What is "Half the Gospel" Anyway?

Sharon Evangelism, Social Justice, Theology 9 Comments

I’ve recently found myself in a number of situations in which preachers and Christians speakers were conveying what, I would call, “half of the Gospel.” By this I mean that they teach parts of the Gospel perfectly, even brilliantly, but also fail to mention key parts of the Gospel. It’s not that these teachers were saying anything wrong, but they were not conveying the whole truth either.

Now this has always bothered me, but I was willing to look past it. After all, God IS love, so it’s great to hear a sermon on loving the poor and caring for the needy. And God IS a God of holiness and judgment, so it’s important to learn about the severe implications that His character has for our lives. Because God is infinite, it would be impossible to encapsulate all that He is into one sermon. And so I rationalized that these messages about “half the Gospel” were ultimately ok. Hearing half the Gospel is better than hearing none of it at all, right?

But recently I’ve started to reconsider this position. In fact, I began to wonder if “half” the Gospel is really even the Gospel at all. Is the Gospel kind of like Math?–I may not know all about Math and its abstracts concepts of calculus and algebra, but I know how to add and subtract, so I can definitively say that I know Math. In the same way, if I only learn one part of the Gospel, can I then claim that I know the Gospel? Or if I preach just one part of the Gospel, can I say that I have actually preached the Gospel?

The answer to this question is a resounding “no.” The Gospel is not like Math at all in that sense. The Gospel, in fact, is more like a cake. As a friend of mine so cleverly put it, if you only have half the ingredients of a cake, you don’t have a cake at all. If you have a couple eggs and some salt, that’s not a cake–that’s scrambled eggs.

And that is what we get when we only preach half the Gospel–we get a scrambled eggs theology that ultimately looks nothing like the Gospel at all.

Some of you may be thinking this is a bit harsh. After all, if God is love, and we preach love, are we not still teaching the heart of God? I would argue no, because preaching God’s love without God’s judgment is to fundamentally misunderstand God’s love in the first place. God’s love is so radical because of the judgment that we deserve. He is a righteous, holy God who has every right to condemn us, yet He does not. Thus to preach a Gospel of love without judgment is to domesticate God into some sort of warm and fuzzy deity in the sky who is devoid of wonder and fear-inspiring awe. It is also to make the cross utterly incoherent. Why would God let His Son endure such a gruesome death if not for his sense of justice?

What’s more, you have to look at the implications of “half the Gospel.” Yes, Jesus cared about the poor, but if our ultimate goal is to feed the poor and clothe the hungry without ever addressing people’s spiritual needs, then what are we left with? Say that we were able to clothe everyone, feed everyone, and heal everyone, would that change eternity one bit? No. Scripture tells us that life on earth is but an instant compared to eternity, so we would be laboring to make one instant better, while ignoring the glaring blind spot of peoples’ eternal needs. As Derek Webb puts it, we would ultimately be clothing corpses.

In this way, half the Gospel is not the Gospel at all–it is either secular social activism, or Pharisaic religiosity, but it is not the Gospel. For that reason, keep your eyes and ears open for these speakers of half-truth. And more importantly, make sure your life preaches the whole truth, because half the truth is actually little more than a dressed up lie.

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Comments 9

  1. Tiffany James

    I have to say that I disagree with you. I think that people can speak on one aspect of the gospel and be speaking the truth. Just because they do not mention the cross or God’s judgement it doesn’t mean that the Gospel isn’t being revealed. Take Tony Campolo for example- He spoke about what happens when you let the Holy Spirit envade you. You are envaded with a sense of joy but yet pain- pain when you look into the eyes of hurt, chaos, and struggle. You will be changed and through that change you will come to love others and care about social justice. If you look at Jesus’ life he fought for social justice. He healed the physical wounds of human beings, he feed the 5,000…there are many examples of Jesus bringing joy and hope to those who are persecuted, mourning, poor, and lonely. We cannot over look this. This is the Gospel. This is the truth and we should be willing to fight for it. Jesus did not judge and if we are supposed to take him SERIOUSLY we wouldn’t either. Jesus fed the poor and cared for the needy and if we took him SERIOUSLY we would as well and if we take this seriously we would talk and preach about this aspect of the Gospel. We can be saying, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself” and be speaking the Gospel- the Word of God are those words. LOVE is the Gospel. Jesus did everything through love. “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son”…Christ died for us out of love. He did not die to cover up crap or our nasty undeserving souls. We are deserving because God IS love and with true there are no strings attached.

  2. tiffany james

    By saying, “Christ died for us out of love. He did not die to cover up crap or our nasty undeserving souls.” I am meaning that God didn’t die to cover things up for us. He died because of the love he had for us. Ultimately God’s love brought him to earth to join in our humanity. Through the journey of being a human He felt was it felt like to be hungry and he wanted to feed those who were hungry. He knew what pain was and he wanted to help those who were in pain. Love was in the core of his being- His soul was emersed in love. This is why I think when we preach love and social justice we are preaching the Gospel.

