By Matthew Bates, Christianity Today, 4/21/20.
… 1. Basic fallacies of biblical interpretation regarding “gospel” (euangelion). Greg Gilbert, John Piper (The Future of Justification, p. 86-91), and those who follow their line of thought combine two well-known errors of biblical interpretation. A simplistic treatment of roots (the “root fallacy” or etymological error) causes them to pay insufficient attention to the ancient context. Because the word euangelion comes from eu- (“good”) and angelion (“tidings” or “message”), they assume that it must mean good news for you and me personally or it simply can’t mean “good news.” Yet in the NT and its world euangelion frequently refers to a royal announcement, such as news of a new king, for the general public quite apart from whether that announcement would result in good for you or me personally. That is, the good in good news is not intrinsically a personal good.
For example, when Vespasian became Caesar, this was heralded as good news (euangelia) for the empire before he had done anything good or bad, without regard for his intentions toward specific individuals (Josephus, Jewish War 4.618, 4.656). Everyone knew Vespasian’s ascension meant that some specific individuals would benefit and others would be condemned. Yet in the ancient world it was still appropriate to call such events “good news” for the empire as a whole irrespective of individual outcomes. Accordingly, Gilbert’s claim, “For it to be good news, we have to know what this king intends to do—whether he intends to crush or to save, to condemn or to forgive,” is not based on accurate research.
In fact, the first time this word euangelion appears in the Bible, we see why. A herald brought what he considered to be “good news” of Saul’s defeat and death to David, but David had the man put to death (2 Sam 4:10). It is still called “good news” in Scripture even though David had the man killed for delivering it! Since an individual is crushed and condemned by the king, this is precisely the opposite of what Gilbert says must define the essence of good news. It proved to be supremely bad news for this man; yet the herald’s message is called “good news” in Scripture because the herald was referring to events of kingdom-wide significance that he considered good news. And this was ordinary usage. This is but one of many examples that shows that Gilbert’s argument is invalid.
Yes, Jesus is a supremely good king (on which, see Joshua Jipp, Christ Is King). But the kindness or malice of the king toward specific individuals did not control how the word euangelion referred in the New Testament’s world. It referred to empire-wide good news apart from what that news might mean for this or that specific citizen. Gilbert’s and Piper’s conclusion otherwise is based on a simplistic construal of the word roots as that is combined with a failure to take into account the ancient context sufficiently.
2. “Gospel” reference failure. But the problem for Gilbert’s and other T4G/TGC leaders’ version of the gospel is even more severe. The word “gospel” cannot successfully refer at all in the New Testament if it means what they think it means. Gilbert’s definition of the gospel makes each individual’s own personal justification intrinsic to the gospel itself rather than a benefit that derives from it.
I think I am summarizing him fairly when I say that for Gilbert, the gospel is God is righteous, you (inclusive of each individual) are a sinner, but by dying an atoning death for your sins Jesus Christ has justified you, so you must respond with faith and repentance (see Gilbert, What Is the Gospel?). The justification of each unsaved “you” is intrinsically part of the gospel for Gilbert. But that would mean that when Jesus is proclaiming the gospel in the NT, then each future unsaved Christian’s unique justification is being proclaimed as part of the referent within his message. So if I you or I am not yet “saved,” it refers to “you” and to “me” even though we haven’t yet been born. But that doesn’t make sense, does it?
The truth is this: when we find the word “gospel” in the New Testament, the gospel is not about me (it does not refer to me), but the gospel’s promises are for everyone, including me. If I choose to accept the gospel, its benefits, like justification, adoption, and forgiveness, are applied to me by the Holy Spirit.
3. Failure to distinguish the objective work of the Christ for a group from its subjective appropriation by an individual. Here I am speaking only to Gilbert rather than the other T4G/TGC leaders I’ve mentioned, as this is a problem with his analysis, but I don’t know how far it extends. Part of the gospel is that “the Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). The saving work of the king has been decisively accomplished on behalf of his people. But that doesn’t mean each individual who will become a Christian has yet experienced it.
Salvation is about a group of people first, individuals second. The clearest statements describing the purpose of the gospel in Scripture indicate that it is “for the obedience of pistis in all the nations.” This is best understood as loyal obedience or allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah, the lord, the king (see Rom. 1:2-5, 16:25-26; Bates, Gospel Allegiance, p. 68-73). God’s purpose is to create a people for himself. After his enthronement as king, Jesus pours out the Spirit on a group, filling each individual. When each person initially enters salvation, she or he does not enter in isolation. The justified church always exists prior. As the Father and Son send the Spirit to the church, upon our declaration of allegiance (ordinarily at baptism) we are enveloped into the justified Spirit-filled community in such a way that we are justified and have the Spirit too. There is an objective/corporate dimension (the church exists as a justified community) and subjective/individual dimension (a person is not justified until they enter it).
Here’s another way to look at it. The classic theological distinction is between the historia salutis (God’s saving deeds in history) and the ordo salutis (the sequence by which an individual comes to experience salvation). Even though some versions of the ordo salutisare problematic (see Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, p. 166-75 for discussion), nevertheless one can say that on the cross Jesus won justification objectively through his accomplished work as part of salvation history for whoever ultimately comes to be found “in him.” That can never change. The possibilityand promise that we can be justified by faith is part of the gospel in this sense. Yet an individual does not experience the saving benefit of justification until she or he gives trusting loyalty to Jesus as king. That is, subjective personal appropriation of salvation is not part of the gospel proper, but rather one of its applied benefits. An individual’s justification is part of the gospel as a potentiality, but not as a realized actuality.
4. Faulty method leads to a faulty frame and center. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, since McKnight has already taken Gilbert to task over this here and here (and in The King Jesus Gospel). The best method for defining the gospel is to look at the passages of Scripture that give explicit gospel content as well as the overall structure of the Four Gospels (e.g., Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:18-19; Rom. 1:2-4, 1 Cor. 15:3-5; 2 Tim. 2:8; the sermons in Acts). This is what I do in Gospel Allegiance. When we do this, we find that it is a narrative about how Jesus became the saving king.
The gospel is that Jesus the king:
1. preexisted as God the Son,
2. was sent by the Father,
3. took on human flesh in fulfillment of God’s promises to David,
4. died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
5. was buried,
6. was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
7. appeared to many witnesses,
8. is enthroned at the right hand of God as the ruling Christ,
9. has sent the Holy Spirit to his people to effect his rule, and
10. will come again as final judge to rule.
(Bates, Gospel Allegiance, p. 86-87)
This narrative has a climax rather than a center: Jesus has become the saving king.