D. A. Carson has written an excellent editorial, “The Hole in the Gospel,” addressing the gospel which he then applies to Richard Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? This piece is very good. Furthermore, it is also instructive about what is missing in so many of these sorts of books, as helpful as they may be.
Carson begins by pointing out the essential connection between correctly identifying the problem and its accompanying solution: “in the Bible,” he writes, “how are the ‘problem’ of sin and the ‘solution’ of the gospel rightly related to each other?” The Bible’s answer, he states, is that “the heart of the issue is that by our fallen nature, by our choice, and by God’s judicial decree, we are alienated from God Almighty. For the Bible to be coherent, then, it follows that the gospel must resolve the problem of sin.”
An emphasis on the gospel has become commonplace the past few years. Many are talking about the gospel and its necessity. Numerous books have been written about the gospel and the language has become ubiquitous among Evangelicals. This is a good thing. But it also can become commonplace in a negative way, i.e., it becomes so common it is assumed.
So how is the gospel defined?
The gospel is the great news of what God has graciously done in Jesus Christ, especially in his atoning death and vindicating resurrection, his ascension, session, and high priestly ministry, to reconcile sinful human beings to himself, justifying them by the penal substitute of his Son, and regenerating and sanctifying them by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, who is given to them as the down payment of their ultimate inheritance. God will save them if they repent and trust in Jesus.
In this definition, Carson focuses on three key aspects, which I quote in full:
- The gospel is, first and foremost, news—great news, momentous news. That is why it must be announced, proclaimed—that’s what one does with news. Silent proclamation of the gospel is an oxymoron. Godly and generous behavior may bear a kind of witness to the transformed life, but if those who observe such a life hear nothing of the substance of the gospel, it may evoke admiration but cannot call forth faith because in the Bible faith demands faith’s true object, which remains unknown where there is no proclamation of the news.
- The gospel is, first and foremost, news about what God has done in Christ. It is not law, an ethical system, or a list of human obligations; it is not a code of conduct telling us what we must do: it is news about what God has done in Christ.
- On the other hand, the gospel has both purposes and entailments in human conduct. The entailments must be preached. But if you preach the entailments as if they were the gospel itself, pretty soon you lose sight of the reality of the gospel—that it is the good news of what God has done, not a description of what we ought to do in consequence. Pretty soon the gospel descends to mere moralism. One cannot too forcefully insist on the distinction between the gospel and its entailments.
Based on the biblical gospel, Carson then applies it to the book by Stearns. There is much to commend in the book. However, there are three concerns that left much to be desired, especially when measured by the biblical gospel. As with the definition of the gospel, I include in full Carson’s comments.
First, “what God expects of us” (his subtitle) is, by definition, not the gospel. This is not the great news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Had Mr Stearns cast his treatment of poverty as one of the things to be addressed by the second greatest commandment, or as one of several entailments of the gospel, I could have recommended his book with much greater confidence. As it is, the book will contribute to declining clarity as to what the gospel is.
Second, even while acknowledging—indeed, insisting on the importance of highlighting—the genuine needs that Mr Stearns depicts in his book, it is disturbing not to hear similar anguish over human alienation from God. The focus of his book is so narrowly poverty that the sweep of what the gospel addresses is lost to view. Men and women stand under God’s judgment, and this God of love mandates that by the means of heralding the gospel they will be saved not only in this life but in the life to come. Where is the anguish that contemplates a Christ-less eternity, that cries, “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses. . . . Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezek 18:30–32). The analysis of the problem is too small, and the gospel is correspondingly reduced.
Third, some studies have shown that Christians spend about five times more mission dollars on issues related to poverty than they do on evangelism and church planting. At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel: they are entailments of the gospel. Although I know many Christians who happily combine fidelity to the gospel, evangelism, church planting, and energetic service to the needy, and although I know some who call themselves Christians who formally espouse the gospel but who live out few of its entailments, I also know Christians who, in the name of a “holistic” gospel, focus all their energy on presence, wells in the Sahel, fighting disease, and distributing food to the poor, but who never, or only very rarely, articulate the gospel, preach the gospel, announce the gospel, to anyone. Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself.
In light of what has transpired with World Vision in the past week, all of this took on greater significance. It led me to ask the following questions, which I also ask of you: After reading Stearns’ book and reading Carson’s concern with it, and now in light of the decision and retraction of World Vision regarding their employee policy on same-sex ‘marriage’ . . .
- What surprised you?
- What did not surprise you?
- What lessons ought we to learn from this situation?
- Why is it critical to insist that the gospel consists of news and that it has entailments, and what happens if we consider they are one and the same?
- What are the pressure points to the gospel at present?
- How do we retain our commitment to the gospel, and what does that mean?
- How might we lose it?
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-5