Book Review: The King Jesus Gospel

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

“What is the Gospel?”

Before you get too far into this blog, I would encourage you to pull out a piece of paper or pull up a word processing screen and try to answer this question yourself.  It is the question at the heart of The King Jesus Gospel (KJG), by Dr. Scot McKnight, professor at Northpark University and author of numerous books and the widely read blog, Jesus Creed.

Now, if you have written/typed out your own Gospel summary (as Dr. McKnight urges in ch. 1), ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of my gospel is about Jesus and how much is about me (how I respond, benefit, etc.)?
  • Is the Old Testament irrelevant and unnecessary to my gospel?
  • Do I have trouble figuring out how a life of discipleship fits with my gospel?
  • How easily does my gospel fit into the message of the Gospels, Acts, Paul, and the creeds of the early church (Nicene, Apostle’s, etc.)?
  • Does my gospel have trouble fitting in biblical concepts like Israel, Messiah, Lord, Resurrection, or final judgment?
Largely speaking as an evangelical to evangelicals (see this definition footnoted in the book), Dr.  McKnight laments,
 ”I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about ‘personal salvation,’ and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making ‘decisions.’  The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles…Our system is broken and our so-called gospel broke it.  We can’t keep trying to improve the mechanics of the system because they’re not the problem.  The problem is that the system is doing what it should do because it is energized by a badly shaped gospel.” (26)
And so, KJG is Dr. McKnight’s call and attempt to un-reshape our gospel so that it reflects the gospel of Jesus and the early church.  Recovering this gospel is critical to if we hope to dissolve many of the American Church’s sources of division and confusion or at least have a better framework to address those that are left.   What do I think?…
1) The King Jesus Gospel does get at the heart of the Church: our message and mission.  As an alum of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Campus Crusade for Christ as well as a near-lifetime member and now a pastor in the United Church of Christ along with having experiences in a variety of other American Christian contexts, I can agree that our gospel(s) are often “pale reflection[s] of the gospel of Jesus and the apostles” (24).

As Dr. McKnight points out, whether it is the “4 Spiritual Laws” or some form of liberation theology, our niche gospels tend to cause us to twist or ignore other parts of the Bible’s story.  Dr. McKnight warns us against binding the gospel to our methods of persuasion or a system of theological facts, confusing the gospel with the personal benefits the gospel might bring (ie. justification by faith/forgiveness of sins), and making the gospel more about me and how I respond than it is about Jesus.  Rather, he wants us to see the gospel of the New Testament as a story, namely “the Story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s Story” (see diagram). Only when we understand Jesus as a part of the Bible’s Story can we understand him as a part of our individual stories.  Beyond that, KJG is a call to let the biblical gospel form our gospels instead of taking one particular way of communicating the gospel, one particular way of responding to the gospel, or one particular way of experiencing the gospel as the whole of the gospel itself.  Looking at the divisions and strange renditions of the gospel within the American Church, it is hard to ignore the need to examine the gospel at the heart (hopefully) of our church communities.

2) For all of Dr. McKnight’s passion for clarifying  ”gospel,” however, I wish he had been as careful with “salvation.”  He readily notes that he is using the term “salvation” only in the manner in which he sees it typically used in evangelical circles (eg. “I got saved at a revival meeting when I admitted my sins and accepted Jesus as my Savior”).  But even with this acknowledgement, KJG neglects the wonderful dimensions of “salvation” in the Bible’s Story.  I understand the difference Dr. McKnight highlights between Christian communities that overly focus on who is saved/in or unsaved/out and gospel cultures that embrace real discipleship (see diagram); I would just rather he did not dub the former “salvation cultures.”

