Question: What do Matthew Bates, Scot McKnight, Kevin DeYoung, John MacArthur, Matt Chandler and N.T. Wright have in common? Answer: All of them have written books on the gospel. While there is some strong agreement among them, there is also some strong disagreement about what the central ingredient of the gospel is.
And then there’s the older Tubingen school in Germany who argued that there was no central gospel message in the New Testament. In the 20th century, British scholar C.H. Dodd argued the exact opposite—namely that there was one central gospel message in the Bible. Dodd was challenged by James Dunn in his classic Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (1977), who once again argued that there are many different gospels in the New Testament. This same line of argumentation has been picked up by the current mega best-selling author and New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman.
Over the past several years, I’ve read more than a dozen books on the gospel. Among evangelical authors, I find that these books tend to fall into two basic camps:
1) Authors who emphasize the “Kingship” aspect of the gospel. This position argues that the gospel is primarily about the grand story of redemption, creation, the fall, the Messiah, the cross, the resurrection, the second coming and the New Earth. Included in this camp are folks like Matthew Bates who tells us that the gospel is primarily about the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Bates says this “Jesus” gospel was fundamentally about His attainment of universal sovereignty at the right hand of God the Father” (Gospel Allegiance, page 55). Bates says the gospel, for the apostle Paul, is primarily about kingship and resurrection. Bates also states that the cross is not at the center of the gospel. And while Bates dings authors like John Piper, John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul for inaccuracies in their explanation of the gospel, he never dings other folks like Scot McKnight or N.T. Wright, both of whom offer muddled presentations of their own at times.
In addition to Matthew Bates, authors who emphasize this aspect of the gospel include N.T. Wright, John Dickson, and Scot McKnight. The great benefit of these books is to remind us of the broad scope of the story of the Bible, and to keep us focused on the big picture of redemption. The danger of these books is that they often overlook the simple question of the Philippian jailer, “What must I do to be saved?” I’ve read at least a half dozen of N.T. Wright’s books and watched his 2018 Gifford lectures in full. I’m currently reading his classic, The Resurrection of the Son of God. I find Wright refreshing and yet extremely frustrating much of the time. He is notoriously unclear about how to be saved.
2) Authors who emphasize the “Salvation” aspect of the gospel. These authors stress the cross of Christ, justification, and the summons to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Books in this camp would include: God is the Gospel, by John Piper; Explicit Gospel, by Matt Chandler; Faith Alone, by R.C. Sproul; John MacArthur’s classics, The Gospel According to Jesus and The Gospel According to Paul; and two books by Michael Horton, The Gospel Driven Life and Christless Christianity. I would also add David Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic, Spiritual Depression to the list. Lloyd-Jones’ book is an older work, but it still covers the topic of the gospel well.
These authors emphasize the point that the gospel message is centered in the person and work of Jesus, His perfect life of obedience and His atoning sacrifice on the cross. These writers emphasize justification by faith alone as the center of the gospel. They emphasize the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the repentant sinner as being at the core of the New Testament gospel. This is something the first camp of authors is very hesitant to do.
Authors in the first camp typically accuse authors in this second camp of blurring the gospel by creating a “salvation culture” and not a “gospel culture.” But, I’m not always clear as to what this criticism means. Authors in the second camp often accuse those in the first camp of missing the heart of the gospel, which includes justification by faith alone, penal substitution, and imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer’s account.
The bottom line is this: I appreciate authors in the “Kingship” camp and have profited from their books—which offer a needed corrective in some respects—but my head and heart are more in the second camp. I think they have more accurately captured the heart of the New Testament gospel. I would encourage you to read books in both camps, and seek to wrestle with this all-important question for yourself: What could be more important than a correct understanding of the gospel of Jesus?