The Shepherd’s Nook: Inside the Soterian Gospel

This post is by John Frye.

Soterian Gospel = Proof-texts and Logic

We considered last week the reduced, soterian gospel and its relation to the church. “Jesus died on the cross so you can go to heaven when you die” has, we noted, no relation to the church. That “gospel” allegedly precedes and creates the church, but once it has done its thing: getting a person saved, it rests.

Let’s go inside that gospel as it is presented, aware of the dynamics at work. I am writing this as one who peddled this flimsy excuse for the robust and massive Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is not a parody. The soterian gospel works something like this:

First, affirm that the person, the potential convert is loved by God. “For God so loved the world…” The question is asked, “Pat, are you part of ‘the world’?” The response is usually, “Well, yeah, I guess I am.” The focus is narrowed. “So, we could read, ‘For God so loved Pat, that he gave…,’ isn’t that right? Pat if you were the only human being ever to live, Jesus would have died for you.” Pat smiles and agrees. Pat now believes the biblical Gospel is all about Pat.  Already immersed in an egocentric culture, Pat is pleased that the “gospel” fits so nicely into Pat’s worldview.

Second, establish guilt. “Would you say, Pat, that you have lived as well as Billy Graham?”

“Well, ah, no, not at all.”

“How do you compare to Mother Teresa?”

“O God, I’m nowhere near as good as she was. What a saint!”

“So, you admit you’re a sinner? That you have not lived up to God’s will.”

With images of Billy Graham and Mother Teresa swimming in the mind, Pat confesses that he (or she) is not good enough to meet God. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Third, introduce the great reveal. “Pat, you’ll never be good enough to meet God. To help you out, Jesus, God’s Son, died for your sins so you could meet God. Not because of things you do, no matter how good or how bad, but because of what Jesus did on the cross, dying for you.” Jesus comes riding in as the hero who lived and died so that Pat can know the big eternal question can be affirmatively answered. “Will I go to heaven when I die?”

Fourth, the pitch. “Pat, God loves you and you have not lived up to God’s will. You’re a sinner. Yet, Jesus died for you so that you can go to heaven when you die. This is important: it is not enough just to know these things. You must decide right now to receive the gift of salvation.” This is the genius part. Pat is asked: “Is there anything keeping you from receiving the gift of eternal life right here, right now?” Pat, looking for the exit and feeling uncomfortable, blunders out a few words, realizing that he or she has been hooked. A few people have had the moxie to tell me that they had had enough and shut down the “conversation” (aka blatant sales pitch). Many, however, just say, “Ah, no, not really.”

Fifth, signing the dotted line. Some misplaced use of Jesus’ knocking on the door of their heart is explained. This door-knocking is coupled with “whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life.” The logic in this maneuver is impeccable. Pat is led to ask Jesus to come into his or her heart. Pat signs the dotted line with the canned prayer. After the prayer Pat is asked, “Where is Jesus right now?”

“Aaaah, I don’t know. In heaven?”

“Did you ask Jesus to come into your heart?”

“Yes, I did.”
“Then, where is he?”

“I don’t know? Ah, in my heart?”

“How do you know?”
“I don’t know.”

“Did you ask Jesus in?”

“Yeah.”

“Then where is he?” (Now the clincher.) “Would Jesus lie to you, Pat?”

“O God, no!  Jesus wouldn’t lie to me.”
“Then, where is he?”
“Ah, he’s in my heart.”

“So, do you have eternal life?”
“I don’t know.”

“Whoever has the Son has life. Do you have the Son?”

“I don’t know.”

“You just asked Jesus to come into your heart. Did he come in? Would he lie?”
“Oh, no, oh, yeah, he did come in.”

(Pat is told that feelings do not matter and have no place in this conversation. All Pat’s eternity is allegedly at stake yet feelings don’t count. Hello, Spock.)
“So, Pat, do you have the Son?”

“Yeah, I do.”
“Whoever has the Son has life. Do you have eternal life, Pat?”

“Yeah, I do.’

Sold by text and logic, but not necessarily saved by grace. Yet, Pat is assured of heaven forever.

