Like me many of you no doubt are confident that the gospel is about how to get saved. When we hand out the four spiritual laws we are giving someone the gospel, a clear and simple presentation on how to get saved. We’d suggest even, that if something like the Romans Road to Salvation has not been delivered then the gospel has not been preached.
The gospel, in essence, is a message delivered to an individual calling them to personally accept that Jesus died for their sins. The deal is sealed with a sinner’s prayer. The gospel had been preached, we’d say, and the individual is now saved.
But this way of thinking about the gospel has been challenged by N.T. Wright (though, really, it wasn’t until John Piper got in his face that Wright’s view began to receive its much deserved attention). And more recently by Scot McKnight. These two scholars have argued that “the gospel” strictly speaking is not about how to get saved, rather it is simply the proclamation of King Jesus.
But this way of speaking about the gospel – admittedly new to most people – left me, and many others, feeling somewhat robbed and emptied. If the gospel isn’t about how to get saved, then how do people get saved and what is that relationship to the gospel? In other words, what is the relationship between proclaiming Jesus to be King in a first century Roman context, and how people get saved today?
N.T. Wright says that the gospel is not about how to get saved, but he also adds that the gospel results in salvation. But how does proclaiming Jesus – and not Nero or Claudius or Caligula – to be King in the first century result in a person becoming a new creation in twenty-first century America?
THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMS KING JESUS
First of all, Wright and McKnight are correct. The scriptures – both what they contain and how they were put together – could not be clearer.
A few key passages in the Pauline corpus are explicit enough:
Paul, a servant of King Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of [King] David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: King Jesus our Lord.
Romans 1:1-4 is an important one to Wright. Throughout the scriptures we have normally read “Jesus Christ” in the say way we might read “Derek Ouellette.” “Christ” is casually passed over as a sort of surname of Jesus. But that is not at all what is going on here. “Christ” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Messiah” which means the Anointed One, the coming King (Psalm 2). So Paul begins by stating that he is a servant of King Jesus (Jesus Christ). He goes on to say that the “gospel” was promised throughout the scriptures “regarding [God’s] Son” who was a descendant of David, king of Israel, and as if to exclamate the point, the gospel is a proclamation of “King Jesus our Lord.”
An important passage for McKnight is 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
This is perhaps the most succinct definition of the gospel in the New Testament. The gospel is in fact the story of the King. Today we’ve made the gospel about this God-man named Jesus who died for our sins. As true as it is that God-incarnate was crucified for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2), that’s not strictly speaking what Paul means here by “the gospel.” The focus here isn’t that “Jesus died for our sins,” but that “Christ” died for our sins. It wasn’t a peasant Jew who died for our sins, it was the Anointed One, the Messiah, the King. So to preach the gospel is to preach the story of King Jesus leading up to and climaxing with his substitutionary sacrifice, through his death and straight on into the vindication of his resurrection.
The gospel, in its essence, then, is a proclamation of King Jesus.
THE GOSPELS DO NOT CONTAIN JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
When we think of the gospel as a basic how-to six-step program or three-point sermon for getting people saved, the centre of that message becomes justification by faith.
The standard approach to this message goes something like this. You are not a good person. You may think you are a good person, but if you have broken one law then you are no longer good. God is perfect and will settle for nothing less than perfection. No amount of “good works” on your part will get you into heaven. But God, thanks to his incredible love, mercy and grace, sent His Son Jesus to come to earth, to live a perfect life and then to die in your place. He took your sins so that you can partake in His life and be found righteous or justified by God.
That is how we normally conceive of the gospel. But there is a blindingly obvious problem in that way of viewing things. It’s so obvious that it is a testament to the power of generational indoctrination that we’ve all missed it. Namely, the first four books of the New Testament are named “The Gospel,” and none of them contain the doctrine of Justification by Faith.
It bears repeating that none of the actual Gospels contain Justification by Faith. They simply proclaim King Jesus.
SO HOW DOES THE GOSPEL WORK?
Now we’ve come full circle and are left with our original question. If the gospel is the proclamation of King Jesus, and if that proclamation results in salvation, how exactly does it work? So far it sounds like the gospel is the conveying of true information about King Jesus. Wright anticipates this and offers to us a way in which the gospel has real life application: Paul’s gospel reveals God’s love…
… precisely by putting it into action. The royal proclamation is not simply the conveying of true information about the kingship of Jesus. It is the putting into effect of that kingship, the decisive and authoritative summoning to allegiance. Paul discovered, at the heart of his missionary practice, that when he announced the lordship of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of King Jesus, this very announcement was the means by which the living God reached out with his love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women, forming them into a community of love across traditional barriers, liberating them from the paganism which had held them captive, enabling them to become, for the first time, the truly human begins they were meant to be. The gospel, Paul would have said, is not just about God’s power saving people. It is God’s power at work to save people. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.61)
In fact, that is more or less exactly what Paul says. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)
All of this stuff we’ve gotten into these days about law and anti-nominism, arguments about grace and law. These things are the result of a fundamental confusion about what the gospel is. We tell people that they are saved by grace and then we worry that if we then tell them that they need to be obedient too, that they’ll begin live under the law. We’re terrified of legalism, but we’re terrified of greasy-grace too and so we walk the tightrope and hope we don’t lose our balance.
It gets worse. Grace becomes a thing. You either have this thing called grace or you don’t. For Calvinists, this grace (whatever it is, a power, a force, a potion) is given to someone before they believe, enabling them to believe even. They are thus saved before faith (contrary Ephesians 2:8-9). For others, this grace (whatever it is, a power, a force, a potion) is given at some other point in the salvation process.
But Wright has something to say about that too:
Grace is not a ‘thing’ – a heavenly gas, a pseudo-substance, which can be passed to and fro or pumped down pipelines. The word ‘grace’ is a shorthand way of speaking about God himself, the God who loves totally and unconditionally, whose love overflows in self-giving in creation, in redemption, in rooting out evil and sin and death from his world, in bringing to life that which was dead.
The gospel is the proclamation of King Jesus which is a summons into his Kingdom. It is a way of saying, “Jesus is King, serve him!” The element of grace – that amazing, wonderful grace – is that God himself sacrificially sent His Son – the true King – to die on that cross in order to defeat evil, sin and death. When that message is proclaimed God works in the hearts and minds of the hearers who, when upon receiving that message, have joined the Kingdom community of God and have become a part of the new creation.