What if John wrote first?

In Star Wars: A New Hope, the character Han Solo was confronted by an intimidating bounty hunter, Greedo. In the original cut of the film, Han shot Greedo before things could get out of hand. This fit with the anti-hero arc, Han was the scoundrel with a heart of gold. In later recuts of the film, Greedo shot first. And so in nerd circles, people lament, ‘Han Shot First.’

And this raises an interesting question, what if John wrote first? I’m actually of the opinion that Matthew’s gospel was written first, but Paul Anderson (among the few scholars who read and digested J.A.T. Robinson’s The Priority of John) mentions a startling line of argument:

[I]f John was produced in an isolated region, it may be easier to infer that three traditions [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] might have overlooked John than to believe that John has overlooked all three of the Synoptic traditions.

The rest of the paper is okay. If that idea catches on, it would be great to hear Bible scholars lament the death of their elaborate source critical theories, “Mark wrote first!”

Jordan Peterson and the Psychology of Redemption

Psychology of God Belief

In his excellent talk on the psychology of redemption in Christianity, Dr. Jordan Peterson explains how the Christian vision of God creates balance in the people’s minds. It does do by allowing for them to pursue an ideal without treating their own personal interpretations or reductions of that ideal as absolute in themselves. How? Because God is beyond our understanding, except as the highest possible good.

A New Testament Theological Take

What Peterson’s take might mean for the Christian is that our vision of God provides an ideal to pursue. But what idea? Primarily, it is that of the virtue revealed in Jesus and his teachings. Secondly, it is the Old Testament, interpreted through Christ. Finally, the virtue evident through the study of nature. But, since God and even the highest human character possible are ultimately incomprehensible, conversations with truth-telling as the goal must occur so that we can make the course corrections necessary to attain to the ideal. This is why Paul can say that he presses onward toward the goal, but also that he does not think he has attained to the goal of perfect participation in God or in the character of Jesus Christ.

The Jordan Peterson Video:

Here’s my own take on that concept:

Here are some of the relevant passages of Scripture:

Matthew 6:25-34 ESV “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (26) Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (27) And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (28) And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, (29) yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (30) But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (31) Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ (32) For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (34) “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.


1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (3) If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (4) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant (5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; (6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (8) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (9) For we know in part and we prophesy in part, (10) but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (11) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (12) For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13) So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.


Hebrews 1:1-4 ESV Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, (2) but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (3) He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (4) having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.


Philippians 3:12-14 ESV Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (13) Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

On Weekly Church Attendance and the Gospel in the New Testament

Why Do People Not Go to Church?
It is very easy to find church attendance unpleasant.

I have enjoyed going to church services since my early teenage years, but mostly because my bent has always been toward the philosophical and sermons offer (when done well) a great deal of food for thought.

But I still remember being in high school and finding the singing, the hugs, and the other bits unpleasant. Some people feel that being there Sunday morning is a waste of time, some would rather watch sports, do chores, sleep off a hangover, or make money on Sunday.

Another reason not to go is if church tries to be “cool.” When I’m around people faking being cool I feel embarrassed for them. It’s worse when it is a person doing something that is categorically weird (giving a lecture on a weekend).

Why Might Christians Not Go to Church?
There is an even deeper issue many of us have with church attendance though. Many times the way that the good news of Jesus is explained excludes the church from being a part of the deal. Does this sound familiar:

If you want to go to heaven when you die, then admit to God that you’re sinful, believe that Jesus died for you, and ask God to forgive you. You don’t need to do special good works, you don’t need a priest or church to say so, you’re a Christian.

Now, I have no doubt that the Lord works to redeem us silly creatures with a very minimal or in some cases highly inaccurate understandings of God and God’s will. The point of John 3:16 is that God did everything reasonable, necessary, and possible to make sure that sinners would experience eternal life.

But, the particular way of summarizing the good news of Jesus in question makes church attendance and membership seem utterly peripheral. Thus, if it is boring, then why even go? There is no warrant to treat it as a duty. On top of that, many evangelical teachers claim that duty and ideals are bad things! How could people not be confused about going to church? If church attendance isn’t a duty, isn’t related to being a Christian at all, and has no entertainment value, then why go?

