The Soterian Gospel as Selfish

The Soterian Gospel as Selfish February 1, 2012

The soterian gospel smacks too often of the very thing it seeks to fight: that is, it is often selfish and it rides, ironically, on the waves of liberalism. The essence of liberalism was the reshaping of Christian theology through the grinder of modernity. Authority shifted in liberal theology from the tradition (Scripture, orthodoxy, creeds, confessions) to a more subjective orientation and used cultural progress to measure the good and true.

The ultimate sign of Western liberalism’s rise in culture was the happiness movement of the 17th-19th centuries, during which time — and you can read all of this in Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History — Enlightenment thinking and the development of science led to the belief that humans could each become happier and happier, and a Golden Age would arrive.

My contention is that soterian gospel was formed in the push of that era, and the soterian gospel is the approach to the gospel I criticize in The King Jesus Gospel. It is too much shaped by a selfish concern of what God has done for me.

Revivalism, and I don’t want to dismiss revivalism completely, reshaped the gospel in this direction. How so? It made the gospel about what it can do for me (and my happiness) and give me eternal life to boot. Here’s the sign of the reorientation (and I’m not at all criticizing the importance of the personal decision, the utter love God has for us — each of us, nor of the importance of the saving benefit of the gospel — I’m criticizing here the reorientation of everything toward what benefits me):

The personal benefit of the gospel — forgiveness, justification, happiness, success, peace, eternal life, heaven (another possession) — became the driver of the gospel.

What I mean is that the entire message of the Bible was reshaped to be a message about how God loves me and that God has done all his great deeds just for me. And the gospel became what God has done to save me. The ultimate in this regard is when someone says “Had you been the only sinner in the world, God would have sent his Son just for you!” 

The sign of this approach is that we are always itching to hear this: What’s in it for me? But how does this passage help me? What is the application to me from this passage? Again, we cannot call into question the importance of our core belief that God is love or that God loves us, but instead the conversion of all things in the Bible’s message to what benefits us.

Here’s a good example: when it comes to the resurrection of Christ, the question is too often about what is the benefit? I get to go to heaven when I die or I have life eternal. But the Bible’s emphasis on resurrection is cosmic, creational and has to do with Jesus reigning (and our reigning with him). The former emphasis is what I’m calling the selfish; the latter is apostolic and biblical and traditional.

Instead of having a doxological orientation (how does this bring glory to God) or a christological orientation (what does this say about Jesus, King and Lord) or a theocentric orientation (how does this all reveal God), we too often judge whether something is good by asking selfish pragmatics: How does this help me?! The late Robert Webber, some of you will know, complained that too much of contemporary evangelicalism had gone into pragmatics, and that is what I’m calling the selfish in this post.

This is where John Piper’s emphasis on God’s glory or Matt Chandler‘s recent re-emphasis of God’s glory are dead-on right (though we ought to make this not only about God, as in Father, but also about God as Son, Jesus Christ, and it is not always clear to me that the emphasis is sufficiently christological). Here are Matt Chandler’s words:

He told crowds that many evangelicals have misconceptions about God, believing that He is really about them, that everything God does is because of them, and that “God looks at all His massive creation and is in awe of our greatness.”

But, he said, that’s where they go wrong.

“Yes, Jesus loves you; yes, Jesus is for you … but ultimately God’s motivation in all of that isn’t so you and Him can be boys.” Rather, he said, God’s real motivation is for His glory and renown.

The point I want to make is that the soterian gospel is too often an individualistic, even at times incredibly selfish and self-serving, reshaping of the Story. The Story of the Bible is about God directing all of history toward Jesus as King and toward the arrival of the New Jerusalem where God will be all in all. We join in on that, but we are not the Center of the Story. The soterian gospel makes us too much the center of the Story.

Any gospel that is not God- and Jesus- and Spirit-centered is not the full gospel and is not driven by the right categories. Any gospel that is soterian shaped is, to one degree or another, shaped by the liberal impulse to make life about good ol’ me!


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  • Mick Porter

    You are absolutely right. I’ve benefited hugely from both Piper and Chandler over the years in terms of seeing God’s glory at the heart of things. What puzzles me is why Piper is then so intent on defending the traditional soterian gospel? I cannot quite fathom how he can be so strong about God’s passion for God’s glory, yet insist that the gospel can only be good news when it’s about the individual being counted righteous.

