A Response to Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates

Article
04.22.2020

Editor’s Note: Last week, Greg Gilbert gave a talk at T4G. You can read it here. In that talk, Greg took issue with some statements and emphases of both Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates. They have both responded (McKnight and Bates). This article addresses their responses.

Editor’s Note #2: We have altered the title of this article from a previous version in order to better reflect its content.

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In the last day or two, both Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates have responded to my address at the “Together for the Gospel” conference, a talk entitled “What Is, and Isn’t, the Gospel?” I appreciate that both those brothers would take the time to respond, and I’m glad this conversation is happening. It really would be good if the result was not a deepening of the moats and a heightening of the walls, but rather some movement toward understanding, perhaps even agreement, and ultimately a clear and unified and beautiful presentation of the glorious good news of Jesus Christ.

To be honest, I don’t enjoy online arguments . . . I mean, discussions. I used to, before I became a husband, dad, and pastor. But once that happened, I just found that I personally couldn’t seem to find the time or brain-space to engage in online theological discussions either regularly or effectively. Maybe that goes some way toward explaining why my first response to Scot’s book The King Jesus Gospel, which took me to task at some length for my understanding of the gospel, has now come nine years after his book’s initial publication in 2011! That’s embarrassing, but nobody ever accused me of being prompt.

But here we are in a global pandemic, right? So in God’s providence, I all of a sudden have more time on my hands than I really want right now, so I’m glad to be able to engage in this conversation. Most of my remarks here will be directed toward Scot McKnight’s article, since it makes a more substantive argument, though I’ll mention Matthew Bates’s as well here and there. There are three main areas I’d like to address.

First, has my view of the gospel shifted from “soterian” to “a King Jesus Gospel?”

I have to admit, I think the title of Bates’s article—“Are T4G/TGC Leaders Starting to Change Their Gospel?” is just silly, and on a couple of levels. For one thing, I’m not a leader of T4G; I was simply invited to speak at that conference along with several other men. Worse, I’m not sure at all why TGC is being brought into the conversation. I’m not a leader at TGC, I’ve never spoken at their conference, I’m not on their board, and I don’t even often write for them. I love both those organizations, but frankly, to look at my 46-minute talk and wryly suggest in the headline that it means anything for “the leaders” of those two organizations is click-bait nonsense. Now, I don’t think I said anything in that talk that the leaders of either T4G or TGC would disagree with, and I appreciate one or two of them saying so on various social media platforms.

But that brings up another point. I cannot for the life of me figure out why McKnight and Bates think they’re seeing a “shift” in my views from a “soterian” gospel in What is the Gospel? in 2010 to a “king Jesus gospel” at T4G in 2020.  After all, in WITG, there are subsections in the chapter about “Jesus the Savior” that are literally entitled, “The Messiah King—Here!” and “A Suffering King.” There’s also an entire chapter of the book entitled “The Kingdom” which includes sentences like, “Fourth, inclusion in the kingdom of God depends entirely on one’s response to the King.”

On top of that, in the book What Is the Mission of the Church? that I co-authored with Kevin DeYoung a year later in 2011, there are chapters entitled, “The Whole Story,” “Are We Missing the Whole Gospel?,” and “Kings and Kingdoms.” You can read all that at your leisure, but the point is that it’s just inaccurate for McKnight and Bates to act as if my views on the gospel and the kingdom have shifted dramatically from What Is the Gospel? to now. They haven’t.

I want to be clear, though. My understanding of the Bible’s storyline, the glories of the kingdom, and the King and what he did for us, have dramatically deepened and been vividly enriched over these ten years. A solid decade of preaching the Bible expositionally will have a tendency to do that, and I’m intensely grateful to the Lord for deepening my understanding and teaching me new truths over these years. It would be sad if I hadn’t learned anything through studying and preaching the Bible for ten years. But to suggest there’s been a fundamental shift in my understanding of the gospel—much less in T4G’s or TGC’s—borders on misrepresentation.

Speaking of which . . .

Second, did I misrepresent McKnight and Bates in my T4G talk?

They think I did. I think I did not. Part of the problem, I think, comes down to a semantic and conceptual issue. Let me explain.

In his article, McKnight quotes my T4G talk where I say that in books arguing for a royal gospel, “there’s often an impulse to take the story of Jesus’s kingship and divorce it from the realities of personal salvation,” and then replies, “We don’t divorce redemption from the gospel. The gospel saves. Jesus saves. We do not divorce; we coordinate and relate the two.”

