Well, I have to admit that I’ve bogged down on this series of posts from Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. I’m still trying to figure out how to blog through a book, and I fear I’ve made this one terribly boring. If you’re snoozing through it, I promise to do better next time.
In chapter five, McKnight discusses how he thinks we moved from a gospel culture (the King Jesus gospel) to a salvation culture. There is good information in that chapter, but I’ll not go through it in any detail. Suffice it to say for our purposes that a major contributor to this movement is found in the Protestant Reformation.
But before we get there, my own confession. Cutting out the inevitable nonsense that accompanies everything humans do, including Calvin’s wretched decisions that led to the burning of Servetus, Luther’s wretched beliefs about Jews and his wretched decisions about the Anabaptists, and wretched tendencies of the Anabaptist sectarian to think of themselves as the only people of God, I believe the Reformation was a profound work of God that both enlivened the church and altered Western European history for the better. The singular contribution of the Reformation, in all three directions — Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist — was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility and the development of the gospel as speaking into that responsibility…1
…I do not mean that such was not found in Roman Catholicism; rather, the Reformation said, in effect, that the “gospel” must lead to personal salvation — and the rest is history.
But with that emphasis, regardless of how important it was and remains, came a price. The gospel culture began to shift to a salvation culture. Our contemporary equation of the word gospel with the Plan of Salvation came about because of developments from and after the Reformation. When I read today’s thin and superficial reductions of the gospel to simple points, I know that that could never have happened apart from the Reformation. I also know that it didn’t happen during the Reformation itself but as a result of the Reformation’s reframing of the apostolic gospel-become-creed.2
McKnight goes on to summarize the shallow gospel of today into four basic points which he thinks are really very watered down expressions of the very robust expression of the Plan of Salvation coming out of the Reformation:
- God loves you.
- You are messed up.
- Jesus died for you.
- Accept him, and no matter what you do, you can go to heaven.
From here, we move into the Evangelical emphasis on experience, where everyone is supposed to have a testimony of a personal experience of salvation as “threshold-crossing event.” We validate our salvation by having a story we can tell about our experience. This normally speaks little to our commitment to follow Christ, but normally has to do with feeling a certain something that assures us of our salvation. I’ve never been in a church where when a person was seeking to become a member, they weren’t in some way asked to share their salvation story. We don’t ask how he is following Jesus, or how being a Christian makes them into a disciple. We really want to know if they have a story of salvation we recognize as acceptable. I wonder if this actually causes us to anchor our faith in what we can feel and articulate instead of having faith in the promises of God through Jesus.
This culture of personal salvation and personal testimony captures what I mean by a salvation culture. For this culture, it is the ability to witness personally to the experience of conversion that matters most. Once one has had this experience, it’s all over … until the final party arrives3.
So what do you think? Do we live in a salvation culture? Does it make sense to you that this salvation culture is really a watered-down distortion of Reformation theology?
1 McKnight, Scot (2011-09-06). The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (pp. 70-71). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
2 p. 71
3 p. 74