  • Thanks, for this, Scot. Four remarks:
    1 – Entirely agree that the traditional Evangelical gospel is self-centered and, therefore, ultimately debilitating spiritually and relationally.
    2 – This self-centeredness need not be blamed on the Enlightenment. I see it as the core of medieval Catholicism which was uncritically embraced by the Reformers: what counts is personal salvation. The threat of excommunication and damnation was a powerful means of social control for centuries. The Enlightenment actually began to undermine it by encouraging critical thinking of received dogma.
    3 – Piper’s attempt to re-direct the focus to “the glory of God” is sterile and equally debilitating. His writings portray God ultimately as a self-centered being. Since the goal of the gospel is to restore God’s image in us, we find ourselves right back in the “me” place.
    4 – An alternative is to see the message of the Bible as directing its hearers to be concerned about us all, humans and all of creation. This is Jesus’ point in Matt. 25:31-46. It is all things that Christ has restored (Col. 1:16,20). Paradoxically, as we do good to each other and to the earth, we are blessing and honoring Christ unawares: “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

  • I disagree, Scot. Not so much about the problems of an individualistic ‘gospel’, but with the way you have jumped to the far extreme of ignoring people altogether. If the ‘gospel’ is only about God – Father, Son and Spirit – then you leave out salvation entirely: God doesn’t need saving, people do. The cross is meaningless if it’s just God playing games on His own. It’s not much more meaningful if it’s just God showing off – doing it for His own “glory and renown”.

    The whole story of Scripture is a story about God *and* people: from the Garden of Eden, through the fall, to the time of the Torah, and the failure of Israel and Judah to live within it; through Jesus’ incarnation as a man, his ministry, death and resurrection, to the coming of the Spirit and Jesus’ body, the Church, spreading across the world; and finally looking forward to the New Heaven and Earth, when God’s dwelling place will be among the people.

    It is true that mostly Scripture talks about people in a communal sense – plural rather than singular – so the individualism of much current teaching (pretty much across the board, so far as I can see) is a distortion. But surely any idea that the whole story is only about God, that salvation of people is irrelevant, is a far bigger distortion.

  • Percival

    Wow, Scot!
    I didn’t expect you to take Piper’s line of this one. I expected more of a Ben Witherington III approach.

    Personally, I think God’s glory is centered in His love, not His coercive power, so I don’t see that the two motivations have to be different.

    “Had you been the only sinner in the world, God would have sent his Son just for you!”

    I’ve been thinking about this idea. A complete hypothetical. It does seem self-centered to think all this is for my benefit. And more than that, it seems very individualistic. But I have two caveats.

    1) Jesus seemed to play a percentage game with two parables that were also hypotheticals. In one, a woman lost 10% of her coins (dowry?) and went to great efforts to find the lost coin.

    Then a man lost 1% of his sheep and LEFT the 99% to find it. We are only missing a .1% parable and a .01% parable to make his point. But we shouldn’t need those additions.

    2) The infinitude of God’s love does not work by percentages or numbers of any kind. Since his love is infinite, I believe that all his love is for me alone, and for everyone else as well.

  • Susan N.

    Scot, you can imagine my cynicism with the “Smile…God Loves You,” flair 😀

    Two immediate thought-responses:

    Translation: “Smile…OR ELSE!”

    And, if the front of the t-shirt says, “Smile…God Loves You,” then the back of the t-shirt should read: “How’s my driving, neighbor?”

    Sorry, just a little early morning humor to lighten the mood…

    Seriously, though, in reading Richard Beck’s ‘Unclean’ I absorbed one breathtaking truth that I have been ruminating on for a few days. As we Kingdom-people “become” what God intended, the ability to fuse our love for God with our love for people becomes one whole love, and it is in that “heart condition” where we are able to privilege mercy over sacrifice.

    I think the soterian gospel cuts both ways. It is sold as a personal “happiness” cure; and, those who are selling it tend to feel pretty good about themselves for their pragmatics.

    I am sure there is more to your point in ‘The King Jesus Gospel,’ and I will read it to gain a more thorough understanding of where you are coming from on this. Because I do have a great deal of respect and gratitude for your wisdom in these matters.


  • This got me thinking about the conversations I’ve had here and at my own blog about the distinction between selfishness/egoism and self-interest.

    Inescapably, each of is a “self.” We make decisions based on a personal set of priorities. Jesus routinely appeals to self-interest to motivate people: give and it will be given back to you in greater measure, don’t judge and you will not be judged, store up treasures in heaven and not in those things which are fleeting (which presumes we have ledger where we will end up with a positive balance.) There is a pietistic current that resists this characterization because we are to be selfless and simply do what is right. And that presses us back to the question of why I should care about doing right? Because I, as a self, have developed a priority that doing right is the highest priority and if I am to be consistent with the priority I hold, I must do … it is in my self-interest to do … what is right.

    God’s challenge is not the negation of self. It is the placement of self within a larger narrative of what is happening in the world. It is the placement of self within God’s mission and seeing that what is ultimately of value is to live in service to God and to be sent in ministry to others. When began to awaken to this larger narrative egoism recedes and our self-interest becomes aligned with the things of God.

    But enough about me and my take on this. What do you think about me and my take on this? 😉

  • scotmcknight

    BlackPhi, thanks for the pushback. It is true that my post doesn’t sketch the positive side of the gospel, but I’ve done that in my book, and in King Jesus Gospel I make it quite clear that the gospel has benefits.

