Contrary to Luther and his many heirs, the biblical gospel is not “justification by faith.” Nor is the gospel the Roman Road. It is not “trusting in Jesus’s righteousness alone.” These are not even accurate approximations to the gospel. These concepts may relate closely to the gospel, but when we begin to call them the gospel we introduce confusion, with dreadful theological and practical consequences. The actual biblical gospel is held in common by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians worldwide, even if, ironically, it is not always called the gospel by individuals and groups that claim to be the most gospel-driven or gospel-centered.
The Bible’s most precise descriptions show that the gospel is the story of Jesus as framed by the collaborating work of the Father and the Spirit. The Father sends the Son to take on human flesh in the line of David. Jesus is faithful in dying for sins, is raised, enthroned as king of heaven and earth, sends the Spirit to bring Jew and Gentile together into one people of God united in the Messiah, and will return as king. This is a much wider gospel than mere “justification by faith” as it touches on the whole life-story of Jesus, as well as the Old Testament patterns and promises that frame it. I sought to outline this gospel in a previous Catalyst essay.
At the same time, “the gospel” is not infinitely wide. It is not a general positive message about God, or the whole story of salvation history, or the Nicene Creed, or the Trinity, or Jesus himself. It is definitely not helping the poor or a style of music.
Nevertheless even with this sharpening of the gospel, questions press. If the “gospel” (euangelion) is strictly a story about Jesus, then why is it good news for us?—how does it relate to “faith” (pistis)?—and how does “justification” (dikaiosynē) connect to these other terms? We will seek to outline answers to these three questions. This may just stimulate more questions. I try to answer many of them in Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Baker Academic, 2017). Here I merely hope to provide a starting point.
If the “gospel” (euangelion) is properly a story about Jesus rather than our “justification by faith,” then why is it good news for us?
The gospel is like a prism. A full spectrum of God’s goodness becomes visible through it and our monochrome world suddenly bursts into an infinite variety of colors. Since it is impossible to detail that variety, I will restrict myself to speaking about two ways the overall pattern and play of the light are good news for us that seem most pressing in light of concerns over dethroning justification by faith as the center of the gospel.
First, if the gospel is about Jesus but not our justification by faith, then it might be felt that we are bereft of the saving gift that we need. John Piper, in his book The Future of Justification (Crossway, 2007), expresses dismay over precisely this point while criticizing N. T. Wright: “The announcement that Jesus is the Messiah, the imperial Lord of the universe, is not good news, but is an absolutely terrifying message to a sinner who has spent all his life ignoring or blaspheming the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and is therefore guilty of treason and liable to execution” (86). For Piper, if the gospel does not include our justification by faith, then it is not good news. The wrath of God remains on us.
I believe Piper has allowed a desire to systematize to obscure first-century meanings. The word euangelion was used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to the glad tidings connected to the beginning of a new emperor (or king’s) reign even when the worth of the ruler was uncertain. Consider the famous Priene Inscription of 9 BCE or see also Josephus B.J. 4.618, 4.656 (Primary texts can be found here). When a first century inhabitant of the Greco-Roman empire heard Paul say euangelion, he or she did not think, “If euangelion is not referring to good news of my own personal salvation, then the word has been misused, since my sins stand against me.” What was heard instead was a royal proclamation: Jesus has become king! Jesus, God’s Son, has been installed at the right hand of God and his rule has begun!
Yet, even though I think John Piper has clouded the meaning of euangelion and has inappropriately made our justification by faith interior to the gospel, his larger point can be rescued. That is, it is imperative that we not lose sight of the for us dimension of the gospel. In explicitly detailing the gospel, Paul says that Jesus the Messiah, “died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). So, the gospel proper does include an affirmation of the atonement, even if it does not commit us to a specific theory of the atonement, nor describe how atonement interfaces with “justification by faith.” The gospel announces that Jesus has died for our sins, so it is good news for us.
