Is Your Good News Good? An Approach to a Reformed response

Gilbert_GospelGreg Gilbert has responded in an article entitled “‘Jesus Is King’ Is Not Good News: A Response to Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates” at 9Marks. This is his rejoinder following the response to his T4G sermon. All the relevant links can be found above.

Rather than trying to suss out whether Gilbert or Bates/McKnight is more correct, I’d like to suggest a alternative, Reformed approach. Back when the Lordship controversy was raging between Zane Hodges and John MacArthur, Michael Horton et al didn’t endorse MacArthur, but instead pointed out inadequacies with both sides, and produced Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Savlation (book). I’ve observed the usefulness of that title elsewhere. I don’t think Hodges=Bates/McKnight, or Gilbert=MacArthur. But it might be useful to consider some Reformed categories, rather than just lumping in with Gilbert, in this debate also.

Distinctio sed non Separatio

Reformed theologians constantly demanded we distinguish concepts without separating them. The persons of the Trinity, Jesus’ divine and human natures, justification and sanctification in union with Christ, and the Church as institution and organism were all concepts that needed to be distinguished as different, but could not ultimately be separated. Like the heads and tails of a coin, they were distinct but indivisible.

The Bates/McKnight camp is fond of emphasizing the Kingship of Jesus, even going so far as to equivocate “Messiah” for “anointed King.” While this is certainly true, and gloriously true!, it leaves out at least two other aspects of Jesus’ anointed work: prophetic and priestly. As Heidelberg Catechism #31 puts it, being the “Christ” or “Messiah” means that Jesus is our Chief Prophet, our High Priest, and our Eternal King.

Bates/McKnight is leary of overemphasizing “the soterian gospel” of Priest – Christ our sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins – worrying that this has collapsed into hyper-individualistic, decision-based Christianity that creates “deciders” (for Jesus) rather than “disciples” (of Jesus). I share their concern, but reject their conclusion. Over and over, Scripture shocks & offends our sensibilities by combining priest and king. From the shadows of Melchizedek, to King David’s blurring of throne and Tabernacle, to Zechariah’s prophecies of a crowned priest (acknowledged by Gilbert), when Jesus is manifested as High Priest – better than Aaron – and as the royal Son of David on Israel’s throne, this is resolving a clear Old Testament theme. What shocks even further is how Christ combines the offices of priest and king: crowned with thorns and enthroned on the cross, He combines redemptive-suffering and ruling themes. This is why Paul can say He died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Rom 4:25; see our Zion Easter sermon here). The kingly and priestly can be distinguished, but ought not be separated.

The Prophet Jesus Gospel

So far, I think, Gilbert would agree with me (and he would word it more elegantly!). But notice: no one is interacting with the prophetic office yet. I have often considered Christ’s prophetic work as basically logo-centric; Jesus was a prophet to the extent that He spoke the truth and revealed God (John 1:18). But in my personal Bible reading in 2020, I’ve been struck at how often the prophetic ministry is tied to resurrection.

Elijah – an archetypal prophet – begins the record with raising the widow’s son in I Kings 17. Elisha continues in his master’s way with a double blessing – first raising a different widow’s son (II Kings 4), and then raising a man from the dead simply by coming into contact with his bones (II Kings 13:20 – 21)! This is why, it seems to me, that when Jesus raises a widow’s boy from his funeral pyre, the crowd exclaims that surely “a great prophet has appeared among us” (Luke 7:11 – 17).

It is not wrong to associate the prophetic office with proclamation, and logo-centric work. I, unfortunately, hadn’t seen how proclamation also works with resurrection. Perhaps clearest in Ezekiel 37, the prophet’s proclamation, or kerygma, was to raise the dead; the dry bones live. That is why our Savior can say, “…Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live… (cf. John 5:25-29). Jesus’ proclaiming voice raises the dead from their graves. Which means that as Chief Prophet, Jesus’ power over death summons His subjects so that He can reign over them as Eternal King. If Bates/McKnight think the resurrection is given short-shrift in contemporary spirituality, we need to recognize how king & prophet are woven together to accomplish this.

Distinct Distinctions

Surely, there are other distinctions and separations to acknowledge as well. Michael Horton pointed out in his review of McKnight:

…we emphasize that the ordo salutis (application of redemption)—what the author calls “the Plan of Salvation”—arises out of the history of redemption (historia salutis)—the Story of Jesus, which emerges in the Story of Israel.

