Greg Gilbert at 9 Marks, a ministry that has my highest admiration and endorsement, has taken on what seems to be the favorite topic of Calvinists on the web: What is the Gospel?
Gilbert isn’t just spending bandwidth, however. Though he doesn’t exactly give his agenda up front, I’m of the opinion that he’s taking aim at N.T. Wright and his perceived influence on the theologically mushy inhabitants of the ever-elusive “emerging church.”
In particular, Gilbert wants to respond to what he believes is a basic confusion: putting a “Gospel of the Kingdom” in place of a “Gospel of the Cross.”
You can get to all three of Greg Gilbert’s posts by way of Justin Taylor’s summary and links. All are important to the discussion, but the application is found in the third post.
Here’s the heart of Greg Gilbert’s posts:
To proclaim the inauguration of the kingdom and the new creation and all the rest without proclaiming how people can enter it—by repenting and being forgiven of their sins through faith in Christ and his atoning death—is to preach a non-Gospel.
Let me say first of all that I am in much agreement with Gilbert, but I think his enthusiasm to protect the message of the cross is creating the familiar conundrum of pitting the cross-emphasis of Paul against the Kingdom emphasis of the Synoptics. Lots of brilliant people have taken this on and probably solved the tension at least ten different ways, but the influence of Wright combined with the zealous “Kingdom Gospel” of many new and emerging evangelicals has brought the issue new life.
Much of this kind of discussion gets down to the question of what the New Testament writers knew, and when did they know it. For example, when Paul writes what Gilbert calls the “narrow” focus on the cross, does he know about Mark 1:14-15 and other passage where Jesus proclaims the Kingdom (over and over) without the cross ever being mentioned?
In fact, Mark- assuming he is the first Gospel writer- puts the cross at the heart of his famous “secret.” While proclaiming the Kingdom and doing Kingdom miracles and ministry, Jesus frequently commands that individuals not say who he is or what he has done for them. This so-called “Messianic Secret” is one of the true mysteries of the New Testament.
I believe the “secret” is a crucified messiah. The cross is the focus of the messiah’s work, and it stands in contrast to the common understanding of the “Kingdom” message. It is important to keep in mind that the “Kingdom message” would have been widely understood by the common person and the religious political establishment in political terms. The cross would not have been understood at all, even though, in hindsight, the cross fulfills major strands of the Old Testament revelation and its meaning was eventually the subject of large portions of the New Testament.
I would suggest, therefore, that Paul knew about the Kingdom message as recorded in the Synoptics, but was well aware that the cross deeply subverted and reinterpreted the common understanding of the messiah. Notice Romans 1:-5.
1 This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. 2 God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. 3 The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, 4 and he was shown to be* the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit.* He is Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through Christ, God has given us the privilege* and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name. (NLT)
Notice that Jesus is the Kingdom-bringing messiah precisely because he is raised from the dead.
Neither I nor anyone else can definitively say to what extent Paul knew about the Kingdom material in the synoptic Gospels in the form we have it, but I am confident that he knew that Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom and that the cross was, in the same time frame, not understandable to Jesus’ audience or disciples.
Gilbert suggests that the “total Gospel” starts with the cross as the entrance into the Kingdom. I doubt that this premise can be proven. There are 14 mentions of the Kingdom in Paul’s letters, and they all support the assumption that Paul knew Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom as a present and an eschatological reality. But these verses don’t place the cross as the entrance to the Kingdom. Such a conclusion is theologically legitimate, but it is not anywhere close to clearly affirmed in a manner that would allow us to join Gilbert in saying….
Those who argue that “the gospel” is the declaration of the kingdom are simply wrong. The gospel is not the declaration of the kingdom. It is (in the broad sense) the declaration of the kingdom together with the means of entering it.
It is more correct, in my view, to say that the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Gospel of Cross both bring us to the person of Christ, and both aspects of the Gospel are completely perceptible in balance in Jesus.
Proclaim the Kingdom of Jesus and you must proclaim the person of Jesus, the cross/resurrection of Jesus and the eschatological focus of Jesus on this kingdom. I am not concerned about the emerging church as much as I am about those who want to talk about the Kingdom or anything else without a Christological focus. The emergers may focus on Jesus and the Kingdom, but it is contemporary evangelicals who focus on the cross without a proper focus on the fullness of the Lordship of Christ.
Gilbert is rightly concerned that we not call Christians those who have somehow self-defined the Kingdom of Jesus and de-emphasized the cross. I agree with such a concern. I am also concerned with those who use the cross as a ticket to an eschatological heaven to be handed out to anyone who prays a prayer to receive a payment, and then has no clue that baptism and the church are Kingdom realities NOW. The church as I see it in my tradition sees itself as a group of people witnessing now and waiting for heaven later. Wright, in Surprised by Hope, reminds us that the eschatology of the New Testament makes us cross-marked, Kingdom of Jesus people in the present, and we are working together with God that the Kingdom and the cross be our missional, evangelistic project.
Paul, again, puts the focus on Jesus to hold everything together:
Colossians 1:11 We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy,*12 always thanking the Father. He has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light. 13 For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son ,14 who purchased our freedom* and forgave our sins.
Jesus salvation now=Jesus kingdom now.
I agree with Gilbert when he says…
That Jesus is king and has inaugurated a kingdom of love and compassion is not really all that astonishing at all. Every Jew knew that was going to happen someday. What is truly astonishing about the gospel is that the Messianic King dies to save his people—that the divine Son of Man in Daniel, the Messiah, and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah turn out to be the same man. That, moreover, is ultimately how we tie together the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Gospel of the Cross. Jesus is not just King, but Crucified King.
Perhaps Gilbert’s experience causes him to say the things he says about the emerging church, which amount to saying many emergers are probably not Christians at all. I believe the New Testament places the cross as the focus of the work of Christ, but I do not believe the Lordship, work, person or appreciation of Jesus are restricted to the cross. The cross occupies a unique position, but I do not agree with the increasing reformed Baptist insistence that the only way to tak about the Gospel in an orthodox way is to use their exact language, narrative and emphasis on cross and kingdom.
Since Jesus is messiah, crucified one, reigning king and Lord of the universe, I believe the defining orthodox confession of a Christian must be about Jesus most of all.
I appreciate Greg Gilbert’s excellent discussion and his passion for the Gospel. I invite your comments.