The Three “J’s” in the Gospel Debate

The Three “J’s” in the Gospel Debate November 2, 2011

Some people are a bit baffled when they hear there is a gospel debate today. Others, and this is no surprise to the readers of this blog, know that many debates actually end up discovering that at the bottom of this debate is the gospel, or how we understand the gospel. Some mainline organizations break into a rash when interviewing a candidate for ministry and discover that he or she has a traditional Reformed understanding of the gospel, while some in that more traditonal Reformed movement today do the same when they hear a candidate contend for a more new perspective view of the gospel. And some in the revivalist tradition cannot comprehend how in the world anyone doesn’t think the gospel is anything but that simple four or five point gospel. Yet others, and I’ll avoid giving names here, seem to think the gospel itself can be reduced to three words: God loves you.

The gospel is at the heart today of every major theological debate, and it spills over into one ecclesiastical debate after another.

In all of this lots of folks get thoroughly confused. Take, for instance, the new perspective and the gospel. Some people think this is a fun debate but at stake for many of us is not just a curious piece of history — what was 1st Century Judaism really like? — but instead we see the gospel at stake. To be sure, if you find yourself in the middle of all of this the debate can become bewildering.

So I want to contend this morning that there are three ways of framing the gospel today. What I want to emphasize is that how we frame the gospel determines everything, and I mean everything. I contend there are three J’s that can put the whole debate today on the table in the simplest of framing categories.

First, some people frame the gospel through the category of justice. The point of the gospel is this: Jesus came to establish a kingdom marked by justice, and of course justice is the big term that includes other important ideas like peace and love and salvation. In fact, for many in the justice camp the word “salvation” is robust enough to be called “justice” or “justice” is robust enough to be called “salvation.” For these folks, Luke 4:18-19 is about as gospel as you can get, and Jesus’ death and his resurrection are all connected to this vision of justice. This means gospel work is justice work; it also means any gospel work that doesn’t entail justice is not gospel work.

Some in this camp, of course, are so justice and so “social justice” that it seems like nothing more than political activism or the worst caricature of the social gospel. But a charitable reading of justice gospelers reveals that they do believe Jesus’ death forgives sins (I find few in this camp care much for substitutionary atonement but they are not denying atonement in the death of Jesus; to be sure, some are little more than Abelard or even Girard).

Justice gospelers today tend toward political activism, the summons for more Christians to see compassion for the poor and better laws and peace in the world, and toward a kingdom language. One of the more recent developments for justice gospelers is the category of empire, and they see a conscious and consistent anti-empire agenda at work in Jesus and in the apostles. They like this expression: “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.”

I’m not persuaded empire is as important to gospel as many do today, though anyone who claims Jesus is Lord knows that Caesar is not. The issue for me is how conscious is this. (And I’m co-editing a book with IVP, due out next Fall, that will put this anti-empire theory to the test. We’ve got some really, really good essays in this volume.)

Overall I am utterly convinced as I can be that Jesus intended to create a just society, and I’ve written about this in most of my books: but I am just as convinced that the gospel is not justice per se. Justice is the inevitable result and implication of the gospel but not the same as the gospel.

Second, some people frame the gospel through the category of justification. This is the traditional Reformation category, and Luther famously said that the church stands or falls with justification by faith. (Ahem, Jesus spoke to this and he said it stood or fell with the confession of Peter, namely, that Jesus was Messiah/King. I digress.) For justification gospelers, the gospel is soterian and that soteriology, or doctrine of salvation, can all be summed up in and through the term justification. The essence is that we are sinners and guilty before God and God must deal in a legal courtroom kind of way with our status. The good news is that God forgives us through Jesus and we can become justified, or declared in the right, through the death and resurrection of Christ. (Justification gospelers don’t emphasize resurrection enough, sometimes revealing almost no interest. Most emphasize a penal substitution theory of atonement and see divine satisfaction as the primary act of God at work in making justification possible. Many are also double imputation folks. Not all, as others emphasize union with Christ.)

Justification gospelers preach a soterian gospel, and I’ve said enough about this on this blog and in my book (linked below). They tend to be at odds with justice gospelers, just as justice gospelers are at odds with justification gospelers. Tim Keller is on record saying justification leads to justice, but I don’t think the logic is necessary and it is too obvious to me that far too many justification gospelers inherently react to the justice gospelers because they don’t think justification leads inevitably to justice. More of that some other time.