I think I can see the problem here: McKnight objects to my saying that his book and others seem to “divorce the story of Jesus’s kingship from the realities of personal salvation and forgiveness and atonement and justification” because he rightly insists that he does not in fact do that in an absolute sense. And I agree with him there: McKnight does in fact affirm all those truths, and he does connect them theologically with Jesus’s kingship, so in a broad theological sense there is no divorce.

But my point, in line with the topic of the talk, is not to ask whether McKnight affirms those truths or connects them theologically with kingship in any sense at all; it is to say that with regard to the content of the gospel, McKnight and Bates do seem to divorce Jesus’s kingship from salvation. Over and over again, as I said in the talk, his book and others seem to be saying essentially, “The gospel is that Jesus is King, and not that he wins salvation for his people.”  Yes, they affirm salvation, justification, atonement for sin, and all the rest to be true, but those concepts are said to be “effects” or “results” of the gospel, but emphatically (as Bates put it) “not part of the gospel.” The fact is, you can affirm the truth and importance of something, and yet still insist it’s not part of the gospel. I think that’s what McKnight and Bates are doing here.

Let me raise a few examples even from their recent blog posts, and also one from McKnight’s book.

First Bates. In making the case that I’ve misrepresented him because he does in fact connect salvation with kingship theologically. Bates writes:

Salvation by Allegiance Alone (e.g, p. 60–63, 129-43, 165–191, 195–213), Gospel Allegiance (e.g., p. 91–94, 211–26), and The King Jesus Gospel (e.g., p. 51–53, 87–89, 108–11) have entire sections—sometimes lengthy chapters—devoted to how the cross, forgiveness, substitutionary atonement, transformation into the divine image, and justification interface with the gospel for our personal salvation.

But hold up. Those realities “interface with the gospel?”  That’s just my point. Those truths don’t simply “interface” with the gospel. They are inherent to it, inseparable from it, intrinsic and essential and integral to it—and Microsoft Word just ran out of synonyms. My point wasn’t that Bates and McKnight make no theological connection whatsoever between those truths and kingship, but that they divorce kingship and salvation with regard to the gospel. Kingship is the gospel; salvation is not.

Here’s another quote that I’ve already mentioned in this article, this one from McKnight: “We don’t divorce redemption from the gospel. The gospel saves. Jesus saves. We do not divorce; we coordinate and relate the two.” But again, that’s my very point. “The two”—that is, the gospel and redemption—are to be “coordinated” and “related,” as if the one is not part of the other. Salvation is presented repeatedly as an effect of the gospel and a result of the gospel, as “flowing from” or “emerging from” the gospel. But the argument seems to be that for all that, salvation finally isn’t the gospel, nor is it the heart or center of the gospel, nor is it (again Bates) “even part of the gospel.”

Here’s another from McKnight, this one from his book, as he’s discussing Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 2:8. He contends, indeed almost celebrates, that when Paul defines the gospel proper (at least that’s what McKnight says Paul is doing—more on that later), Paul includes in that gospel “not a word about atonement, not a word about salvation, not one hint of the soterian gospel,” but rather a proclamation of Christ Jesus as the resurrected one and the descendant of David. I don’t know how else to read that sentence except as McKnight arguing (and celebrating) that, for Paul, Jesus’s identity as king is the gospel, but that salvation, atonement, and other “soterian” elements are not. Instead, he seems to be saying that all those “soterian” elements “emerge from” and “flow from” the gospel, and the gospel “leads to” them. But they’re not gospel-proper.

Now I have to say that there are times where McKnight confuses me a bit with his phrasing, making it sound sometimes as if he’s putting redemption/salvation into the content of the gospel rhetorically, when he’s just spent paragraphs and chapters arguing that while those truths flow from the gospel, they’re not part of it. There are many places like that in his book. But just take this from his article as one example, about the first few verses of 1 Corinthians 15:

The focus here is on the events of Jesus: his life, his death, his burial, his resurrection, and his appearances. Along with those events – inside them, through them, because of them – we have the story of Israel (the Bible’s narrative leading to Jesus) being fulfilled. And alongside and running through it all – that he “died for our sins.” Redemption is there in the gospel story we tell about Jesus.

