The present president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, gave his annual SBC Presidential Address online (at his FB page) and focused on major topics, including race and racism. (On which I will not comment.) I have long watched Greear and I read his gospel book some years back and we engaged in a fair minded conversation, and I hope (if he has time) we can do the same again someday.
Greear’s first topic was gospel and his commitment to Scripture. On gospel I want to make a few observations.
He speaks too about sexual abuse and the need for making the church a safer place. About diversity as well, and says 20% of SBC churches are non-white. Leadership doesn’t reflect this so appointments will make diversity and persons of color a priority. “Black Lives Matter” is a “gospel issue” he says. Please don’t respond, he says, with “all lives matter.” Thank you J.D. Greear. He talked about baptism numbers… 50 years of decline… work with others to change the trajectory. Too much concern about the news cycle than evangelism. Gospel unity: rancor and divisiveness over secondary issues among some. Presidential election comes up and he appeals to Romans 14. I earlier stated that Greear said he’d vote for Trump but I misheard what he said when he was speaking in the first person. I correct that, and I apologize to him. He was appealing to unity of believers and difference in politics, and he did not specifically state his view. He finished with an exhortation about sending gospel agents into the world as missionaries.
Summary of J.D. Greear’s opening comments on gospel
He says the “gospel above all” has been the focus of the SBC the last couple years and he acknowledges that some have diminished it by making it so common. He’s referring no doubt to the use of “gospel” for whatever anyone thinks is most important. He’s right about that as I’ve heard people say the gospel is justice or feminism, and I once heard a friend say the gospel is really the gospel when you believe in double predestination. He continues with Paul in 1 Cor 15 that the gospel is of “first importance.” And then he summarizes Paul saying that his message was “Christ crucified” (and then cites Rom 4:25 that he died for our sins and was raised for our justification).
Which leads him to ask what the gospel was. He says alot can be said about kingship and the authority of Jesus and new creation and the radically new way of living, and at this point he’s got my interest. (He’s at least nodding in the direction of NT Wright, Matt Bates and me.) What he’s saying is that kingship etc are important but not as key as what he wants to focus on.
Then he says this: “The key word … is substitution.” At his church they teach a four word summary of the gospel: “Jesus in my place.”
Then he says this: “The key word … is substitution.” At his church they teach a four word summary of the gospel: “Jesus in my place.” [Notice how individualistic this is, notice too that this formula of his is nowhere found in the NT: it is “for our sins.”] Greear’s point is that he didn’t die just “for” us but “instead” of us. He glosses that with double imputation: he took our sin so we could “put on his mantle of righteousness.” (D.A. Carson, by the way, said there is no place in the NT that unambiguously teaches double imputation but it is implicit in places, and R.H. Gundry took issue with Carson at a famous Wheaton Theology Conference I attended.)
More from Greear: The “good news of the gospel” is that Jesus lived the life we were supposed to live and died our death (I summarize). Peter says this is the gospel that saves and to which we must respond by hearing and repenting and believing.
What God has taught the SB people is that “we must be a gospel-above-all people.” The gospel contains the power of God. Heals the blind, saves the sinner, and renews the church. Without the gospel Bible stories are merely instructions of what we “ought to do without the power to do it.” Everything in church ministry, Greear says, requires the power of the resurrection unleashed by the gospel, and this gospel has the ability to make all we do the power of God.
Caring the poor is an implication of the gospel but the “gospel is the message that sinners can be saved from the wrath of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” He points to Luther about humans being prone to self-sufficiency and therefore our lives must be continual repentance (southern accent on “repenunce”, love it). He is sitting at table with Luther’s works flanked behind him.
One phrase emerges – he now plays with the SBC and it’s annual convention and the Jerusalem Council – from the “Baptist” or “business meeting” in Jerusalem and the Committee on Resolutions said “We should not make it difficult for the gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). This must shape the whole of the SBC and its churches. I’ll say this: I’m not sure his reduction to substitution makes it difficult, I don’t know that. Many respond to that.
But I am sure that there is more to the gospel than what Greear says it is. His gospel, as I have said of others’ presentations of the gospel, is inadequate when compared to the Bible’s own presentation of the gospel.
