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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Are You a Soterian?

Release date:

October 13, 2011

Reflections on The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, by Scot McKnight (Zondervan, 2011)

Many of us were raised in churches where the presentation of the gospel meant explaining how you “get saved.” “If you were to die tonight, and Jesus asked, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’, what would you answer?” If you shared the gospel, that meant that you told someone that they were sinful and separated from God, but that God sent his Son to die for our sins and by accepting him as Lord and Savior they could know that they would go to heaven when they die. The goal was to get as many people as possible to make a decision. That’s what it meant to present the gospel. That’s why D. L. Moody said, “I can write the gospel on a dime.” More recently, a noted evangelist said, “The only theology you need is whatever you can say to an unbeliever in an elevator.” In my youth I passed out a tract to non-Christians that offered the Plan of Salvation. The last page had a contract that the reader could sign with Jesus, guaranteeing salvation to the signatory.

Like many other Christians, Reformed people typically wince at this approach. We do so for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons coincide with Scot McKnight’s concerns. However, I wonder if he quite gets us to where we need to be. So let me begin by summarizing his arguments.

What is the gospel? According to The King Jesus Gospel, it is the announcement that Jesus Christ, Messiah and Lord, is the resolution to the Story of Israel. Unpacking that is the burden of these 150 pages.

First the author sketches a portrait of what he’s trying to correct. “Evangelism that focuses on decision short circuits and—yes, the word is appropriate—aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles” (18). Basically, the truncated gospel creates a “salvation culture,” not a “gospel culture.” More than “evangelicals” in the purest etymological sense, purveyors of the first are “soterians” or “salvationists” who think that the gospel is what you find in the average evangelistic tract. However, a “gospel culture” arises when believers are immersed in the Story of Jesus, which itself is embedded in the Story of the Bible/Israel. The “soterians” don’t even need the Old Testament for their gospel, as illustrated in the honest question the author received by email: “What is good news about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David?'” (24). Evangelicals are good at moving people from “The Members” (in liturgical traditions) to “The Decided.” That’s important. Yet both belong to a “salvation culture,” where the chief question is how one is saved. Only a “Gospel culture” moves all the way to “The Discipled” (30).

So who are these “soterians”? Are they like Rotarians? Or perhaps aliens from a strange galaxy? At first it seems that he has in mind the typical high-pressure presentations that puts the “restless” back in “Reformed.” However, it turns out that he also has in mind the “New Calvinist” movement. “The Calvinist crowd in the USA—and Piper is the leading influencer in the resurgence of Calvinist thinking among evangelicals—has defined the gospel in the short formula, ‘justification by faith'” (25). Ample space is also taken up with a critique of Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel? “…the gospel of Jesus wants more from us than a singular decision to get the sins wiped away so we can be safe and secure until heaven comes” (18).

Chapter Three, “Story to Salvation,” builds an intriguing model. Like three levels of a pyramid, the Story of Israel/Story of Bible is the ground floor. From this emerges the Story of Jesus, then the Plan of Salvation, leading finally to the Method of Persuasion. So we have to start with the Story of Israel/Bible. This isn’t yet the gospel specifically. However, within that broader narrative is the Story of Jesus. This is the gospel. That’s why we don’t really have four gospels in the New Testament, but one gospel from four different evangelists. Evidently, they thought that they were proclaiming the gospel and there’s a lot more there than “Jesus died for your sins.” But “Jesus died for your sins” is obviously there. It’s just that this isn’t the gospel. The main point of the New Testament is that Jesus is because “the Jesus Story completes the Israel Story, it saves” (37). Typical evangelistic approaches turn the pyramid upside down: the Method of Persuasion is the ground of everything: getting people to make a decision. How? By presenting the Plan of Salvation (like the Four Spiritual Laws). If it’s anywhere, the actual Story of Jesus (i.e., the gospel) is in the background and even that has usually left the Story of Israel in the deep-dark past.

