Scot McKnight believes that the most important question the church can ask today is: “What is the gospel?” If the church is “in a fog” about this question, we will not be a gospel people – a community of faith that lives according to the gospel and announces the good news to the world around us.

Scot’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Zondervan, 2011), seeks to answer the gospel question by transcending the tired debates between Jesus’ gospel (kingdom) versus Paul’s gospel (justification by faith). Scot believes there is only one truly biblical way to think about the gospel, and it’s to see that the one gospel proclaimed by Jesus Himself, the Gospel writers, the apostles in Acts, and Paul in his letters is Jesus as the completion of Israel’s story. 

In December of 2010, Scot wrote the cover story for Christianity Today, laying out this new proposal. We had a blog conversation about his article here at Kingdom People. The King Jesus Gospel is a book-length treatment of the main point expressed in the CT article. Scot is undergirding his proposal by showing why he believes it makes the best sense of the Bible as a whole as well as the Bible in its individual parts.

The King Jesus Gospel deserves an award for being the “most marked up” book I’ve read this year. I’ve got all sorts of passages highlighted, with notes in the margins, question marks here and there, exclamation points (both good and bad!), and worn-out pages. Put simply, I agree with much of Scot’s proposal, and yet there are places where I think he presses us into making some false choices. Today, I want to highlight the points of agreement. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at my concerns.

So, to start us off, here are four points that Scot makes and with which I am largely in agreement:

1. Evangelicalism has a problem, and the problem goes back to our conception of the evangel itself.

Like a skilled doctor, Scot’s diagnosis is right: we need to revisit the heart of Christianity in order to gain clarity on the gospel. The problem within many evangelical churches today is that we have a gospel-less culture. Why? Because the biblical gospel has not been at the center of our preaching and teaching. When people are fuzzy on what the gospel is, it’s no wonder they don’t live much differently than those who don’t know the gospel. And it’s really no wonder that they don’t share the message with others. To live according to the gospel, you have to know what the good news is. To proclaim the gospel, you have to know the gospel.

Pastors within the gospel-centered movement will resonate with Scot’s distaste for “decisionism.” McKnight may be an Arminian theologian, but he is as far from Charles Finney as you’ll get. He writes:

“Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.” (18)

True enough. But Scot is going further than just critiquing an obsession with numbers. He believes this lopsided understanding of Christianity is actually keeping us from making disciples:

“Focusing youth events, retreats, and programs on persuading people to make a decision disarms the gospel, distorts numbers, and diminishes the significance of discipleship.” (20)

Tough words. But don’t assume that Scot is content with a decisionless Christianity that is not centered on personal conversion. He chides the state church tradition (whether in its Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant form) for neglecting personal conversion:

“Making the conversion process automatic – and I’m doing my best to be dead-level honest in saying that – is disastrous for the vitality of faith and church life. This kind of gospel can deconstruct a local church, and I would finger this issue as one of the, if not the, origins of the demise of the church in European cultures.” (31)

Three cheers from this Baptist! Scot’s diagnosis is correct. Both extremes (automatic church membership and mere decisionism) usually fail to result in people becoming “The Discipled,” which according to the Great Commission, should be our goal.

Scot also points out the difference between “the gospel” and someone’s “method of persuading people to trust the gospel.” By canvassing the variety of evangelistic encounters in the New Testament, Scot is able to uphold distinctive methodologies in getting across the one message.

“Our preferred Method of Persuasion and the gospel are not one and the same,” he writes (42). “Methods shift and conform to the needs of the evangelist and the audience.” (32)

2. Going back to the Bible is the only way forward.

One of the hallmarks of The King Jesus Gospel is Scot’s looking to the Scriptures as our primary authority. Though he recommends studying the creeds, church history, and evangelical tradition, he clearly lifts up the Bible as the place where we will discover the biblical gospel and how it integrates the key themes of the Bible. In fact, “Back to the Bible” is one of the most common phrases in the book.

  • “We need to go back to the Bible to find the original gospel.” (24)
  • “… Our current answer isn’t biblical enough.” (24)
  • “My plea is that we go back to the New Testament to discover all over again what the Jesus gospel is and that by embracing it we become true evangelicals.” (29)
  • “We are in need to going back to the Bible to discover the gospel culture all over again and making that gospel culture the center of the church.”

