One day when I was five, I knelt down and prayed the sinner’s prayer. That was the first step of a lifelong journey, guided first by my parents, then by other Christian leaders and mentors as well. I’ve identified myself as a Christian ever since.
Not everyone can say the same. In the introduction to The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight observes that, even by the most conservative estimates, more than half of those who pray the exact same prayer won’t grow up to be active followers of Christ.
Unless you’re superstitious — unless you believe the words are some type of magic incantation — there’s only one conclusion. For most who pray the sinner’s prayer, nothing happens.
I have a 17-month-old daughter. We had her baptized last year. For my wife and me, her baptism signified her initiation into the covenant community. But to see it as some kind of automatic guarantee is to be just as superstitious about baptism as some people are about the sinner’s prayer.
I want to pass my faith on to my daughter. I want it to stick. But she’s my first kid, and, well… I’ve never done this before.
That’s what was on my mind when I picked up Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan, 2011).
I’m a theology nerd. I actually like reading theological books. I burned through my Christmas gift card money stocking up at four different bookstores last week. But when I picked up Scot’s book, there was more on the line than mere intellectual curiosity.
Scot’s premise is that the gospel isn’t sticking because what we’re proclaiming isn’t really the gospel. It’s a set of propositions that reduce the gospel to a legal transaction between God and individuals. It’s “the plan of salvation.” It’s “sin management.” Or what Scot calls “the soterian gospel” (from soteria, Greek for “salvation”).
And it isn’t working.
Evangelicals focus on getting people to make a “decision” for God. Liturgical traditions (like the one my wife and I now belong to) focus on making people “members” of the covenant community. Both, Scot argues, need to do a better job of making disciples out of these “deciders” and “members.”
And he argues that the best way to do that is to start telling our story.
Not the four spiritual laws. Not the five things you need to be sure to say when you ask Jesus into your heart.
The story we need to tell, according to Scot, is the story of Jesus completing of the story of Israel.
Scot begins by asking a painfully obvious (but important) question: what is the gospel Jesus preached? And what is the gospel the apostles preached?
Actually, he asks the second question first. And he finds his answer in 1 Corinthians 15, arguably the most explicit summation of the “gospel” to be found in the New Testament. (The apostle Paul starts by referring to this text as “the gospel I preached to you.” Doesn’t get more direct than that.)
The gospel Paul goes on to expound is nothing more (or less) than the story of Jesus: dead, buried, resurrected, appeared, ascended, and someday returning so the rest of us can join him in resurrection. And all of it “according to Scriptures” — i.e. in fulfillment of the story of Israel.
This text, Scot notes, comes from one of the earliest books in the New Testament. It predates the four gospels (or, as Scot would have us say, the ONE gospel according to four witnesses). It formed the basis of the church’s earliest creeds — including the one my church recites every Sunday.
This gospel sees Jesus not so much as the centerpiece of a legal transaction between us and God, but as a king (which, after all, is what the term “Messiah” suggests) who is coming to reverse our usurpation of his rightful kingdom, as well as the death and devastation that followed. It’s the story of a God who is coming to make peace with the world.
Yes, this gospel involves many of the same things the soterian gospel involves — repentance, forgiveness of sin, etc. But it is a much bigger gospel, bigger than me and my felt needs. As Scot writes:
If the Story of Israel finds its completion in the Story of Jesus and if that is the gospel, we must find the problem [that needs fixing] within the fabric and contours of Israel’s story and not just my needs in my story. . . .
Jesus’ word for the solution is the kingdom. . . . 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.
Sure, I found things to nitpick in Scot’s book. Personally, I thought he was a little hard on the “Jesus vs. empire” view put forward by scholars like N.T. Wright and Richard Horsley. (Sorry, Scot, but I’m an N.T. Wright fanboy. And I’ll bet that’s the first time THAT phrase has been used.*)
But I loved this book. The King Jesus Gospel is a much-needed reminder of what the real gospel is — you know, the one that actually means “good news.” In particular, Scot’s restatement of the gospel story on pages 148-153 is worth the price of the book, all by itself.
I still have to figure out how to translate that story for my daughter when she’s old enough, but I have a much better idea what I want to tell her, thanks to Scot’s book.
*OK, so I was wrong. A Google search of the phrase “N.T. Wright fanboy” yielded no fewer than 1.8 million results.
Oh, and for more on Scot’s book, watch this video (which I’m pretty sure was filmed about a mile from my house)…