Podcast: How Should We Define the Gospel? (Greg Gilbert)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Establishing the Foundation

In this episode, Greg Gilbert discusses why Christians so often struggle to clearly define a simple yet foundational concept: the gospel. He highlights the temptation we all face to subtly subtract from or add to the gospel in response to various cultural pressures; he explains why he doesn’t like or use the phrase “this or that is a gospel issue”; and he responds to the common critique that evangelicals often have an overly individualistic view of the gospel.

What Is the Gospel?

Greg Gilbert

This accessible volume presents a straightforward statement of the gospel. Gilbert guides both Christians and non-Christians to the Bible as he offers a clear understanding of the central message of God's Word.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:56 - Striving for Unity around the Definition of Gospel

Matt Tully
The gospel is such a foundational idea and concept for every Christian. I would guess that no one listening right now would deny that. Even the name evangelical—the dominant Bible-believing Christian group in the US—has that word evangel in the name, which means gospel. And yet, I think all of us can attest to the experience of talking with other Christians and quickly realizing that perhaps people mean different things by that word gospel, depending on who they are, where they’re coming from, and what their experiences have been. So, my first question is, If the gospel is so central to Christianity and what it means to be a follower of Jesus, why aren’t we more unified on what that word actually means?

Greg Gilbert
First of all, I think you’re right. I think if you were to ask one hundred self-proclaimed evangelicals what the gospel is, you would end up with sixty or seventy different answers. Some people would want to put the resurrection of Jesus right at the center of it all and they wouldn’t much mention the cross at all, except as a way to get Jesus dead so that he can rise again. Other people want to talk about the transformation of the world. There’s just a lot of different things that are talked about and become a part of the conversation. As for the why, I think probably it’s a combination of different experiences that people have, things they want to protect, things they want to push forward, things they want to emphasize or deemphasize, even arguments that they’ve been a part of in the past. There are hermeneutical questions at stake like, Where do you start in trying to define the gospel? Do you start with every occurrence of the word gospel in the New Testament or in the Old Testament? Or do you start with the preaching at Pentecost? There’s just a lot of different questions about where to start, and once you throw that spear—how you begin throwing it, where you start—is really going to determine where it ends up.

Matt Tully
That’s such an interesting analogy. Something you said a minute ago about how sometimes it’s arguments that people are trying to respond to or make, or issues that they’re seeing and reacting to, have you ever observed that? Have you seen that, in terms of how we do theology, generally, but even specifically when it comes to how we understand the gospel? How much of our understanding is influenced by the cultural moment that we’re in and the theological battles that we’re having? Is there a danger there that our understanding of this central tenet of the Christian faith—the central tenet—can be distorted because of all those swirling contexts?

Greg Gilbert
Absolutely, there’s that danger. That’s the charge that’s often made against the Reformers (Martin Luther and John Calvin) is that their understanding of the gospel was shaped, and even created, by the controversy they were having with the Roman Catholic church, so it became this forensic, transactional thing. That’s the charge that’s made against them. I don’t think that charge is true; I think they read the Bible. Back to the sources—ad fontes—was one of the main principles that they had. I think they read the Bible correctly, and it just happened to answer a whole lot of what the Roman Catholic church was doing wrong then. But I think the same thing happens even today. For example, if one of your main personal passions is to see the world made into a better place, there’s something powerful in being able to say, And the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about making the world a better place to live. If you can hook your cart up to that horse—or, really, if you can hook that horse up to your cart—you can really get a lot of traction on it. So, it’s a temptation.

Matt Tully
It’s the ultimate trump card.

Greg Gilbert
Yeah. It’s a huge temptation. If you care about this thing, and the gospel is about this thing, you win that argument.

Matt Tully
Right. How have you sought to protect your own understanding of the gospel from what I think is oftentimes not even a conscious preoccupation with something? We genuinely believe that this issue in front of me is a serious, central issue. So, how do you think about protecting your own understanding—your own theology—from those kinds of influences?

