Friday, February 24, 2012

Gospel Clarity--a few mini-reviews

It seems that there is concern among authors and scholars that Evangelical Christianity isn't very "evangelical" in the true sense of the word.  That is to say, the "evangel," or "gospel," is being misrepresented, understated, ignored, or watered down according to any number of the books I have read lately.  I share the concerns of almost all the writers, but not all of them equally.  Let me explain, and reference the books that I have been reading in the process as a bit of a summary of what is going on.

More than a year ago, I read The Hole in our Gospel, by Richard Stearns.  In it the author tells the story of how God broke his heart for the needs of people throughout the world and led him to leave his role as President of a company making fine china and become the President of World Vision, the well-known evangelical relief organization.  What is the "hole?"  It is our lack of care for the whole person, as Jesus cared for the poor.  While reading the book, there were many times when I was convicted and encouraged.  Stearns has become a committed servant of people everywhere, and seeks to do so as a dedicated follower of Jesus.  His willingness to literally put his money and life on the line is an example more should follow.  He is passionate about Jesus and the gospel message.  But I had one major concern.  Stearns tended to blur the fruit of the gospel--a transformed value system and lifestyle, with the root of the gospel--repentance from dead works and faith in Jesus  Christ.  His lack of drawing some important distinctions was understandable in an autobiographical apologetic, but it led him to some statements that, in my view, did not tell the whole story of the hole. What makes this even more of a concern to me is that World Vision often works in countries that frown on proselytizing--sharing the gospel in a way that calls one to belief in Jesus--and World Vision readily agrees.  Even more, they often hire non-Christians to positions of authority over projects in countries--I am aware of relief projects that were run by Hindus in India and Muslims elsewhere.  This certainly obscures the uniqueness of the gospel as a motivation for Christians to help those in need among the needy themselves.  Are American Christians too materialistic, by and large?  Is the Pope a Catholic?  Yes, and yes.  But many donors to World Vision might be surprised to discover the total lack of gospel witness in many of its efforts.

More recently, I read Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel.  McKnight grew up in the same environment I did, and graduated from Cornerstone University.  He underwent a pilgrimage similar to mine away from the rigid legalism of his background, but has landed in a different place than I have.  He is more suspect of historic Reformed thinking, and more embracing of trends that were once called "emerging."  We now differ on quite a number of significant issues.  I read the book expecting not to like it, but despite my best efforts, I did like it.  And I had serious concerns, too, in a few places.  What I liked was McKnight's rejection of the truncated, "decision-ism" that reduces the gospel to "Admit you are a sinner, believe on the Lord Jesus, Confess your faith in him as Savior."  McKnight points to 1 Corinthians 15 as the essence of the Gospel that must be proclaimed, but that it must be proclaimed in a context where the words have meaning--"according to the Scriptures"  McKnight says that the gospel is not just the path to individual salvation, although it includes that.  The gospel is the good news that he calls, The Story of Israel fulfilled in the Story of Jesus.  The Story of Israel, beginning with Creation and moving through to Jesus, is of God's rule, man's sin, God's redemptive plan and promise, and its culmination Jesus, the Messiah, specifically and finally in his death, burial, and resurrection, leading to the hope of his coming, final judgment, and eternal life in the eternal state (I'm  using some of my terms in this summary here, so if they are not capturing McKnight correctly, I apologize).  McKnight then shows how the early church kept emphasizing the message of Jesus, labeling the first four books of the NT "the Gospel of..." and showing that they are the story of Jesus.  The early creeds summarized the gospel as well.  McKnight's point is that the gospel is the story, not just the plan of salvation.  He is absolutely right.  Those who preach a gospel that leaves out the story, McKnight calls "soterians" from the Greek word "soter," meaning "to save" or "salvationists."  McKnight creates a strong argument that many of our "converts" through such decisions as he opposes have never really been given enough of the gospel (the story of Israel fulfilled in Jesus) to believe in.  Perhaps this is why so many will be shocked at the judgment to discover they are not really in the kingdom (see the end of Matthew 7 for this good reminder).

If this book is so good, what could my concerns be?  Well, I think that McKnight understates some themes that he shouldn't.  For example, he argues that the gospel doesn't carry a specific "theory of atonement."  This may be an attempt to offer acceptance to a broad understanding of the concept, but I would argue that the very story he highlights--the story of Israel--carries a very clear meaning of what atonement was and is.  The shedding of blood as a penalty for sin, and the substitutionary nature of the sacrifices, especially the passover Lamb, certainly do not lend themselves to the "moral example" theory of atonement, but rather the historic, penal substitutionary theory.  Also, McKnight picks fights with people who largely agree with him.  He sees John Piper and Greg Gilbert as being more "soterian," but knowing Piper's writings and messages well, and having read Gilbert (see below), I don't think McKnight is quite fair to their understandings--he takes statements made in one context and makes them larger than I think those he cites would make them.  They are not practitioners of "decisional" evangelism. He actually seems to have much more in common with Reformed folk than he acknowledges.  McKnight is right on the need for context, but he stresses it more than is explicitly said in either 1 Corinthians 15 or any of the early creeds.  They allude to it, but go directly to death, burial, resurrection, and return of Jesus.  The need for explicit explanation of the whole context may not be as extensive as McKnight portrays.  Finally, reading his explanation of the gospel at the end of his book left me empty.  Perhaps it is a desire to move away from calls for a decision, but calls to repentance and belief ought to have more life than what I picked up here.  Maybe it seemed too "professorial" to me, but then again, he is a professor, so I should cut him some slack there.  But we preach the gospel to encourage people to flee the wrath that is coming and to receive eternal life--we must preach with a point!  To my mind, his point wasn't strong enough.

After this, I went to read Greg Gilbert's What is the Gospel?  This 9Marks booklet was cited negatively by McKnight, and I wanted to see why.  I think the criticism was generally unfair.  Gilbert is writing a booklet, not a theology.  He does allude to the "story of Israel," but does truncate it.  I think McKnight has probably sensitized me to the need to be a bit more explicit here than we typically are to those outside the church who have no context.  Even missions have developed an approach "from Creation to Christ" to set appropriate context for bringing the gospel point home.  Even so, the book is a good primer on gospel truth, and as such I can recommend it without hesitation.

We do need to be clear on the Gospel.  It is more than just a simple decision or transaction, even though salvation can occur in a moment of passing from death to life.  McKnight offers a corrective, Gilbert offers a focus, and Stearns pleads for an appropriate, gospel driven response to human need.

Unfortunately some will take Stearns' work and equate good works with gospel work.  Many ministries follow World Vision's "non-proclamation" approach to their compassion, believing that they are opening doors for someone else later.  By being "kind but silent," these well meaning Christians think that they are doing pre-evangelism.  Unfortunately, in a world where there are lots of compassionate people outside of Christ, Christians who don't let others know that Christ is their motivation, and that the needs met by compassion pale in light of the spiritual needs left unmet by silence are not doing pre-evangelism, they are being nice.  And leaving a person with less hunger, better physical health, or housed and clothed, without alerting them--even a little bit--to God's existence, his redemptive plans and purpose brought to culmination in Jesus' death, burial, resurrection, and return, and the opportunity to flee coming wrath and receive forgiveness, acceptance, and purpose from God, isn't really all that nice in the end, is it?