December 3, 2020

The Magnificat vs. Today’s Gospel (1)

Madonna of the Magnificat, Botticelli

Scot McKnight ran a post earlier today called, “Justin Holcomb and the Soterian Gospel.” In it, he commented on a piece by one of the pastors at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, designed to answer the question, “What Is the Gospel?”

McKnight rightly commends Holcomb for an excellent presentation of a certain kind of “Gospel” teaching — “Justin Holcomb says many things here that I would agree with: a focus on Jesus, a telling of the whole life of Jesus (including his teachings, etc), substitutionary atonement;  he affirms the focus of the gospel is not about us but about God; he states the gospel makes us right and transforms. I like that he says we never move ‘beyond’ the gospel.”

As fine a summary as Holcomb’s article is, it represents what Scot has called a “soterian” approach to the Gospel in his book, The King Jesus Gospel. A primary purpose of the book is to point out that this way of defining the good news is biblically and theologically inadequate.

Here is a sample of Holcomb’s Gospel:

Christian theology is about the gospel, which is focused on who Jesus is and what he said and did. Jesus is the hero of history and the centerpiece of the entire Bible.

God made us to worship him. He was our Father, living and walking among us, giving us everything we needed to live, and yet we chose to sin against him—a cosmic act of treason punishable by death. As a result, we were separated from God, and we try to be our own gods, declaring what is right and wrong, and living life by our own standards.

Despite our pride and ignorance, Jesus, who created the world and is God, lovingly came into human history as a man. He was born of a virgin, and he lived a life without sin, though he was tempted in every way as we are. Because of his great love for us, he went to the cross and took on the punishment of death that we justly deserved. Before his death and after his resurrection, he preached that the good news of God’s kingdom, love, promise, forgiveness, and acceptance was fulfilled in him, in both his life and death.

Our first parents in the garden substituted themselves for God, and, at the cross, Jesus reversed that substitution, substituting himself for sinners.

This soterian Gospel, in contrast to the “King Jesus” gospel, is good news presented as a personal plan of salvation. It ignores the narrative context of the Gospel, separating it out from the Story told in the Old Testament, and presenting it as a bare theological message about God, sin, Christ, and redemption. One of the consequences of this is that the message usually skips right from Genesis 3 (Fall) to the New Testament (Jesus). Did you see how Holcomb did that? Note his last sentence again: “Our first parents in the garden substituted themselves for God, and, at the cross, Jesus reversed that substitution, substituting himself for sinners.” Straight from Genesis to the Gospels, from the Garden to the Cross.

As Scot McKnight says,

This skipping of Israel’s Story is why there’s no concern in this gospel that Jesus is the Messiah/King, no concern for how God works in human history, no redemption of creation, and no new heavens and new earth. The Bible’s message is reduced to salvation, but there’s more to the Bible’s Story than that.  There’s not enough Old Testament Story in this sketch … the “according to the Scriptures” theme of the gospel statement of 1 Cor 15 (and the sermons in Acts, and the Gospels) is not given adequate grounding.

I want to point out that this is the most significant difference between the soterian gospel and the Story gospel of Jesus and the apostles. I do not believe this is a matter of “We can’t cover everything” but an issue of how to tell the Story that the gospel resolves.

I agree wholeheartedly with Scot, and want to expand upon these thoughts over the course of this week.

So, in preparation for Christmas, we will share a few articles on Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). In this song of praise, Mary proclaims the Gospel. As we will see, it is no mere “personal plan of salvation,” no “steps” by which we find peace with God, no “bridge” to reconciliation with God, no set of “laws” or principles by which we must make a decision. Mary’s song proclaims the climactic moment in a Story, the resolution of issues larger than my personal sin, a hope that stretches beyond the bliss of heaven.

I encourage you to read and meditate on the Magnificat as we prepare to discuss it in days to come.


  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Did you see how Holcomb did that? Note his last sentence again: “Our first parents in the garden substituted themselves for God, and, at the cross, Jesus reversed that substitution, substituting himself for sinners.” Straight from Genesis to the Gospels, from the Garden to the Cross.

