This is the second post in a series on Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.
“…the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” John Steinbeck
This really describes me right now. I had originally planned to blog through the whole of KJG this week. I even got off to a good start with Monday’s post covering the first two chapters. So, what happened you may ask? Tuesday was the 14th anniversary of when my wife and I were married. No…I didn’t forget about it…but we decided to go out of town. I figured I could pick back up Wednesday with two chapters at a time and just finish on Saturday. But the stuff of life, as it often does, has conspired such that only now am I getting back McKnight’s book. For the one or two folks who were waiting eagerly I offer my apologies. My new plan is to 1) offer a basic overview in this post and 2) to take additional time to discuss the book one chapter at a time more substantially.
Chapters 1 and 2 (redux)
In my first post I already covered chapters one and two. In chapter one McKnight gave us three exhibits. In one of these someone wrote to ask McKnight what was ‘good news’ about Jesus being the Messiah of Israel. The other two provided evidence that evangelicals in particular had come to define gospel as ‘justification by faith’ and personal salvation (particularly in Paul). McKnight contends this represents a confusion of the gospel and that we need to revisit afresh the question ‘What is the gospel?’ (hence the reason he wrote this book). In the second chapter McKnight claims that evangelicals are actually misnamed. Instead of evangel-ical (which comes from the Greek for gospel) they are better called soterians (which comes from the Greek word for salvation). In other words, evangelicals ought to be called ‘salvationists’ instead of ‘evangelical’ because of their emphasis on personal salvation. Salvation and the gospel are not the same thing, and though salvation is a part of the gospel it ought not to be confused for the whole of the gospel (nor should it be merely reduced down to individual salvation). The result of the evangelical confusion of personal salvation for the gospel has resulted in what McKnight calls a ‘salvation culture’ vs a ‘gospel culture.’ Evangelicals have created a salvation culture in which they focus on decisions or getting people to be among the ‘The Decided.’ The problem here is that because they have not emphasized the gospel they then fail to move ‘The Decided’ to the ‘The Discipled.’
In chapter three McKnight takes us ‘From Story to Salvation.’ Before we answer the question: ‘What is the gospel?’ McKnight first lays out four categories. These four are 1) the story of Israel/the Bible, 2) The story of Jesus, 3) the plan of salvation, and 4) the method of persuasion. McKnight presents a condensed summary of the story of Israel /the Bible which takes us all the way from creation to God’s covenant with Israel, to Christ as climax, the church and commission, and the consummation. The gospel is the story of Jesus that fits within this narrative and only makes sense within this narrative. McKnight goes on to say that the story of the Bible and the story of Jesus belong together and the plan of salvation and method of persuasion go together. The problem it seems that for too long these two pairings have been inverted. The method of persuasion and plan of salvation has been placed on top of the story of Jesus and the story of the Bible. The result of this inversion has been a de-storified personal salvation and a salvation culture. As McKnight says, the gospel has been “crushed” under the plan of salvation.
Chapter four moves to the New Testament and considers the ‘The Apostolic Gospel of Paul.’ To begin to answer to the question: ‘What is the gospel?’ and whether or not Paul and Jesus preached the same gospel, McKnight starts with I Cor 15. Here we find that Paul ‘gospeled’ (or preached) the gospel to the Corinthians – a gospel in which Christ died for our sins, that Christ was buried, that Christ was raised, and that Christ appeared to witnesses according to the gospel. McKnight says that “the apostolic gospel is an ‘according-to-Scriptures telling of the story of Jesus.’” The gospel for Paul is the salvation unleashing story of Jesus, who is Messiah, Lord of all, and Son of God. This story of Jesus brings to completion the story of Israel according to the Scriptures. And though the plan of salvation is included in the story of the Bible and the story of Jesus, one can not simply limit or reduce the gospel to the plan of salvation (thus it seems to me that evangelicals may not only need to recover the gospel but to rediscover Paul afresh as well). “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.”
So, if Paul emphasized the gospel, that is the story of Jesus, then how did the salvation culture overtake a gospel culture? Without going into detail here, McKnight narrates how the early creeds were formed complete with quotes from them that mirror this apostolic gospel preached by Paul which narrates the story of Jesus within the creeds themselves. McKnight (and I have some questions here I will need to talk about later) says that our equation of gospel with the plan of salvation came about “because of developments from and after the Reformation.” McKnight does some comparison of the ancient creeds with Reformation era and after confessions and what one finds (my words here) is that the later confessions come to resemble modern systematic theologies in their organization. In other words they become less narrative and story centered and more proposition driven as the shift was made from the story of the Bible and Jesus and to a system of soteriology. To recover the gospel we will need to recapture the narrative…the story.
