Book Review: The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight

3 out of 5 Stars
Author: Scot McKnight
Publisher: Zondervan (2011)
Buy The King Jesus Gospel
Difficulty: Easy

The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

McKnight and I share many of the same concerns. I don’t think I’ve read another book where I gave so many heart amen’s but then was also left scratching my head in so many places. At the heart of the issue, McKnight and I agree--in evangelicalism we have often lost the heart of the gospel. We have often made salvation individualistic and focused on creating a crisis decision. However, it’s odd that to me that Scot seems to focus in on reformed theology and justification by faith as a culprit through out. Reformed folk commonly share all these concerns.

He starts off on the wrong foot by citing statistics which suggest that people are leaving the church in droves, but what’s missing is that this is an historical trend and this will always be the case (see the parable of sower/seeds in Luke 8). Statistics also show that young adults frequently come back once they have established families. I agree that part of the problem with the initial leaving may be a sickly gospel, but we shouldn’t over estimate the problem. Or underestimate the power of the Spirit working in even a poorly presented gospel.

McKnight examines 1 Corinthians 15 as a crucial text in developing a gospel culture. His examination of the early Christian creeds was excellent showing that the creeds succinctly focused on the gospel but I think there’s an important point to be made in favor of focusing on justification by faith. These creeds are also accepted by Roman Catholics who have no problem accepting the  creeds without further explanation--justification by faith then is an important dividing line. I also appreciated McKnight’s focus on the narrative of the Scripture from creation to consummation.

Personal Salvation or Salvation in Christ within a Covenant Community

The thrust of McKnight’s argument is summed well in this statement.

Evangelicalism is know for at least two words: gospel and (personal) salvation. Behind the word gospel is the Greek word evangelion and evangel, from which words we get evangelicalism and evangelism. Now to our second word. Behind salvation is the Greek word soteria. I want to now make a stinging accusation. In this book I will contending firmly that we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really “evangelical” in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians. Here’s why I say we are more soterian than evangelical: we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. Hence, we are really “salvationists.” When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) “salvation.” We are wired this way. But these two words don’t mean the same thing, and this will do its best to show the differences. (Kindle Location 251 of 2485)

We have overemphasized the personal nature of salvation. I’m fond of saying salvation is not personal, but covenantal. It’s always within community. Jonathan Dodson also speaks this way in his recently released Gospel-Centered Discipleship which is also a strong emphasis for McKnight in The King Jesus Gospel. McKnight’s preferred method of presenting the gospel is the story of Israel fulfilled in the story of Jesus. But focusing on the personal benefits of the gospel is not the same thing as overemphasizing salvation as individualistic. One highlights a specific aspect of the gospel like holding a diamond up to the light and amputates the gospel creates a harmful individualism. If you want to see whether your church is fostering what McKnight calls a soterian culture (I’d rather call it an individualistic salvation culture) or a gospel culture then I recommend question the profession of faith of someone who is not living in step with the gospel. Try to discipline someone for persistent sin. If the refrain is but he walked the aisle or how dare you question her faith--that’s personal then you have a individualistic, soterian culture. If the response is the community rallying around that individual with the gospel pleading with them for restoration, you probably have a gospel culture.

Later McKnight lands a crushing blow when he asks, “Does that author even need the Old Testament for his understanding of the gospel?” (Kindle Location 366 of 2485). This emphasis throughout the book is much needed but it’s not an emphasis that sticks within Reformed theology (which emphasizes the history of redemption, the covenants in the Old Testament fulfilled in Christ, and which focuses heavily on seeing Christ as the hero of all the stories of Israel in the Old Testament. The Jesus Storybook Bible is a wonderful example of this; also, check out Michael Barrett’s Beginning at Moses).

Why is Jesus as King Good News?

McKnight says,

The gospel is the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ. . . . We perhaps need to remind ourselves of something at the grassroots level: the word gospel was used in the world of Jews at the time of the apostles to announce something, to declare something as good news--the word evangelion always means good news. (Kindle Location 526 of 2485)

But I would like to press in to ask what is good news about the kingdom of God breaking into the here and now with Jesus as Christ and King apart from peace with God through justification by faith? A point that McKnight doesn’t bring up when discussing the deficiencies of focusing on justification is the original proclamation of the gospel by the angels when Jesus was born. They proclaim, “[O]n earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14 KJV). I have previously shown the connection by the offer of peace and good will to justification (see Ephesians 2:13-16, 6:14-15, Colossians 1:19-20, and most forcefully Romans 5:1-2). What Paul understood in my estimation is that Jesus was the fulfillment of the story of the Old Testament. But when the Hero comes and conquers the enemies city proclaiming himself King that’s not necessarily good news (not if you have rebelled and rejected him; see “Celebrating the Arrival: Prince of Peace”). Justification by faith provides the terms for us to experience “peace with God” (Romans 5:1-2). Tom Holland’s emphasis on justification in terms of the Hebrew judicial court would also tie in nicely with the Jesus as fulfillment of the Old Testament story in McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.

The Gospel: A Polaroid or Panorama?

For all these wonderful critiques I do not know if the conversation was moved forward by McKnight’s answer. Again he would say something like

“Gospels of Sin Management” presumes a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind . . . [and] they foster “vampire Christians” who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until Heaven (Kindle Location 916 of 2485)

This problem resounds with my experience and many conversations I have had with Christians. But then the next paragraph he’s essentially blaming the Reformation for eroding the gospel culture (although not perfect) of the previous centuries. It’s statements like these that cause me to scratch my head. The main confusion in The King Jesus Gospel lies with whether we can speak about the gospel in a Polaroid snap shot and in a bird’s eye panorama. Can we speak about justification by faith as gospel while also in the same breath realizing that justification is a part of the while (a type of synecdoche)? That’s the beauty of language.

We can weave in and out of the gospel forest speaking in sweeps terms like you see in books like The Jesus Storybook Bible and The King Jesus Gospel but also bring the gospel down to penetrate the heart of a single man (as you see in the Five Points of Calvinism and the reformed focus on justification by faith). McKnight misses the joy, flexibility, and beauty in this maneuvering in and out of the panorama presentation and the Polaroid snapshot of the gospel. You see this when he relays this anecdote.

I have heard the story told about Robert Webber, one of Wheaton College’s most influential (and provocative) professors in the last half century, that he was in his basement one day when someone asked him to explain the Gospel. He asked the person, “Do you have an hour?” So he took about an hour wit this person to explain the great good news from creation to consummation. I won’t take an hour here, but I tell this story to emphasize that the assumption on the part of many that the gospel can be reduced to a note card--or a napkin--is already off on the wrong track. (1953 of 2485)

Telling the story of Jesus completely would take many hours...as a matter of fact how long exactly would it take to read all of Scripture in one sitting? But the important question is what is the kernel of gospel truth that must be present for someone to trust Jesus as Lord and Savior? An examination of 1 Corinthians 15 shows that for Paul the gospel might just fit on a napkin. And when the jailer from Philippi was about to off himself because he thought the prisoners escaped he poignantly asked “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30) Paul did not correct him and explain being saved wasn’t important and understand Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s story rather he and Barnabas said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v. 31). And this my friends was a Gentile jailer who may or may not have been familiar with the full story of Israel. So again there’s a beauty in the way even in Scripture you see Paul and others flying in and out of the trees--soaring high above and extolling the wonderful promises of God fulfilled in Christ and his kingdom and then expertly applying that truth to a single tree in the forest like the jailer. Now if you ask Scot (and I agree) what we have lost in our evangelicalism is not the tree but the forest. So I appreciate very much his emphasis on the the forest.

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