D. A. Carson | The Gospel as Center
1:42PM Nov 5, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
D. A. Carson
This morning we're very excited to be speaking with Dr. D. A. Carson. Dr. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and president of the gospel coalition. He is an active guest lecturer in academic and church settings worldwide. Dr. Carson has written or edited over 50 books, including the gospel, his center, renewing our faith and reforming our ministry practices. Dr. Carson, thank you so much for being with us today.
It's my privilege.
Dr. Carson in your book the gospel as center, renewing our faith and reforming our ministry practices, you call for a revival of quote, gospel centered ministry. What do you mean by this phrase?
I mean, two or three things by it. One is that an increasing number of folk call themselves evangelicals whom no evangelical would have recognized as such 50 years ago. And this corresponds to a simultaneous diminution in commitments to the gospel ritually understood, ritually put together, so that you can sort of keep doing religion and doing church and have some cliches that descend from the heritage of gospel teaching and preaching, without the gospel actually driving your ministry. So that's part of what I mean. Then a second thing is that in the New Testament gospel is a huge category. Gospel is the category under which discipleship comes gospel is the category that has to do with the whole purpose of the Divine storyline, running right through Scripture and bringing you to Jesus and his cross and resurrection and ascension and so forth. Whereas for many gospel has become a small weak term, where it's what sort of tips you into the kingdom. And then after that the real life changing bits, namely, all of our discipleship courses, actually change your life. And that's a mistake. That's a huge mistake. In the New Testament, the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation unto wholeness unto unto completeness. And, and, and so a gospel centered ministry that is, that is rich and understanding what the gospel is, that restores what really must be at the heart of the the lifeblood of the church. And then there's a third thing I mean by it, it's, it's easy for churches to look around and try to find something distinctive that labels their ministry is different from others in the areas it's part of marketing, finding a niche. But that means that the gospel becomes what is merely presupposed. But what you push, what you focus your energy and attention on is this other factor. And that other factor could be theological. It could be, let's say, an emphasis on eschatology, or it could be an emphasis on a certain form of apologetics, or whatever, or it could be practical, it's it's a certain style of ministry, or a certain form of worship, or a certain vision of politics or whatever. But as soon as, as you emphasize something that is, oh, it has its own importance, but is relatively peripheral, at the expense of what is central, then you're losing the gospel. I often tell my students that they don't learn much of what I teach them. There's just too much material. They don't learn a lot of what I teach them. But on the other hand, what they do learn is what I'm passionate about. Because that just keeps coming up and driving home and, and so forth. So the same is true in a local church. pastors and teachers in the church, need to be excited about the gospel need to be driving back to the gospel all the time showing how everything relates to the Gospel. And then people learn how the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ really essential whereas if the gospel is that which is more or less presupposed, we don't really have to talk about any more because actually, everybody knows the gospel Anyway, don't they something, then ultimately, what drives the church is going to be something else, a passion for diversity or a passion for this social outreach of the church or whatever, whatever, whatever. And so you can actually devolve into a situation where, where the gospel is not overtly denied. but de facto, it's simply not important. And instead of all of that I want to see elevated a gospel driven ministry
in the Gospel as center, renewing our faith and reforming our ministry practices. You and your fellow contributors outlined the theological vision of the gospel coalition of movement that you helped to found in 2007. What have been your greatest challenges and perhaps even surprises in working to foster this movement?
