When I was a teenager, my church trained the youth on door-to-door evangelism. We would knock on a door and ask the person, “How confident are you that you are going to heaven when you die?” Most people were not 100 percent sure, and this opened an opportunity to share what Jesus had done for them. At the time, I would have summarized the main message of the Bible like this: You can avoid hell and go to heaven if you pray the sinner’s prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, and go to church. As far as I knew, that was the gospel.
Klyne Snodgrass, a theologian and New Testament scholar, probably had someone like me (or at least the 16-year-old me) in mind as he wrote You Need a Better Gospel: Reclaiming the Good News of Participation with Christ. Snodgrass’s basic argument is that too many Christians and churches—even pastors (who should know better)—have bought into a cheap and counterfeit gospel. The real message of salvation, he claims, is not about going to heaven or claiming a get-out-of-jail-free card but about knowing Christ himself, the Giver as well as the Gift.
Those who have studied Paul’s theology will quickly recognize that Snodgrass stakes his claim on a particular theory about Paul’s understanding of salvation. Some scholars favor a justification-by-faith emphasis, focusing on the language and imagery of imputation (the transfer of Christ’s righteousness to sinners) and the appeasement of God’s wrath. Others highlight the victory of Christ over evil or, in Pauline parlance, over “sin and death.”
Snodgrass, for his part, identifies with those who center the idea of participation in Christ. (It’s unclear why Snodgrass’s subtitle references participation with Christ rather than employing the traditional language of in Christ; the change doesn’t seem to carry special significance.) At its core, the participation approach is relational. It is about finding one’s identity and place “in Christ,” safely in his kingdom, and thriving in living communion with the Messiah.
A theological shot in the arm
Before getting into the substance of the book, I want to say a few words about the style. Snodgrass is a widely respected biblical scholar best known for writing an excellent volume on interpreting Jesus’ parables (Stories with Intent) and for advocating for women in ministry, especially within his denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church.
This book, You Need a Better Gospel, does not read like a traditional academic book. There are very few footnotes, direct engagement with current scholars is limited, and the tone is more conversational. Chapters are short (about 10–15 pages apiece), and the intended audience is pastors and everyday Christians. This is not a systematic theology of the gospel but rather a theological “shot in the arm” from an academic expert who has been around for a while and has seen how faulty Christian teaching and a cheap gospel have affected the church.
The book’s 11 chapters aren’t grouped into specific sections, but they appear to flow in this way: Chapters 1–3 get at the concept of participation and why it is crucial to the gospel. Chapters 4–9 cover a spectrum of biblical texts from the Old and New Testaments, and the final two chapters revisit the importance of participation theology for the Christian life.
Right off the bat, Snodgrass begins with the problem: “We have offered a deficient, inept, and inert gospel that in the end is not even a gospel, not good news.” He indicts the church for preaching and living out a cheap gospel that doesn’t lead to meaningful and lasting change. Snodgrass is upfront about his own understanding of the gospel. Early in the book, he offers a brief portrait of participation theology that emphasizes God coming to sinners in the incarnate Son of God, defeating evil, and bestowing the Spirit to create a new community with God and with one another.
On the same page, Snodgrass offers a one-sentence summary worth quoting in full: “God is for you, even if you are a worthless, amoral twit, and through Jesus he invites you to live with him to become who you should be.” There are four pieces to this statement that we can make explicit: (1) We are sinners, broken and selfish, (2) God still cares about us, (3) Jesus came to save us and change us, and (4) he does this through a transformative relationship.
As Snodgrass explains, faith is not about checking doctrines off a mental list in the hopes of getting into heaven. Conversion isn’t a one-time purchase of a religious product, like buying a new fridge or car. It is the surrender of a whole life to God and the commitment of a whole life to participating in the life of God. Snodgrass understands the Greek word pistis (which is typically rendered as “faith” in English Bible translations) as a relational word, one that suggests living in solidarity with someone, participating in community together, and experiencing a vital intertwining of lives.
