Bill Hull questions the integrity of the “American gospel.” In his 2006 work, “The Complete Book of Discipleship,” Hull rejects three aspects of the American gospel: It “limits grace to forgiveness of sin”; it “separates justification from sanctification”; and it “teaches that faith equals agreement with a set of religious facts.”

Bill Hull questions the integrity of the “American gospel.” In his 2006 work, “The Complete Book of Discipleship,” Hull rejects three aspects of the American gospel: It “limits grace to forgiveness of sin”; it “separates justification from sanctification”; and it “teaches that faith equals agreement with a set of religious facts.”


Before assessing Hull’s critique, it is necessary to ask whether America really has its own gospel (or “announcement of good news,” which is what the word “gospel” originally meant). The answer, I think, must be a qualified “no.” There is no such thing as an American gospel, but there are distortions of the biblical gospel associated with America.


The prosperity gospel is one such distortion. For its adherents, disease and poverty are the bad news while the good news (the gospel) is the availability of health and wealth through faith. Disciples of the prosperity gospel believe that luxury cars, fine clothes and beautiful houses validate the truth of the gospel and demonstrate the sincerity of an individual believer’s faith.


On the liberal side of the American theological spectrum, the bad news is the existence of social and structural evils that inhibit people from reaching their God-given potential.

The good news (the gospel) is that God is at work through the church and other institutions to effect the removal of these evils, and build a just and equitable society.


These are clearly distortions of Jesus’ gospel, yet each has something to commend it. The health and wealth folks are right to view disease and poverty as something to overcome, and the liberal church has truly perceived the presence of structural evils that perpetuate injustice within society. 


But neither of these distortions is the American gospel that Hull rejects. His sights are trained further right, on the conservative side of the theological spectrum, where the evangelicals and fundamentalists live. Hull, an evangelical himself, sees the gospel of the right, as it is sometimes presented, as a distortion of the real thing.


His first criticism of the American gospel is that it “limits grace to forgiveness of sin.” Here, the bad news is that everyone has sinned and, apart from forgiveness, cannot go to heaven. The good news is that forgiveness is available through faith in Jesus Christ.


It is not that Hull doesn’t believe this to be true; he does. But limiting God’s action to forgiveness is a distortion of the good news of God and his kingdom. It shrinks what the apostle calls “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” into a theological escape clause for individuals. 


Hull further complains that this gospel “separates justification from sanctification.” This, he explains, makes conversion the finish line rather than the starting blocks, and leaves believers with nothing to do once they’ve “been saved.” If conversion is the finish line, all that’s left is the awards presentation — heaven. Until then, believers must somehow find a way to pass the time.


His final complaint is that “the American gospel teaches that faith equals agreement with a set of religious facts.” But Hull insists that giving mental assent to certain facts, even religious ones, is not faith.“Believing in Jesus,” he argues, “has no meaning if we don’t follow him.” 


Hull looks to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Nazis, for support: “Faith,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “is only real in obedience.” And, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”


Christianity without discipleship, or Christianity in which discipleship is included only marginally, is an apt description of the current situation. We ended up here quite naturally, without evil intent. A theological error – no, not even that; a theological distortion – started us on this path. A theological course correction is needed to turn us around.

 

Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Michigan. He can be reached at salooper@dmcibb.net.