My Review of ‘The King Jesus Gospel’

You’d think if there was any one thing that Christians of all theological stripes could agree upon, it would be the Gospel. The central message about Jesus that our spiritual ancestors believed was so powerful, they were willing to die to preach it to others.

Surprisingly, we don’t.

Some people think it’s about going to heaven after you die, while others have equated the Bible’s chief message with being justified by God. Within this setting of doctrinal confusion, Scot McKnight has written The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, a popular-level work designed to look at both Scriptural evidence and instances from church history to argue that the Gospel is about Jesus as the saving Lord whose story completes the long-running narrative of Israel.

Before I go any further, the obligatory disclaimer:

I received a free copy of McKnight’s book through Zondervan, its publisher, which distributed 50 copies of this work to bloggers as part of a larger blog tour. I was not paid to do this and was not required to make positive remarks about the book in order to participate in the blog tour. I have a favorable opinion of The King Jesus Gospel because, to me, the book earned it.

And now, the review.

What It’s About?

So, what is the Gospel?

According to McKnight, it is this: the Story of Jesus serving as the completion of the Story of Israel. This is the Gospel message itself. The salvation of people is the result of this message being preached to them. In the author’s own words:

“… the gospel for the apostle Paul is 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.” (pg. 61)

McKnight distinguishes between the Story of Jesus and the salvation that results from this story being told. He doesn’t deemphasize salvation or people’s need for it, but he does argue that the Gospel is about a lot more than how people can get right with God. As important as that is, McKnight believes that reconciliation between the mortal and Divine is the result of the Story of Jesus.

(If you’re at all familiar with N.T. Wright’s work, then you’ll detect traces of him here. In fact, Wright and Dallas Williard wrote forwards for this book. If the support of these two theological heavyweights isn’t enough to convince you that this book deserves serious attention, then neither would you be convinced if C.S. Lewis came out of his grave and tattooed THE KING JESUS GOSPEL on his forehead.)

How does the author make this case? His starting point is the early-Christian creed found in 1 Corinthians 15, in which Paul writes about he considers to be “chief importance”: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was resurrected and appeared to his followers, and that he will come again.

Here, McKnight makes a good point: the burial and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus make it into what the apostle considers to be the Gospel. It’s not just about the cross and resurrection, as crucial as those events are. The Gospel is about Jesus, and to talk about the Lord and Savior is to preach the Gospel.

As McKnight writes:

“… the Story of Jesus Christ is a complete story and not just a Good Friday story.” (pg. 53)

And later in the book:

“… Pope Benedict XVI gets this precisely right: ‘There is, then, no discontinuity between Jesus’ pre-Easter message and the message preached by the disciples after Easter and Pentecost.’ Why? Because Jesus preached Jesus and Paul preached Jesus and Peter preached Jesus. Preaching Jesus is preaching the gospel.” (pg. 111)

This is why the four New Testament books that are exclusively devoted to the life of Jesus are appropriately referred to as the four gospels, because they tell Jesus’ story. The gospels preach the Gospel. It’s a sign of how far we’ve fallen that someone actually had to remind us of that.

McKnight also points to Peter and Paul’s sermons to show that they understood the Gospel within the context of Israel’s story, found in the Old Testament. McKnight also pulls from the creeds and the works of early Christian leaders to show that the Corinthian Creed shaped their respective rules of faith and helped them create a “gospel” culture instead of one focused on “salvation”, in which the primary focus is on getting to heaven after you die.

If the Gospel is about more than that, then how did the church (at least, portions of it) develop a “salvation” culture? The author argues that this shift was an unfortunate result of an otherwise beneficial Protestant Reformation, whose leaders tended to focus on things such as justification and original sin.

“In fact, no one can read either Luther or Calvin and not observe that they operated with both a profound gospel culture and a profound salvation culture. … I thank God for the Reformation. But I do want to point out that the seeds for the contemporary and mostly evangelical four-points approach to the gospel could not have happened were it not for the Reformation’s shifting from the story to soteriology.” (pg. 73)

The last two chapters of the book focus on comparing how the apostles preached with how our Gospel presentations might look today, as well as how to build a Gospel culture. Comparing how the apostles preached the Gospel with how we might do it today is helpful, as a good many evangelicals might wonder how the evangelism relates to this understanding of Christianity’s central message. If anything, looking at this understanding of the Gospel in terms of evangelism helps the reader (at least, in my opinion) further helps the reader to understand what McKnight understands the Gospel to be.

