There is has been a growing angst among evangelical Christians for the last several decades over the question of salvation. The angst takes several different forms. It shows up in questions about whether modern American evangelical Christianity looks more like Paul than like Jesus. It shows up in tense debates over substitutionary atonement in relationship to other understandings of Christ's work on the cross. It shows up in the questions about the goal of salvation. (Is the ultimate goal of salvation to get people to heaven or to redeem the creation)? In the Church of the Nazarene (and other Holiness traditions) the tension shows up in the on-going conversations about the relationship between justification and sanctification.
There are other manifestations of the angst that could be pointed to, but the root issue or question is the same: What is the good news of the Gospel? Or to say it another way: What do Christians mean when they invite people to be "saved"?
There are many books that have tried to address this question. Dallas Willard addresses the question in both The Divine Conspiracy and in The Great Omission. NT Wright has taken on the question in books like Justification, Simply Christian, Surprised by Hope, and his most recent book Simply Jesus. As I look at my book shelf and the three piles of books on my floor waiting to be read, I count somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty or forty books that are trying to address the question of the Gospel under the assumption that at least part of what American Christianity has been advocating as the good news is at least partly incomplete (if not outright distorted).
A very gifted writer and thinker - Scot McKnight - also takes on this question in his latest book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. Scot may be the king of the theological bloggers and I frequently find his insights helpful. So I'm not surprised that I found his most recent book The King Jesus Gospel very thoughtful and helpful. The book is not very long and is written at a level that most lay people will find accessible. I think it will be a nice book for small groups to wrestle with.
Scot's main concern is that the contemporary church has become what he calls a "salvation culture" rather than a "gospel culture." A salvation culture is fixated on the question "who's in and who's out"? A salvation culture, argues McKight, separates salvation from the gospel.
The key to overcoming this divide, for Scot, is rooting the "plan of salvation" into the larger story of God's redemption in the world. He argues that there are four big categories or themes given in the Scripture. The primary story is the story of God's redemptive work in the people of Israel. The story of Israel not only tells us what is wrong with the world, but it gives us the vision for a renewed creation and the trajectory of God's plan of redemption.
The second big category is the story of Jesus. The story of Jesus is embedded within the story of Israel. This is the primary reason why the early church refused to get rid of the Old Testament. But it is clear when one reads each of the four Gospels that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are clearly retelling the story of Jesus within the categories and themes of the story of Israel. Jesus is the completion of the story of what God was doing in Israel and apart from that story the story of Jesus makes little or no sense.
The third big category is the plan of salvation. This is the key idea for Scot. The plan of salvation cannot be removed from its location within the story of Israel and Jesus. When one is "saved" one does not just simply cognitively affirm a few ideas about God and his Son Jesus, one enters into the story of God's redemption and salvation as it is revealed in the stories of Israel and Jesus.
The last big category for Scot is then the method of persuasion or evangelism that flows from those first three categories. If salvation is not simply convincing someone of a few ideas (or a few spiritual laws) but inviting someone to enter into God's redemptive story, then our methods of evangelism must flow from those stories. In particular, I believe this is why a re-affirmation of baptism as a means of receiving salvation is so critical. In baptism the new believer leaves behind their former story, former life of sin, and their former story and enters by faith into God's story, God's new life, and God's redemptive story.
Scot goes on to demonstrate biblically how the preaching of both Peter and Paul reflect a "gospel culture" and not just a "salvation culture." I particularly appreciated the last sections of the book that address how a church can begin to form and reflect a gospel culture.
If you are looking for a good introduction to many of the important conversations going on regarding salvation today, or are looking for a good small group book for discussion. As always, Scot McKnight gives the church a really nice resource for helping us live into the mission God has given us.