Do We Have the Gospel Wrong? (Review: "The King Jesus Gospel")

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

“I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel.’ 
I just don’t think it is what Paul means.”
- N.T. Wright 

The guy next to me on my flight from Chicago to Santa Ana last week was the perfect seatmate—chatty during takeoff and landing, asleep for the rest of the flight. I was thankful for the quiet time because I got to spend the four-hour flight completely engrossed in a book that revolutionized my perspective on my Christian faith—The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight

As we were taxiing around John Wayne Airport, the guy (who  at the beginning of the flight told me he spent the summer working for Coca-Cola setting up air-conditioned tents at concerts and amusement parks), asked me what I was reading. “Oh, um.  It’s a book about the gospel,” I said, “about how modern Christians have misunderstood it to be all about personal salvation, when it’s more about the story of Jesus.” 

 The skill and immediacy with which the poor guy changed the subject revealed to me that he’d probably sat next to a well-meaning evangelist in the past, the kind to whom “gospel” means salvation from hell and “evangelizing” means convincing your seatmate to make a decision for Christ before the plane lands. 

As McKnight notes in the book, “Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.” 

I didn’t push it. In fact, I was still trying to process what I’d learned upon reading The King Jesus Gospelthat day—that somehow I’d managed to be a Christian for twenty-five years without understanding what the writers of the New Testament meant when they referred to the gospel. 

The Gospel as We’ve Known It…

Dallas Willard puts it this way: “For most American Christians, the gospel is about getting my sins forgiven so I can go to heaven when I die.” It’s "the gospel of sin management.” 

According to McKnight, “the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about personal salvation.” It’s been reduced to “justification by faith.”  Under such a scheme, the Gospels in the Bible are little more than back story leading up to the cross, and Jesus is little more than a mechanism by which our salvation is attained. The cross is the only part of his story that really matters.

In fact, McKnight argues that modern evangelicals seem to have confused the words evangel  (Greek for gospel) and soteria (Greek  for salvation). Says McKnight, “We evangelicals (as a whole) are not really ‘evangelical’ in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians…We (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the world salvation. Hence, we are really ‘salvationists.’ We are wired this way. But these two words don’t mean the same thing…My prayer for this book is that it will revive a generation of evangelicals to become true evangelicals instead of just soterians.” A salvation culture and a gospel culture are not the same, he says.

The Gospel in the New Testament…

I confess I started this book with a bit of skepticism. I’m wary of anyone who claims to have found a succinct summary of something as complex as the good news of Jesus. While I still believe there is an element of relativity to the gospel because the gospel is about Jesus and everyone encounters Jesus a little differently, McKnight reminded me of just how important it is to acknowledge the fact that the writers of the New Testament had something specific in mind when they used the word “gospel.”

And according to The King Jesus Gospel, what they had in mind was “the story of Jesus of Nazareth as told as the climax of the long story of Israel, which in turn is the story of how the one true God is rescuing the world.” 

McKnight summarizes his position like this: 

1. The gospel is framed by Israel’s story. The story of Jesus—his life, death, resurrection, exaltation, and return—is the completion of Israel’s story.
2. The gospel centers on the lordship of Jesus. He is Messiah and King. 
3. The gospel summons people to respond—to repent, to place faith in Jesus, and be baptized.
4. The gospel saves and redeems. 

If this sounds a lot like what NT Wright’s been arguing for years, it’s because it is. But, at least for me, McKnight explains this “story-of-Jesus gospel” in a way that is more accessible and applicable to everyday life.  

McKnight really gets on a roll in Chapter 6. When speaking of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he poses the question, “Why did the early Christians call these books ‘the Gospel?” 

The answer: Because they ARE the gospel! 

“If you want to read the gospel, hear the gospel, or preach the gospel…read, listen to, and preach the Gospels,” he concludes. 

This approach broadens the scope of the gospel so that it’s not just about Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s about his life, his teachings, his authority as the Messiah, his death, his resurrection, his lordship over all creation, and his anticipated return. With skill and clarity, McKnight shows how this is the gospel that Paul preached in 1 Corinthians 15,  the gospel that was shared in the book of Acts, the gospel taught by Jesus Himself, and the gospel we declare whenever we affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the  Nicene Creed. To share the gospel is to share the story of Jesus—the whole story, not just apart.

Is it any wonder, then, that after the woman anointed Jesus with a jar of costly perfume in Mark 14,  Jesus declares “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her”?  Her story is as much a part of the gospel as the cross! 

This confirms what I only dared suggest in Chapter 15 of Evolving in Monkey Town, that “while I still believe Jesus died to save us from our sins, I’m beginning to think that Jesus also lived to save us from our sins.” Learning that the Bible supports this hope is good news indeed! 

A Gospel Culture...

According to McKnight, in the New Testament, “gospeling was not driven by the salvation story or the atonement story” (though that was certainly a part of it). Rather, the gospel was driven by the story of Israel culminating with the story of Jesus.” 

So how do evangelicals promote a gospel culture rather than a salvation culture?  

We need to tell the whole story of Jesus, he says, not just part.  And we need to declare Jesus as Lord

We must focus on making disciples, not decisions. 

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what this looks like in my life, but what I loved most about The King Jesus Gospel was that it helped harmonize so much of Scripture (from the prophecies of Isaiah to the letters of Paul to the teachings of Jesus to the sermons of Peter), and it made me excited about the gospel for the first time in a long time.  

You can really sense McKnight’s passion for this subject on each and every page, particularly his desire to see a new generation of evangelicals declare a more robust and exciting gospel that is faithful to Christ and faithful to Scripture. He’s definitely got this young evangelical on board! (I’m already thinking of fun ways in which we can share the story of Jesus more frequently on this blog.) 

In short, I can’t recommend this book enough.  It will challenge you, inspire you, frustrate you, and wreak havoc on you—all the things that a good book about Jesus should do. 

(Get it on Amazon here.)


So what are your impressions of the message of The King Jesus Gospel? Do you think that modern evangelicals are salvation-focused rather than gospel-focused? How do we create a gospel culture?

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