The gospel can be viewed from a variety of angles, and undoubtedly the most widely disseminated angle is that of its benefits. That is, we describe the gospel by what it accomplishes for us. We appeal to “felt needs” in humans. No one in their right mind questions the beneficial dimensions of the gospel, and no one should question the gospel brings benefits to an individual person. So, the gospel can accomplish liberation (liberation gospel), the gospel can accomplish (mostly) material flourishing (prosperity gospel), the gospel can accomplish salvation from sins (forgiveness), the gospel can accomplish a theodicy (Anselm’s gospel), the gospel can accomplish relational completion (reconciliation), and the gospel can accomplish personal fulfillment (Joel Osteen’s gospel). The gospel is often presented through the benefits of one or more of these.
Those who focus on the benefits of the gospel often reflect on God’s grace and God’s love. For instance, Brennan Manning’s many writings, not the least of which is his Ragamuffin Gospel, focuses on God’s love and acceptance of unworthy messed up sinners. Phillip Yancey’s widely-read What’s So Amazing about Grace? probed the theme of seeing the gospel as the sheer and bounteous grace of God.
J.D. Greear’s new book, called Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, endorsed by the whole swathe of the NeoPuritan crowd, focuses on the gospel’s benefits and probes those benefits through the lens of the performance (religion) vs. trust/faith (gospel) categories that Tim Keller has used in his many books.
Here is where this post is going if you want to know: Greear’s right on God’s acceptance of us in Christ, but his understanding of the gospel is 100% through the lens of its benefits, it is entirely individualistic, it fails to deal adequately with the Storied framing of the gospel with Jesus and the apostles, and therefore misses an opportunity to teach the kingdom basis for seeing the gospel framed (by Jesus and the apostles) as about Jesus as King (Messiah) and Lord. In other words, I’m convinced his gospel is not christological enough and is one-sidedly soteriological. We need both, and we need them in the right order. Greear’s book is not as succinct as Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel? but both are what I call soterian approaches to the gospel. (On Wednesday I will examine the gospel presented by Bryan Chapell in the Carson-Keller book called The Gospel as Center.)
Greear’s approach is that of a person who had come to the end of his ropes of performing before God, of doing things religious and spiritual as acts of seeking God’s favor, of doing everything one can do to serve God. That is, his central concern is this question: “Am I doing enough for God?” (205). The gospel for Greear is that performance is religion and the gospel is about what God has done for us in Christ and that God has done everything for us and that therefore we can do nothing that gains acceptance before God. [I would have liked to see Greear talk about how often the Bible, not the least of whose characters who speak like this are Jesus and Paul, about heaven as reward, but he doesn’t and that’s that. And I’m not at all convinced this problem is the problem of the NT.]
Here are some of Greear’s ways of expressing the gospel, and for Greear gospel living flows theologically from gospel perception: we focus on what God has done, that overflows into gratitude and gospel-inspired actions of loving obedience.
The gospel turns religion [performance] upside down. The gospel assures us of God’s acceptance, given to us as a gift earned by Christ’s worthiness, not ours. In response to that gift, we are moved to obey. Love for Him grows in response to His love for us (36).
The gospel is that Christ has suffered the full wrath of God for my sin (46).
Zacchaeus was not changed by a command of Jesus, but by an experience with Jesus (62).
Thus, rather than enumerating a list of commands to obey, true gospel preaching highlights a story — a story about God that reveals such power and beauty that you are never the same once you have encountered it (64). And, “Gospel change is the Spirit of God using the story of God to make the beauty of God come alive in our hearts” (65).
That’s what being “gospel-centered” is really all about — not moving past the gospel, but continually going deeper into it. It’s about realizing that the gospel is the final answer to every issue and problem in life and about seeing the whole world through the lens of the cross (191).
Salvation [and he really does equate gospel and salvation] is not primarily about us doing something for God. Salvation is about knowing what God has done for us — and sitting in stunned awe of it (209). [False dichotomy.]
This gospel is counterintuitive for humans who are “hardwired for ‘works-righteousness’ — that is, the idea that what we do determines how God feels about us. Unless we are actively preaching the gospel to ourselves daily, we fall back into ‘works-righteousness'” (48). He continues throughout the book with this very theme:
Each day Jesus says to us, ‘You are My beloved child. I am wel pleased in you. Now live that way.’ Satan, on the other hand, says, ‘Look at you. Look at the condition of your circumstances. Look at how poorly you’re living. There is no way you are God’s beloved child” (52).
