The King Jesus Gospel (2)

In the forward, Scot McKnight uses some personal anecdotes and some statistics to make the point the typical way we talk about the gospel message does seem to be effective at getting people to make “decisions” but is woefully inadequate in convincing people to actually become disciples.

Continuing our journey through The King Jesus Gospel, we come to chapter one. Here the author begins his argument with the observation that we first need to get our definition of the gospel correct. He is asking the big question, “What is the gospel?” McKnight makes a case for the existence of confusion on this issue by offering three examples for us to examine.

Exhibit 1

I received an email from a reader with this question: “I know you’re probably really busy. If you have time, I have a question about the gospel. I notice that the gospel writers often include in their gospel the announcement that Jesus is the Messiah. My question is, ‘What is good news about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David?’ … Thanks for your time!” I read that letter three times and shook my head in disbelief each time, and I did so because I wonder how we have gotten ourselves to a point where we can wonder what Jesus’ being Messiah has to do with the gospel. But that emailer is not alone.

Answer A: For this emailer, the word gospel was almost entirely about personal salvation. That means the gospel no longer includes the promise to Israel that Jesus was the Messiah. But let’s not be hard on this emailer. Perhaps most Christians today wonder what the gospel has to do with Jesus being “Messiah. “[1]

This is a very important question and observation. In his gospel account, Matthew lays the entire foundation of his argument that Jesus is the King based on the premise that Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Why would Matthew make this argument? If the gospel is just about Jesus dying for my sins then his connection to David and Abraham is insignificant. However, Matthew is very keen to make sure his readers understand the connection. The reasonable conclusion to draw is that Matthew saw the story of Jesus as the descendant of David as foundational to the gospel of Jesus.

Exhibit 2

John Piper, one of America’s most influential pastors and authors — and deservedly so — at a big conference in April of 2010 asked this question: “Did Jesus preach Paul’s gospel?” To answer it, he examined the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18, where we find one of the few uses of the word justified in the Gospels. Then John Piper concluded that, yes, Jesus did preach Paul’s gospel of justification by faith. I would defend the legitimacy of Piper’s question, and I would also agree that the makings of justification by faith are indeed found in that parable of Jesus. So, it is entirely fair to ask if Jesus preached a gospel like Paul’s.

But … to begin with, there’s the problem of order and even of precedence: Isn’t the more important question about whether Paul preached Jesus’ gospel? Moreover, there’s another problem: Piper’s assumption is that justification is the gospel. 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.” But we have to ask whether the apostles defined the gospel this way. Or, better yet, when they preached the gospel, what did they say? We will answer these questions in the pages that follow.[2]

Let me interject that McKnight is not a Calvinist, and he has a few gripes with Piper. I favor Calvinist soteriology, but I still think McKnight’s critique here is correct. The Reformation was fought over the issue of justification by faith alone. Luther and Calvin emphasized a clearly defined, biblical (and correct) understanding of justification by faith alone in Christ alone apart from works. However, in our current theological climate in the U.S., I believe that this true understanding of how salvation works (soteriology) has become synonymous in our minds with the original good news message. This is a case of getting our theological categories confused.

Answer B: When we can find hardly any instances of our favorite theological category in the whole of the four Gospels, we need to be wary of how important our own interpretations and theological favorites are.[3]

The issue McKnight is hinting at here is one of giving texts priority. Giving a text priority in interpretation is not giving it greater value overall. McKnight sees the Gospels as authoritative over the epistles it relation to how we understand the gospel message. This is why the Church Fathers identified the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as “the gospels.” This means that if the Gospels and Paul’s writing seem to be in conflict with one another concerning the good news message, he would favor the Gospels and interpret Paul in light of them instead of interpreting the Gospels in submission to Paul’s writing.

