Justin Holcomb and the Soterian Gospel

Justin Holcomb, at Mars Hill (Seattle), recently posted on What is the gospel? and he offers an excellent example of a soterian gospel (see my King Jesus Gospel for soterian vs. apostolic or Story gospel but in essence the “soterian” gospel reframes the Bible’s narrative into one about a plan for personal salvation). I urge you to read what he says and then consider this one major criticism I have:

Everything in Holcomb’s sketch of the gospel is about our salvation, the whole Bible is read through that lens, and this leads the writer to skip from Genesis 3 to Jesus and God’s sending of his Son for our salvation. You can see this in the transition from paragraph two to paragraph three:

God made us to worship him. He was our Father, living and walking among us, giving us everything we needed to live, and yet we chose to sin against him—a cosmic act of treason punishable by death. As a result, we were separated from God, and we try to be our own gods, declaring what is right and wrong, and living life by our own standards.

Despite our pride and ignorance, Jesus, who created the world and is God, lovingly came into human history as a man. He was born of a virgin, and he lived a life without sin,  though….

This skipping of Israel’s Story is why there’s no concern in this gospel that Jesus is the Messiah/King, no concern for how God works in human history, no redemption of creation, and no new heavens and new earth. The Bible’s message is reduced to salvation, but there’s more to the Bible’s Story than that.  There’s not enough Old Testament Story in this sketch … the “according to the Scriptures” theme of the gospel statement of 1 Cor 15 (and the sermons in Acts, and the Gospels) is not given adequate grounding.

I want to point out that this is the most significant difference between the soterian gospel and the Story gospel of Jesus and the apostles. I do not believe this is a matter of “We can’t cover everything” but an issue of how to tell the Story that the gospel resolves.

Justin Holcomb says many things here that I would agree with: a focus on Jesus, a telling of the whole life of Jesus (including his teachings, etc), substitutionary atonement;  he affirms the focus of the gospel is not about us but about God; he states the gospel makes us right and transforms. I like that he says we never move “beyond” the gospel.

He’s right: everything is about the gospel, but that gospel’s salvation occurs in the context of a Story that needs articulation, and until that Story becomes clear the Bible’s message will be reduced.

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  • Dear Scot,

    Again I would like to point to your words in A community called atonement:

    Let me now sum up the biblical understanding of humans as Eikons of God in four stages: humans are created as Eikons, cracked in their present Eikonic struggle, shaped into Christ-like Eikons as they follow Jesus, and destined to be conformed to Christ in union with God and communion with others in eternity.

    This summary statement is remarkably close to the paragraphs you quoted from Justin.

    Your comment on my citation of your book, was that this attempt of yours was too little story. So in a way you are still developing your thoughts. Which of course, is a good thing. And as many of us are, grace towards others is needed. BTW I am not denying that you don’t have that, I just want to stress that we need to continue to have that.

    My second point is, that there seem to be places in the NT where the gospel does seem to be condensed to really short summaries, in which Israel plays a different or seemingly no role. I am thinking about John 1:1-18, or Phil 2:6-11 or Rom 2:24-25, and this list could be made longer, eg the opening verses of both Hebrews and Romans.

    Of some of these verses one could say they are not (about the) Gospel, but (about Christology). But I think that is missing the point. Christology is Gospel. Now, in some of these verses Israel seems to be virtually absent. Am I thus claiming the story of Israel to be redundant, a part you can miss out? No. One of the reasons why these statements can refer only briefly to Israel, might be the belief that Israel is in Adam too, or maybe we should say it the other way around, Adam is in Israel. If that would be true, it is possible to come to summary or creedal statementd like this. But that summary assumes the larger story.

    I am wondering about your thoughts about this.

    With kind regards,


  • davey

    “skipping of Israel’s Story is why there’s no concern in this gospel that Jesus is the Messiah/King, no concern for how God works in human history, no redemption of creation, and no new heavens and new earth … the “according to the Scriptures” theme”

    The soterian gospel does teach Jesus as Messiah/King, the redemption of creation and new heavens and earth and reads the OT as God working in human history and in Israel’s story.

