03 March 2008

Gospel Lite

Tastes Great; Less Filling
by Phil Johnson

[From an article published last year in GraceTrax.]

The defining principle of historic evangelicalism was an unwavering devotion to the gospel. But the broad movement that calls itself "evangelical" today no longer stands for any clear point of view and can't seem to find consensus on even the most basic of gospel truths. How did that happen?



he word evangelical used to be a good one. The term dates back at least to William Tyndale, and it refers to the belief that the gospel message—the evangel—is the vital heart of all Christian truth. To a real evangelical, everything that is of primary importance in Christianity is embodied and summarized in the gospel, and any belief system based on an aberrant gospel is not authentically Christian.

Evangelicals' passion for keeping the gospel at the center explains why historic evangelicalism has always been theologically conservative, biblically based, warm-heartedly evangelistic, and dynamically experiential.

But the contemporary evangelical movement has become something completely different. Evangelicals can't even seem to agree among themselves anymore about what the gospel is or whether the factual and doctrinal details of our message are really even all that important.

Practically every trend in the evangelical movement today attempts to redefine the very points of gospel truth earlier evangelicals had universally deemed essential. That's true of the New Perspective on Paul, for instance, which proposes a wholesale redefinition of what Paul meant by "justification." It's true of Open Theism, which redefines God Himself (denying His sovereignty and His foreknowledge) and then relentlessly shaves the hard edges off every doctrine thought to make Him seem "too harsh"—starting with substitutionary atonement. It's especially true of postmodern and Emergent approaches to Christianity, where almost anything goes and every truth of Scripture, including the gospel, is reimagined daily.

Yet postmodernism, Open Theism, and the New Perspective (along with several other similar aberrant ways of thinking) have managed to make themselves quite at home under the broad tent of the contemporary evangelical movement. Read any recent issue of Christianity Today if you doubt this.

How did it come to this?

For the past fifty years or more, people calling themselves "evangelical" have been systematically watering down the gospel; filtering out the hard parts; and trying every way they can think of to tone down the offense of the cross. They have been serving up "gospel lite"—a pale imitation of the true gospel, specially distilled to taste good and go down easy. As more and more "refinements" have been made to the recipe, few people in the movement seem to be asking whether the message we're now collectively proclaiming to the world even has enough gospel left in it to be considered authentically evangelical. (It's my conviction that the correct answer to that question is no.)

The problem can be traced, I think, to a craving for academic respectability and worldly admiration. In the middle of the 20th century, several leading evangelicals proposed a whole new kind of evangelicalism—less militant, more tolerant, and (above all) shrewd and market-savvy about public relations. The neo-evangelicals seemed to operate on the assumption that the way to win the world is by making the evangelical movement and its message as appealing as possible to worldly people. In other words, let's "sell" Christianity the way Budweiser sells beer.

Why not? If they like us, surely they'll like Jesus, too.

The early compromises were subtle—just a shading of the message here and there to make it sound more positive and winsome. Instead of starting with sin, the way Romans 1 does, evangelicals decided that God's love made a more harmonious opening note for our gospel presentation: "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life."

By the 1970s, evangelical preachers seemed to have little to say about sin and human depravity. And the wrath of God was hardly mentioned even in a whisper. The problem of sin was never actually denied, mind you—it was merely shifted more and more into the background. The gospel's call to repentance was dropped in favor of urging people to seek personal fulfillment and "a personal relationship with God."

Soon evangelicals weren't mentioning sin at all anymore. It was as if they suddenly forgot that the human dilemma is all about eternal and spiritual matters. Instead, by the mid 1980s, the issues that dominated evangelical pulpits were temporal and psychological: low self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, a sense of purpose in life, a feeling of belonging, and (of course) how to be happy, healthy, wealthy, successful, and full of self-esteem. Evangelicals portrayed "the gospel" as a quick 'n' easy answer to those questions, and little else.

By the 1990s, some evangelicals were making scarcely any reference to the gospel at all. They were so bent on winning the world's admiration that their "outreach" strategy was reduced to trivial attempts to put some kind of spiritual-sounding spin on virtually every kind of worldly entertainment. And if they couldn't make something sound spiritual, they would sometimes do it anyway—just to entertain.

During the heyday of the seeker-sensitive movement in the early 90s, someone showed me a video featuring one megachurch's idea of how evangelism ought to be done. It was a 90-minute variety show, featuring comedy, drama, and dancing. Not one mention was made of the gospel and not one verse of Scripture was ever cited during the entire parade of acts. It was sheer entertainment. But then at the very end, an "invitation" was given, encouraging those who wanted their lives to be more meaningful to "accept Christ." Nothing in the entire presentation had given viewers any clue about who Christ is, what He did, why we need Him, or what it means to believe in Him. In other words, the gospel was totally missing.

