Problems, Yes. —plus an Open Letter to Greg Gilbert
Who has been getting the center and framework of the gospel wrong? John MacArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, Albert Mohler, and Greg Gilbert. Other T4G keynote speakers and TGC heavyweights are implicated too. These are reliable Christian teachers and good organizations. And I’m not saying everyone affiliated has been doing this. But there are reasons for concern. For some of T4G/TGC’s highest profile leaders have been claiming our justification by faith is the center of the gospel, but Scripture doesn’t say it is even part of the gospel. For evidence that they have been claiming this, see my previous article or my fuller presentation in Gospel Allegiance. Those who think this is just people talking past one another with no theological or practical payoff probably have the most to learn.
My previous article struck a nerve. Better, a nerve-center. It instantly had a high volume of shares and was promptly translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic. Scot McKnight’s post received a huge response too. Doubtless this has little to do with the quality of our writing and everything to do with the urgency of the gospel. Since the competency of high-profile T4G/TGC keynote speakers was called into question regarding their central mission, conversation exploded. Perhaps it was also that the T4G20 conference theme, “Entrusted with the Gospel,” was now felt to have a special irony.
Yet I was mistaken in my previous article. I expressed hope that these T4G ("Together for the Gospel") and TGC (“The Gospel Coalition”) leaders were beginning to shift. The basis was Greg Gilbert’s recent T4G20 sermon (transcript). He avoided the incorrect God-man-Christ-response framework for defining the gospel that dominates his earlier book. His sermon fronted the gospel of Jesus’s kingship instead. Since the sermon is titled, “What Is and Isn’t the Gospel” I was hoping this meant T4G/TGC leaders were starting to realign. But Gilbert says no change is occurring. I was wrong. But more is the pity.
Are the charges true? Many have weighed in, including several professional bible scholars—Michael Bird, Jackson Wu, Nijay Gupta, Michael Barber, and Chris Kugler. These have written articles that lean toward McKnight and me. As far as I’m aware, no scholar has posted an article favoring Gilbert’s claim that personal justification and our faith response is intrinsic to the gospel. I might have missed one. It is too early to suggest an emerging guilty-as-charged consensus, but not too soon to affirm that the charges have heft.
This article strives not to respond to Gilbert per se but to use the occasion to raise broader questions about the gospel. Yet since, in Scot McKnight’s judgment and mine, Gilbert has not ceased the misrepresentation, but instead has accelerated it, a rejoinder seemed prudent. Yet, we don’t want this to devolve into a he-said-she-said type argument that distracts. We’ve got more important goals. So, I’ve responded to Greg Gilbert directly via an “open letter” appended to this article. If you don’t care about the misrepresentation issue, skip it.
The precise aim of my prior article was to suggest that there is a gospel problem among some T4G/TGC leaders. Now I move to something more crucial: evidence and possible corrections. Yet first I need to clarify what this is and isn’t about, for the waters have become muddier since I initially wrote.
On the one hand, I’m happy the waters have been churned. Greg Gilbert decided to respond. I’m heartened. This was thoughtful. I appreciate his candor. He seems eager to dialogue and learn. He even asked a couple of questions. Both Scot and I appreciate this. We want to keep learning from him and others too. It’s encouraging when Christians can have an appreciative dialogue while contending for the truth. I feel confident that if Greg Gilbert and I were to sit down over a brew, and chat about Scripture, family life, and baseball, we’d enjoy it. (Wait. Is a beer okay?) If that were to happen, we’d certainly find ourselves agreeing about nearly all core Christian truths. Accordingly, some wonder if the disagreements that remain would better be handled privately. But this misunderstands public theology. Public theology must remain sensitive to interpersonal dynamics but has different aims. I trust that Gilbert and I both think that it’s worth publicly disagreeing if the dust-up can burnish the truth in such a way that the church gains greater gospel precision.
On the other hand, muddier was the right word. Because for those seeking clarity about the gospel or about what McKnight and I actually teach, despite some illuminating moments, Gilbert’s response badly obfuscates.
Gilbert spends the first part of his response trying to distance himself from the T4G/TGC brands. I’m quite certain that the T4G/TGC powerbrokers are grateful for this, because the title of Gilbert’s article is about the most shockingly un-Christian thing a person could say: “‘Jesus Is King’ Is Not Good News.” Fortunately, Gilbert is definitely a Christian brother and his actual intention is to say the opposite. Let’s all be clear about this: that “Jesus is King” is not good news is not the message Gilbert, T4G, or TGC actually wants to communicate. [Attention: 9Marks has now changed Gilbert’s title: “A Response to Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates”].
