American evangelicalism is what it is because of its gospel. Dallas Willard calls its gospel the “gospel of sin management.” American liberal Protestantism is what it is because of its gospel. Dallas Willard also calls its gospel the gospel of sin management. (Some of you will know I call this gospel the “soterian” gospel in The King Jesus Gospel.) Its emphases — right and left — is forgiveness of sin, eternal life in heaven, assurance in the here and now, and either an act (decision) or acts (good deeds) are the precipitating element that gains a person access to salvation.
We are reading Gary Black’s excellent sketch of the theology of Dallas Willard, a book that should be on the shelf of libraries in schools and churches and any who read Willard. Black’s book is called The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith.
What can we do together to resurrect a biblical gospel in the midst of so many false and diminished gospels? What is the first thing you would do?
Willard’s exposition of the gospels of sin management is perhaps his most enduring, and certainly most piercing, contribution and criticism of evangelicalism. Jesus’ gospel was far more than either what the left or right makes it. So “far more” one has to wonder if either of gospels of sin management are the gospel at all.
They have an “empty allegiance” to Jesus. You’re in whether are a transformed into Christlikeness or not. Belief or its profession is the beginning not the end. This gospel is decimating evangelicalism. I add here that this gospel that we know today as the gospel of sin management is a 20th Century invention and it is a rhetorically packed bundle designed to precipitate decisions with the added benefit of “objective” assurance, and it is too often a bundle of nonsense. Willard takes aim at the Romans Road and the 4 Spiritual Laws. Absent the intention to surrender and to follow Jesus a decision is an empty allegiance. Churches embody these gospels and so are not designed to lead people to become disciples. The decision element is nothing but realization; commitment to follow is the true faith’s orientation.
On the Right, the gospel is “vampire faith” (they want Jesus for his blood), it is shaped by atonement theology and obsessed with atonement theology, and it is about “relief from the intrapsychic terrors of fundamentalist versions of hell” (149).
On the Left, the gospel is about “good acts” and activism and “self-determined acts of righteousness” (149). So the Right is about proper beliefs and the Left about proper behaviors. The gospel is about conformity to Christ in a God-bathed kingdom reality.
In one Jesus is a means to heaven, in the other a means to liberating causes in the world.
The worst exhibition of the gospel is the bumper sticker “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” which suggests that Christianity is all about forgiveness and one’s standing and a decision and a moment.
He sees in this gospel an absorption of christology into soteriology. #Boom! The gospels here are obsessed with the “problems and effects of sin” (153).
Finally, Gary Black examines the view of God by these gospels: and he takes direct aim at Pat Robertson and John Piper, and the view of God they have when they read God into events in this world. In contract, Black says Willard’s God is the God of fatherly love (agape) and summons people to him and for whom character shapes where one will spend eternity. Hell, he says, is “God’s best for some people” (158).