Greg Gilbert
The first thing, of course, is just the principle of sola scriptura. I want to have both an intellectual and spiritual and very personal commitment to that principle, and I want to make sure that everything else that I care about is being subjected to the authority of Scripture. So, that’s one thing. Obviously, there’s some subjectivity in that, and I think that’s why the Lord puts us in churches with other believers to hold each other accountable. But even the commitment is really important. If you deny the commitment and you just say, The things I care about are the things that everyone should care about, and those are not subject to any sort of norming corrective, you’re going to find yourself in all kinds of trouble. So, even the commitment to sola scriptura is good, even if there’s still some subjectivity in how you’re going to read the Scriptures and all the rest of it. Another thing is that I think you’ve got to have strong categories to be able to distinguish between what is the heart of the gospel message—the karygma, the proclamation from the King—and all the implications that come out of that. One huge temptation among evangelicals is to take something that’s an implication and, in order—almost always—to emphasize it and make it more important, we want to grab it and rope it in as tightly as possible to the gospel. You can start to use words that wind up confusing implications for heart. I think it’s just a good discipline, even if you care deeply about something, to be able to say, This thing is super important, but it’s not the gospel. I’m just going to admit that up front and allow that it’s not, even if I think that it’s super important.

Matt Tully
And what would be the implications for acknowledging that something is not the gospel?

Greg Gilbert
The implications for acknowledging that it’s not?

Matt Tully
Yeah, in terms of how we go about then discussing those things.

Greg Gilbert
One of the funny things about we Christians is that I think we generally have two speeds: we talk about things of the utmost importance—this is the gospel—and everything else is not important at all. This is why you have conversations about what is the very bare minimum of something a person has to say they believe in order to get to heaven. It’s like, let’s get down to what is the heart—the most important—and everything else just gets talked about as unimportant. So, I think we need a few more speeds. You need to be able to say, Look, this is really, really important, but it’s not the gospel. That’s at a higher level of importance than this thing is, even though I think this is really important and I’m going to try to get you to agree with me on it.

09:32 - What Is (and Isn’t

the Gospel?)

Matt Tully
If you had to put it succinctly, how would you define the gospel?

Greg Gilbert
It depends on how much you want to talk about this, but the way I’ve defined the heart of the gospel in the book that I wrote, What Is the Gospel?, is basically propositions about God, about us as human beings, about Jesus Christ, and about the response that we owe to Jesus. Now, you can get more complicated than those propositions, but they are essentially that God created us, we are accountable to him. Therefore, we’ve sinned against him, we’ve rebelled against him. For that rebellion, we deserve a penalty of death. And yet God, in his love, sent Jesus, the eternal Son of God, to become a human and live the life we ought to have lived, die the death that we deserved for our sin and rebellion against him, and then rise again so that as we are united to him by faith, we, too, rise to newness of life in the hope of the resurrection. That, I think, is the heart of it. If that’s the wicket gate—to use a Bunyan category—if those propositions are the wicket gate, all of the blessings of eternity and of the new heavens and the new earth and reconciliation and all the rest of it, all those blessings get referred to as gospel in the New Testament. It’s like a wide-angle lens on all those great blessings. But the Bible will also zoom in and call gospel what I just articulated to you. And the reason it does that is because all of those great blessings of the new heavens and the new earth, reconciliation, and all the rest of it, you don’t get any of those blessings except by coming through that wicket gate of recognizing your sin, trusting in Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. So, it’s an interesting way the Bible uses the word. It will never refer to the promise of the new heavens and the new earth alone as gospel. It will refer to forgiveness of sins through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as gospel, and then it will refer to all of that together as gospel. But it’s very precise and careful in exactly how it will use the word.

Matt Tully
Would that be an argument that there actually could be multiple ways that we would use that word in our own language, that we don’t have to try to nail down a definition quite as rigorously as we might assume?

Greg Gilbert
Well, you should nail it down as rigorously as the Bible nails it down. It doesn’t give you license to just make it up as you go. The Bible uses it in some very particular ways, and we ought to use it in all those ways because we’re people of the Book. But we should use it only in those ways, too, because we’re people of the Book. So we shouldn’t be importing our own definitions into the word.

Matt Tully
Maybe walk us through some of those imported definitions. What have you encountered, whether it’s just simple, slight, nuance and misunderstandings of the gospel, or perhaps it’s full-blown distortions of the gospel? Give us some concrete examples of that.

Greg Gilbert
There are a few. You’ll hear people use the word gospel, and they’ll say things like, The good news—the gospel—is that God is about the work of remaking the world—making the world more in line with his Shalom—they’ll put it in a lot of different ways—and the good news is that as God is doing that work, he has called us to be a part of that work along with him. The remaking of the world is something that God is doing, and in the broadest, wide-angle lens sense, that may be one of the blessings of the gospel out there, but the Bible will never, ever talk about the remaking of the world, full-stop, as gospel. It’s always the remaking of the world because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross, and you’re only a part of that new world as you come to him through his life, death, and resurrection. So, that’s one. Various folks have argued that gospel ought to be understood basically as Jesus is Lord, full-stop; or, Jesus is King, full-stop. The Bible just doesn’t talk like that. It talks about Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is dying and saving Lord—that sort of gospel and how all that works—but it never puts a full-stop at the end of those sentences. It’s just not how the Bible uses that word.

