Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"The Hole In Our Gospel" - A Review

Kevin DeYoung has written a thoughtful and helpful review of Rich Stearns book The Whole in Our Gospel.

DeYoung voices the very concerns I have about the book. First of all it should be said that Stearns is absolutely right in calling us to care for the poor. No follower of Jesus can ignore the plight of those who are suffering. However, it does matter how we understand and then respond to the challenge of poverty and suffering. Our own experience has taught us that many good intentions have suffered from the law of unintended consequences. That is, many efforts to help the poor have unintentionally ended up causing great harm. So it is very important that we exercise great care in the manner in which we offer help. It is also vitally important that we not distort or misappropriate essential doctrines in the course of calling Christians to action. The title of Stearns' book is quite ambitious. He is suggesting that we have missed something essential about the Gospel. So it is necessary that his handling of the Gospel, no small matter to the apostle Paul, be scrutinized.

While appreciating Stearns' motives and worthy call, DeYoung challenges both the economic assumptions in "The Whole in Our Gospel" and, more importantly, the doctrinal formulations.

The Hole in Our Gospel marginalizes what is central to the gospel. To be fair, Stearns acknowledges that reconciliation between God and man through the atoning work of Christ is part of the gospel (15). But the whole gospel, says Stearns over and over, is God’s vision for a new way of living (276). The “essence” of the good news is that God’s kingdom is going to begin on earth through the changed lives of His followers. But Stearns doesn’t make clear how one enters this kingdom, or that the in-breaking of the kingdom is bad news for those who oppose God and do not trust in Jesus Christ. No doubt, Stearns would agree with the apostle Paul that the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He was raised from the dead and appeared to many witnesses (1 Cor. 15:3-8). But what Paul labels “as of first importance,” I hear Stearns demeaning as a diminished gospel (279).

It seems that for Stearns the gospel is primarily something we do. The gospel is not an announcement of what God has done for us in history. The gospel is a “social revolution” (20). At one point, after quoting 2 Corinthians 5:20 that we are “Christ’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us,” Stearns says, “God chose us to be His representatives. He called us to go out, to proclaim the ‘good news’—to be the ‘good news’—and to change the world” (3). This is certainly a curious gloss on what it means for God to make His appeal through us.

Frankly, for all its laudable exhortations, I find Stearns’s gospel exhausting and even triumphalistic and paternalistic at times. I can’t count all the times in the book we are told to change the world, start a social revolution, or usher in the kingdom of God. If only we gave more or had the will, we could eradicate hunger and win the war on poverty. For the first time in history we have the know-how and access to solve these problems, we are told. Now we just have to make it happen. The church around the world is waiting us for us to act. Without our efforts and resources directed toward the developing world, their lot in life will never improve. According to Stearns, “This is not to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife. Christ’s vision was of a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people—now…It’s up to us. We are to be the change” (243–44, emphasis in original). Does God’s reign and rule really depend on us?

I think I know where Stearns is coming from. He wants our faith to work. He wants Christians to care about the world and not just about their “fire insurance.” I get that. I applaud that. He should be more careful in talking about the gospel, however, lest it become a generic message about how God is going to make the world a better place. “Preach the gospel always; when necessary use words” (23) is not a helpful saying. Besides the fact that there’s no record that St. Francis ever said this and every indication that he didn’t live this way, the pithy saying represents a confusion of categories. We must use words if we are to preach the gospel, because the gospel is a message we must proclaim. If we never live like Christians, we are not Christians. But to tell people that they must repent and believe in Jesus for the remission of sins, to tell them that God sent His Son in love to bear His just wrath, to tell them that they must receive the kingdom in faith like little children, is not a
gospel with a hole in it. It is precisely the center, and Stearns’s call to action would have been more compelling if it more clearly radiated from there.

This crystalizes well my own reservations about The Hole in Our Gospel. It matters that we get the Gospel right. Indeed, Paul called the Gospel (the message of Christ's death for sinners and glorious resurrection) the "matter of first importance" (1 Cor 15). Stearns makes the same mistakes of the social gospel movement in the early 20th century. It is a confusion between what the Gospel is and what the Gospel produces. It is a confusion of the root and the fruit. The Gospel is the announcement of what God has done through Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not our obedience. Herman Bavinck wrote, "The Gospel is sheer good tidings, not demand but promise, not duty but gift."

