The King Jesus Gospel: Gospel Culture or Salvation Culture?

Appropriately, Scot McKnight doesn’t take long to raise his beef with the evangelical world of which he is a part.  It comes down to this: we have confused “salvation” and “gospel.”

Evangelicals, for all intents and purposes, are today little more than soterians.  That is, we believe the core question facing each individual is whether she has been “saved from her sins” (the Greek word for “to save” is sozo, from which we get fancy theological words like soteriology and soterian).  As a byproduct, we have developed what McKnight calls a “salvation culture,” in which all that really matters is whether a person is “in” or “out.”

It’s no wonder, then, that evangelical leaders traditionally have to exert herculean effort to move believers towards actual discipleship, or a process of growth in which one becomes increasingly like Christ.  We make such a stink over getting saved, as if that were the endgame, and scratch our heads when a new believer won’t budge from the doorway of Christianity.

That one problem, thinking that “gospel” in the New Testament is the equivalent of “salvation” or a “salvation message,” has left the Western church with a slew of other problems.  Of course, the dearth of discipleship is one.  We’ve got a massive Christian church that could just barely be recognized on the street as having anything to do with Christ.  We go about “winning” people to Christ, with little actual regard for their personal well-being (or the fact that they are, indeed, a person worthy of respect).  We demand a position of moral authority while appearing no different, ethically, from the surrounding population.  I could go on.

But there’s the problem Dr. McKnight seeks to address.  We’ve confused “gospel” with “salvation” and have thereby created a culture in which salvation is the only thing that truly matters.

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8 thoughts on “The King Jesus Gospel: Gospel Culture or Salvation Culture?

  1. I have been reflecting lately that, as a people who claim to “love the sinner and hate sin” and who believe the Bible when it says “in Christ, there is no slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, (paraphrased)”, why have we settled on a faith that is essentially a polarizing, binary distinction?

    I suppose, in some ways, it could be binary: Are you following Christ? (Similar to “Are you breathing?” … yes or no?) Still, this is a far cry from “Are you a Christian?”

    As always, you are making me think. And I like it.

    1. I think there is, actually, a polarizing component to Christ, Bill. Your paraphrase of either Gal 3:28 or Col 3:11 certainly demonstrates that the typical cultural divides have been destroyed under Christ. Nevertheless, there is an inherent divide centered around Jesus himself.

      The frustration we’re sharing, I think, comes from a desire for a different starting point, or a different way of framing the conversation.

      The thrilling thing about the real gospel story in the NT is that the framing issue is that this is the story about what God is doing to restore all creation. This is what God is doing to re-establish His beneficent rule over the earth. Suddenly the question isn’t “in or out;” it’s about the degree to which one seeks to embrace that new reality.

      At least, I think that’s what it means. Push back?

      1. You framed my thoughts better than I did, there. Absolutely, Christ is polarizing. If I can abuse the metaphor a bit, he is True North — everything else is referenced as degrees different than Him.

        It is the binary nature of the distinction that frustrates me. “You’re either in New York or L.A.” is a ridiculous sentiment, as is “The cake is either fully baked or not baked at all.” I want to leave room for growth in a direction.

        Yet, “You are either alive or dead”, “You’re pregnant or you’re not.” In my experience, the decision to follow Christ, to eventually be baptized, to identify with Christ all point to the simple truth that “one of these things is not like the other” (you were once dead in your sins, but NOW …)

        Perhaps I need to really make a mess of this metaphor: Suppose Christ is the North pole of a magnet. He would desire to draw us all to himself. As we align ourselves with Him, choose him, do the mysterious part that I am still wrestling with, we can become “positively charged” too. A change of state, a binary distinction. (cont’d)

      2. (from previous)
        The purpose of that state change is to become part of the attractive force. The reality is that some will be closer to that state change, that flip to positive, than others and that those who are ‘positively charged’ can be so to varying degrees.

        Perhaps I’m mixing two struggles here: First, that following Christ is not done in a single decision: the church has done a great dis-service to many by “getting them in the door” and going no further (or just providing a set of behavioral expectations to meet). The assumption is that if you’re on my side of the magnet, it’s as good as being at the pole. Second, that there is an intolerance based largely on behavior that implies that if you are anywhere on that side, you might as well be at the wrong pole.

        But, the heart of God, I think, is that we join him in his work of making a magnet with no negative pole. That the seemingly impossible would some day come to pass. It’s not “get as many people on this side of the magnet as you can and feel sorry for the rest”, rather we can be part of aligning the whole thing to him.

        I need to think on this more And I certainly need to find a better metaphor!

      3. I really like where this is heading, Bill. Food for thought: there’s a pastor in Cambridge, MA, who talks about this sort of thing all the time. Plus, there’s math involved!

      4. Yes, yes, yes! What he said.

        I particularly like it because it makes sense of some of Jesus’ interactions with people – particularly that he can say the “closer to God” Pharisees are actually way off base and others are not while also maintaining “I haven’t come for the well, but the sick”. If I am a Pharisee locked in an orbit (that is, maintaining a constant distance from the origin, moving tangentially to God), I am worse off than a far distant point making progress toward origin. My behaviors may be demonstrably better in some areas, but that isn’t the whole picture. With a bounded set, you’re left with “what is the secret ingredient that gets me on the inside?” Traditional thinking would say the prayer of conversion, but that starts to break down in a hurry when applied to the ways Christ interacted with people.

        Good stuff. I’ve enjoyed talking some of this out.

        Bonus: I am fairly certain that this is my bro&sis-in-law’s pastor! They gave me his book … I think I may have to bump it up in my “to read” list.

  2. Like both of your reflections here. Mike, thanks for posting your perspectives upon your readings – I enjoy reading your reviews and reflections.

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