    Here’s suggestions for a possible take on things:

    Jesus did not just come into the middle of a humanity otherwise totally ignorant about God. God had communicated variously some things about Himself and plans for the world, but needn’t have done that. He needn’t either have made Jesus known, Jesus could just have died for sin in a completely unknown but otherwise still efficaceous way, and left revelation of what had been going on for the final cosmic redemption, left indeed those ‘born again’ (and those not) in ignorance of their condition, though the ‘born again’ would be being in the world differently than the others.

    Why think of the story of Israel as itself logically efficaceous in God’s dealings with the world? This does seem to be what Story people (including NPP) imply – a logical efficaciousness of the ethnic nation of Israel (including even those of Israel who were not ‘true’ Israel). That God made known things about himself and what he was doing before Jesus and made promises to humanity and a section of humanity (ethnic Israel) through that section of humanity, and kept the promises, is part of his mercy to us, but not logically necessary for the redemption of the cosmos (except it is of course in a sense logically necessary that God keep promises!). The OT does contain useful information to us about how God works in the world, though it needs careful interpretation since there seem to be a number of views expressed by the writers, some of which are inadequate.

  • Scot McKnight


    Thanks for the response; yes, that is how I was framing soteriology with a view to atonement in that book. As I have said in Embracing Grace, ACCA, and in King Jesus Gospel, that soterian gospel is an adequate summary of the soteriology of the Bible and I have said I have myself shifted in seeing soteriology as gospel and to seeing christology as gospel. Those summary statements, many of which I have collected together in King Jesus Gospel in an Appendix, are nearly all pure gospel as christology. Yes, too, Adam sums up the whole Story of Israel at times.

  • Gabriel Hauber


    Have you considered what Paul says in Romans 10:14-17 compared with your suggested scenario of Jesus dying for sin in a “completely unknown but otherwise still efficacious way”? I find it really hard to imagine, given my understanding of the Story, how it could possibly work that someone could be ‘born again’ and yet ignorant of their condition until the final redemption. In my understanding that rips the rug right out from what the gospel is.


  • Scot,

    So your main point is:

    1) the story of our salvation is included in the gospel (or the effect of…, or part of), but the gospel is not limited to that.
    2) we need the story of Israel in order to complete the gospel story.

    I think what I was hinting at, is this: mentioning a part for the whole (there is a nice Latin phrase for this). By mentioning the salvation part, the NT may indicate the whole gospel.



  • Kaleb


    Thanks for giving words to the frustration so many feel as an overly simplified Gospel is portrayed that is only concerned with the ‘salvation of souls’. The Good News is changed from Jesus is the true King and through him all creation is being renewed and restored through his life, death, and resurrection — to the ‘good news’ is that you are a condemed sinner going to ‘Hell’ unless you say a pray to this God that loves you so much he sent Jesus to die for you to save you, otherwise you will burn in ‘Hell’.

    It is hard because there is are elements of truth to the soterian gospel, but it totally misses the point and misses the bigness of what God has been upto this whole time.

    God restoring all of creation and making us right in the process through Jesus, who is the world’s true leader, that was willing to sacrifice himself in the process and be for those that had no voice – that sounds like GOOD NEWS.

  • davey

    Gabriel: “how (could it) possibly work that someone could be ‘born again’ and yet ignorant of their condition”

    Just how knowledgable are Christians about the things of God? I’m inclined to think we know practically nothing. I’m not suggesting that is through lack of diligence, but in fact that God has not communicated much to us, and I think that is probably because we wouldn’t understand it, and in any case it’s just not important or useful anyway. I doubt we will know much more than we do now in the final kingdom. Don’t we (even in the final kingdom) only really need to know that we are to be good, kind, generous, merciful etc, get on with enjoying and exploring creation in community (including exercising our own creativity), and that all will be well?

    In God’s graciousness, we have been given a little verbal knowledge now to help us get on with the sort of life we will live in the community of the final kingdom, and for inviting others to also join the community (I think knowledge by the life we live is more valuable than words), and this is the gospel preached. I don’t see the history of Israel as the story of a process of salvation, as I think the Story Gospel sees it. Without present day Gospel knowledge, God would still be with us. How much did Moses know, Abraham, Noah, Enoch, Adam?

  • Scot, can you clarify for me whether you see this as a distorted gospel or as a truncated gospel? Do you see this as correct as far as it goes, but just doesn’t go far enough? My concerns are what you reference: this kind of gospel leads to a certain kind of posture or activity in the world.

