The Hole in Our Gospel
By Richard Stearns
“The Hole in our Gospel,” by Richard Stearns, the recent Christian Book of the Year and apparently headed to be a New York Times best seller, is the newest danger to come against true Believers in the Church Age. It promotes a false gospel within a socialistic philosophy. It fails miserably in its hermeneutic, is ecumenical in focus, promotes human performance as a method of pleasing God, and believes people on earth can do good to “usher in the Kingdom.”
Richard Stearns writes from a “Kingdom Dominion” perspective and embraces an Amillennial or Postmillennial eschatology. He has embraced a social gospel and mingles “grace through faith” with “grace plus work,” which dangerously dilutes the power of God's redeeming Grace. In his words, “This gospel - the whole gospel – means much more than the personal salvation of individuals. It means a social revolution.” (Pg 20, Emphasis original)
Continuing, Stearns says:
“The gospel that we have been given – the whole gospel – is God's vision for a new way of living.” (Pg. 276) “Christ's vision was of a redeemedworld order populated by redeemed people – now. To accomplish this, we are to be salt and light in a dark and fallen world, the “yeast” that leavens the whole loaf of bread (the whole of society). We are the ones God has called to be His Church. It's up to us. We are to be the change. But a changed world requires change agents, and change agents are people who have first been changed themselves.” (Pgs 243-244, Italics emphasis original)
As stated above, Stearns says we are the “yeast” that leavens “the whole loaf of bread.” The definition of leaven/yeast in the Scriptures is debated by scholars.* All definitions associated with “yeast” in the Gospels indicate a reference to bad doctrine, evil, impurity, and hypocrisy. It is most often used in association with the Pharisees and sin. The two passages referred to by Stearns, Matt. 13:33, Luke 13:21, are interpreted in a variety of ways by a variety of scholars. Matt 13:33 reads:
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.”
However Stearns intends to use this verse, we understand the Scriptures to say that the kingdom of heaven is like leaven. He makes it clear that he thinks we are the gospel. He says,
“The words of the Lord's prayer...are a clarion call to Jesus' followers not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news, here and now.” (Pg 20, Italics emphasis original)
Either way, he fails to communicate the true Gospel when making this statement. If he is saying we are the gospel then we are all in a lot of trouble. We are not the Gospel. The Gospel comes to us. We can't save anyone!
I do appreciate the passion and desired focus the author has for the poor and needy. Poverty throughout the world has motivated a desire to care for the poor throughout the majority of our lives. At the church I pastor, we engage in missions work to spread the Gospel. In addition to many missions programs on which we focus, individuals in our church sponsor over 1,000 children through Compassion International - an organization similar to the one represented by the author.
I also understand that the author may not be a Biblical scholar. This fact can be seen throughout the book in what appears to be a flip-flop from theological position to theological position. Below is one such example. In his effort to articulate this struggle he brings light to the conflict between salvation by faith alone and the faith plus error. Stearns writes,
“One of the things drummed into my head as a young Christian was the doctrine that we are saved by faith alone and not by works.
Understanding and applying this simple truth has been at the root of fierce and contentious debates throughout the long history of the Christian faith. Indeed, the notion that one could be saved by doing enough good work – and could even purchase one's justification through the buying of ‘indulgences’ – was ultimately the root cause of Martin Luther's rebellion against the Roman Catholic system in the sixteenth century, leading to the protestant Reformation.
This same basic debate has seesawed back and forth within the Church since Luther's day, with the pendulum swinging more toward faith in some groups and more toward works in others. But faith and works were never meant to be in dichotomy. We need only to look at the primary proof text for salvation by faith alone to see the unity of faith and works intended in scripture:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
For the ‘faith-only’ crowd, this one verse seems to win the argument. But if we look at the very next verse, we will understand the harmony between faith and works: ‘For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (v 10).
Taken together, this powerful passage tells us that we are indeed saved through faith alone, the amazing gift of a loving God, but that we are saved for a purpose: to do good works God actually prepare beforehand for us to carry out. Simply put, we are: saved BY faith... saved FOR works.” (Pgs198-199)
There is truth in the comments above. However, as we will see, the message is muddied by poor application and weak hermeneutics throughout his book. The resulting message is blurry at best, and egregious in its conclusions. Here is a very brief example of just a few places that communicate this error. Please note the socialistic tone. When commenting on Isaiah 58, Stearn says,
“These words describe a people and a society characterized by justice, fairness, and a concern for the poor. They portray not just a personal ethic but also a community ethic. The reference to ‘break[ing] every yoke’ suggests that any system, law, or practice that is unjust must be broken – whether personal, social, political, or economic. This sounds a lot like what I described earlier as the ‘whole gospel,’ the good news...” (Pg 56)
Richard goes on to say,
God will delight in His people when they obey Him. When the hungry are fed, the poor are cared for, and justice is established, He will hear and answer His servant's prayers; He will guide them and protect them, and they will be a light to the world. This is a vision of God's people transforming God's world in God;s way. There is no hole in this gospel. (Pg 57)
I am forced to ask: Can God delight in His people when the hungry are not fed, the poor are not cared for, and when there is yet injustice in the world? Will He refuse to hear and answer our prayers or refuse to guide and protect us when we fail to transform the world? After all, Jesus said “The poor you have with you always.” (John 12:8)
This being said, we know we will fail to solve the problem. (I am not suggesting we abandon our desire to help those in poverty.) Secondly, Paul told Timothy, “...evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Tim. 3:13) So, until Christ comes and rules with a rod of iron, (in the Kingdom age) there will be injustice. Have we no hope of protection or hope of answered prayers until then? Does this message comfort the poor in spirit who are weak and need encouragement - now? Is this the message of the whole Gospel?