    Not much distance from that sort of “cut to the chase” to the brutal doctrine of Penal Substitutonary Atonement and its side effects of Worm Theology, Wretched Urgency, a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation, and Grinning Apocalyptism.

    • There is a sizable distance. One may flow from the other, but it takes a journey to get there.

    • I agree with HUG. The Substitutionary Atonement theory easily leads a soterian gospel and makes the cross all about personal salvation.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And most of us are in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness BECAUSE of the side effects & aftereffects descending from that version of the Gospel.

    • EZK, HUG and Brandon- Can you explain this to me? I’m not sure I understand what is being said here…

      • I had to reflect a bit on this one, Eagle, because I wasn’t quite sure what the point was (but what’s the difference between a Gosple of Salvation and a Kingdom Gospel?) but I think the point is that a Gospel of purely “salvation from sin” leads to (a) you wretched worm, you are nothing but a mass of sinfulness (b) you must accept Christ to be saved (c) once you are saved, if you do not save other wretched worms, their blood will be upon you.

        It’s not a corporate salvation, because all that kind of thing is ‘religion’: you must become convinced of your own sinfulness and invite Christ into your heart. That leads to ‘yes, but are you sure you really did it right the first time?’ and the prospect of being re-baptised, re-re-baptised, and so forth. It also leaves no room for venial sin/stumbling or the forgiveness of mortal sin/backsliding, so the only solution there is “Well, I wasn’t properly saved/born again the first time, but this time for sure!”

        So it can lead, in the worst extremity, to being concerned purely with one’s own individual salvation; to using others as evidence of that salvation because all that is of concern in the work of the Kingdom is to bring others to the point of salvation by acceptance of Christ, and the more souls you win, the better Christian you are, whereas if you do not witness, the guilt of their damnation will adhere to you and a tendency to dualism, since what is spiritual is above what is corporeal.

        I admit, it took me a moment to ‘get’ what this post was saying, but I think that yes, it’s right. When I put the question to myself, What is the Gospel?, I answered it as the good news of salvation from sin.

        Yes, and? What of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God? Michael Spencer’s favourite question, what does it mean to live in the Kingdom? What is the Kingdom like?

        So jumping straight from the Fall to the Incarnation and ignoring the work of God in Israel and in history, and ignoring that the end of time will see a new earth as well as a new heaven, and ignoring that we say we believe in the resurrection of the body, and ignoring that we live in the Kingdom, and ignoring that “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” is reducing the Gospel to “Sin – salvation” as a transaction of exchanging my personal burden of sin for the grace of Christ, and leaving it at that.

        That’s why for Easter there are the long sequence of readings from the Old Testament during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday:

        “The Liturgy of the Word consists of seven readings from the Old Testament (i.e., 1. Genesis 1:1-2:2; 2. Genesis 22:1-18; 3. Exodus 14:15-15:1; 4. Isaiah 54:4a.5-14; 5. Isaiah 55:1-11; 6. Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; 7. Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28)…The account of the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea is given particular attention in the readings since this event is at the centre of the Jewish Passover, which Christians believe Christ’s death and resurrection is the fulfillment of. Each reading is followed by a psalm or biblical canticle (i.e., Psalm 10, Exodus 15:1-18, Psalm 30, Isaiah 12:2-6, Psalm 19, Psalm 42 & 43) sung responsorially and a prayer relating what has been read in the Old Testament to the Mystery of Christ.”

        These remind us that all Creation is of God, and that Creation is good, and that one people were chosen to be the bearers of the truth for us all until the Messiah should come to fulfil the prophecies. The Anglicans have for Christmas the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, based on the Office of Readings from the Litany of the Hours.

        And of course there are the “O Antiphons”, prayed in the seven days up to Christmas Eve during Vespers, and summed up in the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.