I remember thinking even then that the quest for milder-than-ever flavors of Gospel Lite had already destroyed the evangelical movement.

Now, after several years of that kind of gospel-deficient ministry, multitudes of people who think of themselves as "evangelicals" are suffering from severe spiritual malnutrition. If trees may be known by their fruits (and if the latest Barna polls give any indication of what the evangelical movement is truly like today) it seems fair to assume that multitudes who call themselves evangelicals have never really been converted at all. And without any clear concept of the gospel to guide them, they are gullible, naïve, and susceptible to whatever false doctrine or spiritual ambiguity happens to be currently in vogue.

There's no denying that the evangelical movement has utterly lost its way. If that fact weren't already sufficiently clear, the point has now been punctuated emphatically—twice in the past year—with the resignations of top leaders from the movement's two most important umbrella organizations.

First it was the president of America's flagship evangelical society, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Exposed in a sordid scandal involving repeated instances of infidelity, homosexuality, and drug trafficking, he admitted that he was a "deceiver and liar"—and that he had been so "for all of my adult life."

Fewer than six months after that story broke, it was revealed that the president of the movement's largest and most important academic fraternity, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), had quietly converted to Roman Catholicism. He eventually resigned from ETS—even though (judging from various evangelical op-ed pieces and discussions on the Internet) he might well have been able to hang onto his post as ETS president if he had so desired. Majority opinion within the organization appeared to be in favor of keeping him in office. It seemed as if no one could think of any fundamental difference remaining between evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

When the NAE president disqualified himself, evangelicalism's house organ, Christianity Today, was having its 50th anniversary celebration. The magazine had marked the half-century mark by sponsoring a series of articles about the future of evangelicalism. In the first of those articles, CT's editors more or less admitted even they aren't really sure what a correct definition of evangelicalism would be nowadays. But their working description of the movement began with the observation that evangelicals are now amazingly broad, diverse, and ecumenical. Those, of course, used to be the primary badges of liberal Christianity.

It's crucial to understand that the demise of the contemporary evangelical movement does not stem merely (or even primarily) from a failure of leadership. It is mainly owing to the whole movement's chronic neglect of the gospel as it is presented in Scripture. All those attempts to tone down and tame the gospel have changed the fundamental character of evangelicalism's message. By systematically doing away with all the hard parts of the message, evangelicals have essentially done away with the gospel itself.

It is not now and never has been a valid goal to make our gospel message more winsome, more politically correct, more sophisticated-sounding, or simpler than it already is. Since Scripture recognizes and makes no apology for the fact that the message of the cross is itself a stumbling block and mere foolishness to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 1:23-25), Christians who are determined to devise a smart-sounding or inoffensive message are not being faithful ambassadors for Christ. He has commanded what our message should be. Our only duty is to deliver it without altering the sense of it.

Evangelicals for the past half-century have done a miserably poor job at that task, and it's time to take our calling more seriously.

The Gospel in Brief

The entire New Testament makes it clear that the gospel demands a response of faith and offers salvation and eternal life to all who do believe (Romans 1:16; Ephesians 1:13). In very simple terms, the gospel is the good news of how full redemption from sin has been accomplished solely through the atoning work of Christ, and how it can be applied to sinners (cf. 2 Timothy 1:10).

But what are the essential facts and doctrines that make up the gospel message?

The apostle Paul summarized the gospel succinctly in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. That passage is an outline only, and not an exhaustive treatise on the gospel, but it is perhaps the best starting place in all the New Testament to get a concise overview of what the gospel message consists of.

Notice that Paul makes it clear both here and elsewhere that a correct understanding (and proclamation) of the gospel includes not only the historical facts of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection but also the true meaning of those events "according to the Scriptures."

So even though some might suggest that Paul's shorthand gospel outline omits certain other doctrines Christians generally regard as fundamental precepts of gospel truth (such as Christ's deity and incarnation—or the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures), those things are necessary presuppositions of the facts Paul does list. Those and many other truths are included implicitly in the words "according to the Scriptures."

Jesus' deity, for example, is essential to a right understanding of what Paul means by "Christ." The principles of substitutionary atonement and justification by faith permeated all of Paul's teaching and consumed his energies when he wrote in defense of the gospel, so that there's no doubt he regarded those truths as utterly non-negotiable, too. It would be a serious mistake to conclude that because he omitted explicit mention of those points in this summary, he must have regarded them as extraneous to the gospel message. They are clearly assumed and subsumed in the statement "Christ died for our sins."

