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.

Aleph – The Blessing of the Blameless Life

Apologies for the lack of posts on this blog in recent months. Since the birth of our fifth child (Anna-Rose) in March, I have had less time than usual for reading and blogging. However, I don’t want to completely abandon the blog, so I’m going to attempt to post a series of thoughts on Psalm 119, which I have been studying recently.

Psalm 119 is of course famous for being the longest chapter in the Bible, with 176 verses – 8 for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The other interesting thing about this Psalm is that the dominant theme is God’s law. The word and commands of God are the Psalmist’s delight and obsession, the focal point around which his whole life revolves.

This poses something of a dilema as we try to interpret this Psalm though. Isn’t the New Covenant about grace triumphing over law? At first glance this Psalm can seem like a celebration of legalism. For example, consider the first four verses:

1 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
3 they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
4 You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.

We’re told here that there is a blessing for those who are (a) blameless, (b) wholehearted in seeking God, (c) do nothing wrong, and (d) obey every one of God’s laws fully. I don’t know about you, but that rules me out of receiving this blessing. But that’s not quite the end of the story. Verse 5 and 6 is an honest prayer from the Psalmist who knows that he is not always uncompromisingly obedient:

5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.

He responds to this by making a personal resolution. He promises to (a) worship, (b) learn God’s rules and (c) obey them:

7 I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
8 I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Now we might be tempted to summarise Psalm 119:1-8 like this: “There is blessing for those who obey God, but ‘shame’ for those who don’t; therefore I will try really hard to obey and hope God doesn’t abandon me.” But that would do an injustice to the Psalmist, for reasons I will hopefully get onto if this series doesn’t come to a premature end. Suffice for now to say that for the Psalmist, obedience is primarily an expression of love not a fulfilment of a duty or an insurance policy for judgment day.

But I wonder too if there might be something prophetic about the opening section of this Psalm. In verse 8, the Psalmist prays that God won’t “forsake” him. It draws my mind to Mark 15:34, where Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. The irony is that Jesus was the only one that Ps 119:1-4 truly describes. He is the only one who was completely blameless, was devoted to seeking God, did nothing whatsoever wrong, and fully obeyed every one of God’s laws. But instead of receiving blessing for it, he was put to shame and forsaken at the cross. He lived the blameless life we could not. He was forsaken in order that we might be accepted.

Psalm 119:1-4 then, is not about an unobtainable blessing, but about a blessing that has already been made available to us through God’s grace. And it does not describe a life that we are obligated but unable to live, but rather one that we are free and empowered to live by the Spirit. It is not about earning God’s favour through your blameless life, but enjoying God’s favour earned by Jesus’ blameless life.

Esther and the Gospel

Over this summer I have been teaching my way through the book of Esther as a part of a summer school that my church has been running. I’ve also been blogging my way through the subjects we touched on during that series. I wanted to finish my seminar series with a look at the question, “Is the Gospel to be found in Esther”?

At first glance, the answer might be no. Not only is God not mentioned in the book, but given the distinct lack of mercy to be found in Esther, we might despair of finding Jesus in there at all. Even the great Martin Luther apparently felt that there was a distinct lack of gospel to be found in the book of Esther. However, armed with the confidence we get from Luke 24:44-47 that Jesus, the mission of God and the gospel of forgiveness are to be found throughout the Old Testament, I want to briefly summarise various ways in which I, and others, have detected echoes of the gospel story in the book of Esther.

There is in fact no need to immediately resort to allegorical interpretations of the book. At a very basic level, the book of Esther is testimony to the unthwartable purposes of God. Satan has on many occasions attempted to destroy God’s salvation plan by killing off the Jews, and Jesus himself. Satan was behind Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews in Esther’s time, just as much as he was behind Herod’s plan to destroy the baby boys in Bethlehem. But God is always one step ahead of Satan, and just as Haman’s plan to impale Mordecai on a giant spike backfired horribly, so Satan’s attempt to destroy Jesus at the cross turned out to be a comprehensive defeat. As Jared Wilson tweeted this earlier this week:

Seeing the cross in Esther 7:10. Blows me away. The gallows Satan meant for our defeat is his own defeat.

Some of the echoes of the gospel various people have detected require a somewhat vivid imagination, particularly when the unpleasant king Xerxes gets to represent God. For example, Dave Bish argues that we can see Christ and the church in the way that Esther 1 depicts a powerful, generous and wealthy king longing to gaze upon the beauty of his bride.

