From the Shepherd’s Nook, by John Frye

Soterian “Destination Gospel”

The soterian gospel boils down the biblical Story of the King Jesus Gospel to mere destination: going to heaven when you die. All the potent minerals and healthy vitamins of God’s grace-driven renovation of the entire cosmos are cooked out.

As a pastor, I think this has had disastrous results for the evangelical church, especially in the U.S.A.  In the previous two posts we considered the soterian gospel’s relationship to the church—it has none—and the inner, manipulative logic that gets a person “assured” of salvation. I want to return to the idea of the soterian gospel as destination. There is no claim in the reduced version of the gospel that it is a way of life in the realm where Jesus is Lord.

There was a popular tract in the Grand Rapids, MI area some years ago. It might still be around. The title of the tract was “How to Get to Heaven from Grand Rapids.” There you have it: the soterian gospel of destination. Or, recall the other evangelism question: “If you stand before a holy God and he asks, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say to God?” Again, it’s about the destination.

Let’s consider this destination gospel a little more. A person is led to pray the prayer that we will call Point P. After they have reached Point P, then they are assured of Point H, that is, they are assured of heaven when they die. To be at Point P is a guarantee of Point H if the idea of “the assurance of salvation” means what it proponents say it means. Let’s imagine Pat (from our last post) prays the prayer (Point P) and is then guaranteed Point H (heaven when he/she dies). Pat is one very happy person because the big eternal question is instantly and painlessly settled. In the phase called “follow-up,” Pat is informed that Jesus is to be Lord of his or her life.

You recall the question, “Who’s on the throne of your life?” In my opinion, that question is much nearer the beginning of the robust Gospel of the kingdom of God. Yet, in the soterian gospel, it’s called “follow-up.” Follow-up is optional. Everything in follow-up, as far as Pat is concerned, is optional. Why? Because the big eternal destiny question has been answered affirmatively and assuredly. If Jesus is in your heart, yet not on the throne, that’s sad and maybe even bad, but it is not eternally detrimental. Pat should read the Bible, but that has nothing to do with being eternally saved. Pat should be part of a church, but that has nothing to do with being eternally saved. Pat should be transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus, but that has nothing to do with being eternally saved.

The packaged soterian gospel does not take into account sin’s deep bent toward self-centeredness. In our sinful state we are fiercely curved in toward ourselves. Pat actually thinks that he or she can have all the best that the fallen American culture can give, even pursue it, and have eternal heaven, too. Pat can have the best of the kingdoms of this world with eternal heaven thrown in. George Barna has repeatedly confirmed that millions of USAmerican evangelical Christians have chosen “the best of both worlds” option.

The soterian gospel has left Pat clueless that God’s salvation is a passport into a new country, into a new culture with values that are in many ways antithetical to the American way of life, a new way of being a human being where God is central, others are preferred before self, and Christ is the compelling focus. This Christ is forever calling Pat to deeper devotion and greater risks. The robust Gospel of King Jesus is a way of life that, yes, does have a glorious future. But between Point P and Point H there are countless other points, thousands of choices, relentless forks in the road that eventually lead to Point H. What if N. T. Wright and others are correct in claiming that justification is not a front end reality at initial faith, but an eschatological reality that acknowledges persevering faith? What if you actually had to persevere to the end to be saved? I think that from the get-go, Pat needs to be grounded in the King Jesus Gospel’s call to gutsy perseverance.

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  • Excellently said! The Romans 6 concept of being identified with Christ’s crucifixion, burial and new resurrection life is barely considered in the Soterian Gospel. It’s about new life now, not just new life in heaven.

  • Joe Canner

    I wonder if part of this problem stems from seeing heaven as a binary, “all or nothing” destination. If the two choices are, indeed, eternal heaven versus eternal hell, then it stands to reason that one would want to get that settled as soon as possible. However, given that there are “countless other points, thousands of choices, relentless forks in the road” it seems like maybe heaven and hell should be viewed as more of a continuum that accounts for the all of these variations that arise over the course of one’s life.

  • Good Morning Scot,

    I love it! We’re thinking through baptism and how to help a person acknowledge, embrace and articulate what it means to be “saved”. Trying to move away from a purely “transactional” conversion story isn’t easy but we’re taking baby steps.

    I do have a question. Scripture does speak of remaining to the end. But aren’t we saved by grace through faith and sustained by grace through faith? I want to be careful that we don’t go to saved by grace but persevere by works. That easily translates into sanctification by legalism not by grace.


  • I was raised and Southern-Baptist-educated on the justification model and overall interpretation of Romans. Wright, McKnight, and Dunn have been quite instrumental eye-openers for me.

  • Chas

    I wonder at times, almost with some measure of fear, if history will someday show that what has been “sold” to the world by modern evangelicalism is not really the Gospel. Have we simply called people to a destination via a decision, or have we called them to the exalted Christ? The two seem very different to me. God help us.

  • scotmcknight

    David, saved by grace and sustained by grace, and at the same time we must repent and we must obey. Perseverance theology focuses quite often on the second part of the equation, not the first. We are called to respond… that needs to be emphasized too.

  • All through seminary (DTS) I kept asking myself the question, “Then why do anything at all?” I learned many good things in my studies, but the working version of the gospel was clearly the destination gospel to which I had responded in my younger days. That gospel cannot satisfy the “Why do anything at all?” question. John’s paragraph on optional follow-up pinpoints this problem. Great work. Thank you for posting this Dr. McKnight.