Basically, the gospel is this: “What Adam was to do in the Garden—that is, to govern this world redemptively on God’s behalf—is the mission God gives to Israel. Like Adam, Israel failed, and so did its kings. God sent his Son to do what Adam and Israel and the kings did not (and evidently could not) do and to rescue everyone from their sins and systemic evil and Satan (the adversary). Hence, the Son is the one who rules as Messiah and Lord” (35). It also includes the consummation (36). (He offers a rich, extended summary on 148-153). Although the gospel itself is the Story of Jesus, without the Story of Israel there is no gospel and “if we ignore that story, the gospel gets distorted, and that is just what has happened in salvation cultures” (36). The “Plan of Salvation” is rooted in the gospel, but it isn’t the gospel.

To put it in terms of Reformed interpretation, McKnight is wrestling here with the relationship of the ordo salutis (salvation applied to individuals here and now) to the historia salutis (the history of redemption). Properly, he wants to ground the former in the latter, not vice versa. The “Plan of Salvation” leads to justification, but not to the whole life of discipleship; for that you need the whole gospel (40). “The Plan of Salvation and the Method of Persuasion have been given so much weight they are crushing and have crushed the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus. This has massive implications for the gospel itself” (43). “Nothing proves this more than the near total ignorance of many Christians today of the Old Testament Story. One reason why so many Christians today don’t know the Old Testament is because their ‘gospel’ doesn’t even need it!” (44).

Turning in chapter 4 to Paul’s gospel message, the author focuses on the apostle’s “classic summary” in 1 Corinthians 15, which he said he received from apostolic gospel tradition. The gospel is the Jesus Story (Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection and post-resurrection appearance), grounded in the Story of Israel (“…according to the scriptures”). “Instead of our ‘four spiritual laws,’ which for many holds up our salvation culture, the earliest gospel concerned four ‘events’ or ‘chapters’ ” (49). “To put this together: the gospel is to announce good news about key events in the life of Jesus Christ. The gospel for Paul was to tell, announce, declare, and shout aloud the Story of Jesus Christ as the saving news of God” (50). Of course, Paul’s gospel unpacks thee implications. “Salvation flows from the gospel.” He died “for our sins” (51). “Jesus died with us (identification), instead of us (representation and substitution), and for us (incorporation into the life of God)” (51). It’s not just the cross, but the burial and resurrection, that receive equal attention (54). (I would add, his ascension and return!) The goal of it all in 1 Cor 15 is that finally, in union with Christ, “humans will be doing exactly what God intended for his creation. God will be God and we will be God’s people—and the whole Story will be about God” (56-57).

So where did things go wrong? “How Did Salvation Take Over the Gospel?”, asks chapter 5. Like the authors of his two forewords (N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard), the Reformation is for McKnight the turning point from the glory days of a “gospel culture” to a “salvation culture.” The early era of the creeds were extrapolations of 1 Corinthians 15. “In fact, denial of the creeds is tantamount to denying the gospel itself because what the creeds seek to do is bring out what is already in the Bible’s gospel” (65). From Paul to Nicea we see a gospel culture. He acknowledges that it wasn’t all blue skies: Constantine, the crusades, etc.. But it was a gospel culture (70). Augustine got the ball rolling, but the Reformation began to shift the focus from the Jesus Story to salvation (McKnight focuses on the Augsburg and Geneva confessions) (70-73). “When I read today’s thin and superficial reductions of the gospel to simple points, I know that that could never have happened apart from the Reformation” (71). Not that the Reformers would have done this. “In fact, no one can read either Luther or Calvin and not observe that they operated with both a profound gospel culture and a profound salvation culture. I have no desire to blame them or the Reformation for the soterians or a ‘salvation culture.'” But the seeds were there for a shift “from the story to soteriology” (73). All that was left was the experiential focus of Wesley and the conversionistic impulse that is also a strength of evangelicalism (74-75). “From the enhancement of a gospel culture with a profound emphasis on salvation we have now arrived at the ability for a person to be able to say he or she has had the right experience” (75). (It’s interesting that he draws in this context on Dallas Willard, who hardly focuses on the Story over personal experience!)