The issue I’m talking about is how to frame the gospel. The justice gospelers frame the gospel through systemic injustice that needs to be undone and justice established; the justification gospelers frame the gospel through the systematic theology of creation, fall, sinfulness, God’s just judgment of humans as sinners, and the remedy of justice in the cross (and resurrection) of Christ where God is both just and justifier.

But I want to contend once again that justification, like justice, is the implication or result of the gospel and not the gospel itself. The proof is in the absence of justification language (especially as the “driver”) in 1 Corinthians 15, the almost total absence of justification in the gospel sermons in Acts, and the same almost total absence of the category/term of justification in the Gospels (which are the gospel). Again, we are talking here about how to frame the gospel.

The gospel, I contend, is not properly framed as injustice becoming justice (though clearly this happens) or as the unjust becoming just/justified (though clearly this happens too). And the debate between these two folks proves an inability to convince one leads to the other compellingly. There’s a better way.  Instead…

Third, some people frame the gospel through the category of Jesus. As I argue in The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, fundamental category for the gospel in Jesus and the apostles is the Story of Jesus. Just look at 1 Corinthians 15, just look at the gospeling sermons in Acts, and then just take a good look at why the first four books are called THE GOSPEL according to (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).

What drove them was the Story of Jesus as the completing/fulfilling Story of God’s work in this world, beginning with Adam and then taken up into Abraham.

There are three J’s in the gospel debate. The right J is Jesus.

If you preach Jesus as the gospel you will get both justification and justice.
If you preach justification you may get Jesus (but I see only some of Jesus and not the whole of Jesus) and you may get some justice (I’m skeptical on this one).
If you preach justice you may get some justification (but I’m skeptical on enough justice gospelers ever getting to justification) and you get Jesus, but again only some of Jesus (often only his teachings, his life, and his life as an example).

If you preach the Jesus of Paul’s gospel (1 Cor 15) or the apostolic sermons in Acts or the gospel of the Gospels, you get all of Jesus and all of Jesus creates both justice and justification.

As for me and my house, we take the third J.

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  • rjs

    Nice post Scot. This is an important framing of the discussion.

    I am looking forward to the IVP book you mention. I have been powerfully influenced by Wright’s writings on Jesus. It has cast the story for me in ways where the pieces fell into place. But his emphasis on anti-empire seems over done.

    It seems to me that this view of the “Jesus as Messiah” gospel needs some serious working out. The point isn’t anti-empire, and the point isn’t simply Jesus as fulfillment of Israel’s story. The point isn’t justification or justice. All of these are elements (large or small) of a much larger theme. The much larger theme is centered on God’s purpose and work for and in the world.

  • Hello Scot, from today on I´m doing a post-series about your new book THE KING JESUS GOSPEL on my GERMAN Blog:

    I would be glad to hear from you…

  • Joe Canner

    “Tim Keller is on record saying justification leads to justice, but I don’t think the logic is necessary…”

    Logical or no, in practice it seems to be the opposite for many people. The justification gospel tends to get people thinking about being chosen and set apart and tends to make them forget about justice for those that are “outside the camp.”

  • Scot McKnight

    Jacob, I posted a brief comment on your blog … auf Deutsch!

  • Mick Porter

    Framing the gospel through a category of Jesus? Preposterous!

    Great post 🙂 I look forward to you probing why justification doesn’t lead to justice.

  • EricW

    Where is the overthrow/binding of Satan aspect of the Gospel?

    The Justice Gospel has as its goal defending the poor against their enemies, who are those who accumulate wealth and power at the expense of others, or who use wealth and power unjustly against the poor and powerless. While people and their behaviors might be called evil or satanic, I don’t sense a lot of 1 John’s emphasis about overcoming sin and the evil one, or the world being under the evil one’s control. Rather, rich and powerful people are evil and/or do evil things, and there need to be ad-“just”-ments to society to create justice for all.

    The Justification Gospel has as its goal reconciling sinful people with a holy God. The enemy to be defeated is sin, though one could perhaps say that the enemy, before justification, is God’s wrath or the Law or perhaps God Himself. The adversary/problem is taken care of by Christ’s death, but again there is little mention of Satan in this. YOU have sinned and ALL have fallen short of the glory of GOD, Who is holy, etc.

