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.)
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.