Preach the gospel to yourself. You must tell yourself that because of Jesus you have the absolute approval of the only One whose opinion really matters.
“In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less.”
“Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.”
“As You have been to me so I will be to others.”
“As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”
At one point in the book, “God is Better,” Greear gets to a more christological gospel and gives a list of ways Jesus is better: better than … money, human love, any earthly pleasure, earthly power, and popularity. Greear later gets much closer to a christological center (instead of a soteriological center) when he says, “The gospel is an announcement that Jesus is Lord and that He has won the battle for your salvation” (222).
But this approach — not performance but what God has done for us, and once we bathe in that we are transformed into obedience — creates for Greear (and others like him, e.g., Tullian Tchividjian) a problem he faces on nearly every page of the Bible: why are there so many commands in the Bible? So he asks, “But if the gospel gives us the heart that fulfills the law, why does God still provide us with these rules and instructions?” He proposes the following reasons for the presence of law in the Bible, in the NT, in the face of those who are regenerate:
1. To enlighten our darkened hearts.
2. Obedience to the commandments limits the damage of our sin.
3. To discipline ourselves to practice certain behaviors that help us to develop a love for them.
And so we come to two sides of legalism — which is at the heart of the human problem for Greear — and it is (1) feeling closer to God because you do commands or (2) putting so much emphasis on the external commands that the inner life is neglected.
Greear then compares his gospel to distortions among other groups, and he contends the gospel is the priority and it is about what God has done and not what we are to do — so he pushes back against charismatic, seeker-sensitive, fundamentalist, younger, Reformed, prosperity gospel, discipleship-focused and emergent churches.
There is so much to say here — but it would take a chapter in a book. I agree with the grace-shaped focus of this book, and I do think the book should have been called Gospel of Grace or Grace because there’s so much more about the gospel in Jesus and the apostles that is not discussed. But I agree that we are saved by what God has done for us in Christ and not by what we do, but I want to point to a few problems I have with this book.
First, his emphasis on performance as religion begs a ton of questions, assumes a history of theology that was shaped by Luther and Calvin, and fails in the end to deal adequately with the reality of Torah in the Bible. Put a little more historically, Greear’s view of “performance” is a view of Judaism, NT works language, and humans in light of a misunderstanding of Judaism that posits “works” over against “grace” in a way that needs more careful discussion. In other words, he reads the NT in light of the Reformation’s battles with the Catholic church. Yes, this means the New Perspective of Judaism has been entirely neglected in this book. For instance, he says, “The preaching of the law produces only Pharisees” (63). I don’t know what he means here by “law” or by “Pharisees,” and I think the latter term is a stereotype that doesn’t match reality. There’s more to “law” in the Bible than what he means by “law.”
Second, and this one is a critic that concerns me about a trend I’m seeing among the young NeoPuritans. Anyone who has to explain why commands are present in the NT has misunderstood something very seriously. The fact is, God speaks from Genesis to Revelation through commands and almost never says “but first you have to understand that this command stuff only works if you are grace-soaked so that you can obey them, and if you are grace-shaped you will do them, and really don’t even need them.” Jesus loads his teachings with commands; Paul loads his moral sections with commands; read 1 John sometime — or read James, which is soaked in commandments. My complaint here is that if one has to justify commands in the Bible, one has made some wrong turns. If commands make you uncomfortable you’ve got something wrong theologically. If you want to say preach only God and God’s grace and never commands… well, then, you’re telling God that he should have done things in another way. Of course, we do these commands of God by God’s grace, but part of God’s grace is revelation — and Torah is part of how God communicates to us.
Third, as I said about Gilbert’s book in my King Jesus Gospel, I’m unconvinced these approaches to the gospel need the Old Testament, need the Story of Israel, need Jesus to be Messiah, and need to see the gospel as the announcement that the long-awaited Messiah has finally come to rule. This gospel of Greear is a soterian gospel through and through. There’s more, not less; the gospel includes the message of salvation, but it is starts with a Story that finds fulfillment in Christ, and from that Story we find salvation in the Savior.
Fourth, which leads me to a point I have made repeatedly on this blog and in my writing: the proper method for defining gospel in the NT is to examine where the NT is defining gospel, not by making our theological center the gospel and explaining our theology as gospel. The place to begin is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (3-8, 3-28), the gospeling sermons in Acts, and the Gospels as the gospel. I’m simply not convinced that method will yield Greear’s gospel of acceptance by what God has done and not by our performance. That gospel is more about the Story of Jesus; his gospel is about a theological mechanism in a justification worldview.