In some reflections on an essay by Darrell Bock in the recent Howard Marshall festschrift Michael Bird makes the comment: “I seriously wonder if we have two competing gospel visions in evangelicalism.”
He quotes a couple of paragraphs from Bock’s essay which make the point that whereas the gospel that is mostly preached in the church today is about forgiveness of sins, what Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 highlights is “not so much how Jesus saves us, but where that act of saving takes us”—namely, to a restored covenantal relationship with God in the Spirit, as prefigured in Jeremiah. In fact, Bock maintains, nothing at all is said about forgiveness or the atoning function of Jesus’ death in Acts 2.
In view of these statements, Bird suggests that we have a “Pauline-justification-forensic” gospel, on the one hand, represented by Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel?, contrasted with the “Gospel narrative-Lord Jesus-multiple-salvation-images approach” of people like Tom Wright, Scot McKnight, John Dickson, and Darrell Bock, on the other.
Now it seems to me to be blindingly obvious that two quite different gospel visions are operating in modern evangelicalism—I just wonder why Michael Bird has taken so long to start wondering about it. But on the evidence presented in his post, which admittedly is limited evidence, taken out of context, it seems to me that many of those currently mounting a “protest against Reformed tendencies to define the gospel strictly in forensic and non-narrative categories drawn strictly from Paul” still have not grasped the implications of the narrative approach.
Let me explain what I mean with reference to the argument of Bird’s post.
First, Peter does mention forgiveness of sins in his sermon in Acts 2, only it is not the forgiveness of our sins, it is the forgiveness of Israel’s sins, for those who repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38). This alone should make it clear that Peter’s gospel is not one of personal salvation, however we frame it, but of corporate salvation.
Secondly, it is not Jeremiah’s new-covenant-in-the-Spirit motif that undergirds Peter’s sermon but Joel’s outpouring-of-the-Spirit-of-prophecy motif. The argument he puts to the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem”, as I have argued elsewhere, is not that God is offering new covenant life to all and sundry. It is that this indiscriminate outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy on the community of Jesus’ followers is a sign that a catastrophe is coming on a “crooked generation” from which only those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Individuals are called to repent and be baptized, but what is at stake is the fate of the nation.
Third, justification in Paul has reference to the same narrative. There is no inherent theological conflict in Paul or in the teaching of the apostles between a gospel of justification and the narrative of judgment and restoration centred on the exaltation of Jesus. Those who will be justified, who will be found to be in the right, on the day of God’s wrath—against the Jew first, but also against the Greek—are those who believe, on the one hand, that God has saved his people through the death of Jesus, and on the other, that God has made Jesus Israel’s king and judge and ruler of the nations.