Nov

01

2011

Luke Stamps|6:00 AM CT

What God Has Joined Together: The Story and Salvation Gospel

Judging by the attention, Scot McKnight's new book, The King Jesus Gospel, has something important to say. Indeed, what could be more important that an attempt to revisit "the original gospel," as the book's subtitle invites us to do, since the apostle Paul told us that the apostolic gospel is "of first importance" (1 Corinthians 15:3)? McKnight's book joins several other recent attempts to define or rediscover the biblical gospel. The contemporary evangelical fascination with defining the gospel signals a positive development, it seems to me: evangelicals are returning to first principles in their churches and ministries.

I want to offer some reflections on one of the book's main themes, namely, the relationship between individual salvation and the story of Israel. In short, my thesis is that McKnight's proposal, while offering a helpful corrective to some popular "de-storied" presentations of the gospel, overstates his case by separating the story of Israel from the promise of individual salvation. Several reviewers have pointed out that McKnight's proposal seems to present a false choice: either we choose a story gospel or a salvation gospel. The gospel is either about Jesus completing the story of Israel or about individual salvation. We are either evangelicals or "soterians"---those who believe the gospel is about personal salvation. McKnight believes that "soterians" (most if not all of The Gospel Coalition, he observes) have neglected the four Gospels because of their emphasis on justification and the Pauline corpus (25-26, 78-79). So I take up McKnight's challenge of seeing the gospel in the Gospels by making my case primarily from the book of Matthew.

To be sure, McKnight is not denying the importance of personal salvation or justification. He simply does not believe that these saving realities constitute the gospel. They are instead the result or purpose of the gospel:

This Plan of Salvation is not the gospel. The Plan of Salvation emerges from the Story of Israel/Bible and from the Story of Jesus, but the plan and the gospel are not the same big idea (39).

But it is one thing to say that the gospel is broader than the message of personal salvation. It is quite another to claim that the plan of salvation simply is not the gospel and that evangelicals who preach the plan of salvation are not preaching the gospel. Trevin Wax has helpfully summed up the problem with this distinction between story and salvation: "The big story that the Bible is telling is a story of salvation." This observation provides the starting point for my critique, but it needs a bit of fleshing out. One of the ways that we might demonstrate the salvific nature of the story of the gospel is to examine the relationship between individual salvation and the story of Israel, as it is understood by the New Testament authors, more specifically, by Matthew the evangelist.

Dichotomy Doesn't Do Justice

A dichotomy between story and salvation doesn't appear to do justice to the ways in which Israel's expectations of the kingdom are transformed by Christ and his apostles. McKnight argues that the gospel is the story of Jesus as the completion of Israel's story. So far so good. But what does this statement actually mean for Jesus and the New Testament writers? How does Jesus' life, death, and resurrection bring Israel's story to its climax and appointed end? Does it mean what most first-century Jews thought it would mean? Does it mean that Jesus comes to bring a political victory for Israel? Does it mean that he overthrows the Romans and sets up his rule in Jerusalem? In one sense, the answer to these questions is yes, but in another sense, not the way everyone expected. The Christian interpretation of the kingdom of God does not leave behind these Jewish trappings, but it does significantly transform a common first-century understanding of them.

The structure of Matthew's Gospel illustrates this transformed Christian understanding of God's promise to Israel. In Matthew 1-4, Jesus is clearly presented as the True Israel---the true and faithful Son of God. He is the "son" who is called out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15). Like Israel, he safely passes through the waters of judgment (his baptism; Matt. 3:13-17) before entering into a wilderness testing of 40 time-units (his temptation; Matt. 4:1-11). He is presented as the true Son and the faithful covenant partner with Yahweh. And he intends to bring the good news of God's kingdom to Israel (Matt. 4:17). He sends out his disciples to preach and heal---but only among the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10).

