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.