Scot McKnight and the "King Jesus Gospel" 1: Points of Agreement
Scot McKnight believes that the most important question the church can ask today is: “What is the gospel?” If the church is “in a fog” about this question, we will not be a gospel people – a community of faith that lives according to the gospel and announces the good news to the world around us.
Scot’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Zondervan, 2011), seeks to answer the gospel question by transcending the tired debates between Jesus’ gospel (kingdom) versus Paul’s gospel (justification by faith). Scot believes there is only one truly biblical way to think about the gospel, and it’s to see that the one gospel proclaimed by Jesus Himself, the Gospel writers, the apostles in Acts, and Paul in his letters is Jesus as the completion of Israel’s story.
In December of 2010, Scot wrote the cover story for Christianity Today, laying out this new proposal. We had a blog conversation about his article here at Kingdom People. The King Jesus Gospel is a book-length treatment of the main point expressed in the CT article. Scot is undergirding his proposal by showing why he believes it makes the best sense of the Bible as a whole as well as the Bible in its individual parts.
The King Jesus Gospel deserves an award for being the “most marked up” book I’ve read this year. I’ve got all sorts of passages highlighted, with notes in the margins, question marks here and there, exclamation points (both good and bad!), and worn-out pages. Put simply, I agree with much of Scot’s proposal, and yet there are places where I think he presses us into making some false choices. Today, I want to highlight the points of agreement. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at my concerns.
So, to start us off, here are four points that Scot makes and with which I am largely in agreement:
1. Evangelicalism has a problem, and the problem goes back to our conception of the evangel itself.
Like a skilled doctor, Scot’s diagnosis is right: we need to revisit the heart of Christianity in order to gain clarity on the gospel. The problem within many evangelical churches today is that we have a gospel-less culture. Why? Because the biblical gospel has not been at the center of our preaching and teaching. When people are fuzzy on what the gospel is, it’s no wonder they don’t live much differently than those who don’t know the gospel. And it’s really no wonder that they don’t share the message with others. To live according to the gospel, you have to know what the good news is. To proclaim the gospel, you have to know the gospel.
Pastors within the gospel-centered movement will resonate with Scot’s distaste for “decisionism.” McKnight may be an Arminian theologian, but he is as far from Charles Finney as you’ll get. He writes:
“Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.” (18)
True enough. But Scot is going further than just critiquing an obsession with numbers. He believes this lopsided understanding of Christianity is actually keeping us from making disciples:
“Focusing youth events, retreats, and programs on persuading people to make a decision disarms the gospel, distorts numbers, and diminishes the significance of discipleship.” (20)
Tough words. But don’t assume that Scot is content with a decisionless Christianity that is not centered on personal conversion. He chides the state church tradition (whether in its Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant form) for neglecting personal conversion:
“Making the conversion process automatic – and I’m doing my best to be dead-level honest in saying that – is disastrous for the vitality of faith and church life. This kind of gospel can deconstruct a local church, and I would finger this issue as one of the, if not the, origins of the demise of the church in European cultures.” (31)
Three cheers from this Baptist! Scot’s diagnosis is correct. Both extremes (automatic church membership and mere decisionism) usually fail to result in people becoming “The Discipled,” which according to the Great Commission, should be our goal.
Scot also points out the difference between “the gospel” and someone’s “method of persuading people to trust the gospel.” By canvassing the variety of evangelistic encounters in the New Testament, Scot is able to uphold distinctive methodologies in getting across the one message.
“Our preferred Method of Persuasion and the gospel are not one and the same,” he writes (42). “Methods shift and conform to the needs of the evangelist and the audience.” (32)
2. Going back to the Bible is the only way forward.
One of the hallmarks of The King Jesus Gospel is Scot’s looking to the Scriptures as our primary authority. Though he recommends studying the creeds, church history, and evangelical tradition, he clearly lifts up the Bible as the place where we will discover the biblical gospel and how it integrates the key themes of the Bible. In fact, “Back to the Bible” is one of the most common phrases in the book.
- “We need to go back to the Bible to find the original gospel.” (24)
- “… Our current answer isn’t biblical enough.” (24)
- “My plea is that we go back to the New Testament to discover all over again what the Jesus gospel is and that by embracing it we become true evangelicals.” (29)
- “We are in need to going back to the Bible to discover the gospel culture all over again and making that gospel culture the center of the church.”
