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The hole in the gospel

1 May 2014 | by Don Carson

The hole in the gospel

John complains, ‘I simply cannot resolve this calculus problem’. Sarah offers a solution: ‘Let’s read some Shakespearean sonnets’.

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 it resolves the problem comprehensively.

Problem and solution in the Bible

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 600 Old Testament passages that speak of the wrath of God connect it to idolatry—the de-godding of God. Human sin in Genesis 3 certainly destroys human relationships and brings a curse on the creation, but the fundamental act was disobeying God.

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, broken relationships with God, other human beings and the created order, the enchaining power of evil, death (of several kinds), and hell itself. 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.

The problem of sin and the gospel

For the Bible to be coherent, then, it follows that the gospel must resolve the problem of sin. 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 or inevitable result of this received gospel is that those who believe experience forgiveness of sins, are joined together spiritually in the body of Christ, the church, being so transformed that 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.

Three observations

  1. The gospel is, first and foremost, news – to be announced, proclaimed – that’s what one does with news. Silent proclamation of the gospel is an oxymoron. Godly and generous behaviour 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.
  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 what Godhas done in Christ.
  3. On the other hand, the gospel has both purposes and entailments in human conduct, which 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. Pretty soon the gospel descends to mere moralism. One cannot too forcefully insist on the distinction between the gospel and its entailments.

The hole in our gospel

In a fairly recent and certainly very moving book by Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? (Nashville: Nelson, 2009), the author surveys worldwide poverty and argues that failure to take up God’s mandate to address poverty is ‘the hole in our gospel’. 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 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.

Holistic ministry

Third, some studies have shown that (American) 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.

D.A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Don is the main speaker at this year’s Aberystwyth Conference (9-16 August). A fuller version of this article was first published in Themelios 39.1 and is available to read online:

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