“If we are to be a part of this coming kingdom, God expects our lives – our churches and faith communities too – to be characterized by these authentic signs of our own transformation: compassion, mercy, justice, and love – demonstrated tangibly. Only then will our light break forthlike the dawn, our healing quickly appear, and our cries for help be answered with a divine Here am I. (Pg. 57, Italics emphasis in original)
Isaiah 58 was written to the Jews under the Old Covenant and does not provide a picture of the way God deals with individuals today in the Church Age. To suggest it does would be to say, “God expects us” to provide “authentic signs of our own transformation: compassion, mercy, justice, and love – demonstrated tangibly” if we are to expect God to answer “our cries for help with a divine Here am I.” This is a hermeneutical failure and it communicates a false gospel - of works.
Continuing in the same theme, Stearns uses Matthew 25, (the parable of the sheep and goats) to describe the “final judgment” (pg 58). He incorrectly applies this passage to the Church and says that
“Those who had failed to respond, whose faith found no expression in compassion to the needy, were banished into eternal fire.” (Pg 59)
Stearns misapplies the sheep and goat judgment to include the Church, calls it the final judgment, which is untrue, (the Great White Throne judgment is the final judgment) and suggests that our works will ultimately be the determining factor for salvation, and makes the least of these the poor. The literal context concerns the judgment of Gentile nations at the time of the Second Coming of Christ. The resulting life or death decision made by the Lord concerns their treatment of Israel - Jesus' brethren - during the preceding Tribulation. Those found worthy are granted entrance into the Millennial Kingdom - the literal 1000 year reign of Christ on the earth. Entrance to the Kingdom provides “eternal life” to those who, as believing residents of His Kingdom, willingly submit to Christ's rule. To suggest that one's eternal salvation is guaranteed, or otherwise offered, as a result of behavior toward the poor, is not the true Gospel.
Following Stearns pattern he then makes apology for the interpretive echo saying,
“But I want to be clear that this does not mean we are saved by piling up enough good works to satisfy God. It means that any authentic and genuine commitment to Christ will be accompanied by demonstrable evidence of a transformed life.” He then provides 1 John 2:3-4 as his proof text, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (Pg 59)
When giving this application as part of the context the reader is forced to ask a few questions. For example: Does this mean that any believer who does not or has not given to the poor is unsaved? Does this mean that the believer who has not or does not give to the poor is in danger of losing their salvation? You can see the danger this loosely communicated message provides. Stearns even follows up his thoughts by driving this pain deeper into the soul of his reader when he says,
“...many who profess to follow Christ, will be found, in the end, to be false, deceiving even themselves.” (Pg 60)
Stearns also says,
“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 the lives that are characterized by Christ's concern for the poor.” (Pg 59)
I am forced to ask, how much “concern for the poor” is enough? How much do Christians have to “express in their compassion to the needy” to be assured they will not be “banished into eternal fire”? This kind of message leads only to fear and bondage. Not freedom in Christ!
Reinforcing the works based message he encourages the reader to actively pursue expressions of giving and serving as a “pattern of their lives and faith.” He says,
“That expression might involve small but regular gifts to compassion ministries, advocating on behalf of the poor, to government representatives, or regular volunteering at a soup kitchen, the local nursing home, or the Ronald McDonald House...” (Pg 60)
Once again I ask, is giving to a government agency (of all places), the Ronald McDonald house, serving at a nursing home, or volunteering at a soup kitchen the method of being assured that our salvation is secure in Christ? Is this the Gospel without a hole in it?
Stearns' message is the muddy water of a false gospel that clearly mingles faith and works as the formula for salvation. This message is not good news!
If a person has no “demonstrable evidence of a transformed life,” is he or she to be considered unsaved by those who do? (1 Cor 3:15) Can the poor themselves be saved if they have nothing to give? Can an incarcerated man or woman be saved if they cannot give “small but regular gifts to compassion ministries, advocating on behalf of the poor to government representatives”? Can a child be saved and assured of salvation if they fail to volunteer “at a soup kitchen, the local nursing home, or the Ronald McDonald House...”? Stearns says,
“There is no ‘whole gospel’ without compassion and justice shown to the poor. It's that simple.” (Pg 60)
It may seem like I am splitting hairs, but can you see the bondage to works this “whole gospel” develops?
