McKnight, Scot. The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
This is a timely book. Why? Well, there are many people seeking to define “the Gospel” today. Often they focus upon some aspect of the Gospel or another Christian doctrine to the extent that the Gospel itself is minimized. Other proclaim a Gospel that looks nothing like what we fine Jesus, Peter, or Paul preaching. Some may think there are already too many books on the Gospel being published right now, so what does this book contribute or did the author want to earn a dollar while the subject was an easy sell? I think this book is different and I think McKnight gets right what we must get right— it’s OK if there are disagreements in some of the details.
What is the Gospel?
McKnight asks a question that most evangelicals think we know. Yet as he shows through case studies we haven’t thought through this very well (see pp. 24-27 or an example here). Often our definition of “the Gospel” makes one wonder what to do with the preaching of Jesus, or the fact that the first four books of the New Testament are called “the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John”. Sometimes our “Gospel” is conflated with justification by faith. All of this shows that for many evangelicals our “Gospel” may not be the Gospel at all. At best, it is part of the Gospel, or a result of the Gospel, but not the Gospel.
Evangelicals or Soterians?
In Chapter Two “Gospel Culture or Salvation Culture” McKnight (rightly in my opinion) argues that we have conflated the Gospel to be about salvation alone. Some like Trevin Wax (see “Scot McKnight and the ‘King Jesus Gospel’ 2: Points of Concern”) have felt that McKnight’s distinction here could have a negative impact on Gospel proclamation leading to a division between the Gospel and salvation. I understand his concern, but I think McKnight is clear that it is the Gospel that leads to salvation. He is combating a culture that thinks the Gospel is how I get into heaven and out of hell. This makes the Gospel merely a formula about “personal salvation” (what McKnight calls “The Plan of Salvation”). When we realize what he is critiquing it is easier to avoid false conclusions about what he is saying.
The Gospel Story.
McKnight writes, “To set the stage for defining the gospel we need to distinguish four big categories…” (p. 34) (see Jesse Richards fine summary here) These are the categories:
Some of these things are not the Gospel, but we need all of them to understand the Gospel. First, we need the story. If you can define the Gospel without mentioning Abraham, Israel, David, or anything related to the Hebrew Scriptures, you may not have the Gospel!
For McKnight it is Israel’s story that gives context to the life of Christ. It is from the life of Christ that the Gospel become a means to the Plan of Salvation and it is upon all these things that we determine our method of persuasion (or how we “package” the Gospel, p. 41).
The Gospel according to Paul.
For McKnight Paul’s Gospel receive succinct summary in 1 Corinthians 15.1-5, 20-28. In this passage he points out that (1) the gospel is “gospeled” (vv. 1-2); (2) it is a tradition handed from one generation to another; one person to another (vv. 1-5); (3) it is defined as Christ death, burial, resurrection, and appearance; (4) it is grounded in Israel’s Scripture (Paul writes “according to the Scriptures” in vv. 3-4); (5) “salvation flows from the gospel” because “Christ died for our sins” in v. 3 among other observations; (6) Jesus completes Israel’s story; (7) Jesus the Lord, Savior, Son of God, Messiah is the center of the Gospel; and (8) 1 Corinathians 15.28 shows that the Gospel determines the end of all things: resurrection, renewal, judgment (pp. 47-57).
What is important to realize is how Paul focuses upon the aspects of the Gospel that many evangelicals notice (death, burial, and resurrection) but he frames it differently. The events matter because of the person involved. They are about Jesus!
The Gospel and the Gospels.
If we proclaim the Gospel as about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus while focusing on the events rather than the person we will have a hard time answering this question: “Have you ever wondered why the first four books of the New Testament are called ‘the Gospel'”. (p. 79)
McKnight provides direction:
“If you want to read the gospel,
hear the gospel,
or preach the gospel,
read, listen to, and preach the Gospels.” (p. 80)
According the McKnight the four Gospels are about one Gospel. It is the Gospel according to Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John…not the Gospels. What makes the Gospel of the Gospels the same as the Gospel of Paul?
“….the Gospels are about Jesus, they tell the Story of Jesus, and everything in them is about Jesus.” (p. 82)
The Gospel according to Jesus.
Did Jesus preach the Gospel? Well, did Jesus preach himself? If so, he preached the same Gospel of Paul and the Evangelists. While Jesus’ Gospel focuses on the Kingdom of God it also centers the Kingdom on himself and his actions.
The Gospel according to Peter.
Did Peter preach the Gospel? In the Book of Acts there are many “sermons” recorded and these sermons begin with Israel’s story and they climax with Christ. When these sermons contain calls for response to the Gospel it is believe, repent, and be baptized: Believe in Christ, repent and turn to Christ, and be baptized unto Christ.