Matt Tully
I’m struck by those two examples that you gave. The tricky thing about them is that both of them are true in and of themselves. There’s a truth to those statements: Jesus is Lord; he is King; God is about recreating and renewing the world. The issue is that they’re not saying enough, or they’re saying the wrong thing and labeling it as something that they’re not. How much of that do you think is at play when it comes to just thinking rightly about, not just the gospel itself, but even theology? It feels like it’s often less about, What you said about God is actually wrong, and it’s more that the emphasis is wrong, perhaps, or you’re not saying something that is true.

Greg Gilbert
One of the great marks of a theologian is to be able to make correct distinctions and be very precise in categories and language. To take a biblical word and apply it to a true statement, but in the wrong category, is still theologically harmful. To take a true statement like Jesus is Lord—the Scripture teaches that; that’s good. And then you take a word like gospel that the Bible uses, and that also is good. But you can’t equate the two. Two goods don’t make a correct. They make an incorrect in that sense. In the same way, you could do that with anything. You could say, Marriage is the union of one man and one woman before God in covenant. But if you apply the wrong category to that, you’re actually doing incorrect theology. If you call that gospel, you’re doing incorrect theology. You just have to be careful to make those category distinctions very clear, and keep them clear over time and through logic.

16:06 - Drifting towards a False Gospel


Matt Tully
You’re a pastor, and I would imagine that you’ve seen this. It seems like a common thing that regular Christians might struggle with at times where they hear their favorite Bible teacher—a popular Christian speaker or influencer online—and they might make these subtle category mistakes, whether intentionally or not, but they’re using the same language and they’re not saying anything that’s flat out not true. How have you sought to help your people in your church to think about those things critically and to keep those things straight when it can get a little bit confusing at times?

Greg Gilbert
I’d say a couple of things. One is trying to keep my own thinking on it straight. For example, mostly for effect, I do not use a phrase like This is a gospel issue to talk about something that is an implication of the gospel that we believe. I know that a phrase like This is a gospel issue punches that up in terms of importance. It’s rhetorically powerful, but it also confuses the line because exactly what you’re trying to do with that phrase is pull that thing in and not draw hard lines. I want to draw hard lines in order to keep it clear in my own head. And then just saying the same thing over and over to the congregation in preaching—basically catechizing them in what is the heart of the gospel. That little thing that I gave you at the beginning of the podcast is something that I say on 9.5 out of 10 sermons at Third Avenue Baptist Church. Those sentences will come out of my mouth. What I hope, anyway, is that when my people encounter somebody else who starts to launch into that and then it goes a different direction, I’m hoping they’ll be able to recognize that, or at least flag it in their heads like, Oh! That’s different than what my pastor says. He didn’t mention the resurrection, or he didn’t mention the crucifixion, or this or that.

Matt Tully
You haven’t assumed that people have an understanding. I think that’s what we can often do is say, Well, you say you’re a Christian and you actually know some Bible verses and you go to church consistently and we’re in a small group together and we pray together. Therefore, there’s the assumption that you understand the gospel. But that’s not always the case.

Greg Gilbert
It’s so true, which is why I think every Christian preacher needs to preach the gospel in every sermon. It needs to be a main point, and you need to have some people holding you accountable to do that. I’ve spent six weeks in the past month and a half preaching through the book of Proverbs—not really through; preaching around the book of Proverbs.

Matt Tully
It’s hard to preach through that one verse by verse.

Greg Gilbert
Yeah, and I’ve got a group of people who give me feedback on each and every sermon. It’s men, women, members of the church. It’s about a dozen people. A couple of weeks ago they nailed me and said, You did a great sermon on how to handle money and jobs, but you didn’t really say anything about the gospel. I think if anybody who was here and wasn’t a Christian, they could not have been saved from what you said this Sunday. So, I fixed that big time the next week.

Matt Tully
From time to time we hear critiques of common evangelical approaches to sharing the gospel along the lines of Evangelicals have an overly individualistic view of the gospel that is overly focused on ideas of personal salvation—getting to heaven, getting out of hell—and misses other central facets of the gospel itself. That’s where I think you would encounter that argument of The gospel is that Jesus is Lord; he is King; the kingdom of God is coming and that kind of thing. What do you make of critiques like that? Is there a ring of truth to that, and how would you process that?

