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.
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).