Whatever one might think of the specifics of Scot’s proposal, it’s clear that sola Scriptura is a driving force in his work. So, naturally, he turns to the sections of the New Testament that most clearly lay out the basics of the gospel. In summarizing 1 Corinthians 15, he writes:

“To gospel is to announce the good news about key events in the life of Jesus Christ. To gospel for Paul was to tell, announce, declare, and shout aloud the Story of Jesus Christ as the saving news of God.”

In my opinion, the most helpful chapter in the book is “The Gospel of Peter,” in which Scot considers the oft-neglected sermons recorded in Acts.

“There are seven or eight gospel sermons or summaries of gospel sermons in the book of Acts… If we have any Protestant bones in our body, we want to know what they gospeled and how they gospeled, and we want our gospeling to be rooted in and conformed to this gospeling.” (115)

3. The words “gospel” and “salvation” are related, but they do not refer to the same thing.

One of the central contentions of The King Jesus Gospel is that the gospel should not be confused with its implications. It is somewhat odd to see someone outside of the Gospel Coalition stream making this case so forcefully, but that is what Scot is attempting. Readers will quickly see, however, that Scot is making the distinction between the gospel and its implications even sharper than his Reformed friends. The issue that will ruffle many evangelical feathers is that Scot thinks of “personal salvation” as an implication of the gospel, not the center of the gospel itself. Salvation flows from the gospel, but salvation is not the message of the gospel. Hear him out:

“We evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. Hence, we are really ‘salvationists.’ When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) ‘salvation.’ We are wired this way. But these two words don’t mean the same thing…” (29)

From a lexical standpoint, Scot may be right. The word “gospel” does not specifically refer to “my personal salvation.” Yes, the gospel secures my salvation. Yes, it is the power of God unto salvation. But it’s the message of Jesus that brings personal salvation, not the message of personal salvation itself. (Interestingly enough, Scot finds allies for this position in both N.T. Wright and John Piper, particularly Piper’s book God is the Gospel, in which he makes the case that the Person of Jesus Christ Himself is the good news, not just the saving benefits we receive from union with Him.)

But from a pastoral standpoint, I have some concerns about making distinctions this sharply. I wonder if in our parsing of these closely related words we aren’t separating what should be joined together. The gospel is the “word of salvation” after all, and it is the instrument by which we are being saved. All this leads me to think that we might be overlooking the biblical authors’ hints that “gospel” and “salvation” are more closely related than some exegetes want them to be. More on that tomorrow.

For now, let me express what I like about Scot’s proposal: he is seeking to show that the one gospel we believe in contains justification by faith and the coming of the kingdom, but that the specific message is bigger than both. He sees the good news as the announcement that the story of Israel is being resolved in the story of Jesus. That’s great, as long as we remember that the announcement is about Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners.

In other words, when considering the gospel, Scot claims that the way forward is not to ask, “Did Jesus preach justification?” or “Did Paul preach the kingdom?” The better questions to ask are “Did Jesus preach Jesus?” and “Did Paul preach Jesus?” Over against Bultmann, who argued that over time, the proclaimer of the gospel (Jesus) became “the proclaimed” (early church), Scot helpfully demonstrates that the picture of Jesus we see in the Gospels is of a Savior “who unequivocally and without embarrassment nominated himself for Israel’s president.” (105)

4. The gospel needs the Old Testament story in order to make sense.

One of the central points of my work on Counterfeit Gospels is that to rightly understand the gospel announcement (Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and exaltation), one must have some knowledge of the worldview, or Story, within which that announcement makes sense. I am on the same page with Scot when it comes to our need to place the gospel announcement within the context of the story. This is a refrain that Scot echoes multiple times in the book.

  • “This story is not the same as the gospel… The gospel only makes sense in that story.” (36)
  • “One reason why so many Christians today don’t know the Old Testament is because their ‘gospel’ doesn’t even need it.” (44)
  • “The gospel Story of Jesus Christ resolves or brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures (our Old Testament).” (50)
  • “Any real gospeling has to lay out the story of Scripture if it wants to put back the ‘good’ into the good news.” (85)

Scot is also right to note that the grand narrative of Scripture is not just the backdrop for the gospel but also the forward-looking story that culminates in final restoration at the end of time, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. When it comes to matters of life after death, final judgment, and hell, Scot doesn’t hold back.

