I’m a few dozen pages into Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel and I am enjoying it, a lot. In his first chapter he exhibits three presentations of the gospel that he thinks miss the mark. One example (p. 25) he provides is none other than the famous John Piper:

“John Piper, one of America’s most influential pastors and authors–and deservedly so–at a big conference in April of 2010 asked this question: ‘Did Jesus preach Paul’s gospel?’ To answer it, he examined the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18, where we find one of the few uses of the word justified in the Gospels. Then John Piper concluded that, yes, Jesus did preach Paul’s gospel of justification by faith. I would defend the legitimacy of Piper’s question, and I would also agree that the makings of justification by faith are indeed found in that parable of Jesus. So, it is entirely fair to ask if Jesus preached a gospel like Paul’s.

“But…to begin with, there’s the problem of order and even of precedence: Isn’t the  more important  question about whether Paul preached Jesus’ gospel? Moreover, there’s another problem: Piper’s assumption is that justification is the gospel. The Calvinist crowd in the USA–and Piper is the leading influencer in the resurgance of Calvinist thinking among evangelicals–has defined the gospel in the short formula ‘justification by faith.’ But we have to ask whether the apostles defined the gospel this way. Or, better yet, when they preached the gospel, what did they say?”

McKnight makes two important points. First, he reframes the question rightly. Paul must be connected with Jesus. Paul would say this. Yet when we start with Paul and then seek to fit Jesus into what we think Paul says, this may be a sign that something is backwards.

Secondly, he is right about justification by faith. I was raised in a very legalistic culture, so I am very, very thankful for this doctrine, but we must not conflate the “justification by faith” with “the gospel”. Justification by faith may be the result of responding to the gospel, or a subcategory of the gospel (depending on how you frame it), but it not one and the same. The Evangelists do not focus on justification by faith and it is not a central aspect of Jesus’ preaching. As McKnight says, “When we can find hardly any instances of our favorite theological category in the whole of the four Gospels, we need to be wary of how important our own interpretations and theological favorites are.”

There are important topics to discuss. Do you tend to agree or disagree with McKnights observations that (1) we must connect Jesus and Paul with Jesus’ preaching being primary? and (2) Have we conflated “justification by faith” with “the gospel”? 

See also “Christianity as Country Club”.