King Jesus Gospel: Mere Kingship? No
Beth Felker Jones, in her wonderful book Practicing Christian Doctrine, reminds all of us who are Protestant that “The best practitioners of doctrine [sola scriptura is under discussion] are always ready to be challenged and corrected by God’s Word” (Practicing Christian Doctrine, 17). This is what Matthew Bates (Salvation by Allegiance Alone, Gospel Allegiance) and I (The King Jesus Gospel) have done in our books. We have challenged a typical evangelical understanding of the gospel by appealing to Scripture.
One would expect that The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and Together for the Gospel (T4G) folks would bark back at us because what Bates and I write challenges their perception of the gospel. It is not that we deny the truth of what they teach about salvation but that their ordering of the gospel is not identical to the gospel as presented in the New Testament. Their gospel, no matter how you cut the cards, is (or at least has been) closer to the Four Spiritual Laws, the Bridge, or the Sinner’s Prayer Gospel (the last one has been deeply criticized by leading SBC voices). We don’t think that’s how the gospel is understood in the NT. We don’t deny the truths of redemption at work in those gospel approaches, however.
Let it be said that both Bates and I appreciate that this is now more of an open discussion. We think it is worth having a genuine conversation about the gospel, though I personally wonder if that can happen. Sad to say, there is at times some “othering” or what the anthropologists call the “Cultural Repugnant Other,” the one we don’t tolerate because we can ignore or suppress or castigate the person or those who represent an alternative viewpoint.
In a recent blog post that posted his address at T4G, pastor-author Greg Gilbert weighed in on the McKnight-Bates proposal of a king Jesus gospel. (Gilbert’s book on the gospel, What is the Gospel?, was criticized by both Bates and me in our books.)
What Gilbert said in his address (happily) surprised both of us. We think Jesus ought to be up front and center, and Gilbert explicitly affirms the need for this:
The burden of that charge, of course, is to make sure that we as evangelicals—especially as evangelical preachers—don’t excise Jesus from his place in the grand, sweeping storyline of Scripture. And I have to say, I think that’s a good warning. It may even qualify as a legitimate critique of much evangelical preaching, especially when at least one of our most well-known spokesmen is explicitly calling on evangelicals to “unhitch the Christian faith” from the Old Testament.
He accepts the criticisms we have to offer in this:
It’s true: Many of us would be helped in our preaching of the gospel by not just preaching the simple (though true) propositions of substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone, but by re-embracing the epic of the Bible, placing those things in their proper place in the grand storyline. If people think Christianity is about three or four sentences that you can fit on a napkin, it’s going to seem shallow and flimsy compared to the myriad other worldviews and religions that are competing for their attention.
I totally agree with what comes next:
Christianity rests on a spell-binding story about the history and future of the world—a story of kings, conquests, failures and redemptions that, when once you understand it, makes Jesus breathtakingly awesome.
Had Gilbert written in his book what he wrote in this blog post about king Jesus (King in the garden, King in Israel, King in the prophets, and the King in all his beauty) I would not have used him as an illustration of the soterian gospel. His sketch, nuances respected, is not unlike the ones I have in both King Jesus Gospel and Kingdom Conspiracy.
So, what I see in his article/address and what I saw in his book are not the same. I welcome that shift to the story of the King. If he has reframed the soterian gospel into the narrative about king Jesus – who saves – then I applaud that reframing.
But what he says next in the article is inaccurate and unfair:
But what I don’t understand about books that make this case for a “kingship gospel” or a “royal gospel” is why there’s so often an impulse to take the story of Jesus’s kingship and divorce it from the realities of personal salvation, forgiveness, atonement, and justification. It’s puzzling; because the message isn’t just “Don’t forget that salvation has a history; preach the word of the cross and the good news of the kingdom!” It’s often something more like, “The gospel is that Jesus is king and not that he wins salvation for his people.”
We don’t divorce redemption from the gospel. The gospel saves. Jesus saves. We do not divorce; we coordinate and relate the two. That this will be widely disseminated is wrong.
This word at the end, too, is reductionistic about our view:
First, I hope you can see now why I say that a gospel of mere kingship is insufficient.
Our view is not “mere” if by that he means it excludes redemption. First Christology, then soteriology. That is all I have done in King Jesus Gospel. It’s not an either-or but a both-and. Better yet, a first-second. The problem is that the soterian gospel is not the king Jesus gospel in its framework.
One day, sitting in my office, I got a knock on my door and someone came in and we had a conversation: he accused me of having too much redemption theme in my book, King Jesus Gospel. I had an email sitting in my Inbox that said something like Gilbert, that I didn’t have enough redemption in the gospel. I don’t think the tension of these two responses is about writing as I think my book is simple and clear. The issue is that, if we grow up and into a soterian gospel, when we read someone like C.H. Dodd or me or Bates we wonder what is going on. It’s a paradigm shift. It’s not about clarity but about paradigms. It reframes the gospel.
If he wants to say I don’t preach a Calvinist theory of redemption forcefully enough, he’d be right. I get that, but I don’t think that ought to get in the way of what we are saying the NT says about gospel. So...
I want to offer my response here as Bates has already posted his just below this post on my CT blog.
