In a sermon given at a recent ‘Together for the Gospel Conference’ John Piper asks the question, ‘Did Jesus Preach the Gospel of Evangelicalism?’ – by which he means, in effect, ‘Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel?’ His expressed concern is with the argument of critical scholarship ‘that Jesus’ message and work was one thing, and what the early church made of it was another. Jesus brought the kingdom; it aborted; and the apostles substituted an institution, the church.’ The concern is a valid one. I agree with Piper that it is possible to derive an understanding of Jesus that is historically and theologically coherent from the Gospels as they stand. But the problem will not be addressed by yielding to dogmatic pressure and assimilating the Gospel narratives to a Reformed misunderstanding of Paul.
1. Piper says that the problem he is wrestling with is ‘whether Paul got Jesus’ gospel right’, but it is clear that what he is really bent on proving is that Jesus preached the same gospel of justification by faith as Paul. He means to address the widespread suspicion that ‘justification by faith alone is part of Paul’s gospel, but not part of Jesus’ gospel’. This is surely back to front. The question is not whether Jesus preached Paul’s gospel. The question should be whether – and in what manner – Paul preached Jesus’ gospel. I think he did, but we do justice neither to Jesus nor to Paul if we reduce this gospel to an abstract formulation about the imputation of a personal righteousness on the basis of faith.
2. Piper frames the big picture in Luke by highlighting the angelic announcement of ‘good news’ to the shepherds at the beginning (Luke 2:10) and Jesus’ words about the new covenant in his blood at the end (Luke 22:20). The point, seemingly, is that Luke’s ‘gospel’ is essentially that ‘the blood of Jesus is being shed for the forgiveness of sins’. The trouble is that this arbitrary conjunction entirely elides the central usage of ‘gospel’ in Luke, which is an announcement about the coming reign of God – that is, a decisive intervention by God to judge unrighteous Israel, to deliver Israel from its enemies, and to bring about restoration from the margins, from amongst the ‘poor’ (cf. Luke 4:17-19 and the context of Isaiah 61). As Michael Bird, who put me on to Piper’s sermon, says: ‘Jesus’ “gospel” is Isaianic not Calvinistic’.
3. Piper thinks that a gospel not merely of the forgiveness of sins but also of ‘justification through a righteous one’ is implied in Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 53:12 in Luke 22:37: “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” Since the preceding verse in Isaiah 53 speaks of the righteous servant who will ‘make many to be accounted righteous, and… bear their iniquities’, Piper concludes that in Luke ‘the way Jesus saves is by shedding his blood and for the forgiveness of sins and by being a righteous one and counting many righteous’.
There are two issues here. The first is that Jesus quotes Isaiah not in order to explain a gospel of justification by faith but to warn the disciples that from now on they will be associated with one who is judged by Jewish society to be a ‘transgressor’, so they should take the precaution of carrying provisions and weapons with them. Secondly, if Isaiah 53 is relevant to Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ death (I imagine it is), it is because Jesus will suffer for the sins of Israel – the servant is ‘stricken for the transgression of my people’ (Is. 53:8). We cannot proceed uncritically from here to a classic Reformed doctrine of universal justification by faith. We also cannot assume that Paul understood this text in a generalized post-narrative, supra-historical, proto-Calvinistic sense.
4. At the heart of Piper’s argument is Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who go to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). To begin with, the comment that ‘the parable doesn’t tell the whole story of justification because Jesus had not finished his justifying work on the cross yet’ seems a little disingenuous. As Bird says, ‘it defies a straight forward reading of the Gospels to say that Jesus preached his own imputed righteousness’.
But the more serious question is whether Piper is right in thinking that the Pharisee’s problem was simply that he trusted in his own righteousness. First, there’s a case for saying that ‘they trusted in themselves because (hoti) they were righteous’.1 This would shift the focus away from the thought that such men are righteous: rather, because they know themselves to be righteous, they trust in themselves as the true Israel, as the solution to the eschatological crisis.
Secondly, the parable is directed not against the Pharisee’s trust in his own (rather than in an imputed) righteousness but against the fact that he was one of those who ‘treated others with contempt’ (18:9). Piper makes much of the fact that he thanks God for his moral and religious righteousness, but that is not quite right: he thanks God that he is ‘not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’ (18:11). It is the attitude of the Pharisee towards the tax collector that brings into queston his righteousness according to the Law. Thirdly, the tax collector goes home ‘justified’ not because he trusted in another’s righteousness but simply because he humbled himself (18:14).
5. Piper appeals at this point to Luke 17:10, where Jesus says to the disciples: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Piper concludes: ‘A person who has done “all that God commanded” is still an “unworthy servant” – meaning, he has no claim on God’s justification at all.’ But it is difficult to see what this passage has to do with justification: Jesus is simply teaching the disciples what it means to have the attitude of servants.
6. So how was the tax collector justified? It seems to me that the point of the parable is that the appropriate attitude to be taken by Israel before God under the current conditions of impending judgment (cf. Luke 17:22-37; 19:41-46) was not to trust in a ‘righteousness’ that could not grasp the fundamental need for repentance. The fact is that the complacent would be humbled – quite realistically, by the invading Roman armies. The restoration of Israel would come, as Isaiah states, from the margins, from amongst the disenfranchised.
Piper, however, thinks that the answer is to be found in the story of the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-23), who despite having the same ostensible righteousness as the Pharisee could not let go of his attachment to his possessions and attach himself to Jesus: ‘Only by your attachment to me,’ Jesus is saying, ‘will you inherit eternal life, enter the kingdom, be justified.’
Whether it is correct to introduce the language of ‘justification’ into this story, I’m not sure. But it offers an interesting link to Paul. The community that is justified in Romans, I would argue, is the community that is prepared to trust in the concrete, practical path defined by Jesus, who faithfully suffered, died and was vindicated. For both Jesus and Paul the gospel was primarily an announcement about what God was doing to transform the condition and status of Israel amongst the nations. For both Jesus and Paul, too, the ‘justified’ community was that group, drawn in the first place from the disenfranchised, from the poor, from those who understood the consequences of Israel’s sinfulness, which came to understand that the future of the people of God hung on their willingness to travel the same path. But that’s another story.
- 1See J. Nolland, Luke, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 35c (1993), 875.