There Is More than One Gospel

The current riff about it is a distraction from urgent matters.

Image by Amy S from Pixabay.

For a few years now, certain players in the evangelical stratosphere—John Piper, Trevin Wax, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, among others—have been arguing about “the gospel.”  Each in turn wonder, What is it exactly?

To simplify matters (recognizing their complexity): On the Reformed side, the gospel is justification by faith.  That is, we are justified before God and his tribunal by faith in the work of Jesus on the cross, where he endured the just punishment for our sins.

Critics respond: “The good news is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.” (N.T. Wright). This Scot McKnight, in many blog-posts and a whole book, summarizes as “Jesus is King!”

[Addendum: to be clear, Scot’s views are much more complex and interesting than this, and one thing I especially like about his view is that Jesus must be seen as  a fulfillment of what God has been doing with the Jews since the days of Abraham. The church’s sorry history of anti-semitism could have been avoided had the church kept this in focus.]

Both parties acknowledge that their gospel has many consequences, including forgiveness of sin, eternal life, and so forth, but they each keep insisting that the gospel is one thing, and not surprisingly, it is the thing they have identified as the one thing. [Addendum: to put it less rhetorically and more accurately, they continue to insist on one definition.]

In addition, each argues that to misunderstand this one thing/[definition] leads the church into practical error.  McKnight, for example, worries that the gospel as justification by faith encourages decisionism—that is, a simple statement of heartfelt faith is all that matters for one’s salvation, which undercuts discipleship and leads inevitably to lack of concern for personal ethics or social justice.

Never mind Paul saying this much in Romans, among other places: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9).  Never mind that the thief on the cross was saved with the utterance of mere words.

Maybe the roots of paltry personal ethics and anemic social justice lie elsewhere than in a definition.

On the other side, there is concern that if we removed justification by faith from the center, then Christianity itself is doomed. In an overview history of the church, the site Monogerism, concludes: “The history of justification by faith alone is the development of two ways for one to be forgiven of sin. One way says the merits of man’s works plus Christ are need for forgiveness. The other way says the merits of Christ alone received through faith are all that is needed.”

In this view, church history really began with the Reformation.  There’s Paul, and then there’s Luther.  So much for the 1500 years between, which this view considers a millennium and a half of works-righteousness in one form or another, with only brief candles of hope flickering here and there.

Let me be clear. I love reading about justification by faith and admire the many theologians who expound it eloquently.  And I love reading about the Lordship of Christ, and have learned much in reading Scot McKnight over the years (although he is an annoyingly good golfer for a guy who rarely plays—and this I do hold against him). And yes, I get that each side makes a number of qualifications that makes room for a fair portion of the other’s arguments.  But in the end, the whole business is repeatedly presented as an either/or matter. With apologies Kierkegaard, I beg to differ. My annoyance is not personal, but it is theological.

Can I remind us that the New Testament opens with four books, which have been rightly and traditionally titled:

The Gospel According to Matthew

The Gospel According to Mark

The Gospel According to Luke

The Gospel According to John

As New Testament scholars are wont to point out, each gospel presents a slightly different take on the story of Jesus. To oversimplify with one example: Matthew is a gospel for Jews and Luke for Gentiles.  Another example: in a completely different vein, John is considered the metaphysical gospel.  Other distinctions abound, with nuances assumed.

The early church with providential wisdom, let all four stand together, despite their differences, and despite the many problems it caused early apologists and preachers sometimes (a gospels harmony is no easy thing to pull off!). They understood that the gospel is a many splendored thing, that to make it one thing was essentially to distort it.

They also understood that the gospel is first and foremost not a doctrine but a story, a story which, like all stories, includes a great deal of ambiguity, misdirection, plot twists, and endings that are new beginnings.

In short, the gospel is about King Jesus and the justification by faith and forgiveness of sins, and eternal life and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and becoming like God and Jesus’s defeat of Satan and the assurance of the coming of the Kingdom and the radical ethics of love and faith alone and so on and so forth. There is a great deal of good in the good news, which lest we forget is what gospel means.

