Book Review: The King Jesus Gospel

Book Review: The King Jesus Gospel

By: Scot McKnight ISBN: 9780310492986

Publisher: Zondervan

The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited

 I’ve started on a couple of occasions now to write out my review for Scot McKnight’s latest book and it’s been difficult to know where to begin. I should get one thing out of the way and in the open before proceeding further; this is an important book, especially so in circles of Protestant Evangelicals and even more so with those struggling to answer questions about how to develop spiritually deep and enduring-persevering disciples of Jesus Christ in the world we live today. I realize the boldness of my statement, but I believe the content of The King Jesus Gospel supports the claim completely.

The premise of the book suggests that the Church has strayed from the gospel as it was preached by Jesus and the apostles. From this premise, McKnight lays a biblical foundation for the original gospel and methodically builds his case and reasoning for why anything less than the original gospel short circuits and short changes the mission of God for the Church. Personally, I think his work is remarkably insightful and prophetic and I am hopeful that it sparks the revolution that it proposes.

I started reading Scot’s Jesus Creed blog at least six years ago; it may have been longer, although I’m almost positive it was around 2005 shortly after his book The Jesus Creed was published. Since that time, I’ve read almost every book that has followed it. I mention this to make a point that all the while I was reading The King Jesus Gospel there was never a single “Aha!” moment; it’s almost as if while I was reading the book, I was having a déjà vu experience the entire time. This confession isn’t a negative commentary about the book whatsoever. My point is meant to support the belief that this work hasn’t just “burst onto the scene,” but it is a thoughtful progression of deep analysis about where gaping holes in our theology have created the culture we now lament in our churches (apathy, exclusivism, inclusivism, passivity, narcissism, and individualism to name a few issues). I think from The Jesus Creed, to A Community Called Atonement, and then One.Life, readers might be able to see development of The King Jesus Gospel…I was certainly able to see it and I believe this is the reason for my déjà vu experience. It was not as much that I saw the book coming as I just “got it” and resonated deeply with its message.

My copy is heavily highlighted, underlined, and annotated with margin notes. It’s hard to tell which chapter or chapters had the most impact on me, but chapters two (Gospel Culture or Salvation Culture) and four (The Apostolic Gospel of Paul) definitely set a strong tone for the remainder of the book. Hear these words from the opening paragraphs of chapter two; “Personal faith is both necessary and nonnegotiable. The gospel doesn’t work for spectators; you have to participate for it to work its powers” (pg.28). And, this statement follows on the succeeding page (28):

“…we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really ‘evangelical’ in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians. Here’s why I say we are more soterian than evangelical: we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. Hence, we are really ‘salvationists.” When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) ‘salvation.'”

As a pastor who has struggled with getting people engaged with their faith and actively involved (and personally responsible) in the work of their discipleship, I realize the fruit of a salvation culture is the passivity and apathy that is so prevalent in our churches today. As painful as it might be to admit it, I do not think we can deny the problems so many of us have recognized. McKnight mentions the polls, surveys, reports, and statistics we have read from the Barna Group and other church data organizations, reporting divorce rates climbing amongst Christians, youth who leave the Church as soon as they are able, and biblical illiteracy to mention a few… clearly there is a problem and I find myself in agreement with McKnight’s proposal that our gospel has been hijacked. One of my margin notes reads as follows:

I believe the gospel is more about re-imaging than about salvation. “Re-imaging” is a process of being while “salvation” is defined more as a single event. -j. borden

Chapter four moves pretty quickly to providing the working definition of gospel for the remainder of the book. I was intrigued with this chapter for several reasons. One reason is the simple clarity of the gospel message, at least as perceived and presented by the apostle Paul. Also, I believe Scot’s presentation and position is very strong, and it would be difficult to successfully argue against. This leads me to a second reason for my intrigue with this chapter. In light of the clarity of Paul’s recounting of the gospel, I wonder why we have so many different interpretations of what the gospel is. If you ask ten different people what the gospel is, I believe you would get ten different answers. Yes, you might get some similarities and you might hear a lot of the same words/terms, but the end interpretations would probably all be uniquely different. If this is true, it means (a) the gospel isn’t clear or (b) we have a failed understanding of the gospel. I believe we have a failed understanding of the gospel and this is a problem of larger proportion than many pastors and churches are willing to address. The problem with a failed understanding of the gospel is that it opens the church to a host of problem, not the least of which heresy, which can lead to unpleasant ends (Galatians 1:8-9; 2 John 10-11).