If Stearns had said, “those who are born again should be reminded to care for the poor,” he would have been scriptural in his presentation. However, by suggesting that the message of the Gospel is incomplete, and has a hole in it, because it doesn't declare, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” ‘and care for the poor’ and you shall be saved,” we are preaching a gospel with a hole in it. This brings “The Hole in Our Gospel” my criticism. By communicating this very thing Stearns has set himself up as one who is proclaiming a false gospel – not the “whole” gospel he intends us to embrace. (Gal. 1)
While there are many other examples of his bad theology in his book, it is not my intention to condemn Richard Stearns with this critique. I trust his motivation is sincere and driven by a passion for the poor. It likewise appears that he desires to please the Lord. I pray that as he matures in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, these things will become clearer to him. My reason for putting this in writing is to make my voice known in defense of the faith and as an alarm for the Church—not to fall for another non-scriptural fad—regardless how well-meaning it is.
I have seen the fruit of this message and its agonizing effect on the Church. Believers who embrace this kind of teaching are hard pressed to answer (for themselves and for others) just how much work, service, giving, et al, is enough to meet God's standard to keep them from being a disappointment to Him.
Mistakenly trying to do enough good in their own flesh to be more pleasing to God, believers eventually become miserable and live under the guilt of doing too little to measure up. They are ultimately afraid of being “banished into eternal fire” (Pg 59) by the God who will not say “Here am I” (Pg 57) to them. I have found this most often in hospital rooms and around the beds of the dying. It is truly agonizing to watch believers enter into eternity in fear – fear of being cast away.
This kind of bondage, no matter how packaged, should be enthusiastically avoided.
*Under the Mosaic law, yeast was forbidden in bread used in the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover (Ex 12:8,15 - 20; Lev 23:6 - 8), and similar exclusion of yeast applied to offerings placed on the altar (Exo 23:18; 34:25; Lev 2:11; 6:17). The only exceptions were the use of yeast in the two wave loaves offered as firstfruits (Lev 23:17) and some of the cakes of bread offered with the fellowship offerings (Lev 7:13). Yeast, which brings about fermentation, is uniformly regarded in Scripture as typifying the presence of impurity or evil (Exo 12:15,19; 13:7; Lev 2:11; Deu 16:4; Mat 16:6,12; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1; 1 Cor 5:6 - 9; Gal 5:9). The two wave loaves, representing Israel and the Gentiles as forming the Church, contained yeast in recognition of imperfections in the believers (see Lev 23:17, note). The use of yeast in the flour seems intended likewise to represent evil within the kingdom of heaven. The teaching that yeast in this parable represents the beneficent influence of the Gospel pervading the world has no Scriptural justification. Nowhere in Scripture does yeast represent good; the idea of a converted world at the end of the age is contradicted by the presence of weeds among the wheat and bad fish among the good in the kingdom itself. Although Biblical truth has a beneficial moral influence on the world, the mingling of yeast is not the method of divine salvation or enlargement of the kingdom. Weeds never become wheat. The parable is, therefore, a warning that true doctrine, represented by the flour, would be corrupted by false doctrine (1 Tim 4:1 - 3; 2 Tim 2:17 - 18; 4:3 - 4; 2 Pet 2:1 - 3).
Paul Van Noy contacted Richard Stearns and this was his response:
"The reason I wrote this book was because I believe that the Christian community in the United States for the most part has been missing something in our understanding of the gospel. We tend to think of the gospel as a private transaction between us and God. It's about being forgiven for our sins and being saved, which is good news, it's the good news of the gospel that we have been forgiven and we've been saved, but often we leave it there, we leave it as a private transaction between us and God. I don't think the gospel was ever meant to be private. I think it was meant to be public as well, and just like we have a private relationship with the Lord, we have to have a public and transforming relationship with the world, and that as followers of Jesus Christ we're meant to take this good news across the globe, but not just the good news of salvation, but [also] the good news of God's love for the poor, his concern for the sick and the downtrodden and the broken-hearted. We're to minister in his name. We're to stand up for justice in our world and fight for the underdog. That's why the gospel was good news for the poor, and I think we in America have missed that. Yes, our churches do a lot of good things in our country and our communities and around the world, but we're not doing nearly enough. We're the wealthiest community of Christians in the history of Christendom in 2,000 years. We have tremendous resources, we have tremendous opportunities, and we need to rise to this challenge to truly be the gospel, to be the Good news to the world."
(Compass note: The underlined emphasis above was added to show Stearns continues to miss the point. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins. We are not saved to transform the world. The good news to the poor is only that Jesus paid for their sins. Nothing more, nothing less.)