I’m powering my way through The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight – trying to finish it before I start reading for my class next week – and as I reach the end, a lot of the points at which McKnight spends much of the book hinting finally become clearer.
One of the nagging questions as McKnight tries to sketch out a more apostolic gospel than our modern obsession with who’s-in, personal-salvation-based Christianity is: Well, where does “doing” fit in? At some point, you have to do something to be saved, right?
Which is probably part of the problem. When you – as I suspect most or all of us did – grow up with the specter of hell hanging over those who aren’t “saved,” it makes being saved the important thing. You need assurance of salvation, and if you’ve sad the magic words – the sinner’s prayer – then you’re OK. You’re saved. Even though we talk about how we can’t do anything to be saved, we all have to do something, even if it’s simply saying a few words. That way, no matter what else happens, you aren’t going to hell, and that’s what’s important.
Never mind that Jesus didn’t seem to think that’s what was the most important. Never mind that the apostles preaching the gospel after Jesus didn’t seem to think so either. As McKnight notes,
Neither Peter nor Paul focuses on God’s wrath when they evangelize in Acts, nor do they describe the saving story of Jesus as an escape from hell.
Which isn’t to deny a judgment. Just that it’s not emphasized, and it’s certainly not the central part of the gospel message the way it is today.
But recognizing this intellectually is a far cry from being able to recognize deep down, where it’s hard to shake the fear that if we’re wrong, we might just end up in the flaming depths for all eternity. So while McKnight details how Jesus and Peter and Paul described the gospel as the Story of Israel being completed in the story of the Messiah and Lord, Jesus, I still couldn’t help but think: Where does salvation come in?
First, let me summarize McKnight’s treatment of the apostolic gospel as preached first by Jesus:
When Jesus talks about moral vision, he sees himself completing the Torah and the Prophets. When he summons the twelve to be his apostles, he is summing up Israel’s hope and Israel’s covenant community as its Lord. And when Jesus speaks about his premature death, he sees it as fulfilling Scriptures, not the least of which is the defining event: Passover itself. … Jesus died with us and instead of us and for us, but the same God raised Jesus from the dead, and that resurrection unleashes the power of the Stronger Man to those who will enter that Story of Jesus. The Stronger Man brings victory through his death and resurrection.
So the Gospel is the story of Jesus. God came to earth to help restore our rightful place as God’s representatives – his images – on earth. The whole story of Israel testifies to attempts to rule this world for God, which invariably lead to attempts to be God. Jesus fulfills the story of Israel as the ultimate representative of God, and through his death and resurrection – however it was done, which is kind of beside the point, fun though it is to discuss – we are free from the power of sin and death.
I love all of that, but … how do you get saved?
They are consistent: to participate in the Story of Jesus the apostles called people to believe, to repent and to be baptized. I would contend there is no such thing as gospeling that does not include the summons to respond in faith, repentance and baptism.
But here’s where things get a little different. McKnight argues our salvation culture has gotten this backward. What’s the first thing we tell people to do? Repent. Then believe, then get baptized. Repent and belief are compressed together, actually, in the sinner’s prayer, but repentance is absolutely first. Yet that’s not the template of the apostles.
McKnight in fact views repentance as a natural occurrence of belief because he sees belief much more as an action than a thought process, defining it as to “trust one’s entire person and salvation to Jesus Christ.” In other words, if we’re truly trusting everything about us to Jesus, including our salvation, then we can’t help but repent and be baptized – because that’s what Jesus calls us to do. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think it’s important because it means we can stop fretting over who’s in and who’s out. Our children can stop saying the sinner’s prayer every couple of months to ensure their escape from hell. Part of believing is simply trusting that Jesus will take care of us, then doing what he wants us to do.
To believe means more than just mentally agreeing to some truth, even if that truth is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord over all. The entire sweep of the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus ushers us into a world where God’s people rely on and trust in God, and such a trusting relationship generates a life of obedience, holiness and love. … Faith and discipleship, in other words, are two dimensions of the same response but not two distinct patches of cloth that must be sewn together with “pins and needles.”
That’s where things get scary for the traditional salvation-based evangelicals. Justification by faith means we have no role in our own salvation except to accept it. But the Bible doesn’t ever say that, does it? “What must I do to be saved?” the jailer asks. The apostles’ answer isn’t, “Nothing!” And we can certainly see how this mentality has crippled the notion of discipleship, which is languishing as the result of our salvation-only obsession.
In fact, in every situation where Jesus comes closest to describing real judgment, on what basis does he judge? Not on whether someone “asked Jesus into their heart,” but on how they treated the “least of these” or managed their talents or came to the wedding feast. All based on what people did, not what they believed. Belief, therefore, must have an acting component. True belief leads to true action; faith without works is dead, in the words of James. Which is a little scary for those of us who have our hats hung on the notion that all you need is the faith part to get your fire insurance.
After all, for your typical Protestant evangelical, the argument is that since humans are imperfect and tend to screw things up, salvation must be based solely on faith. Otherwise, none of us would have salvation. How could we meet God’s standard?
Well, we couldn’t. Unless God lowered his standard by exhibiting an incredible amount of grace, caring less about drawing lines between who’s in and who’s out and more about restoring all things. Perhaps we should follow God’s lead and stop worrying about the next life when we are so clearly called to make things better in this one.