Greg Gilbert recently preached a sermon on the Gospel in which he contrasted his approach with that of Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates. 9Marks released the edited sermon notes shotly thereafter. In response, Bates said on April 17th that he was misrepresented and later wrote an article for Christianity Today. Scot McKnight also wrote a response article on the same day.
So what is the conflict, and at the end of the day, what is the Gospel? Here are some thoughts.
In his T4G sermon, Gilbert attempted to show why both the story of kingship and our personal salvation make up the Gospel. He wants to know “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.” Speaking of Bates and McKnight, Gilbert says, “They seem to be saying that “Jesus is king” is the gospel, and that personal salvation, atonement, and justification are not.”
At its heart, Gilbert objects to the argument that the Gospel can be summed up by saying something like Jesus is king; he thinks we should also add personal salvation, atonement, justification, and so on to our definition of the Gospel.
In Bates’s article for Christianity Today, he explains, “The gospel proper is what the king has done for us apart from whether you or I have responded.” Yet he also affirms that our subsequent response in faith (or “allegiance” as he likes to translate it) follows from the proclamation that Christ is king. As he explains, “Subsequently, the Spirit applies the benefits of the gospel to those who respond with pistis, that is, allegiance (bodily loyalty inclusive of trust).”
He continues to explain, “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’s is a benefit of the gospel. The same with justification.”
In simplest terms, Bates understands Jesus’s fulfillment of scripture and identity as Christ to sum up the proclamation of the Gospel. Neither our response to that proclamation nor the benefits we receive from faith are themselves the Gospel. Gilbert would like to see the Gospel also include the particular benefits won by Christ.
Scot McKnight actually commends Gilbert’s address at T4G but claims that Gilbert’s sermon does not match what he wrote in his book titled, What Is the Gospel? On top of this, like Bates, he claims Gilbert misrepresents him when Gilbert said, “They seem to be saying that “Jesus is king” is the gospel, and that personal salvation, atonement, and justification are not.”
McKnight (and Bates) claim to underscore both realities. McKnight explains, “We don’t divorce redemption from the gospel. The gospel saves. Jesus saves. We do not divorce; we coordinate and relate the two.” At the end of the day, McKnight wants to make sure that the Gospel focuses on Christ and then subsequently on the benefits Christ’s shares with us.
Is That It?
While there are some key differences here, one difficulty is that both groups seem to mostly agree with each other. Gilbert preached a sermon about how the Gospel should be presented in the context of the scriptural story of Jesus’s kingship. That’s similar to what Bates and McKnight propose.
Yet one group (Gilbert’s) wants to include the benefits of salvation (such as justification) as being part of or central to the Gospel, while the other group wants to affirm Christology as the Gospel and then explain how the Gospel saves.
In my view then, the heat generated from this debate unfortunately adds confusion to the Gospel rather than clarity. Both Bates and McKnight agree with Gilbert’s sermon. They are mainly perturbed at Gilbert for presenting their views in ways they find to be misrepresentative.
Bates unfortunately lambasted Gilbert, TGC, and T4G for what he calls “getting the framework and heart of the gospel wrong.” Well so much for further clarifying discussion. Through Gilbert’s sermon and Bates’s response, both men have put themselves at odds with each other. McKnight positions himself less at odds with Gilbert than seeing him as inconsistent.
It would take some commited patience to exactly adjudicate each person’s views in this matter and to wrangle out precisely what is going on. But I think it may be useful to consider key scriptural affirmations of the Gospel to at least gather some conceptual clarity on the Gospel.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1–5, Paul defines the Gospel:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (ESV)
Here, he focuses on the Passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, although elsewhere he ties the Gospel to the Scriptural story and highlights Jesus’s birth (Rom 1:3; cf. Gal 4:4). Still, for Paul, the main facts of the cross, burial, resurrection, and appearance undergird the Gospel.
The question is how pregnant are each of these terms? When Paul says “cross,” does he also imply the substitutionary nature of the cross? By resurrection, does he also point to justification as he does in Romans 4:25? He probably implies a number of theological notions in this short summary, yet it still seems fair to conclude that the facts of Jesus’s life and action constitute the Gospel.
That is why the four Gospel Books are in fact called the Gospel according to such and such. In the early church, these books themselves were considered the Gospel because they recounted the key moments in the life of Jesus as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:1–5. Thus, the Gospel does focus on the person of Jesus.
Yet Paul can preach the Gospel in terms of the power of the cross, which has a saving effect (1 Cor 1:17–18). Hence, we can at least associate the saving effects of the cross with the Gospel. It would seem rather odd not to do so!
At the same time, it’s true that Christ is the centre of the Gospel. That he is king—or Christ—certainly lies at the heart of the proclamation. As McKnight points out, Paul elsewhere writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel” (2 Tim 2:8). Jesus Christ (i.e., the king or messiah) here associates with the heart of the Gospel.
In other words, there does seem to be a narrow and broad way to speak of the Gospel. The narrow way focuses on Jesus as king or messiah. Yet elsewhere it is possible to speak of the saving power of the Gospel in terms of the cross. There seems to be then a conceptual overlap in the word of the cross and the cross’s saving benefits as 1 Corinthians 1:17–18.
In the end of the day, the conflict about the Gospel seems to be something of a misfire. Sure, there are real differences. But some of these differences seem more about the linguistic range of the term Gospel as presented in the New Testament than on the actual subject matter of the Gospel since both parties agree that Christ’s kingship stands central, and that the king saves his people.
More could be said, but I think I’d like to end by saying: Jesus rose from the dead for my justification (Rom 4:25). I thank God for it and so should every Christian!