“The gospel,” Tim Keller, “is not everything.” Yet he also says, “Because the gospel is endlessly rich, it can handle the burden of being the one ‘main thing’ of a church.” I am glad that an increasing number of pastors and theologians are pushing hard against the notion that the gospel is the rudimentary thing we believe but soon as possible leave it behind so we can advance to the deeper things of Scripture. In his book, Center Church, from which the quotes above come (pp.29, 37), Keller outlines how he understands the gospel as the main thing. He’s right: the gospel is the center of the church.
You will probably know that I have outlined the gospel in The King Jesus Gospel, where I put forth a case that we have to think not only about how to define the gospel but also what method we use in defining it. Many have a “method of assumption”: since they already know what the gospel is they simply define it and add Bible references to prop up their definition. Most define it as the soterian gospel. I proposed in KJG that there are three spots in the New Testament that we must use if we are to be faithful: 1 Cor 15, the sermons in Acts (which are nearly always not discussed), and the Gospels as the gospel itself. Keller’s approach is pure soterian, and what I have at times called a covenant soterian. To use some jargon, the covenant soterian wants both a historia salutis (creation, fall, restoration) and an ordo salutis (either the doctrines of grace or the “plan of salvation”). Keller’s approach equates gospel with the plan of salvation in its biggest senses.
What do you think of Keller’s sketch of the gospel and its central themes here? Do you think it adequately squares with 1 Cor 15, the sermons in Acts, or the Gospels as the gospel?
Here are Keller’s main themes:
1. The gospel is good news, not good advice; it is something to be declared.
2. The gospel is good news that we have been rescued. We are rescued from the wrath of God. We are rescued from sins: psychological, social, physical, and vertical/spiritual.
[Here the soterian, at the personal or “Me” level, dominates for the whole point of the gospel becomes salvation, personal salvation first and then cosmic, but the first note is not christology.]3. The gospel is good news about what has been done by Jesus Christ to put right our relationship with God. [Justification.]
4. Keller pushes another important idea: the gospel is not the same as the results of the gospel. Here is pushing against making the gospel about ethics, and in particular justice; instead, the gospel is about salvation and the result of that salvation is justice (which he does not minimize as flowing from true grace).
[Problem: 1 Cor 15 makes Jesus’ death “for our sins” so we must say that forgiveness and salvation are the result of the gospel too. I agree with Keller: the gospel and its results must be distinguished. I disagree in this: salvation, too, is a result, leading us to say the gospel is declaring something about Jesus — he is Lord, he is Messiah, he is Savior — and not just the result of salvation he brings. Would you agree that making the gospel about salvation confuses gospel with its results?]
Keller: “The gospel, then, is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf — that is why and how the gospel is salvation by grace…. It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel” (31). [Again, observe the gospel is about the “work” of Christ, that is his saving work. There’s much more to be said here, but so far I’m not seeing any reason for the word “Messiah” to be used nor the word “Lord.”]
5. There are two equal and opposite enemies of the gospel: religion and irreligion; legalism and antinomianism. He will develop this more in a later chapter so I will wait until then, but at this point I must say this is framed by a theory of how to understand works and how Paul understands Judaism/Pharisaism and legalism… all points that are in dispute today.
6. Finally, Keller says the gospel has chapters, and there are four:
6.1 Where did we come from? God: the one and the relational.
6.2 Why did things go wrong? Sin: bondage and condemnation.
6.3 What will put things right? Christ: incarnation, substitution, restoration. [Where’s the resurrection? This is where defining the problem is important: if the problem is death, resurrection and life rise to the heights. This is also why ignoring the sermons in Acts leads to missing crucial elements, namely, resurrection.]