The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jan 28, 2012

Review of "The King Jesus Gospel" by Scot McKnight

Warning: my reviews tend to be on the long side. I apologize if this is excessive, but reviews are, for me, a chance to air my own thoughts and dialogue with the book in question.

Scot McKnight is professor of Biblical and theological studies at North Park University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham under the mentorship of the great NT scholar James Dunn. He has written a plethora of books and articles, most notably (from my own biased perspective) the NIV Application Commentary on 1 Peter and an excellent article on 1 Peter entitled "Aliens and Exiles: Social Location and Christian Vocation" in the journal Word and World 24 (Fall 2004).

In The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), McKnight argues that too often we evangelicals have misrepresented the Gospel by reducing it strictly to "the plan of salvation," an oversimplification with drastic consequences for the life of the church. Rather, McKnight argues, Scripture portrays the Gospel more broadly as "The Story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel's Story" (44) and “the saving Story of Israel now lived out by Jesus, who lived, died, was buried, was raised, and was exalted to God’s right hand, and who is now roaring out the message that someday the kingdom will come in all its glorious fury” (160). The Gospel's focus, then, is on Christ, of course; yet the Gospel is not merely the story of the cross, but also includes the resurrection, Jesus' fulfillment of the OT Scriptures, and a proper understanding of Jesus' role as Messiah.

On the one hand, I believe McKnight's main thesis is Biblical and well-argued. He is at his best when dealing with what Scripture says about the Gospel and Christ's role as Messiah, and I believe he makes his case that the Gospel should not be relegated to strictly "the plan of salvation" (although the latter is clearly a part of the former).  On the other hand, McKnight's work raises questions that I do not feel he adequately answers, especially regarding the practical role of "the plan of salvation" and when and how it would be appropriate to simplify the Gospel. Also, I believe he neglects discussing some key, relevant portions of Scripture.  In addition, there are other minor points that I do not think are as convincing as his overall thesis. In the end, I feel that McKnight has laid down a road that leads to a true, valid destination, yet nevertheless includes some significant potholes that detract from the overall thesis. I believe The King Jesus Gospel is a good book worth reading, yet I remain very uncomfortable with certain parts. The first part of this review will focus on summarizing the book while the next section will analyze it.


In his introduction, McKnight details how as a 17-year old he become disillusioned with the coercive, decision-based methods he saw in certain forms of evangelism. While with a deacon, they had witnessed to a man who, over the course of an hour, had finally “made a decision”; nevertheless, “deep inside” McKnight “was absolutely convinced the man had not made a decision for Christ . . . I never saw the man at our church again” (18). The result, for McKnight, was that he ". . . looked ever since with a cynical eye at evangelistic strategies. Not because I'm not an evangelist, but because I believe we are focused on the wrong thing. Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples" (18; emphasis is McKnight's). McKnight further points out that many young people who “make decisions” early on in a church fall out and never return to the faith.

In his first chapter, McKnight asks the question: “What is the Gospel?” He discusses a few instances where he thinks the definition of the gospel has been mishandled, such as a failure to understand how Jesus’ role as Messiah fights in, the equation of the Gospel with simple “justification by faith,” etc. McKnight concludes that the term Gospel in 21st century Christian culture does not mean what it should, and that “if the gospel isn’t about transformation, it isn’t the gospel of the Bible” (27).

In chapter 2, McKnight introduces what is perhaps the major theme of his book: the contrast between a “salvation” (“soterian”) culture and a “Gospel” culture. McKnight states, “ . . . we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really ‘evangelical’ in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians . . . we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation . . . But these two words don’t mean the same thing” (29). In McKnight’s opinion, an overemphasis on “getting in” has caused Christians to neglect discipleship. A “salvation culture,” thus falls short of the whole Gospel. In contrast, “A gospel culture, though, encompasses it all and leads The Members into The Discipled because it equates the former with the latter.”

