Interestingly, Tim Keller never really answers the question. He misuses Jude and Mark 9. The question remains, what is the Gospel? How about this: Acts 7:1-53. If you do not believe that, you’re condemned along with all other men who reject the necessary sacrifice of Christ on their behalf. Keller does half the job, but is that enough?
If you don’t understand that the Gospel narrative begins in Genesis and flows through Calvary to the resurrection, you cannot preach the Gospel as Christ or his Apostles did to both Jew and gentile (Acts 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 11, …). Keller makes the point of substitution, but for whom, for what, and by whom is mostly left out. Without explaining that, there is no Gospel. It is a specific Christ, a historic one, the One who fulfills the Prophets. That is the Gospel, the truth of history, and without it there is no Gospel. It was a simple question, however, the simplistic presentation that Keller makes betrays the complexity of the Gospel. It is not a simple answer and Jesus didn’t make it one as is exemplified with the two from Emmaus.
The Jude 22 passage is about how we treat the brethren, not unbelievers, as we learn from Jude 20-21. It is an admonition to defend the flock against those who bring in destructive heresy, a warning to and a rebuke of those who are unbelievers. Also, Mark 9 is a not so compassionate a rebuke of unbelief. In fact unbelief is not treated with what we might call compassion at all in Scripture, but rather reproved and often not so gently. The Jude 22 passage is not dealing with salvation, but those who under persecution or temptations of diverse kinds, find their faith weakened by some means such as by those who have crept in unaware who pride themselves in their spirituality. As other apostles themselves learned, despite the circumstances they found themselves in, God is faithful. Jude is expressing the same. And the point of Mark 9 is not what one man’s faith can receive, but what one man, in particular can do. Namely, that Jesus being who he is, the Son, full of the Spirit, is fully able to heal the boy. By what Spirit is healing done is at question? And is he not capable? The challenge is then “Who am I?” The rebuke is met with a change in the man, from “But if you can,” to “I believe.” And since belief, Scripturally, is not a matter of blind hope but of revelation of Truth, we can conclude that the man saw the Lord for who he was and so cried, “help my unbelief,” -a cry for mercy, by a sinner made cognizant of the depravity of unbelief and who, not what, is the object of the faith he now has. Keller makes the passage say things that it is not saying. The Lord goes on to prove the point when he makes in reference to the disciples own unbelief. Their faith was in “why could we not cast out,” instead of trusting the One who does the casting out, that is Christ. They did not know, Scripture says, what Spirit they were of, yet. To that he says, pray and fast. Christ is saying that they do not know the One who does these things, for it was by the Spirit of God that the Christ cast out demons, but if they did, that faith is the faith in the Christ who moves, nay, even established the mountains. We remember him saying that faith, even of a grain of mustard, could say to this mountain, be removed, and it would be done. Faith is faith and unbelief is void of it. We also remember that they did eventually fast and pray when the bridegroom left and the fullness of the Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, and the mountain of unbelief was moved and cast into the sea. New boundaries are set, a new creation begins.
One thing the great commission does not need is a “scholar” mishandling Scripture. What is necessary, what has always been necessary, is one who is competent in explaining something not so simple as the Gospel. It is hard and beyond the concepts of man, yet found in a historical narrative of a historic event accomplishing Truth. To reduce it makes it a mockery.
Keller could have opened the meaning of the Gospel for the gentleman who is perplexed that “christians” treat them as undeserving. He could have explained that no one is. He could have expressed the fact that not accepting the narrative is not Christian from the perspective of the narrative and that neither he, nor those who prided themselves in their flesh when supposing themselves evangelists could be saved except that they understood this Christ of history. Instead, he hides Gospel behind a misshapen compassion. While he is right about the Pharisaic attitude that boasts of any elevated sense of self-righteousness, he was wrong to make the Gospel a matter of simple believism. There is a great gulf between “Do you believe,” and “Just believe.” To believe in Christ takes the revelation of Christ through the revelation of Scripture by the power of the Spirit. Even Phillip, with the eunuch, stopped to take the time to explain from the Prophets who this Christ was who sacrificed himself and why. The eunuch was a court official of Candace from Ethiopia and perhaps a gentile. Phillip didn’t hesitate, as Keller did, to tell the whole story of Jesus’ betrayal and murder by the Jews on the behalf of those who would believe.
There can be no John 3:16 without explaining who Jesus is, nor can there be Jesus without John 3:18-19. We are not commanded to asked people to believe, we are not commanded to make excuses for unbelief. We are commanded to command people everywhere to repent of their unbelief by believing the Truth. We are to do as Jesus did and rebuke unbelief.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
True enough, the self-righteous religion that masquerades itself as the Gospel is rampant in evangelicalism. On the other hand, to soften the Gospel to make it palatable is the opposite mistake and just as false. The Gospel is not that difficult, but it is not that simplistic a stench to those who are perishing, but those being saved the sweet savor of life. Keller’s grimacing and struggling with an answer and not being able to give the right one, does not bode well for evangelicalism.
UPDATE: A more betterer presentation by Keller. One wonders why Keller didn’t give a summation of this when asked.