    I have not read the book or much of the posts here related to it, so I cannot comment on how much or how little The King Jesus/Jesus Story Gospel deals with the overthrow of Satan’s power. But I think there are enough hints in the Gospels and elsewhere in the NT that this was a key part of Jesus’ life and mission. Jesus was God’s Man/Adam retaking for God what God’s enemy/adversary had captured or corrupted. Certain scholars seem to be arguing for recognizing the importance of the Enoch literature for understanding the theology and beliefs of the Qumran community and the NT. That’s an aspect of the Gospel that hasn’t always been explored, but as early as R. H. Charles, and maybe before, the parallels between 1 Enoch and Revelation have been noted, and the Enochian themes of the Watchers and the Son of Man, etc., may enlighten our understanding of what Jesus and the NT authors believed His mission involved.

  • I love it, Scot. It’s about keeping things personal. Even the language of “heaven and hell” is an abstract synthesis of a much more personal NT language of being with Christ or without him. The frame is indeed everything.

  • John W Frye

    Scot, each time you emphasize that the soterians replace the Gospel with the benefits of the Gospel, I think you are hitting the nerve center of the soterian reduction. It is very plain to many of us that you are simply moving from salvation benefits to salvation source. That some act like you’re doing a dangerous or unwise thing is really telling in this evangelical “cheap grace” culture. Why is it so hard for some to grasp that the goal of the faith is not to get sins forgiven so we can go to heaven, but to create a people who are living NOW by heaven’s (the kingdom’s) realities?

  • nathan

    @John Frye,

    I think you’ve nailed it. However I think your comment would touch the nerve too simply because the most “soterian” of us also rail against “cheap grace”. But it seems their concept of fighting “cheap grace” is really about letting “moralistic legalisms” in the back door.

    How do you see this “cheap grace” culture practically coincide with “soterian” emphases? What does it look like?

  • An interesting framing device, and I’m certainly in agreement here, but I wonder how best to make use of it. To the extent that some Christians are “Justice”- or “Justification”-focused (as opposed to “Jesus”-focused), I expect that if you were to ask them, they would claim to be “Jesus”-focused. What would need to be done to help people see that they’ve put their focus on something else?

  • Willie Deuel

    Mick, I think the answer to that is pretty simple. At its core, the soterian gospel is highly individualistic while the justice gospel is more collectivist (I started to say “communalist, but that sounds too much like a loaded word that prevents others from taking it seriously.)

    Of course that’s an oversimplification, but I really think that’s what’s at the heart of the idea that the gospel of justification doesn’t necessarily lead to justice. The gospel can so easily become reduced to “When He Was On The Cross, I Was On His Mind.” Not the poor, the oppressed, the infirm, the disenfranchised. Me. I got my justification, now get to the altar and get yours.

    And the other side of the debate is also true – the justice gospel can so easily become about “the oppressed” or about “community” that they become abstract ideas rather than real people.

  • Brilliant teaching tool and the best use of alliteration this decade in theological writing!

  • Christ is all in all.
    Great angle.
    We’re so locked up in our little idea boxes and units.
    It’s hard to break out.

    Jesus does it so well, he destroys our preconceptions, our justice (it aint just, by our “law”- what happened to Jesus for us), though our law condemns innocent people and rewards the very guilty often. Our salvation through self is made silly, our attempts to preserve life, as true life is through Him, our doctors are only a bleak shadow of the DR J, who by the Father’s will defeated our deeath. It’s all Jesus in His narcissistic humility, all “authority is given to me in heaven and on earth.”

    The toughest thing we are dealing with I think, is authentic faith. Are we really in relationship with Christ ? Experience vs Living by knowledge is critical. Do we know Him at all ? Sincerity and truth are what He requires.

    We have this dilemma, Jesus is distant and close.
    To come as he ascended, yet comes in a Christophany with Paul on the road to Damascus.

    Scripture is also used like some Deist computer program, replacing what the scripture actually speaks of, a Spirit which teaches us all things and witnesses to Jesus, convicting the world of sin. We rudely read other people’s letters : ), when we have the living letter etched in our hearts by The Holy Spirit.

    We have replaced true intimacy with God, with some intellectual reading exercise I fear, especially in our seminaries. Evangelicalism has become a network cult and agenda, which sometimes neglects Jesus for pieces of paper. The words on that paper point to Him and a real intimacy with Him. WE “know” God !

