The Central Question in Evangelism

The Central Question in Evangelism June 20, 2012

What do you think is the central, or even the most important, question in evangelism?

Here is an interview I did for CP with Napp Nazworth, who writes up a fair and accurate report of our conversation:

Evangelical Christianity has been shaped by a “salvation culture,” but should strive for a “Gospel culture,” says Dr. Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary.

“The Gospel of salvation has produced what I call a ‘salvation culture’ – a culture marked by who’s in and who’s out. So a very strong sense of ‘we are the in group and others are the out group.’ … A ‘Gospel culture’ is a culture shaped by following Jesus, by living under Jesus as King. A ‘Gospel culture’ includes personal salvation, but it includes so much more,” McKnight said in an interview with The Christian Post.

The Christian Post spoke with McKnight earlier this month while he was at the Pastorum Live conference in Chicago, hosted by Logos Bible Software. McKnight also wrote a book on the topic called The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited.

“The central question of the Bible is not, ‘how can I be saved?'” McKnight said during his presentation.

“This is the ‘me’ question. The central question of the New Testament is, ‘who is Jesus?’ This is the ‘God’ question. The ‘me’ question follows the Jesus question.

“The fundamental job of the evangelist is not to get people to feel guilty about sins, or to feel terrorized by an angry God. The central question of evangelism is, ‘who do you think Jesus is?'”

Evangelical pastors, McKnight explained in his interview, are more concerned about precipitating decisions than making disciples.

“Pastors … preach revivalistic sermons that precipitate decisions, that precipitate experience, and the result is, if I’ve had the experience, I’m in; if I haven’t had the experience, I’m not in. But more importantly, if I’ve had the experience, I’m in and I know who else is in — those who’ve had my experience. So all other people are basically off the map unless they’ve had the same experience. That’s revivalism and that has created what I call a salvation culture.”

McKnight clarified that he is not opposed to salvation, or having a born-again experience. He had a born-again experience himself. But he believes that evangelicals are so focused on that one part of the Gospel that they fail to understand whole of Jesus’ message.

This is demonstrated, McKnight believes, by how few people continue to follow Jesus after they have had a born-again experience. Ninety percent of those who grew up in an evangelical culture make decisions to follow Jesus Christ, he noted. But by age 35, only 20 to 35 percent are still following Jesus.

“What I’m arguing is that we need to have less emphasis on a message that precipitates a decision and more emphasis on a message that guides people into following Jesus.”

Some evangelicals believe “once saved, always saved,” or that once someone makes a decision to follow Christ, they are assured entry to Heaven, even if they stop following Christ. McKnight rejects this contention. Further, he says that neither Calvinists nor Arminians would make that argument.

“A Calvinist doesn’t believe in ‘once saved, always saved.’ They would not be tied into those categories. They would say, once saved, you will persevere. That ‘once saved, always saved’ is revivalist. It’s not Arminianism or Calvinism.”

McKnight noted that even in the “great commission,” (Matthew 28:19-20) the emphasis is not on getting people to make decisions, but on making disciples.

“It didn’t say, ‘go and get people to make decisions.’ It said ‘make disciples.’ How? Teaching them to observe everything I have commanded. So the goal is to get people to become disciples of Jesus by obeying all that Jesus taught.”

Getting Western evangelicals to change from a salvation culture to a Gospel culture would be difficult, McKnight believes, because the salvation culture represents a core part of evangelical identity. But the good news is that renewal is also a core part of evangelical identity.

“I do think that evangelicalism is fundamentally a salvation culture. I think that’s a major part of it. So many components, so many parts that are a simplistic, superficial, shallow salvation culture. But within evangelicalism is the capacity for renewal. This is what we believe in, in the Bible. God is at work today and He can renew us. Also, there are so many powerful examples within evangelicalism of a robust Gospel culture.”

One of those examples, he said, is reformed evangelicalism. Though McKnight is not a reformed evangelical himself, he applauds reformed evangelicals’ emphasis on a broader Gospel culture rather than a narrow salvation culture.

“Reformed evangelicalism is a robust Gospel culture. There is no shallow stuff there.”

If more evangelicals would embrace a Gospel culture, McKnight said, “we would become people who are for other people, not just conscious that we are unique saved ones. We would become people who are here to serve others, to show them the love of God. We would be concerned about fellowship with one another and a life of community that embodied the kingdom of Jesus.”

Contact:, @NappNazworth (Twitter)




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  • Rick

    Many of the comments from readers are…well…interesting. I have a better realization for the amount, and tone, of pushback you must have gotten from writing the book.

  • “McKnight clarified that he is not opposed to salvation, or having a born-again experience. He had a born-again experience himself. But he believes that evangelicals are so focused on that one part of the Gospel that they fail to understand whole of Jesus’ message.”

