Tomorrow, as part of a Zondervan blog tour which runs this Monday through Friday (9/19 – 9/23), I will begin blogging my way through Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel (KJG). The book has ten chapters so I will cover two chapters per day. In my estimation, McKnight’s KJG is an important book and is paradigm changing. Additionally, I think McKnight shows that the majority of evangelicals are not really talking about the gospel when they think they are.
Ok, that was big, so let’s pause for a second and let that last sentence sink in.
Here it is again: when evangelicals think they are talking about the gospel they are really talking about something else, something perhaps important…but not the gospel. McKnight’s message here (in the words of Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride) is “you keep using that word (ie, gospel). I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
N.T. Wright says much the same thing: “I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when the say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things the people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 41)
Ok, now that I have your attention…
You are probably asking, ‘Well, then what are evangelicals talking about that they have confused with the gospel?’ and even ‘Ok, then precisely what IS the gospel?’ And you may be asking this with a bit of sarcasm and even anger. This would be understandable…evangel in Greek is ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’…and no one likes being told that something so foundational to Christian faith and evangel-ical identity has been wrongly conceived. That what they thought was gospel really wasn’t. Before we start working our way through the KJG tomorrow let me offer to you some videos McKnight did for the Q conference called ‘Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?’ In these videos McKnight presents in condensed form the basic material that we will find in KJG.
In these videos McKnight argues that “the text has disappeared (or has been buried) under the interpretation?” What does he means by this? He means that the biblical narrative and story of Jesus has been eclipsed by doctrinal formulations that aim at personal salvation instead of a FULL gospel.
In the first video McKnight says, “We have developed a personal salvation culture at the expense of a gospel culture…we have lost contact with the meaning of the gospel” and “When all words in the Bible mean personal salvation, no words mean anything.”
What McKnight is contending here is that to think of gospel as merely personal salvation is to abstract the gospel from the story of Israel and the biblical narrative and to instead present a reductionist ‘plan of salvation’ that functions as a poser gospel. What does this plan of salvation look like? Most of us should recognize this right away:
McKnight summarizes for us, “The plan of salvation is not quite the gospel but it is what we as evangelical Christians feast on – the plan of salvation. And here are our favorite elements: God’s love and grace and holiness, our creation as eikons (image bearers) and our sinfulness, and therefore our standing under the judgment and wrath of God, but that Jesus Christ stepped in as a substitutionary, atoning death to forgive us of our sins and reconcile us to God, and all we have to do is respond to this plan of salvation in faith and we too can be saved.”
And this plan of salvation has been wedded to a method of persuasion or what is thought of as evangelism in which the plan of salvation is framed with the themes of judgment, wrath, and hell. But while we will find that McKnight says we shouldn’t do away with judgment, he nevertheless makes the claim that no one in the New Testament called the plan of salvation the gospel or framed the gospel in this manner.
“That is the plan of salvation and I want to suggest to you that no one in the New Testament calls that the gospel” McKnight says. Instead McKnight claims that “The word gospel belongs to the (biblical) narrative and it makes sense only in the (biblical) narrative…” It can’t be abstracted out of the biblical narrative/story and still be gospel! We need to ask, in losing the biblical story and Jesus story have evangel-icals lost the evangel?
I, for one, think McKnight is correct. The text of the biblical story and the story of Jesus has disappeared under the interpretation – particularly evangelical interpretation of Paul which has become our plan of salvation and method of persuasion. In the process we have missed what the gospel really is. The ironic thing is this: if we recapture the authentic gospel we can save the plan of salvation, but if we insist on the plan of salvation as our so called ‘gospel’ we distort and lose the authentic gospel and story of Jesus. As it stands evangelicals have really put their doctrinal/plan of salvation cart before the gospel story/narrative horse. The plan of salvation tail is wagging the gospel dog – so to speak.
I, personally, think this plan of salvation culture is culpable (just for one example) for the dramatic dropout rates of teens as soon as they leave high school. They have gotten their soul taken care of eternally but they have not been given a gospel shaped story by which to live their lives. I have personally seen this in many baptisms. The fact that someone has received individual salvation in the form of a transaction is emphasized…the fact that baptism is our initiation into the story of Jesus has been barely present. Is it any wonder that so many of the folks we baptize also drop out only to come back years later for rebaptism or a ‘rededication’? Some attempt to solve this dropout problem and commitment problem by preaching the plan of salvation louder, or by making it more ‘relevant’, or by tweaking the plan of salvation itself to make it more holistic. But my friends, listen please, if we tweak a weak gospel we still have a weak gospel – which as it turns out, is not really the gospel after all. And also, as it turns out, the plan of salvation makes for a weak gospel but salvation attains its full holistic flavor when situated within the gospel story itself – so we need to get the gospel story right to get salvation right.
So what does McKnight propose we do – go back to the Gospels and go back to the New Testament to see what this word gospel means.
This is what McKnight comes up with: “The gospel is the announcement, the declaration, the heralding, that Jesus is Messiah and he is the point and goal and telos of the narrative. He is the Messiah and he is the redeemer and he is the Lord. He lived, and he died, and he was buried, and he rose again, and he’s coming again. As the raised and ascended one he is Lord of both Jews and Gentiles…and THAT is the gospel according the New Testament.” “The plan of salvation unfolds from the story of Jesus.”
“For the apostle Paul the gospel is to tell and declare the story of Jesus as the climax of the scriptures of Israel’s story. It is according the scriptures, there is a story that comes to a climax in Jesus. Paul when he says the gospel in I Cor 15 doesn’t mention justification, he does not mention double imputation, yes this is a saving story, but the saving story – the plan of salvation – is not identical to the gospel which is the climax to Israel’s story.”
and as for what ‘gospeling’ is…
“According to Paul and according to the apostolic gospelers of the New Testament to gospel is to herald the story of Israel as coming to climax in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The most important thing I will say to you is that to gospel or to evangelize in the New Testament means to the herald the story of Jesus as the Messiah.”
N.T. Wright sums up what McKnight is getting after well for us in his forward for the book. He says, “…the movement that has long called itself ‘evangelical’ is in fact better labeled ‘soterian.’ That is, we have thought we were talking about ‘the gospel’ when in fact we were concentrating on ‘salvation.’
Very true I think. While the gospel certainly has to do with salvation we need to entertain that we have missed the gospel story and in the process gotten the salvation story not quite right as well. Wright continues, “…’the gospel’ is the story of Jesus of Nazareth told as the climax of the long story of Israel, which in turn is the story of how the one true God is rescuing the world.”
And Wright is very much…well, right! “A microcosmic theory of atonement and faith don’t, by themselves, make up ‘the gospel.’ When Wright heard from John Stott speak about some who were trying to determine what the ‘irreducible minimum gospel’ was, Stott dismissed the idea. “Who wants an irreducible minimum gospel? I want the full, biblical gospel” he stated. (all Wright quotes, KJG, 12-13)
Well, I do too and I hope that you will join me this week, because I really think that McKnight does a good job of leading us back to this full, biblical gospel. In the meantime, here is a bonus video from Wright on ‘What is the gospel, and why is it good news?’