By using “salvation” as shorthand for “a personal decision in which I admit my sin and receive Jesus as Savior,” now “salvation” is getting hijacked right along with “gospel.”  I would rather we recover the richness of “Salvation” in the Bible’s Story.  In fact, one might accurately say that the Story of the Bible is a Salvation Story–a bigger category than “gospel.”   Jesus’ name means, literally, “Yahweh Saves.”  Biblical salvation, I believe, has individual, communal, societal, ecological, and cosmic layers that are being mined and lived out within our church communities as we speak.  Perhaps Dr. McKnight might find a term with less biblical richness to describe communities focused solely on the personal/individual dimensions of the term.
3) A couple years ago, I downloaded an mp3 called “Scot McKnight on the Whole Gospel,” and as I listened, I thought, “This is good news!”  I believe Dr. McKnight has a great gift for gospeling (his term for evangelism or telling the gospel story), and that was a big part of my desire to read KJG.  Some of the themes I heard in that mp3 are drawn out in KJG as well, and they are some of my favorite moments in the book.  In many ways, the theme of the book is that the gospel is a story (Jesus’) within a story (the Bible/Israel’s) that only makes sense within that story and should be told as a story.  As Dr. McKnight writes,
“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” (62).
Are logic, propositions, rationality, and even abstractness bad things?  I don’t think so, and I don’t believe Dr. McKnight thinks so either.  Certainly, propositions can help our minds to understand truth and I would hope that rationality should play some role in what we choose to believe.  But, what happens when we trade the gospel story for gospel facts is that we are really preparing for a test be taken, not a life to be lived.  Dr. McKnight wants to invite us into a gospel life.  Any reader will benefit from having him take us back to the beginning of the Story and God’s purpose for humanity (to be his representatives: Eikons/Priests), so that we can then see why and how the Story of Jesus restores us to this purpose.  In other words, God did not create humans so that we would simply not be sinful.  He created us for something far more wonderful.  And while sin gets in the way and thus must be dealt with, that is not the end of what Jesus came to do.  This is the problem with a gospel that is a “Good-Friday-only gospel” (55) or a gospel that is restricted to “justification by faith alone.”  I would encourage anyone to read or listen to a little gospeling from Dr. McKnight!
4) As a corollary to the last point, I am grateful to Dr. McKnight for generally not falling into the black hole of false dichotomies that plague theological, psychological, political and lots of other “ical” debates in our culture.  ”This, not That” is not the tone of KJG.  Rather, we are asked to consider “That in the context of This rather than This in the context of That.”  In essence, he wants to let Paul, Jesus, and the apostles of Acts define the gospel for themselves before we compare them to each other.  And in so doing, Dr. McKnight convincingly argues that the whole New Testament, quite cohesively, proclaims the Story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Bible’s Story.  That, then, is the gospel.  And from that foundation, we are invited to draw out the implications the gospel has on our personal standing before God, society, ecology, and more.  This is a very specific gospel with magnificent implications.  And I think that Christians along the American Church spectrum would do well to consider taking this approach to the gospel rather than choosing one of the implications and calling it “the gospel.”
5) One question that arose for me in my reading of KJG was whether “The Story of Jesus has resolved Israel’s Story!” really glows as good news to the average person in our culture.  We must consider that most of the sermons in Acts were reinterpreting and applying the Story of Israel for Jews who pretty well knew that story.  Dr. McKnight is a gifted teller of the gospel story as I have already indicated.  What I would ask, though, is whether the gospel story isn’t more of “The Story of Jesus resolving the World’s Story.”  In fact, I might say that the New Testament (from Jesus to Peter to Paul) critiques Jews who failed to understand Israel’s Story in the context of the World’s Story.  This is really the Story I hear Dr. McKnight telling as he “sketches the gospel” in chapter 10.  As we understand how Israel fits into the World’s Story, then we can see how Jesus enters into and resolves both.  This, I believe, is the ultimate in Good News.
In his foreword, NT Wright describes “the revolution that Scot is proposing” as “massive” (12).  Yet, as helpful as I found this book for some of the reasons mentioned here and more, I’m not sure I agree that it is a “massive revolution.”  Since I “joined” the evangelical world about 9 years ago, I have heard many voices discussing a more robust and biblical understanding of the Gospel, decrying a “gospel of sin-management,” demanding that we develop a vision of God’s work that takes into account the whole Story.  And Dr. McKnight not only cites, but introduces us to many of these voices.  I don’t think KJG is revolutionary…and I think that’s a good thing.  We don’t need more people distinguishing themselves and their ideas from everyone else’s.  We need more people who are contributing to the community of God’s people by calling us into the real Story and helping us to live out the implications of that Story in creative, dynamic, and transformative ways.  Scot McKnight has been doing that for years, and it is this spirit that comes through in KJG.
Personally, I think evangelicalism is doing a pretty fair job of critiquing itself in this cultural moment, and KJG is a positive building block in that process.  I would like to see how KJG would be applied to the blind spots in Christian communities beyond evangelicalism.  How does this speak a prophetic word to a progressive Christian community like the United Church of Christ, or an emergent Christian community, or rural, suburban, and urban Christian communities?  I would appreciate Dr. McKnight’s perspectives in these different contexts.  For now, I look forward to taking The King Jesus Gospel as excellent groundwork to examine the gospel at the heart of the community in which I live and serve  as we seek to develop a culture that proclaims, lives, and reflects the gospel story of Jesus.
See excerpts, summaries, and even more from Scot McKnight on The King Jesus Gospel:
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8 Comments