    Yes! Thanks for the book, Scot, and also for posting this helpful summary of what you are getting at with “The King Jesus Gospel.”

  • Kristin

    I saw the tag line “What do you think is the central, or even the most important, question in evangelism?” and immediately thought “Who is Jesus?” Ha!

  • Joe Canner

    Scot, what do you mean by “reformed evangelicalism”? From the description, it doesn’t sound like you are referring to big-R Reformed. Can you give some examples of subgroups of evangelicals that would fall into this category?

  • Rocky

    Scot, I have the same question as Joe. How do you define reformed evangelicalism and what would be an example?

  • J.L. Schafer

    As Rick pointed out, those readers’ comments on CP are troubling. It makes me realize how difficult it is for an evangelical who has never been exposed to this kind of discussion (about the nature of the gospel) to dismiss alternative views without any thought whatsoever. People really, really need to learn how to listen and reserve judgment until they understand what is being said.

  • RJS

    Rick and JL,

    The comments on CP make me appreciate the atmosphere Scot maintains here. Comments have to be moderated there is no way around it. Some here complain that their views are not respected, and I am sure we could all maintian tone better … but name calling and personal attacks are not tolerated.

  • scotmcknight

    Joe, TGC.

  • Kenton

    So, I love the fact that you and Wright (and others) are raising the question of “what is the gospel?” And I like the direction you’re both (“all”) on with your answers, but I think we need to ask the question “what is salvation?” (The “me” question.) Too much of the evangelical church has the mindset that “saved” means “saved from lake of fire to streets of gold.” Paul didn’t mean that when he wrote Eph. 2 (for one example). “Saved” has historical/cultural connotation that is largely missed. I know I’ve heard some folks address this (you, Scot?) bringing up the idea that “Caesar brought ‘salvation'”, but if you read the comments at the CP site, it’s clear that for the most part this is missed.

  • scotmcknight

    On the comments at CP — I skimmed them. Here’s what I would say back:

    I have presented a biblical argument for defining the gospel, both a method and exposition. If someone wants to say my argument is not as biblical as theirs, have at it. If someone wants to insult from a high horse of assuming they are right, I have no problem ignoring their comments. This is a big world; on the internet folks can say what they want; I’m a Bible guy and that means I want to hear what they think of my expositions and how they can make them better.

    So, I would ask, how is 1 Cor 15 not the gospel? If it is, what does that say about how we define the gospel? That’s what I care about.

  • scotmcknight

    And by the way, one more: I interrupted editing my Sermon on the Mount commentary to read those CP comments. Guess what passage I was editing? 7:1-5, “do not judge lest you be judged.”

    Kenton, I’ve done just that in both Embracing Grace and A Community called Atonement. And I think I agree with you here, but your answer is not fleshed out enough for me to know, but Yes, the commenters were mostly in the soterian mode of gospel thinking.

  • Kenton

    Yeah, I haven’t fleshed it out enough for me either. 🙂

  • Tim Marsh

    Central Question: Jesus is the Christ, the one who revealed God in his life, death, resurrection, ascension and promise to return. Now, will you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow? And the second is alike: Will you then covenant with a community of those who have also made this commitment?

  • J.L. Schafer

    Yes, I understand that on the internet, people can and will say what they want. The tone of the comments on CP is disappointing but not surprising.

    For me, the problem is this. The church to which I belong desperately needs to have a discussion about how to frame the gospel and how to read the biblical narratives, especially the OT, from a gospel perspective. But such discussions have never happened before. As I was reading those CP comments, I was imagining how members of my church would react if I were to present the gospel using the kind of language that Scot has used. It won’t be pretty.

  • P.

    Judging by the comments on that page, yes, a lot of so-called Christians are not Christ-followers. I tried to say that, but you have to be a member of Facebook to add a comment. Yes, the American church has problems.

    A culture marked by who is in and who is out – that is a problem with a growing segment of Christianity (who is chosen and who is not).

  • Bev Mitchell


    This is a great interview as is your subsequent piece on ‘Historic Baptists’. I pray that many more are introduced to your very helpful and timely book. Here is something that reflects your observations and also speaks to the current confusion over creation that also is leading to so much misunderstanding.

    Asking good questions in the right order.

    It’s a truism in experimental science, and science in general actually, that real success depends entirely on asking the right question. This is the most difficult and creative part of the whole enterprise. Scot McKnight takes this a step further in a totally different field and shows clearly that the order in which good questions are asked can be just as crucial to understanding our faith. “What must I do to be saved” is a good question out of order, for if we don’t first ask “Who is Jesus Christ?” we will always struggle with the other question. Answering the second question first delivers the answer to the first question. It’s a two-fer.

