The Christmas Gospel of Jesus the Liberating King

The birth narratives at the beginnings of Matthew and Luke are packed full of the Christmas gospel. However, it seems to me that none of the birth narratives sit easily with the ‘gospel’ preached by much of modern Christendom – in either its liberal or more conservative forms. Both tend to be individualistic, focusing on individual ‘spiritual’ experience or the salvation of one’s individual soul. But this makes the gospel about us – and one thing that we can know for certain here, the Christmas gospel is not about us. To put it simply: the gospel is not about my guilt, nor is it a general theory of salvation, nor is it about my individual relationship with God, nor is it about giving Jesus my soul.  All these things have been made the gospel but these things are not the gospel. These things are important, there is no denying that, but the gospel is not ABOUT these things.

Jesus is (Not) My ‘Personal’ Lord and Savior…

What does this mean? One of the things it means is that the gospel can never primarily be about Jesus being my personal Lord and Savior. Jesus being my ‘personal’ Lord too often translates in modernity as my private Lord – and if Jesus is merely one’s private Lord then Jesus is not really Lord. Jesus is not content to be a private Lord; he demands to be one’s public Lord as well. Nor is Jesus merely my individual Lord; he is Lord and King precisely because he Lord and King of the whole world/cosmos. And neither can Jesus be merely my personal savior. I have an ongoing tension with what might be called the ‘plan of salvation’ gospel – what New Testament scholar Scot McKnight calls the ‘soterian’ gospel.

What’s this tension all about? Well its simple really – the tension here is that the ‘plan of salvation’ isn’t the gospel. The individualist plan of salvation both reduces the robust picture of salvation in the Scriptures and obscures the true gospel from us. It exchanges and confuses a small part for the whole and thereby distorts and loses the whole. Surely what evangelicals know as the plan of salvation is connected to the gospel (at least we hope it is) but we must avoid collapsing the gospel into the typical individualist plan of salvation of modern evangelicalism. This must be said, if we only know Jesus as ‘personal Lord and Savior’ in this sort of way we don’t really know Jesus.

A King and a Kingdom…

This is because there can be no good news apart from the gospel of the Kingdom. The gospel is about a Person (who is a king) and a Kingdom. The gospel is the good news of this King and Kingdom. If we fail to preach the gospel of the Kingdom, in favor of the plan of salvation, we have failed to preach the gospel. The gospel is the story about the Liberating King Jesus – how his life, death, burial, and resurrection of come to fulfill God’s promises to Israel and, through Israel and Jesus, God’s promises to the nations and all of the Created Order. The gospel story is the proclamation of the good news that Jesus is both Lord and King. There can be no good news apart from Jesus as the Liberating King.  This is why I love ‘the Voice’ New Testament which is the work of the Ecclesia Bible Society which is connected to Ecclesia Church in Houston.

I came to love the reading of the Scriptures from the Voice in worship at Ecclesia. The biggest reason for this is that the translators for the Voice project chose to translate ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ as ‘Liberating King’ or ‘Liberator’. Why do I like this so much? Its because so many today seem to have lost our story and consider the Old Testament superfluous. Disconnected from its story the term ‘Messiah’ (which is Hebrew) has no meaning. As a result when it comes to ‘Christ’ (which is Greek) these folks do no better. Many seem to think that ‘Christ’ is simply Jesus’ last name. I love the fact that the Voice makes clear that ‘Christ’ is not Jesus’ last name and that it gives some narrative content to ‘Messiah’ – Jesus is the Liberating King (a wonderful phrase that continues to capture my imagination about who Jesus really is). This is what the Christmas gospel in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are all about – the inbreaking of the Kingdom in the birth of the Liberating King of Israel and the world.