Well, let's start with a surprises. When Tim and I, Tim Keller and I first talked about it, what we're interested in doing is, is investigating the possibility of beginning an institution that would serve as a kind of observable, widely recognized confessional center for a store confessional evangelicalism, we have had those sorts of things in the past. But nowadays, although there are many, many fine evangelical confessional Christians around yet, yet, there, there is nothing that stands out as sort of being at the center of the movement, as let's say, Christianity today did 60 years ago, 70 years ago, as it was initially shaped by Carl Henry and others. And so whether you agree with him on this point at that point was largely irrelevant. People saw that this lay at the center of the movement and engage the broader world and so forth. And when we first invited 40, pastors together to talk about these things, and pray about them and seek the Lord's face, the first surprise was that all 40 came. And then after we had established our foundation documents, and argued and talked and prayed over what to begin to do, and ran our first small conference, where we had five or 600 people, the second large surprise was that close to 80%, were under the age of 40. And the surprises have kept coming in along those lines. It's, it's, I want to be careful not to make false claims. But in some ways that this has struck us as God's timing God's doing. I think that if Tim and I had talked about this and started to do something 10 years earlier, it wouldn't have happened. But in a day and age when it's easy to calibrate the various social and moral and cultural declines all around us, God, it seems to me is raising up a new generation of relatively young people, not simply in the Gospel coalition, but you can see the thing reflected in, in lots of other ministries as well, the impact of DGM and T, 4g, and so on, so on, so on. In fact, in some ways, the coalition has become a kind of network of networks. And, and, and in so many of these acts, 29, and so forth, you find young men in particular, aggressively wanting to promote the gospel, you find that in seminaries, many seminaries are attracting a new generation of young preachers who, who who want to plant churches in, in our cities who want to do multi ethnic ministry, who wants to tackle the Muslim world and so on. Students come in waves, and this is a great wave coming through now. So the surprises therefore have been along the lines of whoever thought this would grow quite this fast. And then the challenges have often been challenges that have have emerged from that, instead of a couple of guys standing at the front and say, Follow us. The thing has exploded, and we find ourselves merely trying to put the structures in place that will help the thing along and try to be wise with stewardship that God has entrusted to us. So it's been really quite humbling. And now the the challenges and surprises as well. Because the internet and so much of what we circulate is done freely on the internet, because the internet is such an international thing. It's not defined by political borders. Therefore, it's not too surprising that TGC like organizations are springing up in other countries. And one of our deep concerns has been to help such movements progress without this becoming another instance of American hegemony. We don't want to start a worldwide organization with headquarters in Chicago or someplace. It's just not the way the world works increasingly.
So we insist that when things start as they have started, for example, in francophone Europe and in Germany, and in Poland and in other countries and with analogous organizations in in Brazil and elsewhere. What we insist upon is that They have their own board, they have their own finances, they have their own leaders and so on. And if in fact, they come to a statement of faith and theological set of commitments that are analogous to our own, then we can work together in all kinds of ways. Sometimes they use the TGC name, and sometimes they don't. That's that's not of a fundamental importance. What, what is of concern to us is that there'll be similar groups in different cultures and language groups and so on around the country around the world, that that have similar commitments to understanding the Bible teaching the whole counsel of God, a high view of Scripture, gospel centered ministry, and so on, so on and so on. And then there are ways in which we can do things together. And so some of our challenges involve how to nurture that worldwide growth, while insisting at the same time that this is not going to be something controlled by the US. So yeah, they're there. They're wonderful challenges actually, and, and the whole thing has been really remarkably humbling.
One of the greatest opportunities that you see on the horizon for the gospel coalition, what's coming next.
But it's really important to see that the gospel coalition is not this particular ministry or that particular ministry. I mean, some people look to the web the gospel coalition is the web or the gospel coalition is the national conference or the gospel coalition is the women's conference or the gospel coalition is the regions in North America, we have about 13, or 14 regions now. Rather, what we want to say is what the gospel coalition is, is about 50. Pastors deeply committed to this vision of strong confessional, gospel driven, word based ministry that, that can talk about anything, explore anything but but but it's grounded on the fundamentals and makes the main thing the main thing it is centered on the historic confessional gospel of Jesus Christ. And then within that framework, these things that we do, are merely ways of getting that vision to be advanced. In other words, we want to distinguish between our vision and our actual ministries. So the ministries actually keep multiplying, and we want to be very careful, for example, not to become a denomination we have no desire to, to jeopardize the denominational commitments of those who are in some ways allied with us or using our materials. But some of our regions now, for example, are getting involved in church planting. And we say, God bless you, if we can help, that's great, but they must not become gospel coalition churches without being the denomination, they have to become Presbyterian churches, or Baptist churches or something else. But but but there, there are spin offs of that sort that are happening. There's more evangelism taking place in the regions. Also at the center, we're focusing a little more attention on how to put our materials together in an actual curricular form to so that we can help again drive toward the vision, namely, establishing the Bible as God's revelatory centuries control and, and, and, and with this a reading of the Bible that sees how central the gospel of Jesus Christ truly is.