Bates informed me of Gilbert’s post and I was on my way out the door but I quickly read through it, only skimming some of it. Skimming at times gives one a big view of the post and I have to say my response was “Wow, this is great. Gilbert’s now framing the gospel through the king Jesus theme.” I will say it here then: the irony of Gilbert’s post is that while criticizing our king Jesus framing of the gospel he now frames the gospel by king Jesus. Matt and I see this as a step forward in what it means to be “together” for the gospel. (I would disagree with some of Gilbert’s use of kingship in the narrative of the Bible, but that’s for another context and you can see my Kingdom Conspiracy for now. By the way, good price on it at the link.)
One of Gilbert’s themes, which derives from Luther, is the centrality of justification by faith to the gospel itself. OK, Luther was right: his perception of justification focused on God’s grace and our sinfulness and our inability to please God and the incongruity of God’s grace and human deserving. That drove Luther, and he was right. In his day, he could do no other.
But making justification “central” is a problem. To begin with, it tends to be explanatory: one can make anything central if one uses it to explain everything else. But it’s unbiblical because one finds the term “justification” three times in the Gospels (Luke 10:29; 16:15; 18:14). Rare is the point. When one presses this too hard one discovers that Jesus didn’t or rarely did preach the gospel of the centrality of justification. That’s a serious mistake. Jesus, instead, chose kingdom to express his gospel. That’s why the Evangelists say he preached the “gospel of the kingdom.” He preached the gospel… he is the gospel. Everywhere he went he was gospeling. He was the “autobasileia,” the kingdom itself.
Further, arguing that justification is central means we only have one author in the NT who gets close to this – Paul – but only in two of his letters is it central (Romans, Galatians), and this excludes James with a swish of the hand. No Hebrews, no John, no Peter. It just isn’t central to them.
It is more biblical to let their centralities be our centralities. We might just need a big center to be biblical.
Having said that, yes, justification – being “righted” with God. Yes, by faith – understood as trust, as allegiance, as the faith. Bates and I agree. Plus, I’d add other soteriological terms, and we can factor in atonement theories as sorting out how to think about this, and gospel theories ought to be connected to atonement and soteriological categories.
There’s a deeper problem we have: the center of the gospel is Jesus. Jesus in all his fullness: he is Messiah, he is Son of God, he is Son of Man… and Who he is shapes What he does and when we talk king Jesus gospel we mean all that, but we begin with Jesus and soteriology flows from Jesus.
For me there’s a methodological problem as well, and I sort this out in The King Jesus Gospel. I don’t think Gilbert’s gospel in the book is as biblical about gospel as it could be. Here’s why:
First, we need to go to the passages in the NT that actually come close to defining the gospel, and in fact they do.
What follows then is about what the NT’s explicit passages about the gospel say the gospel is, and in saying so we are pressing against what is commonly said the gospel is. We are pressing against the lack of method in Gilbert’s approach.
Second, here they are:
(1) 2 Tim 2:8: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.”
Here Paul overtly says the gospel is to remember that Jesus is King (Christos means anointed king), that he was raised from the dead, and that he is a Davidid. That, he overtly says, is his gospel. Will we let Paul think he got it right here?
(2) 1 Cor 15:1-8:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
The focus here is on the events of Jesus: his life, his death, his burial, his resurrection, and his appearances. Along with those events – inside them, through them, because of them – we have the story of Israel (the Bible’s narrative leading to Jesus) being fulfilled. And alongside and running through it all – that he “died for our sins.” Redemption is there in the gospel story we tell about Jesus.
I believe this: the gospel is about Jesus not us. It is for us not about us. It benefits us because that’s Who Jesus is. To turn it into a message about us is idolatrous. (I don’t mean to suggest Gilbert is doing that, so don’t misread me.)
(3) There six, seven, or eight sermons in Acts, each of them a gospel sermon by an apostle (either Peter or Paul) and they knew both what to say and how to say it. They told the story about what God did in Jesus – read Peter’s sermon in Acts 10 – and they called people to repentance.
Pause: how many times in all of this above does the word “justification” appear? Not in 2 Tim 2, not in 1 Cor 15, and a grand total of once in the apostolic sermons in Acts. That for me says what needs to be said about what is central. This is why we have to talk method – which passages count most when it comes to defining gospel?
(4) Now look at Romans 10:9-10: “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”
The focus here on what to believe is that Jesus is Lord (=King) and that he was raised from the dead. The ones who believe that gospel get “saved” and “justified.” That’s the order: the king Jesus gospel saves and justifies.
(5): The Four Gospels are called “gospel” because they are the gospel, and they are the gospel because they are just like the gospel preached in Acts and in 1 Cor 15 and clipped into sound bytes in 2 Tim 2. They tell us about Jesus and who he is and what he accomplishes for us.
(Bates, by the way, in his books emphasizes Romans 1:3-5 in ways that I think are spectacular, so add that to the list – and keep looking for justification.)
Bates and I think our case is established by the Bible, and so back to where I began: with Beth Felker Jones’ reminder that we need to get back to the Bible to test our theologies. All the time.
We find Gilbert’s approach to gospel biblically deficient.
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