Proof-texts, salesmanship and logic: the American soterian gospel at its best. It does not need God’s sweeping, missional Story. No need to introduce “the Christ” or mention cosmic renewal. Community is irrelevant in this gospel; it’s an add-on if the convert so chooses. Pat is in.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • KJH

    This sounds way too familiar. You’re right. Its not a parody. This is what the gospel is to millions of evangelicals.

  • John W. Frye

    KJH,
    I am sad this horribly reduced gospel captured the minds of so many in the USAmerican church. And for awhile I peddled it.

  • Jon

    That is an excellent example of how the soterian gospel is often shared, and it certainly is a problem. But what I would like to see, what I’ve been wondering since I first heard about and read the King Jesus Gospel, is what would it looked like to share the King Jesus gospel with someone today? It would be great if John Frye would write a new conversation with Pat, this time where he shares the King Jesus gospel.

  • RJS

    Jon,

    That is an excellent question. My guess is that part of the answer is that one conversation won’t do it – it takes a more involved interaction. However, even with this caveat, there must be a general structure to the story and message that one can share in the context of relationship with another person. Examples of what this looks like would be good.

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Here’s a suggestion. Perhaps it’s a mistake to think in terms of sharing the gospel ‘today’.

    So let’s call it good news instead. People know what good news is and they usually have more than enough bad news in their lives already.

    And while we’re at it, let’s knock dualism on the head as well. So tell people that the good news is that Jesus is involved in all of life, every day, everywhere. Tell them what he’s like, that his nature is to love and that he’s interested in everyone and wants to share his life with everyone. Get them reading the signs in John’s gospel and encourage them to tell you what they think Jesus is like based on the evidence they’ve just read. Start with the wedding feast and how the wine ran out; here are some good questions to get them thinking…

    What does this tell us about people? What does it tell us about Jesus? What does it tell me about myself? Who else needs to hear this? There’s enough in those few verses to get them started simply on discipleship, theology and mission.

    The good news is not a destination, it’s a journey.

  • Jamie

    This is brilliant! I also would like frye to do a write up on a more storied gospel!

  • Jerry

    I also used this format for years. I saw a lot of converts. Evangelism Explosion, Four Spiritual Laws, the Bridge to Life, Roman Road, etc are all variatons on a theme. Problem is . . . alll have some validity. It is the sales approach that is at fault not the themes in and of themselves and if we take out the broader call of Jesus as Messiah AND Lord then we are just trying to sell fire insurance.

  • Phil Miller

    When I was a college student, I went on a Spring Break “missions trip” to Florida a few years with one of the bigger campus ministries. I won’t name it, but you could probably guess which one pretty easily. Anyway, the one thing they had us do was to approach people and have them take a survey. It was a completely fake survey. It had real questions, sure, but no one was tallying the results for anything. It was mainly a way to get an in with a person. I didn’t like it at the time because I felt I was being dishonest, and actually, after trying to use it once or twice I gave up on it. But that left a bad taste in my mouth.

    I have never understood why Christians think it’s OK to try to evangelize to someone under false pretenses. To me, that represents the pinnacle of trying to approach conversions from a marketing perspective.

    A number of years later when I was a campus pastor (different ministry), I also made one person very angry at me once. He was using Ray Comfort’s “Way of the Master” method, and approaching people on the street. We had an event later that evening, and the guy told me he had won something like a dozen people or something to the Lord that evening. I just asked, “well, how do you know?” He said something like, “they said the prayer!”. I was like, “OK, but how do know they didn’t just want you to leave? Do you actually know anything about these people?” He had no clue.

    It’s not that I don’t think instantaneous conversion can’t happen. It certainly does. But, when it becomes our primary method of evangelism, I think our priorities are misplaced.

  • Jerry

    BTW, amen to the recommendation that John Frye and Scot outline what the King Jesus Gospel might look like in conversation.

  • scotmcknight

    The questions of the soterian approach are:

    Where will you be/go when you die/meet God after you die?
    What can you do about your guilt, your sin, your sinfulness, your human condition?

    The question of a King Jesus Gospel approach is:

    What do you think of Jesus? Or, Who do you think Jesus was?