    The greatest sign is how we often speak as if Jesus is not there- it speaks volumes and I suggest show, we have lost our way. I even heard a person justify this behavior on an evangelical forum as, “blessed are they who believe yet do not see,” arguing that God is actually distant to us.

    Can such a person have the Holy Spirit ?

    Let’s actually be in God in Christ in Spirit friends.
    This is more than some “heaven kingdom program.”
    This is being a friend of God as He is a friend of ours.

    We actually don’t have love fully now, as Paul explains at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, maybe a state of perfect peace/shalom with God. But we do have friendship. We have The God who died for His friends, despite the enmity we pass His way.

    Let’s get back to the basics and ask our Lord-friend Jesus to reform us.

  • T

    Mark (10),

    You’re absolutely right. Several Lutheran friends I’ve talked with would talk about having a “Christ-centered” gospel. But as we talked, what they meant was a “Justification-centered” (substitutionary-death) gospel. As with Luther, they didn’t really consider the first half of the gospels to be much “gospel” at all, especially where Jesus was teaching anything; that was just “Law.” And, as Scot mentioned, my more progressive friends don’t care much about the last half of the gospels. They focus on Jesus’ announcement of “The kingdom of God is at hand” and his kindness to the poor and the sick and say, “we’re Jesus-focused because we’re focused on what he himself focused upon!” I like Scot’s phrase: both camps are right but not right enough.

    I think this post or something like it can help. We need to be explicit about the whole of Jesus’ story as gospel, and identify the parts of the Jesus-story that the “gospels” give, but that different camps leave out. For example, evangelicals will say invite nonbelievers to “trust Jesus” but often they mean or even say that they specifically have to trust “that Jesus died for your sins.” Those two are not the same. The former includes the latter. The latter is an event; the former is a whole person, including the person’s accomplishments and much more.

    Great post, Scot.

  • Scot McKnight


    Yes, I think they do see themselves as Jesus-focused, but their story is either one of justice or justification. The essence here is this;

    Do they preach justice?
    Do they preach justification?
    Do they preach Jesus?

    What are the leading notes, the major emphases, and what becomes the central language?

    Mark, I’m convinced the justice folks center on the story of “the world” while the justification people center on a story “about me,” while the Jesus folks center on, well, “Jesus.”

    That is the “massive” that Tom Wright spoke of.

  • I think a key question to ask of the Justice gospel is what is unique about the justice gospel.

    Everyone can give a cup of cold water, or serve widows lunch, but it is to be done in the NAME of Jesus.

    A Jesus gospel is necessarily (and sufficiently) preached, as is a justification gospel. Is a justice gospel necessarily a preaching gospel? Or is it an action agenda.

  • Scot McKnight

    So I will say this stronger:

    Anyone who centers the story on justice, de-centers Jesus.
    Anyone who centers the story on justification, de-centers Jesus.

    Anyone who says the church stands or falls with justification by faith is by that very language de-centering Jesus as the enter of the Story.

    Point: in the pushback against the new perspective by the Calvinist crowd what has happened? The whole debate has become the objectified discussion of justification and double imputation and Augustinian anthropology. Why? Because justification is the central story of that group.

    My book argues this: Re-center Jesus, de-center everything else, including justification and justice.

    The good news is the Story about Jesus not the story of me!

  • Thanks, scot. Very helpful summary. But I too echo erics concern that just saying Jesus as unity of justice and justification too easily misses what is often called the more apocalyptic aspects of jesus which is neither justice nor justification focused (unless the justice view moves in the power/principalities direction)

  • Jeremy

    The Reformed camp may have written more about the soterian aspects of the Gospel over the years, but there are many reasons for this. Mainly, it was/is the main point of contention both in the Reformation itself and in the ongoing Calvinist/Arminian debate. That said, I don’t know if I’d agree that the Reformed gospel is “soterian”, the fact that that aspect does get the most attention notwithstanding. In my moderately Reformed context I have consistently heard the gospel summed up as “the person and work of Jesus Christ”. If the Reformed church were to convene to come up with an official definition of the gospel in one sentence, I have little doubt that would be it. And while they don’t get as much attention there are many books written and sermons preached about all the implications of that definition. A bit anecdotal, granted, but that’s my perspective…

  • Amos Paul

    Framing it under Jesus is all nice and good… but that doesn’t seem to settle any disputes. for instance, Soterians will see ‘Jesus’ as a device for declaring the righteousness of man while activists will see ‘Jesus’ as the divine embodiment of all their activities on Earth.