Second, when justification by faith is removed from the content of the gospel, and the true climax of the gospel is correctly identified as Jesus’s enthronement as king, this is still good news for us. For even if a lexical analysis of euangelion does not suggest a priori that the king in question, Jesus, will actually be beneficent, an a posteriori assessment of Jesus’s kingship shows that he is the ultimate good ruler. For this king Jesus has already decisively defeated his enemies, poured out the Holy Spirit, and begun his wise rule (Acts 2:36; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; 1 Cor 15:25; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3; 1 Pet 3:22). In fact, unlike many rulers past and present, Jesus is not a self-aggrandizing, greedy tyrant. He is a servant king who embodies the wise law that he promulgates (See Joshua Jipp’s Christ is King [Fortress, 2015]). Stunningly he even shares his rule with us (Col 3:1-4; Rev 2:26-27)! He does not horde his sovereignty, but invites his brothers and sisters to become servant-kings alongside him, so that the created order can receive the wise stewardship for which it yearns (Rom 8:18-21).
If the content of the gospel (euangelion) is Jesus’ story rather than our justification by faith, how does this impact our understanding of “faith”?
When the primary content of the gospel is falsely considered to be justification by faith, then how is pistis (“faith”) typically understood today? It is primarily assessed along cognitive and psychological lines and contrasted with works in general. Pistis (“faith”) means “believe that…” or “trust that…,” while these activities are defined over and against “do this” or “perform that” in an absolutist fashion. This misunderstands the way in which grace creates an obligation to reciprocate (See John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift [Eerdmans, 2015]).
As such, the predominate conceptualization for pistis when justification by faith is made central to the gospel is disembodied mental activity. When the gospel is all about my justification by faith, then “faith” (pistis) means I must believe that Jesus’s death for my sins is effective in order to be saved. It means that the gospel announces that I must “trust” that Jesus’s righteousness alone is sufficient for me or I will go to hell. For (post)moderns wittingly or unwittingly influenced by Romanticism and Pietism (in a line that runs from Schleiermacher to Bultmann into the present), it means I must have a feeling of utter dependence on God and God alone regardless of scientific evidence or history. Within this distorted framework, the gospel is primarily about having the right personal mental posture and emotional process with respect to God’s actions on my behalf. Faith (pistis) is all about me as an individual having the right brainwave activity. Salvation means trusting the atonement has been personally effective.
When the true gospel, the story of Jesus’ incarnation, death for sins, resurrection, and enthronement is held instead, how is “faith” (pistis) best understood?
But notice. It is the last part, Jesus enthronement that is so often left out when the gospel is proclaimed today. In contemporary preaching, the gospel is all about what happened on the cross. Or the resurrection might get a brief mention. Yet in the Bible’s own articulation, gospel proclamation climaxes not with the atonement but enthronement: Jesus has become the Lord or the Christ-king! For example, when Peter preaches the gospel at Pentecost, his message culminates with the resounding proclamation, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” (Acts 2:36). Compare Peter’s gospel summary in Acts 10:36. Notice when Paul articulates the gospel, the cross and resurrection are often mentioned, but the whole is framed in light of Jesus’ office as the royal Messiah (1 Cor 15:3) or in view of God’s kingly promises to David (Rom 1:2-4; 2 Tim 2:8 cf. Acts 13:22-24, 32-39).
Meanwhile, the Greek word pistis has a range of meaning that goes beyond trust, faith, or belief to allegiance. Consider the usage of pistis by the Jewish historian Josephus: “The king also testified in writing to our piety and loyalty (pistis) when… he learned of the revolts in Phrygia and Lydia” (Ant. 12.147). Many additional examples of pistis as loyalty or allegiance can be given for the New Testament and related literature (see Salvation by Allegiance Alone, ch. 4). Accordingly, when Paul speaks of giving pistis unto Jesus the Christ as necessary for salvation (e.g. Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9), we can conclude Paul is referring to allegiance to Jesus the Messiah-king, even while he is also speaking of Jesus the king’s loyalty to us.