The Christmas Gospel in Matthew…

Scot McKnight at the Jesus Creed blog discusses the presence of the Christmas gospel of the Kingdom in the narratives of Matthew (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). He says in part,

“What is the good news, the gospel, at Christmas? Very simply there is one basic message we are invited to announce: Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, is the King. The Christmas gospel — it’s all here — is that Jesus is King” and “the gospel is to declare that the Story of Israel (or the Bible) has been fulfilled in the Story of Jesus, who is King (Messiah) and Lord who saves. At the heart of this gospel then is a Story, a Story that begins with Adam and then all over again with Abraham and winds and wends its way all the way to Jesus. That Story is told in the Old Testament. The Christmas Story is a Story fulfilled. Let me turn this around: these are Advent texts not just because they are about the birth of Jesus; they are Christmas texts because these texts singularly fulfill the OT Story’s anticipations.”

The Christmas Gospel in Luke…

Andrew Perriman at the P.OST blog has a good post on ‘Christmas now and then’ in which he traces the Kingdom theme present in Luke. He says,

“Jesus will be king over Israel, in the line of David: ‘And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (Lk. 1:32-33). The magi come looking for a new born king of the Jews, whose star they had seen. When many nations are assembled against Jerusalem, a ‘ruler in Israel’ will come from Bethlehem, who will ‘gather the rest of his brothers’ and deliver his people from the invader, and the ‘remnant of Jacob’ will be established amongst the nations (Mic. 4:11-5:9; cf. Matt. 2:6). Herod had the male infants of Bethlehem slaughtered not because he feared the arrival of a personal saviour but because he believed his rule over Israel was threatened.”

This kingdom theme ought to cause us to think differently about the pronouncements of peace in Luke (see 1:30 with Mary’s ‘Do not be afraid’ and 2:10-14 with the shepherds). At church we did a study by Rick Warren called ‘The Purpose of Christmas’. But I was terribly disappointed that his study never mentioned anything of the Kingdom theme. Instead, the guy who sold a ton of books proclaiming ‘its not about you’ ultimately made it all about us. Christmas it seems was so that we can individually experience peace with God and feel at peace with God. I confessed in our discussion group that I was not at peace with Warren’s take on Christmas peace. I wondered…where is the Kingdom? Christmas peace that’s not Kingdom peace actually misses the ‘purpose of Christmas.’ Christmas peace can never be merely individual peace. Christmas peace is only found within the context of the Kingdom.

Perriman again comments,

“the birth of Jesus in the city of David coincided with a registration of the whole empire ordered by Caesar Augustus (Lk. 2:1-7). The good news of Jesus’ birth as ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’, of peace for those in Israel with whom God is pleased (Lk. 2:10-14), clashes with pronouncements concerning the birth of the divine Augustus, who was Son of God, Saviour, Lord, who had brought peace and prosperity to the empire.”

The (counter) Kingdom theme runs all throughout the birth narratives and this is what the peace pronouncements are – royal, kingly pronouncements of the arrival of King Jesus. What we have here is the Kingdom favor, Kingdom good news, and Kingdom peace of Jesus the Liberating King. The point is clear, the true king of Israel and the world is neither Herod nor Caesar but Jesus.

The Christmas Gospel of Mary’s Magnificat…

Finally, Chaplain Mike at the Internet Monk blog has a great three part series on ‘Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) vs Today’s Gospel.’ (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). He concludes that Mary,

1) sees what God has done for her as personal but not the sense that its private;

2) sees herself in God’s Story, not just God in her story;

3) sees the coming of Jesus coming as the inaguration of The Great Reversal (versus merely The Great Exchange);

and 4) sees the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.

He additionally says,

Mary has a BIG gospel! — a gospel that covers the whole Bible and the whole world. This isn’t something she learned as a ‘deeper truth’ for mature Christians; this was her hope and expectation, but it is something the soterians miss because they jump from Genesis to Jesus and don’t include the whole story in their understanding of Gospel as Mary did. From the beginning, Mary praised God as the King who rules the earth, who has called her to join him in the Missio Dei of bringing about the blessing of a New Creation.”

