Search this blog

First off, let me express my appreciation for John Starke and for his taking the time to read and review Counterfeit Gospels. Aware of the number of books being published each year, I am honored that people would pick up mine and read it, let alone write a thoughtful review. John indicated that he wanted to continue the discussion that my book has started. I’m glad to respond to some of his challenges here as well.

To begin, it is necessary to point out all the common assumptions we share. That’s what makes this conversation worthwhile. We agree on so much that our clarifications, probing distinctions, etc. become a helpful exercise in prodding one another to greater faithfulness to what the Scriptures teach.

John takes issue with the “gospel as a three-legged stool” approach for two reasons:

1. He is unsure why I choose community as a third leg and not personal holiness. He writes:

“Aren’t we expected to be Christians bearing fruit in holiness as much as we are to not neglect gathering with one another (and can’t stools have four legs)?”

My response to this critique is that we should be careful to not separate personal and corporate holiness. The point of God calling out a people is that we would be a holy nation, set apart for his purposes. Too often, we think of holiness only in terms of personal piety and not our corporate witness, our holy lives of love for one another in community.

2. John believes that the three-legged stool approach makes the “gospel story” and the “gospel community” just as critical as the “gospel announcement.” He writes:

“The danger I see in Wax’s solution is that the gospel community and story carry the same weight as the announcement.”

He then offers a counter-solution that makes the announcement the stool itself, with supporting legs (the story, the community, and good works).

The Gospel Community

Every analogy has its limitations, and John puts his finger on one of the weaknesses of the stool analogy. When pressed too far, the analogy could lead to the danger John warns about. People might come away with the impression that the gospel story, announcement, and community are all the same, or that they have the same function. I hope that is not the case, which is why, in the book, whenever I define the relationship between the announcement and the community, I write that the announcement “gives birth” to the community.

The community is not the gospel. John’s exactly right about that. If people misunderstand the stool analogy as saying that the gospel is the church, then I assume that the stool analogy is overriding the book’s clear statements to the contrary, and for that, I will assume responsibility.

My purpose in the book was to creatively communicate the importance of the church – an implication of the gospel, to be sure, but a very important implication. For example, watch how Paul immediately transitions from the vertical reconciliation we have in Christ in the first half of Ephesians 2 to the horizontal reconciliation we have with one another in the second half. That truth is what I’m trying to capture with the stool analogy.

The Gospel and its Implications

On a related note, we need to take care that in our efforts to maintain distinctions between the gospel and its implications that we not neglect the importance of those implications. The gospel is not the church. But the gospel does birth the church. The gospel is not our individual good works. But the gospel does bring about good works in our life. I want to make sure that in our distinguishing between the gospel and its implications that we don’t wind up (unintentionally) downplaying the importance of the implications.

The Gospel Story in Relation to the Gospel Announcement

John is also concerned about confusing “story” and “announcement.” He writes:

“Wax’s solution is a slight counter to some who want to define the gospel as God-Man-Christ-Response or Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration.”

It is not clear to me why my proposal is considered a potential confusing of the story and the announcement, when “God-Man-Christ-Response” does essentially the same thing, albeit at a more personal, individual level. If we want to be technical, the “God” and “Man” portion of GMCR is not “gospel” in a restricted sense. The news that God is holy and man is a sinner is part of the context in which we make the gospel announcement. The actual “gospel” part of the God-Man-Christ-Response is the “Christ” section, with “God” and “Man” merely providing the backdrop.

Like Greg Gilbert in What Is the Gospel?, I am insisting on the proper context for understanding the gospel announcement rightly, even if I am broadening that context to encompass other aspects of the narrative. I don’t think that holding together “story” and “announcement” is dangerous. It seems to me that the Apostle Paul himself does this. When he defines the gospel announcement in 1 Corinthians 15, he makes sure we know (twice) that this announcement is “in accordance with the Scriptures.” He is also able to speak of final judgment as part of what “his gospel declares.” (Rom. 2)

So, with John, I affirm that the announcement of Christ’s death and resurrection is at the heart of the gospel. And I recognize that there may be dangers in confusing the story with the gospel announcement itself. But surely it’s also problematic to make too sharp a distinction between the gospel announcement and the story that gives it meaning. At this point, I fear the distinctions that John is making might possibly lead to a disjunction that is unhelpful. Let’s not drive a wedge between the core of the gospel (the announcement) and the story within which this announcement finds meaning.