I’m not sure how to understand that last sentence. Is redemption “in” the gospel, i.e., part of it, or is it “not even a part,” but rather truth that flows from, emerges from, and needs to be coordinated, related, and interfaced with the gospel? Further, are all those earlier phrases—“inside them, through them, because of them”—somehow meant to qualify “in” so much that it no longer means “a part of”? I would be massively helped by hearing a straightforward answer to this question: Is salvation included in the gospel message, or is the gospel message, “Jesus is King, full-stop” and everything else is just effect and result?

But I think I know the answer already because it seems to me that both McKnight and Bates have labored at length to “challenge the typical evangelical understanding of the gospel” not just by saying something like, “Keep it in its OT context,” but by charging that we have gotten the gospel wrong—that we’ve included truths about salvation in the gospel proper that simply don’t belong there. So I don’t think I’ve misrepresented them. I know that they connect salvation/redemption to Jesus’ kingship theologically. The “divorce” they effect between the two is with regard to the gospel itself: Kingship is gospel; redemption is something else.

Why does this matter? Well, in some ways, it’s most certainly a matter of semantics. If someone affirms and embraces and trusts in the King’s penal substitutionary atonement for sinners and the justification of those sinners by faith alone in him alone, great. That’s what matters when it comes to eternity. But on the other hand, Christianity is an inherently semantic enterprise. We Christians do words and concepts, and we do a lot of them, and they’re important. I mean, only in Christianity does heaven or hell rest on the extra i between homoousios and homoiousios! But that’s how we Christians roll. And one of the most important words in our lives and faith is the word “gospel.” Our whole lives are built on the fact that we have good news to share with a fallen world, so (and I assume Bates and McKnight agree with me here, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation) it doesn’t make much sense to say about the content of that good news—what that message actually is—“Well, it’s nothing but a bunch of semantics anyway.” No, it’s not! It’s a matter of what the Christian gospel message is, and isn’t.

Third, I have a few exegetical questions, and other kinds, too.

Since McKnight took time in his article to restate some of his exegetical case for “the McKnight–Bates proposal of a king Jesus gospel,” maybe I can take a few minutes myself to raise a few questions about some of the passages he mentions as being key to that proposal, and then to pose a few other questions of my own.

2 Timothy 2:8

The first text McKnight points to in his article is 2 Timothy 2:8, for which he uses the NRSV translation: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” He goes on to press the case:

Here, Paul overtly says the gospel is to remember that Jesus is King (Christos means anointed king), that he was raised from the dead, and that he is a Davidide. That, he overtly says, is his gospel. Will we let Paul think he got it right here? [emphasis his]

McKnight makes the same point in his book, but goes even further, sounding again for all the world like he’s trying to put distance between the gospel and salvation:

What matters for us is what Paul says then: “This is my gospel.” Not a word about atonement, not a word about salvation, not one hint of the soterian gospel, but very clearly words about Jesus and events in his life—and the Story of Israel that he brought to realization. For Paul, from 1 Corinthians to the end of his life, the gospel was a narration of events in the life of Jesus.

More in a minute about the sentence, “The gospel was a narration of events.” For our immediate purposes here, though, the trouble is that the phrase McKnight translates with the exhaustive- and exclusive-sounding phrase “This (or, in the article, That) is my gospel” simply doesn’t mean anything of the sort. The phrase is κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου, which should be translated “according to my gospel,” that is, “in accord with it, in agreement with it, precisely as I say in it, as my gospel declares.” Even N. T. Wright, in his The Kingdom New Testament, translates that phrase as “according to my gospel,” which is a far cry from the closed-set connotation carried by “That/this is my gospel.”

Furthermore, the exact same phrase—κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου—is used in Romans 2:16. But I doubt McKnight would argue that Paul means to say there, “This is my gospel: that God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” Surely we can agree there’s more to the gospel than that. And yet that truth is very much “according to” Paul’s gospel. That’s what the phrase means.

What Paul means in 2 Timothy 2:8, therefore, is that the truths of Jesus’s Christhood, his resurrection, and his descent from David are according to his gospel; they are as his gospel declares. In other words, when Paul preaches the gospel, he says those things. But he doesn’t mean that those things are all you can say when you mean to be proclaiming the gospel. So it seems to me that McKnight is just trying to get way too much mileage for his position out of that text.

