Gospel: Salvation or Jesus?

I recently asked this question to a group of young adults: What is one word you’d use to define the Christian Gospel (ie. “good news”)?

Jesus, salvation, hope, happiness, love, fulfillment, expectation...

Good answers I think. And not surprisingly, there was a variety of suggestions. It’s interesting how a small group reflects 2000 years of church history - diversity!

But looking at the words, besides possibly “Jesus,” there was one underlying commonality: personal benefit. The words were used in the context of how does the gospel apply to me. Gospel = salvation, especially personal salvation. In this manner, the four spiritual laws make a lot of sense and have been an effective strategy to clearly communicate the gospel since the mid-20th century. It's convincing...to individuals. Many, if not most, evangelicals could trace their own faith to this definition and experience of the gospel. And don’t get me wrong, personal salvation is a very important part of the good news of Christianity.

But is personal salvation the good news itself? Is salvation the starting point of the gospel?

"No" says Scot McKnight in a recent set of lectures in Vancouver, BC (put on by the wonderful folks at the Regent College Bookstore). The talks were based on his book, King Jesus Gospel.

McKnight argues that the trend in evangelicalism to equate the gospel with personal salvation removes the narrative context of salvation we find in the Bible. With conversion the focus, the biblical emphases of community (ie. God’s people) and discipleship become optional. Following Jesus is secondary to accepting Jesus. But this is not what the Bible teaches!

For an alternative, the Sunday School answer does apply: Gospel = Jesus. But not just the cosmic Jesus who comes to endure God’s wrath and remove my sin in order to secure my heavenly boxseats in Afterlife Arena. No, Jesus is good news because he represents the fullness of God’s work in the world for all people. It's not just about me and my eternal destiny.

Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s story - the account of God calling all people to himself, first through Israel as a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8) and now in the form of the church living in the resurrection-reality of Jesus as Lord and King (1 Cor. 15:1-28). Jesus comes as Israel’s true king, which as God originally intended, then extends to all people (Gal. 3:28).

From this perspective Jesus is Lord and King before he is savior. Human response, then, goes beyond conversion and calls for allegiance and participation as citizens of Jesus’ kingdom (read the gospel of Mark!). Personal salvation is part of this fulfillment, no doubt. Citizens receive benefits under a good king after all. But personal salvation isn’t the starting point. The gospel is the complex story of Jesus creating and recreating community in the world - God’s community past, present, and future. The Bible and subsequent history is the narrative of God’s people. And instead of a list of ideas or beliefs, we know the good news through a story.

And the invitation to respond to this good news? Well, instead of four steps to personal salvation, the invitation to individuals is both profoundly simple and profoundly hard: Make Jesus king. Follow Jesus. Join the Jesus-community. Risk putting yourself in the ongoing saga of the Jesus-story.


Greg Harris said...

Hey David,

Great post! Christianity is indeed much bigger than individual personal salvation- though it certainly is about that!

Two things.
1) It seems from your post that salvation and conversion were used interchangeably. I'm not sure if this was intended or if I mis-read it, but I think with an expanded understanding of salvation to a more Biblical picture (which includes conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification) it will necessarily include allegiance and participation as citizens of Jesus' kingdom. So allegiance to Christ and participation as citizens is necessary for salvation - we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that stays alone (as Keller has helpfully synthesized).

2) Yes and amen to expanding our understanding of appropriate response to beyond the four spiritual laws. But I still think it is necessary to include repentance of sin as the appropriate response to the good news - especially in a post-modern pluralistic society. The reason we aren't already a part of the Jesus-community and following him is because we are rebels who sin; and it is because of Jesus that we can be reconciled to God and be welcomed into the Jesus-community. "Repent and believe" is a mantra used before the four spiritual laws were introduced, and it is necessary to include it in our conversations around a proper response to the gospel.

It looks like I missed a great session with McKnight and that his book is well worth reading!

David Warkentin said...

Thanks Greg! Yes, McKnight offered much food for thought and will no doubt create some good content to relate to next week's session with Gilbert (Tue on Granville Island - you coming?)

To your points:

1. Yes, I used salvation and conversion somewhat interchangeably to illustrate the common evangelical tendency to equate the two. Personal salvation and conversion is what I am getting at and then trying to counter. But an important point from McKnight's perspective is to remove the common ordering of the gospel (ie. salvation leads to allegiance). For McKnight, and I tend to agree, the biblical narrative of God's people presents a dynamic picture of allegiance and salvation together - there is no step 1 (conversion by faith) and then step 2 (discipleship). Instead, there is just the dynamic experience of entering into discipleship (which could include all the categories of salvation you mention).

2. Totally agree on the need to "repent and believe." That is exactly Jesus' call for response to the gospel in Mark 1. And importantly the language of repentance reiterates how the gospel is about allegiance - accepting Jesus as Lord and King.

I think part of the disconnect with post-modern pluralistic culture is too narrow a view of repentance in evangelicalism. Postmodernism is already all about the individual (freedom to choose anything!!!) And not surprisingly the call to repentance for individuals is very unappealing. But I also don't think starting with their sinfulness is the answer either. This just ends up competing with the postmodern overemphasis on the individual.

This is where McKnight's perspective on gospel as making Jesus Lord provides an important alternative to competing with postmodern individualism. It offers a whole different set of categories - allegiance to a kingdom, a movement of God in the world and in our lives that offers covenant community in life and faith. "Repent and believe," then, isn't so much about convincing an individual about their sin but inviting them to participate in the community of God's kingdom, from in which sin is exposed and forgiveness and freedom is then experienced. One could say I'm downplaying sinfulness, but I don't think so. I'm just changing the order in which evangelicals tend to address sin.

Anyway, repentance is a big topic - thanks for the insightful comments!

Greg Harris said...

Thanks for the response, I'll be at the event on Tuesday - hopefully see you there!

David Warkentin said...

Right on, see you then!

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