“Gospeling must involve the Story of final judgment in order for humans to see that they ultimately will stand before God and not before a human tribunal.” (135)

He then quotes Jonathan Edwards approvingly, saying, “Perhaps we need more of Edwards today, not less.” (136)

Points of Concern

These are the four main areas in which I am largely in agreement with  The King Jesus Gospel. There are, however, a few points that cause me concern and may lead to unintentional confusion for the reader. I’ll elaborate on my concerns tomorrow.

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26 thoughts on “Scot McKnight and the "King Jesus Gospel" 1: Points of Agreement”

  1. Craig Hurst says:

    I found myself saying yes, yes and yes again to much of this book. I am going to quickly read through it again this weekend before I write my review. I look forward to seeing what you disagree with as I know the book is not without its faults though I dont think they are more significant than its benefits.

  2. Clay says:

    “Though he recommends studying the creeds, church history, and evangelical tradition, he clearly lifts up the Bible as the place where we will discover the biblical gospel and how it integrates the key themes of the Bible.”

    If Scot intends to drive home the importance of doctrine of Sola Scriptura, then he should not recommend that his readers study church history or tradition, since this doctrine exists nowhere in history prior to the reformation.

    As Augustine says, “…there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings…But the admonition that he [Cyprian] gives us, ‘that we should go back to the fountain, that is, to apostolic tradition, and thence turn the channel of truth to our times,’ is most excellent, and should be followed without hesitation.” (“On Baptism, Against the Donatists”, A.D. 400). And again, “But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the apostles themselves or by plenary (ecumenical) councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church” (“Letter to Janarius”, A.D. 400).

    1. simon says:

      Wow! I didn’t realise those errors of elevating tradition to the place of Scripture were creeping in so early and straying from the oldest sources of Apostolic authority we have in the NT

  3. Alan Cross says:

    Unlike you guys, I don’t have an advance copy, but I pre-ordered and should receive mine in the next day or two. I’m looking forward to it.

    Thanks for this review, Trevin. I am of the strange ilk that is able to reconcile Wright and Piper, the Kingdom and Justification by Faith, and see it all together in the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus. I am hoping that this book can capture that perspective, because that is how I read Scripture. Although, it is interesting, because I see both Wright and Piper saying that as well. Anyway, I am looking forward to working through McKnight’s perspective. Thank you.

  4. Rick says:

    Clay, Scot has written about this (sorry for the length). He wrote:
    “This fact must be admitted, for there is no way to deny it: the story we tell is the story the Church has told us to tell. We may capture it in our own little rendition, but the story we tell is an old, old story.
    In our zeal we may want to claim some sort of independence from the Church traditions and go straight to the Bible, but we cannot escape the creeds: we are a product of the creeds. Evangelical Christology is Nicean and Chalcedonian in essence (no pun intended).
    Baptists may have a “trail of blood” to find the first Baptist, and Lutherans may tell the story of a corrupted theology under the hands of Roman Catholic power-mongers, and the Anabaptists may complain until they die (which they will) that Constantine ruined the purity of the gospel – but however you trace the story, we Evangelicals tell the story of orthodoxy. And that story is that at Nicea, in 325 AD, the Church set out a creed that parted theological waters: those who were on the Lord’s side embraced Nicea and those who didn’t sided with oddballs like Arius. Orthodoxy means the “classic creeds.”
    If we pursue the wisdom of the creeds, it will mean that the first defense of orthodoxy begins by trusting that the God of history has guided his people into all truth through the Paraclete. In other words, it is to have a robust pneumatology and ecclesiology and a bibliology that follows from both. Pagels and Ehrman would argue that faith claims have no part in historiography; but both would then have to admit that if you bracket something out of the scope of one’s vision then you will envision only what is within the brackets…It is instinctual for us to appeal to John 16:13: “When the Holy Spirit comes he will guide you into all truth.” One who has struggled with this verse is the English Evangelical, Stephen Holmes, of King’s College London, and he concludes on this text the following:

    Just so, in theological work, the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth does not announce an overcoming of all problems or a final solution to every question, but instead an assurance where the truth or relevance of the gospel is at stake that God will not abandon us but will work providentially through the messiness of very human arguments and decisions to ensure that the decisions taken are not disastrous. [and he calls this]… a relative, dependent and partial authority, but authority nonetheless.”

