I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva

Notes on Gilbert

What follows is my reaction to Greg Gilbert’s little book, What is the Gospel?, which I put together throughout 2010–2012.

I’m disappointed with Greg Gilbert’s book, What is the Gospel, not so much because of what he affirms about the gospel, but because of what he excludes from the gospel. Gilbert focuses so purposefully and selectively on particular aspects of God’s character and God’s relation to man that he ends up with a lopsided and pastorally questionable telling of the gospel.

One of my lesser concerns is that it is important to distinguish between why individuals are drawn to entrust themselves to Jesus, and what the content of that trust is. If the gospel is what we believe, and which enriches our faith as we grow in it, it is not necessarily why we first believed. The common approach of overwhelming with guilt and then following through with repentance and faith is not always the best and most appropriate invitation to salvation. Many are drawn instead by the loveliness of Jesus or the love of Jesus—truly trusting him for forgiveness but only appreciating over time the depth of what that means. Others are drawn because the salvation that Jesus brings us is one that conquers not only our sin, but also finally our suffering and death. Even considering the gospel itself, it is not only God’s gospel promises but also his character—his goodness and especially his faithfulness to keep those promises—that give us confidence to give our loyalty and allegiance to him. But it seems that Gilbert wants the kernel of the gospel to be both the what and the why of sinners coming to Jesus.

Considering love, Gilbert’s book marginalizes God’s love, in several ways. Perhaps we cannot make too much of whether one strikes the right balance. But Gilbert invites this when he criticizes the affable-old-man view of God and God’s love (pp. 37–38). He leaves us in suspense for quite awhile before finally affirming God’s love (p. 67, and only once again on pp. 117–118). Combined with his significant emphasis on God’s judgment and wrath, I question whether this does justice to God’s love. Second, God’s love for unbelievers is nowhere affirmed. Rather, he states explicitly that a great many things cannot be considered good news to sinners apart from forgiveness, leaving the impression that God has nothing but hatred and wrath in store for unbelievers. But this ignores common grace and capitulates to hypercalvinism, accusing God of not showing genuine kindness and mercy to sinners who might be ultimately judged. Rather, through God’s common grace, sinners do experience the temporal kindness and mercy of God, and are able to see glimpses of his beauty, goodness and faithfulness and not just his severity and wrath. Finally, Gilbert encourages the false notion that it is the Father alone who is full of wrath toward sinners and the Son alone who desires to appease the Father’s wrath (e.g., p. 83). But the truth is that Father, Son and Spirit are united in both their holy wrath and their redeeming love.

Gilbert also emphasizes a narrow systematic-theological definition of gospel compared to Scripture’s own broader usage. There is always a gap between systematic usage and Biblical terminology; for example, mercy can bring healing rather than forgiveness (Luke 18:35–39); not only individuals but also a church can be elect (1 Peter 5:13; 2 John 1:1, 13); and humans can justify God (Luke 7:29). It is certainly important to develop and refine our systematic theology, but we need to be careful both to avoid reading the narrow sense of the systematic definition into every single Biblical use of the term, and also to allow Scripture’s use of these terms to shape our systematic definition and teach us how to use these words in conversation and prayer. Certainly we must be careful to guard against a “different gospel” (2 Cor 11; Gal 1) or a “distorted gospel” (Gal 1). But we equally need to let Scripture’s use of gospel guide us; we do injustice to the gospel if we supplant or if we truncate it. Gilbert is right to broaden his search to try to identify Scripture’s main message. But in doing this I suggest he fails to include everything that Scripture names gospel, and fails to identify other key aspects of Scripture’s main message. Thus, when Gilbert addresses specific “substitute gospels,” the situation is not as grave as he makes it out to be: first, since Scripture actually includes these things in its good news; and second, since there is no incompatibility between these things and holding Jesus and his cross at the center. I confess that I have no idea what specifically he is referring to (“again and again . . . book after book . . . over and over again”); perhaps his case could be strengthened with citations. Nevertheless I still suggest he is drawing sharper distinctions and laying heavier burdens than Scripture does.

Gilbert is fair in his introduction to chapter 7 to state that his concern is what is at the center of the gospel and not what “other problems” the gospel solves. At times through the rest of the chapter he qualifies what he says in a similar way; e.g., “has been used wrongly by some” (emphasis mine). But the overall tone he strikes in the chapter is not an earnest striving for a biblical harmonization but rather a sharp separation, a tone which I don’t think reflects how God’s people should normally count the “unsearchable riches” of the gospel. He overstates his case (“. . . is not the gospel”), is unfair to the positions he argues against, and ultimately leaves one nervous to claim that the gospel offers us anything other than forgiveness. But this is a burden that neither Isaiah, Peter, Paul, nor Jesus himself take up, and neither should we. There is a time to guard against error, but the healthy norm is not to train ourselves to live in constant fear and suspicion of these blessings as competing gospels, but rather to always consider them as complementary facets of the gospel. The fool who mistakes the facet for the jewel has much to learn about jewels, and we ought not answer him according to his folly. “Come, friend, you must instead dwell upon this other facet over here!” It is interesting that Gilbert does not apply his heightened language to warn us that “forgiveness is not the gospel,” though it is quite true that both forgiveness alone, and also forgiveness apart from Jesus and his cross, are not the gospel.

