We live in a decidedly non-doctrinaire age, and the “Gospel” discussion has formed in response to that. Through the influence of the church growth movement in particular, American Christianity has embraced pragmatic approaches that emphasize “heart” religion over “head” religion. The breakdown of Protestant mainline denominations has blurred dogmatic distinctions held by the historic traditions. Reform movements and an influx of evangelicals into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have broken down walls and opened increasing dialogue among those who previously lived in entirely different worlds. Non-denominational churches with simple vanilla statements of faith have proliferated. Culture wars have transformed the minds of evangelicals, leading them to view issues of social morality and justice as of more immediate relevance than doctrine. Within the world of the Protestant theological academy, new ways of thinking about the Bible and the message its story tells — perhaps epitomized best by the “New Perspective” and its advocates such as Bishop N.T. Wright — have challenged traditional Reformation formulations and provoked much argument and debate.
Into this debate, Scot McKnight has stepped, offering a well-reasoned, well-written presentation and defense of what he calls, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. His main thesis is that contemporary Christianity (particularly the U.S. version) has reduced the Gospel to a message of personal salvation. As a result, the Christians we are discipling and the churches we are building are not being established in a “Gospel” culture, but rather a “salvation” culture. Many of us are not truly “evangelicals” (Gospel people) but “soterians” (salvation people). Scot sees this inadequate message as the source of many problems in the church today.
I agree with him. But what I want to say in this response is that clarifying the message is only a beginning. The right message, by itself, is not enough. If we do not institute other reforms, a better message will not change much.
Scot McKnight says that one specific result of proclaiming a “salvation” message rather than a full-orbed “Gospel” message is that by doing so we create consumers rather than disciples. That is because the soterian message focuses on “making decisions” rather than “making disciples,” and it has been proven (Scot cites much evidence here) that one’s initial decision is not the vital element that leads to a life of deep spiritual formation.
He sets up the book by giving three examples of confusion about the Gospel. In the first, an emailer wrote asking, “What is good news about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah?” He takes his second example from John Piper and the world of Calvinist preaching, where the Gospel is solely defined with the formula, “justification by faith.” The third example arose from a conversation with a pastor who agreed with the traditional justification formulation and then went on to assert that Jesus himself did not proclaim the Gospel. In fact, he said no one could have done so before the events of the Cross and Resurrection.
Scot McKnight asserts that the “this so-called gospel is deconstructing the church.”
If so, what belongs in its place? He suggests that there are four concepts we must keep in mind to think about this clearly:
- The story of the Bible/the story of Israel
- The story of Jesus
- The plan of salvation
- The method of persuasion
The larger story of the Bible as it develops through the story of Israel develops the vision of God’s Kingdom that emerges out of creation and finds its culmination in the story of Jesus.
The plan of salvation for individuals flows out of Jesus’ story. It speaks to one aspect (and one only) of the Gospel and its full Kingdom vision — how people are reconciled to God and reckoned to be in right standing before him. This “plan of salvation” (which we often reduce in form to a few key points for communication) is not to be equated with the Gospel.
Finally, the fourth element is our method of persuading people to accept God’s plan of salvation. In a salvation culture, this is so linked with the plan of salvation that the two together may totally outshadow the story of the Bible/Israel/Jesus and thus divorce our perception of “the Gospel” from the context that gives it its full meaning and significance.
How, for example, did an apostle like Paul understand the Gospel? Fortunately, we have an early record of Paul passing on the oral tradition of the Gospel that the apostles received and taught — in 1Corinthians 15. As Scot surveys this passage, he concludes that it contains the whole story of Jesus, including his life, death, resurrection, appearances, ascension, second coming, and full consummation of the Kingdom in the end. It is not simply about the Cross and the personal forgiveness of sins. It is about a Person — Jesus — who is Savior, Messiah, Judge, and Lord of all. It leads to an ending that will reveal that God is God and that God’s people have been restored to fulfill the purposes for which he created them.
The Gospel, then, is not simply the plan of salvation for individual sinners. It is not a system of how people get saved. It is the triumphant announcement that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is Lord. This results in people getting saved — and much more.
…the gospel for the apostle Paul is the salvation-unleashing Story of Jesus, Messiah-Lord-Son, that brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. To “gospel” is to declare this story, and it is a story that saves people from their sins. …The story begins at creation and finally only completes itself in the consummation when God is all in all.
…When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. When we separate the Plan of Salvation from the story, we cut ourselves off the story that identifies us and tells our past and tells our future. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of Salvation.
Furthermore, McKnight notes how separating the Plan of Salvation from the Story transforms our understanding of “Gospel” into a message that is about me and my personal salvation, shifting from Christ and community to individualism, privatizing the message rather than making it about Christ being Lord of all leading to God being all in all.
In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight bolsters his case about the nature of the Gospel by showing how Jesus preached the Gospel, how the Gospels themselves represent the full Gospel message, and how Peter and the other apostles preached a robust Gospel message in the Book of Acts.
He concludes the book with two helpful chapters: “Gospeling Today,” and “Creating a Gospel Culture.” In these pages, Scot first makes suggestions about how to adjust the ways we present the message of the King Jesus Gospel in contrast to the ways we have been doing it in our “soterian” church culture. Then he offers counsel about how we can become people of the Story of Jesus and the Church and counter the stories that compete against God’s good news. Above all, he encourages us to embrace this Gospel.
