Horton Hears a Gospel

Last night I attended an outstanding lecture by Dr. Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary California professor of systematic theology and apologetics. His topic was “The Gospel: Good News or Good Advice?” He discussed the trend in our culture to relativise the gospel message to our felt needs, and in particular, how this relativistic gospel is vastly different from the true gospel message that was recaptured by the reformers. This is a much-needed message a culture that glorifies the gospel of self-help, life-improvement, and happy feelings. Our culture is drifting closer and closer towards the empty-self, infantile, sensate narcissism depicted so marvelously in Aldous Huxley’s vision of A Brave New World. Sadly, this drifting culture has resulted in a drifting church that is creeping towards a false Christianity that is more concerned with having your best life now than it is with being restored to right relationship with God through the cross. Our drifting church desperately needs the anchor of the true Gospel, which was basic thesis of Horton’s message.

Horton began by discussing various false relativised gospels, such as the gospel of “personal relationship with Jesus,” and the gospel of “make Jesus the Lord of your life.” Horton then proceeded from discussing these relativistic gospels to a discussion of what the true gospel is. He moved throughout the book of Romans, explaining the gospel from a reformed perspective, with a particular emphasis on our need to understand and recognize our personal sinful state before God. He argued we must comprehend our sinfulness so that we can rightly see our need, and therefore understand the good news of the atoning victory that Jesus accomplished on our behalf. He did an excellent job of explaining the doctrine of justification by faith from a reformed perspective, as well as challenging the audience to stand (or maybe “fall” is a better word) in Christ’s grace alone.

I did have few minor qualms with Horton’s presentation. Most of these problems do not have to do with what he said, but rather with what he did not say:
(1) Horton equated the gospel with justification by faith. For Horton, it seems that the gospel is the message that by grace through faith alone in the atoning work of Christ on the cross sinners can be made right before God. I would never want to detract from the centrality and importance of this message, but if I am trying to be faithful to the Bible, I cannot be satisfied that this is the whole of the gospel. An examination of Paul’s usage of the word gospel (euangelion) reveals that “gospel” is used much more broadly than just referring to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Rather, it seems that when Paul uses the word “gospel,” he is referring to God’s entire plan/program of salvation thoughout history, the core and center of which is Jesus’ substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection (see Gal 3:8, Rom 1:9, 1 Cor 15:3-8; see also Mark 1:14-15). For example, in Galatians 3:8 we are told that the gospel was preached to Abraham as “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” The gospel is not simply the message of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Rather it is the movement of God throughout history that reaches it’s climax in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. This is why Paul can say in Romans 1:9 that he serves God “in the gospel of his Son.” Paul recognized that he was now part of the movement of God that has been occuring throughout history to bless all nations. The goal of this “gospel” is the creation of a single people for God from both Jews and Gentiles (see Gal 3:8 and Eph 2:14-18). It seemed strange that Horton did not mention this broad definition of the gospel after he asked the question, “Is God a supporting actor in the movie of your life, or have you taken a supporting role in God’s drama of redemption?” (This was my favorite quote of the night by the way). The gospel is God’s drama of redemption, which we are called to be part of, and of which the core and center is Jesus’ death and resurrection.
(2) Horton did not address the political dimension of the gospel. This is something that I’ve been particularly interested in partly because I’m currently reading Seyoon Kim’s new book, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Many scholars argue that Paul’s proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” necessarily implied that “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” Paul lived during a time when the Caesar was elevated to the status of a god, and pax romana (peace of Rome) was hailed as Caesar’s gift to the world. It is undisputed that certain portions of Paul’s letters (and indeed the reason he was imprisoned on occassion) were influenced by this context. I am currently undecided on the way(s) and extent that this should influence our understanding of the gospel. (I certainly disagree with those who would say that this means we should be against American military actions and American multi-national corporations). But whether or not Paul was using the gospel as a polemic against the Roman imperial cult, we should certainly understand Jesus’ resurrection as a victory over sin, death, AND the evil powers/rulers of this age–and this should be understood as part of the gospel.
(3) Horton did not address the new creational aspect of the gospel. Something I’ve noticed is that people who tend to emphasize the substitutionary death of Jesus tend to recognize their forgiveness before God, but sometimes neglect the new life they have in Christ. In the same way, people who tend to emphasize the resurrection of Christ tend to focus on the new life they have in Christ, but sometimes neglect the fact that they are forgiven. (Someday I’m going to blog on this topic). Both Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection are certainly part of Paul’s definition of the gospel, but Horton emphasized Jesus’ substitutionary death. As such, it seems that he neglected Jesus’ resurrection and therefore the new life that we have in Christ that certainly should be understood as part of the gospel. Part of the good news is that we are given new lives in Christ and God’s Spirit is placed within us to help us live a radically different kind of life (see Gal 5:22). When Jesus was preaching the gospel of the kingdom, He was inviting people to a radically different kind of life–the kind of life that one can only have by being forgiven and made a new creation. This is why in Romans 8 Paul can say that “…the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us…” (8:4). This is not talking about justification, but sanctification–the context mandates this. We are given God’s Spirit, and we are thereby given the ability to live as God intends us to live. And this is part of what makes the good news good! We are not just forgiven–we’re forgiven, made new, and born to a radically different kind of life in which we are not condemned to fail in our sins (as the person does in Romans 7). Do not misunderstand me to be saying that we can attain some sort of perfection. Rather I’m saying that part of the gospel is that we are given a new Source of life, and are able to make substantial progress in personal holiness. Righteousness is not only imputed to us–it is also imparted to us in our daily experience. And this is part of Paul’s gospel and indeed, Jesus’ gospel.

