John Piper is proud to stand next to N.T. Wright in proclaiming the cosmic scope of the gospel (88). But Piper believes that Wright has missed the essence of what makes the lordship of Christ good news – the fact that individual sinners can be forgiven because of Christ’s work on the cross.
In perhaps the most illuminating misstep in his argument, Piper quotes from 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, hoping to show that the crucial three words (that Jesus was crucified for our sins) are the climax and essence of the good news (89).
Unfortunately, Piper stops at verse 3! The gospel that Paul received and that was preached to the Corinthians (by which salvation comes [v. 1] – notice in this chapter that “the gospel” and “salvation” are not equivalents for Paul, as Wright contends) climaxes not with the three words “for our sins,” but with the three verses that Piper fails to mention – three verses that show the climax and crucial part of “the gospel” as being the Resurrection of Christ. (In fact the entire chapter is devoted to breaking down “this gospel” in terms of the resurrection.)
Piper goes on to say:
“Without at all insisting that Paul always announced the truth of justification in every gospel message, I would still want to insist from Paul’s own words that his announcement of the death and resurrection and lordship of Jesus became good news in Paul’s preaching precisely because in some way he communicated that believing in this Christ brought about justification (90).”
With all due respect to John Piper, I’m afraid he is contradicting himself. If justification is the crucial aspect of the “gospel,” how can Piper say that Paul did not announce it in every gospel message? According to Piper, a sermon without the doctrine of justification does not qualify as preaching “the gospel.”
I believe that Piper’s thorough scholarship has already alerted him to the fact that many of the sermons in Acts proclaim Christ’s resurrection and lordship without articulating the doctrine of justification. Piper doesn’t want to go so far as to say that the apostles are not preaching “the gospel,” so he adds qualifying statements like the one quoted above.
Wright’s insistence on seeing the “gospel” message as a message about Jesus for us is more exegetically plausible. The “gospel” as defined carefully in the New Testament is not primarily about how an individual gets saved. The gospel is a specific announcement about the crucified and risen Christ that then brings salvation of individual sinners.
If Piper is right (that “justification” makes the “gospel” good news), why didn’t the early Church call Paul’s epistles “Gospels?” After all, the epistles more clearly articulate and define justification than do Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Why did we begin calling the biographies of Jesus “Gospels,” if not because “gospel” meant “a message about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and lordship?”
Let’s ask the question another way: what is the doctrine that if not preached in a sermon disqualifies the sermon from being a “gospel message?” I would argue that if Jesus is not preached as the crucified and risen Lord of the world in a gospel presentation, then the presentation ceases to be “gospel.” The message might be about personal forgiveness or a spiritual experience, but if it does not contain Paul’s “gospel,” then we have preached conversion instead of Christ.
In an ironic twist, I believe Piper (who has worked admirably for decades as a preacher and pastor who advocates a radical God-centeredness) is defining “the gospel” in a way that is less God-centered than Wright’s! Wright keeps Jesus Christ and his rule front and center, and he will not allow anything, even our precious personal salvation upstage Jesus as the main part of the gospel message.
Now… should I be attacked for not believing in justification, let me say a couple of things in conclusion. If someone asked me to define “the gospel” the way Paul would define the gospel, I would be inclined to state very simply that the gospel is this: “Jesus of Nazareth has been crucified for our sins has been raised from the dead and is the Lord of the world.”
If someone asked me to share “the gospel,” then I would tell a longer story. Put quite simply, “the gospel” is not good news or bad news (or anything but puzzling news at all) unless it comes within an overarching narrative.
I would start at Creation. I would mention the Fall of humans into sin and slavery to evil. I would tell the story of God’s chosen people Israel and the promises for deliverance and restoration. I would briefly tell the story of Jesus – culminating in his death and resurrection. I would proclaim “the gospel” of Jesus’ resurrection and lordship within this overarching narrative. Then, I would bring in the doctrine of justification, urging the person to trust solely in Christ for salvation and forgiveness of sins and to become part of God’s people, people who are saved from God’s wrath and called to be agents for new creation in the world we live in.
Tomorrow, we look at Wright’s view of justification and what determines our right standing before God.
written by Trevin Wax © 2007 Kingdom People blog