Evangelicals Should Be Gospel Centered, Not Salvation Centered, Theologian Says

Evangelical Christianity has been shaped by a "salvation culture," but should strive for a "Gospel culture," says Dr. Scot McKnight, professor of religious studies 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.

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"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."


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