1 Corinthians 15:3–5

The second text McKnight points to in his article is 1 Corinthians 15:1–8. He gives significantly more time to this passage in his book, so I want to interact with that. There, most of the discussion centers on verses 3–5. McKnight is making the argument that, for Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, “The gospel is the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ. . . . To put this together, the gospel is to announce good news about key events in Jesus’s life.” Here’s how he summarizes that 1 Corinthians 15 gospel—italics, double-space, and indentations all his:

We need perhaps to pause to remind ourselves again what Paul is saying: he is saying that the gospel he gospeled is the authentic, reliable gospel of the apostles — he both received that gospel and passed it on. He’s no innovator when it comes to the gospel. And what is the authentic traditional gospel that Paul the apostle passed on to the Corinthians so they could receive it? Paragraph B tells us just that.

The authentic apostolic gospel, the gospel Paul received and passed on and the one the Corinthians received, concerns these events in the life of Jesus:

          that Christ died,
          that Christ was buried,
          that Christ was raised,
          and that Christ appeared.

The gospel is the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ. 

But wait . . . surely if you’re meaning to summarize the “of first importance” gospel that Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 15, the “authentic, reliable gospel of the apostles,” the “authentic traditional gospel that Paul the apostle passed on to the Corinthians,” surely if you’re doing that, then it’s a significant omission to just leave out the words “for our sins” after “that Christ died”! The fact is, the gospel isn’t just “the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ.” It’s more than that—not just a rehearsal of bare events, but a proclamation of those events and their significance. That’s why it’s not enough to say (and why Paul didn’t actually say), “Christ died.” What he said was “Christ died for our sins.”

Now maybe McKnight just intends, by omitting those crucial words, to focus our eyes on the events themselves, and not their significance, for a moment; maybe ultimately he intends to include in the gospel-proper the events’ significance as well. Indeed, there are several places in his book where that seems to be the case. A page later in the book, for instance, McKnight says that “the cross as forgiving (and atoning)” is a “central distinctive of the gospel.” And then: “However we tell the Story of Jesus, that story must deal with ‘sins,’ and it must deal with those ‘sins’ as something ‘for which’ Jesus died.”

Maybe it’s just me, but that leaves me confused. If forgiveness and atonement are “a central distinctive of the gospel,” and if the Story of Jesus (which is the gospel for McKnight) must deal with sins as something for which Jesus died, then I’ve got no problem at all with what he’s saying. But if that’s true, then why does McKnight go to such lengths elsewhere to say that gospel and salvation have to be “coordinated” and “related” with each other, that salvation “flows from” and “emerges from” the gospel? Why does he seem so glad—in the wake of mistranslating Paul in 2 Timothy 2:8 as saying “that is my gospel,”—to point out that in that Pauline gospel there’s “not a word about atonement, not a word about salvation, not one hint of the soterian gospel”?

Again, at this point, I’m just left wanting a straight answer to some questions (and they’re genuine ones, not rhetorical ones): Scot, are you just saying that we need to be careful to keep the gospel of Salvation, Forgiveness, Justification by Faith Alone, Atonement, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and All the Rest in its proper OT context? Are you just saying that what we should hold is a Gospel of Kingship-and-Salvation? Because if so, I’m with you!

Or, are you saying that those “soterian” truths are not gospel-proper, but just related theologically to the gospel somehow—flowing, emerging, coordinating, interfacing, or whatever? For that matter, do you agree with Bates that “our justification by faith is not part of the gospel. . . . [and] when we begin saying that it is the gospel, or even part of the gospel, we seriously distort the Bible’s presentation”? Are you really arguing that the true gospel-proper actually contains “not a word about atonement, not a word about salvation, not a hint of the soterian gospel”? Because to me, it sounds like that is what you’re intending to argue, but that then you’re accidentally implying the opposite every once in a while in your phrasing. Please help.

1 Timothy 1:15

A lot of discussions like this eventually just devolve into both parties re-presenting the texts that make their case most forcefully, until the whole thing becomes just a kind-of boring game of “But what about this text, and what about that text?” I could play that game all day with all kinds of texts, but for now I only want to play it once: But what about 1 Timothy 1:15?

