Yesterday, we began looking at Scot McKnight’s provocative new book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Zondervan, 2011), in which he gives us his answer to the important question: “What is the gospel?” I laid out four points of agreement with Scot’s proposal.
- Evangelicalism has a problem, and the problem goes back to our conception of the evangel itself.
- Going back to the Bible is the only way forward.
- The words “gospel” and “salvation” are closely related but do not refer to the same thing.
- The gospel needs the Old Testament story in order to make sense.
Today, I hope to articulate a few of my concerns regarding The King Jesus Gospel. I agree with Scot that we can’t afford for the church to be “in a fog” about the gospel, which is why I have appreciated books such as What Is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert, Recovering the Real Lost Gospel by Darrell Bock, and why I have attempted to delineate between true and counterfeit gospels myself. But I worry that there are some places where The King Jesus Gospel might lead to increasing fogginess rather than clarity. Here are three concerns:
1. Sharp Distinctions Can Lead to Subtle Distortions
One of my quibbles with the whole “keep the gospel and its implications separate” discussion within the gospel-centered movement is the unfortunate tendency for very important things to get diminished over time. A few months ago, I had a robust dialogue with John Starke on why we should never let the church (gospel community) out of sight when thinking about the gospel announcement of Jesus crucified and raised. I agree that certain distinctions must be made, and yet I want to stay true to the way the Scriptural authors hold the announcement and its purpose (creation of the church) together. Making too sharp a division is more problematic than keeping them too close together.
Now, Scot is essentially taking the “gospel and its implications” discussion one step further, separating even personal salvation from the gospel announcement. To be fair, Scot does not in any way seek to diminish the saving effects of the gospel. He writes:
“The Plan of Salvation flows out of the Story of Israel/Bible and the Story of Jesus. The Bible’s Story from Israel to Jesus is the saving Story. Just as we dare not diminish the importance of this Story if we wish to grasp the gospel, so also with the saving effects of the story.” (37)
So far so good. But then Scot writes this:
“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)
From an exegetical standpoint, I agree that the gospel can’t be reduced to the Plan of Salvation. The gospel is the saving story of Jesus Christ, which results in salvation. It’s not the order of salvation itself or a plan for sharing the gospel. And yet, in 1 Corinthians 15, it seems clear to me that Paul has in mind Jesus’ work and its application to sinners. It’s both Story and Plan, not either-or.
In short, the Bible doesn’t separate the story from its significance for sinners. Both are included in the apostolic proclamation. Scot’s decision to so sharply distinguish between the gospel and its saving effects is ultimately unhelpful. It seems to set up categories needlessly, and even when we don’t intend to set up false dichotomies, we wind up with them anyway. Case in point:
“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. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of salvation.” (62)
I don’t think we have to pit a propositional presentation of the gospel against the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We need the Story so that the gospel doesn’t get reduced to merely a System, yes. But both are important, biblical, and clustered together when it comes to the apostolic thinking about the gospel.
It’s clear that Scot is seeking to avoid reductionism. He writes:
“We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my own personal salvation.” (62)
But I fear that he is being reductionistic on the other side of the debate, framing the gospel in such a way that personal salvation is minimized. Like N.T. Wright, Scot is saying that soteriology is not the gospel. But when I examine the sermons in Acts or the letters of Paul or even the preaching of Jesus, I don’t see Story and Soteriology separated. Instead, I see them so deeply intertwined that we can’t grasp one without the other.
Don’t get me wrong. Scot is not denying the saving effects of the gospel. He writes:
“The apostolic gospel, the gospel that Paul ‘received’ and ‘passed on’ to the Corinthians, like every other apostolic church then and forever, is a gospel that has at its center that Jesus died ‘for our sins,’ and this death achieved the forgiveness of sins. As such, this story saves and brings people into the kingdom of God and ushers them into eternal life.” (88)
And he is right to see proper gospel proclamation as calling for a response. He goes so far as to state:
“There is no such thing as gospeling that does not include the summons to respond in faith, repentance, and baptism.” (127)
That’s the heart of an evangelist speaking, for sure! But even in his discussion of evangelism, he pits Jesus as Savior against Jesus as Lord:
“The gospeling of Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior.” (133)
Even though he immediately follows up that statement by saying, “We are not creating a false alternative here,” I worry that most people will choose one alternative over the other.
Sharp distinctions can sometimes lead to subtle distortions. Baptists who too sharply distinguish between repentance and baptism can unintentionally minimize the importance of baptism. Christians who too sharply distinguish between the gospel and its purpose (the church) can unintentionally minimize the importance of the church. And too sharply distinguishing between the gospel and personal salvation can lead us to unintentionally minimize the importance of justification by faith alone. That’s my next point.