    The issue in this post is what drives the gospel, and I’m contending today that the soterian gospel too often is driven by what it will do for me and the whole message is shaped to that end.

    Mark, agreed … as I said to BlackPhi, that’s another post but it is inherent to the gospel book. The gospel transforms us to love God and to love others. I don’t think Piper’s contention about the glory of God is sterile, even if it is clear he has played that one note too often.

    Percival, thanks. #2 for me obviates that singular hypothetical.

    Michael Kruse, I totally agree on self-interest, which is part of Jesus’ motivation (and in his two most important ethical statements, Jesus Creed and Golden Rule), and egoism. The two are on a spectrum and what I’m arguing is that too often the soterian gospel appeals to egoism. And placing the self in that larger narrative is the point.

  • John C

    I half-agree with the critique of revivalism, Scot – but there’s an irony. Out of the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries there emerged an intense social activism, which was anything but selfish. That’s been explored by David Hempton in his new book on the church in the 18thC – the remaking of the self through conversion created new communities and empowered individuals to reshape the world. That’s why old-fashioned soterians (Wesley, Newton, Wilberforce; the Edwardseans, the Finneyites) became abolitionists. If you want a nice example, read Equiano’s Interesting Narrative – which is both a soterian conversion narrative and an abolitionist manifesto.

  • DRT

    I agree with the comments…

    The whole glory of god thing is not much better than the glory of me concept. Hmmm, it is selfish for me to think it is all about me….so it must be all about god! Maybe a small step up the ladder.

    It is about losing oneself, and god demonstrated that quite well in Jesus. God lost himself too.

    The center, the it is not me, not god, not all of mankind, but the relationships of all. The self (none of the selfs) is the point. It is about the relationships. We are all inherently empty.

  • AT

    ‘Revivalism’ underlying message:
    Salvation is about getting to heaven
    Confess and Repent
    Accept Jesus as your personal Saviour and as God
    New concept of salvation – underlying message:
    Salvation is about God’s glory his rule, reign and freedom and him transforming the cosmos with his beautiful church

    We are saved as a community by what Jesus has done upon the cross which is a multifaceted triumph over the powers of darkness

    We are not saved by our works (as an individual or as a community)but our works are a badge of covenantal membership into God’s family.

    God transforms us in his love to share his love with others, but not totally individuals about communties who embrace Jesus and his love. ________________________________________________________

    I pretty much agree with everything you’re saying but I think it is a challenge to explain this concept of salvation to someone…I still feel that the message needs more simplicity and clarity

    How do we teach new christians how to share their communal, badge of membership, restoration of the cosmos, multifaceted atonement ….faith

    The sinner’s prayer is much simpler….

    and I don’t think the statement of ‘Love God and love others’ explains the dynamics of the mechanism of salvation…Jesus atonement

    …and yes i get that relationships are more fuzzy and not a just three-step path to heaven but i still feel that this approach of God redeeming the creation and community that he made is quite abstract

    If I put myself into the shoes of a seeker given some of these abstract depictions of redemption of the universe and God’s creation – I would still want to know the answer to the question: ‘So how do I know if I will I be in heaven (or new heaven and earth) or not?’ – I know that this is essentially a selfish question but I think it is pretty natural to ask this and to want to know a clear answer.

    what do you think…maybe there is a clear way of explaining this within your book…I think I will need to read it…

  • Craig Querfeld

    In the last two months I have been able to read The King Jesus Gospel, and Wright’s, Simply Jesus, and I have been struck with the far reaching implications that both of these books bring out on the church and discipleship. A focus on what Jesus can do for me without understanding the bigger picture of who Jesus IS makes discipleship (living under, for and with King Jesus)a lesser priority. Why would I have to do anything if Jesus has done everything FOR me?
    I was very pleased with both books with their similar emphasis. Keep going!! We need to hear this emphasis so the church can recover its fundamental mission, that of continuing Jesus’ ministry on earth.
    NT Wright spelled out the agenda for the church in his last chapter. Maybe Scot, you could write a book on the implications of The King Jesus Gospel on the Church.

  • James

    Scot–Spot on!

    This is something that has been dogging me for years, and that I’ve brought up in my teaching as well, that the gospel is so much bigger than us and our individual salvation. I don’t think the problem as that teach individual salvation and do so enthusiastically, obviously. I do think that we fail to give it its proper context in the far bigger picture of the kingdom and mission of God. We can go so far that we say things like an acquaintance did yesterday: “The mission of the church isn’t to change the world, it’s to spread the gospel.” That’s a statement which, if you read the gospel, doesn’t even make sense! Yet, it’s one I have heard many, many, many times.

    The unintended consequence of over-focusing on personal salvation and leaving out the bigger picture is that we end up with Christians are zealous to evangelize (great!), but wouldn’t dare “waste time” feeding the poor unless they think it might lead to a baptism by Tuesday. And no one should think I’m exaggerating any of these points. I’m sharing what I hear regularly from cohorts, not speculating a slippery slope.