Responding to his comments
There is much in this summary and in his address that is commendable. There is nothing “wrong” about what he says about gospel in that I, too, affirm substitutionary atonement. I affirm other models of atonement theory too! See A Community called Atonement.
But as I listened to Greear (more than once) I kept saying to myself, “There’s something missing here.” One cannot expect in an address like this for Greear to cover everything, but he is a clear communicator, this was not off the cuff, and he was prepared to speak about and into an ongoing conversation and he wants it clear where he stands. That conversation, and a friend told me Greear knows about this very issue, is one NT Wright and Matthew Bates and I have had with the evangelical tradition and Bates and I with Greg Gilbert and others. This has taken place in our books and on the internet.
Greear reduces gospel to (individual) substitution and he minimizes kingship to substitution. This approach to gospel is common and it is widespread and it is the very thing Bates and I and NT Wright push against. The apostles announced that the Jesus who was crucified for us was raised for us by God to right hand of God as the one who rules, and as ruler calls us to be allegiant to him. When Paul summarizes the gospel in 2 Tim 2:8 he doesn’t even mention what Greear thinks is the key (NIV: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel”).
I see three major lacks in Greear: First, he has ignored the Gospels understanding of the gospel and, for me more importantly, second his gospel is a transaction and not about Jesus, and third (and forgiveable in this context) there is no statement about method.
So, to be more biblical, one more time, I say it: the gospel of Jesus in the Gospels is the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus, unless I’m missing something, talks the “unsaved” over and over and never once to the unsaved does he say anything about substitutionary atonement. He calls people to follow him and to come to him and to surrender to him and to his teachings. It’s all about relationship to him.
Plus, there are two major texts along this line of atonement and they are Mark 10:45 (a ransom for many) and 14:24 at the last supper.
How do the Gospel authors describe Jesus’ message? The synoptic Gospel authors summarize the message of Jesus with the term “kingdom” and here Jesus is presenting himself as king/Messiah/Lord. The “key” for them is the word “kingdom.” Kingship then is not to be diminished but centralized and when it does the king is the Savior who dies for us (instead of us, yes) and is raised for us and will return for us. To reduce the gospel to substitution runs the risk of overpowering Jesus’ own term (kingdom, or eternal life in John) and replacing it with something else (substitution).
Second lack. Jesus in Greear’s summary is the agent or means of redemption (and I totally affirm Jesus as the means of our redemption) but the Gospels make Jesus the Subject of the gospel and only as Subject does he become the means and agent. When we make Jesus a means we turn the gospel into a formula of transaction. We defocus from the Person and refocus on the benefits and salvific accomplishments. In fact, we tend to reduce the gospel to a transaction. But… the gospel is about Jesus – every paragraph in all four Gospels is about Jesus and the more we see Jesus as the Center of the Story the more we will also see that Who he is leads to What he accomplishes (which is kingdom itself, including redemption). The gospel announces that Jesus is the Christ, the king, the Messiah. The Lord Jesus Christ summons people to respond by surrendering to him in allegiance.
I mention here a bit of an academic discussion, and I have not brought this up quite this way in previous conversations, but it pertains to genre: the genre of the Gospels has settled into seeing them as “lives” (bioi) of Jesus, and the moment one makes this conclusion, the gospel itself becomes a kind of narrating the life story of Jesus. The most recent discussion is a book I’m now reading by Helen Bond, and her opening chp clinches this point: if the Gospels are bioi, there is a reason why they called these bioi “Gospels”! Because they were the gospel.
A third lack is method: the gospel needs to be defined by clear gospel passages, and those are 1 Cor 15, 2 Tim 2:8, the gospel sermons in Acts and the Gospels as the gospel. Greear didn’t work out a method and that’s fine because he didn’t have time to do that, but method is vital. When we focus on these crucial gospel-defining passages we learn the gospel is the story about Jesus (what he did, who he is, what he accomplishes) that fulfills the story of Israel. We need to let the clear passages take the first step.
The “key” word then is “Jesus.” Here’s the question someone asked that needs to be first and foremost on our minds in our churches: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Those who then say “come with us, we’ll show you him” can then take others to Jesus, and they are the ones gospeling a gospel that saves.