The merry-go-round of the debate between Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates, as exponents of a “King Jesus” gospel, and Greg Gilbert, representing a more traditional Reformed emphasis on justification by faith, continues to spin noisily. Gilbert has issued a response to the criticism he received from McKnight and Bates, Michael Bird leans towards McKnight and Bates, as does Michael Mercer, and Jackson Wu seems to think that it’s a both/and situation. No doubt others have had something to say. [Indeed, others have had something to say.]
My impression is that, despite his protests, Gilbert’s account of the gospel is a significant move beyond the narrow focus on the death of Jesus that we find in much evangelical preaching. But as soon as we start to talk about the kingship of Jesus, we broach the question of the ongoing “political” narrative that makes sense of this kingship in the New Testament.
In this respect, I don’t think anyone is really getting the point of Paul’s gospel: we are simply shifting from an isolated emphasis on Jesus’ atoning death towards an isolated emphasis on his kingship. As I said in my appraisal of Bates’ account of the gospel, the “kingship of Jesus is not just about status; it is about action and event”. When I reviewed McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, I reckoned it was halfway there.
I will try to make the same point here by examining three passages that Gilbert discusses in some detail and one that he doesn’t but should have done. I’ve included my own translations of the texts.
Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-5)
I make known to you, brothers, the gospel which I proclaimed to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, whoever holds fast to the word proclaimed to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you in the first place what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he has risen on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor. 15:1-5)
I think it always helps to remember that Paul spoke, in the first place, as a Jewish apostle of the risen Lord Jesus. According to this simple encapsulation of the “gospel”, which he “received” presumably from the Jerusalem apostles (cf. Acts 4:25-28; 10:39-41), Christ died (implicitly) for the sins of Israel. There is no death for Gentile sins in the Old Testament.
The Corinthians are being saved by holding fast to the “word” which was proclaimed to them. This “word” or “good news” was that Jesus died for the sins of Israel and was raised on the third day. Therefore, “Christ is preached (kērussetai) that he has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:12), and he now reigns at the right hand of God until all his enemies have been put under his feet (1 Cor. 15:20-28).
Paul’s “gospel”, therefore, is the story of what the God of Israel has done through Jesus to save and restore his people under a new king. Paul “proclaimed” (euēngelisamēn) this intrinsically Jewish gospel to both Jews and Gentiles in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:1-11). If they hold fast to this belief—and only if they hold fast to it—they will be saved. The importance of this eschatological dimension will become clearer.
The gospel of God (Rom. 1:1-5)
Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his Son, born from the seed of David according to the flesh, appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship for obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of his name…. (Rom. 1:1–5)
Oddly, this key passage is only mentioned in passing by Scot McKnight and not discussed by Gilbert. I examined Bates’ understanding of it in a review of his book Salvation By Allegiance Alone.
Here, I think, we have very clear evidence that for Paul the proclamatory weight fell heavily on the appointment of Jesus as “Son of God in power… by resurrection from the dead”. Jesus was from the seed of David according to the flesh, but he was now seated at the right hand of God, as Israel’s king, with a degree of authority and power that an earthly Davidic monarch could never have attained.
Jews and Gentiles were being saved by their belief in this fact and in its implications for the future of the Greek-Roman world (cf. Rom. 1:16-17).
People who confessed that Jesus was Lord and believed that God had raised him from the dead would be saved (Rom. 10:9-10), meaning that they would inherit the world (Rom. 4:13), they would have a share in the life and prestige of God’s people in the glorious age to come.
From a Jewish point of view it was possible to regard Jesus’ death as a propitiation for the sins of Israel, but at the heart of Paul’s soteriology here is the simple idea that Jesus and Gentles alike were “justified”—put right with God, aligned with his purposes, their long histories of antagonism forgiven—by their active, resolute faith in the prophetic-apostolic announcement that Jesus had been installed as Israel’s king and that he would one day actually rule over the nations (cf. Rom. 15:12).