    Now, I *agree* that how we frame the Gospel is ultra important–but I take the frame to, rather than the focal point, be the context of the story. If ‘Jesus’ simply means a piece in your Justification story, then that doesn’t help much.

    On the one hand, I completely agree with you that the proper story is to see and recognize Jesus *as King*. This is the story we need–out of which proceeds justice, justicification, and all that good stuff.

    However, on the other hand, I must also contend that, even when we say Jesus is King, we must answer the question–over what? The King and his Kingdom are dialectical in understanding one another–so what is Christ’s Kingdom?

    I think that this is the next logical and necessary step in the conversation defining *what story* we’re framing things in. As a summation, I’ve taken it that you mean Jesus to be King of the Divine Community/Spiritual Israel as a fulfillment of the Jewish story of the OT. I agree with this in part, but think that this definition is not nearly wide enough.

    Indeed, I think I may disagree about the context of the Jewish story. For I see the Jewish story as being relevant to the nations (aka, us) precisely because it is an Earthly Kingdom representation of THE Kingdom. And THE Kingdom–which Christ is King over–is *All of Creation*. It is the Kingdom of all righteousness, goodness, and light that has ever, does, and will ever exist. Jesus is the King through which all goodness has its being so that anything that is truly good is ‘in’ and anything positioned against good is ‘out’. The church community is what we are called in to celebrate this and engage with it most clearly and directly–but I believe that Christ is King over ALL, and that is the Good News. The Gospel. And it’s high time we recognized Him as such.

  • I think thee are two other problems associated with the good works that Christians are called to do in the world. On the one hand some see the good that we do, the injustices that we seek to address, the poverty we seek to alleviate, the children we try to rescue from abuse, as a means to the end of preaching the gospel. This is faulty thinking about the gospel.

    On the other hand I sometimes hear people say something like this: “Meeting needs is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.” It think this is wrong too.

    Lets Not Be Empty Headed About This

    I don’t think meeting needs is a means to an end or a final end in itself. I think we all have a tendency to confuse means, ends and results. The result of my new relationship with the Savior of the universe who came to seek and save the lost is go on mission with him to seek and save the lost. But it is also true that having seen and experienced the grace that reached me when I was not looking, I can’t help but seek to reach, and care, and love others who also may not be seeking. I want to be like Jesus. I want to live and train others to live passionately for and like Jesus.

    I don’t feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and heal the broken, and rescue the perishing as a means to preach the gospel. But I do all these things because I have been brought near to the greatest lover in the world. He has redeemed me and now I must, I cannot not love others. But that love will always, must always be accompanied with words.

    One person may ask, “Why do we need words? Why do you always have to bring Jesus into the conversation? Why can’t you just let the deeds speak for themselves?”

    Simply, because we want to live and emulate our Lord. Jesus came preaching the gospel of God “and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'” (Mark 1:14)

    Some will push back with, “Is God not bigger than our puny attempts to explain grace and love?” Most definitely yes, he is. But that doesn’t negate the need for the word of the gospel to be preached.

    Some will quote the oft repeated, ‘Preach the gospel, if necessary use words’ usually attributed to St. Francis. But the reality is that this quote is theologically wrong and historically inaccurate. There is zero evidence that St. Francis actually said the quote attributed to him and it is inconsistent with the model of how his order proclaimed the gospel.

    Bottom line: A Christian is not just a “do gooder” or a “justice seeker.” A Christian is a gospeler, telling good news all the time AND living passionately for and like Jesus at the same time.

  • I agree with Derek (12), best use of alliteration in a long time! I’ve been watching the Baylor lectures and am very excited to get into the King Jesus Gospel (I have to finish King’s Cross first).

  • Scot, first of all, congratulations on the new grandbaby. What a treat and what a gift. 🙂 I hope that you are able to take at least a little time holding that little one – nothing brings peace to the heart like snuggling a new, sleeping baby. A bit of heaven, I think.

    Secondly, regarding this post. I want to say “thank you” for working steadfastly to clarify and delineate your thoughts. As a token (though Bible college educated) layperson – it all becomes very confusing. I don’t wonder why, really, many of us “common church-goers” throw our hands up in the air and decide that it’s all too difficult to understand. With that, we throw out so much and just muddle along the best we can. That’s sad, but if there is such vast agreement amongst our academicians/theologians – what is the average lay person to understand? I do try (and I recognize that my education level doesn’t match those of the majority of your readers) to comprehend and read and keep plugging away – but I “get” why many people stop trying and simply walk away. Bottom line, I think the person in the pew wants an understandable Gospel. (Not simple-minded, just graspable.) Who to listen to? Sometimes it’s difficult to know.

