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What IS the gospel?

Years ago I began to grapple with the key question: What is the gospel?

I’d been brought up to believe that it was ‘Ask Jesus into your heart, then your sins will be forgiven and you’ll go to heaven instead of hell when you die.’ But I soon began to realise that there’s a great deal more to it than that. And worryingly, I noticed, a high proportion of those who simply make a ‘decision for Christ’ end up with no active faith at all. The ‘deciders for Christ’ fail to become disciples. I noticed, too, that in the NT the ‘kingdom’ aspect of the gospel seems to loom large, but few writers (and no preachers) known to me had been specific about that, and how it fitted into the overall picture.

I’m a lot clearer now, and have been heartened in my convictions by this book—The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight (Zondervan, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-310-49299-3).

McKnight concludes that most evangelicals today are really soterians (from the Greek soteria, meaning ‘salvation’). That is, they are concerned primarily, if not solely, with personal salvation, which they identify exclusively with the teaching of the apostle Paul. If they are honest, they will say that a knowledge of the OT is not really required for an understanding of the gospel, and that Jesus himself didn’t personally preach the gospel, which only came later with Paul and the other apostles.

This watered-down ‘gospel’, however, bears little resemblance to the full-bodied message presented by Scripture at large. There, the story of Jesus is the completion of the story of Israel. It fulfils OT promise and expectation, and presents Jesus as the Messiah and King who came to put the messed-up world to rights. He came to save and sort out everything, not just me. Of course, the personal forgiveness of sins by grace through faith is a key element of this—but only an element, not the whole picture.

Read this book if you are prepared for a radical overhaul of your ideas of what the gospel is. You’ll come out of it with a more robust faith and a whole new level of confidence in evangelism.

[I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers]


Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.  (134)

The Calvinist crowd in the USA—and Piper is the leading influencer in the resurgence of Calvinist thinking among evangelicals—has defined the gospel in the short formula “justification by faith.” But we have to ask whether the apostles defined the gospel this way.  (237)

The word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about “personal salvation,” and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making “decisions.” The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles.  (262)

The absence of the resurrection in most of evangelism today is appalling.  (352)

What Adam was to do in the Garden—that is, to govern this world redemptively on God’s behalf—is the mission God gives to Israel. Like Adam, Israel failed, and so did its kings. So God sent his Son to do what Adam and Israel and the kings did not (and evidently could not) do and to rescue everyone from their sins and systemic evil and Satan (the adversary). Hence, the Son is the one who rules as Messiah and Lord.  (400)

Because we think the gospel is the Plan of Salvation, and because we preach the Plan of Salvation as the gospel, we are not actually preaching the gospel.  (485)

…the near total ignorance of many Christians today of the Old Testament Story. One reason why so many Christians today don’t know the Old Testament is because their “gospel” doesn’t even need it!  (544)

The best place to begin is the one place in the entire New Testament where someone actually comes close to defining the word gospel. First Corinthians 15 is that place.  (570)

The gospel is a whole-life-of-Jesus story, not just a reduction of the life to Good Friday. In my judgment, soterians have a Good-Friday-only gospel.  (732)

The Reformation said, in effect, that the “gospel” must lead to personal salvation—and the rest is history. But with that emphasis, regardless of how important it was and remains, came a price. The gospel culture began to shift to a salvation culture.  (1021)

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.  (1064)

Dallas Willard discusses this reduction of gospel to salvation and the reduction of salvation to personal forgiveness and gives it a potent and damning label: the gospel of sin management. Willard uses the image of a bar code for this salvation culture: if we get the right barcode—say the right thing, make the right confession, have the right experience, make the right decision, etc.—when God scans the barcode, the lights will go off and we will be safe.  (1089)

Have you ever wondered why the first four books of the New Testament are called “the Gospel”?  (1155)

[Jesus says] “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14: 9). Why? Because Jesus assumes the preaching of the gospel will mean telling stories about the life of Jesus, including this very story of the woman who had just poured oil on him.  (1371)

Did Jesus preach the gospel? But that does not mean, Did Jesus preach personal salvation or preach justification by faith (no matter how true and important those concepts are)? Instead, we have to move to a different plane. If the gospel is the saving Story of Jesus that completes the Story of Israel, the question is actually more refined: Did Jesus preach that he was the completion of Israel’s Story?  (1389)

From the promises to Abraham of a land and a people and kings, to God’s promise to David for an eternal king and kingdom, right on through the prophetic visions of shalom and justice and heartfelt Torah observance, all of this and more, Jesus balled up into the word kingdom and said, “Get ready, it’s almost here. In fact, in some ways it is already here.” For Jesus, “kingdom” carried the weight of his entire eschatology, and he announced that his eschatology was about to turn to the final chapter.  (1461)

A more careful examination of the Gospels show a Jesus who unequivocally and without embarrassment nominated himself for Israel’s president.  (1763)

Did Jesus preach the gospel? Yes, he preached the gospel because the gospel is the saving Story of Jesus completing Israel’s Story, and Jesus clearly set himself at the center of God’s saving plan for Israel.  (1733)

Jesus’ resurrection and the profound experience with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost led the apostles into a “hermeneutical revolution.” They suddenly had new eyes to reread and reinterpret the Old Testament from the perspective of the Story of Jesus.  (1837)

Paul summarizes his message with this: “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (Acts 13:32-33).  (1849)

Peter’s Jesus of Nazareth, the one who lived and died and who was raised and ascended and enthroned, is both Messiah of Israel and Lord of the whole world. Those are the terms of the early gospeling in the book of Acts, and if we want to be faithful to the Bible, those should be our terms as well.  (1923)

To participate in the Story of Jesus the apostles called people to believe, to repent, and to be baptized. I would contend that there is no such thing as gospeling that does not include the summons to respond in faith, repentance, and baptism.  (2011)

To believe means more than just mentally agreeing to some truth, even if that truth is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord over all. The entire sweep of the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus ushers us into a world where God’s people rely on and trust in God, and such a trusting relationship generates a life of obedience, holiness, and love.  (2024)

The gospeling of Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior.  (2122)

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. We soterian type of evangelicals need to awaken to the reality of how the Bible presents gospeling. In fact, the book of Acts has only hints of an atonement theology at work in the narration of the death of Jesus in gospeling (but cf. Acts 20: 28).  (2134)

We need to find the problem behind the solution Jesus offered. Jesus’ word for the solution is the kingdom, or, if we frame it as John did, eternal life (which, too, is more than personally living forever with God after we die). If kingdom is the solution, the problem was about the search for God’s kingdom on earth and the problem was the absence of God’s kingdom on earth. If eternal life is the solution, then the problem was death and the absence of God’s abundant life and the worldliness of this world.  (2183)

Not only is Jesus Messiah, but Jesus over and over in the New Testament is the one true Eikon [image] of God. What the apostles were telling us is that the assignment God gave Adam, the assignment transferred to Abraham, Israel, and Moses, and then to David has now been transferred to and perfectly fulfilled by Jesus.  (2232)

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.  (2271)

If we are tempted for even a passing moment to wonder if the Gospels preach the gospel, then we have fallen from the apostolic gospel.  (2333)

The church calendar, if examined briefly, is entirely structured around the Story of Jesus. That is, the church calendar is a gospeling event.  (2485)

If we are to embrace the Gospel in order to create a gospel culture, we will also embrace the story of the Bible as a story about the people of God. We will embrace the church, warts and all, as the people of God.  (2575)


I have reviewed another book by Scot McKnight—The Blue Parakeet—here.

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