When we confuse the Gospel (what God has done in Christ) with the implications of the Gospel (our grateful, obedient response) then we distort, even destroy the Gospel. We turn grace into law. We turn gift into duty. We turn ourselves into moralists. It matters.

Read DeYoung's entire review HERE.

I would recommend the outstanding When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself.

"Becoming more and more aware of the poverty in the world, the North American church is responding and ministering to the poor in unprecedented numbers. But this is easier said than done, as poverty is a complex problem. Good intentions are not enough, for faulty assumptions can result in strategies that do considerable harm. If churches truly want to help, this book is a must-read. It presents a biblically based framework for understanding poverty and its alleviation. The principles and strategies will help the church build an effective ministry for a hurting world, both at home and abroad."
- Dr. Paul Kooistra, Executive Director of Mission to the World

  "Globalization, immigration, and suburbanization are bringing new opportunities to minister to the poor to the front doorsteps of many North American churches. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past by running away from those whom Jesus loves so deeply. Rather, we must learn how to walk with our new neighbors in highly transformative relationships. There is no simple route to success, but this book provides a marvelous compass to guide our steps. I highly recommend it to any church that wants to be "the body" to the world outside its doors."
- Jim Bland, Executive Director, Mission to North America


Anonymous said...
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Mainline Mom said...

Good to know, I really respect Kevin DeYoung a lot. I assume you know Stearns was a member of COS. His daughter is a good friend of mine and I've been meaning to read this book. I probably still will.

Belle Geary said...


I totally agree that the Gospel is all about what God has already done and that any "works" come from our changed lives as a result of what God has done. But I also know that the Christian community has in large part been taken over by a gospel of self satisfaction and self centeredness. "Have faith and you will get ____". Somehow we need to get true Christianity and a true passion for others back into our churches, but in a way that keeps Christ at the center.

Outreach is a very complex issue, how well does COS's outreach tie into the book you reference, "When Helping Hurts"? I have read the book and am struggling with how to put what they say into practice.

God Bless,


Todd Pruitt said...

The church's first calling is to advance the gospel and make disciples. Alleviating suffering, when possible, is certainly a way for us to express the love of Christ and point people to the good news. But we must not delude ourselves into thinking that somehow we will be able to eradicate poverty and hunger. Indeed, we are not called to do this because it is not possible in a fallen world.

When Helping Hurts is an important book because one of the things the authors do is expose the truth that much of the West's humanitarian efforts in, for instance, Africa has actually done a great deal of damage. Pouring vast amounts of money into Africa will not change Africa. The only hope for Africa is the Gospel. Africa's primary problem is paganism. The pagan/magical worldview of most Africans is what keeps them in poverty. So long as they see themselves as pawns in the hands of evil spirits they will remain fatalistic. So long as they blame evil spirits for AIDS they will continue to succomb to it. Money will not change this.

What is needed is nothing short of a complete worldview change. To be blunt, they need to shift to a more Western worldview. Unfortunately multi-culturalism resists, even condemns this. But until they abandon their pagan worldview they will be stuck in their current state. The Gospel is their only hope.

David Yamarick, Facilitator said...

Todd, I Read the book and when I got to the application of the rich young ruler to the believer, I decided to start over again with a highlighter for the text and a pen for the margins. The presentation of the gospel if there was one was muddied up with social action and oddly for a book on helping the poor, the causes and remedies for poverty...it's just not accurate. The books appears to side with the liberal ideologies which are currently crushing the world and creating more poverty. There is a promotion of the erroneous belief tha wealth is a zero-sum game. However even World Visions micro-financing the poor proves this is incorrect. To state "Death to the American Dream" and not explain the dreams benefits and opportunity for the improverished is disheartening. Unfortunately, the book will misinform the youth and the ill-equipped and those who do not know Christ. Thanks for your review and alternative recommendations. Much appreciated.