This post was taken from the journal Themelios, vol 38, issue 3. You can view it online here.
The Hole in the Gospel
John complains, “I simply cannot resolve this calculus problem.” Sarah offers a solution: “Let’s read some Shakespearean sonnets.”
I’ve got a problem with my car: it won’t start. But no problem: I know what to do. I’ll go and practice my guitar. That will fix it.
My cakes always used to fall when I took them out of the oven. But my friend showed me how to fix the problem. He showed me how to adjust the timing on my car engine.
Ridiculous, of course. But this is merely a farcical way of showing that solutions to problems must be closely tied to the problems themselves. You do not have a valid solution unless that solution resolves the problem comprehensively. A shoddy analysis of a problem may result in a solution that is useful for only a small part of the real problem. Equally failing, one can provide an excellent analysis of a problem yet respond with a limited and restricted solution.
So in the Bible, how are the “problem” of sin and the “solution” of the gospel rightly related to each other?
One of the major theses in Cornelius Plantinga’s stimulating book is that sin “is culpable vandalism of shalom.”1 That’s not bad, provided “shalom” is well-defined. Plantinga holds that shalom resides in a right relation of human beings to God, to other human beings, and to the creation. Perhaps the weakness of this approach is that shalom—rather than God—becomes the fundamental defining element in sin. Of course, God is comprehended within Plantinga’s definition: sin includes the rupture of the relationship between God and human beings. Yet this does not appear to make God quite as central as the Bible makes him. In Lev 19, for example, where God enjoins many laws that constrain and enrich human relationships, the fundamental and frequently repeated motive is “I am the LORD,” not “Do not breach shalom.” When David repents of his wretched sins of adultery, murder, and betrayal, even though he has damaged others, destroyed lives, betrayed his family, and corrupted the military, he dares say, truthfully, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4). The majority of the approximately six hundred OT passages that speak of the wrath of God connect it not to the destruction of shalom, but to idolatry—the de-godding of God.2 Human sin in Gen 3 certainly destroys human relationships and brings a curse on the creation, but treating this comprehensive odium as the vandalism of shalom makes it sound both too slight and too detached from God. After all, the fundamental act was disobeying God, and a central ingredient in the temptation of Eve was the incitement to become as God, knowing good and evil.
To put this another way, the tentacles of sin, the basic “problem” that the Bible’s storyline addresses, embrace guilt (genuine moral guilt, not just guilty feelings), shame, succumbing to the devil’s enticements, the destruction of shalom (and thus broken relationships with God, other human beings, and the created order), entailments in the enchaining power of evil, death (of several kinds),3 and hell itself. However many additional descriptors and entailments one might add (e.g., self-deception, transgression of law, folly over against wisdom, all the social ills from exploitation to cruelty to war, and so forth), 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. What is the gospel? In recent years that question has been answered in numerous books, essays, and blogs. Like the word “sin,” the word “gospel” can be accurately but rather fuzzily defined in a few words, or it can be unpacked at many levels after one undertakes very careful exegetical study of εὐαγγέλιον4 and its cognates and adjacent themes.5 We could begin with a simple formulation such as “The gospel is the great news of what God has done in Jesus Christ.” Then one could adopt an obvious improvement: “The gospel is the great news of what God has done in Jesus Christ, especially in his death and resurrection” (cf. 1 Cor 15). Or we could take several quantum leaps forward, and try again:
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.
The proper response to this gospel, then, is that people repent, believe, and receive God’s grace by faith alone.
The entailment of this received gospel, that is, the inevitable result, is that those who believe experience forgiveness of sins, are joined together spiritually in the body of Christ, the church, being so transformed that, in measure as they become more Christ-like, they delight to learn obedience to King Jesus and joyfully proclaim the good news that has saved them, and they do good to all men, especially to the household of faith, eager to be good stewards of the grace of God in all the world, in anticipation of the culminating transformation that issues in resurrection existence in the new heaven and the new earth, to the glory of God and the good of his blood-bought people.
Once again, as in our brief treatment of sin, much more could be said to flesh out this potted summary. But observe three things:
1. 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.
2. 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 whatGod has done in Christ.
3. 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.
So now I come to the fairly recent and certainly very moving book by Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?6 This frank and appealing book surveys worldwide poverty and argues that the American failure to take up God’s mandate to address poverty is “the hole in our gospel.” Without wanting to diminish the obligation Christians have to help the poor, and with nothing but admiration for Mr Stearns’s personal pilgrimage, his argument would have been far more helpful and compelling had he observed three things:
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.
By D.A. Carson