Evangelicals & The Gospel

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.


24 responses to “Evangelicals & The Gospel

  • Craig Benno

    I’m enjoying your series Tim. I think for the most part people enjoy / like a set of rules to live by. Or a well laid out construct of interpretive ideas in which must be held to, setting out the boundaries of our faith….and in this regard the neo calvinists are no different to that of our Roman Catholic brethren of whom they hold in disdain.

  • athanasius96

    The King declares “good news”. Without the Kingdom, there is no gospel.

    While I consider myself a Calvinist, I agree that the modernist movement toward distillation and abstraction of these categories is very dangerous. We must go back to the text. We must be able to discuss these issues outside of our little ghettos, if we are to make any progress.

    In the meantime, the world suffers for our own failings.

    • timgombis

      Thanks, Athanasius. While I may not consider myself a Calvinist, I don’t know that I consider myself not a Calvinist. It seems, however, that so much of the American evangelical theological scene is shaped by only one strand of Calvinism, and it’s largely a narrowed and hollowed version of that tradition. That is to say, it’s most certainly a tradition that doesn’t read Scripture as honestly as its rhetoric indicates and it’s a far less robust theological system (inasmuch as it is one) than the heritage upon which it draws.

      Those may be fightin’ words, but they’re not meant in that spirit.

  • S Wu

    Thank you, Tim, for this great post. I hope it will invite conversations.

    I have been working on Paul (as a student and as a pastor, etc) for more than ten years. But I feel uncomfortable every time I hear people reading Paul into the Four Gospels. Yes, there are materials in the Gospels and in Paul that are similar, and there may be interconnections. But everything in the Scripture needs to be read in its own context.

    Michael Gorman’s book Inhabiting the Cruciform God is indeed brilliant. Gorman’s other book Reading Paul is also very good. His one-long-sentence on Paul really good.

    I really hope that we all learn to submit to the Scripture, rather than a particular set of doctrines or group of Christian leaders/theologians.

    My pre-teen child has been reading the Scripture. He loves the Old Testament. But the NT is okay too. He has just finished reading Paul’s letters. It’s amazing what he finds. And what he finds in Paul is much more than a narrowly-defined doctrine of justification (although it is is in itself absolutely important).

    Keep blogging, Tim. The Christ-community needs such kind of conversation.

    • timgombis

      Thanks for this, S. I couldn’t agree more! It seems to me that students of Paul learn fairly quickly to start seeing in his texts what “they’re supposed to see there” and no longer what is actually there. I’ve discovered that I’ve had the richest Bible study experiences with Literature undergrads who aren’t trained in theology or biblical studies. The things they see in the text are so refreshing and are really there!! They haven’t been trained in tortured eisegesis!!

      I don’t doubt that your son is a shrewd Bible reader. When people just read what is there and have the courage to ask honest questions, it’s amazing what light breaks forth from the Scriptures!

      So much to say about (mis)reading Paul into the Gospels…

  • Steve

    Hi Tim,

    A Sydney Evangelical Anglican here, just reading what you’re up to. I’m Moore college grad and working on a Thesis through Macquarie on pretty well this article. Essentially, I’m attempting to uncover Paul’s evangelistic gospel for Gentiles.

    My only suggestion at this stage is to look at the role of repentance and faith, not just in Paul, but across the whole NT. I think that has to be the driver to answer the question of the content of the gospel problaimed to the unbeliever. Luke 24:47 is of particular interest here.

    I’m sure your goal is the same as mine: To get people to proclaim the gospel in truth to bring them to repentance and faith (in Christ, but that’s another story…).

    Cheers,
    Steve.

  • Taylor Storey

    Love Love Love reading this!

    My life this year has been transformed by John 1:4, “in him was life and that life was the light of all people”, throughout john Jesus keeps saying he came to bring life, he is the bread of life, living water, life is knowing Him etc.

    I’m convinced the life spoken of there is what CS Lewis refers to as Joy in “Surprised by Joy” – He thought he wanted pleasure, and he got pleasure but at receiving pleasure, he found out it was only a reminder of what (or who!) he really wanted, Joy, aka Jesus.

    Life in John’s Gospel and Joy in Lewis’s work I think are possibly the individual forms of the communal Kingdom of Heaven which I find most explicitly in matthew, is exactly what the good news is. This life, This Joy, this kingdom, is possible and it has begun happening!

    Or how about Paul, in philippians 3:10…more than anything else, he wants to know Christ, the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his suffering. It fits with Jesus’ definition of life in John 17:3, “this is life, that they know you and the one whom you sent.

    I want every bit of this life I can get! Everything I am depends on it! The gospel is not intro to christianity, it is really is the “good news” which affects me every single day!

    …Definitely LOL’d at that guy preferring his own definition to paul’s…kinda fits a little with scot mcknights blue parakeet, expressing God “in our own days in our own ways” …

  • Allen Browne

    Your first eleven paragraphs were excellent and thought-provoking, Tim. After that, I’m not sure you avoided the trap you seemed so aware of.
    (BTW, I don’t disagree with your content. Can we learn from what Jesus *did* — stories rather than arguments perhaps?)