Remember, Paul condemned the Galatian false teachers for proclaiming a different gospel (Galatians 1:8-9), even though nothing suggests they ever disputed any of the historical facts Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15. Instead, their error related to the question of whether obedience to the law was instrumental in justification (Galatians 2:16). That, Paul said, is a fatal corruption of the gospel.


Phil's signature

44 comments:

Ken Abbott said...

Spot on, sir.

Just yesterday I led a small group of adults through 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16. Paul could not be more clear on the difference between God's wisdom and man's wisdom.

These days I come across a distressing number of (frequently young) professing evangelicals who insist we have to make the gospel appealing to the unbeliever. How many times have we been down this dead-end road?

Daryl said...

Thought I'd get in here ahead of the avalanche of protestations to your assessment...

Excellent article, a must read for all who call themselves Christian.

Thanks.

Elle said...

Thank you for this article, though I have great sorrow in recognizing the dilutions that have occurred and remain ongoing. The visual picture I have of this is a hydra of false teachings and popular figures--which one do we cut off first and prevent others from growing back?

To count all as loss and Christ alone my gain is where I keep my hope and focus. I do not desire to give discouragement its foothold, but do choose to give all to family and ministry the purest living water of the gospel--with no artificial sweeteners or preservatives.

May God alone preserve His people to the uttermost.

Leberwurst said...

The other day my daughter was asked by a new friend what her religion was, to which she replied "we're Calvinist", (a reflection of the faithful teachers in the youth ministry defining the doctrines of grace from a young age)...

She then shared some of what that means...

so much for watering down the Gospel!

Trey said...

xxPhil,

Is gracetrax a magazine you would recommend subscribing to? Anyone else have any thoughts? Trying to line up some periodical resources to subscribe to.

Trey said...

I have no idea how xx was inserted before Phil, sorry about that.

Laura said...

Phil, thank you for that. Great article.

DJP said...

Classic Johnson: concise, on-target, forceful.

Thanks!

SolaMeanie said...

Phil,

Send a copy of this to Mr. McLaren, will you?

I think he would profit by it immensely.

Terry Rayburn said...

Phil wrote:

"Not one mention was made of the gospel and not one verse of Scripture was ever cited during the entire parade of acts. It was sheer entertainment. But then at the very end, an 'invitation' was given, encouraging those who wanted their lives to be more meaningful to 'accept Christ.' Nothing in the entire presentation had given viewers any clue about who Christ is, what He did, why we need Him, or what it means to believe in Him. In other words, the gospel was totally missing."

Unfortunately, this has been true of almost every so-called Bible-believing church I have visited over the years (mostly Southern Baptist) since I moved to Tennessee in 1986.

I've often wanted to ask the preacher, "Who's this Jesus you're asking people to accept? You've scarcely mentioned him for 35 minutes, and now you want them to "come forward?"

Not that the morning message should consist of evangelistic sermons to the already-saved, but if you don't give the gospel, don't give an invitation.

By the way, another cause of Gospel decline is the quasi-Lordship invitation, something like, "Give your life to Christ today", as if that somehow earned our salvation, thereby saddling an unbeliever with "discipleship" before they've even heard the Good News.

Some respond, and either soon fall away, or become twice the son of Mr. Legality hell as the preacher who preached it.

KPcalvinist said...

For Trey & others wondering about Phil's reference to GraceTrax magazine:

I have found this publication to be biblically sound and of utmost relevance ... I have heard this from other people, too.

Check it out for yourself. A sample copy is available at this link: http://www.graceworx.com/pdf/GraceTrax.pdf

Stefan said...

Walk into any Christian bookstore, search for Christian resources on the Internet, or turn on the TV on a Sunday morning, and there is such a mess of competing doctrines out there, that it boggles the mind.

It would be so hard to discern the truth from among all the false teaching, except that a clear and careful reading of Scripture aided by the indwelling Holy Spirit makes it possible.

Identifying the true Gospel—and reading the whole of Scripture through the lens of the centrality of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ—is the starting point.

And once you have the golden measuring rod of the Gospel—against which teachings true and false can be measured—the cacophany fades away, and only the pure notes of the heavenly choir of angels is audible.

Why do I read this blog day in and day out? Because its authors are so singleminded in filtering out all the discordant notes. This post is an excellent example of that.

Michelle said...

Bullseye.