2. Don’t Neglect the Power of Justification by Faith Alone.
It’s hard to imagine Scot McKnight agreeing with Martin Luther that the article of justification by faith alone is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls. I am not calling into question Scot’s view of justification or his Protestant credentials. I know that justification is part of his theology. He affirms the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. He even argues for double imputation as a result of union with Christ.
My concern with The King Jesus Gospel is not that justification is denied or distorted but that it’s not as central in Scot’s understanding of the gospel as it was for the Apostle Paul. Granted, I am not equating justification with the gospel. The gospel is what saves. Justification is how one is saved. But surely these things are inseparably connected. Otherwise, how do we interpret Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where a denial of justification by faith is tantamount to denying the gospel itself?
Of justification, Scot writes:
“The Plan of Salvation leads to one thing and to one thing only: salvation. Justification leads to a declaration by God that we are in the right, that we are in the people of God; it doesn’t lead inexorably to a life of justice or goodness or loving-kindness. If it did, all Christians would be more just and more filled with goodness and drenched in love.” (40)
It seems that Scot thinks we’ve overemphasized justification at the expense of the broader, all-encompassing good news of Jesus as the climax of the Old Testament story. But I sense that Scot is underestimating the power of justification by faith alone when he says, “it doesn’t lead inexorably to a life of justice or goodness or loving-kindness.” For Scot, the solution is to look elsewhere for results. In my mind, the solution is to be better grounded in the reality of justification by faith alone, which – when properly understood – awakens our affections to the goodness of God shown to us in the face of Jesus Christ in such a way that we are led to a life of goodness. In my opinion, we need more emphasis on justification nowadays, not less.
3. A View of the Story That Is Not Soterian?
One of the central claims of The King Jesus Gospel is that evangelicals have missed the biblical gospel by reducing it to a plan of salvation. We’ve made our own personal salvation so central that we deserve the label “soterians.” Scot wants us to frame the gospel according to the Old Testament storyline rather than according to our need for salvation. He writes:
“The apostles were not like our modern soterians because they did not empty the gospel of its Story, nor did they reduce the gospel to the Plan of Salvation. In fact, the apostles were the original, robust evangelicals. It all has to do with how the gospel is framed.” (117)
Agreed. That’s why I mentioned yesterday that one of my points of agreement with Scot is that we need the Story in order to make sense of the Jesus announcement. But then I read this:
“Gospeling was not driven by the salvation story or the atonement story. It was driven by the Story of Israel, and in fact makes most sense in that story.” (134)
“Look again at that gospel summary in 1 Corinthians 15: there is nothing direct about being reconciled to God or to others, nothing direct about being declared righteous, nothing about God’s wrath being pacified, and nothing about being liberated from our entrapments to sin, self, the system, and Satan.” (134)
It seems to me that this kind of statement does not take into account Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ’s death was “for our sins,” which has Old Testament echoes of Isaiah 53 and which Paul unpacks in more detail in other texts. “For our sins” is freighted with soteriological meaning.
The heart of my differences with Scot’s proposal is not in defining the word “gospel.” It’s not in the gospel announcement’s need for the Story. It’s in the way we read that Story. There’s the rub. The reason I think it’s ultimately unhelpful to distinguish between a story gospel and a soterian gospel is because I think the story is soterian, that is, the grand narrative of Scripture is telling us about God’s glory in saving sinners through the cross and resurrection of His Son. The heart of Israel’s story is hope for salvation delivered by the coming Messiah-King.
When I read the Old Testament narrative, I can’t get through the Pentateuch and not tremble at the thought of standing before God without an animal sacrifice. I can’t read the story of Judges without shuddering at the pervasiveness of sin and the need for a Messiah-King. I can’t read Isaiah and not recognize my need for a righteousness that comes from outside myself.
Scot reads the announcement of 1 Corinthians 15 and wants to emphasize that Jesus is Messiah and Lord. I see the announcement of 1 Corinthians 15 as the gospel presentation by which we are being saved. The big story that the Bible is telling is a story of salvation – its promise and provision through the coming kingdom of a crucified Messiah. And this is why pitting the Old Testament storyline against atonement theology makes little sense to me. It’s not just that I view the gospel as a soterian. I view the story that way as well.
Overall, The King Jesus Gospel has been one of the most thought-provoking, challenging, and stimulating books I’ve read this year. Scot McKnight is prompting some good (sometimes strong) conversations. I hope that this review has been a charitable exercise in encouraging one another along as we seek to be true to the original gospel of the apostles.