“If we put this gospel now into one bundle, and if we focus on how that gospel was preached by the apostles, the book of Acts reveals that the gospel is, first of all, framed by Israel’s Story: the narration of the saving Story of Jesus–his life, his death, his resurrection, his exaltation, and his coming again–as the completion of the Story of Israel. Second, the gospel centers on the lordship of Jesus. … Third, gospeling involves summoning people to respond. … Fourth, the gospel saves and redeems.” (pgs. 132-133; I didn’t use italics here)

What I Liked

McKnight is an engaging writer who has clearly done the research and self-exploration that a subject as important as this requires. And a topic as important as this deserves a book that is the result of not only academic research but prayer and soul-searching.

I like the cosmic scope of this book. The Gospel is about more than me, as an individual, finding a second chance with God. (And let me be clear: I’m a thousand-times thankful for that second chance. And the third, and the fourth, and so on.) But I appreciate and am starting to see the emphasis as Jesus as Lord in the Bible, an emphasis not given much space in the churches I’ve attended.

I fully agree that the Gospel can’t be understood without the Old Testament, and this is something I thought long before picking up the book. The Old Testament is not focused on going to heaven. To reduce the Gospel to a get-to-heaven-when-you-die message is to remove any need to have a majority of the books of the Bible.

As someone who has an ever-increasing interest in church history, I was happy to see he had included some of the Church Fathers and creeds in his discussion–something that’s severely lacking in most of the Protestant circles of which I’ve been a part.

I’d never heard that many people consider 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 to be part of Paul’s Gospel declaration until McKnight pointed it out in this book.

The author has an engaging summary of the biblical story from pages 136-142 and again in 148-152. A sample:

“… gospeling declares that Jesus is that rightful Lord, gospeling summons people to turn from their idols to worship and live under that Lord who saves, and gospeling actually puts us in the co-mediating and co-ruling tasks under our Lord Jesus. When we reduce the gospel to only personal salvation, as soterians are tempted to do, we tear the fabric out of the Story of the Bible and we cease even needing the Bible. I don’t know of any other way to put it.” (pg. 142)

So … What Could Be Better/Different?

McKnight quotes both the Apostles and Nicene creeds, arguing that they were derived from the Rule of Faith that, itself, was rooted in the Corinthian Creed. But the examples McKnight provides don’t focus so much on Jesus as completing Israel’s story. I understand how the apostle’s creed eventually shaped the Apostles Creed, but even in the latter, there’s simply no focus on the Story of Israel. Maybe I’m missing something, but I felt that the examples provided in this section didn’t go far enough in supporting McKnight’s argument.

I also wonder why McKnight chose to start with the Corinthian Creed and not, say, Jesus’ preaching the kingdom of God as “gospel” in Mark 1:15. A later chapter explores how Jesus preached the Gospel in the gospel books, but I’m asking why the author didn’t start in the gospels and work his way forward. Paul’s creedal statement might have shaped the early church’s “gospel” culture, but it was Jesus’ proclamation of the Gospel that shaped Paul’s and the apostles’ understanding.

Would I Recommend It?

Absolutely. It’s a thought-provoking read that I return to just to review for my own sake. I’m not sure if I’m on board with the sharp distinction McKnight makes between the Gospel and the Plan of Salvation (and to be clear: McKnight thinks salvation is crucial), but he hardly ventures into heterodox territory by doing so.

So read it. You don’t have to agree with it, but if you’re going to disagree, don’t give McKnight the Rob Bell treatment and judge him without reading what he has to say. You owe it to yourself to understand the author with whom you disagree.

Book Details

Publisher: Zondervan

Pages: 184 (as long as you don’t count the advertisements of McKnight’s other books)

Price: $19.99

Where to buy: Zondervan; Barnes & Noble, both the printed copy and as a Nookbook; I’m not linking to Amazon because I’m a Nook owner. (Take that, Kindle!)