The Anthropocentrism of the Personal Afterlife Insurance Gospel

I’m at the Missio Alliance conference. Just heard Scot McKnight talk about the distinction between iconic (God-revealing) and idolatrous (us-reflecting) ways of talking about the gospel. He finds a really rich summary in Revelation 1:5 which I may cover later. But I wanted to dash out a quick post on an insight he gave me about what he calls the “soterian gospel,” or salvation as personal afterlife insurance.

McKnight was talking about how every Biblical statement can have an iconic or idolatrous interpretation. He was looking at Revelation 1:5, where it says Jesus is the “faithful witness.” The idolatrous twist on this is to make the gospel about my witness, i.e. the personal conversion story that’s ubiquitous in evangelicalism. An iconic gospel ministry is a kingdom nursery; an idolatrous gospel ministry is a conversion factory.

It’s sometimes hard to spot the versions of the gospel that have been constructed around replicating a commodified personal conversion experience because they say a lot of pious things about God as a sort of smokescreen. Paul had an amazing encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road, but he would be very opposed to turning this encounter into the template for the gospel instead of the cosmic proclamation of his king in whom and for whom all things exist. Any church that has an altar call every week (instead of Eucharist) and sends its members out to convert people on the sidewalk (instead of engaging in patient discipling and catechesis prior to their initiation into the body of Christ) is working with a Damascus Road gospel built off of the believer’s conversion experience instead of the Lordship of Christ.

It just seems suddenly obvious to me that a gospel which calls the believer’s “justification by faith” the whole or even center of the gospel is thoroughly anthropocentric. It doesn’t make it theocentric to talk endlessly about God’s wrath and say that the conversion experience serves the purpose of “glorifying God.” That’s just camouflage. When we do that, we’re addressing an anthropocentric need for the personal experience not to feel too “easy” so that we can have the satisfaction of bashing other personal experience gospels that aren’t as tough as ours is. If the individual conversion is the centerpiece of the gospel, then it’s about personal experience, no matter how we dress it up, and that’s anthropocentric.

If we’re to be a kingdom nursery rather than a conversion factory, then our proclamation must be sharing that the most beautiful man who has ever lived is the king of the world and he is completely the opposite of every corrupt political leader we’ve ever had and the world he creates is the opposite of our life-sucking world that oppresses the privileged and marginalized alike and this king is actually the divine Son and complete revelation of the invisible God. The good news is what we learn about God and the nature of the world through the person of Jesus both in the testimony of the Bible and in our real relationships today with the resurrected Christ whose interactions with humanity didn’t stop when the canon was closed, because if he really is resurrected and reigning right now, then why would he have stopped talking?

Does this involve conversion? Absolutely! He says follow me. Does it involve Jesus paying the price for our sins? Of course! So that we can throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. But the point is to be the symphony of worship that declares the universe’s king. Taking a seat in that orchestra is itself the consummation of all of our vocations and desires as icons of God. So the question we should be asking in our evangelism is not “Have you had your legitimate conversion experience yet because I can help you do that?” but rather “Do you want to come to the greatest party that has ever happened? The guy hosting it is so awesome that I can’t stop talking about him.”

20 thoughts on “The Anthropocentrism of the Personal Afterlife Insurance Gospel

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  6. Morgan,

    Just awesome dude! As one who has devoured just about everything N.T. Wright has written, and as a result experienced a profound dissonance with the soterian ‘gospel’ that I grew up with – McKnight’s ‘King Jesus Gospel’ helped me to be able to give a more focused voice to this dissonance and inclinations I had already felt.

    Your statement, “It just seems suddenly obvious to me that a gospel which calls the believer’s ‘justification by faith’ the whole or even center of the gospel is thoroughly anthropocentric” hits the nail on the head for me. This is one of the thoughts I’ve had for quite a while but that McKnight’s book helped me focus. I have a neo-Reformed friend (whose really big on John Piper) and I’ve contended with him this very thing, that standard Reformed soteriology is thoroughly soterian and anthropocentric. My friend tries to tell me that neo-Calvinism avoids this because it has a ‘big God and a small man’, but I can’t get him to see its not the size of ‘man’ here that matters, its that ‘man’ no matter how small is still in the center.

