The Gospel of the King

The Gospel of the King April 22, 2020

The evangelical blogosophere has been busy with some disputes over what is the gospel or, more properly, what is the correct emphasis in the gospel.

On the one hand, there is the T4G crowd arguing for “justification by faith” as the centre of the gospel with some kingdom and kingship trimmings exemplified by Greg Gilbert in his book What is the Gospel? and more recently in his T4G talk What Is and Isn’t the Gospel. Gilbert critiques Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates because their respective books King Jesus GospelGospel Allegiance, and Salvation by Allegiance Alone argue that the NT gospel accents Jesus’s kingship at the expense of atonement and justification (disclaimer, these two guys are good friends of mine). McKnight and Bates have responded Gilbert’s talk and Gilbert has, in turn, responded further with Jesus is King is not Good News.

This is how I see it:

Gilbert wants to make the cross and a transaction within the atonement the centre of the gospel with kingdom and kingship as a kind of back story. McKnight and Bates emphasize Jesus’s kingship, Israel’s story, fulfilment of Scripture with justification and forgiveness as benefits of the gospel. Gilbert is not entirely absent of kingdom/kingship, but neither are McKnight and Bates arguing for “mere kingship.”

Truth be told, I think that Bates and McKnight have the better end of the argument in terms of what the NT emphasizes. If one surveys Acts 2:29-36, 13:32-33, Rom 1:3-4, 1 Cor 15:3-4, and 2 Tim 2:8 then it is pretty hard to deny the fact that the gospel is a king Jesus gospel – it is a bit of slam dunk for my mind. The gospel is a royal summons to believe and obey Jesus as God’s messianic king, a king who has shown his might and power by laying down his life for his people to make them right, forgiven, and reconciled, etc. Or, as I define the gospel in my Evangelical Theology: “The gospel is the announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah, in fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

At Ridley College, in theology 001, the very first thing we cover is “What is the gospel?” and I get two students to respectively review Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel? and Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel, sometimes adding in too Darrell Bock, Recovering the Real Lost Gospel, and John Dickson, Promoting the Gospel. It usually leads to a good discussion about what the gospel is and what should be emphasized. I’d say about 70% of students usually prefer McKnight’s articulation, however, they do find stuff in Gilbert’s book that they appreciate and respect. On the whole, we end up with a very helpful and wholesome discussion of the gospel and its NT presentation. It is quite a good task for those learning to think evangelically about theology.

Let me stress a few things:

First, there is a diversity of presentations of the gospel in the NT. There’s diversity even in Paul’s presentation. Rom 1:3-4 and 2 Tim 2:8 emphasize Jesus as the risen Messiah, while 1 Cor 15:3-5 stresses his death and resurrection for our sins. Note too that Luke’s synopsis of apostolic preaching rarely mentions the cross and atonement, focusing mostly on Jesus’ messiahship, exaltation, and the forgiveness of sins. Jimmy Dunn has a great essay on a diversity within the NT about the gospel though I can’t remember exactly where I saw it (maybe in the Howard Marshall festschrift New Testament Theology in Light of the Church’s Mission).

Second, justification by faith is not the gospel, rather, it is a Pauline explanation for how the gospel saves.

Yes, there is a close relationship between gospel and justification/righteousness.

God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel (Rom 1:16), but this “righteousness” is not a “righteousness from God” (apologies to Tom Schreiner and Charles Irons), rather, it is God’s saving power announced in the gospel which results in justification, forgiveness, and reconciliation, etc.

Paul can use “justified” as a summary of the many dividends of salvation (Rom 8:30), however, justification is also the flip side of forgiveness (Rom 4) and reconciliation (Rom 5). Plus, Paul can use “mercy” to sum up his message across Romans 1-11 in Rom 12:1!

Also, in Galatians Paul defends his gospel, and he does that by principally defending justification by faith in Galatians 2, however, he also defends his view of adoption and freedom from Torah.

What is more, if justification by faith is the gospel, then you could end up implying that the four Gospels are not gospel because they do not mention the Pauline account of justification by faith. And if your theology cannot find any gospel in the Gospels, then there is something very wrong with your theology. Seriously, if that is you, get help!

So of course gospel and justification go together, like vegemite and avocado, or vegemite and cheese. However, justification is not the content of the gospel but its effect. Otherwise, if justification is the gospel, and if one must believe the gospel to be justified, then you end up with the ridiculous situation of being justified by believing in justification, a proposition rejected by both Jonathan Edwards and N.T. Wright.

Third, I like to think that JeremyTreat’s work The Crucified King might be a good halfway house between Gilbert and McKnight/Bates and maybe Treat can potentially broker an evangelical peace treaty as Treat tries to hold together precisely what both sides value in Jesus’s kingship and a robust atonement theology.

Fourth, I think we should probably defer to America’s greatest living theologian, Kanye, who’s gospel album is rightly titled “Jesus is King.” Say what you might about Kanye, his gospel album has a good gospel title.

See below a short TED talk video I did on What is the Gospel and Why it Matters?

Here I point out the role of the gospel in Christian theology:

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