I wrote a few posts on the gospel last week and had kept things pretty general. I didn’t make plain my real targets because I’m still finding my feet in this blogging medium. I’m slightly hesitant to develop a negative tone, and the “hyperventilating religious invective-slinging blog” category seems fairly well-covered.
At the same time I do want to be constructive and provoke my fellow evangelicals toward shared faithfulness to the evangel. If that leads us to examine some of our faults, then let’s get to it. So, for the last week or so I’ve been thinking over how to articulate some criticisms without descending into mud-slinging.
As it happened, the other day I received in the mail a pre-publication edition of Scot McKnight’s new book The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan) and he’s got the very same targets in his sights. And from the looks of it, he’s really going for it! I think it’s about time and I do hope it provokes some lively and fruitful discussion and I’m happy to jump into it here.
I had in mind two separate but related aspects of evangelicaldom (Dan Reid’s useful term). First, the very strong conversionist impulse in evangelicalism that limits “the gospel” to an entrance formula whereby one receives salvation. Second, the so-called “neo-Calvinist” movement among evangelicals and the limitation of “the gospel” to a version of justification by faith.
There is so much to say about these things, but to get the ball rolling, three observations/criticisms aimed at these two targets:
First, evangelicals are largely ignorant about the biblical gospel. I once asked a group of evangelical students who were quite confident in their knowledge of the Bible to tell me how the gospel was related to the Kingdom of God. They replied that the gospel had to do with forgiveness of sins and that the Kingdom was a completely separate issue. I had a similar conversation with a former colleague who told me that the gospel was about justification by faith and had nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.
I mentioned in both instances that this would be news to Jesus who went around preaching “the gospel of the Kingdom” and told his disciples to do the same (Matt. 4:17, 23; 9:35; 24:14; Mark 1:14; Luke 4:43; 8:1). In some way Jesus and his disciples envisioned “the gospel” as having everything to do with God’s promises to Israel, the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, and the restoration of the rule and reign of the God of Israel.
There is something seriously wrong with evangelicals’ grasp of the evangel if we regard as irrelevant to the gospel what Jesus regarded as central to the gospel.
Second, the evangelical drive to simplify is, to seriously understate things, unhealthy. Evangelicals historically are activists when it comes to sharing the faith–that is, to evangelizing. Further, because our movement orients itself by “the gospel,” we are always seeking to “boil it down” to its essence. We are always asking, What is the gospel? and, How can I communicate it clearly and effectively?
These are not badly motivated desires but this impulse to simplify has marginalized important aspects of the gospel. We’ve tended to boil down “the gospel” to a sales pitch that gets Jesus into our hearts. An unintended consequence, however, is that the rest of the faith has come to seem either secondary or disposable. This is devastating when it comes to discipleship and the life of the church. Further, when biblical writers articulate the gospel in terms of some of these supposedly secondary issues, evangelicals are left completely befuddled.
Evangelicals often ask,What’s the minimum a person has to believe to be saved? Why are we not asking ourselves how we can lead people to experience as much of the life and love of God as they can possibly get?
Third, neo-Calvinist evangelicals wrongly associate the gospel with justification by faith. I’m not crazy about labels and I don’t want to start any fights with these people. I’m a bit hesitant to name and call out the neo-Calvinists, but I do think that McKnight helpfully uses this term to indicate a discernible movement associated with the Gospel Coalition folks and major figures such as John Piper, Don Carson, and many of the resurgent Calvinist Southern Baptists. They are united by a narrowly-conceived Calvinism, opposition to certain trends like the “new perspective” and whatever became of the emerging movement, and just about anything that N. T. Wright says or does (okay, that may be a cheap shot).
This limitation of “the gospel” to justification by faith is motivated by a desire to preserve Reformation priorities. Neo-Calvinists want to maintain what they see as the purity of the gospel, freed from any call for human response.
There may be historical reasons for this move, but it has the same devastating effects on evangelical discipleship, community life, and Bible reading. Neo-Calvinists improperly elevate this singular, albeit important, Pauline soteriological metaphor so that it closes down gospel preaching in the four Gospels, Acts, and the NT letters outside of Romans and Galatians.
Paul’s use of justification by faith is not the same as dogmatic developments of justification by faith up through and into the Reformation era. Alister McGrath makes this clear in his historical study. Further, the manner in which Paul conceives of the relationship of justification to Christian discipleship may be different from how evangelicals relate the theological topics of justification to sanctification. Michael Gorman’s brilliant book Inhabiting the Cruciform God is an absolute must-read on this.
I’ll never forget talking to a colleague who was very upset with me for speaking of the gospel in terms with which he was unfamiliar. After working through several Pauline passages I told him that I was just trying to be faithful to Paul’s categories. His (perhaps unintentionally) revealing response left me gobsmacked: “I guess I’m just not comfortable with Paul’s categories and prefer my own.”
I didn’t think of it at the time (of course!), but I should have asked him how he could consider himself an evangelical. His was anything but a posture of submission to Scripture.
I find much of this from the neo-Calvinist crowd. There is too much imposition onto Paul of pre-formed dogmatic and doctrinal frameworks that are roughly Reformed and far too little genuinely sensitive exegesis that treats Paul’s texts fairly. This is especially the case when it comes to Paul’s gospel and his discussions of justification by faith.
I do realize there’s lots of work to do to back up these claims, but we can continue to get into it as I work through Scot’s great looking new book.