Title: The Hole in Our Gospel
Author: Richard Stearns
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Poverty is a serious issue without an easy solution. But there’s one group of people placed on Earth by God to be a part of it’s solution: The Church.
That’s the big idea behind World Vision US president Richard Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel.
And it’s a good message. More importantly, it’s true.
An Important Message
Christians are to be salt and light in this world, to seek justice for the poor and oppressed and to bring hope to those without it. This is something that sometimes is easy to forget, especially for those of us, like me, who live in one of the most decadent societies that has ever existed.
I mean, our family doesn’t make a lot of money by North American standards; but it really puts things in perspective to realize that our annual income is far greater than 99% of the rest of the world’s. And God has given us what He has as stewards. It’s all His.
Stearns really wants readers to catch the vision of living a life fully submitted to Christ. One in which we see all our time, treasure and talents as gifts which we are to steward for God’s glory, not simply for our pleasure. And he is extremely passionate about using those gifts in service to eradicating extreme global poverty (which is defined as living on less than $1.25 U.S. per day).
Powerful stories of the transformation that happens in the lives of people affected by World Vision’s ministry are scattered throughout the book. And Stearns shares his testimony and how God called him to lead World Vision in a winsome and humble manner. He doesn’t set himself up as anything but a normal guy, which is something I greatly appreciated.
But for as much as Stearns gets right in The Hole in Our Gospel, there’s more than a few places where he misses the mark.
Dangerously Flawed Execution
Throughout the book, Stearns frequently uses the word “gospel” in a way that doesn’t fit the biblical definition. Too often, it’s applied to us and our actions. For example, Stearns writes, “Those words from the Lord’s Prayer, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ were and are a clarion call to Jesus’ followers not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news, here and now” (p. 20, emphasis in original).
The problem here is a redefinition of the gospel. What is the gospel? It’s that God became a man (Jesus), lived as our example, died in our place for our sins, and rose again. Who is the active party? Jesus. We are recipients of God’s grace. Where we become active participants is not in the gospel, but in being witnesses to the gospel.
The Bible calls us witnesses and ambassadors to Christ. But only Christ is the gospel.
If I had to guess, it’s an issue of language more than intent; Stearns does affirm the gospel as presented in Scripture, and rightly calls us to live in light of it. But it’s enough of a problem that it would cause a lot of people who would be otherwise receptive to his message to write off everything else he has to say.
There are other things that I’d question, such as the idea that you can have a personal relationship with Jesus and not have any outward positive transformation (an idea not supported by Scripture) and an elevation of caring for the poor as gospel rather than an outworking of, and that your actions are equal to verbal proclamation of the gospel (“Preach the gospel always; when necessary use words” is quoted as the affirmation of this, obviously).
But most serious is Stearns’ letter to the Church of America—written in the name of Jesus!
Pulling together and modifying verses and passages from all throughout the New Testament, he crafts a rebuke to the Church in a similar vein to the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. Stearns writes,
[W]hat, I wondered, would Christ say if He were to write a letter to the Church in America?
I pondered this for some weeks as I was preparing a talk for a large World Vision conference of our donors and supporting pastors. I had decided my topic would be “A Letter to the Church in America.” I actually wanted to write such a letter, the kind I imagined Christ might write to us. But I struggled again and again to do it, without success. (It’s not easy to speak with God’s voice.)
And then it dawned on me. He has already written that letter to us. It is contained in the Bible; we just have to read it and apply it.
If he had stopped there, I honestly don’t think there would be a problem. He’s correct. Jesus’ commands to the church at all time and in all places are contained in the Bible and we must read and apply them appropriately. Instead, he continues:
So I spent several days pulling verses together and compiling them in the style of a letter. I realize this violated every rule of sound biblical exegesis, but I think you’ll agree that it works—it speaks to us with truth and with bluntness (p.223).
I was floored reading this. He realizes that this breaks every rule of sound exegesis, but goes ahead and does it anyway!
Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that’s one of those things that really ticks off Jesus.
Putting words in God’s mouth will only go bad for us, either here or when we have to stand before Him and give an account. God, through the Prophet Jeremiah, had several choice words to say to those who falsely prophesied in His name (for the sake of brevity, I’d encourage you to read the book of Jeremiah).
The Hole in Our Gospel carries an important message—Christians are to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, bold witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed; and we need to be salt and light to those living in abject poverty. Unfortunately, the execution of the book is so dangerously flawed that I cannot in good conscience recommend it. I don’t doubt that Stearns’ heart was in the right place, but he does his message a great disservice by not being more careful in his approach to Scripture.