”[6] But Gilbert wants to present Jesus as King in a way that preserves personal salvation, atonement, and justification as part of the gospel. “The ‘good news,’ the gospel, is that the King Who Has Come is a King Who Forgives. Indeed, he is a King who represents his people in suffering, who gives himself to die so that they might live.”[7]

Bates and McKnight are concerned that Gilbert, along with his associates like Al Mohler, John Piper, and others involved with The Gospel Coalition, have made the gospel dependent on human work. They claim that, in making the gospel about justification by faith alone, these leaders have reduced it to only being about personal forgiveness and salvation. Instead, they claim, the Bible’s gospel is that Jesus is the saving King; our personal forgiveness and salvation are merely benefits of the gospel.

Gilbert asks, What about personal salvation? Bates and McKnight ask, What about the messianic King? Gilbert says the gospel is that I’m righteous by faith in Christ alone. Bates and McKnight say the gospel is that Jesus is the promised Christ.

It seems they’re at an impasse, and in recent articles the rhetoric has turned sour—with accusations of peddling a false gospel. Most recently, Bates accused Gilbert and others of having an inaccurate gospel and demanded an apology from Gilbert for misrepresenting him.[8] Gilbert has now bowed out of the discussion, saying that he doesn’t believe he’s misrepresented Bates and that he’s still confused by what he sees as Bates’s self-contradiction. And McKnight poured gas on the fire by comparing folks who think personal salvation is part of the gospel itself (not just a benefit of the gospel) to megalomaniac sports stars.[9]

But are these two claims—the gospel saves me, and the gospel is Jesus as King—actually at odds?

The great tradition of the church doesn’t think so.

Gospel: Kingship for Salvation

The apostle Paul writes that in the gospel we are identified with Jesus (Rom 6:3–11). In baptism we—and our sinful selves—die with him, and are raised again to newness of life. As the Nicene Creed puts it, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” The King and Creator of the universe entered human life and died on a Roman cross so that we who are sinful could be holy as he is holy. He took all that is ours, and he gave us all that is his. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11).

This has been most succinctly stated in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord;

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of Father,

and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Bates states that “the offer of forgiveness of sins via substitutionary atonement is part of the gospel proper, but your or my personal reception of that forgiveness is not.”[10] Bates is insisting that the gospel is true whether we receive it or not—it’s God’s work, not ours, and doesn’t depend on us in any way. But how is the gospel good news if it isn’t true for me and for you? The Nicene Creed puts it this way: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” The wondrous incarnation is “for us and for our salvation.” That is good news indeed!

In contrast to Bates and McKnight, Al Mohler has said that “The doctrine of justification by faith alone is not just one doctrine among others. It is not one way, merely, of describing the gospel. It is the gospel.” It sounds a bit like Mohler is saying that the gospel is believing the right doctrine in the right way (or, as some have put it, having “faith in faith). But surely what Mohler means is that the gospel isn’t something I do, but is rather something God does. As Gilbert writes in What Is the Gospel?, “Our righteousness before God is not our own. It is given to us by Jesus.”[11] Apart from the righteousness of Christ we stand condemned, because “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa 64:6). That’s why the Reformers emphasized justification by faith alone.

It is possible to misconstrue the doctrine of justification by faith. In his book God Is the Gospel, John Piper asks a diagnostic question to find out a person’s true motivations: “Why is justification by faith good news?” Do they really love God, or do they just not want to go to hell? “If God is not treasured as the ultimate gift of the gospel,” Piper writes, “none of his gifts will be gospel, good news.”[12]

Bates has pointed out what’s troubling about this: “When this happens, the good news depends on my having the correct psychological posture. Part of the good news becomes that trust alone can save me. But am I really trusting? Do I really have faith?”[13] The implication is that the gospel will only be good news for us if we treasure God in the right way. We end up more focused on own feelings than on who Jesus is and what he has done.

The For Us Gospel

Both Gilbert and the Gospel Coalition, and Bates and McKnight are concerned with the same thing—the gospel cannot be our own work, or dependent on us. And it isn’t! It is the work of God in human flesh and human history. Bates and McKnight are right to push us toward a fuller picture of the gospel, one informed by the whole story of Scripture and not reduced to its personal application. But Gilbert is also right to insist, along with the apostle Paul and indeed the whole Christian tradition, that our salvation is indeed an intrinsic part of the gospel.