I just began a new sermon series at Third Avenue this past Sunday on 1 Timothy. One thing that’s very clear is that 1 Timothy 1:15 is a creedal formula of the gospel message. Maybe Paul wrote it himself, or maybe it was a well-known formula that Paul’s just using here. Either way, after setting it off with the striking introduction, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance,” he lays down his summary of “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1:11). Here it is: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” I think that’s a beautiful summary of the gospel, but it seems to me (again, McKnight is ambiguous in his phrasing sometimes) that McKnight and Bates would want to break that creedal statement in half, like this:

  • “King Jesus came into the world . . .” That’s gospel!
  • “to save sinners.” That’s true and important, and related to the gospel, but it’s not the gospel.

My contention, though, is that the two halves of that sentence are inherently, inextricably, and inseparably one. They are the gospel. That is the gospel. I’d like to know if Bates and McKnight would agree.

Conclusion

Here’s what strikes me as unfortunate in all this. Just like I said in my T4G talk, I think McKnight and Bates have a legitimate warning to give, and probably even a legitimate critique to make, of a ton of Reformed evangelical preaching. And if their message was, “Brothers, stop merely propositionalizing the gospel. Of course justification by faith alone in Christ alone is gospel; of course the gospel message includes salvation and the call to faith; but don’t neglect to put those truths in their proper setting in the grand, epic sweep of the Bible’s story”—if that was their message, then I’d be applauding! Reformed evangelicalism needs to hear that message, and I’ve been saying it ever since the Lord gave me something of a public platform ten years ago—not only in What Is the Gospel? in 2010 and What Is the Mission of the Church? in 2011, but also in Who Is Jesus? in 2015, and most recently in The Story of Redemption Bible last year.

But what’s unfortunate is that that legitimately helpful warning gets blunted by this almost reflexive impulse to also try to pry atonement and salvation and justification out of the gospel, to say those realities are “not even part of the gospel.” That’s what the folks whom I know at T4G and TGC object to, at least in part, in what they read in McKnight and Bates, and that’s also at least in part why we keep preaching sermons that insist that justification by faith alone is gospel: It’s because guys like McKnight and Bates keep denying it!

But for real—literally no one that I know of in those “camps” is trying to pry Jesus’s kingship out of the gospel. In fact, like I did in my T4G talk, they’re trying to show how representative suffering is inherent to the Israelite notion of kingship, and how—when you follow that story of kingship through the heart-wrenching centuries of the Old Testament and see it alight, finally, on the shoulders of Jesus of Nazareth—it’s breathtaking in its beauty.

Seeing that, I guess I just don’t quite see what McKnight and Bates are contending for so vehemently. Whether they’ve heard it in the sermons or not, or read the right books and chapters or not, I and others are and have been holding to and preaching, for a very long time, a gospel of kingship-and-salvation. Jesus’ Kingship is gospel; his Suffering Servanthood is gospel; his incarnation is gospel; his salvation and forgiveness of sinners is gospel; the justification of sinners by faith alone is gospel; the call to the entire world to repent and believe and be saved by Jesus is gospel.

Why on earth would anyone want to stand over against that and say, “No. Jesus is King is gospel. Nothing more. ‘Not a word about atonement, not a word about salvation.’ Full stop right there”? How sad and thin . . .

And why thin? Because the fact is, the proclamation “Jesus is King” is not good news at all. 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. The “good news,” the gospel, is that the King Who Has Come is a King Who Forgives. Indeed, he is a King who represents his people in suffering, who gives himself to die so that they might live. That’s good news, not the bare statement that “Jesus is King.”

The whole point of my T4G talk was that “representative suffering” is inherent to the idea of Israelite kingship, indeed inseparable from it. So every time you read the word “King/Christ/Messiah” in the New Testament, you should also hear in that word the truth that the whole idea of kingship was that the king would suffer and die in the place of his people so that they might be saved from their rebellion against God.

In the end, the gospel of Jesus Christ is just bigger than the bare announcement of Jesus’s enthronement. It’s more glorious and wonderful than just “Jesus is King.” The Caesars of Rome thought “Caesar is King” was good news. But it wasn’t because Caesar couldn’t finally save anybody, not even from the problems of this world. But King Jesus? He is more than Caesar, better than Caesar, greater than Caesar—precisely because he saves, and that not even just from the problems of this world, but from sin and death and hell.

“King Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Now that’s good news. So why on earth would anyone want to reply to that, “Eh, half of it is, anyway”?

By:
Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.