  • John W. Frye

    If the King Jesus Gospel is a way of life (kingdom = God’s new society), then the potential covert is invited “to come and see.” In the relational settings of the new humanity, the King Jesus Story I’d told. BTW, people have been truly saved by the packaged gospel, but I think that’s more attributed to the Holy Spirit not the marketed Jesus.

  • T

    I don’t think we need to be shy about pulling our starting places of conversation from the people we’re hoping will become disciples of Jesus. Paul did this; Jesus did this; etc. It’s totally okay and even wise to listen first and speak later, based significantly on what we’ve heard and felt from them. I’m very interested in the posts that Scot has had lately about relational ministry and empathy. These conversations need to be combined with the one we are having here today. The King Jesus gospel may be good news, but being an ambassador for Christ is more than mere relaying of that news. We must be people who are grounded in the story of Christ’s administration, but also well-versed in the ongoing stories of alternative powers in the lives of specific people. We have to be able to discern the working of God and the working of darker powers within people’s actual lives, and thereby do and say what makes sense to help folks discern the same and grow in their trust of Christ, and in distrust of the alternate powers.

  • Jim

    All that needs is a room with a single light bulb and a goon with a black leather gloved fist to smack old Pat around…in the name of Jesus.

  • Dana Ames

    Since I read this, I have thought it is an ideal way to begin to express the good news:

    Reality as we know it is the result of a creator god bringing into being
    a world that is other than himself, and yet which is full of his glory.
    It was always the intention of this god
    that creation should one day be flooded with his own life,
    in a way for which it was prepared from the beginning.
    As part of the means to this end, the creator brought into being a creature which,
    by bearing the creator’s image,
    would bring his wise and loving care to bear upon this creation.
    By a tragic irony, the creature in question rebelled against this intention.
    But the creator has solved this problem in principle in an entirely appropriate way,
    and as a result is now moving the creation once more
    toward its originally intended goal.
    The implementation of this solution now involves the indwelling of this god
    within his human creatures and ultimately within the whole creation,
    transforming it into that for which it was made in the beginning.
    N.T. Wright “The New Testament and the People of God” p. 97-98

    Of course, we must be able and willing to discuss the details, ramifications and questions that can arise from these points, and most of all to approach people with love.

    Dana

  • Bev Mitchell

    All so true and so sad. I wanted to add something about the saying, perhaps incorrectly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi “Preach the Gospel without ceasing; use words if necessary”, but decided to first Google the citation to see what they say about the attribution. The following testimony popped up which says what I wanted to say far better than I ever could.

    http://www.elizabethesther.com/2013/01/preach-always-use-words.html

  • Chas

    I wonder if some of what is driving such a sales approach to sharing the Gospel is our lack of belief in God’s sovereignty. This method is rampant in my circles. Many of these folks seem to feel that if they don’t use some surefire method of corralling a sinner into the kingdom, and do it right now lest the proverbial bus hit the sinner before he believes, then they will somehow be responsible for a soul being lost forever. I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, but God does indeed have an essential role to play in this.

  • Kaleb

    Heaven becomes our Idol.

    Who doesn’t want lifestyles of the rich and famous when they die with streets of Gold and gates of Pearls. Our dualism causes this approach in my opinion.

  • Jean

    Regrettably, I haven’t seen a viable alternative to the so called soterian approach proposed. I am not a fan of the soterian gospel and am certainly not in favor of psychological manipulation. However, we need something that can be easily explained in a single conversation that the Holy Spirit can use in the heart of a 21st century western individual, who may or may not have some knowledge of Christianity and may even have negative perceptions of Christians as intolerant and/or hypocrites.

  • scotmcknight

    Jean, why “easily” and why “in a single conversation”?
    Can we not witness to Jesus easily and in a single conversation without it being a comprehensive explanation?
    My own view is that we can explain the gospel in three words: Jesus is Lord. I’m not saying that is snappy and immediately relevant, but it sure does raise the stakes on a simple question: Who do you think Jesus is?

    But the whole “easily” and “in a single conversation” emerge out of a kind of reductionistic evangelism that should not be the model. This approach is pragmatic and it is American.

  • Percival

    Bev #15,
    That blog link showed us that not being pushy can be psychologically effective to let people reconsider something. It says nothing to us about the actual work of the Holy Spirit. I’ve heard people say, “Leave room for the Holy Spirit to work.” Is that what you think is happening there?