    Two pages later he observes:

    I find it difficult to envisage a situation in which there could be sufficient evidence to doubt the Nicene Creed…. Its authority comes [not] only from the recognition that it is a remarkably successful repetition of central truths found already in the Bible, but because of that it has genuine authority as a privileged interpretation of Scripture, against which other claimed interpretations may be measured and tested…. That the Creed says x is sufficient reason to assert that x is true, theologically.

    Evangelicals are nervous about applying that very promise to anything outside the New Testament itself. Unless John 16:13 applies only to John’s own writings, then there is a case to be made, and I see it made in Andreas Köstenberger’s new John commentary, that this text refers to the ongoing providential sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church into the appropriation of God’s truth. And, if that is the case, then there is nothing more applicable, even for non-creedal types like most of us, than the historic, ecumenical consensual creeds of the early Church. And, assuming we are alike, the great insights of the Reformation.”

  5. Clay says:

    Ok, well excerpt doesn’t sound like Sola Scriptura to me. Trevin said Sola Scriptura was a “driving force behind Scot’s work”.

  6. Rick says:

    Clay-

    Does Sola Scriptura exclude tradition completely? That sounds more like Nuda Scriptura.

    1. simon says:

      No, Sola Scriptura does not exclude tradition, it just puts it in it’s proper place. It is a tower of sand picking what contradictory strand of tradition you will stand on and believe in without the Scriptures to determine what is true or not

  7. Clay says:

    Part of your quotation of Scot read, “…the first defense of orthodoxy begins by trusting that the God of history has guided his people into all truth through the Paraclete. In other words, it is to have a robust pneumatology and ecclesiology and a bibliology that follows from both.” I don’t think this statement is compatible with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, at least not as I understand that doctrine. For example, he says that evangelicals are “Chalcedonian”, but the doctrine of the dual human and divine natures of Christ that came out of that Council cannot be deduced from Scripture. The Monophysites had just as much Scriptural support for their beliefs as did the Dyophisites. Additionally, if someone believes that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church into all Truth, on what basis does someone accept the Council of Chalcedon but reject the Second Council of Nicea, which speaks of the necessity of the use of icons in Church worship, which was universally accepted by the Church? I don’t see how someone can have a “robust pneumatology and ecclesiology”, seriously study Church history, and still hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

  8. Nick Charalambous says:

    Brilliant. A very helpful summary. Encouraging to discover that all the various streams of thought about “Gospel-centeredness” seem to be naturally coming together in this era of recovering Biblical faith …

  9. Rick says:

    Clay-

    The widespread interpretations of those who hold to Nuda Scriptura is even more of a problem.

    Sola S. may be better said as Prima Scriptura under Scot’s definition.

    The apostolic teaching is that of Scripture. It is that in which the community of faith, over time, dwells upon and interprets, which is what equals tradition.

    Scripture is still the final authority (at least as seen as shorthand for God’s revealed authority).

  10. Clay says:

    Wow – Nuda, Sola, Prima! Reformed and always reforming as they say. Sounds exhausing :)

  11. Randy says:

    Does Sola Scriptura exclude tradition completely? That sounds more like Nuda Scriptura.

    The question is not whether you exclude tradition completely. It is whether you exclude it arbitrarily. If you find it useful you appeal to it. If you don’t you ignore it. You have no principle making you give it any weight.

    Both Sola Scriptura and Nuda Scriptura reduce to the same thing if you look at them this way. The Sola Scriptura person respects tradition more but only because he chooses to. He does not have a consistent principle that makes him exclude less. He just does because it seems right to him.

    It is like someone who accepts 90% of scripture versus someone who accepts 50%. Neither forces himself to believe a given truth of scripture. They leave themselves an out. One uses it more frequently but neither will close it off.

  12. Rick says:

    “The question is not whether you exclude tradition completely. It is whether you exclude it arbitrarily”

    And how do you determine which tradition(s) is useful?

  13. Clay says:

    Rick – I think Randy may be speaking of “tradition” in a different sense than you. “Capital T” Tradition” is seen not as man-made “lower-case-t” traditions, but as the revelation of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church. In that sense, Tradition is not just useful, it is necessary and authoritative. The Tradition includes the Bible, but there is much more to Tradition that just what is written down in the Scriptures (see my Augustine quote above). So it is not about determining which traditions are useful based on whatever set of criteria, but how we can know and where we can find the Tradition?

  14. Rick says:

    Clay-

    I am using it in the context of the Wesleyan Quad.

    Tradition is useful and helpful, and we are all impacted by it.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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