By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (November 8, 2011) – In his latest book, The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight contends that evangelicals have reduced the gospel to a “plan of salvation” that is human-centric rather than Christocentric. The result has been the creation of a “salvation culture” as opposed to a “gospel culture.”
The former is primarily concerned with who is “in” and who is “out.” McKnight says the full gospel is defined in 1 Corinthians 15 as the completion of the story of Israel in the saving story of Jesus. That story encompasses salvation, but also involves a call to discipleship.
Following is an edited interview with McKnight.
Why do you say evangelicals have focused on too narrow a view of the gospel?
The Christian tradition is obsessed with the idea of original sin and how it came through Adam and Eve, but I am more interested in looking at what they wanted. They wanted to usurp God. They wanted to be God in the world rather than co-regents.
The Bible doesn’t skip from Genesis 3 to Romans 3, and that is really important to me. Part of my job as a theologian is to ask why does God wait so long to go from Genesis 3 to Matthew 1.
Israel is called to be blessing and a light to the nations, but they fail time and time again. The story of 1 and 2 Kings is about kings. 1 and 2 Chronicles is the chronicles of the kings and prophets of Israel. This isn’t the chronicles of ordinary life. It is not the chronicle of individual redemption of the Israelites. It’s about who is the king. The prophets were obsessed with how the king behaved and therefore how the Israelites behaved.
When Jesus comes along, he resolves the tension about kings. When the solution is that Jesus is the king, then we have to say the problem is we didn’t have a true king. We wanted to be king, we had bad kings, now we have the true king. I think this is what it is all about.
How have evangelicals made the gospel too human-centric?
The point is this is a story about Jesus and we’ve made it into our personal happiness plan.
It’s like when we root for our favorite sports team. When I watch the Bears, I root for the Bears because I want them to do well, not because of something I will get out of it.
To me some people watch the Bears only to see if their players are going to score fantasy points so their teams can win. That is what I think we have become. We have become fantasy Christians. We see ourselves vested in certain elements so that when those elements do well we feel good. We don’t care about what’s going on in the pages of the Bible except to the degree that it satisfies what we want to get out of the Bible.
An example is the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan. It’s been converted into a lesson about what we have to do to face temptation. I’m sure those are all good but that is not the point of the text. The point is to see something cool about Jesus.
I have often told my students and audiences that when we’re done reading this narrative, we should stand up and clap for Jesus for his obedience. We can see that unlike Israel, Jesus was 100 percent obedient. The implication of that is Jesus was sinless and that we have a sinless Savior.
The first thing we read the Bible for should not be to find out something for me. Our first thing is to be absorbed in the story and glory in the fact that Jesus is the king and our champion.
Some critics have taken you to task for supposedly denying the need for Christians to make a decision to follow Christ. How would you respond to that?
I want it to be clear that I am not against decision. I know people can date a decision in their life that was transformative. I can as well. That’s fine but I don’t think the question is what was the date you received Christ, which I heard a lot. Either you date it or you need to do it. I don’t think the question is the date. I think the question is, “Are you following Jesus?” It is not so much a cognitive decision as it is a surrender to who Jesus is and what he has done. I believe in calling people to that. A decision and a life transformation are completely different things. But I’m certainly not against decision when defined as “repent, believe, and be baptized.” What I do is contrast the story that brings salvation with a salvation message that has no story.
Changes in focus also means a change in how we share the gospel. How would such a shift affect how we do Christian education, especially with our children?
I am absolutely convinced that most of our energy is in getting kids to make a decision so we can feel good and know they won’t go to hell. Then we know we’ve done our job.
That’s fine until they become college students and adults and they no longer want to have anything to do with the church. Then we feel like our quest and our desire was a waste of time or something was wrong.
I compare it to this: When we introduce our kids to the Chronicles of Narnia, we read to them from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and we tell them about Aslan. Our goal is that we want them to climb up on the back of the lion and rub their face in the mane. That’s really what we want. We want them to delight in the story of Aslan the way we delight in Aslan. We read to them from the book, we buy them pictures they can put on their bedroom wall, we buy the DVDs so that we can put them on computers and on the TV so our kids can see him, and we talk about Aslan, and the kids ask us about all the characters. We do the same with Jesus. We read to them the gospel, we tell them about Jesus, we buy them pictures of Jesus, we talk about Jesus and the ins and outs of life, and we show them in our daily lives how Jesus makes a difference. That’s how we are going to gospel our children.
We want our children to become people who adore Jesus. They love him so much they surrender their lives to him. Again, I’m not against anyone who wants to lead a child to a commitment, but I see the commitment as a surrender rather than a crisis-formed event.
How do passages like Ephesians 4-6 fit into the larger story?
There is the big story. In the New Testament era we have a king who is Jesus, we have a people who are the church and Israel, we have a law for the people—the teachings of Jesus as developed into the ethic of early Christianity. We can build from the Sermon on the Mount to 1 John as the ethic.
The ethics of Paul is how people under the king are to live as kingdom people in this world. When they live that out, they embody the redemptive story that God has for this world.
Although you contrast salvation and gospel cultures, in the book you give very little attention to the Bible’s call for social justice, which I know is important to you.
That’s a fair pushback on the book, but I dealt with that in my previous book, One.Life.
A gospel culture creates a society that is marked by love, justice, peace, and wisdom. These are four of the major themes of a proper society in the Bible. I’m looking at how the New Testament is framing the gospel. And the New Testament frames the gospel as Jesus. The effect of focusing on the story of Jesus is saving, but it also is community forming and it will bring about a just society.
You don’t touch on this in the book, but you have expressed elsewhere that you are concerned about disconnecting justice from Scripture.
I’m convinced that somehow in American Christianity and in the more progressive wing of evangelicalism, kingdom is connected with activity that is more or less human and humanitarian. It is social and public while the church is private. I am convinced that the secular/sacred divide is back in a new and more vicious viral form. The word kingdom has become connected to God’s work in the public sector, and salvation has become connected with the church.
In the book, you emphasize the importance of liturgy, the creeds, and observing the church year. That sure doesn’t sound like an Anabaptist.
I’m low church and I’m Anabaptist but I don’t think everything liturgical has to be connected with the fall of the church. Anybody who is committed to the Bible should be loaded down with liturgy. The whole history of the bible is loaded with liturgy.
Four times a year, the Jews were called to Jerusalem to memory-shaping, history-remembering events. God gave specific instructions to the priests in order to enact all of this properly, so I’m all for the value of baptism, the Eucharist, and the church calendar because they are all profoundly gospeling events. The church year is nothing other than ordering the Bible so we keep our focus on Jesus. It is pure gospeling.