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Issues Facing Mission Today 21: A Holistic Gospel or a Holistic Mission?

Issues Facing Mission Today 21: A Holistic Gospel or a Holistic Mission?
[Updated 15 October, 2014]

I have, in the past, written favourably on a holistic Gospel and an understanding of mission as transformation.[1]  I fear, however, that there is a distortion of the Gospel that we are facing after years of such an emphasis.  It seems to me that we are in a position of having to refocus our understanding of the Gospel and mission on Jesus and his gift on the cross lest we slip into various errors that distort the Gospel in our day.

A Brief Historical Overview
Church historian Richard Lovelace describes a ‘Delta Effect’ in the 1870s in America that divided the Social Gospel from the Personal Gospel that Evangelicals had, up until that time, held together.[2]  The latter came to be associated with American Fundamentalism, with its individual and spiritual understanding of salvation that did not include social action, development, justice, or concern for the environment.[3]  The former came to be associated with a liberal theology, with its social agenda on the one hand and its weak Christology and soteriology on the other.  Overcoming this delta effect in Evangelicalism became a feature of Evangelicalism since 1974, although, one must quickly add, Evangelical groups such as the Salvation Army or Sudan Interior Mission (SIM, now Serving in Mission) have held to a holistic Gospel and mission for well over 100 years.  A little more historical overview might be helpful:[4]

A theology of transformation also undoubtedly developed in appreciation for what was positive in non-Evangelical circles.  As David Bosch points out, the Nairobi Assembly of the World Council of Churches  (1975) and Roman Catholicism’s 1974 Bishops' Synod and Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) publication called for a holistic understanding of salvation.
Missionary literature, but also missionary practice, emphasize that we should find a way beyond every schizophrenic position and minister to people in their total need, that we should involve individual as well as society, soul and body, present and future in our ministry of salvation.[5]
If Carl Henry’s criticism of non-Evangelical models of transformation was that they omitted the vertical dimension,[6] holistic theological emphases from the ‘other side’ such as these undoubtedly goaded Evangelicals in the 1970’s to make similar holistic statements.  Chris Sugden[7] points out that there was a nine year period of Evangelical exploration of holistic theology, beginning with the Lausanne Congress in 1974 and ending with the Wheaton consultation in 1983 that produced the statement ‘Transformation—The Church in Response to Human Need’. The word ‘transformation’ found its way into the Lausanne Covenant: ‘The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead’ (paragraph 5).[8] ‘Transformation,’ then, is taken to refer to a holistic theology: personal and social, involving faith and works (the reference to James 2.26 is clear).

The Present Situation

The present situation may be quite different from where things were for Evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s.  I say ‘may be,’ for I am not certain.  Yet, here is one way that we just might read the tea leaves, so to speak.
First, there is a continuous challenge from non-orthodox (or ‘liberal’) churches on what the Gospel is.  The tendency in many churches in mainline denominations in the West (with percentages increasing as Evangelicals have jumped ship) for decades has been to distort the Gospel by de-centralizing Christ and refocussing the Gospel on issues of justice.  The fact is that the Bible does speak to matters of justice repeatedly.  Thus, this is not a wrong emphasis, but it is a distortion of the Gospel when Jesus no longer figures centrally in any focus on justice.  Some presentations of a creation theology, for example, are given in general enough categories that Christ is unnecessary and even problematic, if one wants to gather broadly ecumenical, inter-faith support for a ‘Green Gospel.’[9]  Similarly, Liberation Theology, which speaks of the sins of others rather than our own need to be delivered from our own sins, is more easily derived from a particular reading of the Exodus narrative[10] than from the New Testament—Christ is not central to the theology.

On the broadly Evangelical side of the debate, the Prosperity Gospel has arisen since Lausanne I.  Here is a theology that claims health, wealth, and comfort in the present age mainly from Old Testament texts.  For example, God is said to heal all our diseases (Ps. 103.3)—with the caveat that we need to claim such a promise by having unwavering belief that it is ours for the asking (that is, ‘faith’).  Faith is more focussed on belief in God’s promises in certain Biblical passages (inappropriately interpreted, I might add) than in Christ and his work on the cross.  Another example of a distorted Gospel seems to be arising in certain Evangelical churches with their focus on health and fitness.  As I recently wrote, the Daniel Plan has reshaped the Gospel around dieting and fitness and redefined ‘repentance’ and ‘faith'.[11]

All four of these distortions of the Gospel could be labelled ‘holistic.’  All entail a physical or material focus in a message of ‘Good News’.  Who is to argue with the need for justice, stewardship of creation, the fact that God still heals through prayer, and the benefits of a healthy body?  Yet each of these theologies de-emphasizes Christ.  In doing so, they not only lack a focus on Christ but also become distorted in other ways.