Chapter 3 continues McKnight’s emphasis on the difference between the Gospel and the Plan of Salvation. He also argues that both the latter and the “Method of Persuasion” used to convert unbelievers have been given so much weight that they “crush” the proper understanding of the Gospel (p. 43; McKnight does not deny that those two elements have their place; he is simply arguing that they have been overemphasized at the expense of a fuller understanding of the Gospel.

In chapter 4, McKnight finally begins to define the Gospel. He starts, appropriately, in 1 Corinthians 15. He discusses how the Gospel includes Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and appearance, but also includes Christ’s role in completing Israel’s story (“according to the Scriptures”). He also acknowledges that the “Plan of Salvation” does indeed come from the Gospel (“died for our sins”) and that “Paul uses a Plan-of-Salvation expression in his definition of gospel” (51). McKnight continues to emphasize that the former is a part of the latter, but not to be completely equated with it. McKnight also emphasizes the dangers of focusing solely on individualism: too often the plan of salvation causes the focus of the Gospel to swing too far from Christ to oneself and one’s own need; nevertheless, “we need the latter without cutting off the former” (62).

In chapter 5, McKnight takes a detour from defining the Gospel via biblical theology and discusses how, in his opinion, historically a focus on personal salvation came to overshadow the rest of the Gospel. In chapter 6, McKnight returns to defining the Gospel by discussing how the Gospel is portrayed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He emphasizes that all the elements discussed in 1 Corinthians 15 are present in the four gospels, and that they focus on Jesus himself as the embodiment of the Gospel. Chapter 7 looks at what Jesus Himself said abut the Gospel and his kingdom. McKnight asserts that Jesus boldly portrayed himself as the fulfillment of Israel’s history; indeed, “Jesus therefore preached the gospel because he preached himself,” and “Jesus preached the gospel because he saw himself completing Israel’s Story” (104; emphasis is McKnight’s).

In chapter 8, McKnight examines the evangelistic sermons in Acts to determine how they framed the Gospel. He argues that these sermons focus on “the Story of Jesus resolving the Story of Israel,” and that the OT citations in Acts are a significant part of how the apostles saw the Gospel (118). Both Peter and Paul see Jesus as Israel’s Messiah; consequently Jesus’ story is essentially the culmination of Israel’s story. Thus, “. . . it is clear from Peter’s and Paul’s own sermons that the framing story is not so much salvation as the Story of Israel coming to completion in the Story of Jesus” (131; though obviously salvation is still a key part of that story). A genuine response to that story manifests itself via belief, repentance, and baptism (127).

Chapter 9 deals with what McKnight calls “Gospelling,” or evangelism. McKnight begins by drawing out 4 key points regarding the Gospel: 1. It is “framed by Israel’s Story”; 2. it “centers on the lordship of Jesus”; 3. It “involves summoning people to respond”; and 4. It “saves and redeems” (133; emphasis is McKnight’s). At the practical level, McKnight argues that modern evangelism errs when it focuses solely on “Jesus as (personal) Savior” while ignoring “Jesus as Messiah and Lord.” In the rest of the chapter McKnight discusses how such themes as Israel, God’s future judgment, Jesus’ role as King and Messiah, etc., fit into the Gospel. He holds a brief and balanced discussion of the so-called anti-imperialism seen by many to inhabit Jesus’ Gospel, and then finishes the chapter by asserting that the central focus of the Gospel must always be Jesus and his story.

In the final chapter, McKnight essentially retells the Gospel, tracing its story throughout the entirety of Scripture in his own way. He the concludes by urging us to embrace a gospel culture as evidenced in our lifestyle as well as our words. In appendix 1, McKnight offers “summary statements” of the Gospel in the NT that go hand-in-hand with 1 Corinthians 15; appendix 2 gives the text of Justin Martyr, First Apology 66-67; finally, appendix 3 gives the text of the relevant sermons in Acts.


