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Beyond Justification: Liberating Paul’s Gospel

"While we were announcing a conditional gospel, God loved us unconditionally. The repair of the gospel is to simply lay hold of what has been the good news from the beginning." — Alan Koeneke

Douglas A. Campbell and Jon DePue
Cascade Books, 322 pages
Published January 3, 2024

“We have written this book because, at bottom, we believe that God is at stake.” With these stark words, Douglas Campbell and Jon DePue contend that the authenticity of the church’s witness to the good news of Jesus Christ is in crisis and “at the heart of this crisis is our understanding of Paul.”

What has gone wrong? Beyond Justification argues that Christians announce good news that isn’t quite good news. Unhappily, I concur. Our post-reformational heritage often fashions a theory of salvation that requires humans to first name our need for God in order to lay hold of and experience the salvation Jesus offers. The language of “justification by faith” insists that we must comprehend our “failure” at being human before receiving the gift of God in Christ.

This may sound like the good news we’ve always been taught, but at heart it is a contractual exchange that is at odds with 90% of Paul’s writing. Campbell and DePue painstakingly illustrate how our doctrines (both de facto and de jure) run counter to the data from Paul’s Gospel; the result is a non-covenantal gospel that Paul would say is not really a gospel. This contractual “non-gospel” is not only damaging for the Christian faith, but contributes to the contempt Christians have historically shown toward Jews, rendering a judgment against them that disregards God’s election of Israel. This theology has led to Christians punishing Jews for “failing” to share our beliefs, leading to the Inquisition, pograms, the Shoah and the anti-Semitism that continues today.

But Beyond Justification is not a downer of a book! Campbell and DePue believe my hurting heart should yet rejoice. Why? Because there is a God made known to us and this world in the person of Jesus Christ who loves us and saves us. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” testifies to a God who relates to us covenantally, not contractually. While we have been announcing a conditional gospel, God loves us unconditionally. The repair of the gospel is to simply lay hold of what has been the good news from the beginning.

Beyond Justification helps us read Paul with greater faithfulness, and for this reason I will no longer share a gospel that has the word “if” in it. The good news is always “God loves you” — full stop. When we confess our sins in church, we will do so knowing that our corporate prayer is a response to that good news. God’s forgiveness is a reality that precedes our dropping to our knees and lowering our heads. When we head out the door in witness and mission, we will do so without the burden of the “othering” that requires people to become like us.

If, like me, you are a minister charged with offering an authentic gospel message, this book is for you. If, like so many in our world, you are a believer burdened with a need to “perform” for God in order to “earn” God’s grace, this book is for you. If, like so many of my family and friends, you are leaving the church because the good news you heard and believed wasn’t quite good, this book is definitely for you.

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