Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight

When I was in Bible college, I took a class on evangelism. One of our assignments was to find the “bare minimum” of the gospel. Our professor took us to 1 Cor 15:1-5, and showed us that the gospel was the message that Jesus died for sins and rose from the dead, that there is no way for a person to save himself or herself, and that Christ alone can save through faith. When I claimed that I didn’t see the theology of justification by faith in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, I was told that it was implicit in the confession “Jesus died for sins.”

I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe that now.

Even as a student, I saw a troubling implication of the gospel my professor was advocating. If the theology of justification by faith is part of the gospel, then denominations with different theology (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) don’t believe the gospel. That bothered me, considering the number of Roman Catholic relatives I have, including my mother. But again, what bothered me the most is that it’s not in the text!

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in justification by grace through faith. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. We are saved only by the grace of God through faith in Jesus. That is good theology. But it’s not the gospel. The gospel is a story about Jesus.

This is also the idea in Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). McKnight argues that too many of us have inappropriately collapsed “the gospel” into soteriology (the theology of how people are saved). As important as doctrines like justification by faith, substitutionary atonement, and divine grace are, they are not the gospel. The biblical gospel, according to McKnight, is a story about Jesus—who he is and what he did. Our misunderstanding of the gospel has caused us to devalue discipleship, over-emphasize “making a decision,” and limit the effects of the cross to “me and my personal salvation.” McKnight suggests that by recapturing the biblical gospel, we can eliminate the disconnect between faith and following, make disciples that are in it for the long haul, and apply the lordship of Jesus to all of life and creation.

McKnight begins his book with some familiar stories, sobering statistics, and provocative questions. In 1971, McKnight became a Christian and had his first experience with evangelism gone bad. He and a deacon from his church invaded the home of a Sunday-morning visitor, whom the deacon badgered with the gospel until he said uncle and accepted Christ. The evangelism team rejoiced at the salvation, but the new “convert” never darkened the door of the church again. Research by the Barna group suggests that McKnight’s experience isn’t unique. At least 50 percent of Americans who “make a decision for Christ” don’t show any measure of discipleship. (20. He cites personal correspondence with Bill Kinnaman from the Barna group and statistics dated December 17, 2010.) Why do so many “conversions” not lead to discipleship? McKnight argues that it is because we have preached a “gospel” that is inaccurately boiled down to justification by faith and a personal decision for Christ. While McKnight affirms justification by faith and the importance of a personal decision, he says that the gospel is bigger than these things.

Having made the charge that church attrition is due in part to a misunderstanding of the gospel, McKnight transitions to walking through a number of biblical passages that recount the original gospel. He begins with the earliest account of the gospel—Paul’s summary in 1 Cor 15:1–5 (ESV):

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
McKnight sees in this neither a detailed explanation of substitutionary atonement, nor a defense of justification by faith, nor a passionate plea for a decision. Instead, he sees a story about how Jesus fulfilled the hope of Israel. He writes:

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. That story is the only framing story if we want to be apostolic in how we present the gospel. We can the frame the “gospel” with other stories or categories, but there is one holy and apostolic story, and it is the Story of Israel. That is the apostolic framing story for the gospel. (61)

He contrasts this apostolic gospel with what we are tempted to do:

We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my own personal salvation. In other words, the plan has a way of cutting the story from a story about God and God’s Messiah and God’s people into a story about God and one person—me—and in this the story shifts from Christ and community to individualism. We need the latter without cutting out the former. (62)

Having established that the apostolic gospel was a story about Jesus fulfilling the hope of Israel, McKnight walks through the Gospels, the preaching of Jesus, The Book of Acts, and the ancient creeds to show a consistent pattern: for the first Christians, the gospel was a story about Jesus. (Why else would we call the first four books of the New Testament “The Gospel”?)

McKnight finishes the book by turning his attention to modern day “gospeling.” In the penultimate chapter, he makes six comparisons between our methods of gospeling with those of the apostles. First, while our gospeling “seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior,” the apostles’ “summon[ed] listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord” (133). Second, the framing story of the apostles’ gospel was not the atonement or personal salvation, but the Story of Israel. Third, both ancient and modern gospeling have an element of avoiding the wrath or judgment of God. Fourth, the problem that modern gospeling seeks to solve is that individuals are sinners and destined to hell. The apostles’ gospel emphasized Israel’s story that humanity was created as co-rulers over the earth and mediators of God’s presence to creation. Both Adam and Israel failed at this task, but Jesus succeeded and is now working out his rule through the church. Fifth, McKnight acknowledges that there may be a slight anti-imperial message in the gospel (though he doesn’t see this emphasized by the apostles) that is largely ignored today. Finally, the apostles’ gospel was about Jesus, not the sinner or personal salvation.