Greg Gilbert
It’s a strange thing. I don’t know if you can be overly individualistic when you talk about the gospel, because it is about individuals being saved by Jesus. I do, however, think you can be underly cosmic with it. You can make it all about you and Jesus and the transaction that happens between you so that you can get yours when it all is said and done, and miss out on the cosmic beauty and bigness of the whole thing. The tragic thing is I think the gospel just gets more compelling, even rhetorically, when you realize the roots of it in the Old Testament and the identity of Jesus as Messiah, and the coming new heavens and new earth. It’s compelling as a transaction to, as they say, Get your butt out of hell—there’s something compelling about that. But when you see the whole grand sweep of the thing, it’s even more compelling to anybody who’s listening to it. It’s a little bit of a mystery why some evangelicals, probably past, present, and future, have been underly cosmic with it. But I would never want to downplay the fact that it is, in fact, individuals being saved by Jesus. It’s just integral to the whole thing, and so I don’t know how you downplay that. It just is.

Matt Tully
So, it’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and.

Greg Gilbert
Oh yeah.

Matt Tully
Keeping in mind everything we’ve talked about thus far, what do you think about some believer’s emphasis on a kind of—to use C. S. Lewis’s words—a mere Christianity, trying to find that core of what it means to be a Christian, the core tenets of the gospel. How do you view that approach, or mindset, in relation to what you said about the gospel and making sure that we understand it correctly?

Greg Gilbert
There’s some use in it. You need to sort of define what the karygma is as opposed to the implications of the gospel. You need to define that, so there’s some good in it. But if I’m going to create a life project for myself, it’s not going to be to focus on less and less and less of the glory that God has given us. It’s going to be to try to focus more and more and more of it. So, I think you start with a tight, little understanding of what the euangelion is, and then you go out from there. But I just don’t know why anybody would want to be mere in their understanding of the gospel. It seems like the exact opposite of what I would want to do is be mere in my understanding of Christianity. I think what Lewis meant by that was not the smallest thing ever, or the smallest thing imaginable. He just meant let’s try to get rid of all the extraneous stuff. Let’s just talk from the ground up. It can be a useful thing.

23:31 - The Dangers of Using the Label “Gospel Issue”

Matt Tully
It seems like people can tend to either go that direction where it’s the lowest common denominator possible, but then on the other hand, and we’ve already kind of hit on this, some people tend more towards this broad vision of the gospel so that everything becomes a gospel issue. Whatever their pet issue is, is now labeled a gospel issue. Unpack some of the dangers of that kind of approach. Obviously, it is rhetorically powerful, but that’s not a good reason to do something, just because you’re going to win the argument. What are some of the dangers of that?

Greg Gilbert
Most obviously, it’s just getting the gospel wrong. You can load it up with so many good things that it just becomes unwieldy and undefined. That would be the worst thing. If I were of that mindset to those people who took me to task for not preaching the gospel, I could have made all kinds of arguments back to them about why managing your money well, especially when it’s in wisdom in Proverbs: That’s all part of the gospel. That’s all good news from God. I did preach the gospel. But, the statement they made to me was, Nobody could have gotten saved by what you said that morning. And I think that’s true and helpful. You’re not going to stand before God and say, I managed my money well and according to the principles laid out in the book of Proverbs and God answer, Well done, good and faithful servant. That’s not how it works. So, you can water it down so much that you lose it. That will affect your proclamation, that will affect your preaching, that will affect the way you do evangelism. Every organization in the world, including the church, needs a lightning-sharp message and reason for its existence. That’s why corporations spend millions of dollars on ad development and mission statement development. It’s because they’re trying for that lightning-sharp declaration of who they are and why they exist. The genius thing about the church is that lightning-sharp definition and message has been given to us by the King. Being really clear on what that is and not letting it just become marshmallow cream everywhere is really important.

Matt Tully
How would you respond to the person who’s listening and says, Yes, I can acknowledge that this issue over here is not synonymous with the gospel. But it feels like there’s such a direct connection and an inevitable and indisputable implication from the gospel that it is legitimate for me to link them together very strongly and say this is a gospel issue. What’s your response to that kind of a thing?

Greg Gilbert
I just say lose the label. Say what you said right there so that people can follow along with you and know exactly what you think about it. But don’t just resort to a label like “gospel issue” that you have to be aware is doing some kind of under the table rhetorical work. Tell people what you actually think about this issue that is inextricably related to the gospel, but is not the gospel. Why is that so hard to say? Why do you need to go for that rhetorically, slightly deceitful label?

Matt Tully
That’s an interesting way to put it: it’s rhetorically under the table doing some work for you that you’re not really fully acknowledging.