Whatever one might think of the specifics of Scot’s proposal, it’s clear that sola Scriptura is a driving force in his work. So, naturally, he turns to the sections of the New Testament that most clearly lay out the basics of the gospel. In summarizing 1 Corinthians 15, he writes:
“To gospel is to announce the good news about key events in the life of Jesus Christ. To gospel for Paul was to tell, announce, declare, and shout aloud the Story of Jesus Christ as the saving news of God.”
In my opinion, the most helpful chapter in the book is “The Gospel of Peter,” in which Scot considers the oft-neglected sermons recorded in Acts.
“There are seven or eight gospel sermons or summaries of gospel sermons in the book of Acts… If we have any Protestant bones in our body, we want to know what they gospeled and how they gospeled, and we want our gospeling to be rooted in and conformed to this gospeling.” (115)
3. The words “gospel” and “salvation” are related, but they do not refer to the same thing.
One of the central contentions of The King Jesus Gospel is that the gospel should not be confused with its implications. It is somewhat odd to see someone outside of the Gospel Coalition stream making this case so forcefully, but that is what Scot is attempting. Readers will quickly see, however, that Scot is making the distinction between the gospel and its implications even sharper than his Reformed friends. The issue that will ruffle many evangelical feathers is that Scot thinks of “personal salvation” as an implication of the gospel, not the center of the gospel itself. Salvation flows from the gospel, but salvation is not the message of the gospel. Hear him out:
“We evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. Hence, we are really ‘salvationists.’ When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) ‘salvation.’ We are wired this way. But these two words don’t mean the same thing…” (29)
From a lexical standpoint, Scot may be right. The word “gospel” does not specifically refer to “my personal salvation.” Yes, the gospel secures my salvation. Yes, it is the power of God unto salvation. But it’s the message of Jesus that brings personal salvation, not the message of personal salvation itself. (Interestingly enough, Scot finds allies for this position in both N.T. Wright and John Piper, particularly Piper’s book God is the Gospel, in which he makes the case that the Person of Jesus Christ Himself is the good news, not just the saving benefits we receive from union with Him.)
But from a pastoral standpoint, I have some concerns about making distinctions this sharply. I wonder if in our parsing of these closely related words we aren’t separating what should be joined together. The gospel is the “word of salvation” after all, and it is the instrument by which we are being saved. All this leads me to think that we might be overlooking the biblical authors’ hints that “gospel” and “salvation” are more closely related than some exegetes want them to be. More on that tomorrow.
For now, let me express what I like about Scot’s proposal: he is seeking to show that the one gospel we believe in contains justification by faith and the coming of the kingdom, but that the specific message is bigger than both. He sees the good news as the announcement that the story of Israel is being resolved in the story of Jesus. That’s great, as long as we remember that the announcement is about Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners.
In other words, when considering the gospel, Scot claims that the way forward is not to ask, “Did Jesus preach justification?” or “Did Paul preach the kingdom?” The better questions to ask are “Did Jesus preach Jesus?” and “Did Paul preach Jesus?” Over against Bultmann, who argued that over time, the proclaimer of the gospel (Jesus) became “the proclaimed” (early church), Scot helpfully demonstrates that the picture of Jesus we see in the Gospels is of a Savior “who unequivocally and without embarrassment nominated himself for Israel’s president.” (105)
4. The gospel needs the Old Testament story in order to make sense.
One of the central points of my work on Counterfeit Gospels is that to rightly understand the gospel announcement (Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and exaltation), one must have some knowledge of the worldview, or Story, within which that announcement makes sense. I am on the same page with Scot when it comes to our need to place the gospel announcement within the context of the story. This is a refrain that Scot echoes multiple times in the book.
- “This story is not the same as the gospel… The gospel only makes sense in that story.” (36)
- “One reason why so many Christians today don’t know the Old Testament is because their ‘gospel’ doesn’t even need it.” (44)
- “The gospel Story of Jesus Christ resolves or brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures (our Old Testament).” (50)
- “Any real gospeling has to lay out the story of Scripture if it wants to put back the ‘good’ into the good news.” (85)
Scot is also right to note that the grand narrative of Scripture is not just the backdrop for the gospel but also the forward-looking story that culminates in final restoration at the end of time, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. When it comes to matters of life after death, final judgment, and hell, Scot doesn’t hold back.
“Gospeling must involve the Story of final judgment in order for humans to see that they ultimately will stand before God and not before a human tribunal.” (135)
He then quotes Jonathan Edwards approvingly, saying, “Perhaps we need more of Edwards today, not less.” (136)
Points of Concern
These are the four main areas in which I am largely in agreement with The King Jesus Gospel. There are, however, a few points that cause me concern and may lead to unintentional confusion for the reader. I’ll elaborate on my concerns tomorrow.