The two ‘alones’ in the title are not a misprint. There is a common problem in evangelicalism and contemporary Protestant Christianity. It has to do with a frequent and erroneous tenancy to speak of a Lutheran, Reformation-era understanding of the doctrine of justification as ‘the Gospel.’ Usually this is in an attempt to claim that Roman Catholicism, the New Perspective on Paul, Eastern Orthodoxy etc, have a deficient Gospel because their particular theologies of justification are not in accord with Luther’s 16th century interpretation of the doctrine. This mistake is almost always made by Protestants seeking to vindicate Luther’s view of justification over against any person or group that questions, corrects, supplements, contradicts, or critiques Luther’s view as stated in the 1500s. If one critiques a traditional Reformation-era view of justification, one is guilty of being in error—not about a doctrine—but about the Gospel itself. For these folks, the Gospel is justification by faith alone.
I most recently ran into this error in an article linked from The Gospel Coalition by Garrett Kell. The article made some valuable comments and critique about Together 2016 which the author attended. After some balanced and helpful thoughts, the author expresses his concern that a Roman Catholic priest was allowed to participate in leading in prayer at the event. He sees this as an example of compromising the truth of the Gospel.
At one point in the first session, a group of men came on stage to pray, including a Roman Catholic. What he said was encouraging and true. But having him on stage to speak and pray (plus promoting the event with a video from Pope Francis) was a tragic decision that may have been overlooked by many in the swirl of all the encouragement…The organizers of the event seemed to work so hard to bring down walls of division, that they intentionally neglected to be clear about the Gospel of justification by faith alone…
…I deeply believe that the organizers of Together 2016 are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Some dear friends of mine participated in the event today. I do think the true Gospel was proclaimed by numerous speakers and performers. I am certain the motivations of the organizers are to get the Gospel to more people. And I trust the LORD will do great things through the event today…
…However, muddying the Gospel will not help any of this come to pass. The best way to love those who are in error over the Gospel is not to link arms with them, but to help them see the importance of our differences….
Notice that, for Pastor Kell, the Gospel is explicated by the phrase “of justification by faith alone.” This demonstrates that every time he refers to “the Gospel” it is a cipher for “justification by faith alone.” This is highly problematic and I believe in need of serious correction. As orthodox Christians, the only “of” after “Gospel” should be proceeded by a person, Jesus Christ, rather than a theological proposition (“of faith alone).” Yes, our doctrinal disagreements matter. Yes, we should be honest about them. But many (most?) evangelicals today would not say that a Catholic believes a different “Gospel” but that disagreements in theology about the implications and application of the Gospel (i.e. Jesus) do exist between many streams of the Christian Church, including Catholics, Protestants and others.
Though I do not agree with Pastor Kells’ view, I can see how someone could come to that conclusion if they read Galatians and Romans to be essentially teaching what Luther taught, namely: that by faith in Christ our sins are imputed to him and his acquired degree, amount, level of righteousness and perfect law-keeping is imputed, reckoned, to us. They would further assume that what Paul is arguing against in, for example, Galatians, is the issue of the Jewish religion being a religion of meritorious ‘works-righteousness’ as opposed to the pure Gospel of grace. There are, however, many including myself who view Luther’s good preliminary Reformation-era observations regarding God’s grace as helpfully corrected, supplemented, and sharpened by the contemporary work of the New Perspective on Paul. This isn’t really a slight against Luther. I mean, what theologian gets it right 100% of the time? It is to say, though, that those who simply assume that Paul and Luther are basically saying the same thing about Judaism are perhaps in the minority now in the field of biblical studies, with most affirming some variation of the New Perspective or apocalyptic theology in regard to Paul’s doctrine of justification.
Without a doubt, justification by faith is an important component to Christian theology. Yet, ‘justification by faith alone’ alone is not a synonym for ‘the Gospel.’ Rather, the doctrine of justification is a reality that results from and proceeds from the Gospel. Justification, in and of itself, is not the Gospel. This is the case regardless of how one precisely interprets it theologically (i.e., an ‘infusion,’ ‘impartation,’ ‘imputation’ of righteousness, or as a ‘declarative covenant status of righteous’) [the New Perspective].
Justification is not even mentioned in any of the earliest creeds of the church, and it doesn’t become the defining theological topic of conversation, really, until the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. How could the Gospel, then, be referred to as “the gospel of justification by faith alone” with any degree of historical accuracy? In actuality, the gospel includes the doctrine of justification apart from works of the law, as well as a host of other metaphors and realities which are related to the transformation and renovation of the character of believers.
The Gospel is not a theology about Jesus; the Gospel is Jesus. The Gospel is the good news that through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah, the Powers of Evil, Sin and Death have been defeated by God and a New Creation, that is, a new, abundant, and eternal way of being human, is available through faithfully trusting the work of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We who have been reconciled to God in Christ are now called to be reconcilers, agents of God’s Kingdom of peace, righteousness, and love in the world.
Thus, I want to encourage evangelicals and ecumenically-minded Christians to continue the kind of bridge-building, kingdom work attempted at Together 2016 and other similar events. I also want to challenge Kells and other brothers and sisters to distinguish more carefully between “the Gospel,” which is the person and work of Jesus Christ for the life and redemption of the world, and the Reformation-era theology of justification which is a result of the person and work of Luther.