This post is a reflection on a seminar I recently attended entitled, “Centrality of the Gospel” featuring Greg Gilbert.
I recently heard pastor and author Greg Gilbert - author of What is the Gospel? - state that the gospel must start with the cross. Let me rephrase that: the gospel is the cross (e.g. “Christ and him crucified” - 1 Cor. 2:2). More specifically, for Gilbert, the cross is shorthand for saying Jesus has died in our place, absorbing God’s wrath upon himself and securing our forgiveness when we respond in faith as sinners deserving death. “Penal substitutionary atonement” is the technical term. Everything else in theology and Christian living (e.g. Kingdom of God, discipleship, new life, etc...) flows out of this part of the biblical narrative - bonus material to the gospel. The term Gilbert used for this type of gospel was “gateway,” describing the cross as the door through which we experience everything else in Christianity. The cross is our “gateway” to participate with God in everything else the Christian life entails.
Now, on one level, this is fine. Jesus is our substitute. Absolutely. Although I’m hesitant to say Jesus is our substitute in the very narrow way Gilbert does (ie. penal substitution). But I agree, the substitutionary death of Jesus is very important.
But is it the gospel? Is Christ’s salvific death as a “gateway” to our individual journey of life with God the gospel? Is the cross first about personal salvation, with the biblical concept of the people of God coming later (i.e. personal salvation is a “gateway” to being part of the people of God).
But is that the order in the Biblical account?
Through the cross did Jesus come to save individual sinners, which then led to a faithful people? Or through the cross did Jesus create a faithful people from in which individual sinners are saved?
In the Old Testament, God indeed calls individuals. But such calling always has the express purpose of creating (Abraham) and sustaining (Moses, prophets) the faithfulness of the people of God - Israel. It’s always about the people.
In the New Testament, Jesus also calls individuals. But note what he calls them to: “follow me...”). But why? Because he is their king. And a king is only king with...a people. Jesus continues God’s plan of creating and sustaining a faithful people. The book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament describe this peoples’ journey as Jesus’ followers - the people of God, the new Israel, the bride of Christ, the church. Again, it’s always about the people.
It’s no secret that the people of God (OT, NT, church history) have continually failed to live up to their original calling to “be a blessing to all nations” (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8). Ever since the first account of humanity (Adam and Eve), sin and death has been pervasive and unavoidable. God’s faithful people are routinely unfaithful. We know it in the Bible. We know it in history. Dare we say we know it in our personal lives. We (individuals and the community of God’s people) are sinners.
What, then, is the “good news” for our predicament? God keeps calling his people. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus’ overcame sin and death to reign as king in the world. “I will be with you until the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:20) is not a future promise for personal eternal security, but a promise that we have a gracious king who has overcome our inability to get things right on our own - a king who will lead his people each day into new life.
The gospel, then, is not simply a transaction between me and God, with Jesus as the payment - a cosmic declaration of my forgiveness. The gospel is the biblical story of God continuing to call a people to faithfulness (e.g. Mk. 1:15). And Jesus as the risen king makes that call possible. Personal salvation is an extension of the good news of God’s work in the world through a people, not the other way around. The gospel is bigger than any individual. In a me-centered world the last thing we need is more of me. You and me - all of us! - need a people, a community, a kingdom in the best sense. And this is God’s intention. This is the gospel!
Praise be to God!
For this response, I had in mind another seminar I recently attended with Scot McKnight (yes, pastors attend a lot of seminars!), which I've reflected on here.