        • Martha ~ I agree, in part, with your observation. I have seen the agonizing “going forward” again and again to make sure I am saved and the tragic consequences of that in lives. But the Personal Salvation, Christ died to save me belief can also lead to a life of unimaginable FREEDOM and eternal THANKSGIVING and a life that truly does go from death to life, darkness to light and total and complete security. I know – I am speaking of myself. I went from a religion of uncertainty, fear, guilt, guilt and more guilt. And my life of fear and darkness reflected that immensely. So, I went from religion to the God given realization that, yes, Christ died for ME. And my life, though very difficult with it’s share of struggles, sorrow and grief, has nevertheless been a dance of joy and thanksgiving for almost 40 years now. And, by the way, I have joyfully invited others to meet this Jesus Who set me free. Not because their blood would be on my hands but because, I never met a man who was Truth and Love personified and I wanted them to meet Him too.

      • When HUG’s involved, I’m never quite sure myself, but lemme try and help. The substitutionary atonement theory (Christ died to “pay for our sins”, to “take our place”) is heavily favored among evangelicals, but it often comes with or leads to (slippery slope leads to, not necessarily leads to) a host of theologically uncomfortable positions, like the cold legalism of “man sinned, someone had to pay, and Christ payed, so you OWE Him your life”, or the awkwardly narrowminded personal salvation messages (“Christ Died for You” not “us”)

        I may be presumptuous, but I’d bet HUG favors a combination of substitutionary atonement and other theological frameworks, like the “Christus Victor” narrative, which frames Christ’s death in terms of his victory over sin and death, not his legal purchase. Or he could simply focus on the grace of substitution and not the legal necessity of it. Really, the only reason I think it gets so abused by evangelicals is it’s mixture with the (again, often but not always) cold theology of Calvin. But from what I’ve read from you Eagle, you know plenty of that.

        I hope that helped a little. Sorry if I read you wrong HUG 🙂

        • Yes, the Christus Victor narrative gives a broader view of salvation and takes the focus off “me.”

          Since we are on the topic, penal substitutiary atonement comes with the claim that God poured his wrath out on Jesus instead of me; meaning that God took a portion of the wrath that He is storing up for judgment (that portion that those who believe in him would have gotten) and poured it on Jesus instead.

          This is a very pervasive concept I have heard preached over and over, but it’s not biblical and weird. And it leads to the concept that God doesn’t really forgive, he just diverted his wrath and punishment to Jesus.

          Jesus did experience the wrath of God by experiencing death–a very painful one- but it doesn’t say anywhere in the bible that he experience more wrath than other humans (i.e., such as bowls of judgment poured out in revelation). There is no evidence of God pouring that much wrath out on his Son–boils and famine and drinking rivers of blood etc. Many people died in the same manner as Jesus did.

          Jesus’s submission to the cross obliterated God’s wrath over sin. Love wins, not wrath. And this is much bigger than my personal salvation.

          • Can anyone provide further reading on this?
            Coincidentally, I started “To the Heart of the Mystery of Redemption” by von Balthasar, which analyzes some theories about the atonement, and I want to read more.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            This is a very pervasive concept I have heard preached over and over, but it’s not biblical and weird. And it leads to the concept that God doesn’t really forgive, he just diverted his wrath and punishment to Jesus.

            Which results in the constant terror of “Keep on God’s Good Side, or He’s Gonna Get Ya!” A God whose nature is Wrath and Hatred, constantly looking for new ways to Punish You & Me. We’re still used tampons (the original term of KJV’s “filthy rags”), just “Under the Blood” with a coat of camo paint so God doesn’t target us. Instead of us actually becoming Clean to the core, fully redeemed and renewed in the ultimate Tikkun Olam.

            And yes, it seems to be pervasive in the Evangelical and/or Calvinist communities. My guess is it began with a “Can-You-Top-This” during the Reformation with tighter and tighter, harsher and harsher theology, through Calvinism into X-Treme Puritanism. Purifying the Faith by boiling it down to the point you lose most of what made it attractive in the first place, from Gospel to Party Line Ideology.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I think both you and Martha explained it pretty well.

