The King Jesus Gospel (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  October 17, 2011

The King Jesus Gospel
By Scot McKnight
4.5 Stars (out of 5)

Scot McKnight in this book has done more to further the conversation of what the gospel is than any other book I have come across in recent years. And there have been no shortage of books written to answer that question (examples are easy to come by: Counterfeit Gospels, What is the Gospel, The Heart of the Gospel, Rediscovering the Real Gospel, and No Other Gospel just to name a few of the popular recent titles). This is not to say that those books weren’t good, but only to say that none of them (I don’t think) will have the reach that Scot’s book will have, and – aside perhaps from Rediscovering the Real Gospel – none came close to being as overtly controversial.

When it comes to answering the big question, “What Is The Gospel?”, Scot pitches his tent in 1 Corinthians 15 as the clearest summary of the gospel in the scriptures. The gospel, then, is the Story of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s Story. If that Story is not proclaimed, than the gospel has not been proclaimed. When people try to make ‘the gospel’ to be synonymous with ‘justification by faith’ or with ‘the four spiritual laws’, whatever it is they are proclaiming, it is not the gospel. The problem with making the gospel synonymous with the four spiritual laws is that it does not make disciples and it renders the Old Testament unnecessary. This problem explains why we have so many un-discipled ‘Christians’ running around with little New Testaments stuffed in their pockets who couldn’t give a hoot about the Old, or about Christian ethics for that matter.

For Scot, the gospel is like a four-legged chair:

  1. The gospel is framed by Israel’s Story.
  2. The gospel centers on the lordship of Jesus.
  3. Gospeling involves summoning people to respond.
  4. The gospel saves and redeems.

Some reviewers have charged Scot of making too sharp of a distinction between the gospel proper, and salvation. But I am confused by that critique. As the thinking seems to go: if the gospel is not “how to get saved” than you’ve drawn too sharp of a distinction. Well it seems that that is just the kind of risk Scot is willing to take to recover a more biblical portrayal of the gospel. Yet he never loses sight of the salvation effects which flows from the gospel. In fact while pitching his tent in 1 Corinthians 15 Scot devotes a whole section just to the phrase “for our sins” – the gospel is the story of what Jesus did “for our sins”. (p.51-53) This is also a theme he returns to repeatedly throughout the book.

Three Critiques:

I agree with the heart of this book. Ever since reading What Saint Paul Really Said? (by Wright), my gears got turning. The four Gospels are “the Gospel”. Yet as Wright says in the forward to Scots book, “I doubt whether any of his colleagues, and certainly not this writer, will at once agree with every detail” (p.12). With that in mind, I have three critiques I’d like to offer up at this moment (very briefly as the writing of this is quite late):

1. The Story of Israel or Israel’s Story?

Scot emphasis’ over and over again that to truly proclaim the gospel you need to proclaim Jesus’ story as the fulfillment of Israel’s story. This is a point that is stressed to the point of suggesting that to present Jesus’ story without Israel’s story is to mis-represent the gospel – or at least to not present the whole gospel proper. So to say 1) God created everything good, 2) mankind rebelled and has been separated from God 3)  man deserves to die because of our sins and God is a righteous judge but 4) God sent his Son into the world to die for you and me so that if we believe in him we’ll have eternal life – this is not the gospel because it fails to tell Jesus’ story as the fulfillment of Israel’s story.

But what kept coming to my mind was the story of Paul’s gospelling to the Athenians on the Aeropagus in Acts 17. In this passage Paul’s gospelling goes like this: 1) God is the creator of the heavens and the earth 2) God created humans to reach out to him 3) it is wrong and idolatrous to worship “divine beings” made of gold or stone 4) God overlooked this rebellious idolatry but now commands everyone to repent because the “one man” (contrary to the man of creation) will judge everyone, the proof of which is the in resurrection. Granted the gospelling here is a far cry from our standard “four spiritual laws” (notice the glaring omission of the atonement in Paul’s gospelling), but my point here is to notice what else is missing: any single reference to Israel or in fact to the life of Jesus as fulfilling Israel’s story. Yet in interpreting this passage Scot concludes:

“Regardless of his ability to adapt to context, that Gentile audience did not stop Paul from seeing the sweep of history through the scriptural Story of Israel that found its completion in the Story of Jesus…. he appealed again to Israel’s Story of Adam… Paul drew from the well of his one and only story: Israel’s Story” (p.125)

Now there’s a few confusing things going on here for me. The first is to reiterate the obvious: in Paul’s gospelling, Israel’s Story – and by that I literally mean Israel’s part in the story from Abraham to Malachi – is completely out of site. So I find it hard to see how Scot concludes that Paul drew from “Israel’s Story” (I’m going to clarify this point in a moment). Yet a careful reading of Scot’s statement seems to distinguish between what Paul actually gospelled to the Athenians, and what Paul had in the recesses of his mind. Paul gospelled a story without mention of Israel and yet had Israel in mind. Yet how does that change the fact that what Paul had in mind – Israel’s Story – he still communicated a gospel to a gentile audience without appealing to that story? This leads me to draw the conclusion that when Scot says “Israel’s Story” he is referring to the Story Israel tells, not necessarily Israel’s part in that Story. If that’s what he means by “Israel’s Story” (which is what he indicates by saying “Israel’s Story of Adam”) then fine. But I suspect many people are going to read The King Jesus Gospel and conclude that to properly gospel one must tell of Abraham and David and Isaiah and the Exile and Daniel, or else one has not properly gospelled. In fact – and sorry for the long paragraph – this seems to be indicated everywhere throughout the book except in explaining this one sermon.

It is important to note that one of the few places in the scriptures where someone gospels to an almost exclusive gentile audience, no mention of Israel’s part in the Story Israel tells is mentioned. This leads me to conclude that Israel’s part in the Story Israel tells is not always necessary in order to gospel.

2. Connecting Gospel with Results?

My second critique is really not much more than an impression. Scot begins this book with practical concerns: because we are a “salvation” culture we are not creating disciples. That’s cool. I get that. But I don’t think this book presented an alternative option. I don’t feel that Scot showed effectively how it is that gospelling the story of Jesus (the gospel proper) creates disciples any more or less than the alternative. Now Scot did touch on this a little bit near the end of the book, but this brings me to my third critique…

3. The Forgotten God?

The Story of Jesus (the gospel proper) Scot said leads to salvation (yes, even personal salvation, but not just personal salvation). However that works out, discipleship is the life-long process of becoming conformed into the image of Christ through community. But instead of reaching for the Story of Jesus (the gospel proper) to work this out, Scot reaches for who Francis Chan refers to as the “Forgotten God”, that is, the Holy Spirit. I think he is absolutely and undeniably correct for making this move. But this begs the question, if our conformity to the Image of Christ begins from the moment of or after we repent and trust in Christ, but the gospel leads up to that moment, then is the problem of discipleship really – at its core – a problem of how we preach the gospel? Doesn’t our problem of discipleship stem perhaps from a shortcoming of teaching about 1) the Holy Spirit 2) our union with Christ and 3) how those two work out corporately?

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • LCK

    I have this book on my shelf but haven’t been able to get to it yet. I think N.T. Wright’s book “Simply Jesus” will be out soon and I’ll probably be reading them together. It’s been obvious from reading Scot’s blog that the most common reaction to his book isn’t necessarily “I don’t agree,” but rather “so what do we do now?” Thanks for a very insightful review.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Wright’s book arrived today. But because of my operation tomorrow it’ll probably be a few days before I sink my teeth into it. Suggestion: if you want to read McKnight’s book with a Wright book, I’d recommended What Saint Paul Really Said? because that seems to be the one Scot had in mind, though he rejects Wright’s idea that one thing Paul meant by “gospel” is “Jesus is Lord rather than Caesar”. Scot doesn’t think Paul means that at all. Gospel is simply and always “Jesus’ story as the fulfillment of Israel’s story“. I agree, but like Wright, I don’t totally agree.