Last Minute Thought: Some people may avoid church due to pangs of conscience like somebody off the wagon who avoids his NA meetings.

The Gospel Message and the Church Community
On the other hand, let us look more clearly at the way the gospel authors summarize Jesus’ message:

Mark 1:14-15 ESV  Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God,  (15)  and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Jesus’ version of the gospel is that God’s kingdom is at hand. This phrase means a lot when you dig into the rest of Mark’s gospel, but for now, let’s focus on one reality related to kingdoms. To look at it requires two questions: Who is in charge of a kingdom? Who lives in a kingdom? If you answered

  1. King
  2. People

then you are correct.

Jesus’ very message entailed that there would be a community of people who lived under God’s rule and reign in Israel and indeed, in the whole world. To believe the gospel message that Jesus preached is to believe oneself a citizen of God’s kingdom and thus, in later New Testament lingo, a member of the church.

Grace and Form
So evangelicals who are zealous to explain how God saves us by grace and not meritorious works, need to learn to explain that the message of grace is given in order to create a community.

Here is a concept that might help. Grace, like any other gift must be received as it is. Grace has form.

To Illustrate: If I am offered a gift card for a burger, and I go in and demand free lasagna, I have misapprehended the form of the gift. To receive the free gift, I must receive that gift. Similarly, if I try to accept God’s grace of salvation, but do not accept the form in which it is offered (entrance into a community), then am I really receiving it? God, in his graciousness, forgives us of many misunderstandings, but if God’s grace is meant to make a “people of his own possession, zealous for good works (Titus 2:14),” then receiving God’s grace without being part of such a community seems like a questionable proposition. Surely it can and has been done, but why try?

Many popular preachers define grace as “unmerited forgiveness.” A better definition of it is “unmerited gift.” Even then, this short-circuits its meaning in ancient culture. Grace by definition was offered freely, but receiving grace came with an expectation of loyalty or at least of thanksgiving in return (see DeSilva Honor, Patronage Kinship, and Purity). As Dallas Willard would say, “Grace is opposed to earning not to effort,” or in this case grace is opposed to earning, not to responding and receiving.

Now, the form of grace  that Jesus offers in the New Testament is an invitation to be Jesus’ disciple with Jesus’ people. One could also say that grace is offered as an invitation to believe Jesus’ message because it comes from Jesus, who is completely trustworthy. So, to receive the grace Jesus offers is to receive Jesus. To receive the message of God’s kingdom is, by implication, to accept the invitation to become citizens of God’s kingdom or members of God’s family.

Reframing the gospel message to include what Jesus and the gospel authors say about the gospel is very important for helping people to understand why going to church is important. Church attendance is important because we believe the gospel message. The gospel message offers entrance into a kingdom filled with God’s people. No people, no kingdom; and no kingdom means, no gospel. The people of God meet for church services every week to offer praise to God and to build one another up. The church is and does more than weekly services. But the church is not less than it’s services. To believe the gospel is to agree that barring impossible circumstances, we will be with God with his people regularly.

Advice Sermons and the Gospel

Below is an exercise, not in critiquing the author’s post, per se, but rather critiquing a set of assumptions he makes that lead, inexorably, to the material in his post. His assumptions about what constitutes gospel, what it means to preach Christ, and what “the law” is in the New Testament are disputable on the grounds of reading a few more paragraphs of the very book of the New Testament he quotes the most (Romans). 

In a post titled, “How your preaching might increase sin in your church,” author Jared Wilson makes a partially great point:

When we preach a message like “Six Steps to _______” or any other “be a better whatever”-type message — where the essential proclamation is not what Christ has done but what we ought/need to do — we become preachers of the law rather than Christ. (And it is not rare that this kind of message with barely any or no mention of Christ(!) at all gets preached.)

He’s right that sermons that never mention Christ are spiritually dangerous. The point of Christian sermons is, ultimately, the glorification of God the Father in Christ among the people of God. He correctly diagnoses the problem of a great deal (certainly not all, hopefully not even most) of the practical preaching in our churches. But, he’s wrong on several other counts:

  1. He misunderstands (or miscommunicates) the distinction between the Law and Gospel in the New Testament.
  2. He seems to misunderstand the content of the gospel in the New Testament.
  3. He takes the phrase, “preaching Christ” as a cipher for preaching the five solas of the reformation.