    I know that this reframing means everything to you and that it is not a simple, fun diversion. Thanks for your work. I am sure that over time it will make a big impact, even down to the common person and their understanding of the Gospel. 🙂

  • that should read “such vast DISagreement amongst our academicians/theologians…”

  • Joe Canner

    Marty #21 (or anyone else): What does the gift of evangelism look like, based on what you’ve said here (or based on the Jesus gospel generally)?

  • Jan,

    I’m not sure there is a “gift of evangelism.” Perhaps a gift of “evangelist” exists but I would see this as a specific gift or call a type of ministry. I think we need to be careful about any understanding of gifts that somehow releases other believers from the responsibility to tell the good news of the kingdom to others.

    Gospel people are Jesus followers. They fish for men. Jesus didn’t call us to be cookers or processors of fish that other people have caught and brought to us. He said “follow me and I will make you to become fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). If we are truly following Jesus we will fish for men. We will tell them that in Jesus, the gospel of God is proclaimed. The kingdom of God has come near. All men (and women) everywhere are commended to repent and believe the good news of the Kingdom of God. And the proof that they do is that they begin to live passionately for and like Jesus.

    What does that mean? It means that they proclaim 1 Cor. 15: 1-5; that they live a cross-shaped life of sacrifice for others, because they have been cross-bought by the atoning sacrifice of their Savior; that they pray AND work for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

    Some will see more fruit in their lives than others (in terms of new disciples) but all of us have the responsibility to live and speak the gospel. I have written much on my own blog about these topics. You might want to check it out. Hope that is helpful.

  • Scot, this is very helpful.

    One question. Is the frame one uses for the Gospel the same as the problem one sees the Gospel addressing? Or would you distinguish “frame” from “problem” somehow?

    Also, for what it’s worth, I’m one for whom justification and atonement led unavoidably to a concern for justice. How could it not? If God is so concerned with justice (and what proves that he is more than the cross?) how could I not be?

    So I’m with Keller on this one. The solution to justification folks who don’t care for justice is more justification not diverting attention elsewhere. But I’ll keep my eyes peeled for forthcoming discussions on that one.

  • Well said Scott. When you write at length I enjoy reading your thoughts but since your time is limited it is best done when dovetailing with further excursions.

  • Joe Canner

    Marty #27: You’re right, I should have said “evangelist”, as per Ephesians 4:11. I agree with you that we should all be doing “the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5), but Ephesians 4 suggests that there is a special calling that goes above and beyond. Under the soterian model, evangelism means telling people they are sinners, telling them that Jesus died for their sins, encouraging them to make a decision, etc., and an evangelist is someone who is gifted in that area. I’m just wondering what the distinction might be if we use Scot’s framework. (There have been a few discussions on this topic before, but since you specifically mentioned preaching/speaking the good news, I wanted your thoughts.)

  • I am reminded of the old joke about Sunday school: the right answer to any question is “Jesus”. The first two J’s that you discuss, fairly I think, are not as comparable to the third as you would have it. While justice and justification are certainly framing issues, more importantly they are praxis issues. They result from the Christian practitioner asking, “Given the gospel I have experienced, how do I live in the world differently from the way I did in my pre-gospel life?” For some it might be trying to do the work the Jesus did on earth. For others it will be seeking to bring others to commit to belief in Jesus. Much is lost in each case but this is as much the affect of the daily choice of actions as it is from philosophical positioning.

    You call for a “Jesus-centered” gospel. All well and good. However, in this post at least (I haven’t read your latest book) you do not present a vision of practice comparable to what the justice and justification crowds have been struggled to define over the centuries. While your criticisms of the previous approaches may be sound, the next step is essential before your “solution” can be evaluated. Just saying that justice and justification will flow isn’t enough. How will it flow? Will it be different in quality from that of the other, incomplete, gospels?

