A Hole in Our Gospel
I have recently finished reading Richard Stearns best selling recent book, The Hole in Our Gospel. In case you are not familiar with Stearns, he is President of World Vision, an evangelical relief agency founded about sixty years ago. During the past six decades it has grown into one of the largest relief agencies in the world. It has programs that sponsor children in poverty stricken countries, is instrumental in bringing clean water to the underdeveloped areas of the world where it never has been safe to drink the water, sponsors micro-loan funding to build sustainable economic growth among the poorest of the poor. World Vision has an impressive record and has proved itself an organization of impeccable financial accountability, and spends a modest 16.3% of worldwide revenues on administrative overhead and fundraising (as opposed to other well know organizations which spend up to 80% of income on fundraising and overhead!)
Stearns resume is more than impressive in the corporate arena. He recounts his move from CEO of Lennox to President of World Vision in and intensely personal fashion relating the struggles that finally impelled him to leave the corporate world and refocus his life in ministry. His experience overseas observing particularly in Africa the desperate abject poverty that characterizes much of the continent fueled his passion compassion and vision. It is out of his own personal transformation that he writes The Hole in Our Gospel.
The book itself is moving and having a significant impact. It has been followed by study books and an entire curriculum for churches to employ. Yet it has also significant criticism from some quarters as simply an endorsement of the social gospel, and as undermining the key Reformation articulation of the gospel as being grounded in the Pauline concept of justification by faith. I return to these criticisms later, but first need to lay some groundwork.
Before the dawn of the twentieth century the mission activity both domestic and foreign was holistic;holistic in the sense that the missionaries attended to both physical and spiritual needs of those to whom they ministered. Western missionaries entered cultures and ministered to the physical needs of the people, often chronic medical needs, taught good agricultural practices, founded schools ant taught literacy, as well as doing Bible translation, church planting and evangelism. Even at home in the US churches were active in both medicine and education, founding many hospitals that to this day retain the names of their denominational beginnings. The same is true in the field of education.
But, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century the church’s vision became more “spiritually” focused on individual conversion “my personal relationship to the Lord.” The vision of Christ as the Lord of all of Creation and all of life was radically truncated. The proclamation “Christ is Lord” was reduced to the question “Will you make Christ your Lord?” This new focus had profound effects on the influence of the church in the broader culture. In short, across much of American Protestantism Christ was relegated to the realm of the “spiritual.” In a betrayal of the Reformation heritage the world began to be viewed as secular and not a place in which Christians who were serious about their faith should be involved. The position of conservative Christians in broader American society shifted radically in the fifty year period from 1850 to 1900. Conservative Christians had gone from being a dominant force in American society to being a marginalized minority. The kingdom was at the turn of the 20th century strictly regarded as future and any involvement in trying to improve things here and now was regarded as “polishing brass on a sinking ship,” since this world would be overturned in judgment at the return of Christ.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century the US underwent a profound demographic shift. It changed from a predominantly agrarian society to an urban society. This had profound implications for the Church and the way that the gospel was conceived and communicated. In the agrarian culture with the accompanying revivalism Christianity the gospel was conceived simply, individualistically. If one believed in Christ and obeyed the teachings of Scripture, an individual could be a good consistent Christian.
Walter Rauschenbusch, who had grown up in a conservative pietistic Baptist home and converted to Christ as a teenager, attended Rochester Theological Seminary and took a pastorate in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, ministering among German speaking immigrants. There he came face to face with rampant poverty, injustice and oppression in the social structures which the individualistic gospel (with which he had been raised) was powerless to address. This experience led him to rethink the implications of the gospel and articulate “a theology for the social gospel” in a work by that name. His premise was:
the social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and our faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.
While Rauschenbusch was relatively conservative in his theological outlook, those who took up his mantle saw the message of the gospel and the task of the church solely as working to end human suffering and establish social justice.
As the Social Gospel took root it was wedded to the theological liberalism coming out of Germany which denied virtually all of the historic theological/doctrinal tenets of historic Christianity. During the first two decades of the twentieth century the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy consumed the attention of American Protestantism. Following in the footsteps of German liberal theologian Albrecht Ritschl modernists jettisoned the historic Christian understanding of the trinity, the incarnation, and the atonement. The emphasis was the establishment of a moral-ethical kingdom following the example of the (only human) man Jesus who lived in perfect consciousness of God’s presence with him.
The conservative Christians reacted viscerally to the growth of liberal Christianity and its takeover of the old main-line denominations, particularly the Northern Presbyterians (PCUSA), Methodists, and Northern Baptists (American Baptist Convention). As a reaction to the advancing liberal influence the conservatives adopted a separationist mentality. “If the Liberals are doing anything, we will have nothing to do with it.” The net result was a rending of a holistic understanding of the gospel. Northern Conservatives, who during the 19th century earlier had been involved in ministering to both material and spiritual needs (e.g. the Salvation Army) and had universally opposed slavery, largely withdrew from the material ministries because these ministries were associated with liberalism.
Theological liberalism found a natural ally in political liberalism and together they sunk their roots deep into the social consciousness of mainstream American culture.
The Situation At Hand Today
On the one hand, the church in America (both liberal and conservative) has largely abdicated its God-given responsibility to the state with its welfare system. While compassionate in its vision the law of unintended consequences has kicked in and created a permanent underclass that suffers from “learned helplessness.” While most churches do have a “benevolent fund” these funds deal with immediate acute needs. It by and large does not deal with helping the poor get out of their chronic poverty.
