Tag Archives: Gospel

The King Jesus Gospel

Scot McKnightMcKnight, S. The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011); 184 pages; ISBN: 978-0-310-49298-6

Have Evangelicals “got the gospel wrong?” Scot McKnight thinks so, arguing with strong language that “Evangelicalism that focuses on decisions [instead of discipleship] short circuits and—yes, the word is appropriate—aborts the design of the gospel” (18). The problem, McKnight contends, is that many Evangelicals equate “gospel” and “salvation” or more particularly, “justification by faith,” and that this reductionist gospel deconstructs the church. “I think we’ve got the gospel wrong, or at least our current understanding is only a pale reflection of the gospel of Jesus and the apostles. We need to go back to the Bible to find the original gospel” (24).

McKnight does just that with two chapters on the apostolic gospel in the letters of Paul and Peter’s preaching in Acts, plus two more chapters on Jesus and the gospel, and the Gospel in the gospels. Using 1 Corinthians 15 as his primary text, McKnight details eight observations of Paul’s gospel, which together comprise the fundamental content of the apostolic gospel. This gospel is the announcement of the story of Jesus as the saving news of God, and as the climax of Israel’s story. The content of the gospel is Jesus, this particular person who is Messiah and Lord, Son and Saviour—King. In light of this content, then, the four gospels are the gospel par excellence, setting forth the story of Jesus and communicating the central features of the apostolic gospel. These central features also show up in the apostolic proclamation recorded in Acts, though McKnight notes two important innovations; first, Paul contextualises his proclamation in gentile contexts with a nuanced account of Jesus as the climax of Israel’s story, and second, gospel proclamation in Acts included a potent summons to repentance, faith and baptism.

McKnight is careful to distinguish the gospel itself from the salvation which flows from the gospel. His argument is that the ancient church extrapolated 1 Corinthians 15 into the rule of faith, and then the creeds. That is, the creeds exegete and expound the apostolic gospel. In the Reformation, however, the focus of faith, theology and preaching became the personal appropriation of and response to the gospel. Although a legitimate development in its context, this led in the post-Reformation period to a truncated gospel in which the gospel was wholly encompassed by this focus.

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 (71).

King-Jesus-GospelMcKnight argues that the as a result of the Reformation, the gospel story was reframed in terms of the individual and against the church as the mediator of grace. The key innovation in this reframing was the central place given to the doctrine of original sin. McKnight perhaps overstates his case here. The reframing of the gospel through the lens of original sin occurred long before the Reformation. Nevertheless his central point stands: the reframing of the Christian story in terms of original sin and personal justification provided the theological context for the religious individualism which came to full flower in revivalist pietism, and especially so in the American context with its particular individualistic ethos.

In Evangelicalism, argues McKnight, the gospel has been equated with personal salvation, and proclamation of the gospel with the enumeration of a “Plan of Salvation” in one form or another. This reduction of the gospel to being a story simply of “salvation” has eviscerated the gospel. The heart of his concern becomes apparent in the following paragraphs:

When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. When we separate the Plan of Salvation from the story, we cut ourselves off the  story that identifies us and tells our past and tells our future. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of Salvation.

There’s more. We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my own personal salvation. In other words, the plan has a way of cutting the story from a story about God and God’s Messiah and God’s people into a story about God and one person—me—and in this the story shifts from Christ and community to individualism (62).

Reducing the gospel to a series of abstract propositions tears us from the story that not only frames the gospel, but is the ground of our identity, vocation, and hope in Christ. It becomes concerned narrowly with personal salvation and morality rather than the lordship of Christ in all of life. As such, it deconstructs the church because there is no inherent or necessary link between a gospel which aims simply at decisions or “conversion,” and discipleship.

What response can be made to these claims? First we need, I think, to recognise the legitimacy of McKnight’s critique where such reductionism is concerned. How prevalent this reductionism is, I cannot say, though I can witness to having seen much of it in the Evangelicalism I have experienced over the last thirty years. Second, what is to be done? The answer to this question is the focus of the final two chapters of the book “Gospeling Today” and “Creating a Gospel Culture,” in which McKnight argues for a robust narrative proclamation of the gospel that sets forth the Lordship of Christ and summons people to respond, so that they may not only be forgiven, but restored to their true humanity and vocation which was defaced and lost in the Fall. The church thus becomes integral to the gospel proclaimed, and salvation a life of following Jesus in the company of God’s people. In all this McKnight does not deny the necessity of personal response and decision with respect to Jesus’ lordship and the work accomplished for us in his death and resurrection. What he does deny is that this decision and response can be abstracted from the overarching story of Scripture and concrete participation in a life of discipleship.

