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Book Review: The King Jesus Gospel

Thanks to Zondervan for a providing review copy and a spot in their blog tour.

For me, this summer has been a summer of reading Scot McKnight. I had the chance to read A Community Called Atonement (review forthcoming) and One.Life. Both of those were excellent books, so I was very excited to check out The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. McKnight is a professor at North Park University and blogs over at Jesus Creed. As both an eminent New Testament scholar, a teacher of undergrads at a Christian university, and a man deeply committed to the church he leads the short list of those qualified to address the most important question that the church faces: 'has the church gotten the gospel right?'

Before jumping into that question, McKnight begins by pointing out that we have a major problem in evangelicalism (this book isn't written solely to evangelicals, but as McKnight is an evangelical, much of it is attempting to correct common evangelical errors). It's a problem that I think evangelicals need to face head-on. "I would contend there is minimal difference in correlation between evangelical children and teenagers ho make a decision for Christ and who later become genuine disciples, and Roman Catholics who are baptized as infants and who as adults become faithful and devout Catholic disciples" (20, emphasis original). He cites some statistics to go along with that claim. 90% of non-mainline protestants claim to have made a decision for Jesus, but only 20% actually become disciples (20 - here McKnight cites research by the Barna group). Even if those numbers are a little off, it's still a massive, massive problem. Other segments of Christianity are doing as poorly or even worse. McKnight's contention is that we're in this situation because we've lost our grasp on what the gospel actually is.

McKnight then moves into asking the question, 'what is the gospel?' often asking other related questions along the way. One of them is, 'did both Jesus and Paul preach the gospel?' Something McKnight points out is usually what has been meant by this question is, 'did Jesus preach Paul's gospel - justification by faith'. At the end of chapter one McKnight gives us one of his main contentions, 'the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about "personal salvation," and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making "decisions."' (26 - emphasis original).

In the second chapter McKnight extends his line of reasoning here. He contends that the gospel is the story of Jesus as the completion to the story of Israel. We (Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox) have instead reduced the gospel down to the plan of salvation and packaged it through various methods of persuasion that we use to coerce conversions (he even suggests that Evangelicals should change their names to Soterians). Here lies the problem. What motivation do these converts have to be disciples? Why doesn't the gospel lead to more transformation in people's lives? It's because we've gotten the gospel wrong.

The next five chapters seek to correct that deficiency by taking us back to the Bible to reexamine what Paul, Jesus, and Peter (in Acts) tell us the gospel is, as well as looking at church history to see how we got to this point. One of the questions he asks in this section I think is critical and so often overlooked. Why did the early Christians feel it appropriate to call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John 'gospels?' The answer should be obvious. They all are the gospel, because the gospel is the proclamation of the story of Jesus, and not just his sinlessness, death, and resurrection. All of the gospels are the gospel because they are a proclamation of the story of Jesus as the resolution to Israel's story. McKnight also finds the same pattern in the preaching of Paul and Peter. They proclaim Jesus as the resolution to Israel's story, a story that begins with creation and ends with the consummation of all things. One point of clarification is needed here. In none of these statements is McKnight saying that what we typically call the gospel (the plan of salvation) is incorrect. He's simply (but importantly!) saying that it's not the gospel. In the end, for McKnight, the gospel isn't about 'sin management' (a line he borrows from Dallas Willard), rather it's a summons to confess and completely follow King Jesus. Jesus status as Messiah and Lord is an absolutely critical element of the gospel.

Chapters nine and ten address our contemporary setting, giving us guidance on some practical matters related to our gospeling, and develop a little further some of the elements of the gospel unearthed previously. Two points that he makes in the eighth chapter are particularly worth mention. First, we need to remember what problem the gospel is seeking to solve. It's not primarily aimed at dealing with an individual's sin (though it does do that). The main problem is that God's kingdom is not manifest in this world as it should be, and that death reigns. Second is the reiteration of what he has said all along. 'The book of Acts reveals that gospeling was not driven by the salvation story or the atonement story. It was driven by the Story of Israel, and in fact makes most sense in that story' (134).

The tenth and final chapter brings the book to a fitting close. McKnight clearly and eloquently proclaims the gospel to us and then makes some suggestions on how we can transform our churches to have a gospel culture. Much of it revolves around, you guessed it, Jesus and story. We need to immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus and see our story as the church as a continuation of the story of Jesus and the story of Israel. After the tenth chapter there are three brief but very helpful appendices that give the full text of Paul's gospel summaries, the full text of the sermons in Acts, and a short snippet from Justin Martyr.

The sketch above is a very brief overview of the book that hopefully provokes some questions, and unfortunately flattens out some of the nuance of McKnight's positions. McKnight certainly isn't the first one to say some of the things said in The King Jesus Gospel, but the depth and clarity with which he presents his view is a big part of what makes this book so important. In his main contention, that we've misconstrued the gospel, McKnight is dead on and we need to join him reexamining what the Bible tells us the gospel is.

I think it's particularly important for us to ask what the role of the Old Testament is in our gospel preaching. Why is the Old Testament part of our Scriptures? McKnight shows that it's more than just a mere pointer to Christ. Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. The prophecies aren't there to primarily aid in identifying who the Messiah is, as if they were a random check list. The Old Testament story is going somewhere, and the way that plot develops is critical to our gospel proclamation.

I also really appreciated McKnight's comments on method. Our job isn't to be the most persuasive salespeople we can be. Our job is to faithfully proclaim Jesus, the king.

When reading A Community Called Atonement, I told my wife, 'if I could write a book this is the book I would want to write.' McKnight's works often seem to scratch right where I itch. The same is definitely true with The King Jesus Gospel. I found reading it to be a deeply enriching and encouraging experience. The church needs this book and I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and read it prayerfully to see how God can use you in bringing a culture shift within the church, a refocusing of our proclamation on Jesus, Israel's Messiah and Lord of all.

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