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#1. Book Review: “The King Jesus Gospel. The Original Good News Revisited.”Scot McKnight.

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Scot McKnight. The King Jesus Gospel. The Original Good News Revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 184 pages.

McKnight contends that the gospel message proclaimed in many North American Evangelical churches falls short of the robust good news presented in the Bible. The emphasis that Evangelicalism places upon an experience of personal conversion, although necessary, important and biblical, leads to diminished focus upon discipleship and a “salvation culture” within local churches. So long as the decision for Jesus occurs, what happens after tends be given less attention. People press for a decision, but not a life-time of discipleship; they have opted for simplicity, but in so doing evacuated the gospel from its larger biblical context. He embraces Dallas Willard’s critique of current gospel presentations, namely that they often reduce the New Testament gospel to “the gospel of sin management.”[1] Current gospel presentations are consumed with the issue of whether a person is in or out, about making a decision (33). He traces the roots of the current “salvation culture” to Reformation emphasis upon personal salvation (71) (something he regards as necessary, but limiting) and the subsequent presentation of the gospel in American revival movements. To address this shortcoming McKnight proposes that Evangelical churches must “create a gospel culture” (32). He believes that Jesus intended his good news to generate “a gospel culture and not simply a salvation culture….the power, the capacity, and the requirement to summon people who wanted to be ‘in’ to be The Discipled” (33).

For McKnight the gospel Jesus preached “is the saving Story of Jesus completing Israel’s Story, and Jesus clearly set himself at the center of God’s saving plan for Israel” (111). After a careful review of Paul’s presentation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, he concludes that “the gospel for the apostle Paul is the salvation-unleashing Story of Jesus, Messiah-Lord-Son, that brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures of the Old Testament” (61). This ‘story’ only comes to completion when Jesus returns and God is “all in all.” After reviewing Peter’s presentation of the ‘gospel’ found in the speeches of Luke-Acts, he concludes that “Peter’s Jesus of Nazareth, the one who lived and died and who was raised and ascended and enthroned, is both Messiah of Israel and Lord of the whole world” (122). The story the apostles “were telling of Jesus was the old, old Story of Israel now coming to its resolution point in Jesus because he was the true King of Israel” (123). Salvation “flows from that story” (131) about Jesus, but “that story is both bigger than and framed differently from the Plan-of-Salvation approach to the gospel” (131).

McKnight includes two other elements as critical to a ‘gospel culture.’ Gospel must include “summoning people to respond” (133) to the good news that Jesus, Paul, Peter and the other apostles proclaimed. We have not proclaimed ‘gospel’ until we have urged people to respond in faith to Jesus and embrace him in baptism. In addition, the implications of the ‘gospel’ for forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, justification and obedience must also be presented because “the gospel saves and redeems” (133).

In a chapter entitled “Gospeling Today” McKnight presents six comparisons between what he regards a current methods of ‘gospeling’ and the ‘gospeling’ described in the New Testament. By this comparison he seeks to define the deficiencies of the current salvation culture and urge a more complete understanding and presentation of “the Gospel.”

McKinght’s final chapter suggests some actions Christians can take to develop a “gospel culture” within their congregations. First, we have to recover a more complete presentation of the Gospel that incorporates the four elements previously identified. McKnight offers a sample presentation, one that he considers faithful to the apostolic gospel we find expressed in the New Testament. Second, he offers five specific actions. “To become a gospel culture we’ve got to begin with becoming a people of the Book, but not just as a Book but as a story that shapes us” (153). If biblical and theological literacy are key to developing and expressing a gospel culture, “we need to immerse ourselves even more into the Story of Jesus….we need to soak ourselves in the Story of Jesus by reading, pondering, digesting, and mulling over in our heads and hearts the Four Gospels” (153). Only in this way can be discern what Jesus defined a Christian to be. We also “need to see how the apostles’ writings take the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus into the next generation and into a different culture, and how this generation led all the way to our generation” (155). Jesus’ story continues in the story of the church. As well, “we need to counter the stories” that “refuse entrance to the gospel story…or seek overtly to destroy that story” (157). Such opposed stories include individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, scientific naturalism, postmodern tribalism, etc. (157). And lastly “we need to embrace this story so that we are saved and can be transformed by the gospel story” (158). A true gospel culture will result in our personal transformation by this gospel, demonstrated “by serving others in love and compassion” (160).  