Analysis part 1—overall theme
At the basic level, I believe McKnight’s thesis is Scriptural. At the very heart of the book is McKnight’s desire not to oversimplify the Gospel, and I believe he defends his position in a Scriptural manner. We have indeed often neglected many of the key elements of the Gospel in evangelicalism. Furthermore, while the “Plan of Salvation” is part of the Gospel, I believe McKnight makes it clear that this is not all that the Gospel is about. As McKnight notes, too much of an emphasis on “persuasion” can also lead to non-genuine conversion. Finally, I believe McKnight makes a solid case that neglect of the whole Gospel seriously hinders discipleship. The main thesis of The King Jesus Gospel, then, is in my opinion a solid, Scriptural, and convicting thesis. That being said, there are areas where I disagree with him or feel that he has not adequately dealt with certain issues.

Analysis part 2—writing
As mentioned above, McKnight is a brilliant writer and thinker; that should never be in doubt. This book was easy to read but difficult to think through at times. For the most part, the book was well-structured (with one exception: see below). The King Jesus Gospel should be able to be read by most Christians, even those without any formal theological training.

Analysis part 3—some thoughts on certain individual chapters
Regarding individual chapters, I thought chapter 2 was especially effective in framing the relevant questions and getting McKnight’s point across. “Figure 1” on page 30, especially, makes a lot of sense and makes McKnight’s point very well. Chapters 4 and 6-8 were essential to McKnight’s thesis and overall very biblical; in fact, he has basically created a “biblical theology of the Gospel,” and I believe he does a good job.

There is some overlap between some of the chapters, and McKnight repeats various key themes over and over again. For this sort of book, that’s probably a good thing.

Chapter 5, however, is something of a puzzler for me. To begin with, he makes sweeping, controversial, historical statements that would need a lot more work to be proven. Furthermore, in my opinion, the chapter never successfully explains just how we moved from the reframing of the Gospel in the Reformation to the (in his opinion) unhealthy focus on personal soteriology at the exclusion of much of the Gospel in today’s evangelicalism (basically, all of one page, page 74, is relegated to this question; in my opinion one page is hardly up to the task). I’m not necessarily opposed to the point he’s trying to make in chapter 5, I just don’t think he deals with it adequately.

Furthermore, McKnight’s discussion of creeds at the beginning of the chapter is puzzling. On the one hand I acknowledge his point that the creeds “bring out what is already in the Bible’s Gospel” (p. 65; emphasis his). Yet I nevertheless take strong issue with his statement that he sees “the creeds, especially the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, as fundamental to the faith of all Christians” (63; emphasis is mine this time). Had McKnight said “creeds in general,” I think he would have had a point, since this could more or less be seen in terms of “formal articulation of faith” (and, in a sense, even the most independent of churches has that at baptism or church constitution). Yet by singling out specific creeds, McKnight is forcing European and Middle-Eastern expressions of faith on the rest of the world, no matter how biblical those expressions are. I have grown up in Japan, surrounded by Japanese believers who would not have hesitated to express their faith in a creedal form; yet never once have I ever heard the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed in Japanese. I have no doubt that they have been translated somewhere, someplace, yet my point is that the creeds themselves (rather than the beliefs expressed in the key creeds, which are found in Scripture) were never a major part of the Japanese Christianity I grew up with. Frankly, I would be very surprised if such creeds were a part of Christianity in most of far eastern Asia, especially those who haven’t had the privilege of reading Greco-Roman and Middle-Eastern expressions of faith from the 4th century. To say, then, that these creeds are “fundamental to the faith of all Christians” is extremely careless on McKnight’s part, even though this does not factor into the chapter as a whole. For these reasons I view chapter 5 as the weakest link in the book.

Analysis part 4—some concerns with individual points of the book
As mentioned above, I think McKnight’s overall point is sound, biblical, and challenging to my own thinking (and, in retrospect, not quite as controversial as I had initially feared).

There are some concerns, however. What I write below may be because I simply am not “getting it”; there are, after all, no perfect reviewers! Nevertheless these issues nagged me throughout the book, and I don’t think McKnight has dealt with them adequately.

