Friday, April 18, 2008

Mark Dever on "Gospel"

I'm listening to (and enjoying) Mark Dever's T4G sermon on "Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology" which I found thought provoking. I like the way that he actually "gets" some of the challenges to the gospel in the NT. It is good to hear a Reformed guy say that the problem in Galatia was that by adding law observance to the gospel the influencers were implying that one had to become a Jew in order to become a Christian! Since I'm keen on anything to do with "gospel" I'll survey Dever's sermon and add some comments. Dever lists five "cries" which he regards as threats to the gospel and to the sufficiency of Christ:

1. Make the gospel public. Dever critiques N.T. Wright's desire to see the church shape human society and culture including its laws and structures. I concur that the effect of the gospel cannot be confused with its contents, though I have to ask, does Wright actually state that Christian cultural influence is what the gospel is about or even the central mission of the church (no references come to my mind)? Wright is big on social justice and debt relief for Africa, but I'm not sure if he frames it in the terms that Dever alleges. Yet Dever makes a good point by referring to Jer. 29.7, "seek the welfare of the city" that Christians can make a difference in the world in terms of schooling, poverty, and sex trafficking, etc. But then again I wasn't sure on his, "dont' ask me about politics and constitutional law, because I'm just a pastor who is into the cross of Christ". That's the kind of bifurcations that Wright is rightly warning of. I think Dever should have engaged Abraham Kuyper instead of N.T. Wright on the subject of the Christian, the gospel, and the state and the dialogue might have gone in a different direction. To be fair, Dever believes in both compassion and evangelism, but maintains that they are not both part of the gospel. I know what he's getting at, but I have to ask, what do you do with those statements in Gospels (like Lk. 4.18-21, 7.22-23) where Jesus says that "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor"? In my mind this clearly mixes compassion and evangelism together. When Dever says, "don't make the gospel public" I can relate to that in so far as not making the gospel a bunch of public social policies, but the gospel is the public announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord and Saviour, and his lordship has immense consequences for all human institutions and structures.

2. Make the gospel larger. Is salvation only about souls being saved? Again Dever's point is about the danger of confusing the implication of the gospel with its contents. He is right that the gospel is transformative and is not merely a compilation of moral positions and the unity of Jews and Gentiles in one body is a chief result of the gospel (e.g. Eph. 3.6 - this is great stuff by Dever!), but again, Lk. 4.18-21 is a good example as you can get of doing the gospel which does take on elements of socio-economic liberation (I'll side with Colson over Dever on his exegesis of that text). Did the pro-segregationalist Christians understand the gospel correctly but merely got its implications wrong? Dever says "yes," but I'm not so sure. Maybe the reason they messed up the implications of the gospel is because they had an erronneous conception of the gospel to begin with (although perhaps the matter was alot more complex than all of this in any case and it was alot more than "gospel" that lead to pro-segregationist views).

3. Make the gospel relevant. I like Dever's critique of the homogenous church principle. I concur and I think that it is not biblical and has had horrendous consequences in Africa leading to Christians vs. Christians violence. All the same, I've seen the sociology behind conversions at work in a positive way where some persons belong to a community and then come to believe with the community in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, which runs in the face of some evangelistic models. Importantly, Dever is not anti-contextualization, he only he wants to make sure that the process of conceptual transference does not to tinker with the message in order to make it more digestible. He wants to retain the offence of the gospel across cultural boundaries even if it is articulated in slightly different terms.

4. Make the gospel personal. Here Dever is at his best. The true test of gospel conversion is becoming a disciple and participating in a community of believers. Gifts are given by God for service in the local church and disciples should be active in a community of believers. His best point is that a low view of the church can lead to a low view of the gospel.

5. Make the gospel kinder. Dever is right on the money in that God is not a utilitarian in trying to do the greatest good for the greatest number. Dever regards this as the root of the other four problems: a man centred gospel. God's purpose is not to save the most sinners possible, but to bring glory to himself. Evangelism then should be motivated by the quest to bring glory to God.

I found myself enjoying and benefitting from this sermon, several minor points I'd tinker with myself, but his main point is worth pondering: how do we differentiate the gospel from its implications. Also the relationship between a biblical meta-narrative running from Fall to New Creation and the gospel declaration of Jesus' death and resurrection is another good topic of discussion. Food for thought!
If you haven't read it, then can I urge you all to read F.F. Bruce's little book, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament which covers some similar terrain.


Tony Stiff said...

Michael I really appreciated your analysis and interaction. I found it to be very fair and in a way it opens up by example how much of the Reformed world both misunderstands Wright's positions on the gospel and how there is continual room to always be reforming our understanding of the gospel.

Thank you for a memorable blog post...

Ryan said...

Excellent post. I run in reformed circles and many of my friends were at the T4G conference. I'm a little weary of the godlike status of men like Dever, Piper, and Keller among some that I associate with. Clearly these are all good men with a passion for Christ but it still worries me.

Regardless, the real point of this post is to say that I have read Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God and Simply Christian. I am always challenged and stimulated by his writings. I guess I just don't see how Wright's position on Paul or the Gospel is such a threat to reformed thinking. I would love to hear any thoughts you might have on why this distain for Wright exists?

Thanks so much from a new reader of your blog.
Ryan Egli

Beyond Words said...

Thanks for this very fair critique. I, too, have read all three of N.T. Wright's big books as well as his poplular ones, and, to be fair, I own Dever's "The Message of the Old (and) New Testament."

I devoured Wright's books and had to persevere to stay with Dever. So your points of agreement help me in that regard.

There's something so hard-edged and certain about Reformed thinking that disturbs me. It makes the humility I see in Jesus harder to inhabit, in my opinion.

Based on Wright's writings, I now encounter Jesus in Scripture instead of an abstract foundation for intellectual assent.

Every day I'm challenged to take Jesus at his word--he said whoever has seen him has seen the Father.

I would question then, that God's ultimate aim is to get glory for himself in the way we typically categorize "glory." I think his ultimate aim is to reconcile everything in heaven and earth to himself through his self-giving grace, mercy, love and justice.

layitup12 said...

I think it might help to clarify one statement in your first point to alleviate some confusion. You mentioned that Dever made a good point when he referred to Jer. 29:7 "seeking the welfare of the city". But he was not acknowledging people's good use of that text, he was actually using it as an example of how people use it wrongly, and then his political illustration was meant to give weight to his disagreement with the way people use it. In that verse, God is not so much concerned with the welfare of that city for the sake of the city, but he's instructing his people how they ought to live in order to preserve them while they are in exile. He's concerned about his people. Once they are out of exile we never hear about Babylon (or the empire at large)in this way again. Dever didn't elaborate on this, but the point is that after God's people are out of exile, he doesn't care about the welfare of the city in the way that people are often interpreting that verse.