[Editor’s Note: This review is taken from the March 2012 issue of Credo Magazine, “Make Disciples of All Nations.”]
The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Reviewed by David VanDrunen
Little could be more important to Christianity than knowing what the gospel is. Thus one would expect a book claiming to redefine what is ordinarily meant by “the gospel” to be provocative and potentially revolutionary for the identity of the church. Scot McKnight clearly wishes nothing less from his efforts in this new volume.
To grasp the burden of McKnight’s argument it is important to understand his intended audience and the problem he believes it has. The audience is the contemporary evangelicalism in which he and most of his students were raised. Its problem is that it understands the“gospel” primarily in terms of sin, Jesus’ death, making a decision for Jesus, and going to heaven. In so doing, evangelicals have “hijacked” the word“gospel” to mean personal salvation, which was not what Jesus or the apostles meant by it. McKnight often emphasizes that he agrees with what evangelicals say about personal salvation, as far as it goes, but that the original understanding of the gospel must be recovered. Such a recovery would help Christians become genuine disciples of Jesus and not simply those who have made a decision for him.
McKnight distinguishes four big categories: the Story of Israel, the Story of Jesus, the Plan of Salvation, and the Method of Persuasion. The “gospel,” he says, pertains only to the second. Specifically, the gospel is the Story of Jesus as the completion of the Story of Israel. His argument in support begins with 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul identifies what the “gospel” is and points particularly to events in Jesus’life, including his ascension, his second coming, and the consummation. In following chapters he argues that the same gospel is highlighted in the great creeds of the church, in the four Gospels (the Gospels, he says, are the gospel), in Jesus’ preaching (because Jesus preached himself as the completion of Israel’s story), and in the preaching of Peter and Paul in Acts. Regarding the latter, he notes that Peter and Paul did not reduce the gospel to a plan of salvation or frame the gospel in terms of a theory of the atonement.
How and when did this understanding of the gospel get lost? McKnight sees the Reformation as the great turning point. He insists that the Reformation was a good thing, and that the shift from a “gospel culture” to a “salvation culture” did not happen during the Reformation itself. But in light of its emphasis upon the need for personal salvation, this shift transpired in its wake. To recover a gospel culture today, he says, our gospel preaching must be framed by Israel’s story, center on the lordship of Jesus, and summon people to respond. This preaching will save and redeem (as it proclaims forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and justification).
To the extent that the gospel and its proclamation are reduced to the crucifixion, making a decision for Christ, and going to heaven (and I have no doubt they often are), McKnight’s work offers a very helpful corrective in many respects. His call for attention to the whole story of Scripture—from creation to Abraham, Israel, David, Jesus, and the consummation—is most welcome. His observation that many evangelicals do not know the Old Testament because it is not necessary for their gospel is undoubtedly true—and tragic. McKnight is also on good ground in emphasizing that Jesus’ work is much more than the crucifixion taken as a solitary event—it is about the completion of the Old Testament story and includes his resurrection, ascension, and second coming no less than his crucifixion. The biblical evidence for this is indeed overwhelming.
Yet McKnight’s work also raises some serious concerns. For one thing, McKnight frequently reassures readers that, though he believes the “plan of salvation” is not “the gospel,” he agrees with the truth of the plan of salvation that most people identify with the gospel. But does he? It is at least not clear that he holds the same plan of salvation that the Reformation proclaimed. When describing the plan of salvation McKnight affirms the forgiveness of sins but never affirms the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. He speaks of justification and the necessity of faith, but never speaks of justification by faith alone. He speaks (accurately) of the multiplicity of images Scripture uses to explain the meaning of Christ’s death, but jumps from this fact to the claim that we should not privilege one theory of the atonement over another (51-52)—as if different atonement theories are simply ways of emphasizing equally valid biblical images (when in fact many historic atonement theories contradict one another). He also defines justification as leading “to a declaration by God that we are in the right, that we are in the people of God” (40). This is N. T. Wright’s understanding of justification, but it is not the Reformation’s understanding or (I believe) Scripture’s.
In the end neither the reductionistic gospel against which McKnight polemicizes nor McKnight’s alternative is satisfying. For readers who recognize the indispensability of both the Reformation (biblical) plan of salvation and the full story of Scripture from creation to consummation (centered on Christ’s work in its entirety), I cannot help but recommend confessional Reformed Christianity, which McKnight never considers. By conviction (though of course never perfectly in practice), it holds forth the Reformation doctrine of justification, but places it in the context of a full-orbed biblical covenant theology that unites the stories of Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ into a single story culminating in Christ’s return and the new creation. Understanding salvation in covenantal context would also clarify some ambiguous and problematic statements by McKnight claiming that God gave Christians the assignment he originally gave to Adam and Eve (141, 152). Jesus is the Last Adam, and the priestly rule we will share with him in the new creation (which is the point of Revelation 5:9-10 and 20:6, which McKnight quotes) should not be confused with taking up again Adam’s task in the present world. I would also note that confessional Reformed Christianity, in emphasizing careful catechetical training, morning and evening worship on the Lord’s Day, and family worship, has embraced the idea of discipleship, another concern McKnight highlights.
McKnight is right to want it all: both the biblical plan of salvation and the full biblical story from creation to consummation, centered in Jesus Christ. He has much to say about the latter that is helpful and inspiring, but I fear he has not done sufficient justice to former.
Dr. David VanDrunen, a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, began teaching at Westminster Seminary California in 2001. He formerly served as a pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park, IL, and currently serves on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Committee on Christian Education and Subcommittee on Ministerial Training. His present research interests include natural law, the two kingdoms doctrine, and bioethics. Dr. VanDrunen is the author of Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions, as well as several scholarly essays and articles.
Did you enjoy this review? Read others like it in the March 2012 issue of Credo Magazine, “Make Disciples of All Nations“.
The March issue of Credo Magazine seeks to ignite a passion for missions. And what better timing as this year marks the 200th anniversary of Adoniram and Ann Judson setting sail aboard the Caravan with to take the gospel to Burma. Contributors include: Ted Kluck, Jason Duesing, Nathan Finn, the Housley Family (missionaries in Papua New Guinea), Kenneth Stewart, Brian Vickers, David VanDrunen, Matt Williams, and many others.
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