Theological Method & The Gospel

mentioned a while back that the equation of justification by faith with “the gospel” by resurgent neo-Calvinists and folks associated with the Gospel Coalition was a sign of ignorance of the biblical gospel among evangelicals.  Such limiting of the gospel to this singular Pauline metaphor is inappropriate.

Yesterday’s post is another reason for my claim.  Associating “the gospel” with justification by faith starts in the wrong place and makes gospel preaching in the New Testament strange.

The biblical gospel is a rehearsal of God fulfilling his saving purposes for all of creation in the story of Jesus and Jesus’ summing up and extending the story of Israel.  The biblical gospel situates individuals in God’s larger story of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Equating “the gospel” with justification by faith inappropriately reverses the biblical logic.  “The gospel” is now about individuals and the order in which they receive salvific benefits.

As Scot McKnight argues in The King Jesus Gospel, the Reformation initiated this turn to the individual.  While there were very good reasons for this focus during the Reformation period, over time the larger narrative of Scripture has been obscured by an individualized gospel.

It’s a bit ironic that those rightly seeking to recover a God-ward orientation are prevented from doing so by their theological method.

This move also renders gospel preaching in the New Testament strange.  Jesus and his disciples proclaimed “the gospel of the Kingdom” and the arrival of Israel’s Messiah.  The dominant topic of gospel preaching in Acts is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his installation as Lord over all.  Based on these big moves of God, the apostles called people to enter this Kingdom reality animated by God’s Spirit.  Repentance and entry into the Kingdom unleashed the many benefits of God’s salvation.  

The apostolic gospel, therefore, is larger and more robust than justification by faith.  Its starting point is God and his purposes for creation and not how sinful humans can receive salvation.

The mechanics of justification and the place of individuals in God’s saving purposes are absolutely crucial topics.  But they find their proper place only within the larger purposes of God and a faithful vision of the biblical gospel.

17 thoughts on “Theological Method & The Gospel

  1. S Wu

    You said it well: “Jesus and his disciples proclaimed “the gospel of the Kingdom” and the arrival of Israel’s Messiah. The dominant topic of gospel preaching in Acts is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his installation as Lord over all…”

    Among my circle of friends, there are roughly two ways of understanding the gospel. One way is to treat “justification by faith” as the center of the gospel. The emphasis is on preaching (verbal proclamation), and how one can “get in”. The other way is to focus on the kingdom of God, and the emphasis is on social justice.

    My concern is that the proclamation of “the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” and “his Lordship over all” is missing. (By the way, I am passionate about justice for the poor and marginalized.)

    My concern is also that sometimes we do more preaching than living (ie. embodying the gospel in our daily life). And then there are those who reject the verbal proclamation all together. And then often those who do preach the gospel tend not to focus on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (and explain it in such a way that is relevant within the contemporary culture).

    1. timgombis

      I’ve had the very same experiences, S. Being Christian involves all of our capacities and the redemption of all that it is to be human. So, proclamation and the faithful embodiment of the gospel.

  2. Craig Benno

    it seems that that any clear reading of Paul says that we were once not a people group but are now a people group saved into a people group that is inclusive of all peoples.

    Not that you were once not a person, but are now a person, saved as a person that is inclusive of you.

  3. Scott C

    Do you have room for substitutionary atonement in your understanding of the gospel? Where does sin, judgment, death, bloody crucifixion, righteousness and God’s wrath come into play? Subsequently, what does grace mean to the gospel? Maybe I am an out of touch neo-Calvinist, but the categories you raise in this post seem devoid of definition and substance. In other words, aside from an emphasis upon corporate redemption versus individual redemption, I have no idea what you are talking about. Furthermore, what are “we” redeemed from and to? Sorry, I am having a hard time understanding you.

    1. timgombis

      Hi Scott — a few thoughts:

      (1) My only point in this post is that equating justification by faith with “the gospel” is not the right move, neither theologically nor in the NT. Doing so is not good and those who thus limit the gospel should seek to recover the biblical grammar of the gospel.

