The Dangers of Preaching a Partial Gospel

Editor's Pick, Perspectives

Our popular reading of Ephesians 2 is only a partial recognition of the gospel.

We use Ephesians 2 to teach the doctrine of justification or eternal salvation—though even that language may be uncareful. The first half of the chapter has fallen prey to American evangelicalism’s proud legacy as a “revivalist” tradition.2 We’ve relegated the gospel to an escape plan.3 Imagine an irreparably damaged ship sinking with thousands of potential victims aboard. Saving the ship is implausible, so the default plan is to marshal as many passengers as possible to lifeboats before the vessel disappears beneath the water’s surface. Our emphasis on revivalism treats the gospel as tantamount to a lifeboat. For some time now, our message has been, essentially, “The world is beyond repair, and God will one day destroy it. Those who refuse to disassociate with the world by accepting Christ as Redeemer will eventually go down with the ship. But those who accept his invitation will spend eternity with him, experiencing bliss in a heavenly abode; we need only endure until he returns.”

I cannot count the many occasions I’ve heard this revivalist message, or some form of it, blaring through speakers in a football stadium or arena, or from a well-intended preacher fulfilling pulpit duties. Even if we set aside its poor eschatology, the revivalist message always provokes questions. What if God intends to redeem the ship? What if we, empowered by the Spirit and armed with a comprehensive gospel, are how he tends to the world? I maintain that truncation of the message is, to some degree, provoked by our decision to stop at Ephesians 2:10. Verses 11-22 are essential to appreciating the comprehensive message, but these verses are inconvenient; for some, they are even scandalous. Paul’s gospel insights do not stop at “getting people saved.” He provided temporal implications of Christ’s sacrificial work. Moreover, the temporal implications are not incidental; they are as fundamental to the gospel as eternal salvation. To ignore them is a disservice to Christ’s whole work.

Among orthodox Christians, there is little conflict regarding the implications of the Cross on the reunion between God and humanity. In no uncertain terms, Paul presents the effectual work of Christ in Ephesians 2:4-10. Our eternal condition is settled if we embrace his sacrifice “by grace . . . through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). But Paul was not done.

The latter half of Ephesians 2 is not a change of subject; Paul is expounding.

He is addressing an additional domain of the gospel. Verses 11-22 follow the same format as verses 1-10. Paul presents a desperate condition—namely, a rift within humanity.6 The ethnic divide between Jews and Gentiles was as brazen as the broken bond between humanity and God. In verses 11 and 12, Paul underlines nationalistic, theological, and sociological barriers—idols that contribute to a yawning chasm between various sects of human beings.

In verse 13, Paul rehearses the inversion that occurred in verse 4, and he uses the same conjunction, but. Just as God intervened in verse 4, graciously confronting the brokenness between God and humanity, he intervened in verse 13, graciously confronting the rift within humanity.7 As a matter of fact, verses 4 and 13 refer to the same divine act! It was the Cross that reconciled humanity to God, and it is the Cross that conciles humanity; the gospel has vertical and horizontal implications.8 Historically, we have emphasized the former to the exclusion of the latter. It is not necessarily a heretical view of the gospel; it is, however, a truncation that temporally diminishes the gospel.

According to Paul, one gospel unites us to God and one another.

Preaching the former and ignoring the latter makes us purveyors of a partial message. The Savior’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension affords us the fruits of an eternal destination; it also affords Kingdom citizenship and ethics that, when honored, provide temporal wholeness. To this point, Paul reminds us that Christ is “our peace, who has made the two groups [Jews and Gentiles] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). In his “flesh,” Christ brought unity, “[creating] in himself one new humanity out of the two” (verse 15). He accomplished this by shedding his precious blood on the cross (verses 13, 16). The Cross is more than a lifeboat; it is life itself—both temporally and eternally. In sum, Paul asserts that our reunion at the feet of Christ prompts an inevitable union among Kingdom “citizens,” a “household” that puts the King’s character and values on display (verse 19).

You can always tell how much someone values something by noting how much they paid for it.

My wife has observed where my values lie, and she cites a financial ledger as Exhibit A. Blissfully, I drive a thirteen-year-old car. I have a few shirts and even fewer pairs of jeans. I am unwilling to spend excessively on such things; it is a practical value that I proudly cite as evidence of my stewardship. But my wife, knowing me all too well, is quick to spotlight my library. She has chimed, “Brandon, you don’t buy cars and clothes because you do not value such things. You do, however, have a room with thousands of books in it. It is what you care about, so it is where you spend money.” She has biblical backup for her charge: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The truism has merit.

