Pure Soterian Gospel

Martin Luther, as summarized and quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan, in Divine Rhetoric (pp. 90), from Luther’s own Introduction to his New Testament:

“John’s Gospel and St Paul’s Epistles, especially that to the Romans, and St Peter’s first Epistle are the true kernel and marrow of all the books.” A few sentences later he [Luther] added Galatians and Ephesians to Romans, but he did not add the synoptic Gospels to St John. For, as he explained, “John’s Gospel is the one, fine, true, and chief Gospel, and is far, far to be preferred over the other three and place high above them. So, too, the Epistles of St Paul and St Peter far surpass the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

I ask yet again: Is 1 Corinthians 15 the gospel? Is the gospel found in the sermons in the Acts? Why did they call the first four books of the New Testament “The Gospel”? All of this is discussed in The King Jesus Gospel.

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  • SR

    “Is 1 Corinthians 15 the gospel?”

    I’m not sure how it should be acceptable to call Martin Luther out on his incomplete list of favored New Testament books, when you’re reducing your own favored list down to (in some cases) only mere chapters of books.

  • Scot,

    Luther is also on record saying this (which sounds a lot like The King Jesus Gospel to me):

    At its briefest, the gospel is a discourse about Christ, that he is the Son of God and became man for us, that he died and was raised, and that he has been established as Lord over all things.

    This much St. Paul takes in hand and spins out in his epistles. He bypasses all the miracles and incidents (in Christ’s ministry) which are set forth in the four Gospels, yet he includes the whole gospel adequately and abundantly. This may be seen clearly and well in his greeting to the Romans, where he says what the gospel is, and then declares:

    “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” etc.

    There you have it. The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s son, who died and was raised, and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell.

    – Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, pg. 94

  • scotmcknight


    Thanks. I’ve read this statement by Luther and do know that he can express the gospel narrative/Story form. Now a question for you: Would you ever say what Luther said in that quote from his Intro to the NT?

  • scotmcknight


    The gospel I expound in The King Jesus Gospel is rooted in (1) the explicit statement of the gospel in 1 Cor 15 which I think explains every epistle of Paul, (2) the apostolic gospel preaching in Acts and (3) how the Gospels are the gospel. To define “gospel” I go to what are the most central defining texts in the NT. I’m not so sure that is reductive as it is plumbing what is most central.

  • DanS

    The gospel is Genesis to Revelation. From the first hints of messianic prophecy to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. It includes the day of atonement and tearing of the curtain in the temple. And yes, it includes the first Adam and the second as historical beings to whom we are all connected – either in sin or redemption. Reducing the gospel to Romans or Corinthians while leaving out Matthew, Hebrews, Genesis or the Psalms is a mistake.

  • I’m wondering if Luther’s perspective in that quote has more to do with the intense reaction to Roman Catholic soteriology of the time and his low view of Jews and therefore the Jewishness of the synoptic gospels? And less to do with a positive program of a reductionist gospel? But in any case you can see the “seeds” of a soterian gospel being sown.

  • T

    That quote surely encapsulates the seed that became the tree of evangelicalism that I grew up in and still swim in. Wow. Scary how much those thoughts shaped the evangelical world.

    Trevin, I’m glad Luther wrote that quote, but it’s clearly not his legacy, and is in clear conflict with the post’s quote.

    Of course, this part even of your quote is incredibly sad to me, but also had clear impact: “He bypasses all the miracles and incidents (in Christ’s ministry) which are set forth in the four Gospels, yet he includes the whole gospel adequately and abundantly.” The pentecostals and charismatics are declaring “all the miracles and incidents” of Christ’s ministry as part of the good news as well, however flawed they may otherwise be, and are rewarded handsomely for it with the lost. They not only declare his authority and story, but demonstrate it powerfully, not unlike our Master and his apostles (including Paul!). The “bypass[ing of] all the miracles and incidents in Christ’s ministry” is a sad legacy of the Reformation, and to the detriment of their witness.

  • Nick

    Check out J.I. Packer (HT. Justin Taylor):

    “We should think, rather, of the theology of the epistles as preparing us to understand better the disciple’s relationship with Christ that is set forth in the gospels, and we should never let ourselves forget that the four gospels are, as has often and rightly been said, the most wonderful books on earth.”

  • Cal


    Not sure where the first quote is written but earlier on in his career, Luther was rather fond of the Jew:

    “When we are inclined to boast of our position [as Christians] we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are.”

