King Jesus Gospel, Part 3

We’ve been (slowly, at the request of a few and due to a minor eye injury) reviewing Scot McKnight’s recent book, The King Jesus Gospel. Though today’s post will deal only with Chapter 5, the pace will pick up in the days ahead. Look for daily posts, covering longer sections hereafter.

It’s a daunting task to convince people that their understanding of the gospel has been somewhat, if not significantly, distorted. Of course–does not our very salvation rest upon this? And have we not been faithfully repeating and living out what we have received from our faithful and trusted pastors and teachers? If any author is to be taken seriously in making such charges, that author is going to have to establish his case in both history and the Bible itself; we should have no interest at all in new gospels (this, by the way, is a major problem in Rob Bell’s Love Wins). McKnight recognizes and accepts the challenge. Chapter 5 of King Jesus tackles the history problem; subsequent chapters locate his idea of gospel in the four New Testament witnesses to Jesus, life, death, and resurrection.

For some Christians, especially those who have studied seriously in a seminary, the fifth chapter is a review of things already learned regarding the early Christian witness to the gospel, and how the biblical summaries, such as 1 Cor. 15, are reflected in the teachings of the church fathers of the first generations of believers. The creeds of the church were developed in order to be summations of faith’s content; their being parallel to Paul’s gospel is surely not accidental. This is what Christians believe–the story of Jesus incarnate, living, teaching, healing, dying, rising, and ascending, located specifically within a trinitarian framework. McKnight recognizes, however, that this history and its valuation of the creeds is not something many contemporary Christians are familiar with. He speaks for many who have known only those forms of church that speak of the creeds as man-made theological sophistry and obfuscation, rather than as summaries proclaiming the gospel itself–“gospeling” in his word, evangelizing in other words.

So what happened? If the creeds tell the gospel, and reflect the fact that the church was a gospel culture, how did the salvation culture grow up and eventually it, and in the process change the understanding of what the gospel itself is? McKnight, somewhat reluctantly, lays much at the feet of the Reformation and its formulations of the faith. To put it briefly, foundational documents such as the Augsburg, Genevan, Helvetic, and Westminster Confessions move the story of Jesus from its central place in Christian identity, putting other propositions into prominence. What other propositions? Those dealing with the Bible itself, the fallen and futile nature of man, salvation in Jesus, regeneration in Jesus, righteousness in Jesus, and the remission of sins. The point is not that any of these are incorrectly spoken. The point is that the focus has shifted from the story of Jesus to the story of man. And this proves to be decisive in that the test for membership in the church shifts from “I confess”–that is, I “say together with the church” that Jesus is the truth–to demonstrating that “I have had this experience.”

What many of us as leaders and teachers have struggled with is the consequence of this shift. Our churches and congregations are defined by the emphasis on salvation rather than on the story of Jesus itself. That is, we have taught that what one needs to have a certain experience–and we do not know what to do with them after they take us seriously. What’s left after the altar encounter, after the praying of a sinner’s prayer, after a testimony not of Jesus, but of what Jesus has done to guarantee heaven? The best we can do is encourage them to hold on tightly until they collect on the promise when they die. Salvation has usurped the place of the story of Jesus–and a skewed version of salvation at that.

While McKnight does not draw out all of the implications, I think a few stand out. One of them has to do with who is doing the proclaiming. Anyone can preach the salvation gospel and get people “saved” in that sense; and the number of churches (including my own denomination to my great dismay) have succumbed to this view. If the goal is to preach a salvation message and then let people to their best to manage sin (McKnight refers to that phrase used by Dallas Willard to highlight this phenomenon) until they die, no special efforts at training need to be made. But if we are truly interested in restoring a gospel culture, where the making of disciples overshadows the making of decisions, we will need people who know the story of Jesus inside and out, not only that they may declare it, but that they may identify the competing thoughts and ideas so prevalent in the culture of the world we live in. Come to think of it, this one implication is enough for the day. And I’m very interested in your thoughts about it.