However, Israel as a whole---represented by her religious leaders---rejects the message of Jesus, and they determine to destroy him (Matt. 12:14). Matthew 13, then, marks a decisive turning point in the Gospel, when Jesus ceases to speak plainly to the crowds, choosing instead to speak in parables and to interpret them privately to his disciples. Furthermore, it is no accident that he chooses 12 disciples, mirroring the number of tribes in Israel, as a way of prophetically enacting his reconstitution of Israel---not around Abraham but himself. Descending from Abraham does not automatically grant one membership in the people of God. As John the Baptist had declared, God could convert stones into children for Abraham (Matt. 3:9).

Instead of ethnicity, personal trust in Jesus and his gospel becomes the line of demarcation for the people of God. Jesus invites his hearers to cast off their burdens and find their Sabbath rest in him (11:28-29). And he extends this message of mercy outside the boundaries of Israel.  In one striking episode, Jesus takes pains to show that a Canaanite woman, who seemingly ought not to be an heir to the promises to Israel (she is a "dog," not a child), is nevertheless accepted because of her faith in Jesus' power (15:28). This focus on individual faith does not lead to individualism, however, because Jesus intends to establish an ecclesia---an assembly, a church---that confesses him as the Christ (Matt. 16:18) and gathers together in his name (Matt. 18:20). The story climaxes in the forgiveness-purchasing death (Matt. 26:28) and victorious resurrection of Christ. A final judgment and restoration of all things will come to Israel and the world (Matt. 25:31-46), but not before the message of Christ is proclaimed to all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). So we see that the story of Israel is fulfilled in Jesus, but not in the way the way that many expected.

Not All Israel Belongs to Israel

The payoff of this brief reflection on Matthew's understanding of the gospel story is simply this: the true Israel---the true people of God---comprises those who personally place their trust in Christ and his gospel, not necessarily those who are ethnically descended from Abraham. To put it in Pauline terms, not all Israel belongs to Israel. There is a true circumcision that is not based upon physical circumcision. It is based on an individual experience of God's electing, forgiving, and transforming love in Christ. So the story of Israel is, in a sense, narrowed to Christ himself so that it might be broadened to the whole world---to both Jews and Gentiles who trust in him. Note that in Luke's Gospel, he shows these universal human implications by taking Jesus' genealogy back behind Abraham all the way to Adam (Luke 3:23-38). Jesus comes to solve not only the problem of Israel but also the problem of sinful humanity. (It is perhaps telling that McKnight subsumes his discussion of Adam under the heading "The Story of Israel.")

My guess is that McKnight might agree, at least in part, with this explanation. But I think that this transformed understanding of the story of Israel, as presented by Christ and the apostles, makes it difficult to parcel out the message of individual salvation from the gospel. That is, it is very difficult to untangle the gospel as good news of fulfillment for Israel from the gospel as good news of salvation for individuals. The Christian understanding of "Israel" and the kingdom that Christ establishes does not seem to allow such a neat distinction. The gospel ultimately concerns historical and cosmic realities, but not abstracted from individual salvation and, yes, even atonement and justification. Just as we should not abstract individual salvation from the big story of the Bible (as McKnight rightly reminds us), neither should we subordinate individual salvation to a depersonalized story. Story and salvation belong together.

In the end, McKnight might find more allies for his robust, whole-Bible presentation of the gospel (he offers a helpful summary on pp. 148-53) if he would avoid the tendency of overstating his case by pitting the story of Israel against the message of individual salvation when defining the gospel. Yes, the gospel is more than a message of personal salvation, but biblically it cannot be less.

Luke Stamps is assistant professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University in the Online and Professional Studies division. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is writing a dissertation on dyothelite (two-wills) Christology in the Reformed tradition.

  • http://www.ryanpeterwrites.com Ryan Peter

    Great review. Keen to get this book. But your point is a good one - I find this very interesting as I've been trying to reconcile NT Wright and Piper these last few weeks, seeing if there is a way to incorporate what both are saying. McKnight sounds like he's doing the same thing and your analysis offers a fantastic way of putting it together. Thank you.

