Monday, August 27, 2012

The Gospel Coalition: Did Jesus Preach the "Gospel"?

Surely no subject is more important and dear to the hearts of Christians than the gospel.  The gospel message, after all, is the effective, powerful instrument used by God to bring about the “salvation” of all—Jew and Gentile alike—who believe the message and submit to Christ's Lordship (Rom 1:16).  What precisely the "gospel" message is, however, is a matter of some controversy in "evangelical" circles, a matter of no small irony in that "evangelicalism" is a movement defined by its supposed adherence to the biblical "evangel" or "gospel."

In my experience as one raised in a Christian home, nurtured in a fundamentalist church, and educated at fundamentalist and conservative evangelical academic institutions, most evangelicals derive their understanding of the gospel from the Apostle Paul, especially the argumentation in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans.  In such thinking, the gospel is a message of how an individual "gets saved."  In terms of content, such an understanding of the gospel defines it in terms of the combined theologoumena of substitutionary atonement and a "Lutheran" and/or "Reformed" understanding of justification by faith: people are "justified," declared to be "righteous" in God's eyes, not by virtue of their own meritorious works, but only through faith in Christ, who died as their substitute in judgment, and whose own "righteousness" is credited to their account ("imputed").

Understanding the gospel this way raises a host of questions, some easier to answer than others.  One major question concerns how this teaching coheres with the message of Jesus himself, who prima facie was concerned with matters of the "kingdom of God," a subject only rarely discussed (in such terms at least) by the Apostle to the Gentiles.  As anyone with only a cursory knowledge of the history of New Testament studies knows, the "Jesus-Paul debate" has been going on for centuries, with many would-be defenders of Jesus maintaining that Paul's teaching was sufficiently different/novel to make him the de facto "founder of Christianity" (supposedly a bad thing).  Defenders of Paul, on the other hand, have labored to demonstrate that Paul's major emphases not only are consistent with those of Jesus, but also find a certain adumbration in the teaching of our Lord.

The Gospel Coalition clearly falls into the latter of these groups.  Last week they announced that the 2013 TGC National Conference would have the theme of "His Mission: Jesus in the Gospel of Luke."  In order to whet the appetite, they have posted a video of a panel discussion with three of their prominent scholars, Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper, discussing the question, "Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?"

Clocking in at just over 12 minutes, the video is short and to the point.  It is also informative and enlightening, not least with regard to the grounds on which they both ask and answer the question.  Carson indeed opens by posing the issue thus:

Increasingly today we're finding some people saying, in effect, "If you understand the gospel to be roughly what Paul says it is, then surely you can ask the question, 'Did Jesus himself ever actually preach the gospel, if that's the definition?'"

This way of posing the question is illuminating in that it explicitly sets the teaching of Paul as the base line against which our understanding of the gospel, and Jesus' own potential proclamation of it, must be measured.   As the discussion moves forward, this becomes painfully clear.  Using Luke as an example, Piper immediately points to Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) as an example of Jesus' teaching that "justification" is pronounced on the basis of God's mercy rather than on keeping the law, even if such observance is the result of God's working obedience in a person (he even introduces such anachronistic categories as Semi-Pelagianism here to make his point).  He then points to the succeeding story of the "rich young ruler" (Luke 18:18-30) to argue that Jesus implicitly taught justification via the imputed righteousness of Christ!  The text says nothing even remotely close to such a thing, of course.  Even worse, the juxtaposition of the parable and the pericope of the rich young ruler is a Lukan rather than Jesuanic/historical one (Luke introduces the latter with the simple connective kai, "and"), and thus cannot be used to make the point Piper wants to make (that Luke himself had a theology of justification is clear from the Pauline "quotation" he records in Acts 13:38-39, though articulated in a clearly non-Pauline way).  After listening I just chalked this up to Piper's increasingly manifest "goofiness" quotient, and took it with a pinch of salt.  Later, he asserts that the cross casts its shadow over the whole narrative (who doubts that this is true?) and that the words of Jesus at the Last Supper ("This cup is the new covenant in my blood") means, "'I purchase all the benefits of the new covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, by dying,' and that's the gospel."

Carson agreed "entirely," pointing to Luke's editorial comment in Luke 9:51 ("When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem") as evidence that the cross and resurrection constituted the climactic moment of the narrative, and that therefore all the intervening material must be interpreted in that light.  That is certainly true, though I might add that in Luke's two-volume work, it is the ascension of the risen Jesus that serves as the pivot on which his narrative rests (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11).  It is only by the use of an a priori theological Procrustean bed that one can locate the gospel almost exclusively in individualistic soteriological concerns that find resolution in the cross, with only tangential connection to Jesus' earlier ministry and subsequent resurrection/ascension.