On this note, McKnight turns his attention to what we call today ‘the four Gospels.’ McKnight here asks if one has ever wondered why these first four books of the NT are called ‘the Gospel.” McKnight answers this question by saying that the Apostle Paul and the Gospel writers both told the same story: that being the story of Israel coming to completion in the story of Jesus. The four Gospels and the gospel are one. There is only one gospel that was preached by Paul and the Gospel writers. This one gospel was written down in four unique versions (what I like to think of as portraits) – the one gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as witnesses to the story of Jesus. McKnight rightfully concludes that “the Gospels are about Jesus, they tell us the story of Jesus, and everything in them is about Jesus.” “To ‘gospel’ is to tell the story if Jesus!” Again, this story that both the apostles and the Gospels told was the story of Jesus completing the story of Israel as Messiah and Lord. In this story Jesus died for our sins, was buried, was resurrected, appeared (and is coming) again according to the Scriptures.
In chapter seven McKnight moves on to discuss ‘Jesus and the Gospel.’ His big question in this chapter is: ‘Did Jesus preach the gospel?’ McKnight reminds us here that we are not asking: ‘Did Jesus preach the plan of salvation?’ or ‘Did Jesus preach justification by faith?’ No, what McKnight wants to determine is: did Jesus see himself and preach himself as the completion of the story of Israel. The importance of framing the question this way is that it shifts the focus away from the benefits that we experience (ie, personal salvation) to the Person himself who is the good news. In the process this way of asking the question reveals that the gospel is not primarily about us. Instead the gospel is about Jesus – his story and (we’ll have to cover this more in the subsequent post on ch 7) the coming of his kingdom and reign. McKnight concludes, “Jesus was totally into preaching himself as the center of God’s plan for Israel.” Therefore, Jesus did preach the gospel because he preached himself, and he preached himself completing Israel’s story – and all this is (you guessed it) according to the Scriptures.
McKnight thus far has fashioned three legs in what he calls his ‘gospel chair’: that Jesus preached the gospel, that the Gospels tell us the gospel, and that Paul passed on the apostolic gospel tradition. And these three proclaim the same gospel we have already discussed. The fourth leg McKnight says to this ‘gospel chair’ is the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts, in particular Peter’s gospel preaching. In this we find that Peter and Paul preached and were contending for the same gospel. I Cor 15 outlines the gospel for us. However, McKnight discusses seven (or eight) gospel sermons in Acts – 2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 10:34-43, with 11:4-18; 13: 16-41; 14: 15-17; 17:22-31 (and possibly 7:2-53) – that present for us ‘gospeling’ in public. These are summaries of the actual gospeling of Peter and Paul. McKnight contends about the apostolic preaching in Acts, “The apostles were not like our modern soterians because they did not empty the gospel of its Story, not did they reduce the gospel to the plan of salvation. In fact, the apostles were the original robust evangelicals.” The framing for the gospeling in Acts was the story of Israel and ‘according to the Scriptures’ which they began to read according to the story of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Each of the four legs in McKnight’s gospel chair tell us the same thing about the gospel: “it is the story of Israel that comes to completion in the saving story of Jesus, who is Messiah of Israel, Lord over all, and the Davidic Savior.”
Chapter 9 and 10
In the final two chapters McKnight discusses ‘Gospeling today’ and ‘Creating a Gospel Culture.’ The big ideas that I want to mention at this point are that 1) the apostles did not frame their gospeling with an individualistic plan of salvation or a method of persuasion centered on hell and judgment. If McKnight is right (and I think he is) if we are going to gospel the way the apostles did we shouldn’t either. 2) Only by telling the apostolic gospel can we reclaim a gospel culture. In telling this apostolic gospel as the story of Jesus we are not doing away with salvation but instead placing “salvation in the context of a story that has a beginning (in creation and covenant with Israel), a middle (David), and a resolution (Jesus and final redemption).” Evangelicals tend to individualize and reduce the gospel by de-storifying salvation. Only within its proper narrative context (the story of Israel/the Bible and the story of Jesus) will salvation be robust and gospel shaped. We ought to tell the (whole) story of Jesus as the gospel, and let the gospel do its work. And the only way to create a gospel culture is to tell the story – that we may become people of the Story, immersed in the story of Jesus that continues in the church’s story. Only by embracing this story can we form gospel shaped counter stories to the false stories of the world. But all this starts not with individual salvation, but instead with the story of Jesus – the gospel.
There is much more to say that this overview could not cover. McKnight’s KJG raises so many good questions and things to discuss. As we journey in more depth through each of the chapters individually we will cover questions related to (just to name a few off the top of my head):
the nature of the gospel as anti-empire (which I was disappointed that McKnight de-emphasized), hermeneutics (what does it mean to have a gospel shaped reading of the Bible), anthropology (what are we created to be), ecclesiology (what kind of people are we called out to be), ecclesial practices (what kinds of things form us into the people we are called out to be), as well as theological method (specifically the role of narrative theology). Through it all I think that we will find that far better than evidence the demands a verdict, or four spiritual laws, or an awkwardly constructed roman road is the story itself of a Jewish Messiah who is also Lord of the whole cosmos.
Again, just to be official, everyone should know (in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”) that I received this book free from Zondervan as part of a give away to read and talk about on my blog. I was not required to write a positive review, a bad review, or an in between review. I hereby swear upon pain of death or worse, being forced to watch endless reruns of anything involving William Shatner, that the opinions I have expressed are my own (but I would have bought the book and reviewed it anyways if I had not received it for free) and that I am solely responsible for any typos that appear.