These criticisms should not be understood as indicating that I substantially disagreed with Horton. On the contrary, I found myself “Amening” to 99.9% of what he said. I just would have liked the explanation of the gospel to be a bit more well-rounded. But let’s be honest… He had limited time, and maybe I’m asking too much! So let me sum up by saying that Horton did an outstanding job. He’s a sharp guy and very engaging to listen to. In any case, Horton’s message is much-needed at the present time, and I would commend it to anyone who is interested (and to those not interested). If anyone is aware of a recording of the event that is available for download, I’d appreciate it if you commented below on where it could be found. Thanks!

3 Comments

  • Hi Nathanael!
    It is funny; I was just listening to Michael Horton discuss this very thing on the White Horse Inn yesterday (which is even more funny as I don’t think I have ever listened to this radio show before).

    I would like to join your dialogue in response to your “concerns.” BTW: I appreciated your precision or careful disagreements.

    Re: Horton equated the gospel with justification by faith. I sympathize with your caution here and perhaps am in total agreement. However, I am most hesitant to de-emphasize justification by faith and especially the historical facts of Jesus death for sins, burial, and resurrection. All the more so as Paul clearly defines the gospel in 1 Corithians 15 as such. When I consider your references given to demonstrate the broader reference of the gospel, justification by faith and cross appear in the surrounding context. In Galatians 3:8, verse 6 begins with justification by faith and then verse 13 references Jesus death on the cross. In Romans 1:9 (where there is little immediate context to help define gospel), Paul explicitly explains the gospel starting in 1:16 which again relates to justification by faith (cf. 1:17) which is possible, as Paul later explains in Romans 3:21-26, through Jesus’ death. Regarding Mark 1:14-15, the emphasis of the entire book/gospel points to and climaxes in Jesus’ death and resurrection. I suppose you do not have any substantial disagreement here, at least where I am going with it. In short my question is this: “Would Paul object, as you are, to hear the gospel stated simply as Jesus’ death and resurrection or as justification by faith?” I do not think so (cf. Galatians 6:14). But again, I do appreciate what you have to say, especially as you emphatically relate that the core and center of the gospel, at least, is Jesus’ work and justification.

    Re: The gospel as victory over political authorities. Again, I agree to some extent here as well. However, I have only seen this referenced and read just a bit of NT Wright on the subject. I tend to think he is over-emphasizing this point. But again my study here is limited.

    Re: I agree most emphatically here. For myself, I have emphasized the justification aspect probably to the detriment of understanding new life in the Spirit. The Lord is teaching much more about this recently. Too, I am pleased you teach with proper balance to the still imputed righteousness of God.

    Thanks for the post Nathanael and letting me interact! I trust you are doing well in Christ, as well as for your family.

    For Christ,
    Rick Zaman

  • Big Rick! Great to hear from you! Hope you’re doing well. We should talk soon. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and comment. I really don’t know if anyone reads my blog, so it’s always encouraging when someone comments!

    Re: Horton equated the gospel with justification by faith. Your short question is a good one: “Would Paul object, as you are, to hear the gospel stated simply as Jesus’ death and resurrection or as justification by faith?” I think that the answer to this question would depend on the audience/context to whom Paul was speaking. We live in the most radically individualistic and thus ahistorically-oriented culture in the history of the world. We therefore might need a bit more explanation than your average first century believer might in order to properly understand the gospel. Take 1 Cor 15 for example. Paul defines the gospel in this passage, but not as Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Rather, he defines it as the CHRIST’S death, burial, and resurrection, and states twice that this is in accordance with the (Old Testament) Scriptures. As you know, we tend to think of “Christ” as simply Jesus’ last name, without recognizing the huge historical Messianic meaning attached to this title. But Paul clearly recognized this. Paul taught that Jesus death/resurrection was a culmination towards which all history had been pointing. So if you asked Paul, “Is Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection the gospel?”, he might answer yes, but I think he’d be answering yes in the same way we’d answer yes to the question, “Is the New Testament about Jesus?” Jesus certainly is the central character/theme of the New Testament, but the New Testament is also about a lot more than simply Jesus. Hope that makes sense.