I think that pretty much hits the gospel nail on its head!

The Christmas Gospel is a BIG Gospel…

I will be honest, the individualist plan of salvation ‘gospel’ (if we can even call it a gospel) crumpled under the weight of my grief as Christie and I went through a devastating failed adoption and also lost three of our babies to miscarriage. Because of this Christmas can be hard for us. As I navigated my grief I needed more than a general theory of salvation, getting my guilt taken care of, or being sure my soul went to heaven when I died so that I could hang out with other souls (do we not see how Gnostic this is when we speak this way?). I needed a gospel that was not about me, that was bigger than me, that was bigger than my grief. As it turns out I needed what the rest of the world needs; that which is ultimately true – the reality that actually constitutes the world – the gospel of the Kingdom. I needed the Christmas gospel of the Liberating King. The Kingdom and the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit it seemed were the only realities bigger than my grief.

This Advent season we have prepared for the coming (again) of Christ with the themes of hope, joy, peace, and love. These are Kingdom realities first and foremost which are rooted in the Kingdom of the Liberating King, and in which our participation in these realities comes not primarily in existential ‘goose bump’  fashion but through participation in the triune communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is true hope, true joy, true peace, and true love. This is Kingdom hope, joy, peace, and love that draws us into the story of the Liberating King in which God is putting all things to rights, that gives us bodily resurrection, that includes a new heavens and a new earth, that calls us to join the Liberating King in the triune Missio Dei in the world of bringing new creation. This is the BIG gospel that Mary knew. Let us learn from Mary. Let us live within the Christmas gospel of the Liberating King, today and every day.

Happy Incarnation Day! May the hope, joy, peace, and love of the Liberating King Jesus be with you at all times.


The King Jesus Gospel [2] – Overview

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.’

Chapter 3

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 4

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.”

Chapter 5

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.

Chapter 6

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.

Chapter 7

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.

Chapter 8

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.

The King Jesus Gospel [1] – Chapters 1 & 2

Thanks for joining me as we discuss Scot McKnight’s new book The King Jesus Gospel (KJG). If you haven’t seen it already, please go here to see my preview post I did yesterday which will introduce you to the basic ideas. I hope to offer at least two things through this series – first, a substantial, yet condensed summary of the material of KJG and second, not only a review but an interaction with and discussion with what McKnight has to say to us.


Before he gets to chapter one McKnight shares an experience from 1971 in which he was a seventeen year old participating in the evangelism program at his church. This experience read like it could have been from my own life as a newly ‘surrendered’ preacher to the ministry. McKnight was teamed with a seasoned deacon from his church and they made ‘call’ to a guy’s house because he had filled out a visitor’s card. They found the man and his family in the middle of dinner, which didn’t deter the deacon any and they spent the hour or so witnessing to this man. It was apparent that this man had no interest in getting ‘saved’ but the deacon applied ever ounce of persuasion he had and the man ‘made a decision for Christ’…McKnight’s church rejoiced at the report of a salvation…and no one ever saw this guy at their church (or presumably any other church) ever again. McKnight says that most of evangelism today is obsessed about the decision but that the disciples were obsessed with making disciples. “Evangelism that focuses on decisions short circuits and – yes, the word is appropriate – aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles.” (18)

McKnight is a professor and he reports that his students report to him 1) that the gospel they heard had to do with their sin, Jesus’ death, and going to heaven. But 2) these same students also report that they know that something is wrong with this picture. McKnight presents some statistics that I won’t repeat all of them here (check them out on pages 18-19) but that approximately 60% of Americans make a commitment to Jesus (ie, a decision) but if we measure discipleship that 60% dwindles down to something more like 6%. McKnight concludes that “at the most conservative estimates, we lose at least 50 percent if those who make decisions” and “our focus on getting young people to make decisions – that is, ‘accepting Jesus into our hearts’ – appears to distort spiritual formation.” These conclusions have convinced McKnight that we need to revisit “the connection of gospel and evangelism and salvation and our methods of persuasion.” (20-21) But all of this requires an answer to one big question, which is the subject of chapter one.

