A clergy friend of mine is reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. My friend says that McKnight argues that we evangelicals have misunderstood the gospel in at least one important way: we overemphasize individual salvation through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection at the expense of the rest of the gospel, including most of the red-letter words of Jesus.
While I haven’t read this particular book by McKnight, I’ve been a daily reader of McKnight’s blog for the past five years, and I’m well familiar with his criticism of what he calls the “soterian gospel,” a gospel centered mostly on individual salvation rather than a more robust kingdom-centered approach.
Nevertheless, as I told my friend, I believe that McKnight overstates his case—in precisely the same way that N.T. Wright overstates his case about popular talk of “heaven” versus resurrection, what Wright often calls “life after life after death.” Even in the Billy Graham sermon from 1962 that I posted on my blog last week, Graham emphasizes “heaven” as an embodied existence. He says explicitly that heaven doesn’t mean the end of our world, but the beginning of a renewed world. In other words, while Graham doesn’t use the word “resurrection” to describe our lives on the other side of death or the Second Coming, the doctrine is there beneath the surface.
My point is, all of us preachers have shorthand ways of referring to deep theological truths—and there’s nothing wrong with that! What’s the alternative? My 25-minute sermons would be 45 minutes if I had to explain all the nuances of every theological statement I make. I have opportunities on this blog and in Bible studies to go deeper, which I do.
My friend goes on to say that McKnight must be onto something because, after all, Jesus proclaimed the gospel (Mark 1:15) at the beginning of his ministry. What was he proclaiming? Given what Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us, not his atoning death and resurrection.
And that’s true, although to press the point too far is to argue from silence. We know for sure that Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection in all four Gospels, and his closest disciples misunderstand him. Whatever Jesus did or didn’t say about these subjects early in his ministry would have been lost on the multitudes.
Still, I concede that Jesus was mostly proclaiming humanity’s need for repentance in response to God’s kingdom, which had drawn near to us in him, Jesus. He was proclaiming, from Isaiah, release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. And more than anything, he was proclaiming that through him God’s forgiveness was available to all.
Do faithful Christian preachers somehow contradict any of this message even as they emphasize Christ’s atoning death and resurrection?
Of course not! Indeed, everything Jesus said in his gospel looks ahead to and is made possible by his atoning death and resurrection. See Jesus’ many statements in John’s Gospel about his coming “hour,” or, in several places, when he speaks of being “lifted up.” (For example, John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”)
Surely no one would argue that John’s Gospel gets Jesus’ message of good news wrong!
As for the emphasis on “personal salvation,” how could we not emphasize its personal nature when the stakes for us, individually, are so high? Doesn’t it mean the difference between heaven and hell? Even in the Gospels, Jesus is constantly calling individuals to repentance and salvation. Our decision to appropriate this good news in our life is the most important decision any of us can make in life—and continue to make throughout life.
Am I missing something? Thoughts?