    Perhaps the key is looking closely at James and Paul. I don’t see them as contradictory but rather as complimentary. Paul’s passage on the futility of prophecy, charity or tongues without love was a direct rebuke to those, like the justice gospellers, who sought to bring the Kingdom without Jesus. Jame’s statement that faith without works is dead was a reaction to those, like your justification crowd, who sought to acquire Jesus without the Kingdom. Jesus unites the two by making clear that once you have love like God’s, you will seek justice because it is what loving people do, you will rescue the lost because it is the most natural thing in the world. We can all agree that this kind of love is rare in this world. Where does it come from? If framing the gospel as Jesus’ completion of Israel’s story brings that love, so be it. Otherwise, I am afraid it is as much a dead end as J and J.

  • Charlie Clauss

    Just to put in a plug for the Holy Spirit: 😉

    The fist two J’s have little room for the Spirit. Justice oriented, in my experience, relagate the Holy Spirit to something they just call “Spirit” that is active when people seek justice. That kind of Spirit has no transendence, no power to encourage or equip.

    Justification oriented folk give the Holy Spirit a place in the process of conversion, and will speak of the importance of the Holy Spirit in our efforts to do evangelism, but then have little room for the Holy Spirit in the rest of life.

    When we center on Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes back to full power, so to speak. The HS is the one who works to bring both justice and justification, but even more, to BE Jesus for us, in us, to us, and around us.

    The Holy Spirit is the great promise of the Old Testement – that God will dwell with His people.

  • DRT

    OK, I think I am on to something though I have not finished with the comments.

    Taking a gospel other than the Jesus story is much like telling people that Starry Night gives them a sense of the power in the night sky, and though true, is not the same as showing them the painting and letting them experience that and much more.

  • I always like to understand the problem being solved by a gospel.

    The justice gospel deals with injustice.
    The justification gospel reconciles sinful people with God.
    The Jesus gospel deals with everything.

    I prefer a gospel that does the lot.

  • TJJ

    Interesting that in your framing definitions, your approach is framed as the “Jesus” approach. A little to convienient, wouldn’t you say? I mean, seriously?

  • Gary Clinton

    Who are you all talking about? Where can I meet the “sola justifico” soterian folk? The narrative approach to reading the bible and Jesus as the central message is THE talk across the broadest spectrum of the church. I think that some might be using soterian language because of it’s absence in a lot of Jesus story telling. This my first blog and the gospel discussion is a healthy one.

  • Hi Scot. I made a second reading of your article this morning and came to the conclusion that the third-and-last J-Gospel speaks to the “Love Wins/Emergent groups” that are unmentioned in your opening paragraph.

    Not that other Christian church groups don’t fit into this, but for me (at least my version of the Love Wins/Emergent groups) places this group squarely into the center of the New Perspective of Paul understanding of the Gospel.

    And this is the version that I wish to support and to push onto any Emergent Love Wins groups floundering around for direction in their theology. As does the Rob Bell version of the gospel that I am acquainted with. Rob is all about “Jesus” 24 x 7, and goes on to show how Jesus relates to every other thing in societal structures.

    I firmly believe the Emergent Church Movement can help revive the Gospel to our pluralistic, postmodern world, and can appeal to all groups, both evangelical and non-evangelical, to denominations and to sub-sectarian groups, to Judaism, Muslimism, Hinduism, and so on. And it can do so in re-righting the understanding of how God loves us through his son Jesus. As you said, Jesus is the center and nothing us, including one of God’s attributes known as divine love. But the “Love Wins” crowd knows and understands this most central of all truths (again, at least in my first-hand experience of this through Rob Bell’s ministry).

    And lest I stand wrong in these statements than please correct those gaps and oversights. The Emergent Church movement needs direction (and not backwards) and I believe to the degree it is given that direction, to that degree Christianity can again become relevant to the world rather than hung-up in its factions and “isms.”

    Thank you.

  • “Jesus is the center and nothing ELSE” (not “us”)!

  • Commenting on the “Missional Manifesto”, Ed Stetzer says “there is a Difference Between the Gospel and the Implications of the gospel.”

    Still, the definition of “gospel” in this text is still very soteriana in your view?


  • My first reading of this is very positive and agreeing. On second reflection, though, I’m not sure. Both Justice and Justification camps would say that their center is Jesus–they’re just fleshing out his message in the direction they think He would.

    Which leads to the question: How do you properly flesh out the Jesus message? It’s no good simply to point back to the New Testament; the issue is how to contextualize it for today. Both Justification and Justice camps would probably say that theirs is the right way to contextualize it for today, particularly in response to how they feel it has been wrongly contextualized in the past. That really is the key. We’re all very reactionary, at bottom. We all respond to what we think the direction of things has been, up to this point.

