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John Piper is proud to stand next to N.T. Wright in proclaiming the cosmic scope of the gospel (88). But Piper believes that Wright has missed the essence of what makes the lordship of Christ good news – the fact that individual sinners can be forgiven because of Christ’s work on the cross.

In perhaps the most illuminating misstep in his argument, Piper quotes from 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, hoping to show that the crucial three words (that Jesus was crucified for our sins) are the climax and essence of the good news (89).

Unfortunately, Piper stops at verse 3! The gospel that Paul received and that was preached to the Corinthians (by which salvation comes [v. 1] – notice in this chapter that “the gospel” and “salvation” are not equivalents for Paul, as Wright contends) climaxes not with the three words “for our sins,” but with the three verses that Piper fails to mention – three verses that show the climax and crucial part of “the gospel” as being the Resurrection of Christ. (In fact the entire chapter is devoted to breaking down “this gospel” in terms of the resurrection.)

Piper goes on to say:

“Without at all insisting that Paul always announced the truth of justification in every gospel message, I would still want to insist from Paul’s own words that his announcement of the death and resurrection and lordship of Jesus became good news in Paul’s preaching precisely because in some way he communicated that believing in this Christ brought about justification (90).”

With all due respect to John Piper, I’m afraid he is contradicting himself. If justification is the crucial aspect of the “gospel,” how can Piper say that Paul did not announce it in every gospel message? According to Piper, a sermon without the doctrine of justification does not qualify as preaching “the gospel.”

I believe that Piper’s thorough scholarship has already alerted him to the fact that many of the sermons in Acts proclaim Christ’s resurrection and lordship without articulating the doctrine of justification. Piper doesn’t want to go so far as to say that the apostles are not preaching “the gospel,” so he adds qualifying statements like the one quoted above.

Wright’s insistence on seeing the “gospel” message as a message about Jesus for us is more exegetically plausible. The “gospel” as defined carefully in the New Testament is not primarily about how an individual gets saved. The gospel is a specific announcement about the crucified and risen Christ that then brings salvation of individual sinners.

If Piper is right (that “justification” makes the “gospel” good news), why didn’t the early Church call Paul’s epistles “Gospels?” After all, the epistles more clearly articulate and define justification than do Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Why did we begin calling the biographies of Jesus “Gospels,” if not because “gospel” meant “a message about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and lordship?”

Let’s ask the question another way: what is the doctrine that if not preached in a sermon disqualifies the sermon from being a “gospel message?” I would argue that if Jesus is not preached as the crucified and risen Lord of the world in a gospel presentation, then the presentation ceases to be “gospel.” The message might be about personal forgiveness or a spiritual experience, but if it does not contain Paul’s “gospel,” then we have preached conversion instead of Christ.

In an ironic twist, I believe Piper (who has worked admirably for decades as a preacher and pastor who advocates a radical God-centeredness) is defining “the gospel” in a way that is less God-centered than Wright’s! Wright keeps Jesus Christ and his rule front and center, and he will not allow anything, even our precious personal salvation upstage Jesus as the main part of the gospel message.

Now… should I be attacked for not believing in justification, let me say a couple of things in conclusion. If someone asked me to define “the gospel” the way Paul would define the gospel, I would be inclined to state very simply that the gospel is this: “Jesus of Nazareth has been crucified for our sins has been raised from the dead and is the Lord of the world.”

If someone asked me to share “the gospel,” then I would tell a longer story. Put quite simply, “the gospel” is not good news or bad news (or anything but puzzling news at all) unless it comes within an overarching narrative.

I would start at Creation. I would mention the Fall of humans into sin and slavery to evil. I would tell the story of God’s chosen people Israel and the promises for deliverance and restoration. I would briefly tell the story of Jesus – culminating in his death and resurrection. I would proclaim “the gospel” of Jesus’ resurrection and lordship within this overarching narrative. Then, I would bring in the doctrine of justification, urging the person to trust solely in Christ for salvation and forgiveness of sins and to become part of God’s people, people who are saved from God’s wrath and called to be agents for new creation in the world we live in.

Tomorrow, we look at Wright’s view of justification and what determines our right standing before God.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog

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17 thoughts on “Future of Justification 10: The Gospel is "Jesus is Lord"”

  1. Trevin, I think you are doing an excellent job presenting this book! I was thinking about reading it myself, but don’t really think it’s necessary anymore, after reading your detailed analysis.

  2. trevinwax says:

    Hi Vitali,

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. I highly recommend you pick up the book though. I am able to only summarize the arguments of these two men. Piper and Wright must be read for themselves if one is to capture the nuances of their debate.

  3. Jeremiah says:

    Trevin, thanks for blogging Piper’s book…Btw, my way of sharing gospel is like yours!!!

  4. Rob says:

    I’m inclined to agree with you that Piper’s “gospel” is less God-centered than Wright’s. I think both men are presenting the same Christ, but Piper’s presentation (although he would be, I assume, astonished at the suggestion) is more anthropocentric in perspective and Wright’s is more theocentric.

  5. Jared says:

    The only hitch I could foresee in this giddy-up is that “Jesus is Lord” is only good news to those who already anticipate with hope the breaking in of God’s kingdom and/or understand that Christ’s Lordship entails justification. For those who do not, “Jesus is Lord” can be quite terrifying, especially if you either believe sins deserve wrath or prefer another lord.