I suggest there is more to be said here about the role of the church in the economy of salvation, especially if the church is no longer to be viewed as a voluntary society. Although the deconstruction of the church was one of his major concerns, McKnight has not developed these points here. Those churches and traditions with a strong ecclesiology, and a covenantal and/or sacramental theology already have the resources to navigate this relation. I suspect that McKnight will be drawn in these directions as he continues to develop his thought in this area.

This is a good and relevant book, addressing an important and probably widespread misunderstanding, and written in a popular and colloquial style for an audience who are unconcerned with academic conventions or critical approaches to Scripture. Its chief virtues are its clear-sighted focus on the issue, its careful delineation between his position and the one he critiques, and its prominent use of Scripture to explore the issues and make its case. I can envisage pastors referring to this text as they help their congregations understand, live and share the gospel.

The Gospel Coalition in Australia

TGC11-PanelThe Gospel Coalition have started an Australian chapter and appointed a founding Council which will conduct its first meeting in early August. According to their website,

We have no fixed agenda other than to build gospel partnerships and then do whatever we can to promote the same kind of gospel-driven relationships across our nation as we work together for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Hurray, I can applaud that! Would any Evangelical Christian not support the development of gospel partnerships to work together for the sake of Jesus Christ?

However, it is not quite that simple, for TGC – as they are often known – are not simply concerned about the gospel per se, but a particular understanding of what constitutes the gospel, and what the gospel entails.

I actually welcome much of what TGC stands for: I too affirm the centrality of the gospel, the necessity of proclaiming it faithfully, fervently, prayerfully, trusting the Holy Spirit to work a miracle of grace in the hearts and lives of men, women and children; I appreciate the scholarship of D.A. Carson even if I do not agree with all his positions; I value and admire the pastoral ministry, preaching and leadership of Tim Keller; I also hold a broadly Reformed approach to doctrine including the undiminished sovereignty of God, the uniqueness, supremacy and sole-sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation, the priority of grace in salvation, etc.

But still I have concerns. I am concerned at the shrill voices of some in TGC against those who may have a different understanding of the gospel, doctrine or Scripture. I have been concerned by the way some of their high-profile leaders have misused their platform and power, and hope that these things have now been corrected. I am concerned that their posture is sometimes more reactionary than biblically faithful, though I am sure they would disagree with me on this.

But it does highlight my central concern: that TGC is unnecessarily narrow and prescriptive in their definition of the gospel, to the point of including as part of the gospel aspects of teaching which are clearly not part of the gospel in the New Testament sense. This is especially apparent with respect to their commitment to complementarianism, which they extrapolate from biological complementarity in their statement of faith.

As a Baptist I gladly extend to them the freedom to interpret Scripture and practice their faith in accordance with their conscience and their conscientious examination and explication of Scripture. I also acknowledge the reality that formal Confessions of faith express the faith of the group that makes them, and are not in that sense binding on others. Thus TGC have every right under Christ to organise themselves around their firmly held beliefs.

But it seems odd to elevate particular interpretations of Scripture to canonical status. It seems at odds with their stated purpose to use a clarion call to faithful gospel ministry to exclude other Christians seeking to practise a God-glorifying, gospel-centred, Bible-believing, Evangelical form of faith. And, of course, I think it is a great shame that they have sought to appoint a somewhat representative Council, but without a single woman. I understand that they are being consistent in the application of their principle; it is just that I am convinced – on the grounds of Scripture – that their principle is wrong.

I wish TGC Australia a fruitful and effective ministry in the gospel, and sincerely hope that their activity serves, in this country, to further the cause of the gospel and the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. I worry that their intention to build “the same kind of gospel relationships across our country” may in fact “proclaim Christ out of partisanship” and so increase division and fractiousness, unless there is an equally strong intention to practise a gracious theological hospitality to those who differ from them in matters not central to the gospel. Still: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice.”

A Psalm for Sunday – Psalm 6

Read Psalm 6

The early church categorised Psalm 6 as one of seven “Penitential” psalms, and sung it in worship on Ash Wednesday. Apart from the first verse it is not really a psalm of penitence, but a desperate cry for help, a prayer for healing in the midst of life-threatening illness. David’s illness has reduced him to weariness, perhaps even to a place where his prayer is no more than a moan accompanied by tears. Some might say it isPsalm 6 not prayer at all; others would say it is the truest kind of prayer.

Kidner suggests a simple structure for the psalm which highlights David’s utter weariness:

a)      Vv. 1-5 … 10 strophes, many petitions
b)      V. 6a … the central strophe
c)      Vv. 6b-10 … 10 strophes, no petitions.