    He became rather bitter and disillusioned later in life when Jews did not flock to Christ (and thus him) with the casting off of Rome. So I don’t think Luther would’ve pushed aside Mark,Matthew or Luke as being too Jewish (in fact, one might think he’d be more inclined to Luke as he is the only Gentile of the 4).


    We must also remember that the signs were to demonstrate a purpose, not just a raw display of power. He refused to entertain the Pharisees, Temple authorities or Herod because they wanted an amusement. To them he only gave the Resurrection.

    The current clowning by neo-charismatics is proof that people will flock to see displays of power. Magicians attracted large followings in the 1st century too and there’s was tricks or devils. We shouldn’t forget the many miraculous deeds of Christ but they are subsequent to the main thrust of His vindication in Resurrection.

  • T


    Yes; let’s not be magicians or showmen. And yes, let’s be a resurrection faith. All that said, can we stop making signs and wonders about current bad examples and start making it about our legit examples of Christ, the apostles (including Paul) and the early churches? There were bad examples in the NT period in Corinth, just like today. Paul’s response wasn’t cessationism. There is “current clowning” in every branch of the church, and worse than that. There are false teachers and showmen of every stripe. So what? What bearing does the existence of bad examples have for the legitimacy of teaching, or serving or working miracles or anything? Zero.

    Again, I agree, let’s be a resurrection faith. But focusing on the resurrection didn’t stop the apostles and the churches they founded from working miracles in Christ’s name (or even asking God specifically for signs and wonders to elevate Christ’s name). So, it’s not enough to say “we need to be focused on the resurrection” as if that excuses a ministry that is void of the works we see in the gospels, in Acts, and the epistles, unless we think they weren’t sufficiently focused on the resurrection.

    I reiterate my first comment and go farther. The “bypassing” of Christ’s ministry (and that of the apostles, including Paul, and of the NT churches generally) is a blight on the Reformation’s legacy and a shame that needs to be repented from, not defended and continued. Further, it is rooted in exactly the shift that Scot has noted in KJG from a focus on Christ’s story as gospel to the so-called plan of salvation as gospel. Once Christ’s story becomes the focus again of our gospel, the place for current practice of love and power, fruit and gifts, become more and more obvious, as they were for Peter, Paul and the churches they founded.

  • T

    BTW, I agree wholeheartedly that signs are for good purposes. I find healing and the prophetic to be remarkably powerful not only in elevating faith in Christ’s authority and power, but also in his loving character and mindfulness of seemingly insignificant people. One sign can ground a man more deeply in several doctrines of the faith than a thousand sermons, which I’m convinced is part of why God did them through Jesus, the apostles, the churches, etc.

  • scotmcknight

    Cal, on Dru’s comment about Luther’s view of the Jews. His later views of the Jews were unconscionable and destructive. Luther’s polemics, at the least, far too often got the upper hand, and in my view deconstruct what else he was saying.

  • Scot,

    I would never pit the books of the New Testament against one another the way Luther does. Neither would I define the gospel in the way he does so in your post.

    I just wanted to make sure we were being fair to him… he also articulated the gospel in story form, as is evident by the other quote. Not that he needs my defense, of course. I am a Baptist, after all, and I suspect he would have had a few choice words for my kind. 😉

  • Cal


    His words are deplorable and must be rebuked, I don’t disagree at all. My point was that at one point he was more favorably disposed and trying to read a subtext of dismissing Matthew or Mark as too Jewish may be an error. It depends on when he wrote what.

  • Cal, I’m unsure too of the timeline. It is provocative to me that in the quote Scot offered, Luther elevates John, the Gospel that seems to read the most anti-Semitic to non-Christian Jewish readers. So I couldn’t stake a flag here, just wondering about it . . .

  • Jon G

    I’m with DanS in #5. The Gospel is God-centric from Genesis to Revelation.

  • Jerry

    But if someone asked, “What is the Gospel?” would you just reply with Genesis to Revelation? It seems that a summary like 1Cor 15 or Phil 2 best describes the gospel.

  • On a separate but related note, (in The Bible Made Impossible) Christian Smith essentially says that biblicists have changed the Bible to being primarily about truth rather than being primarily about Jesus/salvation. It strikes me even what we mean by “salvation” or soterian can widely vary (individual vs. corporate, present vs. future implications).

    The quote is intriguing to me coming from the same man who wrote off James. I’m really curious why he thought the other three gospels were written. Why were they even in the canon, if you are coming from Luther’s perspective?