      (2) I agree with McKnight that we should start where the NT and the whole of the Scriptures begin and seek to place ourselves as individuals within the larger narrative of God and his purposes for the world.

      (3) The topics you mention do indeed come into play. If I didn’t mention a range of theological and biblical topics in a singular blog post, please don’t read me as “leaving them out.” We must, however, fit them into an ever-more-faithful-to-Scripture conception of the gospel. If that means that all of us (even neo-Calvinists!) need to keep studying the Scriptures to articulate the gospel more faithfully, so be it!

      I hope that helps give you an idea of what I’m talking about! Please do let me know if anything remains unclear…

  4. Scott C

    The key statement (from my perspective) you made is this:
    “The biblical gospel is a rehearsal of God fulfilling his saving purposes for all of creation in the story of Jesus and Jesus’ summing up and extending the story of Israel. The biblical gospel situates individuals in God’s larger story of redemption in Jesus Christ.”
    I find this too vague to have meaning for me. You would have to flesh this out more if I were to understand it. Let me explain with some examples:

    (1) What do you mean by “rehearsal of God”? Rehearsal sounds like practicing for the real thing – but what real thing?

    (2) “Fulfilling his saving purposes for all of creation” sounds good. Yes, in the bigger picture of redemption God is restoring all of creation from the curse it was placed under due to Adam’s sin, though I don’t see that as central to the gospel. What is central to the gospel is the redemption of human beings, Adam’s sons. Creation was made for the sons of Adam (or we might say for the redeemed sons of Adam who are adopted now as sons of God) and without man the rest of the creation has no meaning or purpose if I understand scripture correctly (cf. Psalm 8). The astronomical odds of all the factors that go into what scientists call the fine tuning of the universe allowing for life on this pale blue dot of ours ought to convince us that God put human beings in a rather exalted and unique position. We are the center of attention within the creation, not a sub-tab under the category of “Creation.”

    (3) Thus, I am not sure how to take your last sentence in this statement. Is individual redemption just a small part of the redemption of the rest of creation? It is unclear to me what you mean by this. Or is individual redemption something that should disappear in the sea of corporate redemption (i.e. the whole body of Christ)? If so, should the proclamation of the gospel dispense with calls to individual exercising of repentance from sin and faith in Christ? I don’t understand what you mean here.

    (4) The “story of Jesus” is another vague statement to me. Is this a reference to his life and ministry? If so, fair enough, but isn’t everything about the story of Jesus centered on the cross? I don’t see this in your post. It seems to me that any discussion about what is central to the gospel cannot exclude the cross. Otherwise what did Paul mean when he said, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”? That tells me that the cross is central and therefore we must have a clear understanding of what the cross means.

    (5) Finally, the statement “summing up and extending the story of Israel” again sounds fair enough. I assume this is another way of saying that the OT both anticipates and foreshadows the coming of Christ and pictures His work of redemption which is again centered on not just his life, but in particular His death and resurrection. But again, from my perspective what is central to this story line is the idea of atonement which pictures God’s salvation through judgment. In that regard, I think James Hamilton’s new book, “God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment” captures the Biblical story line through each book of Scripture quite well. His is a convincing argument for what the gospel story really is – God’s mercy meeting us through judgment extended to His Son instead of to us who rightfully deserved it. Subsequently, this radical idea of God meting out judgment in His beloved Son on behalf of the Barrabases of the world is the most tragic yet beautiful picture ever conceived and thus it is a display of the overwhelming glory of God. In my mind, any explanation of the gospel which is less than this is just plain boring and offers no hope for humanity. This story is exciting and full of hope.

    At the very least, we need to know that the gospel is the “good news.” Such implies that there is bad news. What is the bad news the good news remedies? Or put another way, the gospel is about salvation as I know you agree, but salvation from what? Is mankind in a desperate plight? What is the plight and how can he escape it? These are questions that I find trouble seeing answers to in your discussion about what the gospel is. Maybe I have been too pre-conditioned by my neo-Calvinist perspective, but I am lost in your statements about what the gospel really is. And that is not because I necessarily disagree with you; it is strictly because I have no idea what you are talking about. I cannot disagree with what I don’t understand.