  • It’s good to read this blog and see one of my pastors (David Grant) is reading it too! I appreciate David’s question and Scot’s answer.

  • John W. Frye

    David, I like the idea of the soterian transactional conversion. Behind the Skippy gospel, canned prayer and declaration of 100% certainty of heaven is God’s writing in his accounting books in the sky putting human sin on Jesus and reckoning the pray-er righteous by putting Jesus’ righteousness in the pray-er’s column. It’s a bookkeeping gospel. Reformed theology gone to seed.

  • John W. Frye

    Skippy in previous comment should read “skimpy.”

  • John, do you have the links to your previous posts on this subject?

  • Andy W.

    I’ve always liked the answer I heard from the Eastern Orthodox about being saved. Their response : “I am saved, I’m being saved and through God’s grace and mercy I will be saved.” That makes sense to me.

  • John W. Frye

    Chuck, the posts on this topic are on Jesus Creed (the previous 3 or 4 posts on Fridays).

  • DMH

    “How to Get to Heaven from Grand Rapids.” I thought Grand Rapids was heaven! (born and raised there. It was a slice of heaven for me because of all the used book stores there)

    When I was younger there was a big controversy about “lordship salvation”- Jesus as savior vs. Jesus as lord. Seems to have been another ill effect of the soterian gospel.

  • Steven

    I hate to be the one that points this out but this comes purely from a logic point of view. Where’s the scriptural support? It’s one thing to state opinion but to make a whole biblical argument without the bible seems useless.

    Personally I see the dualism of this in Jesus’ wedding feast parable matthew 22:2-14 with key being on the last verse. Many are called but few are chosen. Believers are called and those who endure are chosen. I believe 1 John gives us a picture of what a true believers life looks like. Furthermore, you strip out assurance of salvation and then what Good News is there? I would see if without assurance of salvation then it results in a failure of Eph 2:8-9 and turn Christianity into a works based religion like the others.

  • Georges Boujakly

    Steven #15
    I don’t follow. Could you be a little clearer in your line of arguing?

  • Jean

    I am a UMC member with family and friends in the Catholic Church as well as in a typical seeker evangelical church. I participate in worship and small groups in all these environments, so I think I see the some of the advantages and disadvantages of these models perhaps better than some others, especially ones who are in only one model. I have been praying and studying for the knowledge and wisdom to both understand the communicate the gospel more effectively. One thing I’ve found is that it’s easier to criticize the soterian gospel than to offer an alternative which is communicable to average people. It don’t disagree with the criticism of the soterian gospel (in fact I share it), however, I just don’t see compelling practical alternatives in the marketplace of ideas. However, I think I’ve identified a few issues which might shed some light on these discussions:

    1. We understand that one must be born again/from above. Further, we understand that baptism symbolizes our death to sin and our resurrection in Christ to new life. We also understand that we are justified (declared in the right) through faith. I (and probably most people) have thought of this “conversion” as like a light switch: At one moment I was not saved, but in the moment of conversion I became saved. I was initiated into the new Israel.

    My question with this understanding is that the potential convert probably does not understand what he/she is actually signing up for at the moment he or she makes a conversion commitment. Having read The King Jesus Gospel and How God Became King, while I love these works and am blessed to be part of this blogging community, it takes some time and diligence to get the big picture. Therefore, I am wondering whether our idea of conversion is problematic. Should conversion be understood more as an initiation experience following some level of education, so that the confession, Jesus is Lord, is build on a foundation of knowledge? It seems to me that in answering this question, we can take a realistic approach to how we evangelize.

    2. Considering Hebrews Chapter 6, NT texts regarding the eschatological judgment for everyone, and other passages, such as Eph. 5:1-8 and 2 Tim 2:12, can we forfeit salvation through our conduct after conversion. Or do the scriptures teach that the person identified in Hebrews Chapter 6:4-8, and 2 Tim 2:12 was never converted/justified in the first place?

    3. I participated in a DVD led study by a brand name evangelical author who taught that there is a difference between a Christian and a disciple. His premise was that if we want God’s best for us, then we should become disciples, and he used Romans Chapter 12 as the “executive summary” of the authentic Christian life. Another evangelical author in his DVD study distinguished Christian fans from followers (using Luke chapter 9:23). In my understanding of the NT, there is only one category of Christian: He/she is a disciple and follower; Christ is Lord of all. My question is: Am I missing something here?

    These are very important questions to me as a lay leader in my church. I would appreciate your comments, even opposing views. Thanks.

  • John W. Frye

    Steven, for the biblical foundations of the robust King Jesus Gospel I suggest you read Scot McKnight’s book by that title. You prove my point by unabashedly claiming “assurance of salvation” is the heart of the Good News. I believe that take on the gospel is very, very reductionistic.

  • Don Ketcham

    Those of you looking for a way to share the story gospel might consider this book: True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In by James Choung

    Here are the first two review comments on Amazon:
    “James has found a simple way to convey to both Christians and non-Christians that the good news is cosmically good–a diagram that does the best job I’ve encountered yet of placing our personal stories in the context of God’s bigger story.” (Andy Crouch, Editorial Director, Christian Vision Project )

    “The book is amply ‘storified’ and is a huge, huge step forward in evangelism. Pastors and parents need this book; youth ministers and college ministers need this book.” (Scot McKnight, on )