  • Matt

    Very clarifying and helpful. Thanks, Luke.

  • Scot McKnight

    Luke,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and, by now, common refrain. I don't know how many times I can say this but I'll try yet again: anyone who can read my book and see any diminution of personal salvation is beyond me. A friend told me the other day he was "annoyed" how often I said Jesus saved and emphasized salvation.

    My point is simple and clear throughout: it's about how to frame the gospel. One method, which I call
    "soterian," is personal salvation with no Story of the Bible (which is not the same as the Story of Redemption), and the other is "Story" that entails salvation. Maybe you don't like that I see salvation as the impact and purpose and not the Story itself, but I see the fundamental gospel to be a declaration about Jesus as King. He is Messiah. Not just Savior. I think you agree.

    So, it is about salvation with no Story or Story with salvation. How anyone can call into question the importance of personal salvation isn't reading me accurately. So let me say why I think this is so: I posit a soterian approach vs. a Story approach, and that in itself might lead to think one has salvation and the other doesn't. But the gospel of the apostles is first christology and then soteriology, while I think many want it to be first soterioilogy and then christology, with Jesus performing a role in accomplishing salvation. It appears to me the apostles preached a gospel that said something about Jesus and not about Me first. There is a big difference, one TGC readers ought to appreciate.

    On what you say about Matthew, that summary is too dispensational for me but overall fine.

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  • Scot McKnight

    I should emphasize one more point Luke:

    The emphasis of this book is "method". How do we define "gospel"? I contend we define by looking at three texts/sets of texts:

    1. 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul defines gospel.
    2. The sermons in Acts, and I mean the "gospeling" sermons.
    3. And the Gospels as the gospel itself. They called them "gospels" because they were the gospel.

    My contention is that these three texts show that what "drove" the gospel was Jesus and the Story of Jesus as that which "fulfilled" the Story of Israel, and this Story is about Jesus as King/Messiah and Lord who saves. Again, the emphasis in all of these is on Jesus as Messiah/King and Lord who saves and not simply on how I can get saved.

    First christology, then soteriology. The soterian gospel, and all its variants, are driven by soteriology and not enough by christology.

  • http://www.windowinthesky.wordpress.com Joshua Steele

    Agreed with Scot.

    Mr. Stamps, I'm really glad that you didn't write a scathing/vitriolic critique. I've appreciated several of The Gospel Coalition's resources, but I'm also reading Mr. McKnight's book right now. Therefore, when I saw his link to this critique I honestly clicked on it expecting a blasting review on just how wrong McKnight has it, coupled with a vigorous defense of justification by faith.

    It would be incredibly ironic, after all, if a discussion of the gospel, the main thing that should unite us as Christ-followers, only served to divide us, no?

    Therefore, allow me to say that I really appreciate the fact that, at least up through the time of my posting this comment, civility has been maintained in both this review and the comments.

    However, I think that you're misreading McKnight's argument. He clearly states over and over again that the gospel is a *saving* story. To claim that he is trying to separate individual salvation from the gospel is mistaken. (Although I'm beginning to think that a robust understanding on the gospel might not put as great of an emphasis on *individual* salvation as many from TGC and elsewhere might claim).

    a brother in Christ,
    Josh

    • Luke Stamps

      Thanks for your comments, Josh. Let me reiterate a point I made in the post. I am not accusing McKnight of denying the importance of salvation. I am not even accusing him of pitting salvation against story *simpliciter*. I am concerned that he seems to be pitting salvation against story *when defining the gospel*. I think the message of salvation is imbedded within the gospel announcement itself. He thinks these things must be distinguished. Even if we accept McKnight's emphasis on the importance of Israel's story, as I do, this still doesn't expunge the message of personal salvation from the gospel, as I tried to show from Matthew.