    In Galatians 3:8, you’re correct that justification is mentioned. But the verse emphatically states that the “gospel” preached to Abraham was equivalent to “In you shall all the nations be blessed,” citing Genesis 12:3.

    In regards to Romans 1:9, I’d disagree that there is little immediate context to help define “gospel.” Beginning in Romans 1:1, the gospel is explicitly defined. “God’s good news” for humanity is His plan/program for blessing the peoples of the world as promised through Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). This is exactly what Paul says in Rom 1:1-7. God’s “gospel” or plan for blessing all peoples through faith was promised in the Old Testament (1:2), it centers in His Son, the Davidic Messiah (1:3), and He is Jesus Who now reigns over the peoples of the world as a result of His resurrection (1:4-7).

    In Romans 1:16-17, Paul gives his basic thesis/theme for all the rest of the epistle to the Romans: the gospel. The problem is that we act as though this theme is only discussed in chapters 1-5. But the entire book is about the gospel–including chapters 9-11 dealing with Israel’s role in redemptive history. This historical reality is central to the gospel, and is much broader than simply justification by faith.

    In regards to Mark 1:14-15, I’d agree that the storyline of the book of Mark (and all the gospels) climaxes in Jesus’ death and resurrection. My point here was that Jesus was teaching the “gospel of God” at the beginning of His ministry. It’s extremely doubtful that Jesus was walking around telling people about justification by faith alone. Rather he was proclaiming that God’s kingdom was coming to bear upon the earth, and so people must repent.

    So is it wrong to state the gospel as Jesus’ atoning death for our sins, burial, and resurrection? No…after all, this is the core and center of the gospel. My concern is that we teach people to think historically and encourage them to read their Bible’s with an attention to context–especially when it comes to the Gospel. I’d just want to avoid a shrunken gospel that does not include all that Paul attaches to the gospel. A shrunken understanding of the gospel leads to a shrunken Christian life.

    Re: Horton did not address the political dimension of the gospel. At present, I think I’d agree that N.T. Wright probably goes a bit overboard in his emphasis this. The book I mentioned by Seyoon Kim is actually very critical of the anti-imperial reading of Paul. But surely it’s found in the New Testament to a degree. Again, my concern is that we encourage the contextual reading of God’s Word and that we avoid an ahistorical, shrunken gospel. I think we’re in agreement on this point.

    Re: Horton did not address the new creational aspect of the gospel. I’m glad to hear we’re in agreement here. Since you said that this is an area God is teaching you about, I thought I’d mention that the writings of Dallas Willard have been especially meaningful in my life. I’d recommend the books, The Divine Conspiracy and The Spirit of the Disciplines, both by Dallas Willard. I think you’d enjoy them. But FYI, Willard’s take on the beatitudes is a little bit off base in my opinion. (I wrote a paper on this if you’re interested). 🙂

    Thanks again for your interaction. It’s always sharpening.

  • Thanks for the response. It reminds me of the old days when we used to “discuss” theology and apologetics and always disagreeing, at least a little bit! 🙂

    Re point 1: I think we are in essential agreement here. Perhaps, we are each pulling on the opposite ends of the rope saying we need balance. We need to understand and emphasize the center of the gospel, Jesus Christ’s work. At the same time, we need to present the fullness of the gospel and its significance. But if I could have one last tug to underline the work of Christ as the gospel, I found this thought of DA Carson quite helpful. He says that we ought to be careful that we do not overemphasize peripheral issues. The danger lies in this. Once a teacher, professor, or pastor begins to emphasize a peripheral element even when it has been sadly neglected(and even though this teacher understands the center to be Christ’s work in death, burial, and resurrection), his students then tend to teach that peripheral matter as the center and neglect the true center.

    Re point 2:You are right to say that blessing is good news or gospel. But Galatians 3:8 says the basis of the blessing being promised is that God will justify the nations by faith.

    Re point 3 (Romans): You are right to point out that there is more in the first few verses in Romans that touches on the euangelion. In this sense, I represent a case in point to what you wish not to happen. Oops! At the same time, though Romans 1:1-7 talks about (almost around) the gospel, it does less to define it in comparison with Paul’s following argument in Romans 1:16-17, “the gospel is…”

    Again too, you are right to say that all of Romans explains the gospel, as diverse as it is. But, again the center to it is Christ’s work in His death for sins, burial, and resurrection. To this, again we agree.

    Re point 4 (Mark): No comment. I think we agree.

    Re point 5 (Imperialism): No comment.

    Re point 6: Yes, I may need to look at Williard’s stuff. I have not read anything by him. Thanks. For what its worth, my understanding in this area has been helped by Tom Schreiner’s works.

    It is fun to interact again. And yes we should talk soon. I trust you are doing well in Christ and we’ll be in touch.

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