Have we really misunderstood the gospel?

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?

12 thoughts on “Have we really misunderstood the gospel?”

  1. I believe Jesus said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Also, to the best of my recollection he said elsewhere to the effect that his kingdom was not physical, but spiritual, within the believer. In all events, I certainly agree with you that the PRIMARY focus of the New Testament is the individual’s salvation and the growth and practice of the faith of that individual. Certainly a nice side effect of the salvation of many individuals who then live out the precepts of their faith will be the partial improvement of society as well (hence the many Christian hospitals, for example). And the ultimate fruition of the salvation of believers will be the restoration of “earthly bliss.” End of Romans 8, I believe. But the key and primary focus presently is to have as many people as possible made able and ready to participate in that ultimate “global” kingdom, which will only come to fruition upon Christ’s return to establish a “new earth.” We definitely will not succeed in establishing “earthly bliss” in this life. In fact, I believe Jesus’ statements about the “end times” are to the effect that earthly circumstances will get much WORSE as his return draws nigh. So, we must primarily focus on “saving men’s souls” presently. I say you are correct on this point, regardless of McKnight or others.

    1. I don’t see how it can be any other way. It’s not “missing the point” to place primary emphasis on personal salvation.

  2. From what I have heard from folks in the studies I have taught is the emphasis of personal salvation at the expense of living out that salvation for the good of others – putting others ahead of yourself, care for the poor, hospitality for those in need, basically a disreguard for Matthew 25 and spiritualizing Luke 4:18- 19. In children’s ministry there is the empahsis that the gospel is all about living in heaven, not living as God’s kingdom citizen now. Is not part of the good news that we are free from bondage to sin to be change agents in this world with the Holy Spirit because of Christ’s sacrifice?

    1. Of course, but the starting point for being change agents is our personal transformation. I’m only arguing over where our emphasis should lie.

  3. Great post, Brent. Thanks for reminding us that the gospel is never less than personal. “If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would be gained by it?”

  4. Since I’m assuming I’m the friend I’ll guess I’ll enter the discussion and clarify. You say that my stance (via McKight) is “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.” I did say the former, emphasis on personal or individual salvation, but the latter is not exactly what I was getting at. I stand by my claim, along with McKnight and Wright, in that we forget to include the story of Israel. The Gospel only makes since in light of what God had been doing in and through the people of Israel. To hear Kingdom language was to hear the story of Israel. McKnight’s point, and again I think he’s right here, that people can tell the Gospel such that what God had been doing through the Old Testament was little or no consequence. McKnight’s audience of this book is not really you or I (in the mainline traditions) but more, what we might term, fundamentalist evangelicals. I do hear often the way people understand the Gospel has absolute no bearing in how they live their faith or an understanding of what it might mean that Jesus is Lord of all (not simply Lord of my life). I do think there is a misunderstanding on the part of many about how we understand the Gospel because I’ve seen it first hand. When I ask them to explain what the Gospel is, it is limited to Jesus’ death and personal salvation. When I ask what Jesus might mean in Mark 1:15 and other places, I get blank stares in response. The Gospel is about the fulfillment of what God had been doing in and through Israel in the person of Jesus Christ. We misunderstand the Gospel by forgetting its connection to what God had been up to in the people of Israel. Salvation is about God’s purposes for the world, not merely what God does in one person’s life. McKnight’s point is not that there isn’t or even that the personal aspect of salvation is somehow unimportant. McKnight’s point is not that there is real contradiction involved in how the Gospel is often present (by this he is primarily referring to the 4 Spiritual Laws sort of presentation). Rather it is stripped of important, if not crucial elements.
    My point about Jesus proclaiming the Gospel at the beginning of His ministry is not to in any way to suggest that His death and resurrection are not important. They are the climax of what God is doing, but rather to point out there is a larger story to which these are crucial parts of. Hope that helps.

    1. Rev. Scott, you say, “Salvation is about God’s purposes for the world, not merely what God does in one person’s life.” I think this may be the crux of the matter. “Salvation” is what God does in a person’s life. The “Kingdom of God” is much bigger or more inclusive. But the “most important thing” is what gets people into that “Kingdom,” including most particularly in changing their destination from Hell to Heaven.

    2. Scott, I don’t really disagree with you much, and my blog post was mostly directed toward McKnight. In my sermons, I often speak of God’s “rescue plan” beginning with Abraham and reaching its climax in Christ. N.T. Wright’s chapter called “Israel” in Simply Christian is as concise and clear a summary of this subject as I’ve read. By all means, we need to help our congregations understand this continuity between Old and New Testaments. I’ve heard even seminary-educated UMC pastors speak of God’s “trying” one plan (The Law) with Israel before sending his Son, and it makes me want to puke!

      I hear you say that McKnight isn’t writing to people like you and me, that he’s writing to very conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, except as a longtime reader of his blog, I can say with confidence that his readers are very much like you and me—disproportionately pastors and/or people deeply interested in theology. And he’s always hitting this theme of “soterian gospel.”

      As I said, for me it’s a question of emphasis. Christ’s death and resurrection are not merely the climax of God’s rescue plan (although they are that); they are also the means by which we’re saved.

      1. And to finish my thought, it’s crucial to emphasize that God’s rescue efforts are irrelevant unless we appropriate it for ourselves through faith—which will be the most deeply personal and consequential decision that any of us can make.

  5. Tom you say, ” “Salvation” is what God does in a person’s life” and that it is about changing their destination. Again, I’d say those are tending toward individualistic ways of understanding those themes. Salvation is far more than what God does in a persons life. Salvation is not simply personal (though it is that as well). The biblical theme of salvation has to do with deliverance as in deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Of course people experience this in personal ways like deliverance from or being set free from addictions, slavery to sin, etc. That’s there, but that’s far from inclusive about what the Bible means with that word. The Jews in Jesus’ day were looking forward to salvation from the Roman occupation. Jesus brought salvation, deliverance, from the greater enemies of sin, death, evil, Satan. Salvation is a gift we receive as being part of God’s people. Sanctification is what God does in us.
    Brent is certainly right to press that this gift must be appropriated through faith and it becomes personal. No doubt. Salvation is far more than about our afterlife though, it is about our life here and as well as we are on the road of sanctification toward glorification. (Additionally I’d add that as we experience this and help others to do so we participate in building God’s Kingdom here and now. At the end of the day the fullness of the Kingdom is something only God can bring, but He does desire that we are active participants in that.)
    Brent you have obviously read his blog more than I have. I certainly didn’t read the book with the impression that I was his audience as much as those who are pressing a 4 spiritual laws = gospel story.
    Thanks for the conversation 🙂

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