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What is the Hole in Our Gospel?

by Dan Cruver Published Dec 4, 2013

themelios383-228x300-100x132Just a few minutes ago I finally had the opportunity to take a look at the most recent issue of Themelios, “an international evangelical theological journal that expounds and defends the historic Christian faith.” I was pleased to find that the first article listed is D.A. Carson’s helpful analysis of Richard Stearns’ popular book, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? Carson offers a critical corrective that I believe, if heeded, will strengthen   evangelicalism’s growing commitment to address poverty holistically. In the final section of his article, Carson writes:

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? 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.

Read D.A. Carson’s entire article.

  • Terry

    Dan, Thanks for pointing this article out. I just started reading the new Themelios today. I have observed throughout my entire ministry the tendency to confuse the entailments of the gospel with the gospel itself. It comes in different forms in different cultural settings but it is a very sly legalism that infests too much of the teaching that is regularly propagated. Carson, as usual, has no trouble pointing out the trouble inherent in confusing these things.

  • DanCruver

    I completely agree. I know how quickly I myself can forget the Gospel during the course of a single day. And it’s not just individuals who needs reminders like this. Movements, no matter how large or small, need these reminders as well. So I’m grateful for Carson doing that very thing, in large part, for the evangelical orphan care and adoption movement.

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