  3. emyegeeayen

    i dont think ure wrong in saying that, tiffany =]
    Jesus IS love. His whole life was and is a testimony of love.
    the message of the Gospel is love.
    the basis of our faith and salvation is love.

    but the problem, to me, comes when all pple ever focus on is just that – love.
    to speak about the gospel in only one aspect, to me, is kinda like half-truth, which, by definition then, is a lie.
    it’s not wrong to focus on love, but i think it is wrong to forget evrything else.

    love is best appreciated when you see judgement. when you see the God of the Old Testament. when you see how He judged Israel episode by episode. as you come into the New Testament beginning with the birth, life and death of God’s only Son, you begin to see what love is. you begin to understand the fullness and magnitude and cost of that love.

    as such, two choices can then be made:
    1. believe and accept with indescribable gratefullness in your heart.
    2. you just cant accept this; it is not possible nor “rational”. Jesus has become the stumbling block to your faith.

    telling someone how much God loves them is not wrong in and of itself.

    but the challenge comes in helping them understand and grasp the magnitude and awesomeness of the love God has towards them.

    and that is best brought across through analysing and studying judgement.

    it aint a Gospel if you dont say why Jesus chose to die on the cross. “Gospel” means the good news. and why is the news good if all one ever hears is that Jesus is love?
    what’s so good about that?
    that we have an example to follow, maybe.
    but what’s the big deal? there are hundreds other “good examples” to follow. like David, Paul, Jeremiah..

    the big deal about Jesus is that He took God’s judgement on US upon HIMSELF on the cross.
    the good news is that WE dont have to suffer the wrath of God now.
    the good news is that WE dont have to live in lakes of burning sulphur for all eternity.
    the good news is that WE can now be reconciled with God.
    all this is because of what Jesus did – HE took OUR sentences.

    the even more wonderful thing is that He still lives today~!

    the basis of my faith is LOVE and FORGIVENESS.
    the thing that ties both aspects is JESUS and the JUDGEMENT now void.

    love.

  4. David Baker

    Hey bloggers! Sharon, very good words! I must say that the failure to preach the complete gospel – i.e. focusing on one aspect – is akin to painting a rainbow with only one or two colors. It is true that both colors may be in the rainbow, but they in and of themselves are not a true rainbow. For we must not make the error of confusing the parts with the whole.

    Unfortunately, far too often we have mistaken the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 9:35) with the diluted gospel of a particular biblical commentator (i.e. Tony Campolo in Ms. James response). For any failure to mention the cross in our Gospel presentation is at best a monumental omission and at worst pure blasphemy. If we choose to focus on God’s love – admittedly only one aspect of His character – we must be SURE to speak of this love in its proper BIBLICAL context.

    To do just this, let us turn to 1 John, beginning with verses 7-8. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love if from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” I believe Mr. Campolo and possibly many of us reading this blog would like to stop here because this is nice and makes us feel good about ourselves and about our God. Unfortunately (not really!), John does not stop here. “In this THE LOVE OF GOD was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. IN THIS IS LOVE, not that we have loved God but that He has loved us and sent His Son to be the PROPITIATION for our sins.” (v. 9-10). Propitiation is a nice little theological word that basically means that the wrath of God – intended for us because of our sin and His holiness and justness – has been poured out and quenched on the cross by Jesus Christ who was our substitute, atoning sacrifice. This is the root of the love of God. Jesus reveals in Luke that He came to “seek and to save that which is lost.”

    I must also emphasize, then, that Jesus was and is no social do-gooder. To classify Him as such is to rob Him of His just glory. Did he love people? Yes. Did he see the people like “sheep without a shepherd” and “have compassion” for them (Matthew 9:36)? Certainly. But, He is FAR FAR FAR more! Colossians 1:15-20 reveals that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all of creation. For by Him, all things were created, in heaven and on earth . . . all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through Him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or on in heaven, MAKING PEACE BY THE BLOOD OF HIS CROSS.”

    I can’t just stop here. The passages of His majesty and glory are too numerous, but just one more. Hebrews 1:2-4 – Jesus “whom God appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world. He is radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. AFTER MAKING PURIFICATION FOR SINS, HE SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE MAJESTY ON HIGH, having became as much superior to the angels (for he lowered himself when He became man – see Hebrews 2) as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs – VERY GOD!”

    If your thoughts of Jesus Christ and the love of the Triune God do not make you fall down on your face in praise, you have completely missed the Gospel. Do not trifle Him by saying that the only He joy he sought was physical and temporary. Ms. James, you are right to assert that Christ did not die to cover up crap or our nasty underserving souls. No, Jesus died to satisfy the just wrath of God which is poured out against all ungodliness and unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Thus, He died not to COVER UP, but precisely BECAUSE OF our crap and undeserving soul. He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might take on His righteousness. And there are strings attached, for Jesus prayers in the Garden before His subsequent trial, death, and resurrection reveal that there was and is but one way for man’s broken relationship with His Creator to be restored!

    Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!

    Now don’t get too excited. I’m only starting to get excited. For this is the gospel. One that is initially ugly and foreign to us; one that doesn’t mesh with our Enlightenment-driven notion of man-made dignity. One that many biblical commentators – those who wish to avoid the cross and God’s judgment – don’t like to note because it seems too exclusive; too harsh; too narrow-minded. Ahh, but here is the beauty and the TRUTH of the Gospel.

    Colossians 1:21-23. “And YOU, who ONCE were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now RECONCILED in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you HOLY and BLAMELESS and ABOVE REPROACH before Him, if you indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven . . ” WOW!

    Do we need to summarize?. Paul does it for us! 1 Corinthians 15. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”

    I appreciate the heart behind those who preach the love of God. Indeed, it is the this love which has provided our way of salvation. But, let us not be confused. OUR love is simply a response to the grace and forgiveness we have received through the blood of Jesus on the cross, a symbol of suffering and shame, which has become for us the highest image of love. For it is through the cross that we know love and can therefore love others as we have been loved. Thus, our love is but a response to the complete picture of the Gospel. We can never start with social justice and move towards the Gospel. It must always be the reverse.

    I fear I have said too much or too little. If I had said too much, it is because of my feebleness to provide a worthy response such that the Gospel demands. If I have said too little, it is simply because of time and space here on this blog. Please, if you struggle with this, read the Gospel. Read Romans 5. Read Hebrews 1-2. Read all of it. From Genesis to Revelation we have but one Gospel. It is beautiful. It is powerful. It is complete. May we never add to it or take away from it. Above all, let us be faithful. I take the stand of Martin Luther – show it to me in the Scripture . . .

  5. J.D.

    Sharon, absolutely beautiful post. I found myself worshipping God in the Gospel as you elaborated on how God’s love becomes even more magnificent to us when we consider it in light of what we deserve. Even the doctrine of hell makes me worship the love of God, because it makes me realize just how miraculous it is He loves me considering what I deserve. You are right, a love that does not factor in God’s holiness is a truncated, dwarfed love. Not only is it unbiblical, it is unsatisfying. We know the love of the Father because we realize we stunk like the pigs when He ran to us. 1 John 3:16.

  6. Jeff

    Sharon,
    I feel like I agree with you, but I don’t know exactly that I AGREE
    with you.

    I think what creates these “half gospels” as you put are people who are trying to struggle because they want to do something. They want to have some point to their life, so they seek and try to establish something so it’s like “oh, HERE’S MY MISSION!”

    It’s the same cup of tea with a different taste.

    Here’s the thing though…

    Some of what you’re talking about is related to this penal substitutionary atonement that is so central to the issues with Brian McLaren’s work. I’m sure you’re familiar with this but just in case people reading this comment aren’t.
    http://www.theopedia.com/Penal_substitution_theory_of_the_atonement
    But anyways, this like a lot of theories about the Bible is something that has evolved over time.

    I think something that we can both agree is that when you start trying to explain God, the whole thing becomes rather hollow. We are no more able to explain God than my dog is capable of explaining a mortgage loan.

    The point is for us to walk in relationship with a God who created us, and cares for us. THAT is what we were created for. Not for morality, not for some mission, not for beating people with the Bibles, not for interpreting texts.

    We were created to live in relationship with our creator.

  7. Julie

    Sharon, I love your thoughts about the Gospel. Here’s a great quote from Justin Buzzard: “Many Christians inadequately appreciate and apply the Gospel and don’t appear to grasp how radical, how good, the good news is. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension are reduced to the long forgotten starting line of the Christian life, rather than appreciated as the message, the oxygen, that enables each new stride, all progress forward, in the Christian life. If you view the Gospel merely as what makes you a Christian, rather than also what matures you as a Christian, you minimize the Savior and maximize yourself. The consequences of holding to a mere starting-line Gospel, a mere starting-line Savior, are severe. The negative effects are: legalism, joylessness, pursuit of self-glory rather than God’s glory, fear, prayerlessness, pride, and loss of concern for the lost. The comprehensive, robust Gospel presented in the Scriptures teaches that each step forward in the Christian life is made only through reliance upon our Savior. Our sin is that bad, and our Savior is that great.” Another writer, Dave Harvey, says: “There really is no end to the glories of the Gospel, which is why we will spend eternity marveling that the holy God would choose to crush His only Son for the sake of sinful man. The Gospel explains our most obvious and basic problem, sin has separated us from God and from each other…Without the cross we are at war with God, and He is at war with us. The Gospel is therefore central to all theological truth, and is the overarching reality that makes sense of all reality. Never make the mistake of thinking that the Gospel is only good for evangelism and conversion. By the Gospel we understand that, although we are saved, we remain sinners. Through the Gospel we receive power to resist sin. Accurately understanding and continually applying the Gospel IS the Christian life.” Amen and amen!

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