Book Review: The Hole in Our Gospel

hole in our gospel

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).

Conclusion

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.

Not Recommended

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  • Wes

    This past Sunday, my family and I went to a church that hosted the interactive presentation by World Vision entitled Into Africa. The presentation was fabulous and I’d recommend anyone attend if they get word of it. While waiting in line, they had copies of this book lying on a table to preview. So, me being the avid reader, I picked it up.

    Admittedly, I couldn’t get a great sense of the things that you mention here, Aaron, but I get an overall idea of his message and how he presented it. My gripe about the book is simple: it’s been done before.

    It seems like everyone who has created a non-profit organization or has worked in the highest levels of one has written a book like this; calling us to be the light and the salt, to look at our American lives of wealth and prosperity and to use those things to help rid the earth of poverty and disease. While I don’t disagree with this message at all, I often wonder how many times people have to write books about it in order to get the point across. It’s been done. If people aren’t responding, try something new.

    Regardless, Stearns’ writing seemed thought out and also thought-provoking. I did like the quotes from various Biblical verses, church fathers/mothers, and non-Christians alike. It adds a sense of unity to his message.

    On the point of his version of the gospel, I must disagree with you. The gospel IS Christ. But we must live it out. It’s akin to Christ being king and us being his subjects. It’s a duality just like the Kingdom of God is: here, yet still to come. The gospel, in my eyes, is something that was fully manifested by Jesus, yet we are all called to be active players in it, not just merely repeating and reciting the story of Christ. Scripture DOES, in fact, prove this by the quotes of Jesus saying things like “the greatest of all is when one lays down his life for his friends”, or “having faith like a mustard seed”, or “who is my neighbor”, or “sell your riches and follow me”. These are exactly the things Christ did for us, and we are to do the same for our neighbors and friends. Maybe Stearns’ mode of presenting them was a little iffy, but I think he’s on the right track.

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      Hey Wes, I suspect to some degree we’re saying the same thing, just in different ways. I agree fully that our faith must play out in word AND action (because “faith” that doesn’t lead to action isn’t faith at all).

      The issue as I understand it is in presenting this as “being the gospel” rather than a response to the gospel’s impact on our lives.

      I see over and over again commands “to live in a manner worth of the calling with which we have been called,” to “go and do likewise,” and love one another because God has first loved us (by sending His Son to die for us). It’s always a response, so that others might know that the gospel is true.

      But as I said in the original post, I do suspect that this is a language issue on Stearns’ part, not an issue of falling into the “social gospel” trap.

      On a different note the Into Africa presentation sounds very interesting–can you tell me a bit more about it?

      • Wes

        My bad, it’s called “Step Into Africa”.

        Basically, Step Into Africa is a highly interactive “walk through” presentation about the AIDS epidemic in Africa. They have a huge set that is designed to look like African huts, complete with props both fabricated and authentic. It kind of looks like a maze because you walk through corridors and such.

        The greatest part is the main point of the presentation: you follow one of four paths of a child that may or may not be infected with the disease. You get a media player and headphones for the walk through that tells the story of one of the kids. You don’t find out if they have AIDS until the end.

        The money that was spent on getting this thing together was probably monumental, but the emotional benefit of the attendees is worth it. I shed tears as I was listening to the voice of the boy that was told he tested positive for the virus.

        Check it out more at their website. They do a much better job of describing it than I do: http://www.worldvisionexperience.org/?open&lid=wv-exp&lpos=rgt_img-AIDS-exp-banner

        • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

          Awesome – Thanks for the link! I’ll check it out. It sounds like it was incredibly powerful from what you’ve described.