  • Interesting post. What makes it even more interesting is that I think you and Dr. Horton would agree.

  • Good word, Scot 🙂 I’m seeing a bit clearer what you’re trying to communicate. I might use different phraseology in terms of “soterian gospel” since I believe this might be confusing to some (as it was to me initially), but your principle is absolutely right regardless. Still need to read the book! All glory to God … have a great day!

  • DRT

    AT#10 says

    New concept of salvation – underlying message:
    Salvation is about God’s glory his rule, reign and freedom and him transforming the cosmos with his beautiful church

    We are saved as a community by what Jesus has done upon the cross which is a multifaceted triumph over the powers of darkness

    We are not saved by our works (as an individual or as a community)but our works are a badge of covenantal membership into God’s family.

    God transforms us in his love to share his love with others, but not totally individuals about communties who embrace Jesus and his love.

    I don’t think about it in those terms. Here is how I do it….

    I am wandering trying to determine the meaning of life. Sure this is nice, and there are bad times too, but why? Jesus comes, is put to death and raised on the third day, therefore he is the Messiah, the annointed one. There is indeed a creator god and Jesus has shown us the way!

    You see, if someone suddenly believes that there really is a god, and that Jesus really is the one we say he is, then most people will either do the obvious thing and follow him, or be afraid and reject him.

    Salvation to me is that I have finally found the true manifestation of god that I can follow. It is clear. I was lost am now found, I am saved.

    Now yes, I do think there is live eternal and other good things will happen, but without knowing who to follow, without knowing the Jesus is Lord, I am lost. But I am now saved.

    The whole train of thought of being saved by works vs them being badges sort of misses the point. Likewise the glory of god thing misses the point. Both of those are secondary and take on new meaning if one first recognizes Jesus as the Lord.

  • Rick

    iMark #13-

    I recommend the interview Scot did w/ Michael Horton at the White Horse Inn podcast.

  • DRT

    The one other point I missed in that, by me following Jesus I necessarily become part of the community. Its not that he only saves individuals or saves the world, he is the way, and by following the way I am, by definition, part of the community. It is individual and corporate.

  • Rick
  • ChrisB

    Jesus and Paul spent a lot of time talking about personal rewards. There IS a selfish — or at least self-interest — element in the gospel. If we’ve become too self-centered, fine, say so, but we can’t pretend there isn’t some of that in the NT itself.

  • Luke Allison


    This is where Edwards is very helpful. Much of his writing deals with the issues of God’s passion for His glory as self-serving vs God’s passion for His glory as the ultimate affirmation of His love.

    Jesus is every bit the “egomaniac” God is, when He claims that He can forgive sins, that He alone can bring rest to the heavy-laden, that He is the Way, The Truth and the Life, and when He reinterprets the Law. There comes a point when we say: “Is Jesus pointing to Himself as our only means of rest or satisfaction egomaniacal? Or is it the most loving thing He could do? Would it be more loving to say: “Go and waste your life on sexual gratification and the pursuit of money. I’d like you to follow me, but I’m selfless after all.” Or would it be more loving to say: “There is nothing that will bring you satisfaction outside of me.”?

    If I said that, it would be egomaniacal. But when He says it, it is just True.

    The entire Gospel according to John is about the Father and the Son’s entirely “self-centered” love for each other spilling over into selfless love for creation.

    I don’t think we can escape the glory of God (and His own desire to see it manifest) when we read the Bible.

  • TJJ

    To me this issue is really tosides of the same coin. The evangelstic preaching and outreach to the unchurched and secular, the point of contact of the Gospel message and most lost/non-christian is the personal felt need: alienation from God and man, guilt, uncertainty/fear about eternity, despair/lack of meaning and purpose, lack of hope/peace.

    Those are intitially, and on the surface, inward personal needs/struggles that often drive men/woman to Jesus and to the cross, assisted and propelled by the Holy Spirit, by and through the ministry of the church.

    The is indeed much more to salvation than only those individual aspects to be sure, which are the things you like to emphasis in your book and in your posts. But those things are the other side of the coin which men/women need to understand and appropriate and grow into through maturity and discipleship.

    To the degree churches, pastors, ministries never move people beyond the one side of the coin, to the other, is valid and appropritate critique. But to discredit and attack the personal element as deficient is IMHO over reach and overstatement.

    Evangelism that is centered/focused on those broader themes as discussed the your book is likely to be met by most of the unchurched/secular/unbeliever as irrelevant, and with unresponsiveness.

    The jailer in Acts 16 cried out: “What must I do to be saved” His point of need was personal to him and his family and their personal needs right then and there (Not the larger issues of the Gory of God, the place of Jesus in the history of Israel, or the comprehensive eschatology of salvation in eternity and in heaven). That is the appropriate and natural starting point for most, and aligned with what we see in Acts and the NT. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, let’s acknowldge the vality of the first, and also contend for the necessity of growing into the broader themes as discussed in your book.