The great tradition of the church talks about the gospel personally and concretely. The gospel is Jesus for me. Bates and McKnight might say, “Jesus is my king.” Gilbert, Mohler, and company might say, “Jesus justifies me.” The Bible itself doesn’t hesitate to make this personal application of the gospel. Paul says, “[The Father] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13–14). The angels sing Isaiah’s words, “Unto you is born this day … a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11; Isa 9:6).

The gospel isn’t my work—thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!—but the gospel is mine. As the Reformer Martin Luther says, “If you leave out ‘for us’, the entire sermon is for nothing.”[14] Every time we speak the gospel, we can and should add these two words—“for us.”

Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary for us.

Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and was buried for us.

Jesus Christ rose again from the dead on the third day for us.

Jesus Christ ascended into heaven for us.

As the psalmist says, “The LORD has done great things for us” (Psalm 126:3). The gospel is ours because Christ is ours.

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Footnotes

  1. www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/april/good-news-are-t4g-tgc-leaders-starting-to-change-their-gosp.html; www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/april/king-jesus-gospel-mere-kingship-no.html; www.9marks.org/article/a-t4g-2020-sermon-what-is-and-isnt-the-gospel/.
  2. Gregory D. Gilbert, What Is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), ch. 1 “Finding the Gospel in the Bible.”
  3. Matthew W. Bates, Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Christ Misses for Salvation in Christ, ch. 1 “Getting the Gospel Right.”
  4. Matthew W. Bates, Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Christ Misses for Salvation in Christ, ch. 1 “Getting the Gospel Right.”
  5. https://www.9marks.org/article/a-t4g-2020-sermon-what-is-and-isnt-the-gospel/
  6. www.9marks.org/article/a-t4g-2020-sermon-what-is-and-isnt-the-gospel/
  7. www.9marks.org/article/a-response-to-scot-mcknight-and-matthew-bates/
  8. www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/april/why-t4gtgc-leaders-must-fix-their-gospel.html
  9. www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/may/gospel-and-its-benefits.html
  10. www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/april/good-news-are-t4g-tgc-leaders-starting-to-change-their-gosp.html
  11. Gregory D. Gilbert, What Is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), ch. 5 “Response—Faith and Repentance.”
  12. John Piper, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love As the Gift of Himself (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 45. Ironically Piper agrees with Bates that “justification is not an end in itself”—rather the highest goal of the gospel is to see God. Both Piper and Bates are concerned about confusing something’s benefit with the thing itself: Piper is worried about folks settling for the benefit of justification as a get-out-of-jail card rather than seeing God; Bates is worried about folks seeing salvation as the gospel rather than Jesus’ kingship.
  13. Matthew W. Bates, Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Christ Misses for Salvation in Christ, ch. 1 “Getting the Gospel Right.” Gilbert similarly warns against looking away from Jesus to one’s own works: “Realize that the fruit you bear is merely that—the fruit of a tree already made good by God’s grace in Christ. To rely on your own Christian fruit to secure God’s favor is ultimately to shift your faith from Jesus to yourself. And that is no salvation at all” (Gilbert, What Is the Gospel?, ch. 5 “Response—Faith and Repentance.”
  14. Sermon on the First Day of Christmas (1529), WA 27:493.7–8.
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Posted by Todd Hains

Todd R. Hains (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is academic editor for Lexham Press. He previously served as assistant project editor for the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.

One Comment

  1. This article doesn’t really engage the issue under discussion. Bates and McKnight are primarily concerned with the referent of the word “gospel” in the New Testament. They are seeking to clarify how the Bible itself defines this key word. Thus, neither Romans 6 nor the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds answer this particular exegetical question because the term “gospel” does not even appear in those texts!

    Bates and McKnight agree that Jesus’ work as the Messiah was for our salvation and includes his atoning death, and they affirm all the doctrines and biblical truths described above. But they are striving to distinguish what the Reformed theologian distinguished when he titled his book “Redemption Accomplished and Applied.” They maintain that the reference of the word “gospel” is Jesus’ work in accomplishing redemption (the historia salutis), not the application of Jesus’ work to individuals by the Spirit (the ordo salutis). The two go together, but one can distinguish redemption accomplished and applied for exegetical reasons without separating them or denying the significance of either for our personal experience. And one doesn’t have to collapse this distinction in order to avoid separating them.

    I think that Michael Bird’s analysis remains one of the best I’ve read:
    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2020/04/the-gospel-of-the-king/

    Reply

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