          I was first introduced to the Gospel as Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement (as well as Young Earth Creationism, Enclaving, and Secret Rapture End Times Obsession) were part of the package.

          Fortunately, before this I had experience with a Great Big Universe (cue Carl Sagan in Cosmos) and richness of imagination. And I never could reconcile this with the 6015-year-old, ending tomorrow, Earth-and-some-lights-in-the-sky Punyverse of this package. It ended up shrunken down for a shrunken Gospel and shrunken God, little more than high-pressure Selling Fire Insurance for a Fluffy Cloud reward. Almost a denial of Life.

          Here at IMonk, at Christian Monist, at other post-Evangelical blogs I have found those with similar experiences.

  2. David Cornwell says

    Talking about The Magnificat during these days before the blessed event is so perfect for preparing our hearts. One can read and ponder it over and over again, and the truth it brings to us is beyond human explanation and wrapped in holy mystery.

    Our pastor a couple of weeks back expressed some frustration with the lectionary for this season, and decided to focus his preaching on this this song of praise. As we discussed it, my mind was slightly overwhelmed with the the diversity of meaning it held for the group. We come from several denominational backgrounds, so each person brought with him/her some differences of experiences. In the end I realized just how deep, how holy, and how majestic is the truth conveyed in this passage.

    I’m looking forward to this discussion. It will hold real blessing in the sharing. I need this. The Church needs this. Thanks.

    • David, maybe I should have asked you to write the posts! I’m looking forward to your contributions.

      • I’m looking forward as well, CM. You know, Packer had some interesting thoughts on the evangelical “truncated version” of the Gospel in his short book, “Affirming the Apostles Creed”. The Gospel is much broader than what we typically hear presented.

      • *shakes head disapprovingly*

        Tsk, tsk, Chaplain Mike! Are you perchance asking us to receive teaching from a woman? Well, at least you are a proper manly man and it’s okay for you to read this Scripture aloud to us.


  3. I am will be interested to read this series. I’ve been reading N.T. Wright this month, which turned out to be eerily appropriate for advent. The particular book I am reading discusses extensively how Paul wrote about, and was deeply concerned to understand, how God’s covenant promises to Abraham and Israel–particularly how Israel would become a blessing to the whole world–were being and would be fulfilled. This makes the Old Testament not merely a build-up or a mistaken project but a grand epic of struggle and expectation that comes to a culmination point (and, at the second coming, still another).

  4. I love how the Magnificat is intensely personal/universal/political/spiritual/grounded in history/God-centered/dangerous/peaceful… and above all, holy… and all at the same time. This has been a tough Advent time for me this year, and the Holy Spirit is using Mary’s Song to sustain me.

    My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!

    Peace, Brian

    • It is one of my all-time favorites as well.

      I love how Mary can rejoice in HER role and acknowledge the gift~and heartache~she has been given. There is no vanity or pridefulness in her statements, but exalting in what GOD has done for and with her. It reminds me of the Pslam as well ” I have been fearfully and wonderfully made..”.

      Maybe we can all give ourselves a special gift this year, and try for a bit to rejoice in ourselves…NOT for anything we have said, done, achieved, not for any beauty or specialness in this world, but because Our God and Father has made us in His Image, and we are BEAUTIFUL and treasured by the Creator of the Universe.

      In other words….seeing ourselves as He does……Beloved and shining JUST because we are HIS!

  5. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    At our Lessons and Carols service this week, after the Lesson that included the Magnificat, the choir surprised me by singing the Magnificat setting I had composed. it was the first time ever I’d had one of my compositions performed. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a few tears.

    After meditating on it as part of the composition process, I gotta say that I have come to intensely appreciate its theology, especially how it’s so non-individualistic. It helps make me see myself as part of the Big Story through Jesus. It also makes me appreciate the idea of being “grafted into” Israel.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The Big Story.

      Not My Personal Testimony of My Personal Salvation and not much else.