As mentioned earlier, McKnight hones in on the biggest pretender gospel, the salvation gospel, as the greatest problem with our understanding the pure gospel today. He identifies the departure from the pure gospel or How Did Salvation Take Over the Gospel in chapter five. Once more, I think the work presented in this chapter is laudable, and considering the supporting historical evidence, it would be difficult to discount. McKnight places responsibility on the shoulders of the Reformation for augmenting and reframing the gospel; he writes:

The Reformation did not deny the gospel story and it did not deny the creeds. Instead, it put everything into a new order and into a new place. Time and developments have somehow eroded the much more balanced combination of gospel culture and salvation culture in the Reformation to where today a salvation culture has eclipsed the gospel culture. (pg.72)

He goes on to express how the progression of the salvation gospel has degraded the pure-original gospel as follows:

Even more so with Calvin (and William Farel) than with Luther, the gospel story is set into a new framing story, the story of salvation. Contemporary evangelicalism, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, has absorbed this Reformation (salvation) story. To put it lightly, in many cases it has not only absorbed but done plenty of subtraction and reframing. There are huge pockets of evangelicalism where this profound Reformation reframing is little more than four simple (and thin) points: God loves you, you are messed up, Jesus died for you, accept him and (no matter what you do) you can go to heaven. My contention is not that the Reformation created that sort of gospel, but that the Reformation’s reshaping of the gospel story has made it a pale shadow of what it ought to be. (pg.73)

McKnight quotes Dallas Willard’s comment that this salvation gospel is a gospel of sin management—

“Gospels of Sin Management” presume a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind…[and] they foster “vampire Christians,” who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing to do with Jesus until heaven. (pg.76)

Chapters six (The Gospel in the Gospels), seven (Jesus and the Gospel), and eight (The Gospel of Peter) continue to build and bolster the case for returning to the original gospel which is so very different than the myriad of gospels (including the salvation gospel) that are preached to us today.

After laying a solid foundation and building a brilliant case for his thesis, Scot moves ahead with contemporary application of “Gospeling Today” (chapter nine). This chapter unfolds a series of six comparisons of the King Jesus Gospel and the salvation gospel professing the purpose, strength, weakness, and expected and/or realized results of them. As an example of what this chapter has in store for the reader, I share from Comparison 1: What Gospeling Seeks to Accomplish. McKnight writes the following:

There is a huge difference between the gospeling of Acts and our Plan of Salvation approach today, and alongside that difference, the gospel of Acts has almost no similarity to our Method of Persuasion. 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 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 dodges Jesus as Messiah and Lord. If there is any pervasive heresy today, it’s right here. (pp.133-134)

The remaining five comparisons in chapter nine are just as sobering as the first and serve as a wonderful summation of the work that precedes it.

The final chapter, Creating a Gospel Culture, is (in my opinion) the money chapter. It alone is worth the purchase price of the book. What flows from this chapter is the evidence of a man whose heart is to see the Story of God and man realized in this generation. There are considerations and suggestions for what we might do to create a true gospel culture and there are warnings against the false stories that compete for preeminence in lives of Christians today, stories that need to be countered and destroyed, so they do not destroy the gospel story.

As I said, this is an important book. I anticipate it will receive a lot of push back. The salvation gospel has had several hundred years to deeply entrench itself into our culture; for many people, it is all they understand and all they wish to know. This is sad; the gospel of Jesus is a story that brings with it life today and not only life tomorrow… and I often wonder if we do not learn to live life today as Jesus offered to us, will we see the life He promised for tomorrow.

If all you have known is a gospel that focuses on salvation alone, you owe it to yourself to read this book with an attentive ear and open mind. Be sure to read it alongside your Bible and take your time reading it asking God to reveal truth to you as you read. You might be surprised to find something you’ve been missing in your faith as you have attempted to walk with Jesus; you might find the original Good News.

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