Hole in Our Gospel - Review

I read "The Hole in Our Gospel" by Richard Stearns several months ago, but have avoided doing a review. Honestly, there were some things I strongly liked about this book and several things that I strongly didn't like about this book. It's hard to know where to start a review, and means the review will be longer than normal. Sorry.

When it comes down to it, I think Stearns comes to a right conclusion (Christians need to do better when it comes to involvement with social justice around the world) through a false premise (Belief in the gospel is not enough, we need to bring the kingdom through our actions).

Richard Stearns is the president of World Vision, and tells his own remarkable story throughout the book. He has done much good in the world, and is a shining example of someone who decided to focus his eyes on eternity despite the temporary cost to himself. We need more people who live their lives that way.

Stearns rightly argues that much of Scripture is concerned with God's people representing His interests with those who are victims, oppressed, downcast, and destitute. Stearns also rightly argues that the 20th century church has done a crummy job of this, focusing inward instead. He's right.

But Stearns makes two assertions - one that I personally disagree with but that isn't an issue to divide over, the second an extremely dangerous assertion that could take the church off a cliff at break-neck speed.

First, Stearns argues that it is the Church's responsibility to make the "'kingdom of God'... a reality through the lives and deeds of [Jesus'] followers" (p. 3). The thesis Stearns lays down in his introduction is that "the whole gospel is a vision for ushering in God's kingdom - now, not in some future time, and here, on earth, not in some distant heaven" (p.5). And throughout his book, Stearns shifts back and forth between an amillenial position (there will be no actual thousand year kingdom) and a postmillenial position (Jesus will return after His kingdom has been established). Therefore, he says, we should get to work building what the Old Testament Prophesies promise the kingdom will look like, which includes social justice.

Personally, I believe in a premillenial kingdom, that Jesus will return physically to the earth and establish his thousand-year kingdom on the earth as He sits on David's throne in Jerusalem in fulfillment of 2 Samuel 7:5-16 and Revelation 20, among other passages. The Church should absolutely reflect God's interests in the world (including acts of social justice), but not because we're attempting to bring the Kingdom; because we're ambassadors of a future Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20). Yet, godly Christian men and women disagree on the timing of these things.

One thing no godly Christians should disagree about, however, is the nature of the Gospel, because it and it alone is the "power of God to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul defines the gospel as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In an attempt to emphasize the importance of social justice for Christians, Stearns goes way too far:
  • "Belief is not enough. Worship is not enough. God has always demanded more" (p. 3).
  • "We would much rather believe that the only things needed for our salvation are saying the right words and believing the right things - not living lives that are characterized by Christ's concern for the poor" (p. 59).
  • "There is no "whole gospel" without compassion and justice shown to the poor. It's that simple." (p. 60)
  • "Our obedience is the way we determine whether or not we really know God" (p. 87).
In this, Stearns writes out of both sides of his pen. A couple of times he says "I want to be clear that this does not mean we are saved by piling up enough good works to satisfy God..." (p. 59). And yet, that is exactly the way Stearns' words come across. He makes it clear that if you are not involved in works of social justice, he does not believe you believe the "whole gospel," and as a result he questions your salvation. At best, Stearns' book is confusing. At worst, he confuses the gospel.

Richard Stearns and World Vision are making a difference in the world, and I'm thankful. I'm also thankful for his investment in acts of social justice and mercy as well as his call for others to do the same. However, there are enough places in "Hole in Our Gospel" that I believe shoot holes in our Gospel that I can't recommend this book.


Kara said...

Cory finished this book not long ago and I have sent this to him to read. I know he found some good stuff in there, so I can't wait to hear his take on it too!

lisa said...

thank you for this. i was one of those left confused.

Unknown said...

Chris, I really liked this book and didn't pick up on the hints of "confusing the gospel" as you did. I can understand that someone who is passionate about a topic or issue will want to stess that belief with the strongest words possible, and I felt that was what Sterns was doing.

You did point out a few passages where if not read in context could be questionable, but I'm reminded of the strong language in the second half of James 2 that could also be confusing if not taken in context with the rest of the book and the Bible.

Is it just my eyes being opened recently or are more and more Christians not starting to agree with Sterns...that Christianity really requires some action to the poor and needy of this world? More than just giving a Christmas ham, but really showing the love of God to those who are desperate (financially and/or spiritually).

P.S. Please excuse all spelling errors

Chris Freeland said...

Hey Cory,

For me, the difference between the confusion Stearns introduces and the confusion around James 2 is that when you read the rest of James, the meaning of James 2 becomes more clear. To me, Stearns' book doesn't do that. To assert that "living lives that are characterized by Christ's concern for the poor" is "needed for our salvation" (p. 59) is a much different statement than James saying "faith without works is dead" when it comes to demonstrating our faith to others.

I think you're right that the tide seems to be turning outward from evangelical churches these days. That's a really good thing. My contention is that it should not be because people are trying to earn favor with God, but because they are so moved by the gratitude of what Jesus did for us that we can't help demonstrate that sacrifice to others.