    A very similar ordering of essential questions can help us view creation issues in a more helpful manner. We read in Genesis that God created and later in Scripture that God is our Father. Perhaps because of their order of appearance in the great drama of the Bible we feel we must formulate our questions re God in this order. T.F. Torrance takes great pains to point out that, like the first two questions, it is fundamentally important to ask them in the right order. To paraphrase, we may never see God as Father if we seek him first as Creator, but if we see him first as Father, we not only unequivocally see him as Creator but we also have a much more biblical understanding of the kind of Creator he is.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Joe and Rocky (4 & 5)
    I don’t know how Scot would respond but check out the following:

    1. C. Baxter Kruger “Jesus and the Undoing of Adam” Perichoresis Press 2001
    2. Thomas Jenkins “Rediscovering the Trinity in the Local Congregation” Author House 2008
    3. Elmer M. Colyer “How to Read T.E. Torrance” IVP 2001
    4. Thomas F. Torrance “The Mediation of Christ” Helmers & Howard 1992

    I am not evangelical reformed, rather a Wesleyan bapticostal leaning toward open theism, but these guys are great. The first one is easy and inspirational, the second is well organized and great for Bible study. The third is comprehensive and the fourth a bit challenging.

    I gave 1, 2 and 4 to two very traditional Wesleyan pastors and they are still raving about what a blessing they were. No TULIP here, not a whiff.

  • KEP

    Scot, I have to admit I rarely read comments on CP any more. I appreciate your ability to dissociate yourself from such comments. (“Moron”? “Heretic”. And we are worried about the aggressiveness of some toward the US from the middle east?) I sometimes don’t know whether to be amused, discouraged, or alarmed … at the lack of thoughtfulness in expression as well as the tone. My hope is that in my experience many church people are more reflective and thoughtful than is often found in comment sections of many web postings. This site is one of the more impressive exceptions. I thank the readers and you for that!

  • “Reformed evangelicalism is a robust Gospel culture. There is no shallow stuff there.” ????

    #17: Bev – Torrance is great! And it is a great pointer that there are different varieties of Reformed thought. Let’s not forget that an anabaptist like Hauerwas likes Barth!

    I for one make a lot of use of a great deal of Reformed thought from Kevin Vanhoozer, to James K.A. Smith, to Barth, to Nicholas Wolterstorff, etc – yet I don’t classify myself as a ‘Calvinist’. However, I still need some help getting a handle on what Scot means by ‘Reformed Evangelicalism’ here. He says above in #8 ‘TGC. Does this mean ‘The Gospel Coalition’?

    If so then two questions: 1) Scot, did you not implicitly call out John Piper (a mainstay of TGC style Reformed Evangelicalism, no) for preaching a soterian ‘gospel’? 2) In your review of Matt Chandler’s (the current biggie in TGC circles) latest book, ‘The Explicit Gospel’, did you not also argue that he was also stuck in a soterian mode?

    So, I’m scratching my head a bit. I still need help understanding how Reformed Evangelicalism/TGC (which you have previously taken to task) is now representative of a gospel culture. BTW- ‘King Jesus Gospel’ is a true gift to the church.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Russell (19)

    I know what you mean about a proper definition of Reformed evangelism or evangelistic Reformed. It sort of depends on whom you ask. For example, Bobby Grow has just co-edited a book entitled Evangelical Calvinist and has a blog site by the same name. The contributors to that volume will undoubtedly give us the modern definition(s) from their perspective. 

    For me, one who strongly recoils from  Bezan Calvinism (as Calvin might well have too),  it seems that Torrance is the best example of evangelistic Reformed. Interestingly, Elmer Colyer who wrote “How to Read T.F. Torrance” is now writing a book on the Trinitarian theology of John Wesley. He says he is finding many parallels between Torrance and Wesley. Can’t wait for the book.

    Finally, in the previous post I forgot to mention Christopher J.H. Wright, currently head of the Langham Partnership International (John Stott Ministries in the US). Wright is an OT scholar and very missions oriented. His 2006 book “The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative” IVP is absolutely outstanding. If anyone wants to get their head around the big picture and be inspired at the same time – this is the book!

    Now, if the Young, Restless and Reformed, Piper Cubs, or whatever they call themselves these day really want to get with it in the context of the Reformation, why don’t they focus more on Torrance, C.J.H. Wright and others like them and show Theodore Beza the door?

  • Mark E. Smith

    I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. McKnight. We need to be calling people to follow Jesus, not get saved. Of course, in following Jesus, we will be saved. Jesus commissioned the original disciples to make disciples, not converts.