After discussing “the Gospel in the Gospels” (ch. 6), McKnight focuses on the gospel according to Jesus (ch. 7). Much of this I recall from an insightful article he wrote for Christianity Today exploring the tendency to pit Jesus (and the kingdom) against Paul (and salvation). Taking a step back from myopic debates that distort the message of both figures, McKnight thinks that the gospel as the Story of Jesus brings them together in a harmonious whole. “Evangelism, what is it? To ‘evangelize’ or to ‘gospel’ is to tell the Story of Jesus as a saving story that completes Israel’s Story” (112). This encompasses the kingdom and personal salvation.

Chapter 9 explores “Gospeling Today,” which is usually different from how it was done in Acts. “The difference can be narrowed to this single point: 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. We are not creating a false alternative here. The latter can be done within the former, but much of the soterian approach to evangelism today fastens on Jesus as (personal) Savior and doges Jesus as Messiah and Lord…the gospeling of the apostles in the book of Acts is bold declaration that leads to a summons while much of evangelism today is crafty persuasion” (133-134).”

However, if we read the Story of Jesus in the light of the Story of Israel, we can see that Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah to satisfy her most pressing need for a King and a Lord. “Remember that the fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means that there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord. The pressing need of the Jews of Jesus’s day was for the Messiah-King and the Messiah-King’s people in the Messiah-King’s land” (137).

Finally, the author fleshes out what this gospel drama—the Jesus Story—means for discipleship, how it creates a “Gospel culture.” First, we must become People of the Story (153-154). Start with the beginning of the book and find yourself in the Story of Israel as it winds its way to the Story of Jesus. Following the church calendar helps with this. Second, we also need to become People of the Church’s Story. “Make a decision to know our story from Adam to the newest baptized Christian in your church” (156). Read the creeds and confessions (156). All of this will help believers to develop counter stories to individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, scientific naturalism, New Age, postmodern tribalism, salvation by therapy (157). Third, embrace the Story. The author attaches an especially useful appendix with summary statements in the New Testament defining “the Gospel.” A second appendix, taken from Justin Martyr’s First Apology, makes less sense. In that classic citation, the early church father explains what happened in early Christian worship, focusing on preaching, prayer and sacrament.

Evaluating The Arguments

There are many things to admire about The King Jesus Gospel. While affirming evangelicalism’s zeal in moving people from members to deciders, “the gospel” has been reduced to “personal salvation” and the result is that all of our strategies are bent on getting “decisions” (26). Reformed folks share the same concern. Christ is both Savior and Lord: you can’t embrace one without the other. And we don’t make him Savior and Lord; he is Savior and Lord whether we embrace him or not. The goal of evangelism in our churches is to make disciples, not just converts. That’s why we don’t focus on a striking conversion experience, but on Christ, and emphasize the Christian life as a constant living out of our baptism, in the communion of saints. Lifelong discipleship is not an individualistic affair, but a team sport.

Furthermore, we emphasize that the ordo salutis (application of redemption)—what the author calls “the Plan of Salvation”—arises out of the history of redemption (historia salutis)—the Story of Jesus, which emerges in the Story of Israel. (My stated goal in my systematic theology, The Christian Faith, is to reintegrate these coordinates by the rubric of drama-doctrine-doxology-discipleship.) The prophets pave the way for Jesus’s claim that he is this solution, the author argues (137). Indeed! Commentaries from John Calvin to Don Carson emphasize that the whole Bible is to be read as one unfolding story from promise (Story of Israel) to fulfillment (Story of Jesus). Reformed exegetes regularly lament the place of the Old Testament in contemporary preaching and evangelism, turning to it mostly for edifying examples to imitate (or to shun). Even the exegesis that McKnight offers concerning Jesus’ temptation as the recapitulation of Adam’s and Israel’s (154) is standard in Reformed commentaries (as well as others).