Comments and Concerns
1. I think Scot McKnight is right on target with regard to clarifying the Gospel message.
2. His method of clarifying the Gospel by looking closely at what Jesus and the apostles actually proclaimed provides a solid case for his position, and a damning indictment of what passes for “gospel” in much evangelical teaching. It shows how little many of us really know our Bibles, and how we so often pick and choose from Scripture and put together our theological formulas with little respect for the actual text we claim to be representing.
3. He is right in his diagnosis of the “soterian” culture that much conservative Christianity has embraced.
4. He is right that this dramatically affects our ability to move people from “making decisions” to “becoming disciples.” If being “in” is the only ultimate value, then in reality discipleship, church membership, worship, and mission are all optional add-ons that we can take or leave as we choose. Getting people to accept the plan of salvation is all that really matters in the end.
4. I am concerned about how evangelicals will receive this book. I have found, in my years of experience in evangelicalism, that those with their particular commitments commonly make a fundamental mistake, a mistake that can easily be repeated again with a book like this. Here’s the mistake: We think if we make the message better, we will solve the problems we’ve identified. Scot has identified the problem as a lack of true spiritual formation among Christian church members. The root problem, he says, is an inadequate message. The implication is, if we improve the message and teach it correctly, people will experience spiritual formation as genuine disciples of Christ.
Now, I don’t want to downplay the importance of the message, but in my view the message is only one of three important factors in making disciples.
The second factor is a robust ecclesiology — church polity and congregational practices that are built around the Gospel and that enable and encourage congregations to walk together in the Gospel Story.
The third factor is a robust pastoral ministry that involves the kind of apostolic Gospel ministry (not just message) that Paul wrote about in such passages as 1Thessalonians 2 and in the final verses of Colossians 1. This ministry is not just about preaching, providing “visionary leadership,” serving as a CEO of a successful organization, or being a talented program director. It is about exemplifying the Gospel ethos of Jesus in face-to-face relationships with people as we personally walk with them in the Gospel Story.
A robust Gospel message without a robust Gospel ecclesiology and Gospel ministry cannot be sustained.
In my experience, evangelicalism is extremely weak in both of these areas. Without them, there is no infrastructure in which to practice a more robust message. The message itself will not automatically “create” a robust ecclesiology and ministry — we must be intentional about reforming them in light of a more robust Gospel.
In this regard, I think Scot misses the boat when he writes about churches in the historic and sacramental traditions and those growing out of the Reformation (particularly Lutheranism). Although he commends practices like observing the Church Year and putting new emphasis on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, what he fails to acknowledge is that the historic, Reformation, and mainline churches already have a gospel culture infrastructure built around these very practices. They already have the ecclesial, catechetical, and liturgical infrastructure in place that is based on the Story and which allows people to live in it week in and week out.
What I am afraid of is that some evangelicals will read his book and then say, “Oh, God is telling me to practice the Church Year for my spiritual formation.” And so on. No. No. No. Practicing the Church Year is not simply about ordering one’s personal life around the Story of the Bible and Jesus. It is about participating in a community where the sanctuary is draped in different colors each season and on special days, where we participate each Sunday with the church of all ages and in all places by saying the Creeds together, praying the Lord’s Prayer, reading the Scriptures for the day and season from the lectionary, hearing the liturgical readings and responses that the church has heard down through the ages, and coming to the Table from which God feeds his people. It’s about Advent candles, Lenten soup suppers, Holy Week services, rose petals falling from the ceiling on Pentecost. It’s about an entire ecclesial infrastructure that supports and proclaims the Gospel.
Robert Webber discovered this forty years ago, and his body of work is eloquent, consistent testimony to the fact that the historic practices of ecclesiology, liturgy, and spiritual formation are centered around Jesus and the Gospel. Many evangelicals, including myself, have found this to be true. There is more “Gospel” in any single liturgical service I attend in my mainline Lutheran church than I experienced in a year of soterian evangelical church services. And where do we think Tom Wright’s incredible insights about the Gospel come from? Of course, he is a wonderfully gifted historian and student of the Bible, but he is also deeply invested in the life of a historic, liturgical, sacramental church tradition. I sincerely doubt that his groundbreaking insights about a storied and communitarian Gospel could have emerged from the kind of non-denominational, free church tradition that I have known throughout much of my Christian life.
Scot’s book resonates with me now that I have seen a Gospel culture at work in the life of my Lutheran church, with its liturgical and formational practices. I’m just not sure that many evangelicals will know what to do with it.
In the chapter of The King Jesus Gospel in which Scot expresses his view that the soterian Gospel is rooted in the Reformation, he fails to mention the wide-ranging ecclesial and pastoral reforms introduced by leaders like Luther. Evangelicals tend to view the Reformation solely through the prism of the message of justification by grace through faith. But for Luther, it was as much about creating a Gospel culture in the family and church as it was about refining the message.
Luther translated the Bible into German so that people could read and embrace the Story for themselves, restored hymnody to the church so that they might praise God as King, created catechisms for fathers and pastors to use in helping their households and congregations understand the Gospel, emphasized pastoral care and spiritual formation, restored a Gospel understanding and practice of the sacraments, and encouraged Christians to be Gospel people, viewing all their vocations as opportunities to serve as God’s priests and show Christ’s love in the world. Luther was seeking to reform the Church, not merely her message.
So while I appreciate The King Jesus Gospel for what it is — and I emphasize that it is an excellent argument for a robust Gospel message — I fear that it ignores whole traditions of Christianity that are not soterian and which do practice Gospel culture, and that its insights will be counteracted in practice by evangelicals because of the common error of thinking that better teaching automatically leads to better Christians and a better church.