Scot McKnight opens The King Jesus Gospel by relating several stories about the confusion of the word ‘gospel’. He reckons evangelicals by and large use the word to be ‘how you are saved’ and that this results in a culture where the key thing is to get people ‘over the line’. In his view, it leads to evangelistic strategies that focus on driving people to one moment of decision, but have little to say about a life lived for Christ. This is why, he believes, 75% of Americans say they’ve made some sort of decision to accept Christ but only about 25% actually do something about it, like attending church.
McKnight’s argument is that while the ‘Plan of Salvation’ is part of the gospel, it is not the gospel itself. Rather, the gospel is about the story of Jesus as the culmination of the story of Israel, and the Plan of Salvation flows out of that. He’s cutting against the idea that the Gospels are merely a record of Jesus’ life, while the content of the gospel message is found later in the Epistles. Why, he asks, are the Gospels called ‘The Gospel according to…’ if they are not the gospel? Good question!
McKnight is not trying to push us away from talking about forgiveness of sins. He says, ‘One of the central elements of the gospel, according to the apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3, is that “Christ died for our sins”. The Gospels, if they want to qualify as the gospel, must also speak about “for our sins”.’ He then goes on to give quite a lengthy discussion about sin in the Gospels and how Jesus is the bringer of salvation and forgiveness of sins.
McKnight’s point is that we have taken ‘the gospel’ to be the answer to a modern question — ‘how can we be saved from sin?’ — whereas the Gospels themselves, while also addressing that issue, are building towards a much bigger point. They’re answering the question, ‘Who can rule our world?’ The proclamation of the gospel, then, is about Jesus as Lord as well as Jesus as Saviour.
Perhaps all this sounds inconsequential. In my churches, for example, the gospel and the plan of salvation have been the same thing, but that hasn’t stopped Jesus being proclaimed as Lord as well. Likewise, they’ve had a strong tradition of discipleship. The content and method of evangelism often revolves around an invitation to read a gospel. While McKnight argues that poor theology has led to an impoverished culture, my churches have held the theology he attacks and yet have managed to avoid many of the pitfalls he identifies. So, is this merely a discussion for the American church? Does the Australian church also need this redefining of the gospel?
Aussie John Dickson has written a book with much the same argument about the definition of the gospel, now republished as The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission. However, his application is less about the distinction between evangelism and discipleship, and more about what we see as ‘evangelism’. The book’s subtitle is ‘promoting the gospel with more than our lips’. The idea is that because ‘the gospel’ is more than ‘Jesus saves you from your sins’, there are a stack more things we can do to promote it than simply make that proclamation. It’s whole of life witness to the lordship of Christ.
This sort of understanding has pretty broad implications because it does away with our unhelpful dichotomy between gospel ministry and social engagement — both are working out the Lordship of Christ.
I raised the issue here of how African people can connect with a Messiah who is, in the end, Jewish. The Jewish story isn’t their story, and to cast the gospel in those terms (as McKnight rightly argues the Bible does) might just alienate them further. What of adapting or contextualising the gospel to suit their questions? I was looking out for whether McKnight had something to say about Acts 17, where Paul speaks to a Gentile audience, starting from their own cultural icons.
It is precisely at this point that McKnight’s larger understanding of the gospel provides fodder for communicating it in another culture. He says: ‘Paul’s audience surely didn’t know enough of Israel’s story to know what to make of this Jewish Jesus. So Paul starts where they are.’ Focusing on what Jews and Gentiles have in common, Paul begins with God as the invisible Creator of the world, and moves to make a statement about a resurrection man whom he has appointed as judge. While Athenians had a Platonian sense of the ‘immortality of the soul’, resurrection was different for them, and it presses them toward the question of ‘Who is this man? Why is he the judge of all?’
Because Paul’s gospel is bigger than explaining the mechanics of the forgiveness of sins, he is free to draw on other themes and concepts from the Story of Israel which culminates in the Story of Jesus: creation, resurrection, etc. This can legitimately be called gospelling. To come back to Australia for a moment, I have found that evangelistic missions often focus on trying to convince people that they are sinful and under the judgement of God (Hell) so that we can then tell them the good news that they can be saved. There are so many steps to explain that!
The story has been the same in much of the history of some African churches: missionaries turning up and telling people they can be saved from their sins, when the recipients of this ‘good news’ don’t really care! This has implications for today. One theory on why the prosperity gospel is so popular in Africa is that it deals with issues of power and control of the world. The prosperity gospel may be a false gospel, yet a gospel that only answers the question of forgiveness of sins is an irrelevant gospel in this context. On the other hand, the declaration that Jesus is Lord can get much more traction.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.