The Hole in Our Gospel

Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2009). $22.99, 303 pages.

Richard Stearns is the president of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization. Prior to that, he was the CEO first of Parker Brothers Games and then of Lenox, Inc., maker of fine china. The Hole in Our Gospel is, in part, the story of how God called him to leave the business world and embrace the work of helping the world’s neediest people.

But in greater part, this book is about the hole in the gospel preached in many American churches. American evangelicals believe that God forgives our sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, enabling us to live eternally in his presence. Stearns strongly believes this message himself.

A close reading of the Bible reveals, however, that the gospel is more than just a message promising individual salvation. “[B]eing a Christian,” Stearns writes, “or follower of Jesus Christ, requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God. It also entails a public and transforming relationship with the world.”

Skillfully blending personal memoir, biblical study, international statistics, and heart-wrenching stories, Stearns challenges evangelical Christians in America to use their tremendous material and financial blessings to serve the world’s neediest people rather than themselves. It is a prophetic message, but Stearns delivers it with humility, love, and an inspiring call to action.

The book is written for the average reader, and it comes with study questions, which will enhance its use by church small groups and Christian book clubs.

“Politics for the Greatest Good” by Clarke D. Forsythe

Clarke D. Forsythe, Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009). $23.00, 319 pages.

The 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama, taken together with the Democratic control of the Senate and House since 2006, was a frustrating event for the pro-life movement in America. Obama is the most pro-choice president ever elected, and the Democratic Party is the most powerful institution in the pro-choice movement. Pro-lifers expect to see pro-choice executive orders, pro-choice legislation, and pro-choice appointments to the federal bench.

Clarke D. Forsythe wrote Politics for the Greatest Good in part to address that frustration. He is senior counsel to Americans United for Life and a leading policy strategist in the pro-life movement. But in larger part, he wrote the book to answer a nagging question: “whether it’s moral or effective to achieve a partial good in politics and public policy when the ideal is not possible.” He answers affirmatively, and along the way helps readers understand the nature and value of prudence in the public square, especially when it comes to enacting a pro-life legislative agenda.

Prudence does not rank high on a modern person’s list of politically sexy terms. Why trade in the quotidian retail of prudence, after all, when you could traffic wholesale in hope, change, and fierce moral urgency? Why settle for anything but the very best? The answer is simple. The best—moral perfection—is unattainable. All anyone can hope to achieve is the greatest good under the circumstances. The ability to identify and realize that greatest good is the virtue of prudent statesmen and citizens.

Prudence was not always held in contempt. It is highly esteemed in the Bible, especially in the Wisdom Literature. It was one of the four cardinal virtues, recognized by Greeks, Romans, and medieval Christians. It was also considered a virtue by the American Founders, who regarded it as a key component of republican self-government.

According to Harry V. Jaffa, whom Forsythe cites repeatedly and appreciatively, the classical understanding of prudent statesmanship revolved around four questions:

  • Is the goal worthy?
  • Does the political leader exercise wise judgment as to what’s possible?
  • Does he or she successfully apply means to ends?
  • Does he or she preserve the possibility of future improvement when all the good cannot be immediately achieved?
  • Forsythe argues that both William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln were model statesmen in their fights against the slave trade and for the union, respectively. Wilberforce modeled perseverance, as his opposition to the slave trade took forty-five years to come to ultimate fruition. Lincoln modeled judgment, as he repeatedly made hard choices to maintain the union without allowing the spread of slavery. Of the two, Lincoln is more controversial among modern historians, who point to his suspension of habeas corpus and other civil rights violations as examples of bad statesmanship. But Forsythe argues, convincingly to my mind, that Lincoln did the best he could under the circumstances.

    Of course, each man faced challenges not only from slavers and secessionists, but from fellow partisans advocating and working toward immediate and full abolition, despite the absence of widespread support for such a policy. In the American context, this radical abolitionism occasionally resulted in John Brown-style violence. This “challenge of moral perfectionism,” as Forsythe calls it, condemns prudence as complicity in injustice. The recent assassination of late-term abortionist George Tiller by Scott Roeder reminds us that such moral perfectionism is present even in today’s controversies. (Although it should be pointed out that every pro-life organization, including the radical Operation Rescue, condemned the assassination.)

    If the proof is in the pudding, then the proof of prudence is the success of both Wilberforce and Lincoln in their respective endeavors, which not only ended great evils, but also preserved great goods (the union, in Lincoln’s case). That Lincoln’s successors frittered away Lincoln’s successes by allowing the rise of Jim Crow segregation is a black mark on them, not on him.

    Forsythe takes these lessons, both philosophical and historical, and applies them to the abortion controversy and related bioethical issues in the final chapters of the book. He argues on principled grounds that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, but he recognizes that the Supreme Court is unlikely to do so on its own and that a constitutional Human Rights Amendment is unlikely to pass. Therefore he advocates an incremental strategy to draw fences around America’s abortion regime, primarily at the state level. The Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence now allows for some restrictions on abortion. States may require waiting periods, parental consent, and informed consent, among other things, and they may also prohibit outright certain types of late-term abortion. Forsythe urges pro-lifers to advocate such measures.

    He also urges them to begin thinking through model legislation for other controversial issues, such as cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and in vitro fertilization. In many states, the law lags behind scientific development, operating in a sort of legislative vacuum. Forsythe urges pro-lifers to extend their thinking so that nascent human life is protected in these cases as well.