    Seems to me that balance here is the important thing.

  • T

    Good post. God can love us more than anyone ever has or will, but it doesn’t mean that we are somehow more worthy of love than him. However much he honors us with his notice and even care, and he does so to an unfathomable degree, he is still and always will be the most wonderful being in existence, even more because of his condescension to us.

    That said, I share the concerns that others have articulated about “God’s glory” supposedly being God’s “real motivation.” And I would add further that I think a Christologically shaped understanding of God’s “real motivation” wouldn’t be glory. Jesus laid down his glory, not just for more glory latef, though he did eventually receive that.

    But I think it’s the Trinity’s commitment to goodness, the Trinity’s love, wisdom, power, etc. that makes God *worthy* of being loved and followed. The gospel (as the story of Jesus) is exhibit “A” of that commitment to goodness, the love, wisdom and power that makes the Trinity so deserving of our love and devotion. His actions prioritize others, which leads to glory and rightfully deserving it.

  • Amos Paul

    “though we ought to make this not only about God, as in Father, but also about God as Son, Jesus Christ…”

    And God as the Spirit within us?

  • “Revivalism, and I don’t want to dismiss revivalism completely, reshaped the gospel in this direction (of “what God has done for me“).”

    This triggered a memory of someone I knew in college, who was constantly praying for revival. Although I never connected his prayers as being “selfish” before, I do clearly remembering feeling that his greatest fear was not that revival might never come, but that it might come after he had left the college, and that he might miss it….

  • “Revivalism, and I don’t want to dismiss revivalism completely, reshaped the gospel in this direction (of “what God has done for me“).”

    This triggered a memory of someone I knew in college, who was constantly praying for revival. Although I never thought of his prayers as being “selfish” before, I do clearly remembering feeling that his greatest fear was not that revival might never come, but that it might come after he had left the college, and that he might miss it….

  • Aaron

    One of the problems of the “theology of Glory” is that it makes God dependent on his creatures to be fully glorified. One of the arguments that Reformed theologians make for “Reprobation” (passing over people the grace to save them and thus decreeing them to go to hell) is that sinners have to go to hell in order for God to be fully glorified.
    So either God is not sufficiently Glorified in himself and thus dependent of his creation for Glory or he actually is fully Glorified in himself and Reprobation is not needed.

  • Lyle Mook

    Thanks Scot, I can’t help but think of the Nicene Creed and how many times it says, “For us…” There is an emphasis on us here and in Romans 8 – but as we say the whole creed, the Gospel is overwhelmingly doxalogical as well. The balance is clear.

  • Luke Allison

    Aaron #25 – “So either God is not sufficiently Glorified in himself and thus dependent of his creation for Glory or he actually is fully Glorified in himself and Reprobation is not needed”

    That’s good pushback. One of the things which took me out of the Reformed camp for eternity.

  • Kristen

    That idea of “if you were the only sinner in the world, Christ would have come and died just to save you” — doesn’t that go back to Augustine? That doesn’t mean it’s right, necessarily, but it goes way farther back than the 19th century revivals.

    I agree with those who are saying that what is needed is balance, and a whole picture.

  • God is love and triune. And the nature of that love is agape – love that wants the best of and for the beloved. The Trinity exhibits kenosis and perichoresis, and on the basis of these, on the basis of the relationship we observe in the Trinity, we have a more fully orbed understanding, imho, of what ‘God is love’ implicates – self-denial, self-giving for the best of/for the ‘other.’

    Herein, there is no affirmation that this is all about ‘me.’
    Herein is the realization that to embrace God’s love is to love as he loves – at great cost to myself, the denial of myself for the love of the other – agape.

    It has been in the loss of our focus on God as triune that we have erred, imho.

  • scotmcknight

    Kristen, never heard that one.
    Trin, I completely agree… wondering now who you might be.

  • Bill Caulfield

    Scot- We use the terms:
    selfish; self-centered and other-centered as better descriptors.
    From a human standpoint, God is dysfunctionlly other-centered.

    What u describe as Soterian selfish, we would describe as self-centered. Christians are typically self-centered individuals whose lives are occasionly punctuated with charitable acts.

  • Jon G

    “though we ought to make this not only about God, as in Father, but also about God as Son, Jesus Christ…” along with #23 “And God as the Spirit within us?”

    This is my problem. We’re talking about how the Gospel is the story of God working through the Story of Israel and culminating in Jesus. Therefore, the Israelite idea of God is crucial. Well, the God that the Israelites knew in the OT was not Trinitarian. And one must do some stretching of the text to make such a claim. I may be wrong, but I have a hard time thinking that Abraham, Moses, David, etc. all thought of God as 3 in 1 and never wrote an explicit word about it.

