By Matthew W. Bates (@MatthewWBates), associate professor of theology, Quincy University
Embarrassing or encouraging? With regard to what’s been happening at T4G, TGC, and 9Marks, a decision is difficult. Actually, the embarrassing is easy to finger. What John MacArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, Albert Mohler, and others associated with T4G (“Together for the Gospel”) and TGC (“The Gospel Coalition”) have been asserting to be the heart of the gospel is not even part of the gospel in Scripture. These are prestigious but not infallible teachers that I deeply respect. Note: this is not about a disagreement with their overall brand of soteriology. Rather, it’s about missteps regarding the center of the gospel. In the Bible. Missteps that have been happening for years. This was brought home afresh by Greg Gilbert’s 2020 T4G sermon last week, “What the Gospel Is and Is Not” (transcript). More on that in a moment.
T4G holds conferences to help pastors and churches better proclaim the gospel. I passionately support this. We urgently need to announce the gospel. I’m trying to do my part too. But whether the truth is sheepishly acknowledged or not, speakers for T4G and some 9Marks resources have been getting the framework and heart of the gospel wrong.
The true biblical gospel climaxes with the proclamation that Jesus has become the Christ, Lord of all, the king (Acts 2:36; 3:20-23; 10:36). On the path to kingship, the Son was sent by the Father in fulfillment of OT promises, took on human flesh in the line of David, died a substitutionary atoning death for our sins on the cross, was buried, raised, witnessed, enthroned at the right hand, and then the Spirit was sent (Rom 1:2-4; 1 Cor 15:3-5; 2 Tim 2:8). All of which is the good news that God’s kingdom, heralded by Jesus, has now arrived (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43). Because the enthroned king now rules, the gospel can be summarized: Jesus is the Christ (Acts 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 17:3). Subsequently, the Spirit applies the benefits of the gospel to those who respond with pistis, that is, allegiance (bodily loyalty inclusive of trust). The gospel proper is what the king has done for us apart from whether you or I have responded—a point both Piper (The Future of Justification, p. 86-88) and Gilbert misunderstand. (See Bates, Gospel Allegiance, p. 104-7, for discussion).
Thus, the offer of forgiveness of sins via substitutionary atonement is part of the gospel proper, but your or my personal reception of that forgiveness is not. It’s is a benefit of the gospel. The same with justification. Scripture never says our justification by faith is part of the gospel. Righteousness is revealed to be among the gospel’s benefits (Rom 1:17). Meanwhile “faith” (pistis) is how we respond to the gospel of Jesus’s kingship, so its saving benefits are actualized. Getting this right has huge practical payoffs for disciple-making and ecumenism. I’ve critically engaged with MacArthur, Piper, Sproul Gilbert, Matt Chandler, and others concerning the gospel, faith, grace, and works more fully in two books: Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone and Gospel Allegiance. Others like Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel, and N.T. Wright, How God Became King, have done work on similar trajectories.
Although the Bible never says that our justification by faith is even part of the gospel, let alone its center, for years T4G keynote speakers have been pressing this claim. R.C. Sproul stated, “justification by faith is essential to the gospel” (Faith Alone, p. 19; cf. Getting the Gospel Right, p. 100-3), and featured these ideas in his 2006 T4G message. John MacArthur says, “justification by faith is the linchpin of Paul’s teaching on the gospel,” and calls it, “the core and touchstone of the gospel according to Paul” (The Gospel according to Paul, p. 55, 60). Similarly, John Piper affirms, “I am thrilled to call justification the heart of the gospel” (God Is the Gospel, p. 44). Albert Mohler in his 2016 T4G sermon puts it even more emphatically: “The doctrine of justification by faith alone is not just one doctrine among others. It is not one way, merely, of describing the gospel. It is the gospel.” As evidence that these are not mere slips but at the center of T4G’s efforts, consider that T4G used this extract of Mohler’s sermon to advertise the 2020 conference. Meanwhile 9Marks asserts that the gospel can be accurately summarized by a God-man-Christ-response framework akin to the Romans Road. Although this framework captures some true saving facts—and justification by faith is indeed true—Scripture never describes the gospel itself in this way. Not even close. In Scripture the gospel is the narrative of how Jesus came to be enthroned as the saving king.