In the final chapter of the book, McKnight challenges the church to become “people of the story”—to find our story in God’s story, to tell a radical counter-narrative to the stories of our day, and to create a Gospel culture.

There is a lot to like in McKnight’s book. First, it is biblical. McKnight is an expert in New Testament theology, and he investigates what the Bible has to say about the gospel. He doesn’t defend a theological system and he doesn’t attack any denomination or tradition; he simply looks at the texts and asks, “What did the first Christians believe about the gospel?” One may disagree with McKnight’s conclusions, but at least he roots the discussion in the ancient texts.

The second strength of McKnight’s book is that it exposes (and solves) the shortcomings of the way in which the gospel is popularly understood. If the gospel is synonymous with justification by faith, how did Jesus preach the gospel? Why are the first four books of the New Testament called “The Gospel”? Why don’t we see a clear explanation of justification by faith in the apostles’ preaching in Acts? Why does Paul talk about Jesus when he describes the gospel instead of defending justification by faith? (Again, McKnight believes that justification only comes through faith in Jesus; he just doesn’t think that this is the gospel.) These questions are all answerable when the gospel is understood as a story about Jesus and his fulfillment of the Story of Israel.

The final strength of McKnight’s book (and the one he is probably most proud of) is that it provides a robust gospel for a generation of “gospelers” engaging a post-everything culture. Methods of evangelism emphasizing theological systems and propositional truth-claims are becoming less and less effective. People in the Google era think and communicate in narrative. Many have tried to create a narrative gospel for the postmodern culture, but the results largely have been too existential. Postmoderns aren’t just looking for their own story, they want to be a part of a cosmic story. McKnight has successfully communicated the gospel in a narrative, but in a narrative that is consistent with the ancient narrative. The king Jesus gospel allows us to find our story in God’s story.

One area that deserves more exploration is the role of contextualization in “gospeling.” McKnight’s account of the gospel on pages 148–52 marches through the whole Bible, touching on Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, David and Solomon, the Babylonian exile, the life-story of Jesus, and the politics behind Jesus’ crucifixion. As I read it, I imagined trying to preach it to a bunch of 20-somethings who knew nothing about the Bible. I can’t imagine them tracking with me through all of that (apart from divine illumination!). My mind immediately went to the Story of Israel, and how much of it is important to understanding the Gospel. How Jewish do we have to be to be Christian?

The major accomplishment of the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus and the New Perspective on Paul is that they have recovered the “Jewishness” of both Jesus and Paul. The New Testament was written primarily by Jews, and the language, symbols, and stories they told make the most sense as a continuation of that of the Jews. However, there is also a sense in which the church is something new. There is a sense in which the Gentiles are accepted as they are—with their own histories, languages, and symbols, and without the need to adopt those of the Jews.

McKnight makes the point that all of the “gospeling” sermons in the Bible make use of the Story of Israel. This is not entirely true, and I wonder what would happen when we take into account audience when evaluating these early sermons. The vast majority of the sermons in Acts were preached either to Jews or to Gentile “god-fearers” who had already adopted the Jewish story as their own (for instance, Peter’s sermon to Cornelius and Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Antioch).

The only instances we have in Acts of sermons given to Gentile pagans are Paul’s sermons in Lystra and Athens. In both of these instances, the only element of the Story of Israel that Paul includes is that God is the Creator (and Judge in Athens). While McKnight rightly points out that the apostles’ gospeling involved showing the overlap between God’s story and that of the listeners, he overemphasizes the role of Israel’s story because that is the story that most of the apostles’ audiences had previously adopted. In instances in which the apostles gospeled pagans, Israel’s story played a lesser (and almost nonexistent) role.

As they did when they spoke to Jews and god-fearers, the apostles demonstrated to pagans how God’s story intersected with their listeners’ stories. But in these instances, humanity’s story (not just Israel’s) provided the frame for God’s story. In each of Paul’s sermons to pagans, he condemns idolatry (Acts 14:15, 17:29), contrasts the Creator God with idols (14:15, 17:24), ties God’s story to theirs by saying that God overlooked their idolatry in the past (14:16, 17:30), calls them to repent (14:15, 17:30), and cites historical evidence for his message (14:17, 17:31). In Lystra, Paul cites God’s giving of rain as evidence and in Athens he cites the resurrection of Jesus. (It is important to note, though, that in Lystra, Paul also demonstrated the power of the Spirit by healing a crippled man.)

