Judging by the attention, Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel, has something important to say. Indeed, what could be more important that an attempt to revisit “the original gospel,” as the book’s subtitle invites us to do, since the apostle Paul told us that the apostolic gospel is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3)? McKnight’s book joins several other recent attempts to define or rediscover the biblical gospel. The contemporary evangelical fascination with defining the gospel signals a positive development, it seems to me: evangelicals are returning to first principles in their churches and ministries.
I want to offer some reflections on one of the book’s main themes, namely, the relationship between individual salvation and the story of Israel. In short, my thesis is that McKnight’s proposal, while offering a helpful corrective to some popular “de-storied” presentations of the gospel, overstates his case by separating the story of Israel from the promise of individual salvation. Several reviewers have pointed out that McKnight’s proposal seems to present a false choice: either we choose a story gospel or a salvation gospel. The gospel is either about Jesus completing the story of Israel or about individual salvation. We are either evangelicals or “soterians”—-those who believe the gospel is about personal salvation. McKnight believes that “soterians” (most if not all of The Gospel Coalition, he observes) have neglected the four Gospels because of their emphasis on justification and the Pauline corpus (25-26, 78-79). So I take up McKnight’s challenge of seeing the gospel in the Gospels by making my case primarily from the book of Matthew.
To be sure, McKnight is not denying the importance of personal salvation or justification. He simply does not believe that these saving realities constitute the gospel. They are instead the result or purpose of the gospel:
This Plan of Salvation is not the gospel. The Plan of Salvation emerges from the Story of Israel/Bible and from the Story of Jesus, but the plan and the gospel are not the same big idea (39).
But it is one thing to say that the gospel is broader than the message of personal salvation. It is quite another to claim that the plan of salvation simply is not the gospel and that evangelicals who preach the plan of salvation are not preaching the gospel. Trevin Wax has helpfully summed up the problem with this distinction between story and salvation: “The big story that the Bible is telling is a story of salvation.” This observation provides the starting point for my critique, but it needs a bit of fleshing out. One of the ways that we might demonstrate the salvific nature of the story of the gospel is to examine the relationship between individual salvation and the story of Israel, as it is understood by the New Testament authors, more specifically, by Matthew the evangelist.
Dichotomy Doesn’t Do Justice
A dichotomy between story and salvation doesn’t appear to do justice to the ways in which Israel’s expectations of the kingdom are transformed by Christ and his apostles. McKnight argues that the gospel is the story of Jesus as the completion of Israel’s story. So far so good. But what does this statement actually mean for Jesus and the New Testament writers? How does Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring Israel’s story to its climax and appointed end? Does it mean what most first-century Jews thought it would mean? Does it mean that Jesus comes to bring a political victory for Israel? Does it mean that he overthrows the Romans and sets up his rule in Jerusalem? In one sense, the answer to these questions is yes, but in another sense, not the way everyone expected. The Christian interpretation of the kingdom of God does not leave behind these Jewish trappings, but it does significantly transform a common first-century understanding of them.
The structure of Matthew’s Gospel illustrates this transformed Christian understanding of God’s promise to Israel. In Matthew 1-4, Jesus is clearly presented as the True Israel—-the true and faithful Son of God. He is the “son” who is called out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15). Like Israel, he safely passes through the waters of judgment (his baptism; Matt. 3:13-17) before entering into a wilderness testing of 40 time-units (his temptation; Matt. 4:1-11). He is presented as the true Son and the faithful covenant partner with Yahweh. And he intends to bring the good news of God’s kingdom to Israel (Matt. 4:17). He sends out his disciples to preach and heal—-but only among the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10).
However, Israel as a whole—-represented by her religious leaders—-rejects the message of Jesus, and they determine to destroy him (Matt. 12:14). Matthew 13, then, marks a decisive turning point in the Gospel, when Jesus ceases to speak plainly to the crowds, choosing instead to speak in parables and to interpret them privately to his disciples. Furthermore, it is no accident that he chooses 12 disciples, mirroring the number of tribes in Israel, as a way of prophetically enacting his reconstitution of Israel—-not around Abraham but himself. Descending from Abraham does not automatically grant one membership in the people of God. As John the Baptist had declared, God could convert stones into children for Abraham (Matt. 3:9).
Instead of ethnicity, personal trust in Jesus and his gospel becomes the line of demarcation for the people of God. Jesus invites his hearers to cast off their burdens and find their Sabbath rest in him (11:28-29). And he extends this message of mercy outside the boundaries of Israel. In one striking episode, Jesus takes pains to show that a Canaanite woman, who seemingly ought not to be an heir to the promises to Israel (she is a “dog,” not a child), is nevertheless accepted because of her faith in Jesus’ power (15:28). This focus on individual faith does not lead to individualism, however, because Jesus intends to establish an ecclesia—-an assembly, a church—-that confesses him as the Christ (Matt. 16:18) and gathers together in his name (Matt. 18:20). The story climaxes in the forgiveness-purchasing death (Matt. 26:28) and victorious resurrection of Christ. A final judgment and restoration of all things will come to Israel and the world (Matt. 25:31-46), but not before the message of Christ is proclaimed to all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). So we see that the story of Israel is fulfilled in Jesus, but not in the way the way that many expected.
Not All Israel Belongs to Israel
The payoff of this brief reflection on Matthew’s understanding of the gospel story is simply this: the true Israel—-the true people of God—-comprises those who personally place their trust in Christ and his gospel, not necessarily those who are ethnically descended from Abraham. To put it in Pauline terms, not all Israel belongs to Israel. There is a true circumcision that is not based upon physical circumcision. It is based on an individual experience of God’s electing, forgiving, and transforming love in Christ. So the story of Israel is, in a sense, narrowed to Christ himself so that it might be broadened to the whole world—-to both Jews and Gentiles who trust in him. Note that in Luke’s Gospel, he shows these universal human implications by taking Jesus’ genealogy back behind Abraham all the way to Adam (Luke 3:23-38). Jesus comes to solve not only the problem of Israel but also the problem of sinful humanity. (It is perhaps telling that McKnight subsumes his discussion of Adam under the heading “The Story of Israel.”)
My guess is that McKnight might agree, at least in part, with this explanation. But I think that this transformed understanding of the story of Israel, as presented by Christ and the apostles, makes it difficult to parcel out the message of individual salvation from the gospel. That is, it is very difficult to untangle the gospel as good news of fulfillment for Israel from the gospel as good news of salvation for individuals. The Christian understanding of “Israel” and the kingdom that Christ establishes does not seem to allow such a neat distinction. The gospel ultimately concerns historical and cosmic realities, but not abstracted from individual salvation and, yes, even atonement and justification. Just as we should not abstract individual salvation from the big story of the Bible (as McKnight rightly reminds us), neither should we subordinate individual salvation to a depersonalized story. Story and salvation belong together.
In the end, McKnight might find more allies for his robust, whole-Bible presentation of the gospel (he offers a helpful summary on pp. 148-53) if he would avoid the tendency of overstating his case by pitting the story of Israel against the message of individual salvation when defining the gospel. Yes, the gospel is more than a message of personal salvation, but biblically it cannot be less.