Book Review – The King Jesus Gospel (Scot McKnight)

In this book, Scot McKnight challenges evangelicals as to whether we have truly understood what the “gospel” is. He draws on the work of N T Wright and Dallas Willard, both of whom provide forewords. He claims that many evangelicals would be better termed “soterians”, since it is salvation, rather than the gospel, that we have placed the emphasis on. When we use the word “gospel” we assume it means something like “instructions for how to become a Christian”, when in fact what the Bible and apostles understood the gospel to be was something quite different.

Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.

McKnight takes pains to reassure us that he has nothing against preaching the need for salvation and how to be saved (McKnight calls these the “Plan of Salvation” and the “Method of Persuasion”). But he thinks we have mistakenly equated this with the gospel and “evangelism”. So he takes John Piper to task for assuming that justification by faith is the gospel. Again, McKnight doesn’t want to disagree with justification by faith; he wants to show that it is not “the gospel”.

I am convinced that because we think the gospel is the Plan of Salvation, and because we preach the Plan of Salvation as the gospel, we are not actually preaching the gospel.

So what is the gospel, according to Scot McKnight? Well the short answer is that the gospel tells the story of Israel and how it is fulfilled in Jesus. The gospel only makes sense in the Bible’s story, and more than that, “without that story there is no gospel.” We need to understand the Old Testament story in order to understand the gospel.

McKnight begins proof of his thesis, with the one place in the New Testament where the “gospel” is clearly defined – 1 Cor 15. This also happens to be one of the earliest composed parts of the New Testament. And it is clear that for Paul, “the gospel is the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ.” His method of evangelism, or “gospelling”, was to “to tell, announce, declare, and shout aloud the Story of Jesus Christ as the saving news of God.” His writing is saturated in OT quotes and allusions because he understood that “the gospel is the resolution and fulfillment of Israel’s Story and promises.”

So, where does “salvation” fit into the picture for McKnight? Salvation flows from the gospel – it is the intended result of the gospel story. But it is not itself the gospel, and cannot be made to replace the gospel.

He includes a fascinating chapter on how the early creeds reinforce this basic understanding of the gospel. Again and again you see the creeds including very 1 Cor 15 like summaries of the crucial events of the life of Jesus. It wasn’t until the time of the reformation that the creeds started to frame the gospel in terms of salvation (though he does not directly blame the reformers for this shift from “gospel culture” to “salvation culture”).

McKnight then moves on to consider the teaching of Jesus. Did Jesus preach the gospel? Well if the gospel is all about Jesus, then to preach the gospel, Jesus would have to focus his message on himself, and on how he completes the story of Israel. And this is exactly what he does – he believed he was completing scriptural passages.

the Gospels show a Jesus who unequivocally and without embarrassment nominated himself for Israel’s president.

McKnight also makes the obvious but easily overlooked point that we call the four gospels “gospels” precisely because that is what they are. In telling the story of Jesus (and how he fulfilled the story of Israel), the “evangelists” are in fact proclaiming the gospel.

The final piece of evidence McKnight brings to the table is a survey of the gospel preaching in the book of Acts. If to preach the gospel is indeed to tell the story of Jesus, then did the early apostles do that? A survey of Peter and Paul’s sermons reveal that yes, they did exactly that, showing how the events of Jesus’ life fulfilled the Scriptures.

Jesus’ resurrection and the profound experience with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost led the apostles into a “hermeneutical revolution.” They suddenly had new eyes to reread and reinterpret the Old Testament from the perspective of the Story of Jesus.

But now we get to our first real objection. What about preaching the gospel to Gentiles? Like most in our modern culture, they did not already know the story of Israel, so preaching Jesus as the fulfillment of it would be at best confusing. Surely we have to adapt the gospel to be comprehensible to those in our culture?

McKnight readily admits that the gospel is “in no less need of creative adaptions to one’s audience”, noting Paul’s varied approaches with a Gentile audience. And to his credit, he attempts to outline how he might go about explaining the “gospel” today. He recognizes that it will probably take at least an hour to explain. He begins the story with Creation, focusing on humans as “Eikons” who became usurpers. The story climaxes not primarily with Jesus as “saviour”, but as “Lord”:

Remember that the fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord.

This is where we begin to see that this might be more than simply a war of words over what exactly “gospel” means. For McKnight, the heart of the gospel is Jesus as Lord and King. Thus the forms of evangelism that simplify the gospel down to simply trusting Jesus for forgiveness of sins have missed out the centerpiece

much of the soterian approach to evangelism today fastens on Jesus as (personal) Savior and dodges Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

So a right presentation of the gospel must include a call to submit to King Jesus:

gospeling declares that Jesus is that rightful Lord, gospeling summons people to turn from their idols to worship and live under that Lord who saves, and gospeling actually puts us in the co-mediating and co-ruling tasks under our Lord Jesus.

Overall I would say I am in broad agreement with McKnight’s main thesis, that the Lordship of Jesus is central to the gospel and not a dispensable part. Despite never directly referring to it, this book is weighing in on the Lordship Salvation debate. But it also focuses on our evangelistic approach. McKnight is arguing for a change in tactics: “We need to regain our confidence in the utter power of proclaiming that one Story of Jesus”. And this is something I would like to see a lot more of in “gospel” presentations. I fear many forms of evangelism can bring people to “pray the prayer” without ever really appreciating that they are now expected to embark on a lifetime of following Jesus.

One thing I think this book left hanging a bit was the initial claim that “If the gospel isn’t about transformation, it isn’t the gospel of the Bible.” His argument is that recovering the King Jesus Gospel will make disciples rather than converts, but he fails to flesh out exactly how this will happen. The Lordship of Jesus is the right foundation to base discipleship on, but there must also be practical guidance and support in order to see this worked out in daily life.

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