It is here that I find the panel discussion most problematic.  Indeed, I find myself in agreement with much of what the panelists say (especially Keller, who cites a fine article by British New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole and had a perceptive comment about the relation between justification and ministry to the poor).  But their fundamental problem is this: they understand the gospel through the interpretive grid of (a "confessional" Protestant reading of) Galatians and Romans rather than that of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  And thus they approach the issue backwards.  Indeed, the "increasing" number of people Carson claims are asking whether Jesus preached Paul's putative "gospel" are not the run-of-the-mill liberals of yesteryear, but rather evangelical scholars like N. T. Wright and Scot McKnight who, while adhering to both substitutionary atonement and justification by faith (the latter within the parameters of a chastened "New Perspective on Paul"), define the gospel more broadly in light of all the New Testament evidence and its Old Testament background, particularly in Isaiah 40-66.  I myself have thrown my own hat into the ring with a very detailed, nine-part examination of the New Testament evidence (see herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here), in which I side decisively with Wright and McKnight.

Simply put, the answer to whether or not Jesus preached the "gospel" is a simple, unequivocal "Yes."  To use Luke as a witness, one need look no farther than the story of Jesus' rejection at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), which the author moves forward in his narrative (cf. the later location in his source, Mark 6:1-6) as paradigmatic for his ministry as a whole.  There Jesus is recorded as having read Isaiah 61:1-2 from the scroll at the synagogue.  The text reads as follows:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news ("the gospel") to the poor ... (Luke 4:18)
Then, shockingly, he rolled up the scroll and said, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21).  Later he spoke of his proclamation of the gospel as a matter of necessity laid on him by the divine purpose: "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose."

Here we see not only that Jesus preached the gospel, but also that the content of the gospel concerned the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God in his ministry.  Luke's presentation here is of a piece with that of his source, Mark, for whom the "good news" consisted of the whole story or narrative of Jesus as God's saving event in accordance with the prophecy articulated in Isaiah 40 (Mark 1:1-15).  The gospel, in other words, is not only the solution to the universal problem of individual sin and guilt.  It is that, of course.  But the individualistic component must be understood within the larger context of salvation history, with regard to which the gospel message provides the glad tidings of the eschatological fulfillment of God's plan for his creation as a whole.  In other words, the long-awaited denouement of history was set in motion through the events of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection.  If this is true  and the labeling of the first four books of the New Testament as "Gospels" quite strongly suggests it is  then the attempt of Carson et al. to answer the question in the affirmative by trying to tease Paul's theology of the cross and doctrine of justification out of the Gospels is simply a category mistake.  

As N. T. Wright has said plenty of times over the years, the gospel is not the message of "how one gets saved."  It is simply the good news that God has, in Christ, established the kingdom of God through Jesus's messianic life, death, and resurrection.  This is the good news that results in people "getting saved" when they believe the message and submit to the risen Christ's Lordship.  St. Paul himself says as much in Romans 1:16, where he affirms his confidence in the gospel message because, as the effective instrument of God's power, it leads to salvation when people believe the message.  The proclaimed gospel, as the apostle says in verse 17, actually instantiates God's saving righteousness because it engenders the faith that saves and justifies.  If the gospel message leads to justification when that message is believed, the gospel cannot simply be equated with the message of justification per se.  If this point is granted, then the entire premise upon which the Gospel Coalition's question is asked is shown to be faulty.  If, on the other hand, one takes the Gospels as the primary datum as to what constitutes the "gospel," one can clearly see how such other Pauline texts as Romans 1:1-7 and (especially) 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, cohere nicely as shorthand summaries of what the Gospels present in fuller, narrative formats.  "Justification by faith," then, can be seen to be what it originally was intended to be, viz., Paul's answer to how Jews and Gentiles alike are reckoned "righteous" and members of God's covenant people in view of his faithful fulfillment of his promises to Abraham.  "Justification by faith" is, in other words, implied by the gospel, or rather one might say it is that aspect of the message entailing how it is that people individually become the beneficiaries of God's saving activity in Christ.  On this point I agree with TGC that Jesus and Paul were on the same page, even if we disagree on our definition of the gospel.


  1. When I saw the Gospel Coalition's blog about that, I was seriously hoping you'd react to it in blog form. You've helped me understand why I reacted negatively to what they were saying. Thanks for explaining what I felt but couldn't articulate!

  2. Thank you so much. You helpfully what was nagging at but but without the words to express my concern.
    Richard Ralph Byaw

  3. I came across your website while reading reviews of NT Wright's "How God Became King" and have enjoyed your insight on the topic. I am really starting to see and understand this perspective of looking at the "gospel" differently and for me it makes much sense.

    Because Wright can be a bit wordy and I have trouble following his thoughts, could you recommend some other authors and books on this subject? I am currently reading "How God Became King" and while enjoying it, would also like to see what some other authors say about it.

    Thanks so much.