To being with, McKnight is strongly critical of an over-simplification of the Gospel message (as he should be), yet he never actually discusses, from a practical standpoint, how evangelistic encounters should happen. In other words, if I’m sitting next to a person on a 30-minute flight, what should we talk about? Are all forms of door-to-door witnessing illegitimate? Are short Gospel tracts necessarily wrong? (p. 148 seems to imply this; more on this below). Since the Plan of Salvation is, by McKnight’s own admission, part of the Gospel, then what should it look like, and must it include the whole Gospel at any given conversation? In other words, does the entirety of the Gospel necessarily need to be fitted into every single plan of salvation? A survey of Scripture would seem to indicate an answer in the negative. Christ’s dealings with Nicodemus in John 3, for example, hardly touch on every single theme that McKnight says is part of the Gospel. Similarly, Paul’s “witnessing” in Acts 16 doesn’t even mention the role of Israel in God’s plan or Jesus’ role as Messiah; perhaps later Paul did enlighten the jailor and his family regarding other elements of the Gospel, but my point here deals with the initial point of conversion, not the necessary elements of subsequent discipleship.

More seriously, McKnight’s argument that the Gospels “do not tell us the Plan of Salvation, and neither do they offer to us a Method of Persuasion” is, in my opinion, inaccurate. John 3 is the perfect example of this: Jesus does not include every single element of the Gospel in his discussion with Nicodemus, yet he most certainly gives a “Plan of Salvation” (the very same Plan that my mother used to lead me to Christ). Whether or not this also constitutes a “Method of Persuasion” would probably depend on your definition of that phrase (and, for the record, I do agree with McKnight that there is a great danger on putting too much emphasis on our own persuasive skills in evangelism). Similarly, when Jesus heals the blind man in Luke 18:35-43, all we have is a simple “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you,” which seems to me to constitute a Plan of Salvation (i.e. “faith in Christ = personal salvation”).

Furthermore, I believe this goes hand in hand with a key omission of the Biblical evidence in chapter 8; when discussing the evangelistic sermons in Acts (a topic which I think he handles well), McKnight basically neglects the personal evangelistic encounters of Acts such as Acts 10 (Peter and Cornelius) Acts 16 (Paul and Silas in prison). Some of these would actually strengthen McKnight’s case in certain elements (esp. Peter and Cornelius; notice how Peter brings Israel into the conversation), yet other cases demonstrate that not every element of the Gospel (as defined by McKnight) is always present in evangelistic encounters.

Going along with my criticism that McKnight does not deal enough with evangelistic encounters (either Biblical or modern) would be that, despite all his criticism of “persuasive” methods in evangelism, McKnight never discusses exactly how persuasive we should be, or how much is too much. Given the illustration with which he starts out his introduction, this is a glaring omission. A certain degree of persuasion in evangelism is, after all, Biblical (e.g. 2 Cor 5:11; the Greek here is peithw), so it is not enough for McKnight to broadly criticize overly-persuasive evangelistic methods. We all agree that deacons who barge into a family’s home and wring out a “profession of faith” are failing in their methodology. Nor do we need to breed a generation of “in-your-face” obnoxious soul-winners considered solely with racking up points for the Lord, as if witnessing were some sort of cosmic basketball game. Yet persuasion and bold proclamation in of themselves are not evil (and, to be fair, McKnight never directly says so); indeed, it would seem to be a part of “gospelling.” My point is not that McKnight was wrong with his criticism of coercive presentations of the “plan of salvation”; rather, I would argue that McKnight never explains exactly how “persuasion” and “presenting the plan of salvation” fit into true “gospelling.” McKnight never denies that these are legitimate Christian categories, yet almost whenever he speaks of these terms he does so negatively. Once again, then, if I am sitting next to somebody on a plan for 30 minutes, how do I go about presenting Christ? I get that simply presenting a “plan of salvation” is not, in McKnight’s definition, true “gospelling”; yet isn’t it a start, at least?