  • Brian LePort

    @Tim: I appreciated this post and I agree with your insights. Contra Allen I don’t feel like you slung mud toward the end. It is one thing to say, “Person A teaches doctrine 1 and I disagree” and something altogether different to dismiss them with a Tweet or call them a heretic or something of that nature. I felt like you were well mannered in your words.

  • thebareden

    While it may have negative effects, I can understand why the gospel gets boiled down. Folks do it because they want something definite to hold onto. It’s hard to get through life grasping to a faith that is in so many ways unseen.

    But this is the result of perpetuating an evangelicalism that condemns gray, nuance, and variance of opinion. When you can’t be lovingly united in the face of disagreement, it becomes necessary to demonize others and simplify your point to its lowest common denominator so you can keep your in-group as limited as possible.

    It’s also the result of how God is studied nowadays, namely that laymen have become suspicious of academia because they find it to be elitist, and so to combat this, they close out discussion and oversimplify. Strangely, they don’t abandon the viewpoints of “thinkers”, they just find a thinker who masks themselves like a layman.

    I used to get pretty stressed that I couldn’t boil every aspect about my faith of His gospel down to a Flintstones chewable, to take every day when I wake up. But the older I get, the more I find that boiling it down robs it of power. Boiling it down basically makes it have power over no one, because when it’s boiled down, it really only fits the experience of the boiler. And that’s a frame that just doesn’t fit everyone. If the gospel is really good news for all, it needs to be bigger. So I welcome the fact that I can hear several viewpoints on certain topics that sound okay to me. If it was all as obvious as everyone tried to make it sound, we wouldn’t still be unpacking it thousands of years later. Here’s to hoping evangelicalism widens its lens.

    Tell me how Scot’s book is. I may want to check it out…

    ::M::

    PS: An intern at our church is reading your Ephesians book to help him do a study with adults on its themes. Huzzah!

    • timgombis

      I hear you, M. I know that people want to boil down the faith so that they have something to hold onto and to get them through the day, but that’s what is so tragic about a “boiled down” gospel — it doesn’t give us the rich nutrients that we actually desperately need to get us through dark and painful days.

      Pastors, teachers, and leaders are to blame here, because it’s their job to bring the robust and ultra-rich and multi-faceted gospel to bear on those situations in ways that make sense and resonate with people. It’s not easy, but it can be done and it desperately needs to be done.

  • Lamont Goodling

    Tim—

    I don’t have a lot of experience with an evangelical theological view, and if you’re willing, I’ve lots of questions that would get me up to speed. For instance, I don’t know what the entrance formula to salvation includes, and I’m not too familiar with the theological principle of justification by fath.

    A couple of specific questions, though, about your post: when you talk about gospel-as-entrance-formula-to-salvation or gospel-as-justification-by-faith, it seems you are distilling the evangelical interpretation of scripture down to essentials—essentials about which evangelicals might say, ‘get this part right, and all else is (optional) commentary.’

    Is this your experience in discussions with evangelical Christians? Is the rest of scripture really understood as commentary on top of these two essentials?

    What are your essentials about the gospel, after which all else is commentary (if you have such essentials)?

    Lamont

    • timgombis

      Thanks, Lamont.

      The formula I’m referring to is something like what’s commonly understood as “the sinner’s prayer.” Pray this prayer of acknowledgment of your sin, ask Jesus into your heart, and you’re now off and running. The justification by faith principle has to do with a variation on the doctrine that we are fully set right with God (justified, declared righteous) based on our exercise of faith or belief in God’s work for us in Christ.

      Yes, I do think that’s the basic gist of an evangelical mindset, though this is a very broad-brushed portrait. It’s not necessarily the rest of Scripture that’s understood as commentary, but the rest of Christian theology . . . , though much of the rest of Scripture is practically relegated to the secondary/commentary status.

      If I had to talk about essentials, I’d have to say that the story of God’s original design for humanity and creation is necessary, followed by the character of the fall. Then, I’d move to discuss God’s design in calling Israel to reclaim the world and Israel’s failure. Then, God’s promises to redeem Israel and creation. All of this is necessary to understand why the arrival of Jesus is good news.

      Then I’d say that the mission of Jesus, his death and ressurection and the sending of the Spirit are absolutely vital so that we understand how redemption was accomplished and how humanity might participate in that–by faith(fulness) to/in Jesus, empowered by God’s own Spirit. And all of this is for something — the formation of communities that embody the life and love of Jesus for the world in anticipation of the day when God comes to restore and redeem and reclaim creation forever.

      Come and join the people loved by and empowered by Jesus is the “call” of the gospel, it seems to me. That’s where you’ll find forgiveness, healing, restoration, etc.

      Some version of that, I think.