Exhibit 3

At an airport, I bumped into a pastor I recognized, and he offered a more extreme version of what we saw in Exhibit B. He asked me what I was writing, and I replied, “A book about the meaning of gospel.” “That’s easy,” he said, “justification by faith.” After hearing that quick-and-easy answer, I decided to push further, so I asked him Piper’s question: “Did Jesus preach the gospel?” His answer made me gulp. “Nope,” he said, “Jesus couldn’t have. No one understood the gospel until Paul. No one could understand the gospel until after the cross and resurrection and Pentecost.” “Not even Jesus?” I asked. “Nope. Not possible,” he affirmed. I wanted to add an old cheeky line I’ve often used: “Poor Jesus, born on the wrong side of the cross, didn’t get to preach the gospel.” My satire, if not sarcasm, would not have helped, so I held back. But I’ve heard others make similar claims about Jesus, Paul, and the gospel, and this book will offer a thorough rebuttal of this conviction.

Answer C: For this pastor, the word gospel means “justification by faith,” and Jesus really didn’t talk in those terms, he flat out didn’t preach the gospel. Few will admit this as bluntly as that preacher did, but I’m glad some do. This view is wrong and wrongheaded.

All sarcasm aside, do we really want to say that Jesus didn’t understand the purpose of his incarnation? Do we really want to say that when asked what the good news of his coming meant, he couldn’t give the answer? I agree with the author that to say that Jesus didn’t understand the gospel is untenable.

In the next quote, I think we see the real heart of McKnight’s complaint.

I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about “personal salvation,” and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making “decisions.” The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles.[4]

My question for our discussion: Is it possible we’ve replaced the original gospel message with a message of personal salvation that, while theologically correct, isn’t the original gospel message?


[1] McKnight, Scot (2011-09-06). The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (pp. 24-25). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[2]Ibid., p. 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 26.

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4 thoughts on “The King Jesus Gospel (2)

  1. Two thoughts . . .

    First – My spelling is so poor, I like to type in Word, then cut and paste. For some reason, I can not paste into the comments. Is it just me?

    Second – I do not want to sound argumentative, but I really do not understand the premise.

    I worry when people see a conflict between sections of the Bible and attempt to give one priority over the other. “All scripture is given of God . . . ” (NKJV)

    As Matthew portrays Christ as King, Mark shows Christ as the suffering Servant, Luke, the humanity of Christ, – “Son of Man”, and John depicts Christ as the “Son of God”. One attribute cannot be given precedence over the other.

    Some pastors may be confused by Paul’s description of the Gospel in I Corinthians15: 1-7.

    Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

    3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.

    • I’ve been able to copy and paste. I’m not saying there aren’t some bugs, but I’m still trying to figure out how to do this blog thing.

    • James,

      I don’t think you’re being argumentative, and this is a good discussion to have.

      “I worry when people see a conflict between sections of the Bible and attempt to give one priority over the other. “All scripture is given of God . . . ” (NKJV)”

      All scripture is given by inspiration as is therefore equally valid. However, when trying to systematize our theology we do need to create structures that allow us understand how the various pieces fit together. In this instance, the author sees the Gospels as the big picture of what Christ was doing in this world, and Paul is describing the mechanics that fit within that picture. The question about giving priority to a text is not about having an “either/or” scenario where a person must pick Jesus over Paul, or Paul over Jesus. Paul is writing to people who have already made commitments to follow Christ. He preached to them gospel of King Jesus and the Kingdom (I posted about this in “Getting the Gospel Wrong”), and in his letters is helping them understand the theological mechanics of how their salvation was made possible. He did not gospelize them with the mechanics of salvation (that came later) he gospelized them with the story of King Jesus.

      The question is how to create categories for understanding Scripture. Some principles we find in Scripture are what I call the “umbrella principles”. That is, they are the big picture ideas that should inform how we understand and interpret other areas of Scripture. This is allowing scripture to interpret scripture, but to do this we have to differentiate between main points and sub-points. The author sees the Gospels as the main points, and the theology of the epistles as the sub-points. What this means in practice is that we must interpret the sub points in a way that is consistent with the main points. If the scripture appears to be in conflict with each other, the problem is not with the text, but with our interpretive method.

      “As Matthew portrays Christ as King, Mark shows Christ as the suffering Servant, Luke, the humanity of Christ, – “Son of Man”, and John depicts Christ as the “Son of God”. One attribute cannot be given precedence over the other.”