    Why must this Gospel necessarily have Trinitarian implications? If you believe the Trinity to be central, which I don’t, fine. But how is it that this specific Gospel Scot is suggesting MUST be Trinitarian? How would the original audience, who wasn’t familiar with a Trinitarian concept of God, have recieved this message?

    If they could understand the Gospel, without understanding Trinity, shouldn’t we refrain from making it essential?

  • @Jon, #32:
    This implies we have a *choice* as to whether Christianity is trinitarian. But the definition of orthodox Christianity is that it *is* trinitarian. It is not optional, not an issue of choice.

    The full implications of Jesus’ declaration that he and the Father were one were not realized until after his death; that does not mean they are irrelevant for the message.

    I would argue it is in our meditation on the fact that God is agape, kenotic and perichoretic in his very nature, in who he *is* and cannot not be, that we only fully appreciate the gospel – the nature of what that love is and does, what Christ is and does, what the Spirit is and does. As we begin to fathom God as triune and agape in his *nature* the gospel becomes the good news it is meant to be – reconciliation with *THIS* amazing God, who loves while we are yet sinners, who comes and seeks and saves that which is lost…such is the love of this triune one. It is this love that we then re-present to the world – a love that seeks the best of and for the beloved, i.e. all men.

    The Doctrine of the Trinity is an essential element of what it means to be Christian in the orthodox faith, and in all its richness, I think we are only the poorer for not meditating on God as such, imho.

  • Bill P. Payne

    We have pushed this corrective in our reassessment of evangelism. One does not have to hail from the Reformed tradition to say amen to this. We have also corrected an over-emphasis on friendship evangelism. The word incarnates Christ and is animated by the HS so that it gives the hearer/reader an authentic encounter with the living God. That can convict and change anyone. We need to have confidence in the preached word. We need to be bold in telling the whole story of God and not reduce the gospel to a formula with just enough information to lead a person to a rational decision for a Christ who saves from sin. Personally, I wish that classical evangelicalism would put more emphasis on incarnational evangelism and power encounter.

  • Jordan Doty

    I have noticed that when someone has come out of a church context where only one side of the gospel is being presented, they often spend much of their time overly trying to balance things by fighting for the other side of the gospel. The problem is that for anyone new coming into the discussion, all they see is that person’s emphasis on the other side of things, and storically the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth from side to side. There needs to be a balanced tension of the whole. I noticed this problem with Brian McLaren’s books as each new work shifted him further across the spectrum from personal salvation to social salvation, instead of just trying to teach the whole spectrum of salvation in God’s Kingdom.

    Scot has written wonderful books that do teach this wholistic idea of salvation in God’s kingdom, like EMBRACING GRACE, but I have noticed so many posts here lately harping on the soterian gospel and staying so far away from it that anyone new coming into the conversation is in danger of not understanding the importance of personal salvation, born again conversion, and heavenly afterlife, so that we focus primarily on community relationship, lifelong transformation, and mission now. But they are all crucially important. None of those six aspects can be taken out of the gospel. They are all present in scripture. What did they ask at Pentecost: “What must we do to be saved?” did Peter correct them? No. Repent, baptism, forgiveness, and holy spirit. Then they taught them how to live out the whole gospel of Jesus and the Kingdom, including connecting in community, growing spiritually, and acting missionally. Cornelius? Peter tells him about Jesus being Lord over all, talks about covenant with Israel, sets the worldview right with the gospel, talks about Jesus’ life and ministry and Jesus judging one day… and Cornelius’ need for Personal forgiveness. There is holy spirit, new birth, baptism,, and glorification of God. You just can’t separate these things.

    Focusing on one side rather than the other, depending on how you were raised, just keeps the pendulum swinging back and forth. I wish there were more posts that just taught the wholistic gospel as if that’s all there ever was, instead of always just trying to correct one side of things.

    The soterian gospel is one crucial element that is important to the larger whole. Instead of running from it, let’s just teach it within the context of the larger whole. The message of Jesus and the Kingdom, where God is making things right with the world, in which you can have a personal relationship with God and a community relationship with God’s people, it’s a one time decision and involves life-long transformation, it’s anticipating what God will do one day in eternity while participating now in various ways in that mission. And it all brings glory and praise to God. Sounds good? Let’s go with that.

  • Bill P. Payne

    Jordon, After Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost the people were under conviction because they saw and heard God in action. The people did not ask the question that you stated. Rather, they asked what they should do in the light of what they had seen and heard. The Rich Young Ruler asked what must I do to be saved. Instead of answering his question, Jesus invited him to become a disciple. The former is included in the latter. In my tradition, early circuit riders never had altar calls. Rather, they preached so people were awakened and desired to flee from the wrath to come. Most often, justifying grace happened via their participation in a class meeting and by means of the associated use of the means of grace. Point, make disciples and we will birth people for eternity. Preach to get people saved and the fruit will fall from the tree. Early Methodists called the problem anitnomianism.