At times, Snodgrass’s discussion is overly simplistic. He doesn’t go out of his way, for instance, to explain that pistis can mean many things depending on the context. But he is right to argue that for New Testament writers like Paul, faith language is inherently social and involves commitment, loyalty, friendship, and deep interpersonal engagement. If Christians get “faith” wrong, treating it as primarily cognitive and passive, they will fail to live out the true gospel. They become mere consumers of the gospel product, not the world-shapers the Messiah desires them to be.
Lest anyone think participation theology is a late voice to the conversation on Paul, Snodgrass notes how theologians from as early as the beginning of the second century (like Ignatius) have pulled on this thread. The list includes names many Christians will recognize, like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and even Martin Luther (who is often associated with justification by faith). For example, Snodgrass quotes Luther as saying that a “Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian.”
Participation theology, then, has been around since the very beginning of Christian theology, and Snodgrass argues that it is high time the church recovers its centrality and importance. It is not simply that the church would benefit from participation theology but that the church needs it.
In the middle chapters of the book, Snodgrass argues that participation theology is found throughout the whole Bible. In the Old Testament, for instance, it appears as God forms his own people (Israel). Jesus models it in his relationship with his disciples. Paul’s writings include many “in” statements (in Christ, in the Lord, in God, etc.). But the most obvious examples come in illustrations from the Gospel of John: Think of the vine and the branches (15:1–10), the bread and water of life (6:25–59; 4:7–14), and friendship with Christ (15:13–15). The bottom line, for Snodgrass, is that oneness with God is not a theological preference of one biblical author but the primary conception of God’s saving work through the whole of Scripture.
In chapter 10, Snodgrass observes that often the Bible’s participation theology is expressed in metaphors that try to capture a mysterious and ineffable concept using language and images familiar to our everyday lives. Sometimes communing with God is likened to eating and drinking, with ingestion representing a fusion of substances: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8), for example, or “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). Another image is that of dwelling in God or God dwelling in and with the believer (John 1:14; Heb. 3:6). Using many different terms and expressions, the biblical writers continually pointed to the same thing: salvation and the Good News as knowing God and being known by God, through and through.
A passionate plea
I really enjoyed reading You Need a Better Gospel. I found myself nodding in agreement with Snodgrass again and again as I progressed through the book. I have only two minor critiques. First, he has a habit of using us or we for the people he charges with having a bad theology and gospel. We have bought into an irrelevant gospel, he might say. Or we shouldn’t preach only about going to heaven. Or we need to learn about participation theology.
I kept wondering, Who exactly is this we ? Is it the American evangelical church? Is it a generational group, like the baby boomers or Gen X? In some ways, Snodgrass’s casting of one wide net kept his argument tidy and straightforward, but it also gives the impression of lumping all Christians into one theological category. And it made me wonder: Would Kenyan Pentecostals identify with Snodgrass’s indictments? Asian Methodists? What about Mexican immigrant Catholic churches in the United States? More concrete examples of the false gospel may have helped readers conceptualize whom Snodgrass was talking about and to.
My second concern is related. At times, Snodgrass’s description of the problem with our current gospel seemed vague. He would have been well served, I think, to lay out the range of views on Paul’s theology early in the book, so that readers could compare them and better understand how the individualistic, going-to-heaven view became so widespread and dominant. Snodgrass briefly addresses some of this later in the book (in chapter 8), but by then it seems too late.
These concerns notwithstanding, Snodgrass offers a concise and passionate plea for Christians to (re)discover a big, beautiful gospel that is relational, transformative, and relevant to life in the here and now. It’s worth repeating that the true gospel of Scripture proclaims, in Snodgrass’s words, that “God is for us and draws us into solidarity through Christ so that we live with God and are engaged in the purposes of God.” If you, or someone you know and love, needs a better gospel, I urge you to hear Snodgrass out.
Nijay K. Gupta is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary. His forthcoming book is 15 New Testament Words of Life: A New Testament Theology for Real Life.