Three Ways of Framing the Gospel: Justice, Justification, or Jesus

In today’s gospel debate, Scott McKnight, Professor of Biblical & Theological Studies at North Park University (Chicago), argues there are three basic ways of framing the gospel:

  1. JUSTICE GOSPEL. Some people frame the gospel through the category of justice. Jesus came to establish a kingdom marked by justice, and of course justice is the big term that includes other important ideas like peace and love and salvation. In fact, for many in the justice camp the word “salvation” is robust enough to be called “justice” or “justice” is robust enough to be called “salvation.” For these folks, Luke 4:18-19 is about as gospel as you can get, and Jesus’ death and his resurrection are all connected to this vision of justice. This means gospel work is justice work; it also means any gospel work that doesn’t entail justice is not gospel work. Some in this camp, of course, are so justice and so “social justice” that it seems like nothing more than political activism or the worst caricature of the social gospel. But a charitable reading of justice gospelers reveals that they do believe Jesus’ death forgives sins (I find few in this camp care much for substitutionary atonement but they are not denying atonement in the death of Jesus; to be sure, some are little more than Abelard or even Girard). Justice gospelers today tend toward political activism, the summons for more Christians to see compassion for the poor and better laws and peace in the world, and toward a kingdom language. One of the more recent developments for justice gospelers is the category of empire, and they see a conscious and consistent anti-empire agenda at work in Jesus and in the apostles. They like this expression: “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not” . . . . Overall I am utterly convinced as I can be that Jesus intended to create a just society, and I’ve written about this in most of my books: but I am just as convinced that the gospel is not justice per se. Justice is the inevitable result and implication of the gospel but not the same as the gospel.
  2. JUSTIFICATION GOSPEL. Some people frame the gospel through the category of justification. This is the traditional Reformation category, and Luther famously said that the church stands or falls with justification by faith. (Ahem, Jesus spoke to this and he said it stood or fell with the confession of Peter, namely, that Jesus was Messiah/King. I digress.) For justification gospelers, the gospel is soterian and that soteriology, or doctrine of salvation, can all be summed up in and through the term justification. The essence is that we are sinners and guilty before God and God must deal in a legal courtroom kind of way with our status. The good news is that God forgives us through Jesus and we can become justified, or declared in the right, through the death and resurrection of Christ. (Justification gospelers don’t emphasize resurrection enough, sometimes revealing almost no interest. Most emphasize a penal substitution theory of atonement and see divine satisfaction as the primary act of God at work in making justification possible. Many are also double imputation folks. Not all, as others emphasize union with Christ.) Justification gospelers preach a soterian gospel . . . They tend to be at odds with justice gospelers, just as justice gospelers are at odds with justification gospelers. Tim Keller is on record saying justification leads to justice, but I don’t think the logic is necessary and it is too obvious to me that far too many justification gospelers inherently react to the justice gospelers because they don’t think justification leads inevitably to justice.
  3. JESUS GOSPEL. The gospel, I contend, is not properly framed as injustice becoming justice (though clearly this happens) or as the unjust becoming just/justified (though clearly this happens too). And the debate between these two folks proves an inability to convince one leads to the other compellingly. There’s a better way . . . Some people frame the gospel through the category of Jesus. As I argue in The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, [the] fundamental category for the gospel in Jesus and the apostles is the Story of Jesus. Just look at 1 Corinthians 15, just look at the gospeling sermons in Acts, and then just take a good look at why the first four books are called THE GOSPEL according to (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). What drove them was the Story of Jesus as the completing/fulfilling Story of God’s work in this world, beginning with Adam and then taken up into Abraham.

McKnight concludes:

There are three J’s in the gospel debate. The right J is Jesus. If you preach Jesus as the gospel you will get both justification and justice. If you preach justification you may get Jesus (but I see only some of Jesus and not the whole of Jesus) and you may get some justice (I’m skeptical on this one). If you preach justice you may get some justification (but I’m skeptical on enough justice gospelers ever getting to justification) and you get Jesus, but again only some of Jesus (often only his teachings, his life, and his life as an example). If you preach the Jesus of Paul’s gospel (1 Cor 15) or the apostolic sermons in Acts or the gospel of the Gospels, you get all of Jesus and all of Jesus creates both justice and justification. 


  • White Horse Inn: Michael Horton reviews The King Jesus Gospel
  • Jesus Creed: Scot McKnight replies to Horton’s review

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