The Rhetoric of the Soterian Gospel

“The Acrobat” by Pablo Picasso

We are all familiar with the rhetoric of the church invitation.

“Accept Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”
“Make Jesus your Lord.”
“Ask Jesus to come inside.”
“Receive Jesus into your heart.”

I’m sure you could add to the list.

It is the language of the “Soterian Gospel” or the salvation centered gospel.  It is the commonly taught idea that Jesus’ primary goal was to save people from Hell so they can go to Heaven.  Of course, Jesus does save us from Hell, but I would suggest that this is not the focal point of the gospel.

I have several concerns with this language.  For starters, it has no place in scripture.  According to Frank Viola and George Barna in Pagan Christianity, talk of “making Jesus your personal Lord and Savior” came in the mid-1800s (190).  Of course, that doesn’t make it wrong.  Scripture says nothing of PA systems, guitars, or pews; that doesn’t make them wrong.  However, we should be careful to understand the implications of what these things might bring.  In this case, we should be careful to see what this language might teach people.  Some may view it as helpful in explaining what it means to follow Christ.  I, on the other hand, am convinced that the typical language used in invitations (even the invitation itself in most cases–perhaps the subject of a later blog) is counter productive and dangerously unbiblical.  Here’s why:

1) When we tell people to accept Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior,” not only do we use language of which the Bible knows nothing, but we reduce Christ’s Lordship.  Christ’s redeeming work does not center around one person.  While he is the Lord of us individually, he should not be introduced or viewed as “my personal Lord.”  American culture already breeds self-centered people.  When we introduce people to Jesus, the worst thing we can do is tell them that the gospel is all about them.  Jesus brings redemption on a cosmic scale.  All of creation is being redeemed and we are a part of that–not the center of it.  Jesus is the center of it.  The gospel tells the story of who Jesus is.  He is the Lord of all creation–not just Israel, not just Gentiles, not even just human beings.  When we tell the gospel our focal point needs to be Jesus’ universal lordship.

2) When people believe that Jesus’ primary concern is their personal salvation, following Jesus becomes a personal endeavor.  However, salvation is a community event.  We are saved and baptized into the body of Christ.  Looking at the state of the American church today should be enough evidence that we have individualized the gospel to the point where the Body of Christ looks like a Picasso painting.  No one knows their place in the Body.

3) Perhaps what gives me the most cause for concern is the call to “make Jesus the Lord of your life.”  I’m fully aware that no preacher means to go against scripture by saying this.  It is just one of those phrases that we hear growing up and it sounds nice, so we use it.  However, I’m convinced that if we consider the weight of this statement it will be altogether banished from our mouths.  Think for a moment about the implications of telling someone, “Make Jesus your Lord.”  This tells people that they have the authority to place the crown on Jesus’ head, which goes directly against scripture.  Jesus said,

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.” (Jn 17:1-2, emphasis mine)

The Father–not us–places the crown on Jesus’ head and gives him authority over all people, both believers and unbelievers.  The call to follow Jesus is the call to confess that Jesus is already our Lord.  When we confess him as Lord we declare what is already true.  We repent from following false lords and place ourselves in submission to the True Lord.

In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot Mcknight (rightly) argues that our “gospeling” (telling the gospel) is not biblical.

“The difference [between the Soterian Gospel and the gospel told by the apostles in Acts] can be narrowed to a single point: the gospeling in Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to confess their sin and find Jesus as the Savior” (133).

He goes on to say,

“…the power of the gospel is primarily in Christ’s lordship.  The reason no one’s life is being changed is that they are not concerned with confessing the lordship of Christ.  When we obsess over forgiveness of sin rather than his lordship, there is no urgency for life change” (134).

In short, the gospel told by the apostles centers on Christ’s Lordship.  It tells the story of who Jesus is rather than simply what Jesus did and what we can get out of it.  What Jesus did only makes sense when we know who he is.  Our soterian version of the gospel centers on what God can do for us.

What do you think?  Is this language misleading or helpful in leading others to Christ?  What other common phrases would you add to the list?

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9 responses to “The Rhetoric of the Soterian Gospel

  1. Tylor, could you point me to an example of a proclamation of the lordship, rather than soterian, gospel? I suppose you could point me to the kerygma proclamations of Acts, but do you know of any modern presentations?

