An early evangelical ministry was the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International. By “full gospel” they meant the charismatic gifts. Whatever your view of those gifts, this ministry did get one thing right: the gospel is full, not partial. The full gospel means that the gospel is designed to touch and redeem every area of life — our minds and hearts, family, church, education, music, architecture, politics, technology, law, science, economics, and everything else.
Evangelicals or soterians?
One problem is that too often evangelicals have been soterians, not really evangelicals. That is, they have reduced the gospel to personal salvation, soteriology. So, when we hear “gospel,” we immediately think of people “getting saved” and little else. But in biblical terms, this simply isn’t the entire gospel. The gospel is much fuller. To be evangelical in the full sense is to stand for the gospel. To be a soterian is to stand for personal salvation. We should be evangelicals in the biblical sense.
The Un-Full Gospel
How did we get off track? How did we start declaring an un-full gospel? There are numerous factors, including developments in the surrounding culture that propelled the church toward an un-full gospel. Those would include the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Darwinism, existentialism, scientism, and, more recently, postmodernism. But here I’ll mention just three reductive developments within the church or Christianity itself.
The individualized gospel of the Reformation
First, the Reformation individualized the gospel. The Protestant Reformation restored to the church the gospel of the grace of God. The medieval church had gradually lost sight of salvation by grace. It had begun to bury grace under rites and ceremonies and sacraments. The church itself began to obscure Jesus Christ as the only hope of salvation. Martin Luther launched the Reformation in his rediscovery of the gracious God exhibiting himself in Jesus Christ. He recovered the truth that it’s by faith alone that we appropriate eternal life. The Roman church had taught that you could encounter the saving work of Jesus Christ only by joining the corporate body of the church (their church, of course). The Reformation correctly saw that the individual gets right with God by trusting in Jesus, not the church. Over time, however, the Reformation churches so identified the gospel with the individual and his relationship to God that they lost sight, at least partly, of the comprehensive, biblical gospel. Why is this?
Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel came at the long end of a personal struggle. For Luther, the gospel was all about getting a clear conscience on account of our Lord’s death on the Cross. In time, Luther’s struggle became a paradigm in many evangelical churches for the individual’s salvation. Man’s chief problem is that he is weighed down by sin, and he can be liberated, and get great relief, by trusting in Jesus. Appropriating that grace (by justification by faith alone) became a hallmark of biblical soteriology. Luther saw in Paul’s view of the gospel his own existential struggles. Many Christians later imported Luther’s experience and consequent understanding of the gospel back into the Bible. This meant a reduction of the biblical gospel. Luther was not wrong in what he affirmed, but his evangelical successors were mistaken in what they omitted.
The gospel can’t be limited to how the sinner gets right with God on the basis of our Lord’s death and resurrection. The gospel is how God is using his Son’s comprehensive work to comprehensively overturn sin in the world. Personal redemption and justification by faith alone are two critical dimensions of the gospel, but the gospel is much bigger than both. Because many Christians in the last two and a half centuries have embraced this truncated, individualized view, they have shrunk the gospel.
The dualized gospel of dispensationalism
Second, dispensationalism dualized the gospel. The 19th century saw the rise of dispensationalism. It constituted a comprehensive hermeneutics (way of interpreting the Bible), but for our purposes it’s important to understand that it divided the Bible into two separate messages: one message to the nation of Israel, and another message to the Gentile church. The Jews were considered to be God’s earthly people, and the church his heavenly people. God’s promises to the Jews were for this world, and his promises to the church were for the eternal world. The Bible itself was deemed a dual book. The OT and parts of the NT were given to Israel. Much of the NT, and particularly Paul’s epistles, were given to the church. Among other things, this meant that the NT promises to the church, which assumed the OT promises to the Jews, had to be cut off from the OT, which was a Jewish book. The gospel promises are for personal victory and our future home in heaven. They have nothing to do with God’s redeeming the entire creation by his Son’s death and resurrection. This earthly victory could only happen by the enforced kingdom during the centralized government of the future millennium during which Jesus literally rules in Jerusalem over the Jews. The Gentile church by that time would be far away in heaven, having been raptured away from the earth.
The dispensational gospel is the Gentile gospel, and the Gentile gospel saves individuals from sin and prepares them to meet the Lord. The Jewish gospel includes restoring ethnic Israel to her God-given land of Canaan and overspreading the earth and its nations with Jewish blessings. This will all be delayed until the future millennium.
This dualistic hermeneutic divides what God unites. The Bible teaches the unity of God’s purposes. God’s gospel and the law and covenant and promises come to their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. All of those who trust in Jesus Christ are the heirs of the biblical promises, both the OT and NT (Eph. 2:11–13; Gal. 3:25–29). But if you believe the dispensational, dualized gospel, while you might understand the basics of our Lord’s death and resurrection and our future home with the Lord, you won’t understand the unified, comprehensive gospel of the Bible. And this misunderstanding is precisely what has dominated much of evangelicalism for the last few generations.
The privatized gospel of evangelicalism
And then there’s the privatized gospel of evangelicalism. Christianity pervasively influenced both the United Kingdom and the United States late in the 18th century, even if it was sometimes weak. The United States broke away from the idea of a national church (the Church of England) because each of the colonies, which became states, already had their own established churches or religion (Christianity). Over time, under the influence of secularism, this separation from a national church came to be interpreted secularly, as a separation from religion in general and Christianity in particular. This is what the American idea of the “separation of church and state” means today. The United States Constitution says nothing of the kind. With the growth of secularism, “separation of church and state” came to mean that Christianity may be practiced in the individual life and the family and most of the church, but it has little or no place in the public sphere. The theology of much of evangelicalism in the 20th century implicitly assented to this divorce between public and private. A reduced piety limited the Faith to otherworldly concerns, except for personal evangelism. This theological approach was well suited to the strong public/private divide of American secularism.
If during Christmas you display a manger scene on a statehouse lawn, you might be violating the separation of church and state. If a Christian teacher sets a Bible or her desk in the government school, she’s unlawfully intruding religion into the public space. In social debates over same-sex “marriage,” so-called, opponents may speak of “traditional” marriage but are considered totally out of line to quote the Bible. Religion is about one’s personal life.
This was also the Marxist approach. One of its maxims was, “[R]eligion is a man’s private concern.” And it has increasingly become the Western democratic approach: your religious convictions regarding human sexuality (and anything else) are fine, just as long as you keep them in church, or, more preferably, between your two ears.
By contrast: Paul tells us that the goal of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection is to bring all things in heaven and earth and under the earth into worshipful obedience to him (Phil. 2:4–8). In other words, the gospel is God’s way of peacefully subduing the world to God’s will. But the privatized gospel, under pressure of a radically public secularism, keeps that gospel Lordship bottled up in the church and family. It fences in the good news. It says that it’s all right if individuals and churches trust in Jesus, but going out in the public square and declaring the full truth of Christianity is frowned on, and in some regimes, criminalized. But, by and large, the church in the West hasn’t preached that comprehensive gospel. It’s preached a private gospel and thus put it’s light under a bushel (Mt. 5:15). This isn’t the full gospel of the Bible.