I read a couple of old articles this week responding to Scot McKnight’s book [amazon:978-0310492986:inline] from a Reformed perspective: Scot McKnight and the “King Jesus Gospel” 2: Points of Concern by Trevin Wax, and What God Has Joined Together: The Story and Salvation Gospel by Luke Stamps. Both agree with McKnight’s insistence that the gospel cannot be understood apart from the story of Israel, which I think is a pretty clear indicator of the impact that the narrative-historical hermeneutic has had on traditional evangelical/Reformed thinking. But they are troubled by the claim that the “plan of salvation” is not part of the gospel. They think that McKnight has overstated his case, in Stamps words, “by separating the story of Israel from the promise of personal salvation”.
What strikes me about the critique is that the final position is structurally much the same as McKnight’s: the story of Israel finds fulfilment in Jesus, then we have personal salvation in Christ. The only difference is that whereas McKnight wants to associate the term “gospel” with the narrative part of the formula, Stamps and Wax would prefer to keep it with the theological part, as you would expect from the Gospel Coalition.
The problem is that this is a hybrid model. It’s a mash-up. The significance of Jesus with respect to Israel is determined narratively. The significance of Jesus with respect to the world is determined theologically—or more narrowly, soteriologically. Stamps even manages to locate the shift in Matthew 13, where the gospel which tells the story of Israel supposedly becomes the gospel of “personal trust in Jesus”. Nonsense. The story of Israel becomes a matter of personal trust in Jesus.
This is simply a compromise, a concession to the dominance of the theological paradigm; and I would suggest that in the long run it won’t work. If historical narrative takes us up to Jesus, then historical narrative can take us on from Jesus to the present day and beyond—and I think it will give us a much clearer understanding of the relation between gospel, the story of Israel, and personal salvation.
What has the gospel got to do with the story of Israel?
The Greek word euangelion (“gospel”) denotes the public proclamation of good news. The related verb euangelizō means “to proclaim good news”. To give a concrete example from the Greek Old Testament, following the death of Saul and Jonathan, David lamented:
Tell it not in Gath, and proclaim (euangelisēsthe) it not in the exits of Ascalon, lest daughters of foreigners rejoice, lest daughters of the uncircumcised exult. (2 Sam 1:20 LXX)
He did not want messengers going to the Philistines to proclaim the “good news” of the defeat. To “evangelize” was to tell people that something significant had happened.
Or was about to happen….
Isaiah imagined Jerusalem as a messenger who would proclaim the good news (euangelizomenos) to the cities of Judah that the God of the whole earth was about to come and deliver Israel from its captivity (Is. 40:9). He also pictured the messenger who would run across the mountains to proclaim the “good news” (euangelizomenos) to Jerusalem that YHWH reigned and would soon return to Zion to restore the fortunes of his people (Is. 52:7).
This is exactly the sort of prophetic announcement that Jesus made when he came to Galilee and said, “The time is fulfilled and the reign of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:14-15). The good news was that God was about to act sovereignly as king, he was about to intervene decisively in the history of Israel. Hold on to that.
It subsequently became apparent to the early church that the key moment in this intervention was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead—not as an isolated metaphysical or cosmic event but as a political-religious game-changer. Sovereignty over both Israel and the ancient world had been transferred from the true and living God to his Son, who would be judge and ruler of the nations. What Paul then did was take this message about what God was doing in and through his people first to the Jews of the diaspora and then, when the Jews rejected it, to the Gentiles.
So the gospel was a public announcement about an event in the history of Israel that was found to have massive implications for the peoples of the Greek-Roman world. If you take it out of that narrative context, it is simply not the same gospel—just as the American declaration of independence, for example, makes sense only in the context of the particular historical narrative of the emergence of America as a nation.
Then it was a matter of how individuals would respond to the particular historical announcement….
What did it mean for individual Jews or Gentiles in the New Testament period?
Jesus and his disciples proclaimed to the Jews that God was about to intervene sovereignly in the affairs of his people to deliver them from the consequences of their rebellion and to give them life. The response they sought from individuals was that they should repent and believe this proclamation. Some Jesus then called to follow him and become part of the evangelistic team, but that was a secondary response. Primarily, he urged Jews to abandon a broad road leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and find a narrow path of loyalty to YHWH that would lead to life.
So the gospel was the announcement about the coming kingdom of God. Salvation for Israel depended on the response of individual Jews to this message.
The situation for Gentiles across the empire was obviously different, but the basic arrangement was the same. Individuals became part of communities that had this conviction in common: they believed a story about Jesus; they believed that the true and living God had raised his Son from the dead and that he would come in glory to deliver them from persecution, defeat their enemies, and judge the nations. Because they believed this, they received the Holy Spirit, became part of this renewed community of the people of God, and waited for God to do what he had said he would do.
So again, the gospel was a public announcement made to the nations regarding the political-religious implications of Jesus’ resurrection. It was good news that Jesus had been made Lord. It was good news that judgment was coming on pagan Rome. The “salvation” of individual Gentiles was what happened when they believed the announcement and acted accordingly—that is, they repented of and abandoned the pagan way of life and learnt to serve the true and living God.
Does the same gospel speak to us in the same way today?
One of the historical consequences of the long story of the people of God is that any person today, regardless of race, gender, or status, can enter into a relationship with the true and living God as a member of the renewed family of Abraham. Is that good news? Of course it is. Is it the good news that Jesus proclaimed to Israel under Roman occupation? No. Is it the good news that Paul proclaimed to a world sharply divided between Jews and Gentiles, a world dominated by the old pagan gods? No. But it is certainly one of the outcomes of this narrative.
Is it the best way of summing up the significance of the story of God’s people for the world today? Probably not.