Defining the Gospel – Mcknight, Bates and Gilbert

Not sure if you’ve been following, but a discussion/exchange took place earlier this week between a couple of biblical scholars (Matthew Bates and Scot Mcknight) and a pastor (Greg Gilbert). The topic of dispute – What is the gospel?

Let me just back up and give a brief summary of what the exchange is about. In brief, the exchange primarily surrounds two differing definitions of what the gospel is.

The Soterian Gospel

On the one hand, Greg Gilbert who happens to be good friends with folks from T4G and TGC argues that the heart of the gospel is about salvation. This is seen most clearly in his response to Mcknight, where he accuses Mcknight of not making salvation “the heart or center of the gospel.” Related to this soterian gospel, is of course justification by faith alone (henceforth JBFA). Crucial to the soterian gospel is not merely the fact that salvation is now made available, but also how one gets to be saved. While this is accomplished through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the good news according to the soterian gospel also includes the fact that we are saved through JBFA. For instance, in a sermon by John Piper dated 2016, he titled it “The Heart of the Gospel: Righteousness from God that Depends on Faith”. Mohler makes it more explicit when he says in a 2016 sermon “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.” (40:56 mark)

Does Jesus’ kingship even matter within the soterian gospel? Yes. Gilbert affirms Jesus’ kingship. However, for Gilbert, “the proclamation “Jesus is King” is not good news at all.” What makes the kingship of Jesus good news is that this is a king who saves. As Gilbert himself writes “Indeed, he is a King who represents his people in suffering, who gives himself to die so that they might live. That’s good news, not the bare statement that “Jesus is King.” So salvation still remains at the centre of the gospel under his view. The centrality of salvation is of utmost importance to Gilbert so much so that he rejects any kind of disassociation with the word salvation and gospel. In his opinion, to speak of salvation as flowing or emerging from the gospel is wrong. Salvation does not flow from the gospel. It is the gospel.

If there was a way to summarize the soterian gospel, it would probably be something like this: God who is holy and just, sent Jesus Christ the perfect sacrifice, to die on the cross for our transgressions so that in Christ, we have the forgiveness of sins if we believe in him.

A similar summary of the soterian gospel can also be found in 9marks, the website where Gilbert responded to Mcknight and Bates.

King Jesus Gospel

On the other hand lies the king Jesus gospel. This gospel understands the gospel as Jesus becoming king through the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, his death, resurrection and ascension where he now sits at the right hand of God the father. The good news for us according to this gospel is that the king has finally come and he is Jesus, the one who comes from the line of David. With Jesus comes the inauguration of God’s kingdom, something that has long been awaited for since the times of the Old Testament.  At the same time, this king does not come empty handed but through his life, substitutionary atonement and enthronement, salvation is now made possible.

Based on my understanding, under the king Jesus gospel, how you get the benefits of the gospel is not part of the gospel. Salvation is part of the gospel in so far as it is a result of the power of the gospel. But how a person receives it is not the gospel. To quote Matthew Bates, a proponent of the king Jesus gospel:

Thus, 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. It is a benefit of the gospel. The same with justification. Scripture never says our justification by faith is part of the gospel. Righteousness is revealed to be among the gospel’s benefits (Rom 1:17). Meanwhile “faith” (pistis) is how we respond to the gospel of Jesus’s kingship, so its saving benefits are actualized (Italics mine)

If JBFA is so central to the soterian gospel, what about the king Jesus gospel? As you probably might have guessed by now, the answer is not much. It’s not that those who hold on to the king Jesus gospel don’t believe in it or even consider it unimportant. It is important in so far as it speaks of how we are to receive the gospel. But as seen by Bates’ quote above, how one gets saved, which includes JBFA is not the gospel proper according to this view. The gospel according to the king Jesus gospel is that Jesus is the Christ.

Some thoughts and Reflections

I’ve tried my best to summarize the two views as accurately as possible with roughly the same word count given to both views and I hope that you won’t be able to guess where I stand on this issue just through the summary. But seriously where do I stand? The question of what is the gospel is a surprisingly simple and complex question. Simple because it’s something that we hear so often in churches that we seem to have an answer for it quite readily but yet upon further reflection, it is complex enough to warrant this ongoing dispute. In my first few weeks of seminary, I recall being asked this same question about the gospel during my mission and theology modules. To me…..(here it comes) the gospel is that Jesus has come as King.