      • http://www.windowinthesky.wordpress.com Joshua Steele

        ^"I think the message of salvation is imbedded within the gospel announcement itself."^

        I agree, and I believe that Mr. McKnight does as well!

        ^"He thinks these things must be distinguished."^

        On the contrary, I see McKnight's approach as one that enriches our understanding of salvation by placing it in its proper context within the gospel. Consider what he says on pg. 36:
        "The good news is that the more we submerge "salvation" into the larger idea "gospel," the more robust will become our understanding of salvation."
        Also, consider his clarification on pg. 51:
        "So, let's make this clear: salvation - the robust salvation of God - is the intended result of the gospel story about Jesus Christ that completes the Story of Israel in the Old Testament."

        Finally, I thought that his sketch/summary of the gospel on pp. 148-151 does a brilliant job of "combining" these two ideas ("combining" in quotes because McKnight seems quite careful to never separate the two):
        (pg. 151, pardon the length but these are powerful words):
        "What the usurpers and descendants didn't know was that Jesus was actually entering into their usurpations and the death they deserved for their sins. He was dying their death, he was shouldering their sins and the punishment due their sins, and he was absorbing the just wrath of God against all sin. What they didn't know was that God could reverse their death and start all over again. What they didn't know was that this way of dying as a servant was to become the only true way of living and making peace in the world. What they didn't know was that the cross was the crown and that power comes only when it is surrendered. They didn't know this. No one did. Not even Jesus' closest followers. What the usurpers didn't know was that they had met their match in King Jesus, who was about to usher in a new kingdom."
        -------------------------------------------------------------
        Yes, McKnight does get quite heated when talking about what "soterians" have done to the gospel. But this is not done in an attempt to show that the gospel and salvation are not intricately linked. McKnight wants to show that, as you said, "the message of salvation is imbedded within the gospel announcement itself." Our understanding and appreciation of salvation increases when we see it in its proper gospel context.

        Sorry for the length of this reply!
        I really appreciate this discussion.

        ~Josh

  • Luke Stamps

    Scot,
    Thanks for your interaction here. Here are a few brief responses.

    First, I cannot speak for others who have critiqued your book, but I, for one, was careful not to accuse you of a diminution of personal salvation. I understand that your book is about how to frame the gospel. My point is simply that the annoucement of personal salvation is an integral part of the gospel, not merely an entailment.

    Second, another point that I am trying to make is that we really cannot separate Christology and soteriology--the person and work of Christ--when defining the gospel. Of course, Christ is ultimate, not us. But Christ comes to us "clothed in his gospel," to quote Calvin. The gospel concerns Christ and his work of redemption (personal, corporate & cosmic). I think this is born out by the normative definition of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. The good news is not just that Jesus died, but that he died “for our sins.” You observe in the book that this definition doesn't spell out one particular model of atonement. Fair enough. But it does entail some notion of atonement (which is spelled out by Paul and others elsewhere). Jesus' saving work on behalf of sinners cannot be relegated to a result of the gospel. It is included in the gospel announcement itself.

    Third, I am not sure how you conclude that my construal of Matthew is dispensational. I suppose there are some superficial similiarities to the dispensational view that Christ first offered the kingdom to Israel and then turned to the Gentiles in order to establish the church. But I reject the dispensational view that the church is merely a "parenthesis" before God once again establishes his kingdom for geopolitical Israel. By contrast, I am arguing that Christ himself is the True Israel and that the church (Jew and Gentile) can be called "Israel" only in a derivative sense, as she is united to Christ. This is much closer to a covenantal view, it seems to me.

    Thanks again for your response. There was much in your book that I appreciated (the critique of decisionism, setting the gospel in its whole-Bible context, stressing the Christocentric nature of the gospel, and more). It has raised some very important questions for evangelicals to wrestle with.

  • JD

    "Pitting the story of Israel against the message of individual salvation" does not seem like an accurate representation of McKnight's argument at all.