It makes sense that Paul’s preaching to pagans would differ from his preaching to Jews. After all, Paul believed that Jesus was the telos, the goal or the fulfillment, of the law (Romans 10:4). When the Galatians tried to make the story of Israel their own by adopting circumcision, Paul accused them of turning to a different Gospel (Galatians 1:6-7). To Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in a new age where there was neither Jew nor Gentile, but one new people of God (Gal 3:28, Eph 2:14-15, Col 3:11). There was some continuity, but there was also something new.

McKnight is right in emphasizing that the message of Jesus, Paul, and the apostles has to be understood in Jewish terms. After all, they were all Jewish. But when Paul preached the gospel to Gentile pagans, he contextualized it to their own stories. We can assume that the story of Israel was part of the catechizing of new converts, as all of the New Testament churches (including the Galatians) seem to be familiar with the story. Teaching the story of Israel is important, it just isn’t the gospel.

So what does that mean for modern-day gospelers preaching in a non-Jewish context? First, start with the biblical gospel that McKnight has so clearly communicated in his book—that Jesus is Lord, that his death on the cross for our sins and resurrection from the dead has vindicated him as Son of God and Lord of the universe. Understanding Israel’s story is crucial to understanding God’s story. God created mankind to co-reign with him over the earth and reflect his glory as his eikons. Both Adam and Israel failed at that calling, but Jesus succeeded. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit, God is redeeming for himself a new humanity to fulfill his purposes for Creation.

Second, go to the problems that the gospel resolves, contextualized for the audience. The dominant framing story of my city (Gig Harbor, WA) is that happiness, love, and security can be found in money and a prestigious career. People live according to that story, but find it relatively unsatisfying (as evidenced by the prevalence of substance abuse, divorce, and addictions). God is absent, loneliness is rampant, and many (especially youth) lament life’s lack of purpose and meaning. Despite the fact that the idols of money, career, and sex directly contribute to the people’s unhappiness, they continue to worship them in the hope of achieving a different result.
The challenge of gospeling the people of Gig Harbor is contextualizing God’s story in light of their story. The King Jesus Gospel intersects the story of Gig Harbor in a number of areas. It resolves the problem of God’s absence though the indwelling of the Spirit. It resolves the problem of broken human relationships through God’s new humanity. Finally, it resolves the problem of life’s lack of meaning through working for the kingdom of God.

Third, tell God’s story in light of Gig Harbor’s story. While McKnight insists upon tying Gig Harbor’s story to the Story of Israel, this doesn’t seem to be the practice of the apostles when gospeling pagans. Instead, they located the pagans’ story within God’s broader story (of which Israel’s Story is a part). For Gig Harbor, this means showing that the dominant framing story fails, and explaining how God’s story resolves the problems created by that story (connecting to God through the Spirit, living in community as part of the new humanity, and finding purpose by engaging the world in the missio dei). At the center of God’s story is the simple message that Jesus Christ died for sins and rose from the dead as Lord and God, and a call to repent and follow Jesus.

McKnight’s book is needed in churches today. At a time when churches are forming coalitions around the gospel it is important to clarify that gospel. What gospel are we together for? The gospel Jesus preached, or another gospel? While many are collapsing the gospel into a message of personal salvation, McKnight has recaptured the King Jesus Gospel for a new generation. He dives into the Scriptures, sorts truth from assumptions, and comes up with a simple message about Jesus. McKnight overplays the role that Israel’s story plays in gospeling pagans, but his emphasis on story is refreshing for those gospeling the post-everything generation.


Derek Leman said...


Just a clarification to suggest on your idea that the gospel to Gig Harbor need not be tied to the Story of Israel. First, that does not seem to take Gen 12:3 seriously enough. Second, when understanding who Jesus is, the Gig Harbor people are going to find he is incomprehensible apart from Israel's Story.

I commend R. Kendall Soulen's The God of Israel and Christian Theology as a primer in developing a gospel in continuity with Israel and not in isolation from that story.

Derek Leman

Bobby Capps said...

Great review, can't wait to read the book. My thought on how the Israel story becomes a part follows your idea of making it a part of discipleship... it's a part of the "Since the beginning this has been true" part of the narrative...

Bravo on a great review... especially the push back on 'the new thing is everything has to be about Israel', the pendulum doesn't have to over correct to correct.