The abstraction of doctrine (like what McKnight calls the Plan of Salvation) from the Story tends to push out not only the Old Testament but the Holy Spirit and the church. I can’t help be feel that what we really need is not to put the Plan of Salvation somewhere else other than the gospel (especially if that includes justification and the new birth), but question aspects of what many evangelicals mean by the very idea. I can only add a hearty amen when the author writes, “To make this more serious, what we are in most need of today, especially with a generation for whom the Plan of Salvation doesn’t make instinctive sense, is more gospel preaching that sets the context for the Plan of Salvation ” (40).

When the Bible talks about “getting saved” (which it never does in precisely those terms), the focus is on the Triune God saving sinners through the twists and turns of redemptive history, from one end of the book to the other. Typically, where the Bible sweeps me into its grand story of redemption in Christ, many evangelistic presentations reduce that grand story to “me and my personal relationship with Jesus.” We talk about the gospel as an announcement—a promise—that is revealed as a grand drama that unfolds from Genesis 3:15 to the close of Revelation. The gospel isn’t an offer to appropriate, decide, or contract for with Jesus. It’s an announcement—a declaration—of God’s saving accomplishment in Jesus Christ. Promised in the Old Testament, the gospel is fulfilled in the New. The call to repent and believe is not the gospel, but the proper response to the gospel. In fact, the gospel is not a call to do anything—even to believe. The gospel itself is simply an announcement that we are therefore called to believe.

McKnight helpfully makes the point in several places that the gospel is a story, an announcement, a declaration, and not a series of “steps” for us to follow to “get saved.” But here’s where he gets confusing. In spite of this point, he still thinks that what he calls the Plan of Salvation and Method of Persuasion are importantly related to the gospel. These phrases are a bit unfamiliar to Reformed ears. Where we typically talk about the Spirit’s application of redemption through the gospel itself, most evangelicals speak of our appropriating, actualizing, or making Jesus our Savior and Lord. God offers us the package, but our new birth depends on something we do, at least our decision. McKnight still seems to follow this way of speaking about “…what that person must do in order to get saved” (38) and appropriating salvation by “making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ” (28). No wonder, then, he wants to distinguish this from the gospel.

From Bavinck to Berkhof, Reformed theologians have lamented the excesses of a pietism and revivalism that threaten to reduce the gospel to a personal decision or crisis experience. So how exactly does the Reformation get saddled once again with a tragic narrowing of the gospel to the “four spiritual laws” with the goal of making mere deciders (converts) who know Jesus as Savior rather than disciples who embrace him as Lord? McKnight acknowledges that there were some flaws in the pre-Reformation “Gospel Culture” (Constantine, the crusades, etc.). He also acknowledges that the Reformers wouldn’t agree with everything that “salvation culture” implies. Yet, much like N. T. Wright, he seems to think that he if we would just go “back to the Bible to find the original gospel” as he has, we’d get it right (24). The history of exegesis is reduced to the categories of “gospel culture” and “salvation culture.” Also as in Professor Wright’s work, The King Jesus Gospel offers sweeping assertions about the Reformation without serious engagement. I can’t imagine that he has explored the commentaries of the Reformers or the history of Reformed biblical theology in any depth. No harm done for having different interests, but one shouldn’t then pile with one more straw-man portrait.

Even when he “damns with faint praise,” the author misses the goal of at least Lutheran and Reformed branches: “The singular contribution of the Reformation, in all three directions—Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist—was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility and the development of the gospel as speaking into that responsibility” (71). This confuses the Reformation’s interest with pietism, which was a completely different kettle of fish. The former focused on what the Triune God has done to accomplish salvation for sinners, not on “human response” and what I’m supposed to do to “get saved.”

Though largely respectful, McKnight takes aim especially at John Piper and Greg Gilbert as examples of “soterists.” I won’t presume to speak for these brothers, except to say that the author’s critique appears to lift a few statements as “Exhibit A.” For example, when Piper says that the gospel is “justification by faith,” he is speaking short-hand. The Reformers often did the same, yet they didn’t even come close to the author’s description of decision-oriented “soterism.” The justification of the ungodly is as much an event in the history of salvation (Story of Israel/Jesus) as it is the application of Christ’s imputed righteousness to believers. We simply don’t talk about “Plan of Salvation” evangelism in the first place. That is a different way of doing evangelism than the Lutheran and Reformed approach, centering as it does on the gospel as the announcement of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for the salvation of the world. Those who believed this gospel were baptized and joined the church, regularly meeting together for the apostles teaching, the Supper, and common prayer (Ac 2:32).