I’m not sure McKnight completely understood Horton’s thrust, but a strong presentation of “the whole counsel of God” will bring the history of Israel, the Adam-Christ recapitulation, and the historia salutis to bear on each personal conscience so that we – like Peter’s audience on Pentecost – are cut to heart and ask what we must do to be saved (Acts 2:38ff).

And if the response your “gospel” requires is “allegiance” instead of “faith,” a la Bates/McKnight, then Reformed categories of “faith/repentance” and “justification/sanctification” will be marvelously helpful for you. These Reformed categories will first help you separate from the Galatian anathema, which is a real danger, since “allegiance” to Jesus (as opposed to “trust”) sure sounds a lot like “faithfulness” to Christ instead of “faith in Christ.” Trying to be saved by our own faithfulness is to go back under the curse of the Law and relying on our works. We put our faith in Christ’s faithfulness for us.

On top of that, these Reformed categories will rescue you out of American individualism. Your regeneration is of a piece with the regeneration of the cosmos (Matthew 19:26; Romans 8:19 – 25). Your sanctification is a community project (Galatians 6:2). And your election, justification, and adoption place you within the covenantal Church community – with its officers, sacraments, and keys – where you will grow in your allegiance to Messiah Jesus. Jesus, as anointed by the Spirit, is simultaneously and distinctly our Chief Prophet, High Priest, and Eternal King.

A Problem to Solve

Often, we hear that if Christians are to proclaim the Good News, we should ask, “what is the bad news/problem?” How do Bates/McKnight, or Gilbert, answer that question? According to Bates/McKnight, the answer that the bad, bogeyman, soterian gospel provides is, “getting my rear out of hell into my own personal paradise in which God is an accessory.” (Small bit of overstatement on my part here…) I agree this is sub-biblical and wrong, but their own response I am unsure of. The basic problem the King Jesus Gospel addresses is that God’s king and kingdom are not public knowledge, that not all Israel owe their allegiance to this king and kingdom.

I would argue that this is also sub-biblical. It insufficiently addresses the Edenic curse, the rebellion of the Gentile nations, or the hope for the cosmos. Most importantly, that Jesus is King (and He is!, whether I “make Him Lord of my life” or not, evangellyfish…) is not good news to anyone who has defected to Team Serpent, whose heart is wickedly deceitful and sick (Jeremiah 17:9), or to anyone who fits the “no one seeks God, no one is righteous” of Romans 3. In other words, outside of Christ, “Jesus is King” is bad news for people like me.

Which brings me to Gilbert. In truth, I have few if any complaints with his message(s). Nevertheless, if I had to quibble, notice how much his T4G address could use a good shot in the arm of the Reformed doctrine of union with Christ. Gilbert originally said, “But remember that the good news is not the coming of the King, full stop; it is the coming of the King to suffer, to die, to rise, and to save.” I agree with all of this, and simply would add the oft-quoted remark from Calvin, “that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from Him, all that He has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.” Jesus suffered, died, rose, and saved me in Him. God does NOT merely want forgiven, justified, Christians. His goal is to be with them, world without end. “Behold! The dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 2:13).

The problems that need to be solved are many: a cursed creation; a rebellious heart; broken shalom; rival kingdoms; sin’s presence, power, and penalty. In short, we need the joining of the historia and the ordo salutis. I have no doubts there are deficiencies in the Reformed presentation of the Gospel; we are mere pilgrims on the way. But I love these biblical truths our confessions summarize, because not only have they withstood time’s march, but they are clarified more succinctly as the Lord prunes His Church. And if the “gospel” never ultimately addresses my sinful alienation from my Creator, it cannot be a complete reflection of Scripture’s witness.

In conclusion, I refer you back to Gilbert’s reply, which really is worthwhile. In this argument, however, don’t lose sight of the theologically refreshing categories Reformed theology offers: the three-fold office of Christ; union with Christ; the historia and ordo salutis. In so many of these breaking news disagreements, reminding ourselves of the past can be so valuable. Bates/McKnight brings us back to history, but seems to come dangerously close to Machen’s rebuke: “’Christ died’–that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’–that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.” Gilbert has so much to offer, and I humbly point out the prophetic office and union with Christ. Regardless, I hope this argument drives us back to the Word, to know just what the Gospel is more clearly.

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