Yet even while attempting to distance himself, Gilbert gives the game away. He acknowledges that he is walking lock-in-step with T4G/TGC leadership: “I don’t think I said anything in that talk that the leaders of either T4G or TGC would disagree with, and I appreciate one or two of them saying so on various social media platforms.” Yes, Gilbert’s personal response is his own. But don’t let the hand-waving misdirect. Gilbert and other key T4G/TGC leaders acknowledge that his teaching about the gospel and salvation is representative.
This was and is about widespread mistakes with regard to the center and framework of the gospel among high-profile T4G/TGC leaders.
Why the Gospel Promoted by Gilbert and Some T4G/TGC Leaders Is Inaccurate
1. Basic fallacies of biblical interpretation regarding “gospel” (euangelion). Greg Gilbert, John Piper (The Future of Justification, p. 86-91), and those who follow their line of thought combine two well-known errors of biblical interpretation. A simplistic treatment of roots (the “root fallacy” or etymological error) causes them to pay insufficient attention to the ancient context. Because the word euangelion comes from eu- (“good”) and angelion (“tidings” or “message”), they assume that it must mean good news for you and me personally or it simply can’t mean “good news.” Yet in the NT and its world euangelion frequently refers to a royal announcement, such as news of a new king, for the general public quite apart from whether that announcement would result in good for you or me personally. That is, the good in good news is not intrinsically a personal good.
For example, when Vespasian became Caesar, this was heralded as good news (euangelia) for the empire before he had done anything good or bad, without regard for his intentions toward specific individuals (Josephus, Jewish War 4.618, 4.656). Everyone knew Vespasian’s ascension meant that some specific individuals would benefit and others would be condemned. Yet in the ancient world it was still appropriate to call such events “good news” for the empire as a whole irrespective of individual outcomes. Accordingly, Gilbert’s claim, “For it to be good news, we have to know what this king intends to do—whether he intends to crush or to save, to condemn or to forgive,” is not based on accurate research.
In fact, the first time this word euangelion appears in the Bible, we see why. A herald brought what he considered to be “good news” of Saul’s defeat and death to David, but David had the man put to death (2 Sam 4:10). It is still called “good news” in Scripture even though David had the man killed for delivering it! Since an individual is crushed and condemned by the king, this is precisely the opposite of what Gilbert says must define the essence of good news. It proved to be supremely bad news for this man; yet the herald’s message is called “good news” in Scripture because the herald was referring to events of kingdom-wide significance that he considered good news. And this was ordinary usage. This is but one of many examples that shows that Gilbert’s argument is invalid.
Yes, Jesus is a supremely good king (on which, see Joshua Jipp, Christ Is King). But the kindness or malice of the king toward specific individuals did not control how the word euangelion referred in the New Testament’s world. It referred to empire-wide good news apart from what that news might mean for this or that specific citizen. Gilbert’s and Piper’s conclusion otherwise is based on a simplistic construal of the word roots as that is combined with a failure to take into account the ancient context sufficiently.
2. “Gospel” reference failure. But the problem for Gilbert’s and other T4G/TGC leaders’ version of the gospel is even more severe. The word “gospel” cannot successfully refer at all in the New Testament if it means what they think it means. Gilbert’s definition of the gospel makes each individual’s own personal justification intrinsic to the gospel itself rather than a benefit that derives from it.
I think I am summarizing him fairly when I say that for Gilbert, the gospel is God is righteous, you (inclusive of each individual) are a sinner, but by dying an atoning death for your sins Jesus Christ has justified you, so you must respond with faith and repentance (see Gilbert, What Is the Gospel?). The justification of each unsaved “you” is intrinsically part of the gospel for Gilbert. But that would mean that when Jesus is proclaiming the gospel in the NT, then each future unsaved Christian’s unique justification is being proclaimed as part of the referent within his message. So if I you or I am not yet “saved,” it refers to “you” and to “me” even though we haven’t yet been born. But that doesn’t make sense, does it?
The truth is this: when we find the word “gospel” in the New Testament, the gospel is not about me (it does not refer to me), but the gospel’s promises are for everyone, including me. If I choose to accept the gospel, its benefits, like justification, adoption, and forgiveness, are applied to me by the Holy Spirit.