  • scotmcknight


    I define “soterian gospel” in a particular way, and it is not the same as the doctrine of salvation. A soterian gospel equates gospel with the plan of salvation, and then reduces the gospel to that and eliminates dimensions.

    In the “Story gospel,” as I define it, everything in the soterian gospel — and much, much more — is present. It is not Story vs. salvation but Story with salvation vs. salvation with no Story.

    No one is running from anything here; we are seeking to be more faithful to the apostolic gospel.

  • Jordan Doty

    I was rather thinking about preaching the need to be born again into God’s kingdom through Jesus’ death and resurrection, which would result in a personal relationship with God and community relationship with God’s people, involving a first time decision to receive forgiveness and be born again as well as a lifetime call to follow Jesus in discipleship and partnering with God’s Spirit in transformation, and finally anticipating and praying for what God will do one day to bring in the full and final kingdom, while at the same time participating in that kingdom mission now.

    The question in Acts 2 was most certainly not only what the people experienced but also what Peter preached, and his answer right then and there was to receive God’s forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, through faith in Jesus and what He had done for them, participating in baptism and all that it means and becoming part of Jesus’ community of disciples and learning from them how to live in the kingdom (prayer, teaching, breaking of bread, fellowship, worship, etc.)

    Bill, Thank you for your very great response. I do know that there is not a one-size fits all way that every person comes into relationship with God and His kingdom, however, my thoughts were just that salvation is multi-faceted, with various groups giving particular attention to certain parts of salvation to the exclusion of others, when they all play an important role.

  • Jordan Doty

    Scot, that’s what I loved so much about EMBRACING GRACE and your other works. Still hoping to get to your newest on the King Jesus Gospel. Stated that way, I totally understand. I think that since the newest book came out and I have been reading posts on it I just haven’t gotten that same understanding from your posts, although I have been an avid reader of this site for quite a few years. Hopefully, I will be able to read that understanding into your future posts on the soterian gospel, and any others who might possibly be confused will do the same. Thanks very much for clarifying for me!

  • “It is not Story vs. salvation but Story with salvation vs. salvation with no Story.”


  • Scot McKnight

    I had a number of posts to that effect, right away, Jordan — after the book came out.

    My strategy was to pose Story over against soterian. That rhetorical posture made some think that I was posing Story over against salvation. But the book argues that the former has salvation while the latter has no Story. The latter doesn’t even need the Old Testament. A really good example of the soterian approach is Gilbert’s book; I hear better things of Matt Chandler’s book.

    The one thing that is very important for understanding my book is that the driver is not soteriology (personal soteriolgy) but christology. First christology, then soteriology. I think the soterian approach is first soteriology, and Christ is the means of the salvation. The difference is actually quite dramatic, but it is not a case of one or the other.

  • Guy Wilson

    Great dialogue among you theologians…so I review this as a layman who has at least thought some about the topic. “It’s not about you” vs(?) It’s all about you. I have often pondered the long list of Christian ‘dichotomies’ that must labeled as “paradox”. Like the argument of Armenian Free Will vs(?) predestination. My Presbyterian pastor would eventually say, I think they are both true (somehow). Ah, but when it comes to practical application, paradox can be sticky. I come down on both sides of your argument…to yield to one or the other exclusively is to lose the essence. To embrace the paradox is to worship in the wonder of the glory of God in Christ, without losing the wonder of the Shepherd who leaves the flock to seek the one lost sheep…(especially if the lost sheep is me!).
    In regard to “what’s in it for me”, I think you would enjoy the story of “The Paradoxical Commandments”…just google that, or “Anyway”….

  • Bill P. Payne

    Scot, I wish I was present when you came to Ashland. Unfortunately, I was in the Middle East. You have a large following among students and faculty. For me, what you have been articulating began to percolate in the early 90s while at Asbury. At that time, I began to align the “end goal” of evangelism with the call to make disciples. In the gospels, Jesus describes discipleship by using the organic analogy of bearing fruit. When we move away from an overemphasis on mechanical analogies (Church Growth definitions of discipleship) to organic ones, we see that evangelism is a calling to turn from the world and its rebellion and walk with God. In response to the call, one joins with God in the work of his kingdom as one is transformed by the HS in and through participation in the messianic community. Evangelism that does not lead a person into the community will lead to truncated spiritual growth (cf, parable of sower). This is a problem with deductive forms of evangelism (e.g., crusades). However, if evangelism connects a person to Christ within the context of community so the person “abides” in Christ (Jn 15), God will produce fruit in the person’s life. The divine fruit points to a right relationship and is the product of individual transformation. The message switches from get saved to align with God in the new thing that he is doing (missio Dei). This is the proto-euangelion. As one abides in Christ and lives under his leadership, one enjoys a personal relationship in this life that extends to the life to come. However, trying to use God to get to heaven without wanting to be a disciple will lead to a bad outcome. We call this “utilitarian religion.” Just some thoughts from a missiologist.

