By Christopher K. Lee

Defense Against an Incomplete Gospel

Students and young adults today are spiritually hungry. They've been disappointed by existing social structures. They've been disillusioned by cultural images of success. They've been disoriented by the moral confusion of this age. Across the nation, they yearn for connection, for purpose, for truth.

I recently had dinner with Jeff Severn and Colby Putnam from InterVarsity’s philanthropy team. I asked them: “What draws young adults to Christianity today?” Colby shared two criteria from his experience: Is it beautiful? And does it work? Indeed, our gospel is both beautiful and true.

Unfortunately, there are times we may present an incomplete gospel. As mature Christians, we won't add to Scripture. But we are prone to leave out integral parts of God's design. We may isolate practical applications from spiritual truths - failing to connect salvation to sanctification and service. 

Why might this occur? In part, it's because we've bought into misguided cultural narratives about faith. We've allowed them to darken our worldview and diminish our witness. Rather than being the light of the world, reflecting God's perfect radiance, our light is filtered through our cultural lenses.

Here are four false narratives many Christians unconsciously believe: 

1. Our culture thinks all religions are the same.

They all teach morals and give to the poor. Christianity is one of many flavors, and the church is more or less replaceable. That's how the world views us. It has forgotten the contributions of Christian men and women over the ages - shaping everything from civil rights to health care to public education.

The problem is that Christians today don't remember either. We've forgotten our legacy. We take for granted institutions that were formed on Christian convictions. We assume that what is has always been. We even hide our differences in the name of being relevant or socially acceptable. If we don't have a firm grasp of our Christian distinctiveness, how can we expect the world to embrace it?

When we act like we're no different from society, it causes a disjointedness between our witness and our service. As Scripture teaches, those who are double-minded are unstable in all they do (James 1:8).

2. Our culture says that faith is a private matter. 

It's fine to have a religious tradition. It's great to be spiritually motivated to help others. But don't talk about your faith; you might offend someone. Society wants our good works without our good news.

In 1905, Andrew Carnegie donated $10 million to fund pensions for educators. The catch? Faith-based institutions were not eligible. In response, Brown University severed ties with its Baptist denomination. Dartmouth and other colleges followed suit. Carnegie's gift accelerated American secularization. In their book Mission Drift, Peter Greer and Chris Horst write: "The economic incentive caused administrators to put a dollar value on their church relationships and historical Christian identity. Often, money won."

We witness this today as well. Some ministry leaders rationalize it: "With this money, we can help more people, which will glorify God." But Matt Chandler argues that the gospel must be explicit. Otherwise, the church becomes "indistinguishable from the world." We like to believe that people will see how we're different and attribute it to our faith. In a post-Christian society, that's just wishful thinking.

Make no mistake, this occurs on campus as well. We may downplay our Christian devotion during new student outreach. We may highlight the free food and social activities instead. We may present a watered-down message to attract a larger crowd. But that’s not what we really want. And that’s not what our peers want either. Their souls yearn for good news that cannot be found outside of Jesus.

3. Our culture is ambivalent about spirituality.

Many of our neighbors identify as "spiritual but not religious." They treat faith as a source of inspiration, not truth. They view prayer as self-expression, not divine communication. They entertain God as a vague concept, not a knowable Being. Spirituality has its place. But what matters is the work of their hands.

In our ministries, we too may put up walls between the spiritual and the physical. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write in When Helping Hurts: "Too often we drill wells, dispense medicine, and provide food without narrating that Jesus Christ is the Creator and Provider of these material things. Then later we offer a Bible study in which we explain that Jesus can save our souls. This approach communicates evangelical gnosticism: material things solve material poverty, and Jesus solves spiritual poverty."

This sacred-secular divide minimizes God's jurisdiction. It portrays Him as master of the spiritual realm (e.g., Scripture, worship, evangelism, discipleship) but largely irrelevant to daily life (e.g., business, politics, science, the arts). This view cannot be further from reality. In Finding God at Harvard, editor Kelly Monroe Kullberg exhorts us to pursue "the truth of Jesus Christ in vast relation to all of life." Without recognizing his sovereignty, Christianity becomes relegated to the sphere of morality.

4. Our culture views Jesus as a "good teacher."

People talk about being a good Samaritan, turning the other cheek, and loving their neighbors. The teachings of Jesus are ingrained in Western consciousness, even among nonbelievers. And the truth is, many of these behaviors are beneficial regardless of one's spirituality. Being kind and forgiving others will improve your relationships and results in life, whether you're a devout Christian or not.

I had a history teacher who was decidedly agnostic. He rejected the idea of absolute truth. Yet he sent his kids to a private Catholic school. Why? He wanted them to grow up into good, respectful people. He wanted them to learn morality. If that came with a side of religious instruction, then so be it.

An incomplete gospel tends to focus on the teachings of Jesus apart from the person of Jesus. It acknowledges the wisdom literature separate from the only wise God. It misses the forest for the trees.

Embracing the True, Complete Gospel

Ultimately, an incomplete gospel fails to tell the whole story.

  • We don't prove Christianity by trying to make church relevant. We must present Jesus as he is, for he can relate with our human experience (Isaiah 53:3; Hebrews 4:15). 
  • We don't prove Christianity by merely doing good works. We must proclaim Jesus both in word and in deed - that our service is a natural outflow and display of our faith.
  • We don't prove Christianity by only preaching on salvation. We must submit our will to Jesus and let him transform the way we engage with the world.
  • We don't prove Christianity by teaching morals and manners. We must pursue Jesus' ministry of reconciliation, for righteousness comes from God alone (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).

All these things must point to Jesus. Let us fixate not on expressions of Christianity but on the author and perfecter of our faith. Only in him will our good news be complete.