Chapter One – The Big Question

This chapter introduces us to what is, in his contention (and I buy his contention here), the most important question the church can ask today – this is an issue in which there is a ‘fog of confusion’ about it. That question is: what is the gospel? This will come as a surprise to quite a few who thought they had gospel nailed down, especially evangel-icals, who seemingly have the gospel or good news built right into their name. Sure, poverty and politics and eschatology and a host of other things can be debated till we are blue in the face, but the Christian message is something we should have down already. There are other things that need discussion but McKnight suggests that we can’t really discuss them well until we answer the gospel question. In order to answer this gospel question he says that “we need to go back to the Bible to find the original gospel” (24) and for those thinking they have the gospel down pat already McKnight offers a ‘well, sorry, but not so fast…’ McKnight then offers three exhibits that illustrate why he thinks we are off track.

Exhibit 1 is from a reader who wrote to question what the ‘good news’ was about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David. McKnight had a reaction of disbelief and I understand where he is coming from. At a church I was a youth pastor at during my undergrad I will never forget a very seasoned (and old) deacon, who had grown up in this little Baptist church, confessing to me that ever since he was a teenager he never could figure out why it mattered to us that Jesus was the Messiah. That was a Jewish message and we as Gentiles just need to focus on ‘Jesus in our heart.’ What’s more is the pastor, who had an MDiv from a large Southern Baptist seminary somewhere in general area of Texas, agreed with him! McKnight is correct, these instances reveal that what folks mean by gospel is far too often entirely about personal salvation and not Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The sad thing is that there are very likely many other Christians out there who also wonder what the gospel has to do Jesus being Messiah (thus demonstrating the gospel has flown right by them!).

Exhibit 2 concerns the ever influential (and very often controversial) John Piper. At a big conference in 2010 he asked a question: Did Jesus Preach Paul’s gospel? Piper examined Luke 18 and thankfully found that, yes, Jesus did preach Paul’s gospel of justification by faith. However, it seems that Piper may have gotten things a bit backwards. McKnight concedes that there are the makings of justification by faith in Luke 18 and that it is fair to ask “if Jesus preached a gospel like Paul’s.” But this isn’t the same thing as asking whether Jesus preached Paul’s gospel. Indeed, the more appropriate question is whether Paul preached Jesus’ gospel. And the other problem here is that “Piper’s assumption is that justification is the gospel.” McKnight contends (and I again agree with his contention here even though I am moderately Calvinist) that the Calvinist crowd in America (or more appropriately the neo-Reformed) has defined the gospel with the ‘justification by faith’ shorthand. But did the apostles define the gospel this way? And we must admit that there are hardly any instances of this favorite theological category in what are called the four Gospels.

Exhibit 3 concern a pastor McKnight ran into at an airport. When questioned about what he was reading McKnight told the pastor it was a book about the gospel. The pastor confidently stated the ease of defining the gospel and said confidently the gospel was ‘justification by faith.’ So McKnight asked him: Did Jesus preach the gospel? The pastor’s response was that Jesus could not have preached the gospel because no one could understand the gospel until Paul. Ummm, really? This is another equation of the gospel with ‘justification by faith’ and a rather stark admission by this pastor that because Jesus did not speak in these terms then he didn’t preach the gospel.