    1. timgombis

      (1) By “rehearsal,” I only mean the constant repetition and retelling of the gospel story-line. So, “rehearsal” not in the “practice, not reality” sense, but “rehearsal” in the other sense.

      (2) It is indeed the case that humanity is at the apex of creation, but humanity remains part of creation. Further, God is out to redeem creation and cares for it deeply. Much more could be said on this, but you can’t really read the creation account nor the prophets without realizing this. A few passages among many: Gen. 9:12-16; Jonah 4:11.

      (3) It’s the case that God has many purposes in salvation, including the redemption of humans and restoration of us to our place of rulership over creation. It’s not that we’re “just a small part” nor that our redemption “disappears” in God’s greater purposes. It’s that God has large purposes to redeem all of creation and we’re included in that. Be willing to hold your anthropocentrism a bit more loosely.

      (4) Yes, the story of Jesus leads to the cross — and his resurrection and ascension! So, retelling the story of Jesus will involve the OT anticipation, his birth, life, baptism, teaching, call of disciples, confrontation of religious leaders, march to Jerusalem, crucifixion, and resurrection. So, by the story of Jesus, I mean the narrative and sub-narratives about Jesus from the Gospels. Does that make sense? If I’ve neglected to mention every last detail, don’t suppose that I’m purposely leaving things out or trying to be vague.

      (5) I understand the desire to exclude much of Scripture, boil everything down to a narrow theme, and read this into the rest of the Scriptures. What I’ve been trying to get across, though, is that such a strategy isn’t a faithful reading of the Scriptures. God’s work of redemption is larger, though it includes the salvation of humans through Christ’s atonement.

      I won’t pass judgment, but you very well may be conditioned by your perspective to be confused when you confront the larger themes of Scripture and its grander scope. Many evangelicals encounter this discomfort and shrink back from pushing ahead and grappling more rigorously with the text of Scripture. I hope you don’t do that.

      1. Scott C

        Tim,
        Thanks for your response. You brought much greater clarity to my questions though there remains many unanswered things. I have to respectfully disagree with your perspective on where the emphasis of redemption lies and remain unconvinced of your assertions.

        The gospel is anthropocentric. As I said, without the creation of man the rest of creation is meaningless. The creation narratives make that clear. We alone are created in the image of God and therefore the principal objects of redemption. God has spoken to us not the birds nor the fish nor the cattle nor the stars nor the trees. Jesus was not incarnated as one of these creations either. I am certain that if one fails to recognize this they have begun to stretch the boundaries of historic Christianity.

        There have been many times throughout my Christian walk that I have been challenged with views of scripture that were uncomfortable. Better yet, I have been confronted with scripture itself and had the painful experience of having my presuppositions slowly extracted, removed and replaced with new ones over the course of 30 years of grappling with these matters. That this happened to lead me to a position akin to that of the Gospel Coalition variety (though not in every respect by any means) does not mean I have somehow capitulated to some myopic brand of Evangelicalism. Of course the brand of Evangelicalism I adhere to is not mainstream. In either case, I believe it has stood the test of rigorous assessment not only by myself but historically as well. The classic reformed position has stood well the test of time against many naysayers. I’m not too worried it will tumble by the critics who stand on the periphery to charge it with unfaithfulness to scripture when strict adherence to scripture has been its outstanding hallmark for 500 years.

        Having said that, I am neither immune to criticism nor being challenged by new perspectives. However, there must be more clear and persuasive arguments to challenge those core beliefs I hold Scripture to be so clear on – one being the centrality of the cross and God’s purpose to save fallen human beings thru the death of Christ.

      2. timgombis

        We very well may disagree, Scott, and that’s fine. I’m not sure that you understand what I’m saying, however. But keep studying Scripture and seeking to hold it above the system you’ve chosen to settle into.

  5. S Wu

    Scott, I don’t want to disagree with you here. I just want to say that it has been interesting to follow this discussion as someone who did not come to the Christian faith in the West. I find myself reading the Bible very differently. I came to faith about 30 years ago. One thing I decided to do early in my Christian life was to read the entire Bible from cover to cover once a year. It has been an amazing journey. The Scripture is very important to me, so much so that I went on to do a research postgraduate degree in Biblical Studies.