      Here I think I wasn’t very clear so let me try to explain. I used Matthew only as an example of the the importance of the connection between Jesus’ royal lineage and how we conceive of him as Savior. The fact that he is of the kingly line is important to understanding who he is. If the gospel is just about my salvation (a way to get to Heaven), then Jesus as the Davidic King really doesn’t matter. Why should I care that he is the King of the Jews? He only needs to be Divine if all he did was die for my sins. Jesus as king has implications for how we grow disciples. Without that connection, it is difficult to get people to go beyond being simply a convert who made a decision for Christ in order to get into Heaven, to a disciple who has made a commitment to follow Christ with his life. Missionaries have a saying, “Today’s evangelism methods are tomorrows discipleship nightmares.” This is the problem McKnight is pointing to.

      To say that the gospels are giving us different attributes of Jesus (King, Servant, Son of Man, Son of God), and therefore different messages we must hold in tension, is an oversimplification of what is happening in the gospels. They have a unified message, and we need to ask what each of these attributes is actually pointing us to.

      Mark’s theme of servant points us to the OT prophecies of the Messiah as servant (Messiah/Christ referring to the “anointed one”. In the OT, David and Saul were called messiahs. I use Messiah/Christ/King interchangeably). The “messiah” was understood to be the promised king, so Mark is showing us how Jesus the servant fulfills the messianic expectation that the promised King would be a servant.

      Jesus’ designation of himself as the “Son of Man” is not just a reference to Jesus’ humanity. The term “Son of Man” is a title that Jesus gives himself. It is a reference to the prophetic vision of Daniel 7:13-14

      13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

      Jesus took this term for himself, made it a title which became his favorite way of referencing himself, and filled it with meaning by his words an actions. In Daniel, the person in view is “like a son of man” upon whom was given all authority as Sovereign King. By taking this title for himself, Jesus is claiming to be the one like a son of man whom God has given authority as King.

      The Gospel According to John makes the point of Jesus’ divinity which is easy to connect to his sovereign rule over the creation made through him and by him. All of us are called to submit to this Divine King.

      The gospels are all pointing to the story of King Jesus from four different perspectives: The Davidic King (Matthew), The Prophetic Suffering Messiah/King from Isaiah (Mark), The Eschatological King (Luke), the Divine Creator King (John). They are not in conflict because they are all pointing to the Kingship of Jesus but from four perspectives.

      It is interesting that you mention 1 Cor. 15. In the coming chapters, McKnight argues that 1 Cor. 15 is a synopsis of original gospel message, and as we see from the passage, that original message was simply the story of Jesus. Keep in mind that the practical application of this discussion is to determine how we should be talking about the gospel when we are trying to encourage people to make a commitment to follow Jesus. The authors concern is that the way we tend to talk about the gospel by trying to convince people to follow Jesus by convincing them of the sub points of justification theology instead of winning them to the main point that Jesus is King who is restoring broken creation, and each of us is being called to repent and make a commitment to follow the King in his mission. My personal salvation is a sub point of the larger message. McKnight wants to connect (reconnect) the gospel message we present to the person of Christ/Messiah/King (Christology) and not to the “plan of salvation” (Soteriology).

      Even in 1 Cor. 15, we see that Jesus “died for my sins” is a sub point within the larger story of what King Jesus accomplished on this earth. I posted this a couple of days ago, but McKnight sees “died for my sins” as the heading under which fall the theologies of justification, sanctification, atonement, etc. All of these are issues of soteriology (the study of salvation), but are really subsets of the larger gospel picture which is the story of King Jesus.

  2. Thanks for the clarifcation Eric. I had the same concern as James, but I think the problem was a matter of semantics. Like scripture, taking a sentence out of the context of the rest of the book can lead to misinterpretation.

    To answer your question, yes, I agree that the modern message of personal salvation does a disservice to the full meaning of the gospel. Too often, I think, it becomes a gospel of “what can God do for me?”

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