I recently attended the Bible Faculty Summit conference on Christology which was held this year at Maranatha Baptist College.  I delivered a paper entitled “Gospel-centeredness, Jesus, and Social Action.”  In that paper I critique Richard Stearns’ recent book A Hole in our Gospel and the writings of N. T. Wright.  In the former, I show that the definition of the gospel has been expanded wrongfully to include the so-called social gospel.  In the latter, I show that the implications of the gospel are inappropriately expanded in the social direction.

In doing this analysis, I wanted to support social action for Christians (which I believe in) and not just have a knee-jerk response to liberal social gospel ethics.  However, I wanted the Bible’s teaching to clearly draw the parameters and definitions.  Although I greatly respect Stearns’ desire for more social action on the part of Christians,  I do not believe that this need justifies expanding the biblical definition of the gospel.  I have provided an excerpt below of my critique of Stearns.  I am doing some additions to the paper.  I hope to post a link to the completed work when I am finished.

A Cloudy Definition of the Word Gospel

             Early on in his book, Stearns shows the imprecise use of the term gospel which will characterize his work.

 The idea behind The Hole in Our Gospel is quite simple.  It’s basically the belief that being a Christian, or follower of Jesus Christ, requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God.  It also entails a public and transforming relationship with the world…Embracing the gospel, or good news, proclaimed by Jesus is so much more than a private transaction between God and us.  The gospel itself was born of God’s vision of changed people, challenging and transforming the prevailing values and practices of our world.   Jesus called the resulting new world order “the kingdom of God” and said that it would become a reality through the lives and deeds of His followers.[1]

 The simple idea of the book is appropriate in my judgment.  One of the implications of following Christ is that it involves my relationship with God at a personal level and with others in the world at a horizontal level.  We could perhaps discuss in more detail what the content of “transforming” is for both the personal and public relationships.  However, following Christ does indeed involve a full-orbed Christian worldview lived fully in loving God and others.  This much is not problematic.

            However, notice that an embrace of the gospel is more than a private transaction between God and us.  At this point I get concerned.  Does this mean that what Jesus accomplished on the Cross is the basis for the redemption of all things, including creation and social structures?  There may be room for a positive discussion if that is the point.  However, there is the indication that Stearns is using the word gospel to encompass the social action that is one of the implications of a life lived following Christ.  There is no hint that the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, the good news that when embraced leads to the justification of the sinner (the Pauline definition of the gospel).  Then the sinner from the vantage point of a right relationship with God can live in the world and love the world as he should including the proclamation of the gospel of eternal life and social engagement as appropriate.  Instead of this summary, Stearns’ words come across as the following message to Christians:  “you need to do social action because that is part of what the gospel means.”[2]  That such a reading of Stearns is what is meant can be discerned by his association of the gospel with the doctrine of the kingdom, a topic to be discussed later.

            I find it quite interesting that many chapters of the book never mention the gospel.  Beyond that, others simply attach the word gospel to a discussion where it is not really needed.  For example, in a chapter entitled “The Great Omission,” Stearns appropriately challenges believers to give their lives for others in terms of justice and eliminating hunger.[3]  Then out of the blue, he brings in the word gospel when the word does not occur in any of the passages which he surfaces:  “When we do the gospel—the whole gospel—the world takes notice and likes what it sees.”[4]  It is clear that in Stearns’ mind the gospel is something more than the good news of the Cross.  It encompasses the obedience of the believer in carrying out the love ethic taught in the Bible.  While proclamation of the obedience is good, the labeling of the obedience as part of the gospel is not.[5]  The gospel is not something that involves us doing something.  It is something that God has done in space and time on our behalf.  Our embrace of it by faith drastically changes who we are and what we can do in the world.  We must say these things carefully.

            Again, Stearns notes the expansive nature of the gospel when he says “Jesus seeks a new world order in which this whole gospel, hallmarked by compassion, justice, and proclamation of the good news, becomes a reality, first in our hearts and minds, and then in the wider world through our influence.”[6]  While he accurately shows here that the vertical leads to the horizontal in our relationships, the gospel (more properly the whole gospel) is something that becomes a reality in Stearns’ way of thinking.  It is not something that God has done in space and time (although it no doubt includes that in Stearns’ theology).  The implication is that the gospel here is something that is done in the area of compassion and justice along with the proclamation of the good news (gospel?).  The mention of the latter in this way makes one wonder if there is more than one gospel that is being discussed:  the gospel of eternal life and a wider gospel that includes the narrow gospel plus the life lived out in social action.  Such presentations lack clarity and, in my opinion, do not help to generate social action on the part of genuine believers.  On the other side, they may lead to a lack of clarity in evangelistic appeals.

[1] Ibid., 2-3.   [The page numbers are from Stearns’ book]

[2] Elsewhere Stearns says that “this gospel—the whole gospel—means much more than the personal salvation of individuals.  It means a social revolution” (20).

[3] Ibid., 186.

[4] Ibid.  The emphasis is provided by Stearns.

[5] Ibid., 124.  In this later chapter, Stearns cites Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15.  Verse thirteen is the crucial verse:  “men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ.”  It is quite easy to see that Paul is praising the Corinthians because their care and love for the poor helps to demonstrate to the world their attachment to a Christ who loves that world.  Stearns would agree with this.  But he goes further: “There’s that ‘whole gospel’ again that is so attractive to people, giving evidence of the coming kingdom of God.”  The word gospel is stretched to include not only what God has done through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but also to include the positive behavior of Christians who prove their attachment to Christ by social action.

[6] Ibid., 243.