    At the outset of this review, I noted that Forsythe wrote Politics for the Greatest Good to address pro-lifers’ frustration with the election of President Obama and the setback for achieving pro-life goals that it entails. But such frustration should call forth more, not less, pro-life activism:

    It may seem counterintuitive, but one solution to the frustration that results from high expectations in politics is to get more involved and better informed…. By spending more time understanding politics and public policy, we can have more confidence that we know how to contend with the obstacles to political reform and have a better understanding of which candidates or party have a better grasp on just and effective solutions.

    I cannot imagine a better insight with which to close my review of this informative book.

    General Council Resolutions Online @

    The 53rd General Council of the Assemblies of God will meet August 3-7, 2009, in Orlando, Florida. In addition to a leadership conference and worship services, the General Council will consider a variety of resolutions in its business sessions. Over at, I’m posting copies of the resolutions up for discussion every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until the council begins. Take a look, and add your voice!

    “Christian Mission in the Modern World” by John Stott

    John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008). $8.00, 191 pages.

    In 1975, InterVarsity Press published Christian Mission in the Modern World by John Stott. It recently reissued the book as part of the IVP Classics series. Like almost everything Stott has written, the book repays careful reading.

    Stott, who is British, is the type of evangelical Christian that we do not often see in America. In America, evangelicals generally work outside the structures of the so-called mainline churches. Stott is a priest of the Church of England and a participant in ecumenical dialogues. He is a pastor, theologian, activist, bridge-builder, and public intellectual. American evangelical leaders tend to specialize in one or two of those areas. Indeed, I cannot think of a precise American counterpart to Stott.

    Christian Mission in the Modern World grew out of the 1975 Chavasse Lectures in World Mission that Stott delivered at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. It investigates the meaning of five words in conversation with then-current trends in both evangelical and ecumenical missiology: mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion. As should be expected in a book published more than thirty years ago, some of the persons, events, and documents Stott discusses are no longer current. Even so, however, Stott’s insights into the meaning of these words still provoke thought. Let us briefly take a look at them.

    First, mission: What is the mission of the church? It is common to distinguish evangelical and ecumenical missiologies by saying that the former is concerned with evangelism and the latter with social action. There is an element of truth in this, although Stott points out that evangelicals are concerned with social action and ecumenicals with evangelism—at least according to the leading documents of their respective movements. Turning to John 17:18 and 20:21, Stott argues that Jesus sends the church into the world to do the same kinds of things the Father sent him into the world to do. Stott therefore defines mission as “Christian service in the world comprising both evangelism and social action.”

    Second, evangelism: If Christian mission comprises both evangelism and social action, is there nonetheless a priority between them? Stott argues that there is, specifically, that evangelism takes priority over social action. But what is evangelism? Stott defines it as “announcing or proclaiming the good news of Jesus.” This proclamation centers around five things: (1) the facticity and significance of certain events, namely, Christ’s death and resurrection; (2) the reliability of the witnesses of these events—both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles; (3) the affirmations that Jesus is both Savior and Lord because of these events; (4) the promises Jesus makes to those who come to him in faith; and (5) the demands of repentance and faith that Jesus requires of those who come to him in faith.

    Third, dialogue: Given that evangelism is announcement or proclamation, is there any room for religious dialogue in evangelical missiology? That all depends on what you mean by dialogue. As an evangelical, Stott argues that entering into dialogue with others is a mark of authenticity, humility, integrity, and sensitivity. Dialogue neither requires us to abandon Christ or our faith, but it requires us to identify ourselves as sinners and the people we are evangelizing as the image of God. The goal of dialogue is “mutual understanding,” but for the Christian dialogue is also “a necessary preliminary to evangelism.”

    Fourth, salvation: The crucial issue in both evangelism and dialogue is salvation, but what is salvation? Stott begins by stating that it is not psychophysical health or sociopolitical liberation. These options were common among non-evangelical theologians in the late 1960s and early 70s. Rather, salvation is “personal freedom” along the following three spectra: “from judgment for sonship,” “from self for service,” and “from decay for glory.” I think it appropriate to use the theological terms justification, sanctification, and glorification as synonyms for what Stott is talking about when he uses the words salvation or personal freedom.

    Fifth, conversion: Pluralism is the religious attitude of both modernity and postmodernity. Such an attitude has, as Stott puts it, a “distaste for conversion.” But the message of Jesus was conversionist in nature. He preached, “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Biblical conversion, according to Stott, has five elements: repentance, church membership, social responsibility, cultural discernment, and reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit.

    As an Assemblies of God pastor, I find Stott’s discussion of Christian mission useful as a corrective to missiological tendencies within my own fellowship that privilege evangelism at the expense of social action. Moreover, the theology that underlies Stott’s missiology refuses to accommodate itself to a narrow understanding of conversion that focuses on decisions for Christ at the expense of discipleship in Christ. God’s grace requires a two-fold response of faith and works, for authentic Christian belief produces changed behavior.

    By the same token, however, I believe that ecclesiology is the missing element within Stott’s formulation of Christian mission. It is not merely the individual Christian’s mission to serve the world through evangelism and social action; it is the church’s. It is not merely the individual Christian who practices evangelism and dialogue; it is the church. And when individuals receive the gift of salvation and choose conversion to Christ, they do so within the context of a church. The church, in other words, is God’s mission. It is both the effect of God’s mission to the world through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and the agent of Christ’s continuing mission in the world.

    Ecclesiology was not as prominent an issue in the early 1970s when Stott wrote Christian Mission in the Modern World. Thirty-four years ago, the church was still a quasi-Constantinian institution in both England and America; in other words, it was a respectable pillar of society. In 2009, we can no longer make that assumption about the church’s role. Consequently, we must focus on the churchly character of mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion. But of course, no one should anachronistically fault Stott for failing to take into account these new conditions.

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