What you’ll discover when reading this book is that Jesus is the center of the Gospel. If Paul is preaching about Jesus’ resurrection he is preaching about Jesus. If Peter is preaching about how Jesus fulfills Israel’s hopes he is preaching about Jesus. If Jesus proclaims himself as God’s Kingdom agent he is preaching about Jesus.
To preach the Gospel is to preach Jesus.
According to McKnight the Gospel is (1) “framed by Israel’s Story“; (2) the gospel “centers on the lordship of Jesus“; (3) it “involved summoning people to respond”; (4) “the gospel saves and redeems”. (132-133) To preach the Gospel is to preach Jesus. As McKnight says, “Anyone who can preach the gospel and not make Jesus’ exalted lordship the focal point simply isn’t preaching the apostolic gospel.”
McKnight asks six questions about “gospeling”: (1) What does it accomplish? (2) What frames the Gospel? (3) How does wrath and judgment relate to Gospeling? (4) What problem does the Gospel resolve? (5) How does it relate to “empire”? (6) How it relates to talk about Jesus. In short (1) it brings people to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord; (2) it is framed by Israel’s story; (3) While “fire-and-brimstone” sermons can’t be found in Acts there is judgment (see Acts 17.29-31); (4) Kingdom, eternal life…..you’ll have to read this part yourself! (5) Yes, the Gospel cuts against Empire, but the Apostles may not have made as big a deal of it as modern scholars; (6) The story of Jesus was essential to the Gospeling of the apostles, it wasn’t just a precursor for his atoning death. (pp. 133-145)
A Gospel Culture.
In the last chapter McKnight explains how he sees this coming together to create a Gospel Culture. In other words, this is his place to say “This is what this looks like in life.” I’ll leave you to read this part for yourself in order to ask what this may look like in your church community.
Great, great, great book! Like Wright said in his forward you won’t agree with everything, but you be challenged. You’ll be challenged to think about the Gospel as the early church gives it to us. There are many consequences of the Gospel that you may realize are not part of the Gospel nor were they part of the “Gospeling” of the early church.
If you’ve already read the book, what has your reaction been?
Great review Brian!
I personally loved it. I thought the opening of the book was important because I’m not sure that everyone sees that there’s really a problem and that it’s caused by calling the Plan of Salvation the gospel. I’m hoping that a lot of good dialogue results from this book, because it’s a book evangelicalism really needs. There’s been a review or two that I’ve read, though, that make me question if people totally get what he’s saying at points, particularly in what he lays out as the problem that the gospel solves.
@Marcus: I’ve seen a few bloggers come across as a bit paranoid about McKnight’s distinction between the Gospel and the Plan of Salvation as well. I think they read what they wanted to read there and not what he wrote.
I don’t know if we’ve read the same bloggers, but some of the reviews I’ve seen make me wonder if they’re the type of “soterians” that McKnight had in mind when he wrote the book.
Love this book! But I am wondering what to do with some of it.
Our church is doing Francis Chan’s CrazyLove book study. The thought has now occurred to me that Francis Chan is not preaching the gospel. His study is primarily for believers who want to deepen their love for God but he does offer a very persuasive presentation of, what I would have previously called, the gospel in his youtube video JUST STOP AND THINK, that is part of the study. Now I am not sure if I have ever heard Francis Chan preach the gospel, but I do believe, Repentance, Baptism, and True Commitment to Christ is the response he seeks from people. But is he in anyway helping to create a gospel culture?
@Justin: Very likely!
@Jeff: I think McKnight shows that these are right responses to the Gospel and it seems apparent in the sermons of Acts that the Gospelers proclaim the need for these responses. What we can learn from McKnight is that a call to respond makes sense only after the Gospel has been proclaimed. Often we call to respond without much Gospeling.
I haven’t read the book but I think it’s an interesting question.
It seems like what McKnight is offering here is a definition of the Gospel that essentially equivocates it with the “Story of Israel” (If Jesus is the culmination of the “Story of Israel” it seems then that he is identical to it, the source and summit, and the Plan of Salvation and the Presentation are both fully embodied in the work and preaching of Jesus who is the Story of Israel).
Now what exactly does this mean in practice?
My reading is that the Gospel is basically identical to the 66 books of the Protestant cannon.
Can the Gospel really only be presented as a recitation of the “Story”? How much of the “Story” must one hear before people can be “summoned to respond”? If Jesus is the culmination of “The Story” isn’t his story identical to “the Story”?
@Dan: Actually, he doesn’t equate the story of Israel with the Gospel. He sees the Gospel as being “framed” by the story of Israel, but not one and the same. Jesus (his person, status as Messiah, Son of God, Lord, his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension) is the Gospel.