Greg Gilbert
Yeah. It’s just not clear. If you ask me about the atoning death of Jesus on the cross and say, Greg, is that a gospel issue? I’m going to say yes. That is a gospel issue. I can use that for things that are right at the heart of the gospel. But people also use it for things that are our here a little bit. If you were to say something to me like, Greg, is the atoning work of Jesus on the cross an implication of the gospel that is inextricably tied to the gospel but is not the gospel itself? Of course, I’m going to say no. It’s something different from that. I think if you’re using a phrase that is that confusing, you just jettison it and say what you mean and mean what you say.

Matt Tully
Give us an example of a doctrinal issue that you feel like is inextricably tied to the gospel, is so important, and Christians should hold a certain view on it, and yet, you would still be very careful to say that that is not the gospel.

Greg Gilbert
Baptism.

Matt Tully
Unpack that a little bit.

Greg Gilbert
I’m a baptist, so I believe it’s defined by the gospel. It defines the community of the gospel. The symbolism is a picture and emblem of the gospel. So, it’s very much a gospel issue. It is an issue that is related, inextricably, to the gospel—formed by it, shaped by it, marks out the community of the gospel. And yet, baptism is not the gospel. We can draw a sharp distinction between baptism and the message of the gospel.

29:02 - The Gospel and Sin

Matt Tully
Let’s dig into a little bit of the message of the gospel itself. Obviously, one of those core elements is the idea that humanity is sinful—that we have this sin that is separating us from God. I think one of the main ways that we often hear Christians talk about sin is in terms of a broken relationship with God—that there’s a loss of the intimacy that we once shared with God, and that we could share with God some day through Christ. While that’s true, you do point out in the book that if you stop there, that’s actually a somewhat reductionist understanding of sin. Can you unpack that? What’s wrong with just viewing sin as a broken relationship?

Greg Gilbert
It dodges the point. It’s true that sin is a—well, it’s not really a broken relationship. A broken relationship is the result of sin. If you say the human problem is a broken relationship with God, you’re sort of dodging the point because the fact is, we human beings are the ones who broke the relationship. It wasn’t even just like a boyfriend and girlfriend having a fight and breaking their relationship. It was more like subjects rebelling against the king, which is like death penalty time. So, to put it just in terms of relationship being broken allows you to color that in with any context you want. You can analogize that to a son and a father, you can analogize it to a boyfriend and a girlfriend, a husband and a wife. You can make it really soft—it can be two friends who had a falling out. It can be in the context of two people who have wronged each other or just drifted away. But, in the Bible, it’s that you have rebelled against the One who created you and is the source of your life, which carries a death penalty by logic and by reason. It doesn’t even step on our toes much to say you deserve to die for that in that same way that it would if you’re controlling analogies like boyfriend and girlfriend or just two friends.

Matt Tully
Are there other ways in which you think that we often think and talk about sin that have that same effect of downplaying the gravity and weightiness of the offense?

Greg Gilbert
I think one of the most common ways is just to think of sin as bad things that we do, just actions, thoughts, words, deeds. A lot of times our confessions will be that way. It’s just, Lord, we have sinned in word and thought and deed. We’ve done things that we shouldn’t have done.

Matt Tully
So, there’s probably somebody listening right now who’s thinking, Yeah. That’s sin. What’s wrong with that?

Greg Gilbert
It is sin. It’s just, again, not enough because sin is not just the actions and thoughts and words and deeds that have messed up the outer shell of you, and you’re basically pure all the way through. Sin is now shot through into your very heart and identity, such that you are a sinner. It’s not just that you have rebelled; it is now that you are a rebel by identity. “We were by nature,” (Eph. 2:3) Paul said—that’s deep. By nature. We would even shy away from that kind of language if we didn’t have it right there in the Bible. “By nature children of wrath.” So your very identity, character, and nature is changed by the fact that you’re a sinner.

Matt Tully
That implies, then, that it’s not enough just to decide to stop sinning. There is a more fundamental, internal problem that has to be fixed.

Greg Gilbert
Yeah. You’re dead. It’s not even like you can just make a decision to turn over a new moral leaf. The same Word that created the universe has to be spoken over you so that your dead soul comes to life. It really is kind of in your own heart a creation—ex nihilo, out of nothing you were created alive. Paul talks about that in Romans 4. It’s just extraordinary. The same power that created the universe is required to bring your dead soul to life. When the Lord speaks your name as one of the elect and brings you to life, that same Word, had he wanted it to, could have created a universe, which is an incredible thing to think about.

