The Gospels of Sin Management and Their Empty Allegiance

The Gospels of Sin Management and Their Empty Allegiance September 24, 2013

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).

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  • Hello Scot, I am really admiring your efforts to make your faith more stick with the perfect love of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

    I have struggled a lot in the past, but now (as explained here)

    I am sure that whoever TRULY desires God will be with God.

    So for me the Gospel is not believing a set of truth about Jesus so that I don’t have to pay the infinite consequences of my finite consequences.

    It is all about my longing for love, my striving towards love, both inside me and in the outside world. And I believe that Jesus is the human face of our all-loving creator.

    This is why I want to follow Him and let Him transform me to increasingly become more loving and less selfish.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • tanyam

    So, should I to understand the problem as not merely the 20th century evangelical project, but the project which can be traced at least to Luther — “by grace alone, through faith alone” — is utterly wrong? If “character shapes where one will spend eternity” then Martin Luther would be out anyway, I guess. Hard to imagine someone who advocated the slaughter of Jews and others would get in, right?
    I understand the problem of absorbing Christology into soteriology — but does soteriology merely fall away altogether? I guess I need to read the book —

  • Rick Cruse

    For Willard, the argument is against the false question: “What kind of faith will get me into heaven?” The real question, according to Willard, is “What kind of faith will get me into life, real life, an eternal-kind of life, a Jesus-following, kingdom-expressing kind of life?”

  • Willard gave the much needed reminder that “trusting Jesus” in the way we are asked to do in the NT is more than just trusting his blood for forgiveness. It’s trusting him–a person, the King!–holistically. As Willard was fond of pointing out, we may say we trust our mechanic, but if he tells us to do “X” with our car, and we decide “X” isn’t really necessary or important, the bottom line is, we don’t trust our mechanic, at least not when it comes to our car. The application to our relationship with Jesus is appropriate. And yes, this, IMO, points out the serious problems with the Law/Gospel approach to the scriptures that are associated with Luther. The gospel announces Christ and his kingdom; the invitation is to trust ourselves to this King and his kingdom.

  • mwkruse

    I think part of the solution is recovery of the significance of everyday life and work. The primary locus of ministry for most of us is our home, our workplace, and our neighborhood. It is with and for those who are in our circle of influence. And when I say “ministry” here, I don’t mean using these contexts as staging opportunities for evangelism (though evangelism will occur) or as opportunities right injustices (though righting injustices will occur). I mean seeing our participation in these aspects of life, the living and work that is done there, as integral with serving God.

    I think it needs to be noted that the soterian gospel of the right and left places the locus of “ministry” in the pastors and ecclesiastic institutions, elevating the centrality and importance of those connected with these institutions. Conscious or not, there is considerable psychic investment to keep things they way the are because of the affirmation and status it brings. The rest of church becomes amateur helpers to the evangelism/justice professionals, which is okay by many of them because they can go do their good deeds as prescribed by the professionals while living most of the rest of their lives as practical atheists. All in all, an effective codependency.

  • Christopher Erik

    “The rest of church becomes amateur helpers to the evangelism/justice professionals, which is okay by many of them because they can go do their good deeds as prescribed by the professionals while living most of the rest of their lives as practical atheists. All in all, an effective codependency.” #BOOM!!!! #NAILED IT!!!

  • KentonS

    I can’t do better than Rick’s response, but I would say that soteriology doesn’t so much “fall away” as it gets re-framed. “Salvation” stops being about having your soul sorted into the right slot, and becomes about salvation from a walking-dead kind of life, a shallow kind of life, a self-destructive kind of life (to contrast with Rick’s description).

    It’s a life void of resurrection.

  • Gary Black Jr

    Great comments and insights all.

  • Gary Black Jr

    Where is that quote from?

  • labreuer

    Scot, you might like Jon Mark Ruthven’s What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology? Tradition vs. Biblical Emphasis. For example, Ruthven investigates Rom 9:30-10:13, and identifies the Not in Heaven tradition that Paul attacks—a terrible rabbinical interpretation of Deut 30:12 had that God would never speak again to Israel, vs. the point of vv11-14, that God’s given commandments to Israel were actually doable. The challenge for us today is: will we hear God’s voice, and if so, will we obey it?

    Ruthven and I have been emailing back and forth; my main critique of his book is that he doesn’t go far enough—he establishes that we should expect prophecy (God speaking to people, but not infallibly or at canon-level) to continue, but he doesn’t dig into how this promotes unity of the church and in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven.