The great thing about the author’s treatment of Jesus and Paul is that the Story of Jesus indeed encompasses the kingdom emphasis along with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. However, he doesn’t seem to allow the same space for the benefits (like justification) in the definition of the gospel itself that he opens up for the kingdom. Without justification, Christ’s messianic reign and kingdom are not necessarily good news.

In this light, I worry about forcing a choice between the gospel as the Story of Jesus and the Plan of Salvation (if the latter means justification and new birth, for example). The one is still too broad to specify the saving announcement and the latter is too narrow—indeed, somewhat distorting (understood the way McKnight describes it, as akin to the Four Spiritual Laws). McKnight does a great job with 1 Corinthians 15, but there Paul clearly includes the benefits of Christ’s saving work (forgiveness, justification, resurrection) with Christ’s Story as the gospel. In fact, our story (how he saves us) is bound up with his story in that passage. If 1 Corinthians 15 is a summary of the gospel (and I agree that it is), then wouldn’t it be arbitrary to say that the details about Christ’s death and resurrection are the gospel while the benefits for us, as important as they are, are not the gospel? There are just too many passages, here and elsewhere, that make Christ’s work (living, dying and rising again in history) and its effects for us inseparable aspects of the gospel. “He was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). The dramatic story of Christ and the doctrine that interprets its significance for us are inseparable aspects of the same gospel.

Typically, Reformed and Lutheran theologies speak about “the gospel in the narrow sense” (something like 1 Cor 15:2-5 and Rom 4:25) and “…in the broader sense,” encompassing all of the promises that God fulfilled in Christ, including the gift of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and all of the other benefits of our union with Christ.

So we already have the categories that make these points: promise and fulfillment, historia salutis and ordo salutis, and the gospel in the narrower and broader senses. To me, at least, these distinctions are less capable of reductionism. The gospel in the New Testament is neither “Repent and believe” (that’s the call to embrace the gospel) nor “Jesus is the Solution to Israel’s Story.” It’s not even that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah-King. This announcement is as ambiguous without the news of justification as is the news of justification apart from the Story of Israel and Jesus. Jesus’ lordship entails judgment and wrath as well as justification and grace. So there is plenty of reductionism to go around. McKnight is mostly right, I believe, but I’m concerned that his definition of the gospel is too general in one sense (“The Story of Jesus”) and too reductive in another (“Messiah-King-Lord” vs. “Justifying High Priest”). What’s wrong with staying with the integrating rubric of “Prophet, Priest, and King,” interpreted within the horizon of Israel’s story? Penal substitution not as the only aspect of his atoning work but as the sine qua non of his victory of the powers and principalities, vindication of his moral government, and recapitulation of Adam’s failed headship? Why the false choices?

Another danger in reducing the gospel to the Jesus-Story-as-Solution-to-the-Israel-Story is that it fails to account adequately for why the gospel is good news to Gentiles. “Now this might seem simplistic,” the author says, “but any reading of the Prophets, former or latter and major and minor, will show that the problem for the Story of Israel was a resolution to Israel’s and Judah’s problems” (137). Indeed, that’s a big part of it, but don’t the apostles ground the “mystery of the church” in the prophetic promise of Israel’s Messiah as the answer to the whole world’s problems? What about all those wonderful prophecies of a remnant from the nations streaming to Zion?

The Story of Israel sets us up for the Story of Jesus: true enough—and not only true, but just as crucial as McKnight suggests. However, he says, that what is central to the gospel “is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord.” This was “the pressing need of the Jews of Jesus’ day: the Messiah-King and the Messiah-King’s people in the Messiah-King’s land.” This is a salutary point, frequently made in our circles. However, like N. T. Wright, McKnight seems to give too much credit to what the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting, as if it were basically what the prophets and Jesus had in mind. Clearly it wasn’t, since Jesus regularly upbraids not only the religious leaders but his own disciples for missing the point, thinking that he was coming to restore the nation to its former glory, renewing the Sinai covenant.