3. Failure to distinguish the objective work of the Christ for a group from its subjective appropriation by an individual. Here I am speaking only to Gilbert rather than the other T4G/TGC leaders I’ve mentioned, as this is a problem with his analysis, but I don’t know how far it extends. Part of the gospel is that “the Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). The saving work of the king has been decisively accomplished on behalf of his people. But that doesn’t mean each individual who will become a Christian has yet experienced it.
Salvation is about a group of people first, individuals second. The clearest statements describing the purpose of the gospel in Scripture indicate that it is “for the obedience of pistis in all the nations.” This is best understood as loyal obedience or allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah, the lord, the king (see Rom. 1:2-5, 16:25-26; Bates, Gospel Allegiance, p. 68-73). God’s purpose is to create a people for himself. After his enthronement as king, Jesus pours out the Spirit on a group, filling each individual. When each person initially enters salvation, she or he does not enter in isolation. The justified church always exists prior. As the Father and Son send the Spirit to the church, upon our declaration of allegiance (ordinarily at baptism) we are enveloped into the justified Spirit-filled community in such a way that we are justified and have the Spirit too. There is an objective/corporate dimension (the church exists as a justified community) and subjective/individual dimension (a person is not justified until they enter it).
Here’s another way to look at it. The classic theological distinction is between the historia salutis (God’s saving deeds in history) and the ordo salutis (the sequence by which an individual comes to experience salvation). Even though some versions of the ordo salutis are problematic (see Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, p. 166-75 for discussion), nevertheless one can say that on the cross Jesus won justification objectively through his accomplished work as part of salvation history for whoever ultimately comes to be found “in him.” That can never change. The possibility and promise that we can be justified by faith is part of the gospel in this sense. Yet an individual does not experience the saving benefit of justification until she or he gives trusting loyalty to Jesus as king. That is, subjective personal appropriation of salvation is not part of the gospel proper, but rather one of its applied benefits. An individual’s justification is part of the gospel as a potentiality, but not as a realized actuality.
4. Faulty method leads to a faulty frame and center. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, since McKnight has already taken Gilbert to task over this here and here (and in The King Jesus Gospel). The best method for defining the gospel is to look at the passages of Scripture that give explicit gospel content as well as the overall structure of the Four Gospels (e.g., Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:18-19; Rom. 1:2-4, 1 Cor. 15:3-5; 2 Tim. 2:8; the sermons in Acts). This is what I do in Gospel Allegiance. When we do this, we find that it is a narrative about how Jesus became the saving king.
The gospel is that Jesus the king:
1. preexisted as God the Son,
2. was sent by the Father,
3. took on human flesh in fulfillment of God’s promises to David,
4. died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
5. was buried,
6. was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
7. appeared to many witnesses,
8. is enthroned at the right hand of God as the ruling Christ,
9. has sent the Holy Spirit to his people to effect his rule, and
This narrative has a climax rather than a center: Jesus has become the saving king. The gospel includes substitutionary atonement and victory. It’s a narrative about Jesus, but not an inert story, because God uses it to bring salvation to everyone who gives allegiance to the king (Rom 1:16-17). Gilbert primarily uses Romans 1-4 to define the gospel and its center, but in so doing he simply imposes the theology of these chapters onto his definition—and that in problematic ways (see here or here). That’s why his gospel is defined by an inaccurate God-man-Christ-response framework. Gilbert’s deficient version of the gospel is the same as that used by 9Marks.
I know many people hate theological disagreement and would prefer that we live in unbroken harmony, strumming guitars and singing praise together. Well, I don’t like to argue needlessly either. But public dialogue is vital to Christian scholarship and theology. And short-term pain hopefully can lead to long-term gains.
Correcting these gospel deficiencies has practical pastoral, ecumenical, and missional payoff. I have much more to say about this, and I have spoken about it elsewhere. Here I’ll only say this: a gospel that emphasizes personal trust that God’s promises are true in Jesus the savior looks different on the ground than one that stresses the allegiance of the nations to a victorious king who bestows saving benefits. The true gospel leaves the Father, royal Son, and Spirit at the referential heart of the gospel and removes “me,” giving God more glory. Discipleship is better integrated. Moreover, if we mis-locate our personal justification by making it internal to the gospel rather than a benefit, justification can wrongly be weaponized to split the one true gospel-affirming church. This is nearly the reverse of justification’s actual purpose for the church. Properly locating it helps us make progress toward ecumenical reconciliation.