What do I mean?

He misunderstands (or miscommunicates) the distinction between the Law and Gospel in the New Testament. 

I want to be charitable here, but here’s what he says:

Preaching even a “positive” practical message with no gospel-centrality amounts to preaching the law. We are accustomed to thinking of legalistic preaching as that which is full of “thou shalt not”s, the kind of fundamentalist hellfire and brimstone judgmentalism we’ve nearly all rejected. But “do” is just the flipside to the same coin “don’t” is on. That coin is the law. And a list of “do”‘s divorced from the DONE of the gospel is just as legalistic, even if it’s preached by a guy in jeans with wax in his hair following up the rockin’ set by your worship band.

This is not quite right. Preaching positive sermons amounts to giving advice, which is a useful skill for a gospel preacher to have (Paul advises people to remain single prior to/during a famine). But giving positive advice is not the same thing as preaching “law.” Paul himself contrasts law and gospel praeching by contrasting the mode of justification preached: by faith or by works.

You’re preaching “law” when you’re telling Christians to live as though Moses’ law were still ultimate rather than fulfilled. On the flip side, I suppose you’d be preaching law in a derivative sense if you told Christians to live up to some standard (aside from those set by Christ) to be justified. In other words, “dos and don’ts” are not “the law.” In any case, Paul and Jesus both note that there is a right way to preach “the law.”

Mat 5:17-19 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (18) For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (19) Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Note: Jesus says to do the commands of which he speaks (probably the fulfillment of the law he gives in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount), not just preach them to show people their sin.


Rom 3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Rom 8:3-4 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (4) in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Weird thing to note, Wilson misquotes this verse on his post…maybe some translation has it the way he does, but its a fairly uncommon way to read it.)

Note: Paul says that the law is fulfilled in those who walk by the Spirit. It is a positive feature in the Christian life when seen as fulfilled. Paul later notes that love of neighbor is the fulfillment of the law. In fact, Paul refers to the love command as thought it were a part of the gospel he delivers in general (1 Cor 13, 1 Thess 1:1-10, Galatians 5:1-6:10, etc). His very defense of his apostleship rests on the fact that he preaches the law, but that he preaches it fulfilled by Christ. This is the point on the fruit of the Spirit, “against such things there is no law.”

The point is that if the fulfillment of the law is taught as a result of living by faith in Christ/as Christ’s disciple/by walking in the Spirit as a positive command it is good. But that is not opposed, in the Bible to giving advice or giving commands positive or negative, but it is opposed to treating Moses’ law as an end in itself, rather than has something which finds its end or τελος in Jesus Christ.

He seems to misunderstand the content of the gospel in the New Testament. 

I do not mean to say that brother Jared is not a Christian. I mean to say that he understands the gospel as, apparently, a message without imperatives (dos and don’ts). Wilson notes:

The message of the law unaccompanied by and untethered from the central message of the gospel condemns us. Because besides telling us stuff to do, the law also thereby reveals our utter inability to measure up.

On his understanding of law (dos and don’ts) the emboldened sentence means that the preaching of commands is categorically not the gospel. While I agree that one of the functions of the commands in the New Testament and of the Law in the Old Testament is to reveal our sin, the main function thereof, is to guide our lives. In fact, I’ll even go further, I’ll say that the commands of the New Testament are a part of the gospel. Wilson calls the commands of the New Testament, “…the practical implications and exhortations of Scripture…” But what do the New Testament authors refer to when they say gospel? Do they see it as a set of facts about Christ’s death, the atonement, and grace with a lifestyle that is only a series of confusing logical implications? Or do they see it as a broader message about Jesus of Nazareth?


Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [υἱοῦ θεοῦ]. (Mar 1:1 BGT)
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [God’s Son]. (Mark 1:1)
So the rest of what follows in Mark is, by his lights, the gospel.

14 ¶ Μετὰ δὲ τὸ παραδοθῆναι τὸν Ἰωάννην ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ
15 καὶ λέγων ὅτι πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ· μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ. (Mar 1:14-15 BGT)
After John was handed over, Jesus went into Galilee preaching the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)
Jesus’ gospel is the gospel about God’s kingdom and it includes commands: repent and believe.