33:44 - The Gospel and Faith

Matt Tully
Another word that’s often used in many different ways is the word faith—our response to the good news of the gospel. I think part of the problem with the word faith—and I would love to hear your thoughts on this—is that in addition to there being a variety of ways the word is used in Scripture and debates on how we should understand that word biblically, there’s also this broader cultural resonance beyond Christianity with this word faith. Do you think that those broader—frankly, non-Christian conceptions—of faith sometimes affect the way that Christians use and understand that word?

Greg Gilbert
Oh yeah, sure. I think if you take most Christians and push them to the wall with questions like, Why do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God? They’ll try a few things, generally, like archaeology has proven—

Matt Tully
Have you tried this before?

Greg Gilbert
Well, I’ve had it done to me. I think the last defense of most Christians is, Well, it’s just a matter of faith. I just take it on faith. Which means, I don’t really have any good reason for it. I’m out of reasons. I have nothing else to say to you, so I’m just going to retreat into this fortress of faith and slam the doors on you. But that’s not at all what the Bible’s definition is. The Bible’s definition of faith is to rely on something that is reliable. You’ve got good reasons for it, you’ve checked it out, you’ve tested it, and now you’re going to lean on it; or step on it like a bridge, or sit down on it like a chair. You have faith in that thing; therefore, you rely on it because it is reliable.

Matt Tully
How does that fit with a passage like Hebrews 11:1 where the author writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”? Some people can take that verse and say, Faith is a blind thing. We can’t see what we’re believing in, and there’s a level of just going all-in and, in a sense, hoping for something to be the way that we hope it is.

Greg Gilbert
The way people read that verse is that somehow the words “hope” for and “not seen” mean, to the author of Hebrews, that he doesn’t have any good reason for trusting in those things. And yet, the guy has literally just spent ten chapters laying out, in great detail, his reasons for thinking Jesus is reliable. So, what he’s saying by chapter 11 is we have good reasons, even though we can’t see it. Hope is a strong word too. Hope does not mean wish. Hope means that I’m convicted that this is going to happen.

Matt Tully
I’m going to build my life on this.

Greg Gilbert
Yeah. In the Bible it’s not a wish. Hope is built on good reasons. So, he’s saying faith is the assurance of things hoped for, in the strong sense. We’ve got good reasons for this, and the assurance that even though it’s things that are not seen, but that doesn’t mean we have no evidence for it. We actually have great evidence and I just spent ten chapters laying it out for you. So, faith is actually a really strong theme. Even though you can’t see it, there are other reasons other than sight.

Matt Tully
That’s a great example, then, of the way that sometimes as we read Scripture and aren’t reading it in context or aren’t understanding how these words are actually being used, we can sometimes take the opposite meaning from what we actually should be finding in a passage like that.

Greg Gilbert
Totally. Anytime you pull Bible verses out of their context you can do all kinds of magic with them. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” (Phil. 4:13) and then you get crushed by the 500-pound weight you were trying to lift. That sort of thing.

37:43 - The Gospel and Repentance

Matt Tully
What about repentance? That’s another term that, in Scripture, is often paired with faith: repent and believe. What does repentance mean, and how does that relate to faith?

Greg Gilbert
Repentance is the flip side of the coin of faith. You don’t get faith without repentance; you don’t get repentance without faith. Repentance means “to turn.” You’re headed one way and you turn around and you go the other way. It’s interesting that both the word repent and the word faith, in the New Testament, are talked about in terms of turning. When it comes to repentance, usually you’re talking about turning away from something—sin. With faith, you’re said to be turning to God. And yet, it’s not two actions that you’re doing: first you turn away from sin, then you turn to God. Rather, it’s one action. If you stand in the middle of the room and you’re facing one wall, and you’re going to turn around and face the other wall, you turn away from the first wall and toward the second wall in one action. So, that’s what faith and repentance are. They’re both talking about the same action of turning away from sin and turning toward God to rely on Christ. But they’re just looking at it from two different perspectives. In one sense it’s saying repentance is turning away from sin, faith is turning to God. But it’s all one action. You can’t have one without the other.

Matt Tully
And that’s why you can say that they always coexist. So if someone says, Yeah, I have faith, but I’m still not quite ready to give up this or that thing, would you say to them that they don’t really have faith?