Others pick up on Esther 5:1, where Esther has to enter the presence of the king. She first puts on her “royal robes” before entering, and finds that her life is spared and the king is open to her request. This parallels the “robe of righteousness” that the believer has been given, enabling her to walk into the presence of God and be accepted, with no fear of death, and boldly present requests to him.

Sinclair Ferguson’s quote often cited by Tim Keller describes Jesus as “the true and better Esther who didn’t just risk leaving an earthly palace but lost the ultimate and heavenly one, who didn’t just risk his life, but gave his life to save his people.” Jesus didn’t just say “if I perish, I perish”, but “when I perish, I perish for them”.

Let me add a few more ideas of my own (although I am sure they are not unique to me).

One thing that stood out for me is the fact that Esther is doubly chosen. She is chosen for adoption and chosen for royalty. These truth sum up our glorious change of status by virtue of our being chosen by God. We are now his dearly loved children, and we are also a royal priesthood, destined to reign with him (2 Tim 2:12).

Another echo of the gospel story is the way that Haman’s death marked a decisive victory without being the end of the story. The entire Jewish community needed to get involved in the fight against the remainder of their enemies. In some ways this reflects the way that the cross was a decisive and climactic victory against Satan, but now the church, God’s people, must see out the victory as we wage war in the spiritual battle that will be consummated at the return of Christ.

And finally, I think that Mordecai’s counter-edict is a picture of the gospel. Haman’s law which threatened the Jews with death could not be revoked, but Mordecai’s law was more powerful and provided an escape. God’s law that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ez 18:20), restated by Paul as “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), has effectively sentenced all of humanity to destruction. And God is not going to revoke that law, which is perfectly good and just. Instead, he issues the counter-edict of the gospel. This edict states that “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40). By bearing the penalty of our sin in his own body, Jesus took the full force of the first edict upon himself, in order that we may benefit from the provision of forgiveness and deliverance in the counter-edict.

Book Review – GodStories (Andrew Wilson)

After thoroughly enjoying Andrew Wilson’s previous book, Incomparable, I was very much looking forward to getting my hands on this one. In many ways, the format is very similar. There are lots of short three or four page chapters, each of which can be read standalone as a daily devotion. Interspersed throughout the book are “coffee breaks” which encourage you to reflect a while on what you have been learning.

The subject of GodStories is the gospel. The book presents the gospel as one big story, broken into lots of little stories. At first I thought this meant it would be a metanarrative type book, similar to Vaughan Robert’s God’s Big Picture, but although Wilson moves through the Bible in a roughly chronological manner, each of the little chapters is self-contained, and often draws out the New Testament fulfilment of the Old Testament stories immediately.

As with Incomparable, the book is written in a way that will be very accessible to teens and twenties, with plenty of illustrations drawn from contemporary films and culture. The book is broken up into five “acts” (a nod to Tom Wright?), which are:

  1. Creation and Fall
  2. Israel and History
  3. Poets and Prophets
  4. Jesus and Rescue
  5. Restoration and Hope

As well as taking you through some of the main storyline of the Old Testament (creation, fall, flood, Abraham, tabernacle etc), he dips into the prophets, again making some of the big themes from these difficult biblical books very easy to grasp. A number of chapters echoed the emphases of Chris Wright in his superb “Mission of God” book. Also there are shades of Tom Wright as he highlights similarities in the rhetoric used by the Roman empire to describe the emperor to those used by Luke and other New Testament writers.

The longest Act, “Jesus and Rescue” features several chapters dealing with various aspects of the atonement. There is some excellent material here, and Wilson is not afraid to tackle some theological hot potatoes such as penal substitution and the New Perspective on Paul. Whilst the majority of this book is theologically non-controversial, he’s not afraid to let his distinctives show from time to time.

One of his greatest strengths is to take deep theological truths and present them in a very straightforward manner, yet without dumbing them down. Some of his illustrations are brilliant, and I certainly plan to make use of a few of them for in my own teaching. Overall, this is a great follow-up to Incomparable, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from him.

Book Review – Glorious Freedom (Richard Sibbes)

This is an exposition of 2 Cor 3:17-18 by the Puritan Richard Sibbes. Unlike some others in the Puritan Paperbacks series, this one has not been abridged, and has only had minimal editing. His method is to explain the meaning of a few words, and follow it up with some application (which he calls “uses”). Like all the Puritans, he is very thorough, seeking to mine the Scriptures for all the riches he can find. It does require a bit more focus than reading a modern book due to the sometimes dated use of language, but it is well worth persevering. Here’s my brief summary of the contents of his exposition.

