This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2013 vol. 170 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News RevisitedZondervan, Grand Rapids September 20, 2011
Scot McKnight, respected biblical theologian and professor of religious studies at North Park University (Chicago), seeks to reorient understanding of the “gospel.” He is urged on by two major evangelical thinkers. In the first foreword, N. T. Wright opines that the evangelical understanding of the gospel “has shrunk down to a statement about Jesus’ death and its meaning, and a prayer with which people accept it” (p. 13). Dallas Willard in a second foreword expresses similar concern that popular conceptions of the gospel produce “massive nominal, non-disciple ‘Christianity’ ” (p. 15). With these openers, McKnight then argues that the gospel is the full-orbed story of the triune God restoring humanity into the image of God.
McKnight clearly affirms that a person must be born again to be reconciled to God. This, he insists, is a given (p. 28). But if believers are to be called “evangelicals” (from eu[angelion), then they must present the entire gospel of the Scriptures rather than merely the plan of personal salvation. By emphasizing only conversion, many evangelicals, he suggests, might better be termed soterians (“the saved ones”).
The author targets the doctrine of “Pastor Eric,” who insists that “the gospel is not a call to imitate Jesus,” “not a public announcement that Jesus is Lord and King,” “not an invitation into the church,” and “does not involve a promise of the second coming” (p. 33). All this, according to Pastor Eric, is important theology but the gospel itself is the good news that Jesus died and rose again to save people from sin (pp. 32–33). While desiring to see a robust faith that leads to discipleship, Pastor Eric worries that “if he presses discipleship too hard, salvation by grace and by faith alone will be compromised.” “His gospel is a ‘salvation culture’ gospel instead of a ‘gospel culture’ gospel” (p. 33).
Attempting to correct this perspective, McKnight declares, “In this book we want to show that the gospel of Jesus and that of the apostles, both of which created a [holistic] gospel culture and not simply a [decision-oriented] salvation culture, was a gospel that carried with it the power, the capacity, and the requirement to summon people who wanted to be . . . the Discipled” (p. 33). Thus the true “good news,” the author affirms, must be understood within the greater story of the Bible because “without that story there is no gospel” (p. 36). For McKnight, the story of Israel is “completed” by the story of Jesus as coming Messiah and Lord with His kingdom vision (p. 37). The cross and the resurrection constitute a part of that story of Jesus from which then comes the plan of salvation. In itself the plan of salvation does not include discipleship, obedience, or justice (p. 40), whereas the gospel does. Thus, “when the plan [of salvation] gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. . . . 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” (p. 62). McKnight concludes that the four Gospels serve as examples of “gospeling”—the proclaiming of the full good news (p. 90).
The early church developed, McKnight argues, a full-bodied, biblical gospel story through the apostles, the rule of faith, and the great Christian creeds. With Augustine, however, the concept of “gospel” began to veer toward a doctrinal program of salvation. A millennium later, the idea of gospel appears dominated by the theology of personal salvation as seen in the Augsburg and Geneva Confessions and the doctrines of the Anabaptists (pp. 70–73). Wesley furthered the experiential emphasis so that the core Christian message was reduced, in the words of Dallas Willard, to “the gospel of sin management” (pp. 75, 144). McKnight wants to affirm evangelical soteriology but to broaden the concept of the gospel to include the declaration of the kingdom of God breaking into history with Jesus as Lord. Thus one may say that Jesus Himself preached the gospel because He preached of the kingdom being fulfilled in Himself (p. 100).
In the chapter “Gospeling Today,” McKnight summarizes the task of evangelism. (1) The gospel is to be “framed by Israel’s Story: the narration of the saving Story of Jesus—his life, his death, his resurrection, his exaltation, and his coming again,” which is “the completion of the Story of Israel” (p. 132). (2) The gospel centers on the lordship of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, Lord, and God. (3) Gospel presentations involve “summoning people to respond” (p. 133). (4) “The gospel saves and redeems. The apostolic gospel promises forgiveness, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, and justification” (p. 133).
Much is helpful in this work as the author presents a greater, universal vision of the gospel that extends far beyond the doctrine of individual redemption. McKnight expresses considerable appreciation for Darrell Bock’s Recovering the Real Lost Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2010). Both works place the plan of salvation as part of a larger concept of gospel, but Bock speaks of the cross and resurrection as the hub of the gospel that spans out to all creation, whereas McKnight is less clear about the relationships of the plan of salvation within the larger story of Jesus and the story of Israel.
It is odd that McKnight while arguing for a big-picture “gospel” repeatedly equates the term “salvation” with personal salvation, something neither Old nor New Testaments do (as McKnight well knows). The plan of salvation ultimately touches every aspect of creation and therefore looks a lot like the gospel of the kingdom McKnight seeks to describe. Yet his main point is that the gospel centers in the person of the Lord Jesus, not just in Jesus’ substitution for sin.
Several assertions of the book leave one uneasy. First, McKnight maintains that the gospel includes the discipleship of the believer (though actual regeneration, as he notes, is by grace alone). However, from this reviewer’s perspective the “good news” of the New Testament always announces God’s grace from above to believers below; it is a “top down” grace, whether in the provision of individual salvation or the establishing of God’s kingdom on earth. Human response (discipleship) to the good news complements but is not integral to the good news itself.
Second, it seems that McKnight has essentially removed any easy way to recount the gospel to an unsaved person. His concluding chapter reiterates, “There is no way to reduce this [gospel] to four points, and there is also no way to sketch the gospel in a minute or two. To grasp the gospel we have to grasp what God is doing in this world, and that means we’ve got a story to tell” (p. 148). McKnight then retells the gospel story in a way that sounds much like, well, Scot McKnight (pp. 148–55). True, the gospel is more than the contents of a booklet, and the gospel should be presented ideally through the wide-screen biblical narrative (as pioneer missionaries have done for decades). But how does anyone briefly share the good news with an unbeliever? For all its ills, evangelicalism has exploded worldwide in the last sixty years in part by making the plan of salvation simple, accessible, and transferable. Seeing the plan of salvation as the hub of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1–5), many readers will continue to announce the gospel but now, thanks to McKnight, will better understand and present it within the larger biblical story and centered in Jesus’ person as well as His work.
This leads to a final concern. McKnight uses the term “story” hundreds of times throughout the book. In “The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony” (Christianity Today, July/August 2012), Leslie Fields observes that story is all the rage in recent years, with dozens of authors exhorting believers to retell the old, old story. Surely some of this is helpful. But Fields notes that large tracks of both Old and New Testaments are not narrative, but psalms, proverbs, parables, prophecy, apologetic, and doctrine. Story alone does not carry the weight; rather story itself needs interpretation (theology). Therefore, when speaking the biblical story, one might ask, Whose version of the grand story gets it right? Is the story of Jesus the completion of Israel’s story, as McKnight argues? Or does the story of Jesus establish the basis for the renewal of the story of Israel? (After all, it is good news to Israel too.) The concept of story can easily reduce to each person’s own interpretation of the story.
The King Jesus Gospel does much to pull readers back from reductionist gospel formulas and to help them proclaim both the person and work of Jesus Christ as the center of God’s salvation in the world. He is Lord. The gospel centers in Him and the greater revelation of the triune God in saving creation. McKnight’s writing is personal, endearing, and delightful to read. The discerning reader will have much to enjoy.
—J. Scott Horrell