God in his wisdom has offered a variety of insights into the goodness of the many splendored good news.  I usually find the message, “Jesus is King,” intellectually interesting.  I believe it, but it doesn’t tend to quite touch my heart.  Preach to me about the unfathomable mercy of God in dying for my sins—well, I’m moved to tears.  Apparently, many find just the opposite to be the case. And many others, find other splendored aspects of the good news to be really good.

If I may be so bold as to suggest: This argument about the gospel-is-one-thing is a display of a typical Protestant problem: the need to prove to others that your interpretation of Scripture is not only right but must be adhered to else the future of Christendom hangs in the balance. It’s what’s lead to thousands upon thousands of denominations–a lack of unity in this portion of Christ’s body that is beyond scandal.  That is very bad news indeed.

(An interesting piece that examines exactly how many thousands is found here—it’s more complicated than many make it out to be.  It’s not 33,000.  But it’s not nothing.)

Can we just let the justification by faith crowd preach the message God has placed on their hearts? And can we let the Jesus is King crowd do the same with their message?  And can we let the divisive ramblings of theologians be replaced by attentiveness to God’s Word as it comes to us week by week? Meaning, when the week’s reading in worship is about justification, preach justification; when it’s about Jesus’s lordship, preach Jesus’ lordship; when it’s about the power to become like God, preach that; and when it’s about the resurrection of the dead, preach that.  And so on.

Of course, there are boundaries to what the gospel is and is not–of course! And theologians need to be attentive to such matters–that’s one of their jobs. But really, upon consideration, is this matter really the hinge upon which the future of the church hinges right now? Perhaps history will prove me wrong, but I think not.

Instead of arguing about the gospel, or even arguing with one another, let us use our intellectual gifts to argue with the real enemies of the many splendored gospel, about intellectual matters that display deep fault lines in our world, like pervasive relativism, idolatrous materialism, humanistic secularism, and attacks on all forms of religious belief across the world.

The world is dying in unbelief and is threatened with worldviews and practices that endanger people’s souls.  Arguing for a one-thing gospel is, to people like me anyway, a distraction from baptizing and discipling the world.

(Of course, in publishing this, I recognize I’m doing the exact thing I preach against—arguing about the gospel!  Which just goes to show I’m just as Protestant, and perhaps just as divisive, as by brothers and sisters.  Lord have mercy on us all.)

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Naturally, my publisher will rightly consider me remiss if I didn’t encourage readers to check out my recent book:  When Did We Start Forgetting God?: The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future (Tyndale, 2020).

Addendums (nuances!) added on 5/5/2020 after conversations with Scot.

This entry was posted in Church, Morals & Manners, Soulwork. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to There Is More than One Gospel

  1. Bob Davidson says:

    Glad you’re writing still Mark. I’ve always appreciated your ability to drive down the middle of the fairway (see what I did there) and yet have an opinion while you do it.

    I also love that you’re welcoming your “provocateur side” to show up here. My vote is to not hold back. 🙂

    It has been a while since we last dove in to theological matters ourselves, but I have been quietly applauding from the sidelines. I actually find it odd that I’m even responding here, but I just started writing, so I’m going to just let it happen.

    I was with you until the end of this (albeit you did pull the ‘ole disclaimer move – which I’m quite fond of myself). Where I’m with you… More than one gospel? Sure. But I’m also comfortable with acknowledging that we are all just attempting to speak at one reality – which we are trying to understand in more-than-one-way. This said, I’m also comfortable defining it as “more than one gospel.”

    Where I tend to struggle a bit is around the notion that “The world is dying in unbelief and is threatened with worldviews and practices that endanger people’s souls.”