    So it’s helpful, but not sufficient, to point to Jesus as the correction to unbalanced presentations of the Gospel. The reason why is because one has to go beyond Jesus himself to get at what the story of Jesus means. And any articulation of that can be pointed to as somehow insufficient by someone else, who will then point back to Jesus as the correction.

  • Mitch Mitchell

    “When the plan (of salvation) gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. . .We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of Salvation” (p. 62)

    Amen and Amen! I have grown up with the plan of salvation=gospel (found in Acts but not in Jesus). This plan: hearing, believing, repenting, confession, and baptism was The System of Salvation. “Who is saved and who is not saved” dominated our culture and sermons. I am thoroughly convicted, challenged, and compelled to put Jesus Christ as King, Messiah, Lord, & Savior.
    Thank you Scot for your insights (I met you in a small group discussion at Lipscomb). Peace.

  • Scot, Great post and great summary of a complicated issue. Im currently writing a paper for my BA on what Paul thinks is gospel and i can see how it fits into how you frame the discussion here. Im arguing that for Paul, gospel was a performative speech-act, that both announced the isiahnic good news of salvation via the story of Jesus [making Paul a preacher of your 3rd J]. But in performing this act, in performing orally the narrative of death and ressurection, Paul understood himself to be bringing salvation, the announcement brought the reality of the good news to the listeners. The listener could hear this as being foolish, or as the power of God [1 cor 1:18].

    I think this performative speech act carried with it a perlocutionary speech act (it intended a certain response from the hearer) and that the response it intented was participation. The hearer literally participates in the performance by hearing it, but for some via the holy spirit, the actually participate in the narrative itself, they undergo death and ressurection with Christ and are en christo.

    Like you say here, in my view, Justification is an afterthought, and justice is a mark of new creation. The gospel wasnt about these, but it bought these.
    What do you make of this?

  • scotmcknight

    Danny, I’ve been traveling and just saw your comment. Very nice set of ideas that places gospel in speech-act theory. The second part of your first paragraph argues that salvation comes from the performative speech-act, and if that is so, then justification isn’t an afterthought but one way of describing the saving effects of the gospel. (But the gospel involves the Person who saves, and is not just speech-acts.) Anyway, good ideas.

  • JD

    Scot – I appreciate your desire to keep Jesus at the center of the Gospel discussion. It’s helpful. It’s right. My concern is that it doesn’t seem like you’re striving for the unity of the faith with an article such as this. If we’re focusing on Jesus–and I wholeheartedly agree with you that we should–, then let’s also focus on the fact that HE said, “if they’re not against us, they’re for us”…the “us” being our brothers and sisters who may or may not put too much emphasis on Justice or Justification. It’s convenient to quote Tim Keller and take his comment out of context to help you prove your point. Do you really believe that he doesn’t think Jesus is the most import “J” when speaking of the Gospel? It seems pretty arrogant and ignorant to imply he doesn’t. Listen to all of his sermons, read all of his articles and books, and then look at the impact his ministry (and church-planting ministry) is having in the least-churched city in the US? Does Tim Keller have blind spots that affect his teaching? Sure he does. Who doesn’t? What you’ve done in writing this article is drawn lines in the sand that create division between your proponents (the “Jesus” folks) against the Reformed (“Justification” folks) and the “justice” folks. Why? How is that helpful for the sake of the Gospel? You’re pitting Christians against Christians. Here’s an idea: write an article that describes how preaching Jesus (the right “J”) leads to a robust theology of both “justification” and “justice” without making yourself look like you’ve got your act together and nobody else does. Or at least put a disclaimer at the bottom of the article that says, “I’m trying to sell more of my books” or “I’m having a bad day, and I really do love the brothers I just bashed” or SOMETHING that gives the impression you believe Jesus is at work in more than your “circle of friends”. YES, it’s important to preach the Gospel AND it’s important to preach the implications of the Gospel. Jesus is the central character (dare I use “story” language) and the focal point of the Gospel. Without Jesus, you don’t get the Gospel. Without the Gospel you don’t get the implications of the Gospel. Without the implications of the Gospel, it’s not the Gospel. Isn’t that your point? Why do you have to tear others down to make yourself look good? Brother, that doesn’t seem very “Gospel” or very “Jesus” to me.