  • Lamont Goodling

    Tim—

    I googled the sinners’ prayer, and it looks familiar. I used to live next door to a Baptist, and I think I remember him talking about the same prayer. (Are Baptists considered evangelical?) I’m guessing that evangelicals have something similar to an altar call—is this so? And that the jargon for someone’s conversion experience is of ‘bringing people to Christ’ and of ‘being saved.’

    The Baptist fellow spoke on one occasion of bringing fourteen people to Christ over a year’s time. I asked him what their names were, and he honestly couldn’t recall. I asked him what his relationship was with these fourteen, and he had lost track of every one of them. Somehow, the idea of a closer personal relationship with the people he had brought to Christ wasn’t as important as the act of bringing them to Christ. It’s like the faith community aspect was missing. I would have expected him to feel some responsibility for deepening their faith, but he didn’t seem to think it was his to do. In his view, it was enough that they had been brought to Christ.

    Is this case an exception to the aftermath of ‘being saved,’ or is this normal—that community connections are not important? Is this part of the ‘all the rest is commentary’ I mentioned earlier?

    Your Christian essential seems very similar to what my Catholic upbringing would call ‘salvation history.’ In Catholic faith communities it’s this metanarrative that is emphasized again and again in scripture readings, liturgy, and tradition.

    Do the principles from your evangelical background still resonate with you, even though some of your beliefs have changed?

    Lamont

    • timgombis

      Wow, that’s crazy that he couldn’t remember any of their names! It is NOT obedience to Jesus to get people to make “professions of faith,” — or merely professions. It is obedience to Jesus to “make disciples,” which means developing rich relationships over time, and, as you indicate, drawing them into participation in a rich community of faith.

      The relationship between Baptists and evangelicals is complicated, but many Baptists share the same history and practical approach to evangelism that many evangelicals do.

      Yes, the fact that evangelicals have neglected the rest of what the New Testament regards as important–cultivating communities of faith–means that there is something seriously wrong. They don’t do it intentionally, but their method has led them there.

      As to your last question, I’d say that I’m still compelled by the purity of evangelical Christianity, especially in the form represented by someone like John Stott, who just died. But certain aspects of evangelical identity have become perverted in practice and have born some awful fruit in thought and practice.

  • Craig Benno

    One of the difficulties I have with the modern church and expressions of the Gospel is that it seems to have as its foundation either “Correct doctrine” or “Correct practice”.

    Yet, I will argue that the core of the gospel is “Experience” We are to experience the love of God. We are to experience the forgiveness of sin. We are to experience the love of the saint. We are to experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our hearts.And within the frame work of experience we can apply doctrine and practice.

  • Scott C

    Tim,
    I wonder if you are mis-characterizing the evangelicalism of the Gospel Coalition. First of all, I doubt you could find a single spokesman from GC that would emphasis the “sinner’s prayer.” That is something more akin to fundamentalism. It is certainly reductionistic at best and most of the so-called neo-Calvinists would associate this strand of evangelicalism with the revivalism connected to Finney and would oppose such a view of the gospel. As far as Justification by faith, certainly that is a central plank to those of GC camp, but to say that excludes a more fully-orbed definition of the gospel as essential in their perspective is to distort the position of those in that camp.

    I am a little unclear on what you mean by the “kingdom” but I am assume it encompasses something like a broader concern for social justice or something like that. If that is the case, I don’t think you can accuse those of the GC of lacking a concern for how the gospel encourages justice and reconciliation in the world. The difference between that and classic Protestant liberalism would be the emphasis on the need for people to experience regeneration before true social justice can take place. The gospel of the GC emphasizes reconciliation with God through faith in Christ and out of that flows the necessary reality of reconciliation with others in the various forms that will take. So I am not sure where your beef really lies.

    • timgombis

      Thanks for this, Scott.

      In my fourth paragraph I tried to separate the revivalistic strand from the neo-Calvinists (seriously, I don’t like labels, as they tend to close down and dominate, but I’m only doing this for discussion’s sake). I find the GC folks don’t have the “sinner’s prayer” problem at. As you say, other traditions struggle with that.

      In some conversations and engagements with GC-related folks, there is the conviction that justification by faith is “the gospel” and other salvation metaphors or other salvific concepts are subsequent, even perhaps a call to repentance or obedience.

      For the NT writers and the early church, however, the gospel was a larger reality, having to do with the arrival of the King and the emergence of his reign. That reality has a wide variety of benefits and redeeming dynamics for anyone who repents and enters the kingdom by faith.

      I’m not necessarily getting at social justice issues, either. There’s a sense in which I understand you when you say, “the gospel of the GC emphasizes reconciliation with God through faith in Christ and out of that flows the necessary reality of reconciliation with others in the various forms that will take.” But my question is whether this is a theological grammar that resonates with Scripture. In some sense it might, but since it doesn’t fully capture how Scritpure conceives of salvation or the gospel it gets some things right but creates other problems.

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