    And here there are three final points I think are important: 1) Its seems odd to me to place ‘justification by faith’ at the center of the gospel or to collapse the gospel completely into ‘justification by faith’ when the NT does not do so not is it the center of Paul’s theology (cf: N.T. Wright, also Michael Gorman poses theosis as the goal of Paul’s narrative soteriology), 2) I think we need to consider that while the NT and Apostle Paul certainly have a doctrine of justification by faith, it was not simple shorthand for the gospel (more like an outworking) nor is the Reformation doctrine of justification directly identical with it, and 3) the contemporary anthropocentric soterian ‘justification by faith’ is simply the other end from the anthropocentric doctrine of total depravity that serves as the starting point. Rather than the starting point being the Kingdom of God, King Jesus (ie, Jesus as Messiah and Liberator in fulfillment of the story of Israel), Incarnation, what McKnight calls the Story gospel, or union with God – the soterian ‘gospel’ begins with ‘man’ (depravity) and ends with man (justification as individualist ‘salvation’) – anthropocentric from start to finish.

    Peace and blessing.

  7. You were at South Main? I was in the Houston Children’s Chorus as a kid, and we sang and rehearsed at South Main Baptist a few times. My husband spent some of his growing up years at First with his grandparents. I was at Forest Cove Baptist, in Kingwood in the 90’s. Spent high school learning how the BGCT were shameful liberals who don’t really believe the Bible. Small world much?

    • Haha. My grandpa was one of the delegates who voted the BGCT out of the SBC. He was a regent at Baylor. I used to get to watch the football games on the sidelines. He taught me all about Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler and the fundie takeover when I was about five. I think when you grow up in a moderate SBC family, you’re a lot more virulently anti-fundamentalist, then if you grow up liberal. Are you still in Texas?

      • Yep, still in Texas- just north of Spring. I taught high school English in Cut’n’Shoot, which was the beginning of the cracks in my conservative/resurgence worldview. Then I started reading Rachel Held Evans, and all the shattered pieces began to coalesce again into something I could live with. As a recovering SBT’er who is NOT reform, but still believes in actual Jesus’ actual resurrection, finding a church was hard, especially with a young family, and it was actually a conversation I had with you on immigration reform and wanting the best for our former students that made me think to try a few more Methodist churches. We landed in an unbelievably good place- Faith UMC, and I just had lunch yesterday with the first female minister (of anything but children or preschool) I’ve ever known in real life. I’m learning so much, and it’s a safe place to ask questions.

        Sorry for hijacking, but it’s not that often that I meet someone else who cut their teeth on the weird, internecine goings-on of the Southern Baptists in Texas in the bad old days of the split!

        • Not hijacking at all. I remember that conversation. God is good. I was surprised to find out that Methodists actually read the Bible; we weren’t told that growing up.

      • Morgan – My wife and I have friends on staff at South Main in Houston. We also did our chaplaincy residencies in Houston – my wife did two years and I did one before we had to leave due to a serious downturn in her health (related to the toxic mix of her fibromyalgia and Houston heat/humidity).

        We also grew up SBC. My wife’s dad is a very conservative SBC pastor in NM – and it doesn’t help things that our church in Abilene during our MDivs at Logsdon Seminary ordained us both in a joint ceremony (affiliated w/the BGCT). Add that to the fact that I/we no longer fit the ‘traditional’ Baptist church, he no longer asks me to preach at his church any more when we visit.

        My spiritual journey has been a bit circuitous and I was fortunate to have a traditional Baptist mentor in my high school and college days who was like a father too me and still encouraged me to never stop asking questions. I’m sort of a postmodern Bapto-catholic (or Episcobaptist according to some) with a love of liturgy. In our journey we haven’t always been welcome in our fellow Baptist churches. We’re thankful for the Methodists who have let us hang out with them when we needed a place.

        Back in Abilene currently, recovering from the disorientation of my wife’s health disability (hoping the drier climate would help, it didn’t all that much), but also anticipating a move to Scotland in the fall.

        PS – I met Paige Patterson once when I was at SWBTS. Once was enough for me, just saying.

  8. This is good stuff, Morgan! Growing up in Texas in the SBC, soterian gospel is the water you swim in. I am just now beginning to have a vocabulary and conception of anything beyond it.

    • I grew up at South Main Baptist in Houston. They’re probably more of a CBF leaning church, but back in the 80’s, there was no CBF. So I know the territory; it’s my first language.

  9. As someone who’s lost sleep talking about (and clashing over…) a bunch of stuff that was ultimately about the soterian gospel: thank you for giving it a name. Thank you so much.

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