How Evangelicals Hear the Gospels Wrongly

There is much to say about N. T. Wright’s claim that evangelicals, among other Christian groups, misread the Gospels.

It seems to me that one factor that fosters such a misreading is that the gospel as entrance formula orients evangelical culture and theology.  Evangelicals are all about personal conversion—that transaction whereby someone becomes a Christian person.

Evangelicals historically have emphasized that transaction’s importance more than anything else—in popular preaching, training for participation in ministry, teaching on discipleship relationships, and even theological reflection.

We read Scripture, therefore, through the lens of that central concern, emphasizing passages that seem to speak about that transaction.

Over the decades, that focus and those discussions shape our vision so that we tend to see only these things in Scripture.  We imagine that personal conversion is the central thrust of the Bible—its main topic.  We might say that “this is what the Bible is all about,” and we regard the material in the Bible as more or less important depending on its relation to “the most important decision you’ll ever make.”

The problems with this are manifold, and Scot McKnight has argued that this isn’t a faithful reading of the New Testament in his The King Jesus Gospel.

My point here is simply that this historic evangelical emphasis is one reason we have misread the Gospels.  We have turned them into something that they are not.  We encounter them with expectations of what we should find there and we thereby fail to hear them for what they are actually saying.

The Gospels tell the story—in four wonderfully distinct ways—of Jesus in relation to Israel and the nations, how he redeems and completes the story of Israel, fulfilling its hopes and expectations.

The Gospels most definitely address the question of how individuals and communities can participate in the God of Israel’s redemptive move in Jesus.  But personal conversion and entrance transactions are not the Gospels’ main concern.

There are good historical reasons for this evangelical emphasis, but we would do well to understand the meaning and importance of conversion within the context of the larger story of Scripture.  That includes first understanding the Gospels on their terms and only then reflecting on how we regard personal conversion.

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16 responses to “How Evangelicals Hear the Gospels Wrongly

  • greenstephen

    Dr. Gombis,

    I listened to you speak on the Trinitarian life of God and read several books you recommended on the topic. I have also enjoyed your reflections on both Mcknight’s and Wright’s work describing the Gospel through the OT context as Jesus is King, Messiah, and Lord.

    My question, which I have been wrestling with recently, is this: how does the kingship of Jesus relate to adoption into the Life and Love of God through union with Christ?

    It seems to me that these two themes (kingdom, union/God dwelling with his people) dominate the bible’s storyline. They are present in Genesis and Revelation, Israel’s story, the Gospels, and the New Testament life of believers. Yet, I haven’t read anyone reconciling the two, which is probably because I’m not that widely read.

    My own somewhat unformed answer would be something like this: the essence of our sin is autonomy from God; we refuse to be ruled by or relate to him. Thus, the Gospel announces a re-uniting King.

    • timgombis

      Wright hits on that a bit in his last book, Simply Jesus. They’re actually separate metaphors, so Kingdom is the redemptive space we inhabit by being subjects under the reign of the self-giving King. But another way of saying that is that we are also the Temple of the Living God–the entire church is the space inhabited by God himself. But we also inhabit God, so there’s that unity between God and his people, a reality that both metaphors inform and speak to, but in slightly different ways.

  • joey

    I do think we have come to read the Gospels (and all of scripture?) as command/response documents, rather than as a People-shaping Story. The so-called “great commission” is a prime example. Reading Matthew 28 as the fulfillment of Israel’s story (with, say, Daniel 7 in view), the “great commission” is seen as something different than a 21st century call for “evangelism.” Jesus is not just a Jewish Messiah – he’s a Messiah for “all the World.” He now rules all the world, and he “conquers” by baptism and discipling. (Maybe something like that)

    • timgombis

      Yes, exactly, Joey! I was thinking the other day about that text being one that is often preached, but the thrust of it is missed, and it isn’t ever set within the wider context of Matthew, with Matthew’s narrative set within the larger Scriptural story. So it becomes a “banner” text for our own method of evangelism and convert-making rather than the longer ranger project of disciple making.

      • joey

        I would love to see you develop this text for us. I appreciate so much that you are a “church-man” scholar.

  • S Wu

    I am with you, Tim. And “greenstepen” and Joey, thank you for your contributions. I find the conversation in this post and the last one very encouraging.

    I have been wondering about the “method” of doing theology. If we start with a theological position, say, personal salvation, and then go to the Bible to find evidence for that, it’s likely that we end up making (parts of) the Scripture say what we want to say. But a better “method” seems to be one that starts with the Scripture. In my reading of the biblical stories, I do end up with a version of “personal salvation” – one that is intrinsically connected with the Christ-community. But I have arrived at this theological position not because I started with it. Rather, as I enter into the biblical stories, I find myself journeying with the people of God in the Scripture, and in doing so I enter into a personal faith in Christ which has everything to do with the body of Christ. (And this so-called personal faith might have started with a communal faith anyway.)

    • timgombis

      Same with me, S. Before I went to seminary–and during, and after–I just read and read and read the Bible. I always wondered why we emphasized certain parts and not others. And why we only hit certain texts in shaping our understanding of doctrine(s), and not others. I didn’t get this because I thought “evangelical” meant that we didn’t have a take on things–we were just biblical!

      • S Wu

        Thanks, Tim. I got to a point where I was totally confused about what “evangelical” meant. I am still confused…

  • tanyafleenor

    I’m new to your blog, and this whole idea, but this resonates.

    Perhaps this emphasis on “whew, I’m in!” is what has kept many evangelicals (and I must in many ways count myself as one) from going deeper. Either from not feeling the need to, or ignoring the promptings from God to seek Him further (guilty on both counts).

    I totally agree that the whole point of Scripture is NOT salvation. Rather, Jesus said we are to Love God and Love Each Other, these are the two greatest commandments, and on these the whole Law and prophets hang (my paraphrase of Matthew 22:37-38).

    • leadhand

      I agree that evangelicals (and I am unabashedly one) tend to miss the point sometimes, but I think it comes from a stunted view of salvation. We tend to think of it is strictly the moment of justification ignoring the fact that salvation more than that moment. Salvation encompasses the calling of God (however we wish to define that) and the moment of justification. It also includes the process of sanctification (which includes our lifestyle, our relationships with God and others and what we do with the Word in terms of personal application) and our eventual glorification. Our view of the gospels, indeed, of much of Scripture is skewed by our lack of understanding about salvation. I would argue that the point of the gospels is indeed salvation albeit in a broader sense than we typically think.

  • Cornel

    I believe in personal conversion, or from John 3, 4x in the words of Jesus: You must be born again!

    • timgombis

      I’m affirming it, too, but it is best set within larger theological narrative threads in Scripture, and especially within the Gospels.

    • joey

      Yes, personal conversion – though I think that even John 3 doesn’t have the individual only in mind. What God is up to is not the saving of a mass of individuals. He has a People in mind and an entire cosmos. The Gospel is for the individual but not individualism.

    • S Wu

      Yes, Cornel, like Tim and others, I want to affirm personal conversion too.

      • leadhand

        We can often overemphasize personal conversion in some ways, yet without personal conversion the rest of Scripture is moot. Without conversion we cannot even understand the Scriptures properly because they are spiritually discerned.

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