      Problem is, a Gospel of Only Personal Salvation pulls us into ourselves (and our Spiritual State) at the expense of everything outside of ourselves. Not much room for a Big Story stuck inside one stable, never mind that Aslan’s Land stretches to infinitiy outside.

      I think that might be why you find such failures of imagination and failures of creativity inside the Evangelical bubble. Why Eagle & Christian Monist & me & so many others all found it so stifling. They’ve shrunk God down to smaller than Man, turned Christ into a theological formula and/or Party Line.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Congratulations on the composition. I can imagine that by doing this it has become something much deeper for you.

  7. Where does this idea come from that God made us to worship him? I hear this all the time, but don’t see any explanation for it. The angels obviously serve that purpose.

    What does God need our praise for? I’ve always thought God created us to be recipients of his love and grace. The whole story of creation, Christ, and the church makes a lot more sense as the story of God creating a being with the purpose of having an opportunity to show benevolence. Being created in God’s image, we don’t deserve such benevolence and love and worship are the only appropriate response to receiving undeserved grace.

    • “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
      John 4:23-24

      “Extol the Lord our God and worship at His footstool! Holy is He!” Psalm 99: 5

      “All Your works shall praise You, O Lord, and Your loving ones shall bless You Psalm 145:10

      “Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God”. Exodus 34:14

      “Do not follow other gods to serve and worship them; do not provoke me to anger with what your hands have made. Then I will not harm you.” Jeremiah 25:26

      • Right, created beings should worship their perfect, benevolent creator. But in the first instance, I have a hard time picturing God saying, I need somebody to love and worship me. That was not God’s motivation. It was to show his love to a creation. His desire for worship and love in return is itself a manifestation of his love for us, as it is a good thing for creation to honor its creator. His love for us is behind everything, not his demand for obedience.

        • To be clearer, God wants us to worship him because it is good for US to do that. God himself is all loving and self-sacrificing, the only God like that, and he wants us to see the beauty and good in such love and self-sacrifice. We should love him in return in the same way, according the the way he showed us how to love.

          • Boaz-

            Love always returns love. Our worship to God (in its purest form) is the giving of our love to God, who first loved us. This back and forth of love- of giving, of receiving, of giving back- this is worship. And this is the worship we are to offer God.

    • Like the catechism questions back when I was a child:

      Why were we made?

      We were made to know, love and serve God in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.

      You are right, boaz, in that God did not make us for any need, good or benefit to Himself. We were made to be recipients of His love (the love of the Trinity) and to love in return. Worship flows out of that.

      If you only knew how odd it is for me to be talking about love like this. I’m very comfortable with rules-keeping, but love? Oh, that’s a completely different kettle of fish. These conversations on here with you guys (and reading other blogs elsewhere) are changing me 🙂

  8. I notice that the gospel McKnight quotes is all in the past tense, whereas the Magnificat is in the present.

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      Ah yes… the present-yet-future thing that is so common when discussing Jesus bringing in the Kingdom of God. Or, from our perspective, the past-yet-present-yet-future. And my head now explodes.

      • David Cornwell says

        And when the Kingdom arrives time fades away. Like a dream? This question always explodes my head also.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Maybe this unstuck-in-time is supposed to stretch our mental muscles a bit. Break us out of the box that it’s so easy to get into.

        In storytelling, you can do this with parallels and echoes, where the present harks to the past and the past comes forward into the present, where an event in fiction echoes other events in other fiction and/or echoes actual things in the past.

        • HUG, that Kurt Vonnegut reference takes me all the way back to high school. Thanks for the fix.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Uh, that wasn’t a Vonnegut reference, though his non-linear style does express it pretty well.

            It comes from my own attempts at writing.

            P.S. Two weeks ago I was at a SoCal Brony meet (I’m the guy on the far left) and ended up regaling three or four other Bronies about parallels to and echoes of the Gospel and several Medieval folk beliefs in a couple recent examples of My Little Pony original fanfiction.