With that in mind, consider this: When it was time to pay the price to restore the relationship between God and humanity, the Father offered his Son, “with [whom he is] well pleased,” as a sacrifice (Matthew 3:17). We can all agree that so great an offering is worthy of our wholehearted surrender. It is evidence of God’s high affection for those who bear his image. He did not need us, yet he sacrificed the highest price to have us. It speaks to his divine affection for beings made in his image (Genesis 1:27; John 3:16). Now consider that the same sacrifice was paid for us to have one another, and it empowers us to be animated icons who put his Kingdom’s culture on display (Matthew 6:10). If the apostle Paul is correct, and he is, the same Cross that eternally saves us also commissions and equips us to seek out human conciliation and be activistic toward humanity’s wholeness in the world. It meant so much to God that he paid the highest price. So, armed with the gospel, we advocate for the Kingdom—graciously confronting all that is unlike the Kingdom’s culture. Otherwise, we are advocates of a reductionistic and somewhat impotent message.

God commissioned the church with the task of gospelizing the world (Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Peter 1:25). It is an imperative that requires a comprehensive gospel.

Unfortunately, we’ve reduced the message to a means of eternal escape.

Our mission, it seems, is little more than punching heaven-bound tickets and telling converts to endure a fallen world until Christ returns.9 For over a decade, I’ve grappled with our error and the damage it causes. As a Black man, I am attentive to and wounded by American evangelicalism’s history of gospel reductionism. I align with the evangelical camp, but I’ve observed a history of theological and ethical abdications that resulted from an unholy abridgment of the Cross.

For instance, the Great Awakening is lauded as a season of Christian confessions culminating in heavenly destinations. Conversions and the proliferation of Christian culture are cited as evidence of the Great Awakening’s worth. But I’d be remiss if I did not spotlight the willingness to sit idly by as human beings, image bearers, endured an ethnic caste system, slavery, and inhumane subordination during America’s era of abundant Christian conversions. What’s worse, the church was willingly indifferent and even complicit in the inhumanity. It is an affront to our comprehensive message.

George Whitefield was the most well-known preacher of the Great Awakening, one of the most famous people in the world. His notoriety was the product of his competence as a communicator. He had a reputation for uncompromising oratory to the glory of Christ. Attendance was impressive during his open-air revivals, and conversions occurred in droves. Undoubtedly, his success derived from his capacity to preach a gospel message. He convincingly introduced the sinful hopelessness of humanity, and then he turned it on its head by introducing the compelling intervention of Christ. Whitefield is lauded as a quintessential gospelizer; he fulfilled the great commission and published Jesus’ eternal impact on the world. I concede that his admirers can justly argue that he played a formative role in Church history.10

Here’s the rub:

Regarding ethnic wholeness and justice in the world, Whitefield’s gospel message willfully excluded accomplishments of Christ. He was not merely indifferent toward slavery; he was an active, unashamed enslaver!11 He consciously resisted abolitionism and advocated for the legalization of slavery in Georgia. He flew the banners of gospel preacher and enslaver. How can both be true? Historian Thomas Kidd writes, “To Whitefield, benevolence to slaves primarily entailed introducing them to the gospel.”12

Whitefield conceded the humanity of enslaved Africans and the need to preach a message that secured their eternal destiny. But the message stopped conveniently short of their earthly wholeness. An evangelical stalwart preached a truncated gospel that valued eternity while it prolonged and increased temporal brokenness. His actions were inevitable fruits of a partial message! He preached Ephesians 2, but as it relates to slavery, verses 11-22 were excised from his understanding of the gospel.

Whitefield was not an outlier.

Jonathan Edwards, another stalwart of the Great Awakening, was an enslaver; he preached at least one sermon defending it.13 American segregation was upheld by artificial racial differences and nationalistic values that are reminiscent of the rift in Ephesians 2:11-12.14 The Civil Rights movement was critically scrutinized by clergy members who thought the movement’s leaders were not sympathetic to the South’s traditions and sensitivities.15 And even the twenty-first century finds us debating which aspect of our past should be obscured to preserve the misleading narrative of an unmarred Christian history. While such abhorrent behavior is expected from a fallen world, for Christians, it is a violation of the message afforded us by the Cross. The church’s peculiar participation in earthly brokenness results from espousing a truncated gospel. We have embraced a message that is so heavenly-minded that we are, in too many regards, of little earthly good.

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