  • Wade

    I was saved using this technique, but I have seen it be so incredibly shallow and almost always misleading. Yet, it seems like there is something missing in the argument above and in Dr. McKnight’s reply to Jean. I think the idea of a time of conversion is vital. Does it need to be a much different conversation or conversations? Yes. It needs to have the fullness of theology and relationship that they mention, yet in my ministry I have a hard time finding good language for conversion conversation that doesn’t find its way back to this type of language at some point. In fact, I like when I just ask a few questions and they can reply with good answers.

    When you sell the gospel this way and you have to start answering your own questions, you get a great big lump in your throat hoping you didn’t just do something eternally significant in a bad way. You hope you didn’t just give them assurances that they have eternal salvation and they don’t. I have discovered not to give assurances so easily or go so quickly. When I think of Philip converting the Ethiopian, I now think they must have had a much longer conversation than I usually have with someone. There isn’t a number of times, there is a sensitivity to the Spirit and the Spirit moving in that person.

    Age old question. How much does a person need to know to accept Jesus? More than outlined above, no and yes. I wasn’t told much more than that at the beginning even though I see it wanting now. We need to facilitate their path to God’s throne in a better way (however you want to say it, I don’t intend to downplay the Spirit).

    I also note that the use of logic in this blogpost leaves a conversation and possibly conversion incomplete because of the missing variables. Yet, in the slippery slope post, logic is granted kingship despite the missing variables. I understand the difference in the placement of logic as being the solution to the argument in the other post and being a variable in the argument itself. Not taking all the right things into consideration is misleading at all times. My argument is centrally on that post.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Percival (20),

    Good question. The fist thing that impressed me about her decision (with good advice from her priest) was to look away from her own efforts and back off. We are not called to ‘bring’ them, we are called to tell them. The second (probably should be the first) was her turning much more to prayer. In doing this, she was implicitly putting more trust in the Holy Spirit. As to when, where and how the Spirit brought this about, who knows? But, when someone truly comes to Christ, we can be sure the Spirit was intimately involved; and the evidence is shown in the fruit produced. Our challenge is to work with the Spirit, not running ahead, not resisting, sometimes being bold, sometimes being much meeker, always being understanding and always coming from a position of lots of prayer. Just like Jesus modelled for us.

    Who does this well enough? Certainly not me. But, we all know of instances when we got it more or less right. Those times are sure a lot better, and more fruitful, than when we get it more or less wrong.

  • http://twog.wordpress.com Bryan McWhite

    Okay, sure. I agree. But do we have to be so condescending as we seek to correct the “soterian” gospel? It seems to me that the tone of this post is just as out of step with the implications of the gospel as those criticized are with the gospel itself.

  • John W. Frye

    I appreciate all the comments to help spur reflection and conversation. Again, God mercifully has used the soterian reduced gospel to save people. As a pastor I’ve lamented the lack of Christian formation in our church *communities*– living by the same values of the culture. IMO we can trace church shallowness to an initial gospel shallowness.

  • John W. Frye

    Bryan, no attempt here to be condescending … only reporting the way I and 1000s of others were given a horribly reduced gospel and were told it was the real thing. So not true. As I said: the post was *not* a parody.

  • Theron C. Mock III

    Would you say the soterian gospel is anathema? Is it different enough from the gospel to qualify it as anathema, in the Pauline sense of Galatians 1? I haven’t thought too much about it, but I do find this question to be appropriate. I just purchased McKnight’s “The King Jesus Gospel” and I’m making my way through it. Thanks.

  • scotmcknight

    Theron, I”ve said over and over that the soterian gospel takes one clause in the gospel (“for the forgiveness of sins”) and reframes the whole gospel through that line. It is, therefore, not a false gospel but one element of the gospel taking over. So, No, to your answer. 100x No. The elements of the soterian gospel are true about the doctrines of salvation.

  • John W. Frye

    Theron, I agree with Scot. The horribly reduced gospel is not in the category of heresy or anathema. It’s about what is left out and the “packaging” of what little content is presented. A skewed *plan of salvation* is NOT the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Theron C. Mock III

    Thanks for the responses Scot and John, I appreciate them.


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