    I’ve always thought that I was born on the very year that divide two generations – and have subsequently found myself as an interpreter for both. And maybe it’s not generational at all, but two thoughts emerged as I read this for what it’s worth…

    First thought, I’ve always found it odd that one of Christianity’s major threats is “pervasive relativism.” I say this because the very premise of this post is “all of the varying theories and beliefs” revolving around the gospel. In other words, there is this unspoken belief in Christianity that there is a “knowledge” or a “behavior” or a “mental ascent” or a “turning” that must happen in order for the “good news” to be actualize. And as one of your commenters is suggesting (I’m looking at you Thomas Harkins), what inevitably happens in this convo is a quest for certainty on what is the “MINIMUM” that is “NECESSARY” to understand or believe or whatever. But even this suggests that “something” must occur for “this good news” to be realized.

    I can grant that one could define relativism a different way, but it seems that Christianity itself is quite pervasive with its own form… “IF” you do this… “THEN”… this happens – “relative” to what you do/believe/etc… I find it interesting in general, but when you add the numerous theories, beliefs, practices, etc… it almost becomes amusing. Particularly when the same community is trying to preach that the “work” belongs to Christ (which I can get behind), not humanity. Yet, in the very next breath, we tend to do mental gymnastics to figure out how humanity still needs to carry their own weight. (I’m thinking of Barth here btw.)

    Second thought (a continuation thought I guess), what if the world doesn’t need saving at all??? From anything? What if the world is already “saved”? I’m guessing you’d agree on some level as you’ve got enough Barth in you to do so 😉 … Regardless, I’ve always wondered what would happen if the Protestant-evangelical culture in particular would just let go of the “HAVING” to go-out and save the world persona?

    What if we (along with whatever gospel each of us are representing) just embodied its very nature. And rested in not what “may-be-true-if,” but in what already is.

    As you suggest… just thoughts. Thanks.

    • markgalli says:

      Hey, Bob, good to hear your thoughts. Can’t say I disagree with much. I’m taken with the Scriptures that highlight “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them,” meaning the forgiveness and acceptance by God is a done deal. And yet there is something very real and profound about our response, as Paul puts it, “Be reconciled to God” (all this from 2 Cor. 5 of course). Without that latter part, people are indeed suffering a deep lack, if Jesus’ words are to be taken seriously–we really cannot have Life without a conscious attachment to him (all that stuff about the vine and the branches, among other metaphors. People really do need to hear the good news, if nothing else, to snap them out of their godless stupor. This godless stupor, of course, is experienced by believing Christians as well, which is why we need to hear the gospel over and over (as I am ready to admit, I live as a practical atheist many days). And this stupor is reinforced every day by the way the culture frames what is true, good, and beautiful, which it get partly right and, if Jesus is to be trusted, mostly wrong. It’s not a matter of “what’s the minimum one has to believe to be saved,” but “what is the frame that gives us the true picture of the world and our place in it–which is one of the points of Jesus’ parables, to help us see reality a little more clearly. My beef with relativism is not to dispute that there are many ways of understanding many aspects of truth/reality, but it’s abandoning (in despair) the idea that there is ultimate and absolute Truth/Reality, which Jesus seems pretty confident about (as in “I am the … truth,”) et, as well as the notion that we can at some level participate in it. Anyway, thanks for stirring my own thinking.

  2. Thomas Harkins says:

    Excellent post. If there is anything further to be said, then I would note that the question is not, “What one thing is the gospel?” (as you point out, it is a many splendored thing), but, “What is the MINIMUM that is necessary to believe (or do) to be saved?” As to that, I do believe that at least generally speaking there has to be a ‘”submission to Lordship.’ “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth that Jesus is LORD, and believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Confessing as Lord does not mean, “Say the following sentence out loud,” but to submit to that Lordship, which necessarily means a life more or less characterized by obedience (none perfect at it).

  3. Kathy Ross says:

    Thank you, Mark. I am weary of all the either-or arguments within our faith community, especially this one. So thank you for articulating a concern of mine, and for doing so with humility and grace.

  4. Ralph Stone says:

    Indeed! Helpful, commonsense thinking, useful for where most of us live. And simultaneously, with deep gratitude to Piper, Wright, McKnight, along with numerous others…..

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