    With my experience of reading the Scripture (over and over again), I have to say that Tim’s blog has been really great. I like the “storied reading” of Scripture. It may sound vague, but I realize that that’s exactly what I have been doing over almost 30 years. I enter into the stories of the Scripture, and “rehearse” the narratives all the time. When I read the Psalms, for example, I find myself worshiping and praying to Yahweh with the ancient Hebrew stories in the background (and the creation story is echoed in the Psalms a lot!). It’s really great.

    All that said, I don’t want to say that your questions are invalid. I don’t want to say that those questions should be dismissed. But at least in my personal experience, it is okay to be a bit vague at times. I am comfortable with that. In fact, I wonder whether there is any one “tight” theological system that can truly represent the Scripture fully.

    Once again, my purpose here is not to disagree with you, Scott. But to share my personal experience of reading-hearing the Scripture. I find Tim’s blog to be really helpful in my own walk with God.

  6. Scott C

    I was not aware that I has holding to a “system.” I do not buy into covenant theology and my Calvinistic leanings are decidedly uncharacteristic of the standard TULIP variety. Yet I do hold to those doctrines that have been accepted by the historic reformed tradition. If that makes me a slave to a system, so be it – I gladly accept the label as long as it is faithful to scripture. Nonetheless, I enjoy the banter as it helps us all to think through our beliefs.

    1. S Wu

      Scott, did I say that “you” held to a system? When I wrote “system”, I think I had all sorts of systems in mind. Sorry if it turned out to be a misleading statement. It was meant to be a general comment. Anyhow, I appreciate your taking the time to respond. All the best, and thank you for being a committed follower of Jesus.

  7. Alastair Sterne

    I feel like you set up a Neo-Reformed straw man. To say that the Gospel Coalition equates the gospel as justification by grace through faith is not accurate.

    I am currently in New York for church planting training with Redeemer, and much of the material assigned spends time explaining and defining the gospel. Tim Keller quotes D.A. Carson liberally, and both argue that our response to the gospel should not be mistaken for the gospel, nor should the implications of how the gospel saves us be mistaken for the gospel. Keller’s own definition is the life death and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of God’s redemptive history.

    I’m a grad from Asbury and rather skeptical of aspects of the Neo-Reformed movement, but the key founders of the gospel coalition are not guilty (in my opinion) of what you’ve attributed to them.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Alastair. I’m not really familiar with Keller, but I have seen where he does indeed work and think from the larger narrative. There likely are indeed others connected with the GC who have a more robust conception of the gospel, which is why I was reticent about naming names. Yet there is a tendency among that crowd to isolate justification by faith and associate it with the core of the gospel, relativizing other aspects. Such thinking sometimes goes along with citations of Luther’s statement that justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.

      Beyond this, however, John PIper actually did associate the gospel with justification by faith. Scot McKnight goes after this a bit in his book The King Jesus Gospel and I think he’s right to do so.

      I’m not saying that everyone associated with the GC claims this, but just that it’s a tendency among that crowd. Piper’s explicit claim draws this implicit committment out into the open.

  8. Alastair Sterne

    I often struggled with this very issue. Do we make generalizations about a group and risk misrepresenting some, or do we call out the people we have in mind by name? From my experience generalizations tend to get me in more trouble.

    On a side note, do you feel like Luther is represented fairly in academic discussions now? It seems on both sides he has become a caricature.

    1. timgombis

      I hear you, Alastair. In my previous post of a few weeks ago, I tried to be very broad and note how I was referring to “associated with” that group, not necessarily those exact people, etc. I do think that the issues are serious enough to address, so I tried to use McKnight’s mode of referring to them to do the job.

      I can’t really speak to how Luther is spoken of. I do think he doesn’t get a fair shake in many NPP discussions. For my part, I try to avoid referring to a “Lutheran” position or interpretation. I think Luther was doing something far shrewder than we often imagine. He was a peerless exegete and theological interpreter.

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