  • Gabriel Hauber


    Maybe I misunderstood you, but you seemed to be saying that you were imagining a scenario in which Jesus dies for sin, but nobody knows about it, but God still saves people through Jesus’ sacrifice anyway. If that’s the case, then I disagree – if God’s people are the people of faith, and faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of (about?) Christ, then no one is saved without knowing about it. They may not know *all* about it (in fact, they wouldn’t) but they would still know that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, and that through this they have a hope they did not have before.


  • Well said, Scot. This is definitely a paradigm shift.

  • thank you for posting this. a helpful real-time critique

  • Jerry

    Jon (#8),

    Scot can, of course, speak for himself but it seems that it is not a matter of distorted or truncated but a matter of focus. I don’t think the author necessarily distorts the message of salvation though I could quibble about some points (why is everyone down on “religion?” What’s wrong with religion, anyway?) The focus is on more than salvation–it is on the work that God has done through Israel, preparing the way for Christ. and in Christ who is Messiah King, God has established his reign in the cosmos and continues to work out his purposes through the church.

  • John W Frye

    I think that Pieter (#1 and #5) overlooks the point that the abbreviated Jesus Gospel texts exist with letters (a context) of the whole Gospel Story. Using his own experience as a Jew as context (Philippians 3), Paul sinks the *kenosis* text into that Story. I think the other abbreviated texts do the same.

    I find it wholly ironic that those who vociferously claim a very high view of Scripture (read “inerrancy”), and I imagine Holcomb is one of them, and yet treat the Bible so cavalierly as they cobble together texts ripped out of the context of the Grand Story to create a reduced soterian gospel. Only one title of Jesus matters to the soterian proponents: Savior. Who needs to pay attention to the titles Messiah and King? Those titles are ancillary and frankly unnecessary to the gospel Holcomb creates and defends.

  • John W Frye

    And, I think that it’s not just the reduced soterian gospel that is in Scot’s docket; it is the method that creates that gospel. Method? Proof-texting at its best.

  • Dear John,

    First of all, I am not arguing for a “truncated” Gospel. Looking at the comments, I think part of your discussion seems to be an inhouse-US debate.

    Secondly, I do think that matters are a bit more complicated. Yes, these summary statements appear in a certain context. But on the other hand, numerous exegetes have argued that Paul is quoting not making up summary statements in his argument. Now, of course, these quotes also had an original context, but they seem to have a life of its own outside the Pauline corpus.

    But returning to my main point: just as the heart may refer to the whole body, so a soterian gospel may refer to the full gospel. And my question was, whether these summary statements I am referring to, are a case for that.



  • davey

    Gabriel: “no one is saved without knowing about it”

    John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit before he was born. It looks to me that God would like people to come to know a few things about Jesus etc, because God wants that sort of relationship with people, where they cognitively appreciate some such truths, but the essential thing is that they should be certain kinds of people.

  • John W Frye

    Dear Pieter
    I think I understand your concern and I appreciate your clarifying statments. I wonder if you would address Holcomb’s use of Scripture to create his (US) version of a “summary statement” of the ‘gospel.’

  • DRT

    Gabriel, I would like to note that there is a difference between being a Christian and being saved. My beliefs at least make me wonder if people like Gandi or the Buddha are saved, but they are not Christians. Likewise there are people who are, no doubt, Christians who will not experience the final saving…whatever that means.

  • Dana Ames

    So many who talk in soterian terms only mention the Resurrection in passing. Holcomb notes the Resurrection as the victory of Jesus, but does not draw out its implications.


  • DRT

    This whole soterian vs story gospel and saving vs. Christian has made me think about it in a slightly different way.

    I have coached a lot of people in corporate america over the years. For many, when we talk of objectives they tend to say they want a promotion in a certain time. I regularly point out to them that getting promoted is not something that they control so they should not concentrate on that. Instead they should concentrate on the things that they do control and accept whatever happens. Sometimes it is promotion, sometimes it is getting layed off. The should try and work on commmunications, job skills, team work, holistic thinking and the like and set objectives in those areas.

    I view the soterian gospel like the promotion. Being saved is not something that people have direct control over. It is up to Jesus and the Father and the HS. That is why the soterian gospel is deceptive. It is holding out for someone a thing that is not within their control to attain.