Underneath this phenomenon is an understanding of the gospel in Pauline terms of “justification by faith alone.” While justification by faith is certainly a major Pauline theme, even by Pauline standards it is not the gospel. According to Paul the Gospel has to do with the Incarnation, Death and resurrection of Jesus:
. . .the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved. . . For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for oursins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, . . .Whether then it was I or they, this is the way we preach and this is the way you believed. (1 Cor. 15:1-11 NET Bible)
None of the other NT writers speak of justification by faith alone, nor does Jesus himself in any of the Gospels. Jesus himself speaks of the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and he identifies love and compassionate deeds as that which characterizes its members.
Declaration not Invitation
On the whole, Stearns is right on a key point. We have in our preaching and understanding turned the gospel into a transaction. We for example may pray the prayer at the end of the four spiritual laws, with hardly any understanding of what we are saying, but by repeating the prayer, we are assured that our fire insurance is paid up (oops! I mean we are saved eternally). This process smacks of pagan magic whereby we manipulate God by repeating the proper incantation.
At its base the Gospel is a Declaration not an Invitation! It is declaration of reality. It is something that is true, it is not something we make true by our response. It is a declaration of a new cosmic reality that has been instituted by the love and the humility of the Triune God who so values his creation and everything in it that he became incarnate in the person of Jesus the Messiah so to reconcile the entire cosmos to himself. He has re-established relationship with humanity according to Paul. “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them.. . .” (2 Cor 5:19)
As D.A. Carson has said:
It was understood better in the past than it is today. It is this: one must distinguish between, on the one hand, the gospel as what God has done and what is the message to be announced and, on the other, what is demanded by God or effected by the gospel in assorted human responses. If the gospel is the (good) news about what God has done in Christ Jesus, there is ample place for including under “the gospel” the ways in which the kingdom has dawned and is coming, for tying this kingdom to Jesus’ death and resurrection, for demonstrating that the purpose of what God has done is to reconcile sinners to himself and finally to bring under one head a renovated and transformed new heaven and new earth, for talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, consequent upon Christ’s resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Majesty on high, and above all for focusing attention on what Paul (and others—though the language I’m using here reflects Paul) sees as the matter “of first importance”: Christ crucified. All of this is what God has done; it is what we proclaim; it is the news, the great news, the good news.
By contrast, the first two greatest commands—to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—do not constitute the gospel, or any part of it. We may well argue that when the gospel is faithfully declared and rightly received, it will result in human beings more closely aligned to these two commands. But they are not the gospel. Similarly, the gospel is not receiving Christ or believing in him, or being converted, or joining a church; it is not the practice of discipleship. Once again, the gospel faithfully declared and rightly received will result in people receiving Christ, believing in Christ, being converted, and joining a local church; but such steps are not the gospel. The Bible can exhort those who trust the living God to be concerned with issues of social justice (Isa 2; Amos); it can tell new covenant believers to do good to all human beings, especially to those of the household of faith (Gal 6); it exhorts us to remember the poor and to ask, not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Whom am I serving as neighbor?” We may even argue that some such list of moral commitments is a necessary consequence of the gospel. But it is not the gospel.
What has all this to do with A Hole in Our Gospel? A lot really. While many are heartily embracing Sterns’ message, many are reading Sterns and seeing him compromising the gospel of justification by faith and accommodating theological and political leftism a la Jim Wallis and Sojouners.
To come back to Stearns, I believe he has correctly identified what is a pressing issue that we as 21st century American conservative Christians must address head on. On the other hand I find the biblical and theological justification for dealing with the issue to be naive and simplistic. Since he is a layman, without formal biblical and theological training I am willing to grant him a bit of slack here. Because of this I resist the temptation to take him to task for his many misuses of scripture and unjustified and wrongheaded theological innuendo to shore up his argument.
He is one who has come face to face with the radically desperate issues of poverty in the world and sees that the resources are available. He rightly sees that even those of us who are lower middle class are richer than kings of past. He rightly summons us to examine our own priorities to see if indeed they are in harmony with the heart of Jesus and in line with the Kingdom, or whether we are smug, arrogant and self-satisfied. In short, does the American evangelical church self-sufficiently rely on its wealth and become spiritually complacent and self-satisfied in a sense that it deserves the rebuke of the Lord to the church of Laodicea in Rev. 3.
My chief concern as I reflect on the book as a whole concerns his use of rhetoric especially early and late in the book. He is so passionate about the implications of the gospel (and I largely agree with the implications he sets forth) that his rhetoric implies that failure to live up to Christ’s example imperils one’s salvation.
Any time someone speaks of what God expects of us (s)he is in dangerous territory. The language of expectation steps into legalism which is spiritually deadening. The believer must be secure in his or her relationship with God before repentance (I am using the term “repentance” in its proper sense—a radical change of perspective that is seen in a change in life). As Calvin states: “A man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace.” This recognition is not merely cognitive it is something that is felt deep in the soul. If we view God as a loving father who has unconditionally and freely accepted us, has embraced us as his children and who is disciplining (not punishing) us to bring us to maturity. If we lack this prior assurance, calls to repentance will produce the fear of punishment, rejection and possible cutting off of relationship (loss of salvation).
The question here is one of law/rules vs. love and relationship. So much of the teaching on our relationship to God is based upon performance rather than relationship. What is communicated is the lie that God grades us on our performance. Such a mentality undermines the unconditional freeness of the gospel and ultimately makes salvation to be of works rather than grace. Such an understanding is a one way ticket to defeat, self-condemnation and fear because it assumes punishment for failure. Yet this flies directly in the face of Paul’s unequivocal proclamation: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus!”
 Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1917), 5.
 D. A. Carson, Editorial, Themelios 34.1 (2009): 1-2
 Calvin. Institutes III.3.2