Al Mohler and the Gospel in the SBC

If you’ve been a reader of mine, you know that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the concept of Jesus as King. Scot McKnight calls this The King Jesus Gospel. The basic premise is that the Gospel (good news) message preached by Jesus and the Apostles was that Jesus was the promised Messiah/King. He was the fulfillment of prophecy, and Jesus brings the story of Israel to fulfillment. Jesus brings the Kingdom of God with him, and offers salvation as part of the package when a person repents and submits to follow King Jesus.

The issue is one of theological categories. I have come to believe that the good news message is about Jesus, and therefore belongs in the category of Christology. We Evangelicals, because we are children of the Protestant Reformation and American Revivalism, have taken the Gospel and made it a message about personal salvation only instead of the a broader message about who Jesus is. We talk about it in terms of what Jesus does for me, what he gives to me, and how I benefit from the Gospel. I get to pray a prayer and go to heaven when I die. This takes the Gospel message and puts it in the category of Soteriology.

Recently, I read a post by Al Mohler on the topic of the Gospel in the Southern Baptist Convention. If you don’t know Dr. Mohler, he is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, and a big presence in the SBC.  In his post we see a soteriological discussion that Mohler — along with many others — wrongly connects to the vitality of the Gospel message itself.

It is no small matter that Southern Baptists are discussing how best to speak of God’s salvation, even as we are fully engaged in the task of reaching the nations with the Gospel of Christ.

This is a good basic statement for understanding that Mohler views the debate within the SBC over the mechanics of salvation as part of understanding the Gospel properly. For him, speaking of God’s salvation is the same as reaching nations with the Gospel. Mohler’s Gospel is a salvation Gospel for individuals. I’m not picking on him here, this is standard issue evangelicalism as it has existed for 200 years.

I fully understand the intention of the drafters (of the SBC document being discussed) to oppose several Calvinist renderings of doctrine, but some of the language employed in the statement goes far beyond this intention. Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will — understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied. Clearly, some Southern Baptists do not want to identify as either Calvinists, non-Calvinists, or Arminians. That is fine by me, but these theological issues have been debated by evangelicals for centuries now, and those labels stick for a reason.

In the next quote, we see why putting the Gospel in the wrong theological category creates conflict.

…the last thing Southern Baptists need, now or ever, is the development of theological tribalism among us. We must all repent of the sin of building a tribe when we are called to serve the Kingdom of Christ. The more Calvinistic Southern Baptists, and here I include myself, are deeply theological and passionately concerned to get the Gospel right.

Mohler is rightfully calling for a congenial and irenic spirit in the debate, and I applaud this. However, you can see in this quote that he views Calvinism as a way of talking about the Gospel. So for him, getting the Gospel right means getting a firm understanding of the mechanics of salvation (Calvinism or Arminianism). The corollary is that if we can’t agree on the mechanics of salvation — election versus free will, etc. — then we will likely be getting the Good News wrong. Because he has the Gospel in the category of Soteriology (salvation), this makes perfect sense for him. The tenor gets raised in the debate because both sides, but Calvinists in particular, see the battle as being for the heart of the Gospel message. In my view, the discussion of election, free-will, or God’s sovereignty in Salvation isn’t really connected to the Gospel preached by Jesus or the Apostles, but is a hyper-focused debate over the mechanics of salvation that sprung out of the Protestant Reformation.

The point of the King Jesus Gospel is that the focus should be on Jesus, who He is, and what we are called to do in response to who He is (see Peter’s sermon in Acts 2). The discussion of the nature of salvation is very important, but it is not connected to the original Gospel message of Jesus and the Apostles. Jesus did not preach the Calvinist good news, or the Arminian good news. He preached the good news that God’s promised King has arrived, and He has brought the kingdom with him.

We Evangelicals have come to accept that the primary message we are supposed to be preaching is about salvation. It is not. Jesus did not tell us to go preach salvation, he told us to go and make disciples. A disciple is a whole hearted follower of his master. Our message should be that of Jesus and the Apostles, “Repent and be baptized for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Now, once we get that message right we can then talk about the mechanics of salvation and what exactly is accomplished when one repents and is a baptized follower of Jesus. A careful study of the New Testament shows that this is exactly what Paul did. He preached King Jesus during his missionary work in Acts, but in the letters he wrote were concerned with many of these deeper and more complicated theological questions that came up among Christians after they had repented and were baptized into the one body of Jesus followers. I take from this that the Gospel preached by Paul was the same as Jesus and the Apostles, and his letters need to be interpreted in that light.

What do you think? If the King Jesus Gospel is right, does it make sense that this understanding can aid in easing tensions over some hotly debated theological issues in Christianity?

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2 thoughts on “Al Mohler and the Gospel in the SBC

  1. Good overview of the recent debates going on and the SBC statement. Your second paragraph is really well worded, and I agree with its point! In a class I took a couple years ago we reviewed American Revivalism and how this so changed our approach to Christian conversion in this country. It is not that the revivals got it all wrong, as many did come to Christ, but balance and perspective was lost….and we are dealing with the loss of perspective to this day. Perhaps the initial results of Revivalism were good, but the long term consequences have proved near disastrous. We need a radical new approach and Scot McKnight’s emphasis seems right on. But I need to read his book for myself.

    • I agree. I think revivalism really set American Evangelicalism off on a strange path. But I don’t know what the alternative would’ve been. Some sort of liberalism? That has been a disaster. I think McKnight and Wright’s approach to the gospel is the right one for correcting some of the missteps in our past.

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