  2. Pingback: A False Gospel + False Methods = False Believers | I'm All Booked·

  3. Tylor, I agree with everything you said; thanks for clarifying. In my attempts to contrast the typical invitation that goes out, I made the mistake of trying the briefly sum up the call of the Gospel, but of course that’s not all that needs to be told an unbeliever. And I certainly don’t want to misrepresent Walter Chantry.

    Chantry points out in “Today’s Gospel” that the first thing a person needs to know is who God is (esp. His holiness). We can’t assume that a lost person knows God as He has revealed Himself in scripture. Many people have an idea of God that is a caricature and a god of their own imagination. We must also teach them who Jesus is (not just a good moral teacher, etc. but holy God incarnate). And they need to know how we have offended Him – “for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). This is the “You are a sinner” part of the message. I do see the message, “Repent and believe” as the Gospel call in scripture: for example, Acts 2:38-40, 3:19, 10:42-43, 13:38-39, 26:20. Then, by the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, may they come to the conclusion: “To whom shall we go?” “for there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved.”I think one issue to consider is that, if we are not careful how we present the Gospel, individuals will come to God solely for what He can do for them, not for what they owe Him as their Creator and King – submission and worship.

  4. Great article! The true Gospel message is not, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. All you have to do is receive him.” It’s: “You are a sinner. God saves sinners. Jesus died for sinners. Repent and believe!” And believe doesn’t mean to just make an intellectual assent but to trust, obey, follow. A good book on this topic is “Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic?” by Walter Chantry.

    • Thanks for reading! I agree with the statement you made. However, I would argue that it is still not the gospel, only part of it. What you wrote is still a Soterian (salvation centered) Gospel rather than a Jesus centered gospel.

      Mark’s gospel begins with the words, “The beginning of the gospel,” and then he starts with the prophet Isaiah. Matthew starts with Abraham. Luke starts by showing how John the Baptizer and Jesus’ birth fits into the Old Testament and then gives a genealogy leading all the way back to Adam. John begins “in the beginning.”

      The statement you made is not found in the gospeling of the apostles. If our gospel has nothing about God’s work in the people of Israel and his lordship over all things, then we have not told the complete gospel. We need to reveal the person of Christ; only then will our sins and his sacrifice make sense.

      I would encourage you to read “The King Jesus Gospel” by Scot Mcknight. His quote sums up my argument well:

      “The difference [between the Soterian Gospel and the gospel told by the apostles in Acts] can be narrowed to a single point: the gospeling in Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to confess their sin and find Jesus as the Savior”

      Blessings

  5. Derek, I think you’re right. From my understanding, the Reformers emphasized the need for individuals to accept the gospel because of the way the Church created nominal “Christians.” I agree wholeheartedly that people need to understand that they must, as individuals, believe and confess Christ as Lord. However, just because the individual believes and is saved, it doesn’t mean that it is a personal endeavor or that Jesus is their personal Savior. That is where I take issue.

    Joe, I agree with pretty much everything you said. However, I don’t see a problem with using “OUR Lord,” since it is used pretty often in the New Testament. Other than that I think you are dead on. Also, you misspelled my name. 😉

  6. It is funny, I have seen people emphasize the idea of Christ as Lord but still in the same error the “Soterian” language falls into. It’s kind of hard for modern, Southern, and churchy minded people to grasp the subtle thesis of what your saying. To no offense to Derek, the real shift doesn’t go from changing from individual to communal. I don’t think that’s what you were saying nor does it bring to light the nature of “gospel.” The shift happens when preaching is expressing Christ as the fulcrum of the God of Jacob’s redemption of all people rather than trying to show how or why that means something to their audience. In other words, salvation and lordship for the community or individual are implications but they are not the proclamation. To illustrate this, think about changing the language from Christ is OUR Lord to Christ IS Lord. The narrative of (or the reality of) the Creator and His Son Jesus of Nazareth is the gospel; His Lordship of us, our Community, and our salvation are the implications of that narrative. Tyler, would you say that’s a clearer wording?

  7. I think this problem arose as Christians were trying to help people understand that this gospel is accepted by each individual. In a society that was largely Christian it was probably more necessary to emphasize that the Gospel is something to be accepted by each individual. Being a part of a group of Christians doesn’t make you a Christian in other words. I agree that at the very least it has outlived it’s usefulness in today’s American culture and we need to shift to emphasizing the community of the Church. I also agree that we focus far too much on Christ as Savior and not enough on Christ as Lord.

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