Are the Neo-Puritans calling us back to the Gospel or is there another agenda?

Gospel is a good word. A Bible word. A Jesus word. A Paul word. Who wouldn’t want to be constantly called to the Gospel? It is our life, our daily food, the air we breath. (If I keep heaping up phrases this is going to sound like a song by Bread).

The number of books with Gospel in their title or as their focus is like a dam has burst.

The Explicit Gospel, Matt Chandler

Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Matt Chandler

Counterfeit Gospels, Trevin Wax and Matt Chandler

Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian Tchividjian

Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, JD Greear and Tim Kelle

What Is the Gospel?  Greg Gilbert

Gospel Wakefulness, Jared Wilson

The Gospel as Center, DA Carson

The Transforming Power of the Gospel, Jerry Bridges

The Gospel According to Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith?, John MacArthur

The Naked Gospel: Jesus Plus Nothing. 100% Natural. No Additives. Andrew Farley

The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight

How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, NT Wright

God Is the Gospel, John Piper

In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life, Sinclair Ferguson

Gospel Clarity, Ligon Duncan

Living the Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing, CJ Mahaney

Getting the Gospel Right, RC Sproul

And then there are the conferences and organizations:

Together for the Gospel (T4G)

The Gospel Coalition

Of course, one would expect a lot of books, conferences and organizations with the word “gospel.” After all, Jesus is Gospel, Good News. And yet there is more going on here, a larger field of concern.

The Neo-Puritans are trying to recover the word for more explicit Calvinistic purposes, which they fairly believe to be the best way to explain what Gospel means. (In the words of one of their own, Benjamin Warfield, Calvinism is Christianity come to its own). What is really going on in some of these books is a fresh packaging of High Calvinism. No one is against the Gospel, but the vast majority of Christians continue to have problems with the Neo-Puritan equation of Gospel with the middle three letters of the TULIP acrostic: unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. They are also making a renewed effort for the Two Kingdom model of the church. In this model there are more opportunities for drawing a heavier line between the church and the world and fewer opportunities to confuse the two. The church in the Two Kingdom model is simply a carrier and steward of the simple Gospel message. The political, economic, racial, and social meanings of it are not first order business for the church. There is to be a very heavy line between world and church, not in the older fundamentalist way of legalism, but in the way of keeping the church out of the societal transformation business at the ecclessial level.

NT Wright and Scot McKnight are pushing back. Even though their books are not explicitly dealing with soteriology and the ordo salutis (the order of salvation), they are definitely concerned to demonstrate that Gospel should not be restricted to personal salvation but broadened to include societal transformation in which Jesus as Lord and King is establishing a kingdom with political, social and economic overtones. Caesar has been replaced by Jesus and through the church as salt and light announces a new state of affairs in which the world is being put to the right with God. The Gospel is that Jesus is Lord and King. How we are saved and brought into the kingdom is not itself the Gospel, though certainly its outworking.

What this spate of books from the High Calvinism camp means is that unless a more determinist soteriology is preached, which seems to naturally incline it to a two kingdom model, there is no real Gospel being preached at all. So while the general impression is given that this movement of books and conferences is a renewed call to Gospel believing, it is in fact a renewed call to Calvinism and a rejection of Evangelicalism’s Gospel. Of course, this is fair to do and an intellectually viable project. These things are up for discussion and reevaluation. But readers should be aware that these gospel books are not your familiar, old time call to the Gospel under the big tent. Some of them are a trumpet call to a particular version of the Gospel, one which has never fully captured the Christian imagination.

See my post A Rejoinder to Mack Stiles’ criticism of InterVarsity at 9Marks

Also see Scot McKnight’s review of Matt Chandler’s new book  The Explicit Gospel

7 thoughts on “Are the Neo-Puritans calling us back to the Gospel or is there another agenda?

  1. I think it would take an examination of the books themselves to see whether or not this list indicates an agenda to take over the term Gospel. I’ve only read one of them (What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert), and it seemed to me to be a straightforward exposition of the basic salvation message as I learned it when first converted through Campus Crusade for Christ over 40 years ago — long before I had even heard of Calvinism, let alone neo-Calvinists and (later yet) the possibility that I might need to be wary of either group.

    At least two of the authors, Scot McKnight and NT Wright, don’t quite fit with most of the others (and there are a few names I don’t recognize). From what I have read about McKnight’s book on his website, he seems to be arguing for a broader conception of the Gospel than the T4G and Gospel Coalition. So offhand this seems to be a rather mixed bag.

    You may be right; there may be an agenda. I’d like to see that worked out a bit more from what they have written. It could just as well indicate a common concern for examining and explaining the Gospel in a culture which is increasingly confused or unknowing about the Gospel. Indeed, that is one of the stated goals of the Gospel Coalition, so we shouldn’t be surprised nor (I think) suspicious if they collectively focus on it.

    • Yes, McKnight and Wright are arguing for a broader definition of Gospel. Not all the authors and books I listed are of one approach – they together demonstrate that there is something unusual going on, a return to the word Gospel and trying to claim it for one’s own and not a Gospel around which we all gather, as was true in my earlier days in Evangelicalism. BTW, I do buy into McKnight’s and Wright’s contribution. Their desire to elongate the Gospel to include Kingdom formation is inclusive and broad. Gilbert’s Gospel is an example of a “let’s keep the Gospel meaning this and no more”, which in his branch of the church, Calvinism and Capitol Hill Baptist, is the 2 Kingdom version. In this version the lines between the church and the world are drawn with very heavy markers. The concern expressed, the agenda if you will, is that the one kingdom version, with the church as salt and light penetrating the world and being transformative of society,the economic and political order and a definite challenge to Caesar’s ways, too confuses the agenda of the church. The church is gospel preaching and soul saving. Societal transformation is what individual Christians do as men made new but it is not an ecclessial matter. Makes he wonder what postmillenial Reformed people do.It would be hard to keep a one kingdom view with such an eschatology.

      • Thanks, Don. Now I’m wondering what the difference is between the basic God-Sin-Christ-Faith formula that helped bring me to faith in 1970 and the same formula in Gilbert’s book? How was the former “big tent” and the latter not?

        I suspect the difference is in where one goes from that formula. In 1970 (as I remember) things were much less polarized; you committed your life to Christ and headed out to be his follower. Now (I gather) the agenda you describe wants us to sign up for the Two-Kingdom perspective as well.

        How do you suggest maintaining or restoring a “big tent” Gospel in today’s more polarized environment?

      • You wrote: “… a rejection of Evangelicalism’s Gospel” and “… a Gospel around which we all gather, as was true in my earlier days in Evangelicalism.”

        So I think my more specific question is, what is “Evangelicalism’s Gospel” around which we all can gather? I’ve never heard that term before nor the distinction you are making. I think that would be good to understand in our polarized environment.

      • Ok, I think I can answer my own question after reading your “Rejoinder to Mack Stiles.” A big-tent Gospel starts with conversion to Christ, then allows room for individual believers to have theologies of various flavors without condemning them as being outside the camp because of differences from “my” approved theology — assuming orthodoxy of course. I think the key to that is a humble recognition that “my” theology is likely just as flawed in its own particular way; just as I allow myself grace for my own flaws, so I should extend grace to others in theirs.

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