Evangelicalism has given way to evanjellycalism. Am I the only one who wonders what part Arminianism has played in the twisting of the true evangel and the "gotta present a more palatable gospel" mentality?

Stefan said...

Not so much Arminianism per se, but especially the Finneyite version of it, which seems to be predominant soteriology in North American evangelicalism.

lawrence said...

bravo my man bravo...

centuri0n said...

I say: that Johnson fellow often shows potential. We should let him post here more often ...

Mesa Mike said...

It seems to me that those who would try to make the gospel "palatable" to the unbeliever suffer the fallacy of thinking that people get saved by our successful efforts to convince them that they should "accept Christ."

But it is God who chooses whom will be saved, not the other way 'round.

Our job is not to convince the unbeliever that he needs a savior, Only to point him to The Savior.

donsands said...

Why do I feel discourged after reading this?

Actually the truth sets us free, don't it. It can be discouraging though.

It really was an exceptional post.

" ... and trying every way they can think of to tone down the offense of the cross."

I've really noticed this a lot lately.
"The Cross is such a cruel thing, and shouldn't we look past it, and look at life", is what I hear at times.

I see the Cross as the heart of the Bible. I pray I will cling to it all my life.

"In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me."

Everyday Mommy said...

Hey...maybe somebody oughta' hire this Johnson guy as their pastor...this kid is good.

Kent Brandenburg said...

I agree with your evaluation of the sad state of affairs.

Is gospel lite the gospel? I don't believe it is. Can there be more than one version of the gospel?

Isn't ecumenical evangelism and the lack of separation over the gospel a big reason for this, Phil? Shouldn't those preaching a false gospel be shamed by our separation? For instance, shouldn't association with Billy Graham be stopped? Isn't that the plan of the NT---separation?

Men might get together for the gospel, but what about separating over the gospel? If one's friends signed the Evangelical/Islamic pact, shouldn't one separate from those "friends?"

Mark and avoid. Let them be accursed.

Michelle said...

Stefan:

"And once you have the golden measuring rod of the gospel-against which teachings true and false can be measured-the cacophany fades away, and only the pure notes of the heavenly choir of angels is audible."

That's beautiful - you've been reading too much Spurgeon ;)

Aah, Charles Finney - interesting guy. Seems like he did what they're doing today - scratch God's sovereignty in salvation, give the evangel some help with an innovative flair, and they'll buy the message. I guess my point was that the method doesn't work without an Arminian approach to the gospel.

donsands said...

"For instance, shouldn't association with Billy Graham be stopped?"

I don't mind association with Billy Graham. i believe he's brother in Christ, and that he loved our Lord.

He was weak in some errors, because of his overwhelming love for people, but he preached the gospel in its essence, and To say he preached a false gospel is wrong IMO.

I believe God used this man for His glory.

Strong Tower said...

The Liberals Bible?


Well there ya go!

Stefan said...

Strong Tower

I'm surprised a study Bible like the one you mentioned took this long to appear.

Well, before that one came along, there was this one and its RSV and NRSV predecessors, although from what I gather, the first two editions seem positively conservative compared to the third (2000) edition.

Stefan said...

What's weird is that the same Oxford University Press that publishes the NRSV New Oxford Annotated Bible also publishes the Scofield Study Bible in a variety of versions. Talk about your polar opposites....

S.J. Walker said...

"Approach evangelism from a man sensitive angle; entertain him, and the message won’t matter. Approach evangelism from a God centric angle; convict him, and the entertainment won’t matter."

Strong Tower said...

The thing is, that before you can introduce "targeted" Bibles you have to remove the substance of what Scripture teaches. The words must first have been made void of meaning, then any meaning can be put in them. The evangel becomes, evanjelliclay, moldable to your needs. You can make it what you want it to be, even in your own image. And, if you need help, just ask, and a free form will be shipped with only a small donation. Also available with blank velum, thin, presoften, but ready for you to chew on until it is as soft as you like it...

The thing about Romans 1, is that it specifically addresses men who knew God, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. But, then again, it all depends upon what you mean by knew, or man or truth, or God...

You're not confused yet, you will be, you will be

RememberPolycarp said...

Excellent post as usual Phil! Accurate, honest, and precise!
Thanks!

Connie said...

We are training our oldest daughter on this matter (what the gospel is and how various Evangel. present/handle it) as we take her through a "Survey of Denominations" course we've designed (we home school). So far we've visited charismatic, Reformed Episcopal, and Health & Wealth.