If Gentiles are in themselves strangers to the covenants of promise, God’s enemies, “unclean,” and already under judgment, of what relevance is the news, “Finally, Israel has a King who will bring things around in the land!”? I agree that we Gentiles have to be immersed in the Story of Israel; we get in the covenant on Jewish shirt-tales, as it were. We’re the workers in the vineyard who came at the end of the day, the Johnny-come-latelies. However, unlike those to Jewish audiences, the gospel sermons to Gentiles in Acts and descriptions of the gospel in the epistles don’t merely rehearse the history of Israel; they proclaim Christ as the Savior of the world, from judgdment, sin and death, by Christ’s own death-judgment and resurrection-justification. The context of their repentance is idolatry. Somewhere N. T. Wright has written that the tragic problem that confronts Israel at Jesus’ advent is that Israel too is found to be “in Adam.” That’s exactly right. Being “in Adam” universalizes the plight. We dare not skip over Israel, but the Pauline contrast is being “in Adam” versus being “in Christ.”

Surely the reign of the Messiah-King is key in the prophets, but the way in which he exercises this reign is inextricably linked to his priesthood. By fulfilling the law, bearing their sins, clothing them in his righteousness, giving them his Spirit, and returning to make all things new, this Messiah will indeed accomplish what Adam and Israel have failed to do. I would want to press the author a bit more on what he means when he adds, “So he sends us east of Eden into the world with the same task” of being priest-kings in his garden” (138). So is our mission the same as Christ’s? Are we recapitulating Adam and Israel, bearing the curse, and by our resurrection securing the restoration of all things? Is Jesus really the “Last Adam,” who does all of this for us, or the model for how we are to complete his redeeming work? I may be reading too much into that statement, but it would be interesting to hear more about that point. In spite of clear echoes of N. T. Wright throughout The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight is less confident in the “gospel and empire” thesis: namely, that the main thing in saying “Jesus is Lord” is to specifically challenge Caesar and his empire. “Let’s keep in mind that no one would ever deny that an implication of the gospel declaration that Jesus is Lord is that Caesar is not. The issue here is how conscious, overt, and intentional this anti-imperial theme is to the gospeling of the first Christians,” especially in light of Paul’s remarks about ordained powers in Romans 13 (142-144).

Finally, I was looking forward to the last chapter: “Creating a Gospel Culture.” After all, I wholeheartedly agree that a gospel that takes its narrative habitat seriously and connects individual believers to Israel and the Triune God’s purposes for history will create a very different kind of community than one that’s based on individual decisions. However, I didn’t find what I was expecting. It wasn’t what was there, but what was missing, that puzzled me. Sure, we need to become People of the Story and all, reading the Bible cover to cover, but all of his concrete suggestions for this were basically about the individual believer. Nothing about the sacraments, church membership and discipline—especially odd in light of the Justin Martyr appendix that focused on these ordinary means by which God “creates a gospel culture.” McKnight says, “As Dallas Willard has argued for decades, God transforms us through a vision, our intention, and the means God provides—the spiritual disciplines” (159). This seems hardly capable of creating a less individualistic and more integrated gospel culture than its “soterian” alternative.

I would encourage likely critics of The King Jesus Gospel to hear out the argument, setting caricatures and false choices to one side. There is a lot in this book that should resonate with Reformed Christians. Whatever inaccuracies in his description of the views of others who deserve better, Scot McKnight is reacting against a serious weakness of contemporary evangelism that plays out in church life abundantly. To enthusiastic readers of the book, I’d caution against exchanging one set of reductionism for another. Let’s not polarize into even more extreme camps of “story-people” and “doctrine-people”; “kingdom” and “personal salvation”; “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is Savior.” We can all be evangelical soterians, rejoicing in the gospel as the Story of Jesus that proclaims the only one who saves us from our sins. Despite my concerns, this is a great starter for some remarkably important conversations.