Have Evangelicals Sold Their Birthright?

In coordination with Theoblogy, I’m reading through a new book called The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited.  The author is New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, whose provocative thesis is this: the “gospel” most Christians talk about today is not the same as the actual gospel defined by Scripture, lived by Jesus, and taught by the apostles.

A self-proclaimed evangelical, McKnight takes his co-religionists to task over focusing the definition of the gospel too narrowly on salvation.  Evangelicals, he reminds us, take their very name from the word gospel/evangel.  Yet in their drive for the gospel to be all about individual justification before God, they in the end become more like salvationists/soterians.  This for McKnight is an unfortunate turn…and one he hopes to correct.  While he has nothing against the idea of personal salvation, he understands it to be only one part of what the gospel is about.

It is as if we have all interiorized Luther’s Turmerlebnis and are constantly stuck in that single moment (p. 18):

Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples…Evangelism that focuses on decision short-circuits and–yes, the word is appropriate–aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles.

What then is the true gospel?  As McKnight sees it (p. 61):

..the salvation-unleashing Story of Jesus, Messiah-Lord-Son, that brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  To “gospel” is to declare this story, and it is a story that saves people from their sins.  That story is the only framing story if we want to be apostolic in how we present the gospel…this story begins at creation and finally only completes itself in the consummation when God is all in all.

Far from being simply about propositional truth, a moment of “decision,” or four spiritual laws, McKnight places the gospel firmly in the midst of a much larger story.  Many Christians today ignore this, he says.  We’ve all seen it happen from time to time.  A desire to get people to “cross the line of faith” through emotional manipulation, logical argument, or simply browbeating before leaving them as we move on evangelize others.  Dangerous stuff that ignores the larger message of Scripture and example of Christ…but I wonder if McKnight’s claims about the pervasiveness of this mentality is a bit overblown.  I’m teaching a class on discipleship and spiritual formation as a part of my courseload this semester, and I’ll tell you: there’s a lot the Church is doing in this area as well.

My question for today is therefore this:  has much of modern Christianity really lost the true gospel?  Have evangelicals and others really become soterians to the exclusion of the actual gospel?

I think here especially of my Pentecostal brothers and sisters who early in their history–and often throughout–have sought proclaim what they consider to be “full gospel” truths: Jesus Christ as Saviour, Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, Healer, and Coming King.  Though there has been a marked evangelical leavening of Pentecostalism, these four hallmarks persist with power.  Plus, Pentecostal attention to the Luke-Acts narrative makes a single-minded soterian focus somewhat difficult to keep up (Luke 4:14-21):

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.  He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.  He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me    to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.  He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

For Reformed evangelicals concerned more with the classical issues arising from the time of Luther/Calvin, I can imagine McKnight’s assertions being more true…but the level of biblical myopia he asserts is still a little hard to swallow.  Can we, en masse, really be so blind to the Scriptures so as to make gospel always, ever, and only about personal salvation? Surely it cannot be quite as bad as McKnight says.

Confession: I’m not finished the book yet and am still working through his arguments.  At times McKnight is rather obtuse and his argumentation is muddy, but his thesis remains interesting.  On Wednesday I’ll offer some reflections on his picture of the gospel and how our understanding of this might or might not affect our Christian lives and “gospeling.”

In the meantime, what do you think?  Have modern Christians (especially evangelicals) become so focused on getting people to a decision for faith that they’ve ignored the majority of what the gospel is about?

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2 comments on “Have Evangelicals Sold Their Birthright?

  1. ApolloAndy says:

    Living in Texas, I think there are *a lot* of people who have over simplified the gospel and as a convert and being from a family of non-Christians, the over simplified gospel is the one that most non-Christians think of when they think of Christianity.

    However, being smack dab in the middle of the mainline decline, my greater concern is that we aren’t even sure the gospel is good news (i.e. has unique advantages over any other philosophy or religion). We know we don’t believe in the over simplified gospel, but we don’t really know what gospel we do believe in or why it’s good news (and can be good news to other people), so we just keep quiet.

  2. Andy-

    Two interesting insights.

    1.) Would you believe I didn’t know you were a convert from a non-Christian family? All these years, and I’m still learning new things. I’d love to talk with you more about this…

    2.) Ya, when it comes to the mainline stuff, I fear I’m in a different world in many ways. I just don’t have the “on the ground” knowledge to say too much. McKnight does talk about mainline churches and their failure to move from “member” to “disciple,” but I get the sense that most of his ire (and my reflection) is about evangelical churches.

    3.) Congratulation on your new family addition, my friend! Greet Micah from “Uncle Ziefle” with a rousing U2 song!

    -Josh

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