I believe McKnight does a great job of “sketching” the Gospel on pages 148-153. But his criticism that “the assumption on the part of many that the gospel can be reduced to a note card—or a napkin—is already off on the wrong track” (148) is confusing. On the one hand I acknowledge McKnight’s basic thesis, that we have quite often neglected key elements of the Gospel. Yet McKnight’s own “sketching” of the Gospel is not found anyone particular place in Scripture, but rather takes all of the Gospel themes in Scripture and (masterfully, even) weaves them together into a coherent whole. Nevertheless, most if not all NT writers ultimately reduce the Gospel at some point to a much shorter version than what McKnight “sketches” in chapter 10. The obvious example is 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, 20-28, which McKnight does a fantastic job of handling in chapter 4. I’m confused, then, because taken at face value McKnight’s statement in chapter 10 seems to contradict his work in chapter 4; i.e. these verses in 1 Cor 15 is a much more abbreviated version of the Gospel than McKnight seems to be willing to allow in chapter 10. Obviously nobody is suggesting that Paul, in these few verses, has covered every single facet of the gospel. Yet that constitutes my point and one of my biggest criticisms of McKnight: although the entirety of the Gospel must not be neglected, the entirety of the Gospel as defined by Knight does not necessarily have to be preached at any one specific time. This is why the Apostle Paul can boil the Gospel down to the “essentials” in 1 Cor 15. Quite possibly McKnight would agree with all this, yet a prima facia reading of certain parts of his book suggest otherwise.

Once again, let me reiterate that I agree with McKnight’s concern that no part of the Gospel should be (or can be) neglected in the life of a true believer. I am only suggesting that the Gospel can be viewed and presented in different ways, not all of which will reflect every single point McKnight makes regarding the Gospel. It’s possible I am simply just “not getting” the book here (and I’m open to correction), but my objections stem from an honest reading of McKnight’s book.

Also, I think McKnight’s criticism of broader evangelicalism is too harsh (esp. p. 76 and his citation of Dallas Willard at the top, a citation with which I am extremely uncomfortable). Granted, often evangelicals have neglected key elements of the Gospel (Jesus’ relation to Israel being a key example), and granted we have often relied on a “fire-and-forget” method of evangelism that neglects discipleship. Yet ultimately no matter what we do people will leave the church; this much is obvious from Scripture itself (e.g. Luke 8:13-14). That we are not retaining our youth in our churches, for example, may be the result of a variety of factors and, to a certain degree, occurs even in good churches that practice discipleship. I also believe he is a bit too harsh in his introduction on those who focus on getting people to make decisions; I would suggest that the genuineness of a decision should also be taken into consideration regarding whether or not somebody stays with the faith. I think McKnight is almost (but not quite) in danger of creating a false dichotomy between “emphasis on persuasion/plan of salvation” and “emphasis of discipleship”; despite having grown up in Japan, I have encountered hundreds of churches in the States. Some of them most certainly due fall under McKnight’s condemnation. Yet a significant number have, to my observation, managed to keep maintain a focus on the Plan of Salvation and persuading people to repent without neglecting the other elements of the Gospel.

Analysis part 5—concluding thoughts
The length of my negative critique should not detract from the fact that The King Jesus Gospel is a good book worth buying and thinking through. McKnight’s chief concern (a valid one) is summed up best by “figure 1 “on page 30 where he demonstrates how a “salvation culture” (i.e. a focus strictly on the “plan of salvation” at the exclusion of other parts of the Gospel) falls short of what a true Christ-centered culture should be. I believe McKnight’s overall point is a valid one, then, though I disagree with certain parts of the book. Furthermore, McKnight’s thesis demands action, not theorizing. McKnight concerns himself with true evangelism and discipleship in the service of Christ. He is no “ivory-tower” theologian. A fitting conclusion, then, is the following statement:
         "We also embrace the gospel to create a gospel culture by serving others in love and compassion . . . As our God is a sending God, so we are a sent people. As our God is an other-directed God, so we are to be other-directed. The gospel propels us into mission, into the holistic mission of loving God, loving self, loving others, and loving the world" (160).