Is There Too Much Grace in Your Gospel? image

Is There Too Much Grace in Your Gospel?

There was a fascinating exchange at Jesus Creed a few days ago between J. D. Greear, author of Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, and Scot McKnight, author of The King Jesus Gospel, which could (crudely) be boiled down to this question: is there too much grace in your gospel? Comments sections on blogs are not always edifying places – fortunately, they have been at whatyouthinkmatters, for which thanks to all! – but the conversation between Greear and McKnight was outstanding, both for its tone and its theological depth. Here is a selective summary.

McKnight was reviewing Greear’s book, which he regarded as preaching what he calls a ‘soterian’ gospel rather than a ‘Jesus’ gospel: the gospel is in essence about how I get saved, rather than in essence about Jesus as King. In the midst of his review, he made an extremely thought-provoking remark:

Anyone who has to explain why commands are present in the NT has misunderstood something very seriously. The fact is, God speaks from Genesis to Revelation through commands and almost never says “but first you have to understand that this command stuff only works if you are grace-soaked so that you can obey them, and if you are grace-shaped you will do them, and really don’t even need them.” Jesus loads his teachings with commands; Paul loads his moral sections with commands; read 1 John sometime — or read James, which is soaked in commandments. My complaint here is that if one has to justify commands in the Bible, one has made some wrong turns. If commands make you uncomfortable you’ve got something wrong theologically. If you want to say preach only God and God’s grace and never commands… well, then, you’re telling God that he should have done things in another way.

Ouch! Consider that point carefully before rushing on. Greear then responded to that particular comment with reference to Paul’s letters:

It seems that in nearly every epistle in which Paul discusses the law he has to “defend” himself against the charge of antinomianism. As his gospel-logic develops, for example, in Romans, he has to stop and say, “Am I teaching that we can sin freely that grace may abound? God forbid!” This was not a gratuitous logical insertion. The reason he had to put it in there is that a one-sided view of the gospel can lead one to that conclusion. Or, in 1 Timothy, Paul had to explain why the law is still “good.” Thus, it seems that your critique would have to apply to most of Paul’s writings, as well. And if our explanations of the gospel do not lead people to the same question, or compel us to defend ourselves against the same charge, then how are we preaching the same gospel logic Paul employed?

McKnight insisted that the balance in many in the ‘gospel-centred’ movement, however, was still wrong:

I see something in you and Tullian [Tchividjian], and a few others, that concerns me: namely, a desire to be so focused on grace (gospel as you would call it in this book and what God has done) that a need arises as to why God would even have commands. In other words, the approach is preach and teach grace and one won’t even need to speak of commands — I’ve heard this one so many times from some in your crowd. If that adequately describes a meme, then I have a big question about such a meme: evidently Paul thought commands were the way to teach ethics. Of course, they flow from grace but I’m not hearing the biblical balance enough. I’m hearing, preach grace and what God has done and we won’t even need to speak of commands. I see that in your chp of having to justify commands.

Then Greear made a fascinating admission:

I would heartily agree that many in my “camp,” perhaps me, sometimes find ourselves in the precarious position of being more “gospel-centered” than Jesus. Paul frequently described the Christian life as a struggle, and the struggle implies commands that contradict our desires.

More gospel-centred than Jesus. Anyone getting bothered by this yet? McKnight continued, zeroing in on (what he regards as) the bigger problem:

Here’s a big one for me: in my view, many (I’m not saying this about you) see in the word “gospel” what amounts to “my theology, a rich theology of grace that is far more difficult to accept and is far more rigorous than others think and there are only a few of us who really believe it all and have the courage to take it all in.” In other words, “gospel” has become “high Calvinist theology.” Much of what I see in TGC’s gospel-shaped, gospel-focused, gospel-this-and-that, is for me mostly the same as high Calvinism. Remove it all and replace it with “Jesus, King Jesus, Lord, Savior” and now we’ve got the gospel.

So the strong emphasis on grace, and the strong emphasis on Calvinist soteriology, appear to be closely connected (McKnight is an Anabaptist Arminian, which is probably relevant here). Greear’s final comment addressed this, and contended for the integration of the Christological and soteriological when understanding the gospel:

To separate “King Jesus” in any way from “substitutionary death Jesus,” as if they were not essentially integrated, would be unwarranted, as I see it. Also, I do not see what I am arguing as being “high Calvinism.” In the Reformation tradition, yes, but in the stream of many branches of the reservation, many of whom would not prefer to classify themselves as Calvinism. A unity around the substitutionary nature of Christ’s work and its apprehension by faith alone would be larger rubric I’d prefer to write under.

McKnight closed by affirming that he believed in substitutionary atonement (!), and that Greear’s book was not (for him) excessively Calvinist. But the wider question – as to whether a heavily grace-centred gospel, as typically preached from Calvinist pulpits, does not do sufficient justice to the commands in Scripture, to Israel and to the ministry of Jesus himself – remains to be answered.
What do you think? Is there too much grace in your gospel?

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