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on October 11, 2011
The King Jesus Gospel is Scot McKnight's latest contribution to the field of New Testament studies, and seeks to answer the question:
What is the Gospel?
His basic thesis is clear: Evangelicalism in particular is guilty of an extreme over-emphasis on getting people to make a decision about Christ, while the apostles were far more concerned with making disciples. In fact, McKnight asserts that "evangelism that focuses on decisions short circuits and aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles" (18).
However, our obsession with getting others to make a decision for Christ quickly loses steam. In fact, studies show that "the correlation between making a decision and becoming a mature follower of Jesus is not high" (19). These disturbing trends has led McKnight on a journey to better understand what the gospel is and what evangelism is, while at the same time embrace a style of evangelism that leads beyond decision to discipleship.
Salvation-culture or Gospel-culture:
The primary issue underlying this dilemma is ultimately a hermeneutical (interpretive) one relating specifically to our understanding of gospel. McKnight's contention is that the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about 'personal salvation,' and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making decisions. This hijacking means that the word gospel no longer means what it originally meant to both Jesus and the apostles. By equating the word salvation with gospel, we have essentially diluted the meaning of gospel and have created a salvation culture more than a gospel culture. In this climate, we are far more concerned with counting numbers and have an unhealthy interested in trying to determine who is in and who is out. And, while salvation is part of the gospel, it does not require the decided to become the discipled, and virtually ignores Jesus' emphasis on following.
What is the gospel?
McKnight contends that Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; 3-5 and 20-28, recites the apostolic gospel tradition and therefore provides his readers with the essence, shape and form of the original gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ.
What does this gospel look like?
that Christ died, that Christ was buried, that Christ was raised, and that Christ appeared.
The gospel, then, is the story of the crucial events in the life of Christ. Instead of the 'four spiritual laws' held up by so many in the salvation culture, the earliest gospel centered on the four events or chapters in the life of Jesus Christ.
Historically, the word gospel meant to 'announce' something, to 'declare' something as good news. And, to 'gospel' is to proclaim something about something. As a result, the gospel is to announce "good news about key events in the life of Jesus Christ" (51). And, while this story includes salvific elements, the story swallows up this salvation component and makes it flow from it rather than dominate it.
The gospel then is the story of Israel that finds its resolution or completion in the story of Jesus. The whole story is told from this perspective so as not to narrow the story to 'four spiritual laws.' By emphasizing the original apostolic gospel as Paul recited it in 1 Corinthians 15, we can re-capture the essence of the story and re-create a gospel culture that includes, but also transcends, the salvation-culture that has come to define much of contemporary Christianity. The danger of focusing on the latter (what McKnight also refers to as a 'plan of salvation' culture), is that we run the risk of preaching the 'plan of salvation' apart from the story. Yet, when this happens,
"the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. When we separate the Plan of Salvation from the story, we cut ourselves off from the story that identifies us and tells our past and tells our future. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of Salvation" (62).
As I mentioned already, this emphasis has lead to the creation of a salvation culture that is foreign to the gospel culture found in the Bible; an emphasis that tends to focus on who is in and who is out.
From these foundational comments, McKnight moves through the remainder of the book to help us to better understand what the essence of the gospel is, what 'gospeling' should look like today, and how to create a gospel culture. He concludes his final chapter by offering a sketch of the gospel and then demonstrates how a gospel culture can emerge from that culture in a series of practical ways.
After reading McKnight's excellent book One.Life (which immediately preceded this book and attempted to answer the question, what is a Christian?), I was excited to move on to The King Jesus Gospel. I was not disappointed.
This book articulates a response to questions about how the gospel has been reduced to create a salvation-culture in much of contemporary Christianity, and particularly within Evangelicalism. Thankfully, McKnight's book has provided a series of thoughtful, balanced and biblically informed answers to those very questions. In fact, I believe the book has expressed what many people have believed for some time.
The King Jesus Gospel attempts to restore the original framework of the gospel by anchoring it within the apostolic witness, specifically Paul's creedal recitation in 1 Corinthians 15. By pointing us back to this witness, McKnight desires to recapture the meaning and significance of the original 'good news' and convince his readers to embrace for what it is, the full gospel. Any other gospel, specifically a salvation-culture-gospel such as ours, not only dilutes the original message, but adds a meaning and emphasis to it that the original never had.
While the results vary, the primary consequence of this over-emphasis is a church culture that has lost its memory about what the good news actually consists of. The orientation of the gospel has always been and should always be centered on making disciples. While Jesus and the apostles always called for a response to the good news, the call never usurped the story of the gospel by creating a 'system of salvation' that ultimately ignored the call to follow.
In a salvation culture, 'accepting Christ into your heart' has become the only necessary step in salvation. The result has been four-fold: a partial and inaccurate telling of the story; a cheapening of the gospel by denying its costs/demands; a lack of focus on discipleship (following); and an unhealthy interest in counting 'salvations' (who's in and out). As a result of this orientation, we have created a culture of people who lack an understanding of the gospel and its implications, while also creating a false sense of security.
However, by placing discipleship within the summons, we make the call more complete and people begin to understand the significance of the decision to follow from the very beginning, rather than sometime later.
In The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight offers us a way forward by encouraging us to embrace the whole gospel of Jesus Christ; an embrace that includes a summons to follow Him as Messiah and Lord, but one that also includes an understanding of what that summons entails.
I highly recommend this book as essential reading for everyone who desires to better understand, re-capture and embrace the original good news of Jesus Christ. The book will illuminate and confront a wide variety of shared assumptions people have about the gospel, and offer a way forward by providing a more thorough and biblically-informed foundation for belief and practice. If read widely, this book has the potential to begin a conversation that could ultimately bring about a contemporary reformation; one that includes a return to the original good news that Jesus is Lord.