A personal example may shed light on my thought process here. I once spent significant time witnessing to a coworker, one of the “all religions lead to God-consciousness sort of guy.” He and I went back and forth on the gospel. Eventually, he admitted that he believed Jesus had been raised from the dead bodily. And yet his explanation of this event was this: God raised Jesus from the dead because he’d been unjustly condemned, and his purpose in rising was to demonstrate his God-consciousness so he could beckon us to learn from him. In other words, Jesus was still just Master Teacher and not Savior and Lord. He got the bare facts of the announcement right, and yet the story he was working from was all wrong. The storyline affected the announcement to the point where he really didn’t believe the gospel at all.

John is right to say that the grand narrative is not the gospel per se, and yet I’m sure he and I would agree that the narrative must be in place if we are to get the gospel right. He sees danger in conflating the two. I see danger in separating the two.

Is it potentially misleading for me to insist on the grand narrative or for Greg Gilbert to use “God” and “Man” as part of his gospel definition before getting to “Christ” – the actual gospel announcement? Maybe. But I think we are more likely to mislead people if we don’t include the back story in our gospel definition. Even if the God/Man portion isn’t the good news in a strict sense, it is indeed necessary for understanding the Christ/Response aspect. Let’s not drive apart what is meant to be together.


With that said, I am grateful for John’s robust interaction with the main part of Counterfeit Gospels. It’s always a joy to think through gospel matters and to write on issues of first importance. May this discussion not only lead us to greater precision on these matters, but also on to greater proclamation of the only gospel that saves.

View Comments


20 thoughts on “Continuing the Conversation: A Response to John Starke’s Review of “Counterfeit Gospels””

  1. Nick says:

    “The community is not the gospel.”


    I think that I would push back against this statement a little bit. I agree that we are not to be going around saying, “the church is the gospel.” However, I think inherent in the proclamation of the kingdom of God is the idea of the restoration of the people of God. This seems to be a major theme in the synoptics and ties in with Jesus’ proclamation that “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has drawn near.” As Scot Mcknight says, the kingdom is God’s “dream society” on earth as it is in heaven. The kingdom is about a restored/new people of God living under the rule of God’s king on earth. The church is the present manifestation of God’s society. So I would say that the church, while not the center of the proclamation, is actually bound up with the proclamation of the kingdom.

  2. Trevin Wax says:


    Saying “the church, while not the center of the proclamation, is actually bound up with the proclamation of the kingdom” is not the same as saying “the church is the message being proclaimed.”

    I agree that the church is bound up with the proclamation, as is the grand narrative (hence the three-legged stool), but I also agree with John that the core of the gospel is the announcement. From a NT exegetical standpoint, that much is clear to me. When the disciples are using the word “gospel,” they are referring to the announcement part. Still, the NT’s hints that “story” and “community” are inextricably tied to that announcement keep me from making too sharp a division.

  3. Nick says:

    Thanks Trevin!

    P.S. McKnight is releasing a book this Fall titled “the King Jesus Gospel”.

  4. Justin Taylor says:


    Thanks for this thoughtful interaction.

    Can I push back on one sentence?

    The actual “gospel” part of the God-Man-Christ-Response is the “Christ” section, with “God” and “Man” merely providing the backdrop.

    This doesn’t seem quite right to me. Maybe you can flesh this out more, but it sounds almost like saying that in the sentence “Justin married Lea” that “Justin” and “Lea” are merely “backdrop” to describing the reality that we were married. If the gospel is—at its most basic—something like “God saves sinners through the cross of Christ” I’m confused why “God” and “man” in this sentence are “merely providing the backdrop.”

    From my perspective, my qualm with the three-legged stool metaphor is that there is essentially no richness or texture to the metaphor itself. There’s only one point of contact between story-announcement-community and a three-legged stool, and that’s simply that you need all three. But the same could be said of a triangle, or a sandwich, or…. I’d suggest that all three “legs” are necessary but in different ways, and perhaps even with different lengths of levels of thickness (if you want to retain the imagery—but then the stool falls over!).

    Thanks again for interacting on this. Your daily blogging is a grace- and content-filled gift to the church!