    To caricature, the right is about getting God right and the left is about treating people right, while the kingdom of heaven is about a synthesis of the two which is so much more than either half. We see this in 1 John: you cannot love God without loving your brother. We see in Mark 3 that your brother is whomever is doing the will of God. Christians like to think that they have more power over who is brother and sister in faith, than they have power to choose who is brother and sister by blood. Until they get over this, the world will have explicit evidence that we are not Jesus’ disciples (John 13:34-35) and that God did not send Jesus (John 17:20-21). :-/

  • Gary Black Jr

    Tanyam: Let me take a shot at this. Willard has a somewhat famous phrase: Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Also, he made a significant point that not only are many Protestants saved by grace, they become paralyzed by it. For Willard, grace was the ability to accomplish what one could accomplish by their own power or through one’s own efforts. Therefore forgiveness of sin is an act of grace, (one can’t achieve this on their own) but so is writing a book, raising a family, or leading a company under the rule and power of God in his Kingdom. So Willard taught grace is given/attained by acting in confidence with God, (grace through faith) in many actions of life, not just related to salvation. Such confidence in God is demonstrative of both the type and quality of eternal (heavenly) living that begins now and continues forever. It’s not either or. It’s one with the other.

  • KentonS

    mwkruse’s post above. 🙂

  • Gary Black Jr

    Right. Thanks. Missed that. My speed reading skills didn’t work so well for me there.

  • Ann

    great post! I’m still trying to understand what he means by “hell is God’s best for some people”…. anyone know what means by that?

  • danaames


    whether or not you read Black’s book (who does an excellent job of synthesizing Willard’s work), do read Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy.”


  • Scott Eaton

    For the uninitiated, where would one start with Dallas Willard? Recommendations?

  • That’s tough. His “magnum opus” was Divine Conspiracy. I think I enjoyed Renovation of the Heart as much or more, and it is shorter and more focused on (re)formation.

    Also, a caveat: Dallas would have some of the most brilliant prose at times. But he had equal capacity to bog this reader down, especially in Divine Conspiracy (and I’m a tax lawyer!).

    You could also read some of his articles online.

  • RJS4DQ

    What? A philosopher, yet with the capacity to bog the reader down? Surely you joke!

    I’ve read several including Divine Conspiracy, Renovation of the Heart, Hearing God and Spirit of the Disciplines. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite.

  • 😀 Yeah; we’re all shaped by our professions. Dallas was no exception there! But it was certainly more a blessing than a curse; he had a wonderful mind.

  • Georges Boujakly

    I started with the Spirit of the Disciplines, then hearing God, then Divine Conspiracy. I would recommend this order.

  • Phil Miller

    There’s another of Willard’s books that was released a few years ago called The Great Omission. It does a good job of summing up his thoughts on salvation and discipleship. This book is mostly a collection of previous writings and lectures, so it’s a bit more focused than The Divine Conspiracy.

  • kierkegaard71

    I say this as one of credobaptistic persuasion: at least for those who are credobaptists, please restore baptism to its role as the initiatory event in the life of a disciple of Jesus. Repentance demands a new mindset. A new mindset ushers forth into an action, baptism, that embodies newness like no other. Dethrone “the sinner’s prayer” as the means of salvation. Restore baptism to its New Testament role as the normative way of coming to Christ.

  • mwkruse

    Scott, If you can only read one book, I think it would have to be “Divine Conspiracy.” My favorite video is his one hour presentation on “Taking Theology and Spiritual Disciplines into the Marketplace.” He is applying his theology to a particular topic but many of his themes are represented here.

  • Todd Moore

    I started with Spirit of the Disciplines, then Divine Conspiracy, then converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I would recommend this order!
    (True statement, with a note of levity ;>)

  • mteston1

    And this kind of “trust” asks everything of us with Jesus and WITH others. It is what opens up life itself.

  • Georges Boujakly

    Funny! I hope that solved whatever issues were outstanding for you before joining that order. Eastern Orthodoxy was the beginning of my faith journey (Syrian Orthodox).

  • Vasile Tomoiaga

    There are many aspects of the Gospel, but all particular aspects go back to the plenary Gospel which is the Incarnation. The Incarnation is the all-encompassing Gospel, with its particulars like passion, death, descent into hell, resurrection, bodily ascension.

    The hypostatic union of God and Man, in the Son of God which becomes ALSO the Son of Man, uniting in Himself divinity and humanity for ever. This is the all-encompassing Gospel. The Gospel is Christ Himself, in His all being, and including all his actions.

    The Gospel is not an individual act of Christ separated from his complete being and actions. The Gospel is not an intellectual proposition to subscribe to and “get saved”. God himself is the Gospel, Christ Himself is the gospel, the Incarnation, the real kinship between divine and human that Christ realized.

    Through Virgin Mary God became one of us, so that one of us could become one of God’s, through grace. That is why the Gospel was proclaimed by Jesus from the first days of his public ministry, long before the Cross. Emmanuel, God among us, this is the supreme good news.

    Of course Cross is important. Of course Resurrection is important. Of course descent into hell and bodily ascension to heaven at the right of the Father are important. But all this aspects cannot be grasped in their unifying splendor except by mystical apprehension of the inexhaustible mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God, the realization that the eternal Word of God became (also) flesh and now humanity is in firsthand kinship with the One Holy Trinity through Christ the Word Incarnate, born within space-time of Holy Spirit and of Blessed Virgin Mary, remaining for eternity not only the eternal Son of God, fully God, but also remaining for eternity the Son of Man, fully man, in One Person, God-Man-Incarnate.

    This is and was and will be the position of the (Eastern) Orthodox Church.