McKnight writes out of deep familiarity with and concern for the 21st century church, particularly as he has watched the development of emerging and emergent church movements. He appreciates their emphasis upon the Kingdom elements of Jesus’ message, as well as their desire to recover and express a counter-cultural gospel. However, he is also concerned that the gospel be fully biblical.

A few observations are in order, however. First, the proposed continuum from the ‘members’ to the decided to the discipled (30) begs the question as to the point at which a person becomes a disciple of Jesus. On the one hand he presses for a biblically robust understanding of the gospel and in the New Testament, particularly Acts, followers of Jesus are called “disciples.” We do not find the term “disciple” occurring in the letters of Paul, Peter, James or John, but they have other expressions that define Jesus’ followers. On the other hand McKnight seems to regard “the discipled” as a distinct category among Jesus’ followers, i.e. the decided, whom the New Testament categorizes as disciples. Further, I am not sure McKnight at any point provides a specific definition of “the discipled.” Discipleship in the New Testament begins when one becomes part of God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ and finds its initial expression in baptismal commitment.

In his presentation of “the gospel according to Paul” McKnight focuses on the summary provided in 1 Corinthians 15. But we should remember that it is a summary. In his epistle to the Romans Paul takes considerable effort to define in a much fuller sense what “the gospel of God” entails (Romans 1:1). The core ideas Paul expresses in Romans cannot then be incidental to the gospel, but must be for Paul central. McKnight references material from the Romans epistle occasionally in his chapter on Paul’s gospel, but not often. And so he looks at the gospel summary of 1 Corinthians 15 and concludes that it has “nothing direct” to say about being reconciled to God, being declared righteous, God’s wrath being pacified, or liberation from sin, self and Satan (134). But 1 Corinthians 15 was not the only thing Paul wrote about the gospel. I think this leaves him open to the same criticism he levels against those involved in “salvation culture,” namely not giving the full story of Paul’s Gospel. When defining Paul’s gospel, why not use his most mature and complete expression as the basis for its exposition? Further, according to his fourth segment of the gospel “bundle” (132-33), “the apostolic gospel promises forgiveness, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, and justification.” So he recognizes that these are critical parts of the gospel, even though he denies that gospel was driven “by the salvation story or the atonement story” (134) and this “absence stands proudly alongside the gospel summary of 1 Corinthians 15:3” (134). There seems to be some tension here that needs clearer resolution.

Was the gospel story in Acts “driven by the story of Israel?” (134). I think one can say that this was the framework used when the audience primarily was Jewish. However, Peter’s gospel presentation to Cornelius (Acts 10) and  Paul’s presentation of the gospel in Lystra (Acts 14) and in Athens (Acts 17) betray little dependence upon the story of Israel. It would seem that Peter and Paul could contextualize their presentations of the gospel so that its primary essence could be grasped by non-Jews, who had little awareness of the story of Israel. McKnight seems to overlook this (134-35) and its possible implications. Undoubtedly for those who “decided” for Jesus, the essential linkage of the gospel with the story of Israel was soon explained.

My last comment would be that McKnight does not provide much guidance about where one develops a “gospel culture,” i.e. the reality and necessity of the church, the people of God, as a fundamental purpose for God’s actions in Jesus Messiah. On pages 137-142 he concludes that the gospel “puts us in the co-mediating and co-ruling tasks under our Lord Jesus” as the people of God. And on pages 155-156 he states that Jesus’ “story was to continue in the story of the church.” Finally, on page 159 he exclaims that “a gospel culture is a church culture, and it is a church culture that is being transformed – together – into a gospel culture….” However, I am still left quite uncertain what changes his proposed gospel culture will require a local church to embrace or how a local church organizes itself so that it will be a true, genuine expression of this gospel culture. Yes, baptism and communion will be part of this – but most local churches practice these rituals already. What needs changing? Is it the preaching. or the way a local church perceives its ministry in its community, or its equipping of “the decided,” or the way it is organized, or something else? I am left with many questions, but few answers.

The most encouraging aspect of McKnight’s book, however, is his strong emphasis upon biblical and theological literacy and the personal application of gospel truth as necessary for believers to become “the disicpled.” McKnight’s desire for Evangelicals to preach, teach and live a biblically-defined gospel is worthy of careful consideration.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, Cal: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 35-59.

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