  6. Jared White says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article, Trevin, and was very excited by your presentation in the final four paragraphs. I’m not familiar with either Piper’s or Wright’s work, so it’s been very interesting hearing your take on the debate. Certain aspects of this are very much related to the conversation taking place in charismatic circles over the gospel of salvation vs. the gospel of the kingdom. I lean towards the latter in my theology, as I believe personal, individual salvation is simply a gateway into a broader view of the redemptive work of Christ.

  7. Jared (in post #7),

    The news that “Jesus is Lord” is objectively good. In other words, it is good news regardless of whether one accepts it as good new or not. As Trevin articulated in his post, even Piper’s definition of the gospel is not “good news” for everyone as it includes the demand of repentance.

  8. Nick says:

    I agree with much you have said. But don’t you think you are under exegeting 1 Cor 15? It seems to me that it is both forgiveness of sins and the resurrection which are of first importance to the gospel. I am looking forward to see D.A. Carson at People’s Church, Toronto, Ontario and his lecture’s, “The Cross and Resurrection: Matters of First Importance.”

  9. Trevin Wax says:

    I am not denying or downplaying the importance of the personal results that stem from the gospel message. “For our sins” is not necessarily a statement on justification (though Piper tries to make “for our sins” become that).

    I do not want to underexegete or overexegete those three words.

    For the most part, when Paul speaks of the “gospel” he means the objective announcement of Jesus’ lordship over creation. Yet, that objective truth has subjective results for those who hear its message and believe.

  10. Nick says:


    It seems absolutely clear in this passage that Christ dying for our sins is an essential component of the proclamation of the Gospel. I know you’ve read it a hundred times so can you tell me how Paul is telling us that Christ dying for our sins is “the personal result that stems from the gospel message” and not a part of that message. It seems to me that Paul is essentially saying, “I am reminding you of the gospel I preached to you which is the fact that Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead.” The matters of first importance are both “Christ dying for our sins” and “Christ rising from the dead”. Is one gospel and one not?

  11. trevinwax says:

    Hi Nick!

    Thanks for your comment.

    I hesitate to argue against “for our sins” being part of the good news. It obviously is good news for sinners like you and me. In telling the biblical story which includes the gospel of Jesus’ lordship, it would be a mistake to leave out the personal redemption that Jesus’ death brings us. So I am not setting up a false division here. Neither am I trying to promote a minimal gospel.

    On this point (Wright versus Piper) however, I believe Wright has the better case that what Paul means by “the gospel” is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship. Let me elaborate again…

    If “for our sins” is an essential component of what Paul means by “the gospel” (royal announcement), we would expect to find these three words every time he uses the word “gospel;” would we not? But alas, that is not the case.

    But in Romans 1, we see the gospel is “the gospel … concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David … and set apart as Son of God in power by the resurrection of the dead.”

    The gospel concerns Jesus. When Paul uses the word “gospel,” he is giving us a message about Jesus. Of course, that message is for us… that’s why it’s no surprise that a phrase that gives theological meaning to a historical event (Christ crucified “for our sins”) would find its way into Paul’s discourse. That also explains why Paul does turn to justification at the end of his sermons as he is calling people to believe in the gospel. Paul effortlessly moves from gospel proclamation (Jesus is Lord) to gospel implication (repent and believe), and so should we.

    Even in Acts 13 (which Piper points out) though, the “gospel” itself is about the resurrection of Jesus and his enthronement.

    But let’s look back at the Old Testament. What does the gospel refer to there? “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of them who bring good news… who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.'” Sounds like proclaiming the gospel is proclaiming God’s reign to me.

    Likewise, Jesus’ own message, the “gospel” he preaches in Mark 1:15 is about the Kingdom coming (and he is the king).

    I hope this clarifies the point a bit. Thanks for the feedback!

  12. Nick says:

    Thank you. I’ve got lots to think about!

  13. Marcus says:

    Hi Trevin,

    Thanks for posting on Piper’s book. It gave me good food for thought. I’ve been wrestling back and forth with Wright’s and Piper’s definition of gospel for a few months now. I think you make excellent points but there is one sticking point for me. How do you explain Paul’s comment in Galatians 1 that implies that the Galatian agitators are preaching another gospel? The Judaizers’ message doesn’t seem to challenge Jesus resurrection or lordship, it seems to be about how to get (or stay) saved. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  14. Trevin Wax says:

    Hi Marcus,

    Great question! The Galatian agitators were definitely preaching a works-righteousness that undercut the gospel of grace that Paul was preaching. Does the fact that Paul says they are preaching another gospel mean that justification by faith alone IS itself the gospel? I don’t think so. (Don’t get me wrong though. I believe that justification by faith alone is integral to a right understanding of what Christ has done. It’s just that I don’t believe Paul equates justification with “the gospel.”)

    So what is the “other gospel” Paul is referring to? Taking the context of Galatians into consideration, I would say that the works-righteousness that the agitators were preaching was actually undercutting the gospel proclamation that Jesus is Lord OF ALL. By adding works to the picture, the Galatian agitators were saying, “Jesus is Lord – but only of the Jews, and if you are to believe in his gospel, you have to do this and this and this…” That message not only contradicts justification by faith alone, but also the gospel that Jesus has died for our sins and is Lord of the whole world.

    Notice that in Chapter 2, the reason that Paul calls down Peter is because he refuses to eat with the Gentiles – an action that calls into question both justification by faith and the gospel proclamation that Jesus is Lord of Jew and Gentile alike.

  15. Nick says:

    Hey Trevin,

    I’m just reading over your posts. I noticed our discussion here. Just so you know, I thought about it and I tend to agree with you brother! ;)

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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