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Keep Christ at the Center (David Schrock)

Darrell Bock’s book Recovering the Real Lost Gospel: Reclaiming the Gospel as Good News advertises itself as a “biblical theology of the gospel” (2).  Beginning with God’s promise to Abraham, he traces the good news of God from its seed form in the “gospel preached beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8) to the fullness of the gospel, the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels, Acts, and the rest of the New Testament.

In his engaging book, it is clear that Bock is seeking to correct the notion that Jesus’ death and resurrection is coterminous with the gospel. Accordingly, he describes Paul’s use of the term “cross” in 1 Corinthians 1-2 as a synecdoche “for all that Jesus’ work brings” (3).  And what does Jesus’ work bring? The Spirit and the gift of a personal, loving relationship with the triune God.  So far, so good: The gospel is a message of the cross and it is also a message of life in the Spirit.

Bock is on to something when he states that the good news has a subjective component. It is not just the fact Christ died and rose again back then; the good news must include the personal, loving effects of the cross here and now.  The gospel is not just a legal transaction for individual sinners; it is a legal and relational covenant-making scheme that declares the guilty righteous and secures the new creation—personally (2 Cor. 5:17) and cosmically (Matt. 19:28).

In this way, Bock is absolutely correct when he states,

The danger in seeing or preaching the gospel only as a transaction is that once the ‘deal’ is done, the believer may have the sense that he or she has checked the box and is done with the gospel having procured the salvation and avoided hell. But . . . this actually only represents the starting point for God’s good news. (4)

This corrective sets the stage for his seven chapters on the gospel.  In these chapters, he argues that Luke 3:16, with its promise of the Spirit, is as important for understanding the gospel as John 3:16, which focuses on Christ’s loving sacrifice for sinners.

Again, I affirm all of this. The gift of the Holy Spirit is essential to the gospel (Gal 3:13-14), and Bock is right to observe that many gospel presentations lack this aspect. But I want to register two complaints about Bock’s corrective. The first is preferential, as it relates to where to begin in a “biblical theology.” The second is not, because as Bock stresses the subjective experience of the gospel, he has fundamentally shifted the emphasis of the gospel, even as he continues to speak about all the parts of the gospel.

First, when Bock states that he is going to do a biblical theology of the gospel, it was shocking that no attention was given to Genesis 3:15. Instead of tracing the origin of the gospel to the first redemptive promise (the well known protoevangelion); he begins with God’s blessed promises to Abraham. While these promises to Abraham form the content of the New Testament gospel, they are enlargements of God’s first promise to Adam.

By beginning with Abraham, instead of Adam, he misses the covenantal argument that Paul makes in Romans 5:12-21.  By and large, this does not change the content of the gospel message, but it does contribute to the stress that Bock puts on reconciliation and restored relationships, as opposed to sin and legal pardon. Romans 5:12-21 nicely dovetails sin and relationship, and how Christ as the head of a new humanity solves both of these.

While Bock repeatedly asserts that Christ died for sin, Christ’s judicial work is repeatedly presented as the minor theme. Restoring relations and meeting humanity’s deepest need become the main points of Bock’s gospel; the atonement becomes a perfunctory step to remove the nasty impediment of sin.

This leads to the second problem with Bock’s presentation—his surprising dismissal of sin.  Here are his words, the very first words in his first chapter:

Just for a moment, forget about sin. Forget about the debt we owe and the prospect of God’s punishment. Those are all important things to consider, and we will consider them soon enough. But for the moment, I want to focus on something else: instead of sin, I want to think about the deep needs that define our humanity. To be human is to be aware that we yearn for things that we just can’t get on our own, whatever our culture of self-sufficiency might tell us. We desire to be connected to something outside ourselves. We long to know why we exist at all. These needs and longings are central to the Bible’s story. The gospel starts with a promise that addresses the deepest of human needs. Where relationships are broken, the gospel brings restoration. (7)

If you can get past the first sentence—which is hard for me to do—then perhaps you can hear what he is saying. In response to those who wrongly make the gospel a narrow, one-time transaction, Bock is arguing for the fullness of a restored relationship with the Creator of the universe.  In this, Bock is right—especially as his provenance directs him to counter the wrong-headed gospel of Zane Hodges. Nevertheless, his correction goes too far.

How can we forget sin and come anywhere close to knowing what the gospel is? As D. A. Carson wisely observed about the meaning of propitiation in Romans 3, “Disputants are unlikely to agree on the solution to a problem if they cannot agree on the nature of the problem” (“Atonement in Romans 3:21-26,” in The Glory of the Atonement, 119).  Clearly, Bock does not deny that sin is a problem, or the problem, but repeatedly in his little book, he shifts focus from the legal problem to the relational problem.

In this move, Bock is joined by many contemporary theologians who minimize sin and make the cross a unilateral expression of God’s love. In the case of others, the penal nature of the cross is lost. Bock doesn’t go this far, but his shift in emphasis replaces the legal center of the gospel with a relational one.  And, as is often the case when the locus of the gospel moves from Calvary to the individual Christian, he makes the gospel about a subjective gift of the Spirit (59), instead of the objective work of Christ.

This change in emphasis is not new, but it is troubling that this leading voice in evangelicalism would present the gospel this way. While I appreciate his desire to make sure that the Spirit’s role is affirmed and proclaimed in relationship to the gospel, I fear that his corrective posture goes too far.

At the center of the gospel is Jesus Christ. His objective work (i.e., his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit) must be held at the center of the gospel, or else we begin to slip into subjective versions of the gospel that depend on personal experiences of the Spirit instead of the rock steady work of Christ.

Ask yourself, should we forget sin when we consider the gospel?  Even in asking someone to consider the larger blessings that come from Christ’s work, should we ever demote the sin-bearing, wrath-removing work of Jesus, to focus on the spiritual experience of resurrection life? Surely, we can hold these two things together.

Additionally, we must hold Christ’s objective work together with the subjective work of the Spirit, and if asked to choose the emphasis must be placed on Christ and his cross, not the Spirit and his blessing. If not, why didn’t Paul preach the power of the Spirit and the blessing of his application? No, Paul preached Christ and him crucified, because only when Christ’s new covenant work on the cross is upheld, does the Spirit come with new creation power to effect what Christ accomplished on the cross.

All in all, Recovering the Real Lost Gospel is good on a number of fronts, but in this most important relationship—between the objective and subjective work of salvation—Bock misplaces the emphasis on the Spirit, when the Spirit’s emphasis is always on Christ and the fullness of his person and work.  He is right to call our attention to remember the Spirit’s role in the good news of salvation, but in the process he overreaches. He shifts the center of the gospel from Christ to the Christian. This may give a shot of spirituality to some who read his work, but in the long run it moves Christ’s work from the center to the side, and thus it weakens the power of the gospel—the very thing that Bock is trying to preserve!

Let us keep Christ at the center of our gospel, and trust that when he is lifted up, the Spirit will bring to effect all that Christ accomplished.

David Schrock (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is book review editor in systematic theology for Credo Magazine. He pastors Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana.  He is a contributor to Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, and has written for The Gospel Coalition, The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and PureHope ministries.  He blogs at Via Emmaus.

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