In this article I’ve mostly shown evidence that Gilbert’s version of the gospel, which is representative of T4G/TGC emphases broadly considered, contains inaccuracies. No matter how badly they want to put it back inside, the awkward cat is out of the bag: TGC/T4G speakers like John MacArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and Albert Mohler have been getting the center and framework of the gospel wrong for years. Gilbert says no shift on this front is presently happening.
Given the sway that these leaders have, it is distressing to think they might persist down a path of error rather than undertake course correction. But as far as I’m concerned, this conversation is just beginning. And I’m optimistic that the pertinent T4G, TGC, and 9Marks leaders will eventually recognize their version of the gospel is off by a couple marks. I trust the Holy Spirit will be guiding us all toward the truth.
Matthew W. Bates (@Matthew W. Bates), associate professor of theology, Quincy University
Appendix: An Open Letter to Greg Gilbert
Now I need to do something unpleasant. Part of Christian fellowship among our sisters and brothers involves speaking the truth in love. Sometimes hard words are necessary but vital if we are to make progress. We all make mistakes. I certainly have and will continue to make my fair share. But accuracy and truthful representation matter. Since Gilbert invited further dialogue, and since this is not about a personal offense but about public theology, I think the most effective way to communicate my concerns to him and to readers is by addressing Gilbert directly via an open letter.
An Open Letter to Greg Gilbert, Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville
This conversation makes me uncomfortable, but I need to be honest about how I see it. Greg, you misrepresented us in your earlier T4G 2020 sermon. Now you’ve masked the past distortion in your response, escalating it instead. I appreciate your response, but aspects of it are troubling.
Greg. In the sermon you said that McKnight and Bates “take the story of Jesus’s kingship and divorce it from the realities of personal salvation, forgiveness, atonement, and justification.” This was called out as serious misrepresentation. It’s not okay in your subsequent response to mumble into your sleeve about how the word “divorce” has some not-truly-separate private meaning for you that it doesn’t hold for the rest of the world. McKnight and I acknowledge that the King Jesus gospel brings all those dimensions of personal salvation—and you admit as much. It appears that you’ve given the word divorce an inaccurate private meaning to avoid saying that you misrepresented our teaching. And Greg, when you allege that we say, “the gospel is that Jesus is king and not that he wins salvation for his people,” you are not playing fair when you assert that you were being accurate because we say that justification and forgiveness are saving benefits or results of the gospel. The problem, again, is that you can’t give “wins salvation for his people” your own private definition. Greg, can I suggest that in everyone’s world, including yours if you’re being honest with yourself, winning salvation for his people includes the bestowal of saving results and benefits, like personal justification and forgiveness. You can’t privately and arbitrarily define “wins salvation for his people” as wins salvation exclusive of the bestowal of saving benefits just to safeguard yourself against the charge of misrepresentation.
But sadly, Greg, this isn’t all. I’ll be frank: What troubles me most is that it is hard to see how your response didn’t devolve into intentional misrepresentation through selective presentation. I hope not. Truly, I’m hoping for the best. But it doesn’t look good. For in the very article to which you’re responding (not even considering numerous such statements in books) I say, “substitutionary atoning death for our sins on the cross” is part of the good news and “the offer of forgiveness of sins via substitutionary atonement is part of the gospel.” Substitutionary atonement is twice affirmed to be part of the gospel. But in your response you put words in McKnight’s mouth and mine, alleging we would say: “Jesus is King is gospel. Nothing more. ‘Not a word about atonement, not a word about salvation.’ Full stop…” And similar statements. Given we affirm that the atonement and salvation are part of the gospel explicitly and repeatedly in numerous places, including the short articles (here and here) that prompted your response, it is hard not to feel like your “how sad and thin” rhetoric involves intentionally selective misrepresentation designed to tug the emotions.
Along these lines, you invent a narrative suggesting McKnight and I would interpret “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) by affirming only the first part as gospel but not the second. The word “invent” is key, because not a bit of it is true. Nor would we ever say such a thing. Greg, instead of inventing emotion-laden stories about what you suppose we would say, can you just accurately report what we actually have said in any future work—without decontextualizing and cherry-picking. After all, we’ve written plenty about this. And in your published sermon you said you’ve been reading Gospel Allegiance and The King Jesus Gospel, so you have the essential sources at hand.
Greg, I do appreciate you as a Christian brother who is serving our king by pastoring and writing. Tone is hard to read, but this is sincere. You have my respect. I consider you a partner in ministry. I look forward to learning together now and in the future.