The gospel of the glory of the blessed God (1 Tim. 1:11-16)
…and whatever else is contrary to healthy teaching according to the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, with which I was entrusted. I am grateful to the one strengthening me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me faithful, appointing me to service…. The word is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But for this reason I was shown mercy, that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all patience as an example for those who would believe in him for life of the age. (1 Tim. 1:11-16)
Again, I suggest that Paul speaks with the consciousness of a Jewish apostle—notice the argument about the Law that culminates in his affirmation of the “gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:8-11). He means that Jesus came into the world to save sinful Israel, Paul himself being foremost among the Jews who opposed what YHWH was doing through his anointed Son, through Messiah Jesus.
God “desires all people to be saved and to come to know the truth”, which is that there is one God and one mediator between God and people (anthrōpōn), namely the “person” (anthrōpos) Christ Jesus, who “gave himself as a ransom (antilytron) for all”. For this purpose Paul “was appointed a preacher and apostle…, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim. 2:4-6).
The “ransom” saying naturally recalls Jesus’ own words: “For even the Son of Man came… to give his life as a ransom for many (tēn psychēn autou lytron anti pollōn)” (Mk. 10:45), which evokes both Hellenistic-Jewish martyrdom traditions (“they became, as it were, a ransom (antipsychon) for the sin of the nation”: 4 Macc. 17:21) and the suffering of Isaiah’s servant, whose “soul (psychē) was given over to death” for the “many”, who “bore the sins of many” (Is. 53.12 LXX).
Salvation, however, in the context of the Pastoral epistles, is to be understood in somewhat worldly social terms (1 Tim. 2:1-3, 15): it has to do with a concrete way of life that would persist throughout the present age until the “appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he would display at the proper time, the blessed and only ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim 6:14–15; cf. Tit. 2:11-14).
So here’s the argument. The “good news”—Paul’s happy announcement, both to Jews and Gentiles—is the story about Jesus and Israel and its implications for the future of the pagan world: Jesus gave his life for the transgressions of Israel, he was raised from the dead, and sooner or later he would be revealed to the nations as King of kings and Lord of lords, bringing the present age of pagan domination to an end. In this narrative context salvation consisted in the faithful enduring witness of the fellowship of Jews and Gentiles, who believed this story and waited for its fulfilment in history (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15-16).
According to my gospel (2 Tim. 2:8)
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, from the seed of David, according to my gospel, for which I am suffering in chains as a malefactor, but the word of God has not been bound; for this reason I endure all things for the sake of the elect in order that they too may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with glory of the age. The word is trustworthy: for if we died together, we will also live together; if we endure, we will also reign together; if we deny, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim. 2:8)
Gilbert argues here that the resurrection of the Davidic king is not the whole gospel, it is simply “in accordance with the gospel”, it is part of the gospel.
The point to keep in mind here is that Paul is urging Timothy not to be ashamed of his imprisonment but to “share in suffering”. As apostles they have been entrusted with the task of proclaiming the purpose of God. This purpose has been disclosed in what happened when Jesus appeared in Israel: he abolished death and “brought to light life and immortality through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:8-10). Paul was appointed an apostle and teacher of this gospel, which is why he is currently suffering in prison. But he is confident that the Lord is able to sustain the apostolic witness, under all circumstances, until the day when he will be acknowledged by the nations (2 Tim. 1:12).
The focus, therefore, is firmly on the new reality that will come to fulfilment in the course of history. This new reality currently consists in the fact that Jesus has abolished death and attained immortality, therefore the apostles can be certain that the eschatological outcome will be achieved—no matter what they must suffer—when they will “obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with glory of the age” (2 Tim. 2:10). If the apostles die with Christ, they will live with Christ; if they persevere, they will be vindicated and will reign with him in the age to come.
Paul’s “gospel” was not a simple, singular thing. It was not a universal, unchanging thing. It was a complicated knot of ideas, a narrative, that cannot be understood apart from the evolving historical context in which it was proclaimed. Probably at the heart of it was the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God as Israel’s king. But this new reality had come about only because he had given his life as a ransom for many in Israel. More importantly, it entailed the powerfully realistic expectation that Israel’s king would sooner or later be accepted as King of kings and Lord of lords, a new emperor, by the nations of the ancient world.
That is good news for us today not despite the fact that it happened in history but because it happened in history.