    I have to say, not only does McKnight not pit the two against each other, he seems to go to great lengths to show how crucial they are to one another. You may disagree when he says that one is the gospel, while the other is true, crucial, and naturally follows from the gospel but shouldn't necessarily be called the gospel, but I don't see any legitimate grounds in the book for claiming that he pits the two against one another. You might want to clarify or rethink your wording here.

    Thanks!

    • Luke Stamps

      See my response to Josh above. My inclusion of the phrase "when defining the gospel" in the sentence you quoted was intentional.

  • JD

    Thanks for the response, Luke. I appreciate it.

    And yes, I did see your response to Josh above, but my question is regarding the language that you used. How/where does McKnight "pit the two against each other...when defining the gospel"? In other words, yes, you are correct, in that I could easily point to many sections of the book that draw a distinction between the story of Jesus as the completion of Israel's story and the plan of salvation when defining the gospel. But I don't see any instances where McKnight, *when defining the gospel*, somehow pits the two against each other. Are you saying that "pitting against" is the same thing as drawing a distinction? Is saying that one is the gospel and one is necessary for that gospel and the natural outworking of that gospel somehow pitting them against one another? If so, how? I think this is one of the reasons why some have commented that you seem to be suggesting that there is a "diminution of personal salvation" in McKnight's argument. If your claim is that he pits the story of Jesus *against* personal salvation when defining the gospel rather than simply clarifying a distinction between the two, of course you are saying that he believes one to be more important, therefore making personal salvation not as important.

    Just my thoughts, for what they're worth. Thanks for the review, Luke. I found it helpful.

    • Luke

      Thanks for the push back here. It helps clarify what I am trying to say. McKnight is pitting story against salvation when defining the gospel in the sense that he believes we must choose between the two as the most biblically faithful way of framing the gospel. I think that is a false choice. Perhaps the language of "pitting against" could be misunderstood in the ways you suggest, but I stand by it because I think I have qualified it in the restricted sense in which I meant it and because I think this pitting against--this either/or choice when defining the gospel--is raised by McKnight himself in the book (esp. chapter 3).

  • Nick

    Luke,

    McKnight does say that salvation is part of the gospel. It is in his definition of the gospel but as the result of the story. Christology leads to salvation. Both are the gospel but one comes before the other. If you don't believe see his response to Michael Horton:

    http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/10/17/michael-horton-on-the-king-jesus-gospel/

    I think the confusion comes when he says the soteran gospel is not the gospel. What he simply means by that is that they are proclaiming salvation with no story. McKnight believes that forgiveness is central to the gospel as he states in his book. But it is the Messiah who died for our sins not just anyone. Messiah implies story.

  • http://www.crfpublishers.co.uk Roger Penney

    In the Gospels the Lord Jesus is seen as speaking to Israel. Salvation is still only in Him. This can be seen in the Old Testament as, for instance Zechariah ch.12 where as with Isaiah 53 we are told that when God pours out "the Spirit of Grace and of supplications" Israel will finally mourn for Him whom they pierced. There are, after Matthew 12 plenty of indications that much of this also applies on an individual level. In Acts there is also an Offer of restoration to Israel if they "repent therefore and be converted that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from thepresence of the Lord (Yehovah). And He shall send Jesus Christ (Yehovah the Saviour who is the Anointed)..." (Acts 3:19-21)
    The book of the Acts is therefore a transition where the Gospel first of national salvation in the national capital then After the stoning of Stephen, to each synagogue and finally in the Gentile capital is preached. The change is also from national to individual salvation. All Jewish privilege then ends with the words of Paul, the Apostle to the Nations. "Be it known therrefore unto you that the salvation of God is sent unto the gentiles, and that they will hear it." From then on the Gospel of individual salvation is preached and has been preached and where there has been a resonse individual churches have been set up. As Matthew shows the 'place of the Name' replacing Jerusalem. However 1Thess shows that this age will come to an end. 4:13-18.)God will then take up His purposes, as in the prophets, with Israel and Israel too will be savee and will be the head and not the tail of the nations. (Deut.28:13, cf.44)and "the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains. (Is.2:2-4.Micah 4:1-6.)