Greg Gilbert
Yes, because basically what you’re saying there is, Jesus, here’s my faith: I believe that you are who you say you are. I’m relying on you, trusting that you’re the eternal Son of God, you’re the Savior, you’re the Redeemer, you’re the King of kings and the Lord of lords; but, you’re not my king. I still have this other king—this idol—that I want to have in my life, so you can be my Savior, but you can’t be my Lord. It’s just to say you don’t really have faith. All you’re doing is saying a bunch of propositions about Jesus that are true, but that’s not relying on him. To rely on him is to acknowledge him and bow your knee to him as everything that he is, for you in particular. So, you can’t do it.

40:21 - Using Metaphors and Illustrations to Describe the Gospel

Matt Tully
Probably a lot of people are familiar with some of the different metaphors or illustrations that have been used to describe faith and what it is in a biblical sense. Do you have a favorite one that you like to use and think is helpful? Do you have one that you don’t like very much and think it isn’t very helpful to help people understand faith?

Greg Gilbert
I’ve got a bunch that I do like. A lot of times if I’m preaching about faith, I’ll say it’s a matter of sizing something up and seeing if it’s reliable, and then relying on it. So, I’ll step out from behind the pulpit and sort of kick the pulpit, or push on it a little bit, to make sure that it’s solid, and then I’ll put a hand on the pulpit and literally take my feet way out so that I’m leaning on that pulpit 100%. That does a couple of things. It makes the point about reliability. I wouldn’t do that to a little music stand, because it couldn’t hold me up; it’s not reliable. But you can then also turn and make the point that this is why we talk about faith alone in Jesus Christ. If I stand up straight on my own balance and weight and put my hand on the pulpit, I’m not relying on that pulpit. I can even take a couple of steps out away from it, and be relying 20% on the pulpit to hold me up but 80% on my own feet. But when I go way out and down, it’s just clear that 100% of my reliance is on that pulpit. If it gives way, I’m toast. I’m going down. It’s the same thing with Jesus. When you trust in Jesus, you’re saying, I’ve sized you up. I believe you are who you say you are and you can do what you say you can do. I’m 100% trusting in you, and if you give way, Jesus, it’s over for me. I’ve got nothing else.

Matt Tully
Are there any analogies or metaphors that you don’t find very helpful?

Greg Gilbert
I don’t know; do you have one in mind? I can tell you what I think about it!

Matt Tully
Not really.

Greg Gilbert
I can’t think of any that have stuck with me as really bad. There’s ones that get used that say you’re drowning and someone throws you a life preserver.

Matt Tully
Or, faith is an open hand. You’ve got to put your hand out to be saved by Jesus. God is the one who grabs you and pulls you, but you gotta open that hand first. Something like that.

Greg Gilbert
I actually use the open hand to talk about faith. I say faith is morally empty in and of itself. There’s no moral virtue in faith. The moral score of faith is determined 100% by what the faith is in. So, if you say, My faith is in Satan, you don’t get negative points for your faith. There’s no virtue in your faith. It’s 100% determined by what it grabs onto. Once you realize that, you can make the point against what our world and our society does with faith, which is basically to have faith in faith. You’re a person of faith, so you get some virtue points for having faith. Essentially, if you’re relying on that before God and you’re going to stand before God and say, I was a person of faith, the question is going to be, Faith in what? Because basically it’s like a hand trying to grab itself. You’re trying to rely on faith, which means to rely on reliance, which means for a hand to grab itself, which doesn’t work. Faith has to reach out and grab something else, and it is empty of virtue until it grabs onto something. That’s a really important theological point, too, because people will say, Well, isn’t faith a good work? Doesn’t the gospel eventually just dissolve into salvation by works? It’s just one work—it’s faith. Well, that could be said if God had set this whole thing up such that the instrument of salvation was any of the other fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. If salvation was by love, then you really couldn’t boil it down and say, Yeah, love has a moral value to it—just in itself. Therefore, salvation is by works. But because faith is morally empty of virtue, salvation is by that which it grabs, which is Jesus alone.

Matt Tully
Taking a step back a little bit, we’ve been talking about the value of metaphors on some of these fronts to understand these facets of the gospel. How do you think about that more broadly when it comes to teaching people—say, people in your church, in a sermon context, in a small group context, a one on one kind of thing, or in evangelism—how do you balance a clear statement of the propositions of the gospel with the value of using metaphors and illustrations to help people understand what we mean by those words? Sometimes people go one maybe one of two sides: they’re very propositional and it can actually be hard to grasp what they’re saying and what the application is, and then on the other hand people who are constantly spouting a new metaphor or illustration, but they’re rarely talking about Jesus and the cross and the resurrection.

