Last week we hosted the Faith & Culture Conference 2012 at Word of Life Church and our featured guest was Scot McKnight, former professor in religious studies at North Park University and now professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary. Scot is an important theological voice, particularly in the evangelical world. I knew of Scot from his blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/ and from his books: Jesus Creed, A Community Called Atonement, and, most recently, The King Jesus Gospel. I had been preparing for his arrival at our conference by re-reading The King Jesus Gospel and by listening to four lectures he delivered last year at Truett Seminary.
At our conference, I enjoyed both listening to Scot and talking with him over lunch and on the ride to the airport. I found him to be engaging, thoughtful, and relatable. I like Scot, not that my feelings about Scot as a person adds any credibility to his theological work. I believe what he is saying about the gospel and modern evangelicalism is true and deserves a wider audience. I would say this about Scot whether I personally liked him or not. I like him because he talks a lot about Jesus. He is deeply committed to both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. I also like the fact that he calls N.T. Wright by his first name, “Tom.” He has a friendly relationship with Wright and there is no denying N.T. Wright’s influence on Scot’s work in the area of New Testament studies.
The bulk of his message through three sessions at our conference was drawn from his work in The King Jesus Gospel, where he makes the startling argument that the “gospel” preached in modern, American evangelicalism is not the gospel preached by either the Apostles or Jesus himself. What modern evangelism calls the “gospel” is really the plan of salvation, that is, how someone receives the gospel. In Scot’s view, the gospel includes the plan of salvation, but is not limited by it. He further argues that preaching the plan of salvation as the gospel creates a “salvation culture,” where preaching the apostolic gospel, as recorded in the New Testament, creates a “gospel culture.”
Scot opened his first lecture with the question: “What is the gospel?” He says this may sound like a stupid question, but in the current climate of evangelicalism, it is complete pertinent. Some say the gospel is justification and others say it is justice, but in the New Testament, the gospel is the story of Jesus fulfilling the story of Israel. In looking to the Scripture for the gospel, Scot proposes we start with 1 Corinthians 15:
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. (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)
The gospel is a story, the story of Jesus culminating in his death, burial, resurrection, and appearance. It is the story of how Jesus became the Jewish Messiah and the Gentile King, how Jesus became the Lord (the supreme ruling authority) over both Jews and Gentiles. The Gospel is primarily about Jesus and not salvation. Soteriology (what we believe about salvation) flows out of Christology (what we believe about Jesus). There are clear differences between the gospel as defined in the New Testament and the plan of salvation as defined by modern, American evangelicalism.
The Plan of Salvation
|1.||Exemplified in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5||Exemplified in the “Four Spiritual Laws”|
|2.||True to the teachings of the Apostles||True, but not the gospel|
|3.||A story framed around Jesus||Principles framed out individual human beings|
|4.||Highlights the Person who is the good news||Highlights our benefits|
|5.||Focuses on how God made Jesus alive again||Focuses on how we are made right with God|
|6.||Produces disciples||Produces decisions|
|7.||Depends on declaration/creativity||Depends on persuasion/rhetoric|
|8.||Creates a gospel culture||Creates a salvation culture|
There is a correct response to the gospel and most of the time the plan of salvation presents this response. The biblical call to response to the gospel is repent, believe, and be baptized. However, the plan of salvation (as noted in #6) above focuses the attention on simple belief in terms of a decision. In a salvation culture, people talk about making decisions for Christ, but too often we see this decision-making fail to lead into disciple-making. For Scot (and myself and others) this disconnect between making a decision and becoming a disciple is hurting evangelicalism and dampening our missional efforts. After all, Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples of the nations, not go and lead people to make decisions. Certainly to repent, believe, and to be baptized requires a decision, but the decision is not to “ask Jesus into our hearts,” but it is a decision to become a disciple of Jesus and the Jesus way. Furthermore, if the gospel is salvation, then the gospel becomes a presentation of how Jesus meets my spiritual needs, keeping me at the center of my proverbial universe with Jesus as the means by which I get right with God. If we see salvation (or justification by faith) as an outworking of the gospel and not the gospel itself, then Jesus remains the center focus as both the means and the end (See #3, 4, 5 above).
As a friend of mine, who was at the conference, said, “The gospel is more than justification, but never less.” I am not denying the truth of justification by faith alone through grace alone. I am not denying the truth of salvation and the experience of conversation. I am not denying the need for a decision to respond to the gospel. I am not denying the benefits we receive from the gospel. But I do agree with Scot, these things are not, in and of themselves, the gospel preached in the New Testament. One piece of evidence Scot offers in making this bold claim is the sermons recorded in the book of Acts. If you read through the 7 or 8 sermons in Acts you will not see anything that looks like the plan of salvation. You see a story, the story of Israel and the story of how Jesus became Lord.
I have been growing in the conviction that all our work in the church and life should be gospel-centered. In this regard it is important for us to get the gospel right and for this reason we should listen to Scot McKnight.