  • Peter G

    1Cor.15 summarizes the gospel as 'Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, etc.'

    The speeches and sermons in the Book of Acts hardly mention the death of Christ (except as an implication of his having been raised from the dead), and NEVER say that he 'died for our sins.' Not even once. (They stress his present Lordship, and the need to repent.)

    How do we reconcile these differing accounts of 'the gospel'?

    In my view, we have to acknowledge that the word gospel (euanggelion, a message well-told) does not have a defined content. The word denotes God's authoritative message to mankind, with a range of content. So, in Rev.14:6-7, for example, the content of the angel's gospel is 'fear God and give him glory because the hour of his judgment has come.' And in the Gospels, to 'gospel' is to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God.

    Thoughts, anyone?

  • http://www.postost.net Andrew Perriman

    Luke, a very well written analysis. The polemical nature of Scott's book does rather expose him to that sort of critique. I have a couple of particular questions.

    1. Aren't you rather over-stating the significance of the Canaanite woman? Isn't she the exception that proves the rule? There's no question that Jesus' disciples were called to trust in him personally as Lord and as the one who would save Israel—they had to trust him because he had called them to a radical eschatological existence. They were putting their lives on the line. But the woman remains a "dog", not one of the "children". She is not herself "saved" in any sense—rather her daughter is healed. She is not called to follow Jesus. And there is no suggestion that Jesus or the disciples now changed their policy regarding the preaching of the good news to Israel.

    2. There seems to be an assumption that "gospel" must refer to a single, coherent notion. I would repeat Peter G's point above and argue that "gospel" means different things in different contexts. It is good news that the kingdom is about to come, it is good news that Jesus died for the sins of Israel, it is good news that God raised him from the dead, it is good news that participation in the covenant community was extended to Gentiles, it is good news that God is about to "judge" the pagan world in righteousness, etc. It is good news today that people can be reconciled to the creator, but that is only part of the story, only an outcome of the story of how God judged, saved, and transformed his people that is told in the New Testament.

    • Luke

      Good questions, Andrew. Regarding 1., fair point. The healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter (and Jesus’ ministry in Tyre and Sidon and other hints at Gentile inclusion) did not constitute a full-blown mission to the Gentiles. That mission wouldn’t come until after the Resurrection and Pentecost. But I still see Matthew 12-13 as a decisive turning point in the gospel, as Jesus turns away from the crowds to his own disciples and ultimately to the ecclesia that is built upon their foundation. Gentile inclusion in the subsequent chapters buttresses this shift. Regarding 2., I think you may be right that we need to have some flexibility when defining gospel, since it has various uses in the NT. Check out this link for more of my thoughts on this: http://www.credomag.com/2011/10/28/what-is-the-gospel-a-reformed-orthodox-perspective/. But since McKnight seems to be attempting a more systematic treatment of the question (examining 1 Cor 15, the sermons in Acts, and the fourfold Gospel), I would argue that the message of salvation would need to be a part of our definition of the gospel, not merely an entailment of it.

      • http://www.postost.net Andrew Perriman

        Luke, thank you for taking the trouble to respond. I'm still not convinced, though, that you have shown that "gospel" in the Gospels refers to the invitation to people to trust in Jesus for their personal salvation. Where is "gospel" anything other than the "good news of the kingdom", which is not a matter of personal salvation—it is the announcement that God is going to do something to transform Israel's status in the world? Jesus invites people to trust him when it comes to responding to this announcement about the kingdom, but that is not called "gospel". I'll have a look at your piece on Credo—thanks for the link. In the meantime, I've elaborated my response at: http://www.postost.net/2011/11/scot-mcknight-gospel-coalition-how-many-gospels-do-we-really-need.

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