I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading and thinking lately on the Gospel. That is partly because we have had an intense faculty discussion this year on what it means to be a seminary focused on Gospel-Centered Transformation. In the process, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect deeply on what I think the Gospel is and where I’m dissatisfied with many of the Gospel presentations that I hear. Along the way, I’ve also had the opportunity to read a number of books on the Gospel. So, I thought that now might be a good time to begin a series of reviews on books that are specifically about the Gospel.
I’m going to begin today with a review of Richard Stearns’ The Hole in Our Gospel: What does God expect of us? The answer that changed my life and might just change the world (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Since the book comes with no less that twenty-seven endorsements from people as diverse as Madeleine Albright, Bono, and Eugene Peterson, apparently lots of people liked it. That must mean that I’m in the minority.
If you’re looking for a book that will lay out the full scope of the various humanitarian crises facing the world, as well as the inadequacy of the western church’s response, this book is well worth reading. As president of World Vision, U.S., Stearns is very aware of a wide range of global issues, and he presents these issues in vibrant color with lots of stories. So, on this level, the book is fascinating, engaging, and compelling.
But, the book is fundamentally lacking in at least three ways. The first comes from the book’s prominent claim to be about the Gospel. The central assertion of the book is that there is a hole in our Gospel—i.e. the Gospel as we usually hear it is incomplete. That in itself is not an unusual claim. Lots of people are saying that these days. But, Stearns completely fails to explain what he thinks the Gospel actually is. Lacking more than a cursory statement about the Gospel, we are left without any basis for evaluating his claim that our Gospel is missing something.
Second, when Stearns actually gets around to saying something about the Gospel, it’s often problematic. Take this statement for instance. Trying to explain “The Bible for Dummies,” Stearns claims that the basic message of the Bible is “Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it” (p. 66). Really? If that’s the essence of the Gospel, we’re all in trouble. Because, of course, we can’t. That’s the whole point. Now, I’m sure Stearns fully recognizes that the Gospel probably should say something about Jesus, but he rarely doe so. Indeed, he says remarkably little in the book about Jesus beyond the example that he set for us in his kingdom preaching. To be fair, he is probably assuming that we know that part of the story and will simply make the connection ourselves. But, if you’re going to claim that this is a book about what’s lacking in other people’s Gospel messages, don’t make the problem worse by leaving a gaping hole in the middle of your own. Without a clear statement on the centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as providing the only adequate basis and framework for Christian life, the book flirts with becoming a moralistic treatise on the need for Christians to do more.
And, third, what could have been the best part of the book—an emphasis on the Kingdom as essential for understanding the Gospel—falls far short. Stearns sounds almost postmillennial in places:
“his was not intended to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife; no, Christ’s proclamation of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ was a call for a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people—now” (p. 16).
While I would strongly affirm that the Gospel is transformative and that this transformation involves the creation of a new Kingdom community (the Church) that stands as a witness to Kingdom realities and the coming realization of all God’s purposes, that is a far cry from saying that our task is to produce the Kingdom now through our own efforts.
Stearns is at his best when he’s arguing that a Gospel transformed life should be evidenced now. And he makes it very clear that there are crying needs in the world that need to be addressed by anyone claiming to live a Gospel-transformed life. Indeed, he seems to suggest that the “hole” he has in mind is a tendency to so other-worldly focused that we forget to live out the power of the Gospel in this world (p. 17). That’s fine and important. But, too often his argument becomes a mere call for action without a solid grounding in the Gospel realities that would make that action a meaningful response to the grace of the Gospel.
In short, there is a Gospel-shaped hole in the The Hole in Our Gospel.