  1. admin says:

    I made a couple changes to the blog’s settings that apparently kept people from commenting. I’ve since fixed that, and will put a couple of those comments below with the name of the comment-maker:

  2. admin says:

    Luke: Sounds like an interesting book, I’ll have to look at it. It sounds similar to “Jesus Manifesto” by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola where their call is to end division by getting back to Jesus. That book I found to be simplistic and dismissive of the real problem. The problem is not that people aren’t “with Jesus” the problem is that people are “with Jesus.”

    Jesus is the problem! Our interpretation of him is the seed of every argument IMHO.

    So when the comment is made: “As Dr. McKnight points out, whether it is the “4 Spiritual Laws” or some form of liberation theology, our niche gospels tend to cause us to twist or ignore.” I shutter.

    How do we go about getting to “Jesus?” The historical method? The catholic one? The creedal Jesus? The gospel Jesus? All of these present different Jesi (my plural for Jesus) and they can’t be reconciled. In fact, John can’t be reconciled with the synoptics without some mental gymnastics and generous apologetics that I want no part of.

    I think that’s why the theological worlds are so important. They name our biases that we bring with us to Jesus and how we interpret him through. Liberation theology, you’ll find, is largely World 2 but not strictly. They have all the other worlds in various forms operating. I believe Lib. Theology is extremely important yet it must be balanced. Lib Theology is definitely a part of Jesus’ theology as well as well as the others too.

    Getting beyond the “gospel of me” is very important and that’s a claim I’ll stand along side. But any claim that “we just need to get back to Jesus” I almost automatically dismiss based on the issues above and I hope that’s not a claim that the books makes.

    1. admin says:

      I believe part of our task IS getting to the real Jesus. Or, letting the real Jesus reveal himself to and in us. How? All of the above, prayerfully, humbly, with self-awareness and guidance by the Spirit. It’s messy. But that doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary. I personally think that the differences between the Jesus portrayed in the creeds, John, and the synoptics are overblown. The interpretive problem is real, but it is ours more than the biblical/creedal writers. (obviously, this is a longer discussion)
      As far as Liberation theology, I am familiar with it, and find great value in it as I find great value in “justification by faith.” What I (and McKnight) would prefer to avoid is saying that Gospel=Liberation theology or Gospel=Justification. Instead, he suggests saying Gospel –> justification, liberation, mission, etc.
      My questions to you would be: How do you propose we avoid following our own personal Jesus?

      1. Luke says:

        I agree that getting to the real Jesus IS our task.

        In every relationship, do we ever really get to know, I mean FULLY know, another?

        I am always surprised by Kate, delightfully so many times. What I try to resist, which I see your post and comments back is: “Don’t take your partial view for the whole thing.”

        Yet exploring things like Liberation Theology and other theologies, help us uncover more about Jesus, help us see him in new ways.

        “I personally think that the differences between the Jesus portrayed in the creeds, John, and the synoptics are overblown.”
        -this makes me cringe a little bit. There are real differences, which are to be expected as those writing these things all had different relationships with Jesus and each were living relationships. Yet Mark is NOT John and no where near Nicaea. Yet there are common threads, but the cleansing of the temple can’t kick off AND end Jesus’ ministry; historical discrepancy that must be dealt with and where you land says a lot about your theology IMHO.