Greg Gilbert
I think they’re both important. I think the most important thing is to make sure that your metaphors are as tight to the meaning of the propositions that you’re trying to illustrate as possible. So, if you’re having to do a whole lot of qualification after you give your illustration, it’s probably not that great: What I mean by that is this; I don’t mean that; if you push it too far it doesn’t, etc. You want to do as little of that as possible. And then I think it’s really important to very clearly tie the propositions to the metaphor that you’re making. So, don’t let the metaphor stand alone and expect everybody to just get it; they won’t. You’ve got to draw out the parallels really, really clearly.

47:04 - The Gospel and the Doctrine of Union with Christ

Matt Tully
One interesting thing that people have observed before—so, I won’t be the first one to note this—is how often our retelling of the gospel, our restatements of the gospel, our summaries of the gospel, tend to neglect Jesus’s resurrection and ascension. Obviously, no true Christian would deny those things as essential and as so important, but sometimes it seems like we tend to forget about them when it comes to how we think about the gospel and how we talk about the gospel. Have you seen that? If so, what do you make of that? What’s behind that?

Greg Gilbert
I see it all the time. We do membership interviews with everybody that wants to join our church, and one of the questions we ask them is to take one minute and tell us what the gospel of Jesus is. I would say 30% of the people who apply for membership at our church leave the resurrection out. They just don’t mention it. I really think it’s probably because, for whatever set of reasons, evangelicals have not thought deeply, or well, about the doctrine of union with Christ. Union with Christ is sort of the key that makes the whole gospel make sense. It’s why imputation works. It’s why Jesus can take our sin. It’s why we can have Jesus’s righteousness. Once you get that, you understand why the resurrection is indispensable to the whole thing. It’s not just an exclamation mark or a fireworks display at the end of the story, as if it could have worked without it, but God just wanted a happy ending. The doctrine of union with Christ says that whatever happens to Jesus happens to us. So Paul can say, “You died with Christ.” There was no time, in my 43 years, that I have died—either with Christ or not with Christ. Not really. So where does Paul get off saying, "You have died with Christ" in Romans 6? It’s because of union. What happened to him happened to me. Same thing in Ephesians when he says that you are seating with Christ in the heavenly realms. No, I’m not. I’m actually in this fairly dark room talking to you. I am not seated with Christ in the heavenlies. So, in what sense am I? Through union with Christ, because he is seated in the heavenlies, so, therefore, am I. Once you get that, and it’s a theological working out of Jesus saying, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” that’s what that is. Once you get that and see it, you see why the resurrection is integral. If Jesus, the vine, had remained dead, then all the branches connected to the vine would have remained dead also. The only reason that we’re resurrected—it’s not just like this pinball machine reward that God gives to us like a golden token. It’s a function of the fact that we are united to Christ, like the branches to a vine, and the vine is alive. Therefore, we are alive. Justification is the same thing. It’s not just a golden token that the Lord flips over to us at a certain moment when we mouth the right words. It is that we become united, like the branches to the vine, to the One who is justified by right. So, because he is justified by right, we, as united to him, are justified through him. All the blessings of eternity are ours only because they are his by right—he earned them all, he won them all, they’re his. It’s like oil flowing down on his head, and only insofar as we’re embracing his knees does that oil flow down over us. So, it’s critical, but it shows you how if you don’t have the resurrection, you don’t have any gospel. What happens to the vine happens to the branches too.

Matt Tully
The resurrection is a gospel issue.

Greg Gilbert
Yeah, very much.

Matt Tully
It seems almost unimaginable that the same percentage of new member applicants at your church—say, 30%—would neglect to mention the crucifixion as part of the gospel. Do you have any thoughts as to why that aspect is maybe not seen as important?

Greg Gilbert
It’s because if you do think of the gospel as just golden tokens that the Lord throws at you—he looks at Jesus, he sees what Jesus did, and then he flips the coin at you. That non-union understanding of the gospel actually works without Jesus still being alive. He doesn’t have to be alive for that to happen. God could look at Jesus’s corpse and see what Jesus has done for you, and flip the golden tokens toward you because of what he’s done. You don’t need him alive for that to happen. It’s just not how the Bible talks about it. It’s a gospel of union with the King, such that it doesn’t work without it. Only what happens to the King happens to you. It’s consistent throughout Scripture. The reason that the doctrine of original sin works is because we are—if you’re a Christian, you’re not really anymore—but if you were, as a human being, united to Adam. And so, it’s right and good, even, for God to impute Adam’s sin to you. So, it’s a very consistent theme in Scripture. The sins of the king of Israel get imputed to the nations, the sins of the nation get imputed to the king. And it all has to do with this idea of union.


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