Is this just a matter of lexicography: what does euangelion (“gospel”) mean in the New Testament? Well, not quite. On that score, McKnight and Bates are surely closer to the lexical mark: euangelion refers to the Spirit-inspired announcement that the Jesus who was crucified as a messianic pretender had in fact been raised from the dead and installed as the true Lord of the world. In other words, Jesus is King.
But, of course, as McKnight and Bates insist no less than anyone else, Jesus becomes king—or, in the more common language of the gospels, establishes “the kingdom of God”—precisely in and through a great victory over the supra-human forces of evil (so Christus Victor) by means of a sin-bearing death and a death-defeating resurrection (so Penal Substitution). It’s magnificent. We’re all agreed on that (though most Neo-Reformed folk could do with a bit more Christus Victor).
So what’s the problem?
The problem is, I suggest, two-fold. There is, on the one hand, the hermeneutical question of how to work from text to doctrine (and thence to pastoral application). And there is, on the other hand, the question of which story this “good news” belongs in.
The Hermeneutical Question
Here’s the fact. In the New Testament, the lexical force of euangelion is what McKnight and Bates say it is. Here’s the other fact. The gospels and Paul (and others) interpret this event as a great victory over the enslaving forces of evil (Christus Victor) via a sin-bearing death and a death-defeating resurrection (and ascension, and enthronement, and outpoured Spirit, and so on). But, when the word euangelion itself is used within the New Testament, it’s typically not accompanied by this dense interpretation. And when the dense interpretations are offered—as in, for example, Galatians 3:10–14; and Romans 3:21–6; 5:12–21; 8:1–4—euangelion tends not to feature in the context.
So what are we to make of this? Is the fact that the sins of the world were concentrated and condemned in the sinless Jesus not “good news?” Is the fact that, on the basis of this Christ event, God “justifies” human beings of his own gracious initiative (though this issues in and demands gospel allegiance) not “good news?” Of course it is.
But there’s a reason why the New Testament doesn’t use euangelion in this way.
The New Testament has, after all, a much larger story in mind than most evangelical presentations of “the gospel.”
Which Story are We Telling?
Again and again, the problem is that so many evangelical presentations of the gospel shrink the biblical narrative into a transaction: here, the point is about the precise mechanics of anthropological salvation. But is that the point? Well, not entirely. And, in any case, what are we saved for?
This is, I think, the underlying issue in this debate.
What story are we telling? Where does it begin, and how does it end?
To be sure, if we begin in Genesis 3, and if there we see the only problem as the fractured relationship between divinity and humanity, then, yes, we’ll see salvation—and not least its mechanics—as “the gospel,” the center of it all.
But what if we don’t begin in Genesis 3 (and don’t misread it in this way)? And what if we don’t, therefore, subordinate creation to salvation but do it the other way around?
What if we locate salvation—and all of its mechanics—within the larger narrative of creation and of God’s stewardship of creation in and through his human creatures? That is, after all, how the Bible does it.
And when we do it this way we perhaps see for the first time how and why Jesus’ kingship is euangelion.
God gets on the cross and in the resurrection (and enthronement) what he was looking for in the garden:
a true human in and through whom (and, in this one unique case, as whom) he can steward his beloved (but now broken) creation.
That is the euangelion.
When Adam and Eve forfeited their image-bearing vocation, this vocation devolved onto Israel. And when Israel broke the covenant, this vocation devolved onto Jesus solo. In and through Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension/enthronement, God finally and for the first time established a true human being over his whole creation. That’s what he’d always wanted to do. The creation project was back on track.
And we’re invited to join in!
In other words, in and through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and enthronement, God has rescued his creation project and thus launched new creation.
Of course, that new creation was launched precisely in and through Christus Victor by means of Penal Substitution. And, of course, this “new humanness,” this salvation, is offered on that basis alone, by God’s initiative alone, etc.
But the soteriological mechanics—inexhaustibly magnificent though they are!—are to be located within this story and not some other.
That is, after all, the point of one of Paul’s greatest and densest summaries of his macro-theological vision (Rom. 8:28–30). God intends all human beings ultimately to be patterned after the image of his resurrected and glorified son and thus to attain to the telos of Genesis 1:26–8: true humans in Christ and by the Spirit stewarding God’s world on God’s behalf.