Professor Carson, in a recent booklet, the real scandal of the EV angelical mind, choral, Truman argues that the word evangelicalism has become such a broad and nebulous term, that it may no longer be useful in the Gospel as Senator, you seem to disagree, tell us why.
Well, I have a lot of sympathy for Carl to you. And in fact, that's not a new view. I mean, I remember talking with Carl Henry 20 years ago when he was getting to be an old man and 40 years ago when he was still very active and so on. Take who wondered, much the same thing is evangelical now becoming so sloppy a term that it's becoming less and less useful. So I have a lot of sympathy for that view. I, I wish I could conjure up a word that would be instantly acceptable that meant exactly what I what I mean. But the issue is complicated. Part of the issue is, is there another term that can be used? Well as a noun, yes, because you see, he even Jellicle comes from UN Gillean in German a fun good to me emoji is in French, and that is their word for gospel. There is no other word for gospel. And and and when we gave ourselves a name, the Gospel Coalition did not choose the evangelical coalition, though etymologically it means exactly the same thing as the gospel coalition. We chose gospel because gospel does not have in our big city centers as many negative connotations as evangelical does. In amongst the literati in New York, evangelical sometimes means something close to Protestant jihadist. But it's not exactly what I mean. And, and in many parts of the Bible Belt Evangelical, has to do with sort of a social stratum. It's not theologically defined. And and for many academics, evangelical is tied or evangelicalism is tied to a social science definition of, of a certain group of religious people. And I, I understand all of those uses and have some sympathy for them in certain contexts. But I think that we are in danger of losing the word permanently, if we forget that an evangelical must be committed to the Evangel. The Evangel is nothing other than the gospel that it's the same word just from two different routes. One's from a Greek background, one's not DC. And and gospel is still a fresh enough word that we can drive people to ask, how does the word gospel get used in the Bible? What is the gospel that drives you back to the Bible? What What does you Anglet xuemei mean to preach the gospel? And how does it work out? How is it tied to Kingdom? How is it tied to the consummation? What is the gospel, then you turn to a passage like First Corinthians 15, which focuses so much on on Christ coming, dying for our sins rising in the third day according to the Scriptures, and then the resurrection and so on. So the gospel is not you must believe the gospel is about what God has done in Christ Jesus supremely in his cross and resurrection, to transform men and women, reconcile them to himself, and and call out Messiah, his people, both for this life and for the life to come and Resurrection existence in the new heaven and new earth. It's all about what God has done. That's why the gospel is something to be preached, it's something to be announced, because it's announcing what God has done. And then this gospel has entailments in, in how to respond to it and repentance and faith and obedience, and so on, so on and so on. But the entailments are not the gospel. So I think that you can't avoid talking about the gospel. The trouble is that there's not an adjective
that is equivalent to evangelistic that comes from the stem gospel. So eventual, and gospel are etymologically, at least parallel. And then you have evangelistic and Eve Evangelical, as a noun referring to those who hold the gospel. But on the other hand, there's no word that you can use like gospel or, or gospel mystic, or those terms convey nothing, they just sound like horrible neologisms. Whereas, whereas evangelical still has potential along those lines, so long as we take time to define what we do and do not mean by some people don't like the term as well. And I think to some extent, Carl would say that he's one of them, don't like the term, partly because it's, it's sloppy, and it's ill defined, and it means different things to different people that that that's all potentially true. But on the other hand, some people just don't like it because they much rather have all of their commitments exclusively connected with their own local churches or denominations. So that they're Baptists or their Presbyterians or whatever. And, and I too, am denominationally committed. But on the other hand, I do think that it is worth reflecting on what holds genuine believers together across denominations, and what holds us together as submission to the Lordship of Christ in terms of a gospel that is actually redeemed us, as disclosed in Holy Scripture. So I, until another term comes along that that utterly eclipses evangelical and evangelicalism. I think the term is going to be used, whether we like it or not. And then it becomes part of our job to bring people back to what stands at the heart of evangelicalism, namely the Evangel. That is the gospel.