The result of this is McKnight’s claim that “the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about ‘personal salvation,’ and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making ‘decisions.’ The result is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles. The text or gospel story has disappeared and been buried under layers of ‘personal salvation’ interpretation. This has created a whole system or church culture that is doing precisely what it is programmed to do (ie, decisions that don’t seem to stick) because it is energized by a badly shaped gospel. McKnight concludes this chapter, “Our biggest problem is that we have an entire culture shaped by a misunderstanding of the gospel. That so-called gospel is deconstructing the church.” (27)

Chapter Two – Gospel Culture or Salvation Culture

McKnight opens this chapter by saying that evangelicalism is a gift to the church and world. And one of the gifts that McKnight says that evangelicalism offers is the conviction that personal faith is both necessary and nonnegotiable. The gospel is not for spectators. McKnight also mentions an Eastern Orthodox friend of his who admits that there are too many who have been ‘sacramentalized’ but not ‘evangelized.’ McKnight concludes that the sacramental process isn’t enough and that there must be a call for personal faith. As an aside here: I think we can also reverse this and contend that evangelicalism’s avoidance of the sacraments has contributed to what McKnight is calling a salvation culture – relegating them to mere symbol or mere ordinance. The sacraments (yes, I am Baptist!) of baptism and the eucharist are key for being incorporated into the biblical story, the story of Jesus, and the wider mission of God. We’ll talk more about this as we go along, specifically in the last chapter.

But while evangelicalism may be a gift it is far from perfect. “We evangelicals (as a whole) are not really ‘evangelical’ in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians.” (29) Drawing from the greek words euangelion and evangel (from which we get gospel) and soteria (from which we get salvation) McKnight makes the contention that the term at the heart of evangel-ical description does not really define evangelical identity. Instead, evangelicals ought to be called soterians (the saved ones) due to their over emphasis on personal salvation (and even here I think it can be contended that the evangelical ‘personal salvation’ is a reduction of a more robust biblical salvation). What has happened is that evangelicals have created a ‘salvation culture’ and have mistakenly assumed it is a ‘gospel culture.’ What’s more is that McKnight sees this salvation culture at work in more liturgical traditions as well as evangelicalism. The difference is that the former have trouble getting The Members to move on to the The Discipled and the latter has trouble getting The Decided to move to the Discipled. But if McKnight is correct then it seems that an overwhelming portion of Christianity (at least in northern America) has a discipleship problem. McKnight contends three things: 1) a salvation culture and gospel culture are not the same thing, 2) in equating a salvation culture and gospel culture we betray a profound lack of understanding of the gospel itself, and 3) we must create a gospel culture to move The Members and The Decided to The Discipled…ie, we need to (re)create a gospel culture and we need to go back to the Bible in order to do this.

Concluding Observations

Well, here are the first two chapters. I want to end with two brief notes. First an observation about McKnight identifying a problem in the emphasis on persons ‘deciding’ for Christ – or the salvation culture. McKnight shares about Pastor Eric in chapter 2 who does his best to ‘balance’ justification and discipleship, fearful that emphasizing discipleship too much will compromise salvation by faith. So, he goes back and forth because he has a salvation culture and not a gospel culture. I want to suggest here that there is a deformed ecclesiology that has been adversely affected by modern American individualism. In identifying a salvation culture versus a gospel culture McKnight is echoing the longstanding critiques of many concerning evangelicalism’s ecclesiology (or lack thereof!).

Second, I think we need to pay close attention to the evangelical propensity of leaving the biblical and gospel story behind and importing a systematic theology in its place which speaks to evangelical theological method. We have already seen this at work in these two chapters and the salvation culture McKnight identifies (based as it is on a de-storified or decontextualized ‘justification by faith’ theology) is a prime example of this. Evangelicals claim to be a ‘people of the Book’ (my own Baptist tradition uses this as a mark of pride) or a ‘people of the Story’. How ironic then that they have lost the biblical narrative/story to a systematic theology (and I say this as one trained as a theologian) combined with a lopsided emphasis on the individual experience of salvation and have as a result confused a salvation culture for a gospel culture.

A note before we go. Tomorrow will be fourteen years since my wife and I said I do and tied the knot. Seeing as it is our anniversary, and seeing as I want to have another next year, I will be spending the day with her. So, I will be back Wednesday sometime.

Oh, by the way, just to be official, I think I am supposed to let everyone 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 The Office, 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.