  5. Trevin Wax says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    The “God” and “Man” sections of GMCR are summarized as: “God is holy” and “Man is a sinner.” (There’s more to it, but for the sake of brevity, let’s allow the summary to stand.) Neither of these statements is “the gospel” from a strict exegetical point of view. The news that man is a sinner and God is holy is not the good news. It’s the bad news that provides the backdrop to the good news that Christ has purchased our salvation so we can be reconciled to God. “God” and “Man” provide the context and inform us of the problem which the gospel (“Christ”) comes in and solves.

    The reason why it’s fine for Greg to include “God” and “Man” in his gospel definition is because we need that context in order to understand the announcement about Jesus Christ. That’s why, like you, I don’t want to make a sharp distinction between the “God/Man” portion of the presentation and the “Christ” portion. Neither do I want to sharply distinguish the announcement of Jesus Christ from the OT storyline that shapes that announcement and gives it meaning, which is why I pushed back about what John sees as a “danger” of conflating story and announcement. We need both – they hang together – which is why both are a leg of the stool.

    Regarding the stool metaphor, I understand the critique of where the analogy breaks down. All analogies do. The point I’m trying to make with the stool is that we need to keep this cluster together – story, announcement, and community. To make that basic point, the analogy works, I think. When pressed into other areas (are each equally important, do they fulfill the same function, etc.), then we need other metaphors.

    What you are saying is the gospel – “God saves His people” – is a great way to summarize the basics of the three-legged stool analogy. God (Hero of the Scriptural storyline) saves (through Christ – the gospel announcement) His people (the community). You need all three components.

    Hope that helps. I appreciate you and your gracious interaction.

    Praying that this kind of discussion about gospel precision will lead to confidence in our gospel proclamation.

  6. John says:

    Thanks for your response, Trevin. Also, thanks for being gracious and respectful, as I hope I was to you. I want to echo Justin’s comment of thankfulness for your daily blogging.

    Can I just give a short response to a few of your remarks?

    You say: “I don’t think that holding together “story” and “announcement” is dangerous. It seems to me that the Apostle Paul himself does this. When he defines the gospel announcement in 1 Corinthians 15, he makes sure we know (twice) that this announcement is “in accordance with the Scriptures.” He is also able to speak of final judgment as part of what “his gospel declares.” (Rom. 2)”

    My take is the that Paul is using his statement “according to the Scriptures” apologetically. In other words, he is making a distinction, though I wouldn’t say he is putting a wedge between the two. The gospel is decisive in bringing people from death to life, and the story or narrative structure behind it gives support and further explanation to the announcement. Even more, the story helps us to understand the truth of the gospel more clearly and live in accordance to it.

    Also, I would say that while there is a corporate element to our holiness (as there is a corporate element to our salvation), we are still responsible, personally, to pursue holiness. Our community can not flee from temptation for us or poke out our eye. At the same time, our church community is a means (an important one) to pursuing holiness, hence the one-another clauses you point out. But we must, at some level, stress the personal aspect of holiness, since the Spirit indwells us, personally, not corporately.

    Just some “unworked-out” thoughts to your response. Thanks, Trevin.

  7. Trevin Wax says:


    I think there is more going on in 1 Cor. 15 than apologetics. Paul is summing up what Christ has done as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, promises which are inextricably tied to the biblical storyline of the need for a Messiah-King to bring deliverance to God’s covenant people. Part of Jesus’ announcement is “the time is fulfilled” – in other words, the climax of the Story is upon us. The apostles carry that notion into their gospel proclamation as well, which is why I’m so adamantly holding together story and announcement. :)

    I agree that personal holiness is a big deal, and I hope people don’t walk away from the book thinking its unimportant. I talk a lot about sanctification in the chapter on moralism and the chapter on the gospel community. But your critique is probably valid here. That’s not a main emphasis in the book.

    Still, I think we tend to individualize texts at times. The admonition for Christians to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” is plural. Paul expects the community to do this together, not just individually. Corporate and personal holiness are tied together. If I emphasized the one (corporate) over the other, it’s probably because I see a lopsided emphasis on the personal side today.

