I’ve worked my way through the first three chapters of Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, and I am both challenged and impressed. This is the “wrecking ball” that Rob Bell thought he was writing in Love Wins. Scot is deconstructing the nature of the gospel within evangelicalism, and calling us to a more faithful, more biblical reading of the gospel. Because the chapters of the book are so short, and so dense, I’d like to interact with this book on a chapter-by-chapter basis, rather than write a general review after I’ve read it.
Scot begins with the story of his first encounter with personal evangelism–it’s a story that many young evangelicals can resonate with. The extreme discomfort. The awkwardness. The insecure silence. Evangelism is a horrible and terrifying experience for so many because we can’t help but feel as though we’re on a high-pressure sales call, and we’re the ones making the pitch! Evangelism, in evangelicalism, is about bringing people to the point of decision. This, Scot argues, represents a break from historical Christianity. “Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.” (18)
There are dire consequences for our decision-oriented evangelism. “Evangelism that focuses on decisions short circuits and…aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at discipleship slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles.” (18) We are “distorting spiritual formation” through our decision-aimed evangelism because we are diminishing the importance of discipleship. Scot has strong words for us: “There is a minimal difference in correlation between evangelical children and teenagers who make a decision for Christ and who later become genuine disciples, and Roman Catholics who are baptized as infants and who as adults become faithful and devout Catholic disciples.” (20) In other words, we’re no better than the Catholic Church at making true and faithful disciples, and much of the blame for our failure can be laid at the feet of our perception of the Gospel and our aims in evangelism.
Chapter 1: The Big Question
The big question facing evangelicalism is this: What is the gospel? Scot claims that we are in a fog regarding the gospel, and I think he’s right. For most evangelicals, the gospel is vague. We can’t define it concretely, much less biblically. To demonstrate this, Scot offers three exhibits.
Exhibit A is from an emailer who asked the question, “What is good news about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David?” Exhibit B is John Piper’s assumption that justification is the gospel. Exhibit C is a pastor who shared Piper’s view and flatly asserted that Jesus did not preach the gospel because “no one could understand the gospel until after the cross and the resurrection and Pentecost.” (26) Scot concludes “the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about ‘personal salvation,’ and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making ‘decisions.'” (26)
I think he’s absolutely right about this, and I think the view that justification is the gospel is very prevalent due, in large part, to the popularity of the neo-reformed preaching of John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, David Platt, and others. What is more, pastors like Steven Furtick have taken the gospel as “personal salvation mediated through a decision” to its logical extreme, with more than 10,000 “salvations” in the short life of his church. And now we get to the key distinction Scot is making in his book.
Chapter 2: Gospel Culture or Salvation Culture?
Have you ever considered that there might be a difference between the two?
Evangelicalism is known for at least two words: gospel and (personal) salvation. Behind the word gospel is the Greek word euangelion and evangel, from which words we get evangelicalism and evangelism. Now to our second word. Behind salvation is the Greek word soteria. I want now to make a stinging accusation. In this book I will be 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. …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. (29)
We have replaced the gospel with personal salvation. Maybe it’s because we’re so pragmatic, but all that seems to matter to us evangelicals is where one spends eternity. Salvation is our number one priority, and the only way to be certain of one’s salvation is if one has made a personal decision to accept Jesus. “When did you get saved?”
But a salvation culture is not a gospel culture. Think about it. Do you need to be a disciple in order to be saved? How do you answer that question? How might Jesus answer it? The fundamental problem of the salvation culture is that it doesn’t require discipleship, and so discipleship doesn’t happen. And this is why so many people live nominally Christian existences, blindly ignorant of the Scriptures and the primary tenets of their faith, and ultimately trusting, not in Jesus, but in the decision they made at Christian Summer Camp between 6th and 7th grade–a decision from which they have failed to progress or build upon in the decades following. But “the gospel of Jesus…which created a gospel culture and not simply a salvation culture, was a gospel that carried within it the power, the capacity, and the requirement to summon people who wanted to be ‘in’ to be The Discipled.” (33)
Chapter 3: From Story to Salvation
Before he can define the term gospel, Scot lays out four important categories for understanding the gospel: 1) The Story of Israel / the Bible; 2) The Story of Jesus; 3) Plan of Salvation; 4) Method of Persuasion. To fully understand the gospel, he argues, we must begin with the Story of Israel, which finds it’s natural fulfillment in the Story of Jesus, from which we derive the Plan of Salvation. Then, understanding our own context well enough, we create Methods of Persuasion. This is the proper orientation of a gospel culture.
However, in our salvation culture, we have flipped the order. The first question we ask is: “How can we get people saved?”
Our Method of Persuasion is shaped by a salvation culture and is designed from first to last to get people to make a decision so they can come safely inside the boundary lines of The Decided. (43)
So we begin with the Method of Persuasion (4 Spiritual Laws, Alpha, Evangelism Explosion), incorporate the Plan of Salvation, and take bits from the Story of Jesus–mostly about his atoning death. The Story of Israel gets lopped off completely. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most evangelicals don’t think you need the Old Testament to share the gospel. “One reason why so many Christians today don’t know the Old Testament is because their ‘gospel’ doesn’t even need it!” (44)
Now for the most important point of the book thus far. The Plan of Salvation is, essentially, this: God created humans to be perfect, but we rebelled against him and brought sin and death into the world. We are separated from him, forever. But because he loves us so much, he sent his Son to die on a cross for our sins, as the ultimate atoning sacrifice. Now we can be saved if we believe in Jesus! This is all true, wonderful, and great in every way. But it is not the gospel.
Here’s the point: The Plan of Salvation is not the Gospel, and by mistaking the former for the latter we have created a salvation culture that misses the deep truths of the gospel, emphasizes decision over discipleship, and, as a result, fails to make true disciples of Jesus. Upon closer examination, we see that the situation is dire. We must get back to the biblical gospel. But what is that? And where do we find it?
More to come…