1) My issue with the soterian gospel as taken by people like Mohler, Piper, Gilbert and 9marks is that I find it historically vacuous. It is historically vacuous in so far as the majority of the Old Testament history seems redundant to the soterian gospel. If salvation is so crucial and pivotal to the gospel such that it must be at the center, and this salvation is procured by Jesus Christ who is sinless, then one wonders why Joseph and Mary even bothered escaping from Herod in the first place. Why not have baby Jesus killed since baby Jesus would also be fully God and fully man and sinless? He would also be the perfect sacrifice. Consider the Christological image that 9marks gives when summarizing the gospel:

“Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man, lived a sinless life, died on the cross to bear God’s wrath in the place of all who would believe in him, and rose from the grave in order to give his people eternal life (John 1:1, 1 Tim. 2:5, Heb. 7:26, Rom. 3:21-26, 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Cor. 15:20-22).”

Under the soterian gospel, what difference does it actually make that Jesus had to live and go through his life as recorded in the gospels especially if what seems central is having a sinless and perfect sacrifice as propounded by the soterian gospel? To put it quite bluntly, what is the relevance of the Old Testament within this Christology?

2) Secondly, Gilbert’s insistence that salvation cannot be understood as flowing from the gospel since it is the gospel raises questions for me. For instance, in Rom 1:16 it seems to me that St Paul doesn’t equate the gospel with salvation either. Instead he says it is “the power of God for salvation (NRSV, ESV), or “the power of God that brings salvation” (NIV).  Even a conservative scholar like Douglas Moo also recognises this distinction with the following comment:

For this gospel, whose content is Jesus Christ, “appointed Son-of-God-in-power” (v. 4), mediates “the power of God leading to salvation.” – Moo, Romans, NICNT

Is there perhaps another way to read this text that would support Gilbert’s position? There may be. But it seems to me to be a passage that Gilbert can’t escape if he wants to make his claim.

3) Thirdly, I find Gilbert’s misreading of Bates and Mcknight a bit troubling. Gilbert argues that the good news of Jesus’ kingship is that he is a king who saves and not merely that he is a king. He launches into this accusation where he states

Why on earth would anyone want to stand over against that and say, “No. Jesus is King is gospel. Nothing more. ‘Not a word about atonement, not a word about salvation.’ Full stop right there”? How sad and thin . . .

The whole point of my T4G talk was that “representative suffering” is inherent to the idea of Israelite kingship, indeed inseparable from it. So every time you read the word “King/Christ/Messiah” in the New Testament, you should also hear in that word the truth that the whole idea of kingship was that the king would suffer and die in the place of his people so that they might be saved from their rebellion against God.

The problem I have with Gilbert’s statement is not that I disagree with it, but that he’s simply attacking a straw man. Almost all the proponents of the king Jesus gospel would never argue that the title of King carries with it nothing other than an empty title. The whole point about Jesus becoming king or the Christ is a story of redemption and God’s faithfulness to his covenantal promises through the person of Jesus.  In making such a claim and accusation, I think Gilbert fundamentally misunderstands the people he is critiquing. Because of Gilbert’s insistence that salvation cannot flow from the gospel but must be the gospel itself, one of the results is that he ends up reading into these authors what they themselves never wrote. In fact, one might even argue that for Gilbert to say “the proclamation “Jesus is King” is not good news at all” could even be an indicator that he fails to recognise the function of kingship/messiahship within the biblical narrative.

My final point isn’t so much a disagreement but rather a point of clarification that I feel is needed. Gilbert says:

“I and others are and have been holding to and preaching, for a very long time, a gospel of kingship-and-salvation. Jesus’ Kingship is gospel; his Suffering Servanthood is gospel; his incarnation is Gospel; his salvation and forgiveness of sinners is gospel; the justification of sinners by faith alone is gospel; the call to the entire world to repent and believe and be saved by Jesus is gospel.”

It seems that gospel for him simply broadly refers to anything that is good news for the recipients of scripture. Therefore PSA (penal substitutionary atonement) JBFA, Jesus’ servanthood, all fall under that same category simply because it’s good news for us. Which is true. It is good news for us

But the question is whether the word εὐαγγέλιον means something more specific than simply anything that is good news to sinful creatures like us. It seems to me that there is in fact a differentiation between what we consider good news, as good as they may be, versus the slightly more technical use of the word εὐαγγέλιον within the 1st century context.

Perhaps should either of them continue in this exchange, we can hope to see a clearer definition of what the gospel as used by the NT authors meant.

As for why this even matters, I think there are a couple of answers to that. But very briefly, as Christians I think we have a duty to faithfully read and interpret scripture in all its riches. But also the way we understand the gospel would  carry implications for how we understand God, our time here on earth in God’s inaugurated kingdom, ethics, and even what faithfulness means. Because of this, definitions of the gospel cannot be brushed aside.

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