The first verse may be interpreted in several ways. Perhaps David understands his sickness as sent by God, a direct result of God’s displeasure, and so pleads for God to relinquish his anger. Or perhaps he thinks that his illness is something allowed by God, and so pleads that God not be angry with him for requesting its removal. Either way he seeks a gracious rather than an angry God. This becomes explicit in verse two: Be gracious to me O Lord … Heal me, O Lord. Verses 2-3 speak of his bones and his soul being dismayed. It is perhaps better to think of this as two ways of saying “my whole being,” rather than a focus on inner being and outward being. To the very depths of his being, and in the totality of his being, David is greatly dismayed. Verses 4-5 show why: his illness has brought him to the brink of death, and so his cry is a desperate plea to God for rescue, for salvation, for deliverance.

But you, O Lord—how long? Return, O Lord! Jürgen Moltmann has rightly emphasised that suffering occurs on multiple levels: the physical suffering occasioned by illness, violence or oppression, and the spiritual suffering that arises from the sense that in our suffering, we have been abandoned by a God who does not care. David’s words are a plaintive cry that God “return.” He is convinced that God does indeed care, and appeals to his covenant love. Yet it is evident that he must pray day after day and night after night, drowning his couch with his tears: the answer has not come immediately.

But the answer does come at some point, according verses 8-10, where David’s desperate faith becomes defiant faith. His enemies, perhaps taking advantage of his illness, undermine his leadership and add to his grief. Has David been healed, or at least turned a corner so that he is on the road to recovery? It is impossible to know with any certainty. The past tenses in verses 8b-9a indicate that his confidence that his prayer is heard, but the future tenses in verse 10 suggest that he is still looking forward to recovery and vindication. The Lord has “returned” and so his enemies will be “turned back.” He is no longer dismayed, but his enemies will be dismayed. He may not yet have been healed, but his prayer has opened a vision of victory. This is not a manufactured confidence, but a confidence grounded in the covenant love of God and received in a prayer that persists in the face of doubt and anxiety, and waits for the light of hope.

There are two echoes of this psalm in the New Testament. First, in John 12:27 Jesus says, “Now my soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I came to this hour.” This appears to be an echo of verse 3-4, but whereas David cries to be saved from the hour of his death, Jesus accepts the prospect of impending death as the very purpose of his coming. Craigie rightly notes that we “perceive the pathos of the psalm most clearly when it is read in the context of the passion” (96).

For David, death meant the end of God’s gracious gift of life (verse 5). Those who go down into Sheol—a kind of underworld in Hebrew thought—have not ceased to exist, but their existence is shadowy and insubstantial. In Sheol, there is no remembrance of God, no thanks, no praise, no worship. Kidner’s discussion of Sheol is worth reproducing in full:

Sheol can be pictured in a number of ways: chiefly as a vast sepulchral cavern (cf. Ezk. 32:18-32) or stronghold (Pss. 9:13; 107:18; Mt. 16:18); but also as a dark wasteland (Jb. 10:22) or as a beast of prey (e.g. Is. 5:14; Jon. 2:2; Hab. 2:5). This is not definitive language, but poetic and evocative; and it is matched by various phrases that highlight the tragedy of death as that which silences a man’s worship (as here; cf. 30:9; 88:10f.; 115:17; Is. 38:18f.), shatters his plans (146:4), cuts him off from God and man (88:5; Ec. 2:16) and makes an end of him (39:13). These are cries from the heart, that life is all too short, and death implacable and decisive (39:12f.; 49:7ff.; cf. Jn 9:4; Heb. 9:27); they are not denials of God’s sovereignty beyond the grave, for in fact Sheol lies open before him (Pr. 15:11) and he is ‘there’ (Ps. 139:8). If he no longer ‘remembers’ the dead (88:5), it is not that he forgets as men forget, but that he brings to an end his saving interventions (88:12; for with God to remember is to act: cf. E.g. Gn. 8:1; 30:22)
(Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (TOTC), 61-62).

David cries out for deliverance from this devastating reality of Sheol; Jesus embraces it—and opens a way beyond it for those who come to him, and take up the way of the kingdom. At this point the second New Testament echo of this psalm becomes relevant. In Matthew 7:23 Jesus, echoing verse 8, says, “Depart from me, all you who do iniquity.” Jesus’ embrace of the cross and of death and hell opens up the promise and way of resurrection, a hope beyond the hopes of David. But it is a hope for those who cling to him and choose the way of the kingdom.

Thus this psalm speaks to us at several levels of meaning. First, as a psalm dealing with the pathos of sickness and mortality, it reminds us of the certainty of coming death, and the brevity and fragility of life. Given modern medical advances and western cultural mores, it is often difficult for us to enter into the depths of David’s dismay at illness and the prospect of death – the hope of resurrection to eternal life in the presence of God had not yet emerged in Hebrew thought. Yet, our culture clings to life and youth with a desperation that betrays our casual dismissal of this awful reality. The psalm also reminds us of the suffering of those who are ill, and calls us to compassion and prayer, that the sick are not left alone in their suffering. But, set within a broader biblical context, this psalm also preaches the gospel, that there is indeed hope and healing for those who trust in Christ.