At the same time, it is wrongheaded—an anachronism—to think that “faith” is primarily an emotion, such as a feeling of utter dependence on Jesus or God. After exhaustively surveying the NT and the Greco-Roman world, Teresa Morgan indicates treating faith/pistis as an emotion is “insecure.” She concludes: “Counterintuitive as it may be to modern sensibilities, when writings of this period portray pistis/fides their interest is scarcely at all in its interiority but in its exterior, active, interactive, and productive aspects” (Roman Faith and Christian Faith [OUP, 2016]: 54). In other words, the (post)modern tendency to define “faith” as an emotion-laden feeling is dreadfully misguided when it comes to the scriptural evidence. Pistis was not considered an internal emotion in the ancient world, but an external relationship of expressed trust or loyalty.
So, “faith” in Scripture is not a warm fuzzy interior feeling of trust or assurance that God’s got me covered, because he is loving—and I trust Jesus died for my sins—and I can rely on him. Pastors need to stop preaching as if faith is mental, emotive trust in an abstract sacrifice. Instead they need to describe “faith” as relationally enacted allegiance toward a forgiving king.
If the content of the “gospel” (euangelion) is Jesus’s story and “faith”(pistis) is best considered allegiance when speaking about what is necessary for salvation, then how does “justification by faith” fit?
The dikaio- word family in Greek stands behind English translations involving justification and righteousness. Dikaiosynē in Greek means “righteousness,” the quality of being legally just or innocent. Meanwhile the verb dikaioō (“to justify”) means somehow to cause that righteousness. Yet in English we must use an extra verb such as “to declare” or “to cause” to explain the verbal action connected to righteousness.
The “by” in justification by pistis (“faith”) describes the means or the agency by which justification is brought about. It involves both Jesus’s allegiance and our own allegiance. How so?
Jesus as the righteous one showed pistis (allegiance) to God the Father by dying on the cross. He did this so that we might then show pistis (allegiance) to Jesus as the king. This is why Paul says in Rom 1:17 that the righteousness of God is revealed ek pisteōs eis pistin (best translated as “by allegiance for allegiance”). When Paul says the righteousness of God is revealed ek pisteōs eis pistin he is saying that it is revealed first of all “by allegiance”—that is, by Jesus’s allegiance to God the Father in living an obedient life even unto death. Second, the “for allegiance” means for the sake of bringing about our allegiance to Jesus the king as we are united to him.
In this manner, Paul’s citation of Hab 2:4 in Rom 1:17 intends both Jesus and humanity in general: “the righteous [one] will live by pistis.” Jesus was the ultimate righteous one. He gave trusting allegiance to God, and he was raised, so he lives. The same is true for us when we are united to Jesus the king and follow the same pattern. We live because allegiance unites us to his resurrection power now and beyond the grave. It is just as Paul indicates, for both Jesus the king and for us in him, “The righteous one will live by allegiance.”
The gospel proper includes Jesus death for sins and his justification, as his resurrection is proof of his innocence. The resurrection proves God declared Jesus “not guilty.” Our own justification is not part of the gospel itself, but rather the effect of the gospel. We are united to Jesus the righteous one by publically declaring allegiance to him as the Messiah-King. Our own justification depends upon on-going union with Jesus the king. This allegiance (pistis) need not be perfect, for Jesus is the forgiving king, but it must be relationally embodied and externalized—for this is what pistis means.
Although it is imperative that the church never neglect the truth of justification by faith, it remains the most surprising false gospel of all. The gospel is not justification by faith. The gospel declares how Jesus became the atoning king. Allegiance to Jesus as the forgiving king is the only saving response to the gospel, and the premier occasion to express it is baptism. For allegiance alone unites us to Jesus the righteous king so that we are justified in him.