Last night we visited a local church you'll recognize, GUTS. The 'gospel' preached was presented as a 'fresh start'. At the end of the service the altar call consisted of people raising their hand if they wanted a 'fresh start', and the pastor publically granting them a 'fresh start'. THAT'S IT--no invitation to come talk to the leadership for further guidance and prayer, no command to forsake sin, etc. It's just amazing (but not really surprising) what passes for the gospel today.

Johnny Dialectic said...

I am reminded how sad CT has become. It was great in the Henry days, but long ago sold its birthright for a mess of ad dollars.

Johnny Dialectic said...

"Am I the only one who wonders what part Arminianism has played in the twisting of the true evangel and the "gotta present a more palatable gospel" mentality?"

Yeesh. Is there any ill that a Calvinist can't somehow trace to Charles Finney or Billy Graham? Obesity, perhaps?

I think a truer answer is the rejection of inerrancy.

Harold McMickle said...

Great post. I taught I Cor. 15 yesterday and we spent quite a bit of time on Paul's summary of the gospel. It's hard to understand the significance of the resurrection apart from our need for redemption. That's why Paul started this section with a reminder of what the gospel really is.

Harold M.

Michelle said...

Johnny Dialectic:

I'd like to remind you that I'm a real person. Perhaps you need to work at being more kind and gracious. Like I tell my children, are we building someone up or tearing them down?

Thanks.

Tom said...

Man this issue really breaks my hart. So many people out there have no fire power when spiritual attacks come. The devil just laughs can they can talk up "Spiritual Warfare" but the sword is so dull and the shield is so thin that they are uterly inefective.
The gospel can be hard but there is a samuri saying "weep in the dojo, laugh on the battle field." We have got to arm Gods people!

Stefan said...

Johnny:

I added my comment in response to Michelle's precisely to allow for the possibility that there are classical Arminians out there (like yourself, presumably) who are at odds with 21st-century "evangelicalism" as Reformed types find themselves.

It seems as if there are two different Finneys out there: the one admired by revivalists, and the one decried by reformers, with each camp insisting that the other camp's version if him is categorically wrong. For now, I'm going with Phil's take on him, although I have read articles that are critical of Phil's piece. If his article is at all correct, is there any need for you to claim Finney as one of your own?

Libbie said...

I so needed to read this today. DonSands is right, it is somewhat discouraging, but it's also encouraging to know I'm not the only one looking at the picture and seeing it like that.

Timothy Wonil Lee said...

Thank you for this post. It sure kindled a fire in my heart as I read it. A true pyromaniac you are.

Thank God for you.

Johnny Dialectic said...

Stefan, my post wasn't about Finney per se, but about the scattershot and wholly inaccurate canards that are too easily dropped when "Arminianism" can be sniffed in the air. There is a lot that could be said about comparing "Finneyism" and "Edwardsism" and there is no dearth of scholarship on this, but that's well beyond the scope of this meta. (I've mentioned I'm not a fan of Finney's theological writings, but guess what? He is not the devil, either)

Michelle, I'm sorry you thought my comment was "unkind." I do apologize. I found it in keeping with the tone of TeamPyro and a lot of comments here (a tone I personally don't mind) so please, no offense intended. I would recommend you read Roger Olson's recent book on Arminianism, for an understanding of why I might have posted what I did.

Stephen Garrett said...

Good article with many points to seriously ponder.

God bless

Stephen Garrett

Michelle said...

Johnny:

I was overly sensitive yesterday - a close friend lost her husband very suddenly yesterday morning.

You're right - your comment was consistent with the tone of this blog and I shouldn't have taken it so personally. If I can't take the heat I should stay out of the kitchen, but I like this kitchen too much!

Stefan said...

Johnny: I agree with your previous comment that the more fundamental problem is the abandonment of the inerrancy of Scripture. Do that, and all bets (as it were) are off.

Johnny Dialectic said...

Stefan and Michelle, thank you for your most gracious responses.

D.J. Cimino said...

Earlier in the month my wife and I were near Nashville and went to a friends church on Sunday morning. The worship leader is a former member of CCM group Newsong. As he was speaking in between songs, the leader proceeded to tell us that we are all sinners, but the God loves us and will forgive us. His definition of sin that he gave to us was this: "Sin is making a mistake". A mistake? I thought a mistake was making a wrong turn or something like that. sigh.

Strong Tower said...

Well, if you have a GPS (God Pardoning Screwups) device, when you make that wrong turn, you'll find your way back home, eventually, don't you know, so who cares if you're lost!

Available in all culturally mobile ministry models. (Note responsible for taxes and licening or other hidden costs left undisclosed...)