Dr. Carson, I seem to remember I was a student in New York at the time at Fordham University doing PhD studies there and I seem to remember, a sermon that Tim Keller gave it must have been the year to 2005 where he was talking about his frustration with the word of angelical. And in this sermon, I seem to remember he suggested that we use the word orthodox perhaps as a replacement. Very briefly, I'm sure you've had this conversation with with Dr. Keller tell us why orthodox isn't ultimately satisfactory.
Well, in certain contexts that might be Straight doxey. That is it's, it's the glory of God disclosed on the gospel that that is straight and in line with Holy Scripture, that's what is meant by it, I don't have a problem with it. On the other hand orthodox is often associated with Eastern Orthodoxy, Greek orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, and so on, which has a whole theological structure of its own, some of which is connected with Catholicism, and some of which is connected with historic evangelicalism and so on. And some of which is not. So that has the potential for, for for confusing people along a different set of lines. Moreover, in some circles, the same circles that really, really don't like evangelical and want to dismiss evangelicals as a bunch of po dunks, and haters, and so on, sometimes see in a term like Orthodox, somebody who's a mere traditionalist. And that's not quite right, either. In other words, even if you could invent a brand new term, and even if you could invest it with all the things you want, and none of the things you don't want, and even if somehow, miraculously, you could get all genuine evangelicals to agree to it. How long do you think it would take before it was debased? The point is, words get hammered, and, and used and reshaped and abused, and they become hate terms or love terms or tribal terms. That happens again and again and again and again. And there's no point bemoaning the fact, it seems to me that the wise thing to do is, is to call people back to the center of historic Biblical Christianity in biblical terms. And one of those biblical terms is gospel. So I keep coming back to that which the biblical writers themselves seem to make Central.
Dr. Carson, we want to be very respectful of your time, would you be willing to respond to this final question that we've been asking all of our contributors, and that is, despite the tremendous diversity that we see in Christianity around the world, what is it that gives the church her essential unity,
there's so much that could be said to that. It cannot be simply an organization. There's too much historically that puts the lie to that. It cannot be simply a reductionistic. Statement like everybody who confesses Jesus is Lord. Although that was used for years, and still services in the World Council of Churches and elsewhere, the problem is, many people confess Jesus as Lord in some sense, while denying, let's say that He rose from the dead, or denying that he's truly God, or whatever. So that essentials to the Gospel itself can sometimes be denied, even while people make reductionistic affirmations that themselves are our Orthodox. So it cannot possibly be possibly be a really, really simple answer. If you want something that is theologically more connected, then clearly the Church of Jesus Christ is the sum total of those who are blood bought, called out by God, redeemed for every tribe and nation. Powerfully regenerated, and truly justified before God, by grace through faith, something along those lines. Now, that means that, that I'm holding to a certain view of the church. That is to say, not all that is called church is church. Not all that is called Christian is Christian. I want the definitions to get tied to the New Testament categories, that center on this powerful transforming reconciling gospel, which itself is nothing other than the good news about what God has done in Christ Jesus, you've got to work it out. From there, it seems to me and everything else will become a bit reductionistic. And within that framework, then, a part of my work takes me to, to every continent on the globe except Antarctica. And I've met brothers and sisters in Christ in the most amazingly diverse circumstances. And where there is this submission to Jesus as Lord not as a cipher, but as the Jesus who was presented in Scripture, people who love to hear the Word of God unpack because it discloses God to them, and who love to see how the Bible converges on Jesus and his cross and resurrection and ascension and session and return and And the power of God mediated through the Holy Spirit to, to regenerate and transform the significance of what the cross achieves in reconciling us to God in, in in justification, so forth, where these things pulsate in the breasts of Christian brother or sister. In different skins in different cultures and different clothing and different languages and different geographies and so on all around the world, there is nevertheless instantly a kinship. That is really quite wonderful. And that simply cannot be confused with mere organizational oneness, or mere sloganeering oneness.
Dr. Da Carson's research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the president of the gospel coalition. Dr. Carson, we've been very grateful for your time this morning.
Thank you so much. Nice to be with you.