    But, to embrace the story gospel and become a follower of the Christ, now that is something that we can strive to do. I am putting my trust in Jesus, and yes, I hope that good things come from that some day, and I know that good things will come from that some day, but to think that I am doing it to escape damnation is not the point.

    Does this line of thinking break a theological rule?

  • Richard Heyduck

    John Frye says, “I find it wholly ironic that those who vociferously claim a very high view of Scripture (read “inerrancy”), and I imagine Holcomb is one of them, and yet treat the Bible so cavalierly as they cobble together texts ripped out of the context of the Grand Story to create a reduced soterian gospel.”

    I don’t know Mr. Holcomb, but via the link to his instigating post, I saw a link to his Twitter feed. Considering what I saw him posting earlier this afternoon he had read Scot’s comments and acknowledged (at least some of) their validity. My impression is that he is genuinely open to input and wants to get Scripture – and the Gospel – right.

  • Gabriel Hauber

    davey, DRT – you both appear to be saying that if a person has works, even if he doesn’t “believe”, then God will judge him righteous on the last day? I appreciate all the texts speaking of a final judgment according to works, however, I also believe that the NT is quite clear that God’s people are the people of *faith*, which necessarily implies *belief*. The Spirit comes to those who, in faith in Jesus as Messiah, believe and are baptised.

  • DRT

    Gabriel, I am not saying that. Perhaps davey is and he can speak for himself.

    I am saying that there is a lot of scripture saying that god is going to save all and such so I am not the one to judge, nor do I think we should judge, who is saved. I think that subject is quite subject to debate and also believe nearly everyone says it is out of our hands, hence my comments.

    The point is that the salvation question is not going to be decided by us. But what we do have a direct path toward and pretty much universal agreement on is that as Christians we should follow Jesus, and that is what we should concentrate on. That should be the preponderance of our evangelizing. That should be the focus of Christianity. The whole saved thing takes the focus away from the thing that we can actually impact, our discipleship.

    It is being part of the bigger picture that the story presents that I find compelling. That to get the fullest experience of Jesus we should study and follow Jesus. I don’t want to play around with the boundary condition of whether someone needs to know the name Jesus or whatever else to be saved. What I do know is that the world that Jesus represents as the story of god in our world, and we are all part of that story, is more compelling, even exuberant with the story of Jesus in the picture. Its a story of the world and heaven. Its not a story of me being saved, though I do hope that happens as a part of it.

  • DRT

    Gabriel, to answer a bit more directly you say “I also believe that the NT is quite clear that God’s people are the people of *faith*, which necessarily implies *belief*. The Spirit comes to those who, in faith in Jesus as Messiah, believe and are baptised.”

    I am saying the exact same thing, except that I think you are equating “God’s people” = saved. That is not even close to what it means to be gods people. God’s people are some of the things you said, they have faith, they believe, the spirit comes to them, they are baptized. No arguments. That picture is much bigger than saved.

  • DRT

    ….or I should say that is much bigger than a soterian gospel. I, personally, feel the word saved encompasses that but that is not the same as a soterian perspective.

  • davey

    Gabriel, DRT: What I’m saying is in the context of “What is the Story Gospel?”. It may be that some people see it as a history of God’s dealings with the world, a chronology, and a story that the gospel invites us to join (with care about what differences in our situation there might be). God does want us to know, cognitively, about him and his historical dealings with the world, and be part of a community that knows its history. I have no dispute with that. But, note that what at any time is known of God’s story changes. Abraham didn’t know of Jesus, but had ‘saving’ faith in God. I don’t think salvation is by works, though those with faith will be doing good works to some extent.

    But, then, some people seem to see it as a story that it was necessary for God to play out. The story of the ethnic nation of Israel having to be given Torah and having to fail to keep it until Jesus came to fulfil it as Messiah and King of the ethnic nation, and only then Gentiles being able to be joined with ‘true’ Israel (though somehow failed ethnic Israel still being part of the continuing story) – and it being necessary to see that or else we are missing something absolutely essential. And without that particular story there could be no salvation, and salvation by Jesus can only be understood in the context of that story, so that Story is absolutely necessary as the Gospel.