        So my answer to your question of “How do you propose we avoid following our own personal Jesus?” would be to quote Psalm 119:2: “Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart” note: it does not say “find him.”

        If we think we have the infinite God completely figured out and our theology is the best and most comprehensive with no room for surprises, then it is not a relationship with the living God, but an idol that should be smashed. There must be surprise, seeking and finding, knocking and receiving, and the openness to the grace and forgiveness offered as well as a want to give that same grace to others, not with a club, not with empty threats of eternal damnation, not saying “because you’re divorced/outside our denomination/non-creedal/wrong gender/sexual orientation/race/nationality/etc. God’s grace is not available to you. God is God and we are not, God’s grace and who gets it or doesn’t is not up to us, love and service are.

        1. Luke says:

          Hit enter before I meant to.

          Ending is “we avoid following our own personal Jesus” by entering into communion with one another, by talking with each other about our relationships with Jesus and how that influences our relationship with each other. One method that helps that is the Theological Worlds

          1. admin says:

            I hope people read these comments, because I always feel like we get deeper and clearer as we go.

            To join in the cringing, I don’t really know any people (personally) who claim that the Scriptures give us full knowledge of God or that they know or can know God fully. But just because I do not/cannot know Lauren (my wife) fully does not mean that I cannot know her truly. And in fact, there are very true (accurate) and false (inaccurate) ways that I can perceive her.
            Mark is not John because their relationships with Jesus were different and because their approach to communicating Jesus were different. But that does not mean they communicate a different Jesus. The communicated differently about Jesus. In other words, I don’t feel that when I am preaching Jesus from Mark or John, I am preaching a different Jesus, but maybe a different dimension of Jesus.
            I’m a fan of theology and looking at different theologies. I’m a fan of discussion. And I think community is necessary for theology. But I still think the Scriptures are the beginning point for those conversations, and the standard. Because we all know that we can have community idols as well. The Scriptures are not exhaustive, nor is my interpretation of them. And different perspectives/theologies drive me back to the Scriptures to see if they are challenging me to grow or expand my understanding of God/mission. That’s why I think evangelicals have done a pretty decent job of self-critiquing (though not fully or as quickly as some would like). They have seen how the Bible itself talks about justice and liberation as well as justification, etc.
            But one last time, McKnight’s book is not about whether liberation or justification are implications of the Gospel, but whether they ARE the Gospel in themselves, which is the exclusive/reductionist perspective that we are both criticizing.

          2. Luke says:

            “I don’t really know any people (personally) who claim that the Scriptures give us full knowledge of God or that they know or can know God fully.”
            -I know a few from seminary and a few from blogging… I have nothing nice to say, so I’ll stop there.

            “Mark is not John because their relationships with Jesus were different and because their approach to communicating Jesus were different… does not mean a different Jesus”
            -Good point, I largely agree. I think that’s one thing that really drove me crazy in seminary and with many scholars in general (Bart Ehrman in particular) that one difference automatically means another Jesus. Timelines are different, events are subtracted from or added too. Mark’s Jesus is very practical and down to earth yet John’s Jesus is very other-worldly and anti-THE JEWS. Some of that is different takes on the same dude, and other parts of that is the writer adding in emphasis. This of course, constitutes heresy in the aforementioned tribe, but it’s accepted in academia almost totally.

            Yet it’s important to keep the “feedback loop” going. Going for scholarship should drive one back to scripture and scripture should drive one into scholarship and both of those things should drive one into community with others doing the same thing. It has for me and it has opened me up beyond my exclusive/reductionist view that I used to have and in some parts, am tempted to believe. Esp. when the reductionist really supports my predisposed tendencies and/or prejudices.

            That my friend is the tricky part.

            I hope people read these comments as well cause, not to brag or anything, this is some pretty good stuff ;-)

  3. admin says:

    Scott Savage (www.thejoshuacollective.com) Wanted to say thanks for linking to my blog on Dallas Willard. Enjoyed your review of McKnight’s newest work. I was unaware of it until now! Have a great weekend.

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