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.
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. “
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
 McKnight, Scot (2011-09-06). The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (pp. 24-25). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., 26.