  8. John says:

    Sure there is more going on than just apologetics (he’s doing more than just telling them there are 500 other people who could attest to the resurrection), but that’s fundamentally what’s going on. When he says “in accordance with the Scripture,” he’s telling them to go and read the Scripture and realize that this is part of God’s plan. When we read the stories of Abraham, the history of Israel, and David, we aren’t reading the gospel of Jesus Christ, but stories and figures that point us to Jesus Christ and his gospel. On the road to Emmaus and the sermons in Acts, the OT was used to reveal the gospel and attest to its truthfulness. You could say it is an apologetic of correlation.

  9. Derek says:

    Trevin, thanks for this conversation. If I didn’t say so in my own post (published today), I appreciate how you held together so closely the Gospel Story and the Gospel Announcement.

    I’d like to offer one critical remark here. In your book I felt you were saying that the One Gospel is made up of three “legs”; the “same” stool, but three different functions. I feel like in this post you have retracted that to some extent.

    I’d be happy to contribute in this discussion in some small way if I could by offering a counter-proposal to John’s counter-proposal. The Gospel As Trinity


  10. Trevin Wax says:


    Your insertion of the Trinity into this discussion is intriguing, but I’m not sure how it is immediately relevant to the analogy. Reading 2 Cor. 5:21 the way you do risks imposing Paul’s speech about us “becoming the righteousness of God” into a foreign category.

    Regarding John’s critique, I haven’t said anything in this blog post about the church’s relation to the announcement that I didn’t say explicitly in the book. I make the point (multiple times) that the church is not the gospel, primarily because I am analyzing the word “gospel” from an exegetical standpoint. The word “gospel” in the NT is primarily directed to the announcement about Jesus Christ (life, death, resurrection, exaltation). That’s where I agree with John. From an exegetical standpoint, the gospel is the announcement.

    What I am seeking to do is hold the gospel announcement together within the biblical framework that gives it sense (not just the systematic context, as in GMCR, but the biblical theological framework that includes the plot-line of the Bible). I also want to maintain the importance of the church in conversations about the gospel. The creation of a people of God is everywhere in the NT and is the consistent and necessary implication of gospel proclamation. There is a “telos” with regard to the gospel announcement, and that’s the birth of a renewed humanity to the glory of God.

    I’ve found D.A. Carson helpful in pointing us toward biblical theology in the way we present the gospel. Take this section from The Gagging of God, for example (pg. 502):

    “In short, the good news of Jesus Christ is virtually incoherent unless it is securely set into a biblical worldview. We observed that John Frame has addressed the framework in an atemporal framework, the framework of systematic theology. I have no fundamental objection. However, to establish such a framework while simultaneously tracing out the rudiments of the Bible’s plot-line strikes me as wiser, more strategic… I am suggesting then that a world both biblically illiterate and sold out to philosophical pluralism demands that our proclamation of the gospel be a subset of biblical theology…. What I am arguing is that without this kind of structure the gospel will not be rightly heard.”

    In the end, I restate: the core of the gospel is the announcement, but clustered closely to its proper heralding is the story that gives it meaning as well as the community that the announcement is purposed to bring about.

  11. Derek says:

    Trevin, I’m grateful for your response and pleased that you found the insertion of the Trinity into the discussion intriguing (worth exploring further maybe?).

    I’m not sure what you mean by my reading of 2 Cor. 5:21 as imposing a foreign category. If you are referring to the way I used that passage to suggest a way we might envision the covenant community as being the Gospel, I agree. But that’s why I only used that passage as an analogy. I was suggesting that if the Community lived out the gospel then can we say that in a real sense “we are the Gospel” as we live out the “announcement” even when no announcing is actually going on?

    I feel and appreciate your concern though. I have no intention of minimizing the announcement of the Gospel. But I would suggest that this announcement comes in three forms: the Gospel Story, the actual verbal proclamation of the Gospel and the Gospel Community. As you can see, I see two ways here of speaking of “announcement”: A broad way as referring to the whole triune Gospel (it is “announced” through the narrative, through the actual verbal preaching, and through the living community) and a narrow way as referring to the actual verbal proclamation of the Gospel.

    What do you think of that suggestion?

