From the Kindle Shelf: The King Jesus Gospel, Part 1

(After a rather extended hiatus, the blogging returns. Entries will be intended to generate discussion of ideas, or as in the present case, books that seem to warrant our attention. This is an invitation to read along as a community. You are welcome to follow the discussion without reading, but please note that fact if you care to comment.)

Most Christians are aware of Paul’s admonition–a rather sharp one at that–to pay no heed to “another gospel.” Even if the apostle himself were to offer a version of the good news differing from that which he had already announced, the new was to be rejected and its purveyor anathematized (Gal. 1:6-10). Serious stuff! And I readily admit that such warnings come to mind whenever I hear of the gospel being reimagined, reinvented, restated, or otherwise reworked for a contemporary audience. Is it still the real thing being offered? As one who has being teaching theology for a couple of decades, a sort of default skepticism attends my reading of authors such as MacClaren, Bell, Jones, etc. They do not demonstrate to the academic mind that they have sufficiently wrestled with the history and philosophy at play in the church’s continuing interaction with the cultures to which it bears witness, or with the biblical text itself. Such writers are provocative, and often in helpful directions; but the claims they make often outrun the warrant they are able to provide.

But there are other, far more significant voices (in the academic sense) calling for a reexamination of the content of our proclamation. N.T. Wright comes to mind, as does Miroslav Volf and a host of others who have indeed done their academic homework. Included in this category is Scot McKnight, whose recent bookThe King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Zondervan), argues that modern evangelicalism has short-changed both the church and the culture by proclaiming a truncated, incomplete word about salvation as the good news itself. To be specific, the author alleges that justification by faith, while being part of the church’s message, is not the gospel itself. And the contemporary malaise of the church is due in no small measure to this erroneous substitution of a part for the whole. Today we’ll be considering the first two chapters of McKnight’s thesis (I would also commend the reading of introductory words by N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard).

To many contemporary evangelical believers and teachers, suggestions such as the one McKnight puts before us sound alarmingly like a different gospel. To such Christians the very idea that the doctrine of justification by faith is not the heart of the gospel, the thing in a nutshell, is virtual if not outright heresy. If the author is successful in establishing his thesis, however, he will demonstrate that it is the contemporary evangelical version of the gospel that deserves to be called “different” and therefore rejected. The good news, according to McKnight, is inseparable from the identity of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.

Chapter One begins by asking the central question: what is the gospel? (See earlier posts on this blog for a discussion of the same question) McKnight approaches the question by way of three anecdotes, all of which exhibit various levels of struggling over the assumption that personal salvation from sin is the real core of the gospel. It is accessed through one’s faith decision in the substitutionary death of Christ, and it places the decision maker in the class of justified individuals. The first instance is one in which a person wonders why there is a connection between “Messiah” and “gospel.” The second and third deal with whether or not Jesus preached Paul’s gospel (!) of justification by faith; one, a prominent teacher (John Piper) saying that he did, on the basis of Luke 18, and the other stating outright that Jesus couldn’t have done so because no one could have understood it before the cross and resurrection. While the latter case may seem extreme, one wonders whether or not the version of the gospel carried around among many believers has no larger role for Jesus than this–he came to die. Neither his own past nor the history of God’s work in and through the nation whose Messiah he was has anything of significance for the meaning of the good news; he didn’t even have to know it or preach it himself. In other words, the real gospel is found in Paul’s writings.

In the second chapter McKnight draws the distinction between a “gospel culture” and a “salvation culture.” The former is a culture of discipleship; the latter one of decisions. In drawing the distinction he claims that contemporary evangelicals who reduce the gospel to a call to a personal salvation decision are more properly thought of as “soterians” (from the Greek word for salvation, soteria). The interesting move in the chapter is in placing such an approach alongside the more sacramentally oriented Christians of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. Both the decisionists and the sacramentalists are pre-occupied with defining who is “in” and who is “out.” Both are to be contrasted with a true gospel culture of discipleship. It is not incidental that both types of salvation cultures exhibit the same (woeful) rate of retaining converts, whether they are made through decisions or sacraments.

Chapter two also serves as the backdrop for three essential points McKnight wishes to establish in the remainder of his book:

1. A salvation culture and a gospel culture are not the same.
2. In thinking our salvation culture is identical to a gospel culture, we betray a profound lack of awareness of what gospel means and what a gospel culture might mean for our world today.
3. We are in need of going back to the Bible to discover the gospel culture all over again and making that gospel culture the center of the church.

I am looking forward to both the reading of the rest of the book and the interaction other readers will bring as we work our way through it together. As a first response, where do you see your church experience being centered–in a salvation culture, where defining who is in and who is out are primary, or in something else?