“The gospel Story of Jesus Christ is a story about Jesus as Messiah, Jesus as Lord, Jesus as Savior, and Jesus as Son.” (p. 55)
As a high school student, the youth group from the United Methodist Church in which I grew up attended a rally event at a very large conservative Evangelical church across town. The close of the program included an altar call, complete with the reading of a letter from an attendee of the previous year’s rally. This teenage girl had written it just days before her untimely death. Discovered by her parents, the letter related the fact that she had received Christ as a result of attending the rally, which gave her parents great comfort that she was in heaven rather than hell because she had received the gospel.
An invitation was offered to the hundreds of us gathered there. Looking back, the story presented was a story of escape from one future fate after death to a preferred future after death. I believe in our need as sinners and that Christianity involves an invitation that we accept by faith. But the actual words and stories of the bible we learned in Sunday School were not focused on the story of escape passionately articulated at the rally.
THE BIG IDEA: What is the gospel?
“…I suddenly realized that Paul’s ‘gospel’ was the Story of Jesus completing Israel’s Story, and the reason the early Christians called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John ‘The Gospel according to’ Matthew and Mark and Luke and John was because they knew each of those Gospels told that very same Story.” (p. 80)
Often the best route to fresh thinking is identifying the right question. Scot McKnight’s thesis is built on asking the simplest question of a beginner: What is the gospel?
For so much of Christianity (not only modern Evangelicalism, though that stream is most obvious), “the gospel” has been how Jesus deals with our sin such that we may gain entrance to heaven upon death. Professor McKnight draws upon Dallas Willard’s observation that this “reduction of the gospel” amounts to merely a “gospel of sin management” (pp. 74-75). In this reduced gospel, Christ’s cross principally clears the ledger sheet of human sin. Forgiveness of sin is good news indeed, but the biblical witness to the gospel is more expansive. It is cosmic in scope.
McKnight tackles his question beginning with Paul’s definition of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. Here Paul declares that the gospel that he preached and that saves is “that Christ died, that Christ was buried, that Christ was raised, and that Christ appeared” (p. 49, italics original).
Next, he tours the early Church creeds and councils in order to show the consistency of Paul’s definition of the essential gospel—the Jesus Story—throughout the early history of the Church. In the midst of the Reformation’s reinvigorating the church through an emphasis on justification by faith, a shift took place “from the story to soteriology” (p. 73).
Having traced the history from Paul through the early Church to the Reformation, McKnight shows that Paul’s teaching of the gospel to the Corinthians aligns with the basic presentation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, accounts that were titled “gospel” by the early Church. The gospel is the Story of Jesus completing the Story of Israel, for the sake of the whole cosmos. Therefore, the four evangelists are indeed telling us the gospel by telling us the Story of Jesus. McKnight demonstrates that Peter’s preaching of the gospel in the book of Acts squares with this understanding of the gospel as well.
Gospel Culture vs. Salvation Culture
“Salvation cultures have struggled, are struggling, and will continue to struggle to get The Members or The Decided into the third category: The Discipled.” (p. 32)
How one engages McKnight’s argument will depend to some degree on what theological direction one is traveling toward the definition of the gospel he presents. He is traveling from the evangelical church. I am traveling from the mainline church. McKnight’s diagnosis as to why both Evangelicals and the “liturgical traditions” (I include the mainline church here) struggle to make disciples is that both have a salvation culture rather than a gospel culture.
Both have their own version of a salvation culture, which is focused primarily on getting people in. When the energy is chiefly assigned to getting people into the ranks of The Members (liturgical traditions) or The Decided (Evangelicals), mustering energy for transformation as The Discipled becomes very difficult. When membership or decision comes across as the destination, why be surprised when the road of discipleship is not well populated?
A gospel culture, by contrast, is focused on getting people to become participants in the Story of Jesus, living as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Clearly, one must be saved into this Story. But in this representation of the gospel, salvation is not merely escape from hell to heaven but entry into God’s kingdom, which encompasses the present life and life beyond this life.
“We need to embrace this story so that we are saved and can be transformed by the gospel story.” (p. 158)
The benefits of The King Jesus Gospel are many. McKnight treats the reader to a good survey of the New Testament material on “gospel” and a brief but solid engagement of early and contemporary church sources within a slim volume. Highly readable and quickly paced, it is well suited for busy pastors and thoughtful laity alike. In addition to the bigger point about the gospel itself, pastors and Christian educators will benefit from McKnight’s engagement with particular portions of Scripture, including Paul, Jesus in the Gospels, and apostolic preaching in the book of Acts, as well as his references to church history. The King Jesus Gospel clarifies for the reader that justification by grace through faith is critical to the gospel, but is not the totality of the gospel.
From a Wesleyan perspective, this definition of the gospel strengthens the biblical foundation for our hallmark emphasis on sanctification. Perhaps understanding the gospel as the Story of Jesus as Messiah and King can help reinvigorate sanctification in our churches. The spiritual formation movement has much to offer the Church. Hopefully, cultivating the gospel culture that McKnight describes can reunite our pursuit of both justification and sanctification, energizing us for living the Story of Jesus for the sake of God’s mission in the world.