Thanks for the clarification. The question then is, what is “the story of Israel”? What is the frame? Do the Gospels themselves provide the frame (With mentions of Israel, David, Abraham, etc.)?
@Dan: That is a discussion worth having. McKnight highlights things like creation, Abraham, David, Israel’s mission to the world, and how the creates a people, a kingly line, and a kingdom for the world. Jesus fully and completely embodies these realities and brings them to their completion. I am sure other aspects of Israel’s story, like the Law, can be discussed as well.
Definitely a discussion worth having but I wonder who McKnight is having it with. I can’t think of anyone that preaches a mere Plan of Salvation devoid of Biblical Context. I also cannot think of anyone who preaches the entire Biblical/historical “story”.
We’re really talking about a difference of degree and, more than anything, a difference in presentation.
Thanks for sharing the things McKnight emphasizes. I can’t help but notice the fact that this list is completely historical. Conceptual issues like law, covenant, justification, holiness, atonement, etc. seem to be minimized. Does an emphasis on “story”, despite it’s effort to be more comprehensive, limit our understanding of the Gospel to its strictly historical dimension?
@Dan: I may have to suggest reading the book itself, because I know I can’t clarify everything he discusses in the book without doing it an injustice. McKnight isn’t saying that people don’t connect the Plan of Salvation with the great story, but rather that they often conflate the Gospel with the Plan of Salvation that follows. For instance, consider these lines from the Apostle Paul:
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom 1.16). What we have here is not the Gospel is salvation, nor the Gospel divorces from salvation, but the Gospel as the means of salvation. In 1.1-4 Paul outlines his Gospel highlighting Jesus the Christ/Messiaah (1) as the one promised by the prophets in Scripture; (2) the Son (a Messianic term); (3) a descendant of David; (4) who was declared the Son of God (enthroned) by the Holy Spirit through the resurrection; (5) who is Lord; (6) who called his apostles to bring the Gentile world to obedience.
In this we see the Gospel as the message about Jesus. It is how one responds to the Gospel that leads to salvation, yet we often preach the Gospel as that salvation. So when people say “justification by faith” is the Gospel they conflate a very, very important consequence of the Gospel with the Gospel itself and often the Gospel itself (again, see Paul’s details) are ignored.
Or we can examine 1 Corinthians 15.1-28 where Jesus himself is the Gospel and that includes Jesus as Christ, Jesus as the one who died for sins according to Scripture, Jesus as the one who was buried, Jesus as the one who was resurrected, Jesus as the one whom God has chosen as King, Jesus as the one who replaces Adam, Jesus as the one who overcomes death, and Jesus as the one who gives the Kingdom to the Father. All these things like forgiveness of sins and so forth are consequences of the Gospel that proclaims Jesus as King and that the resurrection verifies.
You’ve convinced me to read the book!
Speaking of Romans 1:16,
“It is how one responds to the Gospel that leads to salvation, yet we often preach the Gospel as that salvation. So when people say “justification by faith” is the Gospel they conflate a very, very important consequence of the Gospel with the Gospel itself and often the Gospel itself (again, see Paul’s details) are ignored.”
But what happens to this when we look at this through reformation eyes. If we take this from the classic Lutheran/Calvinist view (Bondage of the Will and whatnot) we don’t respond to the Gospel at all. The degree to which we respond to the Gospel we reject the Gospel and make it law. If the Gospel is, “the power of God for salvation” then it is something that God does/accomplishes for us apart from or even in spite of our response, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:21)
If one takes this view than the Gospel is “that salvation”/Plan for Salvation. This is not a matter of mere confusion of terms, a rhetorical temptation, but rather the product of fundamentally different human anthropologies.
I think McKnight’s critique is right on the money from a Arminian Evangelical perspective but I think outside of that context his arguments mileage may vary.
Either that or I’ve just been reading Luther’s commentary on Galatians too much!
@Dan: Honestly, I don’t read Scripture with Calvin and Luther so I’m not sure how to handle that dilemma. I don’t think Scripture should take a back seat to their exegesis of it, even if one respects those two. It seems fairly obvious to me that in Scripture humans are expected to hear the Gospel and respond in belief and confession of Jesus as Lord. If one wants to nuance how that happens by discussing various understandings of Pneumatology or the doctrine of predestination then that is fine, and I agree with you that some may not be able to hear McKnight’s argument through their own confessional presuppositions, but I don’t think that means we should cover our eyes to how it seems the early church understood the matter.
Thank you for this very informative and helpful review of The King Jesus Gospel. As a result of reading your review I have now placed this book on my reading list!
Yours in Grace,
@Jonathan: You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy.
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