Last week (Close to understanding Jesus?) I outlined how I came to see that much of the evangelical teaching I had received about Jesus didn’t really explain Jesus and his ministry in accurate terms historically.
It seems that many people are coming to similar conclusions, for example New Testament scholar NT Wright and the philosopher, the late Dallas Willard.
New Testament scholar and theologian, Scot McKnight’s 2011 book, The King Jesus Gospel, takes up the same theme, but from a theological rather than historical perspective. So I guess it is hardly surprising that Wright and Willard both contributed Forewords.
For many evangelical christians, the gospel is justification by faith – the good news that God offers us salvation through his son, Jesus Christ. This book suggests that many christians and churches need to enlarge their understanding of ‘the gospel’.
True but truncated
McKnight believes in justification by faith, but he believes the New Testament show us that the gospel is much more than personal salvation.
- Did Jesus preach the evangelical gospel? It is possible to find elements of the gospel of personal salvation in the gospels – e.g. in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 (although Jesus doesn’t draw a personal salvation conclusion), in Mark 10:45 (“the son of man … [came] to give his life as a ransom for many people”) and in places in John’s gospel. But these are only occasional references, and historical scholars are convinced that Jesus’ main message was the kingdom of God.
- The personal salvation gospel doesn’t require the Old Testament at all, yet it was clearly important to Jesus.
- Jesus called people to follow him and to keep his teachings, yet the gospel of personal salvation doesn’t require people to become disciples, only to make a decision to receive salvation. It is a gospel all about who is “in” and who is not. In some forms, it opposes any emphasis on obedience as being a gospel of good works.
- Statistics suggest that more than half the people who “make decisions” in response to the gospel of personal salvation don’t continue on to live as disciples.
Instead, McKnight argues, personal salvation flows out of the gospel, but is only part of the gospel.
The gospel Jesus taught
The word gospel translates the Greek word euangelion, which isn’t an offer of personal salvation, but an announcement. And the announcement Jesus made was that the kingdom of God was now breaking into history, and he was the Messiah, the king, and the judge. The long story of the Old Testament, with its promises of restoration, was now completed or fulfilled in him.
So the life of Jesus, in its entirety is the good news. That is why the four biographies of Jesus are themselves called “gospels” – because they are indeed the gospel.
The gospel the apostles taught
McKnight argues that Paul and Peter taught the same gospel, and analyses Paul’s letters, and his and Peter’s speeches in Acts, to demonstrate this. For example:
- In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul explains the gospel he proclaimed as being the story of Jesus – specifically his death, resurrection, appearing and ascension.
- Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin, and several of Paul’s and Peter’s speeches in Acts, all recount Israel’s history in some form, and declare Jesus was the fulfilment of that story.
- The credal statement quoted by Paul in Philippians 2 recounts the story of Jesus from pre-existence through his life on earth and into heavenly glory.
McKnight summarises the apostolic gospel in this way:
- The story of Jesus, his life, death, resurrection, exaltation and coming again, are the completion of the story of Israel.
- The lordship of Jesus.
- Summoning people to respond in repentance, faith and baptism.
- The gospel saves and redeems.
Relevance for gospelling today
If all this is true, how should we change our evangelism? McKnight makes a number of suggestions:
- Focus more on the story of Jesus and him being the rightful king. The Old Testament is the story of God’s dealing with Israel, and Jesus fulfils this story.
- Atonement theory, personal salvation, wrath and judgment were not major emphases of the apostles’ proclamation, so should not be the main focus of our evangelism either.
- Our world offers many stories and worldviews. We need to understand and proclaim the story of Jesus and his kingdom as the truth which changes everything, including how we live. Thus we must live lives characterised by love, justice and peace.
This is clearly an important message, and one which will inevitably be controversial within evangelical christianity. I think McKnight is right about most of this, and his emphasis on the Lordship of Jesus instead of personal salvation has significant positives:
- It is truer to the teachings of Jesus and makes more sense of the entire life of Jesus, instead of either ignoring much of Jesus’ teachings or trying to interpret them in a personal salvation context.
- It calls people to discipleship (i.e. to follow Jesus in the way they live) and not just to receive personal salvation. It resolves the old evangelism vs social gospel question.
- It avoids theological wrangling about the atonement and an unattractive emphasis on judgment.
- In the long run, I believe it is more meaningful for today.
But I have some reservations
- I think his portrayal of Jesus assumes some answers to historical questions (e.g. whether Jesus explicitly claimed to be the Messiah) about which scholars are not all in agreement. I don’t see this as a problem in itself, because his conclusions fit within one of the main scholarly views, but I think christians who adopt his approach to evangelism need to be aware that historically-savvy unbelievers may contest some of the basic facts.
- I have my doubts that the gospel he presents is universal in the New Testament. I think there is still some difference between Jesus and Paul. I think the apostles spoke a gospel like McKnight presents when they spoke to Jews, but I think they modified it quite a bit when speaking to Gentiles (e.g. Paul in Acts 17) – understandably, as the history of Israel would not mean much to them. I think he has to distort 1 Corinthians 15 to say what he wants.
- Therefore, I’m not convinced we need to tell the story of the Old Testament in detail today. I think the story of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom can make sense in our culture without all that as a major part. We need to be careful to keep what we say relevant to our culture. The Old Testament story is crucial to understanding Jesus, but I don’t believe it is a necessary part of evangelism.
- So I think he falls into the trap of so many christian teachers, of trying to systematise and explain too much. I think God is very flexible in his dealings with us, and there are almost always many different nuances to the truths he reveals to us. We need to learn to sit a little more loosely on what we think we know.
- I found the book to be awkwardly written – sometimes confusing and poorly explained, sometimes repetitive.
Well worth reading
Granted my reservations, this is still an important book. It contains many good insights and provides a necessary perspective on the New Testament. It is well worth reading.