τὸν λόγον [ὃν] ἀπέστειλεν τοῖς υἱοῖς Ἰσραὴλ εὐαγγελιζόμενος εἰρήνην διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, οὗτός ἐστιν πάντων κύριος,
37 ὑμεῖς οἴδατε τὸ γενόμενον ῥῆμα καθ᾽ ὅλης τῆς Ἰουδαίας (Act 10:36-37 BGT)
You yourselves know the word which came all over Judea, which he sent to the sons of Israel, preaching the gospel of peace through Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord over all… (Acts 10:36-37a)
Here, the gospel of peace, is the message that was preached through/by Jesus the Messiah. So, whatever Jesus preached is the gospel.


 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς ὅτι καὶ ταῖς ἑτέραις πόλεσιν εὐαγγελίσασθαί με δεῖ τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι ἐπὶ τοῦτο ἀπεστάλην. (Luk 4:43 BGT)
Then he said to them, “It is necessary for me to preach the gospel about the kingdom of God, because I was sent for this purpose. (Luke 4:43)
In the prequel to Acts, Luke describes Jesus’ gospel as, “the gospel about the kingdom of God.”

So, here’s my beef with Wilson then.  If the early Christians saw that gospel as the whole message about Jesus, including what Jesus preached and taught, then the early Christians understood and taught that Jesus’ commands were part of the gospel. Jesus’ commands are not in conflict with the good news. They aren’t a difficult to reconcile implication of the good news. They are part of the good news. This is because the goodness is not just good news about feeling forgiven, it is good news about God making the broken world right. That means the people who make is worse than it is (sinners we all are) need forgiveness, but they also need reform. The gospel is a summons to the true king of the world, not simply relief for guilty consciences (though it can be that). Also see how Paul describes his gospel in Romans 1:1-7. He never mentions forgiveness (though he does elsewhere), but he does mention the need for the apostles to bring “the obedience of faith” to the nations of the world. Sounds rather commanding to me.

He takes the phrase, “preaching Christ” as a cipher for preaching the five solas of the reformation. 

But let us not forget that the message of Christianity is Christ. It is the message of the sufficiency and power of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Let’s not preach works, lest we increase the sinfulness of our churches and unwittingly facilitate the condemnation of the lost.

Here, I think, is the crux of the issue. By preaching the gospel, Wilson means preaching “the finished work of Christ” as he says earlier in the article. This is a useful phrase, but it typically refers to the finished work of atonement of sinners or payment of sin-debt. So, the only proper way he sees to preach the gospel is to preach a message about what God does/has done in Christ for sinners. This is a useful topic for the church, no doubt. But is it, strictly speaking, what Paul meant by preaching Christ? I submit that the answer is, “No.” Rather, the sermons in Acts, the gospel summaries quoted above, and the four gospels tell us what Paul meant by “preaching Christ.” It means to tell the story of Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, what that means for believers, as well as what they are to do about it. It’s interesting that in Jared’s taxonomy of law and gospel, it appears that the gospel writers only ever implied the gospel (because they only implied the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement), that Jesus hardly ever preached the gospel, and that the sermons in Acts are “law” because they don’t usually mention atonement but do include commands.  Preaching “Christ” very well could mean preaching the reformation solas, but in the Bible is seems to mean something else most of the time.

Wilson is right. Advice sermons should not be the meat and potatoes of Christian homiletic fare. Though Proverbs would do many of our young people well. We live in a world of people who barely understand cause and effect. But, the point is this: we should get our understanding of the gospel from the New Testament. If we take our favorite bits of the gospel (atonement, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, etc) and oppose them to the things Jesus says we must do to be his disciples/to have saving faith then we are creating a system of cognitive dissonance and perhaps even a tremendous logical contradiction in the heart of our preaching.

A helpful excerpt from the Heidelberg Catechism

Q. 22 .What then must a Christian believe?

A. All that is promised us in the gospel, a summary of which is taught us in the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, our universally acknowledged confession of faith.

The catechism goes on to list the promises of the movements of the Creed. It is very helpful. I would not formulate many things the same way the catechism does, but it is deeply edifying. I highly recommend a read through: