The King Jesus Gospel: Creating a Gospel Culture

20120429-211714.jpg

You know what I like? I like it when people shake things up a bit. I like it when someone recognizes that the status quo isn’t quite right and has the compulsion to say something about it. I like having my cage rattled and I like it when I know many other cages are likewise being rattled.

You know what I like even more? I like it when that instigator has also thought through things enough to follow up his cage rattling with some real and positive steps towards a better future. It is not enough to simply say things are wrong. A compelling vision of what could be must be presented. My gratitude to Scot McKnight for doing just that. His final two chapters of The King Jesus Gospel (find a summary of chapter 9 here) provide some tangible steps forward after eight chapters identifying where we’ve gone wrong with the gospel.

It is in this final chapter that McKnight sketches, all in one place, what he regards as the full scope of the gospel narrative. Listen, this book is worth purchasing for these five pages. Dr. McKnight rather adeptly takes the Jesus story all the way back to creation, follows it through the formation of Israel, the exile and return, and lands with Jesus’ own life and what it means for the whole of humanity and the world. My jaw dropped at this brilliant summation of the scriptures.

From there, McKnight identifies several key components that should be found within any community that embraces that full story.

  1. People of the Story. The Book, the whole Book must define us. We’ve got to know what the Lord has been up to all along and where we fit in that tale. We must allow it to shape us.
  2. People of the Story of Jesus. This should be a no-brainer, but we’ve got to know Jesus’ story too. And we’ve got to know what it means, then and now. If we’re going to be his people, we ought to know who he was and is.
  3. People of the Church’s Story. Maybe this one makes you a little uncomfortable. There’s no question the church has gotten things wrong quite a bit over its long history. Nevertheless, there are many places (more than any of us know) where the church has gotten it so so right. We would do well to know our heritage.
  4. Developing Counter Stories. There are any number of stories that fundamentally oppose our own. The world has come up with myriad ways of telling the story of life, many with hints or elements of the Christ story, but more often they are distortions or outright lies. It would behoove a gospel culture to make itself aware of these and know how to tell its own glorious story in a way that demonstrates its own truth vs. opposition.
  5. Embrace the Story. The call to embrace our own gospel story is simply a call to actually embody the very gospel we read in the gospels. This is a call to become the people of the new creation, people who resemble Jesus and, therefore, our God. This is a call to embrace a reality in which we become the representative rulers of the earth, distributing the Creator’s blessings everywhere we go.

The King Jesus Gospel: Gospeling Today

The King Jesus Gospel, like all good sermons, finds its home stretch in the application.  The point has been drilled again and again: the original gospel was the story of Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s story, that God was establishing His anointed one in Jesus, setting him on the throne of both Israel and, ultimately, the world through his death, resurrection, and ascension.  It’s a saving story, yes, but it’s far bigger than our salvation messages.  So as Scot McKnight rounds the corner towards the finish line, he’s keen to ponder how we might present the gospel today in a manner faithful to the original message.

McKnight’s approach is to compare and contrast his findings from scripture with our most common 21st century models of evangelism.  His hope is that these comparisons might lead us to reconsider our own approaches and adapt to what’s found in the gospels and Acts and Paul’s letters.  There are six comparisons (or contrasts) to be made.

  1. Goals.  “The gospeling of Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior” (133, emphases original).  This is not to say that sin isn’t a real problem for people.  It is.  It is, instead, to suggest that perhaps we need to place a bit more confidence in the power of the declaration over the power of our skills of persuasion.
  2. Starting Points.  “The book of Acts reveals that gospeling was not driven by the salvation story or the atonement story.  It was driven by the Story of Israel, and in fact makes most sense in that story” (134, emphases original).  Again, it is not that salvation and atonement are unimportant or that they are not a part of the story.  They are.  But the story is simultaneously broader and more specific.  For too long, we have allowed our gospel story to find its roots in dehistoricized propositions.  It was, however, always a part of a historical narrative.  To do it justice, we ought to return there.
  3. Judgment.  Although the final judgment is often just behind the curtain in much of the New Testament (nearly every page yields allusions to, for example, Daniel 7 and its conclusions), “neither Peter nor Paul focuses on God’s wrath when they evangelize in Acts, nor do they describe the saving Story of Jesus as an escape from hell” (135, emphasis original).  Are we over-characterizing God as vengeful where the New Testament is heavy on His great love and goodness?  This ought to give us pause.
  4. The Problem.  McKnight approaches this is reverse.  If the solution offered by Jesus in the synoptics was kingdom, then perhaps the core problem had something to do with the absence of God’s kingdom on the earth.  If, as John’s gospel tells it, the solution was eternal life, then the problem was something to do with the absence of God’s abundant life.  McKnight’s discussion of these issue is actually quite thought provoking, teasing out humanity’s original commission, what their rebellion actually meant, and how Jesus rights those wrongs (hint: it has to do with kingship).  When it comes down to it, humanity has tried forever to usurp God’s authority, though they had been commissioned to serve the Creator as representative governors.  Only one fulfills that role and thereby establishes a means for all to return to their calling.
  5. Gospel and Empire.  Much has been made in recent years of the New Testament’s stance vis-a-vis imperial forces.  McKnight, for his part, is torn.  He can see that the gospel may have an implicit subversion against Rome in the first century.  His concern, however, is that since it is not explicit, its subversive elements may not be intentional.  I can understand McKnight having reservations on this point and I can understand his desire to express them in this book.  I’m not sure why it comes here: The original gospel may or may not have been anti-imperial, so our evangelism should or should not subvert other earthly claims to extensive political power.  McKnight is unclear.
  6. Jesus.  “The apostles evangelized by telling the Story of Jesus.  Our gospel preaching and evangelism tend to tell the story of how to be saved personally” (144).  Over and over again, McKnight wants us to hear, just tell Jesus’ story.  It is enough.

The King Jesus Gospel: The Gospel of Peter

So we’ve briefly looked at the gospel Paul preached.  We’ve seen that the gospels themselves tell the gospel (duh?).  We’ve even seen that Jesus himself taught the gospel.  Throughout, we’ve had to keep in mind what the gospel actually is, in biblical terms.  The gospel is not the specific message of salvation, nor is it the way in which believers attempt to get others to believe a message of salvation, but the gospel is the actual story of Jesus and how that specific story brings to its climax the story of Israel and Israel’s God.

Scot McKnight’s task now is to ask a similar question of the apostles in Acts.  The question is this: How does Peter (along with other apostles) preach this gospel?  To answer the question, McKnight buzzes through what he identifies as seven distinct evangelical messages in the book of Acts (2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 10:34-43; 13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31).

The basic conclusion comes rather quickly (and by this time, we should really expect that).  McKnight writes,

Peter and Paul framed their gospeling through the grid of Israel’s Story coming to its destination in the Story of Jesus.  Neither did they frame their gospel from the perspective of an atonement theory – whether the ransom theory or the penal substitution theory.  Salvation and atonement flow out of the gospel, and Paul can call his gospel the “message of salvation” (Acts 13:26), but neither atonement nor salvation was how the apostles framed the gospel. (117)

It’s true, the apostles preached a gospel that was squarely rooted in the history of Israel.  In fact, it seems somewhat astonishing to evangelical Christians today that the various sermons in Acts look nothing like our evangelistic efforts.  Rather, they read much more like brief summaries of the history of Israel, with an emphasis on Christ at the conclusion.  Furthermore, the focus on Jesus is not on the cross, as is so typical in the 21st century, but on the resurrection and what that means about Jesus.

And this leads to McKnight’s next big point in the chapter.  The apostolic sermons all conclude their histories with a pair of titles for Jesus.  As a result of the resurrection, they all say, God has made Jesus both “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).  Highlighting this fact, I believe, is extremely important, though unfortunately I don’t think McKnight does the best job explaining why.  Let’s take them in reverse order.

“Christ” is, of course, the Greek word for Messiah.  This, specifically, is all about Jesus’ place in Israel’s history.  The Christ was the one long awaited as Israel’s good and godly king.  This is a royal title among the Jewish and Israelite tradition to be placed alongside “son of David.”  To declare Jesus as “Christ” is to declare him as the one the Jews had been awaiting to represent the Creator to the world and restore the prospects of the nation of Israel.

“Lord,” on the other hand, is a much broader term, but no less regal.  We may be tempted to interpret “Lord” as “God,” but this is not the intention of the apostles.  No, when the Father appoints Jesus as Lord through the resurrection, He is placing Jesus as king of the entire earth – God’s representative governor writ large.

Both “Lord” and “Christ” are royal titles, and both were meant to be placed together throughout much of Israel’s literary history.  You may want to peruse, among other passages, Psalms 2 and 110 or Daniel 7 to see this connection.

But back to McKnight.  It is out of this declaration of who Jesus is as a result of his resurrection that the apostles then call people to faith (faith in Jesus’ place as Lord and Christ), repentance (a turning away from ways of life that are contrary to the ways of that crucified Christ), and baptism (an identification with this dead-and-raised Lord).

The King Jesus Gospel: Jesus and the Gospel

20120425-101223.jpg

While chapter 6 of The King Jesus Gospel centers on the gospel that is Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, chapter 7 concentrates on Jesus’ own preaching during his lifetime. McKnight’s question is simple: Did Jesus proclaim that Israel’s story was coming to completion in himself?

To show that, in fact, Jesus did place himself at the culmination of Israel’s story, McKnight first focuses on the concept of kingdom in the gospels. Spend just a brief amount of time in the gospels and you will find Jesus saying all sorts of things about either a kingdom of heaven or a kingdom of God. Kingdom is a major theme, but what has it to do with Israel?

Suffice it to say, in this confined space, that Israel, throughout its history, had idealized the notion of a people of God living in a particular realm and ruled by (1) God and (2) a human king who accurately represents God. For the bulk of Israel’s history, then, the people had looked back on the glory days of David’s rule and longed for a return at least to such a level.

Enter Jesus, who, when it’s all boiled down, proclaims that those glory days are now being exceeded. He is the representative king they’ve been waiting for. He is establishing a new citizenry of God (twelve new tribes led by twelve disciples, anyone?). He is setting the realm’s boundaries as the whole of creation. Indeed, in him God is claiming His rightful rule over the earth and the people of God. And it’s all happening in and around Jesus.

This is the core of McKnight’s message. The gospel, as originally understood, was not essentially about the justification of believers. It was not about some non-temporal heavenly salvation. The gospel was a historical hope, now realized. It was the restoration and expansion of the kingdom of God. It was the resultant liberation of the faithful people of God. It was the true representative of God ascending to the throne of Israel and the world.

The message of the gospels, then, is that all this happened. And it happened in and through Jesus of Nazareth.

The King Jesus Gospel: The Gospel in the Gospels?

Remember how Scot McKnight had identified a core gospel message in 1 Corinthians 15?  Of course you do.  Remember how it goes?  That’s right: Paul’s gospel, as articulated in 1 Corinthians 15 is basically the passion narrative.  It’s the story of Jesus.  Having established this, then taking a brief detour through history, Dr. McKnight now returns to the actual gospels, asking whether that same Pauline message might be found there.

McKnight frames the question in these ways: “Did Jesus claim Israel’s Story was fulfilled in himself? … Did Jesus preach himself? … Did Jesus make his kingdom message center on his own role in the Story of Israel?” (79).  If so, then Jesus preached the gospel, for the gospel was the notion that Israel’s long history was reaching its zenith and purposed end in Jesus himself.

McKnight is clear that indeed each gospel writer aims to tell the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s story.  He is also clear that the other elements of the story that we have elevated to the level of gospel are in fact just specific aspects of the larger gospel narrative.  “What becomes patently obvious to the reader of any of the Gospels is that they do not tell us the Plan of Salvation, and neither do they offer to us a Method of Persuasion.  Instead, … they narrate the Story of Jesus in a way that shows that Jesus completes Israel’s Story in a way that the story is a saving story” (82, emphasis original).

This is an important point.  The gospel is, of course, a salvation story, but we need to be clear on why it is a salvation story – and this is among the sub-themes running through McKnight’s work.  There is salvation in the gospel story because Jesus is implementing the good and just rule of the Creator, because Jesus is rising to the place of lordship over the whole earth, because Jesus affords all the opportunity to join the New Creation through his own work.  That is salvation, and it is a portion of the much larger story.

Now, for most of this particular chapter, McKnight focuses his attention on the fact that half of each gospel book centers on Passion Week, just as Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 gospel had been succinct in recalling the death, resurrection, appearance, and ascension of Christ.  The gospel, then, is just that: the narrative (and, for McKnight, primarily the passion narrative).  Its effects and multifaceted implications must not be separated from the basic story.

Tomorrow: How the actual life of Jesus fulfills Israel’s story.

The King Jesus Gospel: How Did Salvation Take over the Gospel?

20120423-134637.jpg

Since in chapter 4, McKnight examined Paul’s concept of the gospel, he presents a question here in chapter 5. How did we get to a Christian culture that now promotes salvation over the fuller biblical expression of the gospel?

This chapter is altogether too brief, as McKnight uses just 15 pages to explore two millennia of credal developments in the West. Nevertheless, it is helpful to see what he’s done in touching down on the historical places he does.

Firstly, McKnight contends that the early councils of the first few centuries basically got it right. Both Nicea and Chalcedon were on target as they sought to articulate the gospel. He writes, “careful attention … has now convinced me that ‘creed’ and ‘gospel’ are intimately connected, so intimately one can say the creed is the gospel” (63, emphasis mine).

Doctor McKnight goes on to trace the early progression from the 1 Corinthians 15 gospel statement to the early Rule of Faith (very early, very brief credal statements) to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Using a transitive property of sorts, he concludes that “the Nicene Creed is preeminently a gospel statement” (64). This is flawed thinking, unfortunately. It is the same logic, applied in reverse, that McKnight had used to bemoan our own “salvation culture,” that just because a salvation message flowed from the gospel does not mean that they are equivalent.

At any rate, McKnight proceeds to move from these well-framed early creeds to the Reformation statements that, he believes, began to shift the focus towards salvation and away from the holistic gospel story. Both the Lutheran and Calvinist approaches to the gospel, as laid out in the Augsburg and Genevan Confessions, moved towards statements about the salvific power of Christ at the diminution of Christ’s role as the culmination of Israel’s story.

Leap, then, 500 years to today’s evangelical approach, which is essentially existentialist, and you’ve got a culture that values the individual experience of salvation above all else. The quintessential characterization of this culture comes from none other than John Wesley, whose strangely warmed heart is the measuring stick. The result, according to McKnight, is that “for this culture, it is the ability to witness personally to the experience of conversion that matters most. Once one has had this experience, it’s all over … until the final party arrives” (74).

There are, to be blunt, huge leaps made in McKnight’s historical analysis here, and it is intriguing the way in which he highlights the creeds positively, where Wright had identified their current usage as part of the problem (more on that another day). But it is important to focus on the larger point that McKnight is making, that today’s Western Christianity largely discards the actual historical element in the gospel in favor of a de-historicized propositional salvation message and somewhat mystical experience. Of course, we must not discount an individual’s or community’s experience of the living Christ, nor can we say there are no propositions present in the basic gospel message. Nevertheless, McKnight wants us to be focusing elsewhere, on an element that has been buried for some time – the robust story of which the gospel is the culmination.

The King Jesus Gospel: The Apostolic Gospel of Paul

At first glance, Scot McKnight’s fourth chapter, which centers on the basic gospel message preached by Paul, seems an odd diversion.  He had, after all, commented earlier in the book about the strangeness of asking whether Jesus preached Paul’s gospel (25, citing a presentation once offered by prominent evangelical pastor John Piper).  Yet McKnight quickly shows that where he’s going makes sense.

McKnight’s reference point in this undulating quest to define “gospel” is 1 Corinthians 15, in which Paul actually puts some substance behind the word.  In fact, it’s the only place in the New Testament where the gospel is more or less defined.  The passages are worth quoting.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”  But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him.  When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15:1-5, 20-28, ESV)

The point is this: the good news Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians (and we assume he did likewise to other peoples in other places) is essentially the story of Jesus.  Paul’s gospel was the sequence of events that, in this telling, begins with Jesus’ death, continues through his burial, resurrection, appearance, and ascension.

Furthermore, one gets the sense that this is deeply rooted in a much longer story.  The gospel is what has happened to bring the Creator’s interaction with the creation to its good and glorious climax.  Specifically, this is the culmination of Yahweh’s involvement in and through Israel.

Notice, too, how salvation is a part of this gospel (vv. 1-2), yet it seems more a byproduct than an end goal.  The end goal, it becomes clear, is the kingship, first, of Christ and, ultimately, the Creator.  This, for Dr. McKnight, is the heart of the matter.  Whatever we are to call “the gospel,” it must include this story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, yes, but also his ascension as Lord over the whole earth.  We cannot separate the gospel from the story.

Addendum:

A poignant quote from McKnight’s pen:

When the plan [of salvation] gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical.  When we separate the Plan of Salvation from the story, we cut ourselves off the story that identifies us and tells our past and tells our future. … We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my own personal salvation.  In other words, the plan has a way of cutting the story from a story about God and God’s Messiah and God’s people into a story about God and one person – me – and in this the story shifts from Christ and community to individualism.  We need the latter without cutting off the former (62, emphasis original).