  12. Mike Bird says:


    The fundamental problem I have with Starke’s objections is his low ecclesiology (sorry Starke if you’re reading, but that’ show I see it). Like too many evangelicals he seems to think of the church as the weekly gathering of Jesus’ facebook friends (to quote Nick Perrin). So of course he’ll prioritize individual over community. I’d push back harder and say that individual souls going to heaven is not the only goal of the gospel, the gospel intends to create a community of the redeemed. Jesus gathered followers around him before he went to Jerusalem. Community precedes Atonement! Atonement does not eclipse the community. This is where Scot McKnght’s book “A Community Called Atonement” is a good corrective.

    Also, “according to the scriptures” 1 Cor 15 is not apologetics. Neither is Paul saying that my syllogism (1. God’s holiness, 2. Human Sin, 3. Jesus’ death) is rooted in the gospel. Rather, his gospel story is an extension of the story of Israel, Abraham, Adam, etc. So “scripture” is not just storied background to the 4 spiritual laws. The story of scripture is part and parcel of the gospel, not just a narrative prequel to Pauline atonement theology.

    Good conversation fellas, keep up the good work!

  13. John says:

    Dr. Bird,
    I wonder if I’m being represented fairly. I certainly wouldn’t say that getting souls into heaven is the main concern of the gospel, but I would say that the main concern is reconciling sinners to God. And since a community is made up of individuals, I don’t see how this conflicts with the a robust view of ecclesiology.

    And when I say that “according to the Scriptures” is apologetic, I mean to say that Paul is showing the correlation or organic fulfillment structure of God’s plan. So, of course the gospel is an extension of the OT story. But I might stress that it’s a fulfillment of the OT stories, rather than just the next step in redemptive history. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is the good news for sinners and it is more decisive than just a good ending to a story. When I want to distinguish the gospel announcement from the story, it doesn’t mean I want to give up the rest of Scripture and just stick with the 4 spiritual laws. It means I want to highlight what the the OT points to.

  14. Derek says:

    Hi John, my name’s Derek. I appreciate your ongoing engagement here! :)

    I’d like to comment on something you said above: “When we read the stories of Abraham, the history of Israel, and David, we aren’t reading the gospel of Jesus Christ, but stories and figures that point us to Jesus Christ and his gospel.”

    I’d like to suggest that it is not either/or, but both/and. We are reading stories and figures that point us to Jesus Christ and his gospel. But more than that, I think the Old Testament meta-narrative is in fact the gospel of Jesus Christ too. At least that’s how I read Hebrews 4:2: “For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did.

  15. Mike Bird says:

    Sadly log comments section are not the ideal points to press conversations. I’m not trying to impute all the sins of evangelical ecclesiology to you. Forgive me if I seem to be caricaturing, but I’m thinking of wider trends I say in churches, books, preachers, and students too.

    Still on the Ecclesiology trail, you are the one who complained that Trevin should have added a fourth stool about holiness, but holiness would be perfectly covered by recognizing that the church is the community of the “saints” (i.e., the sanctified ones). No fourth leg required if you understand the third one properly! Yes, church is community made up of individuals, but what defines it – the individuals or the community as a whole. Too much of evangelicalism says the former whereas I think the biblical picture emphasizes the latter.

    On story and gospel, I think we are in basic agreement, though what you describe as “according to the scriptures” sounds like biblical theology rather than apologetics to me.

    Mike Bird

  16. Darryl says:


    I really appreciate this discussion. It’s forcing me to think carefully again about your analogy. Of course, all analogies break down at some point, but I’ve found it really helpful.

    It seems to me that the legs in your stool all have two things in common:
    -they’re the major themes that run all through Scripture
    -they all center on Christ’s death and resurrection

    Starke writes, “The danger I see in Wax’s solution is that the gospel community and story carry the same weight as the announcement.” I don’t see that danger as long as community is understood as the theme that begins right in Genesis of God calling a people to himself – a story that culminates in Christ who finally accomplishes this through his life, death, and resurrection.

    It really seems that each of the three legs lead to the others.

    I appreciate the concern to confuse the gospel with its implications. Properly understood I believe that the gospel story and the gospel community are not implications of the gospel as much as forms that the gospel take – forms that culminate in what Christ has done.

    I look forward to reading more here. I’m learning lots through this exchange.

  17. Trevin Wax says:

    For those who are interested, here’s a follow-up post that makes the case for keeping the church and the gospel tightly connected in how we think about the gospel:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Search this blog


Trevin Wax photo

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.

Trevin Wax's Books