Sibbes starts off contrasting the law and the gospel. The law cannot change our hearts, nor can it remove our blindness to the gospel. The ceremonial law aimed at Christ, and the moral law is meant to drive us to Christ. Interestingly, he sees Psalm 119 as referring not to the law on its own, but to the law plus the Spirit.

He argues that it is Christ, not the Holy Spirit that the phrase “the Spirit of Lord” refers to. Jesus is given this name because as a man he was filled with the Spirit without measure. To have more of the Spirit, we must go to Christ. More Spirit means more Christ and vice versa.

There is then a substantial section on liberty. Gospel freedom is freedom from sin and its consequences, it is freedom to do good. He criticises the idea that the Spirit works by simply persuading us. Rather, he works internally, changing us from the inside. The Word of God is the charter of our liberty and without the Spirit, we have no liberty. If we have the Spirit, we can enjoy freedom from the dominion of any particular sin.

A man till he is in Christ is a slave, not of one man or one lord over him, but he has as many lords as he has lusts.

More than victory over sin, Christian liberty gives us freedom to “fulfil all our duties with a full heart”, courage to overcome opposition, and boldness to approach God. It also frees us from the fear of man.

The next major section is on “our communion and fellowship with God in Christ”. He explores the meaning of glory, and highlights various aspects of the glory of the gospel, the glory of God, and the glory of Christ. God is especially glorified in displaying his mercy.

When Satan tempts us to run from God and discourages us, as he will do at such times, then keep this in mind: God has set himself to be glorious in mercy above all other attributes. … Though sins after conversion stain our profession more than sins before conversion, go still to the glorious mercy of God. … Let us never be discouraged from going to Christ.

The gospel, or Christ, is the “glass” referred to in the verse (KJV). We could not look directly at God, for without Christ, God is a terrifying sight. And the best way to see Christ, is to look at the Word.

The final, and largest section of the book, deals with our conformity to the image of Christ. He emphasises the vital importance of being made completely new. You cannot accept the gospel in the first place if you do not desire to be completely changed.

We must have new judgments and new desires, new esteem, new affections, new joys and delights, new company.

There is also a double change – “real” and gradual. The first refers to the new birth, while the second refers to the inevitable growth in holiness that must take place in the life of a believer. He says that we cannot come to Christ just wanting pardon for sin, but not change of lifestyle:

Some weak notions would place all the change in justification. They separate Christ’s offices, as if he were all priest but not a governing king; or as if he were righteousness but not sanctification; or as if he had merit to die for us and to give us his righteousness, but no efficacy to change our natures; or as if in the covenant of grace God only forgave our sins but did not write his law in our hearts. But in the covenant of grace he does both.

He also rejects the idea that God doesn’t interfere with our will. No, “grace works on the will most of all. … If the will is not inclined and bent to go the best way, there is no work of grace at all”.

What we are being changed into is the image of Christ. Christ is God’s masterpiece, the prototype. Previously we bore the image of Satan, and the image of Adam, and have a natural tendency to let ourselves be transformed into the image of the world.

God has ordained that we should be like [Christ] in a threefold degree: in suffering, in grace, and in glory.

Sibbes reflects on many aspects of the life of Christ that we should meditate on, and emulate. His resolution to do the Father’s will. His zeal and goodness. The things he loved and enjoyed. His wonderful love and wonderful hatred of sin displayed at the cross. But we do not work up the power to be like him in ourselves. “Nothing can change us but the gospel.”

He warns that if you are not changing then you have not had the new birth, but does acknowledge that sometimes growth is slow, or imperceptible. He even sees occasional fallings into sin as a sovereign way that God humbles us and causes us to grow further.

wherever the knowledge of God in Christ is real, there is a change and conversion of the whole person. There is a new judgment and new affections. The bent and bias is another way than they were before.

He looks at how being transformed into the image of Christ makes us more and more glorious. A person who is like Jesus shines. The key to this transformation is the work of the Spirit. All change comes from the Spirit. Even Jesus himself did everything by the power of the Spirit.

All his grace as a man was from the Holy Ghost. He was conceived, anointed, sealed and led by the Holy Ghost into the wilderness; he offered himself by the Spirit, he was raised by the Spirit; he was full of the Spirit.

Therefore, we need to test ourselves to see whether we have the Spirit (i.e. are we changing?). And we need to “beg” God to grant us more of the Spirit, as we recognise our complete need of him.