  • Susan N.

    Guy (#42) – You’ve wisely articulated much of what I have felt about these theological dichotomies. Thanks for recommending ‘Anyway, The Paradoxical Commandments.’ So true…

  • Rick Gibson

    This post actually sounds very Calvinistic, where humans are Glory or Kingdom fodder — that we exist to fill some need God has — for Glory or for subjects to rule over.

  • Bill P. Payne

    Rick, Calvinist and Wesleyan are human constructs that become a lens through which we read and interpret the Bible. In its own categories as narrative, what does the gospel present? As a Wesleyan, I believe that this post captures the essence of my hermeneutic and the prima facie meaning of the gospels.

  • Jon G

    Trin #33 –

    I don’t know if this thread is still active, but here goes anyway…

    “As we begin to fathom God as triune and agape in his *nature* the gospel becomes the good news it is meant to be”

    Ok. I can accept that this is a position that you and most of the Orthodox world holds. That is not my contention. My contention is that it seems you and Scot are placing this Triune claim in a position of “essential” to understanding the Gospel – that there is no Gospel without Trinity. And I want to push back and say, then that implies that the Jews who first heard the Gospel actually didn’t understand it because they weren’t thinking about a Trinity. Do you see where my contention lies?

    I don’t believe in the Trinity. But I still understand the Gospel that Scot is illustrating. And I don’t feel I’m losing any of it’s impact because it is God working through Israel and culminating in Jesus to put the world to rights. Adding that the 3-in-1 God is working through Israel and culmintaing in Jesus to put the world to rights…that doesn’t change the Gospel. That just changes the god in the Gospel.

    As a non-trinitarian, I’m frustrated because I feel a hermaneutic is being placed on the Scripture (which is fine and has precedence to argue for it) but then is being placed in an untouchable position where no hermaneutic should be.

    The Gospel is no richer because God is Triune (IMO). Maybe other attributes are, but the Gospel is not about triunity, it’s about healing and redemption and God restoring his relationship with Creation. By claiming it is about Trinity, you are taking a secondary claim and making it primary.

  • Jon G

    Sorry, just to follow up, Trin. You said “The full implications of Jesus’ declaration that he and the Father were one were not realized until after his death; that does not mean they are irrelevant for the message.”

    This better illustrates my point. I’m not saying it’s “irrelevant”. Obviously, if you believe in the Trinity, it IS indeed relevant. My point is that Scot seems to be making it central. In other words, you can’t have the Gospel without the Trinity. And I want to say, I have the Gospel as did those hearing the message in the first century and neither of us had the Trinity. To handcuff the two together, I think, is to overstate the point.

  • AT

    So personal salvation is still important but without the story we only have a piece of the picture.

    i am interested how this looks practically with evangelism. I think we can aknowledge that evangelism took a variety of settings and context in the NT (including scenarios to my view that somehow resembled crusades).

    Evangelism must be adaptable to community (missional) living, Large scale crowds, Churches, marketplaces, chats on the bus, Radical power evangelism involving healing and deliverance, academic lectures etc. etc

    Getting a large crowd together and sharing about Jesus – has some advantages in reaching people with the story of Jesus. Spending time one on one with a seeker for ten years before they make a ‘decision’ to surrender to Jesus as Lord has other advantages.

    How do we share the gospel ( and live it) in a variety of settings ….with honesty, with integrity, with the full story in mind…

    Also I think a lot of this discussion is quite academic…..Can anyone post some sermons that would be understood by someone who did not pass high school that teach the gospel as story in this way?

    I’m thinking the people sharing the gospel this way…NT Wright, Tim Keller etc….don’t generally have this audience as their focus.

  • Jordan Doty

    Thanks Scot for your comment at #41. That really cleared things up for me, and I do completely agree. And I have seen quite a bit of what you are concerned about in non-denominational megachuches and sbc baptist church circles when sharing faith. FAITH EVANGELISM is an example. Instead I have been trying to teach students how to share using the story of the Bible in 6 very short acts, that lead people back to the worldview and story of the Bible, so that through this lens salvation actually makes more sense to those who grew up in a post Jewish-Christian worldview. And I see a lot of Paul’s writing in Ephesians and Colossians in what you said about sharing Christology and then soteriology, leading to doxology, etc. Thanks!

  • Guy Wilson

    JonG – how did you reach a non-trinitarian belief, and where do you worship and find other non-trinitarians?

  • Mark

    Paris Reidhead saw the liberal connection to what he saw as man centered fundamentalism 50 years ago in “10 Shekels and a Shirt”. The liberal was all about the happiness of man temporallt and the fundamentalist reacted by making the gospel about the happiness of man eternally. A trip to Africa cured him of that. I highly commend it in spite of its Keswickianism.