D. A. Carson, in his book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, comments as follows on the tendency over time to heighten distinctions and differences rather than striving for a biblical harmonization. While he is commenting specifically on the doctrine of the atonement, I think this observation also applies to other contemporary theological debates:

Surely it is best not to introduce disjunctions where God himself has not introduced them. If one holds [a harmonized position], then both sets of texts and concerns are accommodated. . . . In recent years I have tried to read both primary and secondary sources on the doctrine of the Atonement from Calvin on. One of my most forceful impressions is that the categories of the debate gradually shift with time so as to force disjunction where a slightly different bit of question–framing would allow synthesis. Correcting this, I suggest, is one of the useful things we may accomplish from an adequate study of the love of God in holy Scripture. For God is a person. Surely it is unsurprising if the love that characterizes him as a person is manifest in a variety of ways toward other persons. But it is always love, for all that. (76–77)

When Scripture warns about different and distorted gospels, it is concerned with good things we seek to find apart from Jesus. The solution is not to lessen our appreciation for these good things but to heighten our appreciation for Jesus and how all these “unsearchable riches” (Eph. 3:8) come to us in him. The gospel work of the Holy Spirit is an impassable river like we see in Ezekiel 47, and God’s glory and kingdom will extend “from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 72). Scripture’s good news ranges from forgiveness and justification; to the reversal of poverty, oppression, captivity, mourning, injustice, shame and sickness; to God’s complete extension of his promises to Abraham out to all nations; to Jesus’s teaching; and to Jesus himself. Gilbert barely mentions or entirely ignores many such gospel blessings and themes, including union with Christ; God’s dwelling with and marriage to his people; God’s people as a nation of priests; Jesus as king; God’s covenants and covenant faithfulness (covenant appears only once, in a Scripture quotation); the fundamentally good and gracious nature of God’s law; God’s blessings upon Israel going out to the nations; adoption; and sacraments (baptism is conspicuously missing from his discussion of faith and repentance). Gilbert’s lack of any significant emphasis on adoption and union with Christ is particularly odd, since along with forgiveness and justification the reformed church has long identified these as central and basic elements of the gospel.

Gilbert’s specific comments on “substitute gospels” are also unfair to the positions he is critiquing. In general, he frames these positions in a way that arbitrarily excludes forgiveness from them. And his choice of examples in chapters 6 and 7 is interesting—the substitute gospels he is determined to tear down are all more or less postmillennial ones. Of course, Gilbert need not apologize for his amillennialism. But a pair of chapters that could easily be entitled “For Amillennialism” and “Against Postmillennialism” is a strange move in a book that is cast as faithful and broadly reformed evangelical telling of the gospel. Perhaps Gilbert has forgotten that amillennialism . . . is not the gospel.

As an example of his framing, Gilbert lets the lordship advocate say no more than “Jesus is Lord” before he interrupts him, essentially saying: Stop! I know just what kind of lord you are thinking of. He has the right to judge, and that is not good news. But that is ridiculous. If I stopped Gilbert after he said “you are accountable to God,” or “God is your Judge,” I could not fairly accuse him of offering me a gospel that has no good news. So let’s wait a minute and hear just what kind of lord this is. This is supposed to be good news, after all; surely it gets better. Maybe he is even a good lord, the kind who is loyal to his people, provides and cares for them. And maybe his loyalty caused him to make himself nothing and die for me, to secure my forgiveness, redemption, salvation. Could the Lion be a Lamb? Could it be that it is the very essence of kingship to die for one’s people? Perhaps his lordship even means I ought to walk in humble trust and loyalty in response.

When it comes to the kingdom, Gilbert recognizes that God intended for his people to be “vice–regents, ruling his world under him” (48). And he recognizes in part that the gospel competes with the rulers of this world:

To the world, Christians are threatening, and it has always been that way. In the days of the early church, the declaration “Jesus is Lord!” was a seditious and blasphemous rejection of the emperor’s authority, and they killed Christians for saying it. (98)

But he takes away so much in his qualification that we are left expecting a mere pittance of the kingdom here and now. It is true that the kingdom will not be consummated until Jesus’s return, but in repeatedly making much of that fact Gilbert betrays just how little he expects Jesus to work now to bring about any temporal betterment. The gospel is in competition with today’s rulers as much as with Rome, but we are left thinking that Gilbert wants the church to live in such a way that today’s rulers could not possibly accuse her of sedition and blasphemy. And yet Gilbert himself has made clear that these rulers are all accountable to Jesus. We must declare a present objective worldwide aspect of Jesus’s kingdom and authority (e.g., Rev. 1:4-5) that is not captured in the idea of it’s merely being “God’s redemptive rule over his people” (87).

Finally, I do want to highlight my favorite part of the book. The illustration at the beginning of Chapter 5, “Response—Faith and Repentance” is outstanding. Gilbert is playing with his son, a toddler, in the pool. His son is nervous about jumping in but finally trusts his daddy and jumps into his arms, tentatively at first. But “after that, we were off to the races” (72). I worry that when evangelicals talk about faith we can leave the impression that it is merely a private and intellectual exercise. But this example makes clear that faith is equally entrusting ourselves to Jesus, and that it involves both our private and public loyalty, allegiance, affection and worship as much as our mental agreement. It also emphasizes that it is not just God’s promises but also his faithful and loving character that stir us to faith.

He is called Faithful and True.

Written by Scott Moonen

March 15, 2022 at 8:47 am

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