Paul’s Reflections on His Own Holistic Ministry in Acts 20

In Acts 20, Paul reflects on his ministry during a speech to the Ephesian elders.  He mentions that he ‘did not shrink from doing anything helpful’ (Acts 20.20)—something that might be fodder for a social Gospel if only we knew more.  Perhaps we could bolster this by adding a holistic exhortation of Paul’s from Romans 12 (while acknowledging that we need to be cautious in relating Luke’s presentation of Paul in Acts to Paul’s own writings):

Romans 12:9-18  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;  10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Moreover, we have passages such as Gal. 2.10 and 6.9-10 from Paul, which speak of helping the poor and doing good to all:
Galatians 2:10  They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.
Galatians 6:9-10  So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.  10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
In Paul’s speech in Acts 20, he places the emphasis in his ministry on proclamation of the Gospel.  Note the emphasis on proclamation and teaching and on repentance and faith (see my italics) in the following excerpts from the speech (italics mine).  There is, however, right at the end of the speech, another mention, as in v. 20, of doing good to others (see my underlining):
Acts 20:20-21, 24-25, 32, 35  proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus…. the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God's grace…. proclaiming the kingdom…. And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified…. I have given you an example [by working with my own hands]that by such work  we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"

In this speech, Paul speaks of his ministry as both  a proclamation (teaching, testimony, message) of God’s grace and as doing what is helpful (v. 20) and working with his own hands to support the ‘weak’ (v. 35)—those in need.  He has a holistic ministry.
Note, however, that this ministry is Christ-centred.  The message Paul proclaims is about the work of Christ as God’s grace towards repentant sinners.  The practice of doing good to those in need is based on Jesus’ teaching that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  This teaching may well be from Jesus’ own definition of mission for the disciples, and it comes to be Jesus’ own mission on the cross as he gives his life for us.

If we understand Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples in Mt. 10.8 to lie behind Paul’s reference to Jesus’ teaching in Acts 20.35[12] (that it is more blessed to give than to receive), then we can see the link between the message of God’s grace and the ministry of doing good to others:

Matthew 10:8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
Jesus becomes the quintessential example of what it means to give rather than receive on the cross.  He did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10.45).  This is not only an example to others, however, as Jesus’ act of giving his own life accomplishes salvation for those who repent of their sins and believe in him.  On this understanding, both the personal Gospel of salvation and the social Gospel of doing good to others are based on Jesus’ giving his life for us on the cross.  The key to a holistic mission that remains orthodox and does not become a distortion of the Gospel is to keep Christ and his death for us central to both the personal and social dimensions of our ministries.


Some forty years after Lausanne I (1974), when Evangelicals increasingly began to re-emphasise a holistic 'Gospel', we face possible distortions of the Gospel that have arisen from holistic teachings.  The problem arises, on the one hand, because there is a continuous distortion of the Gospel by non-orthodox churches in various theologies.  The distortion is not only within liberal theologies but also in in some teaching within Evangelicalism as well, such as in the Prosperity Gospel and some recent presentations of the Gospel in terms of health and fitness.  All the distortions arise when Christ is no longer the focus of the Gospel, but something else is, even if that something else is good—justice, concern for the environment, God’s miraculous healing and answer to prayer, health and fitness, some eschatological persuasion, and so forth.  As long as we keep the focus on Jesus’ gift for us—his death on the cross—we can, I hope, avoid the distortions of the Gospel.  Such, at least, was Paul’s emphasis in his speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20.18-35.

In the above discussion, I have avoided using the phrase 'holistic Gospel' and have instead been suggesting a careful distinction of things that must, nevertheless, be held together.  The distinction is between the word 'Gospel' and the word 'mission' (or 'ministry').  This is a technical but important distinction.  The 'Gospel' is, in itself, a message--it is an announcement of good news.  It is speech, proclamation, having to do with what God has done in Christ to bring salvation to a sinful world.  Use of the term in this way begins with Isaiah, announcing the return of sinful Israel from exile.  It easily comes to include the 'return to God' of the wayward and sinful nations of the world to God as well.  Thus it is the good news of God's redemption provided in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Speech-Act theory reminds us that speech (locution) constitutes action (illocution) that has another action as its aim (perlocution).  If the Gospel is a proclamation (locution) that itself enacts a certain transforming reality accomplished by God (illocution), it has a further aim of a holistic mission in view (perlocution).  This may be compared to marriage.  The minister speaks certain words—‘I pronounce you man and wife’ (locution)—that constitutes a certain action—the couple really are married by that pronouncement (illocution), and this in turn aims at further actions—such as that this couple will now live together in holy matrimony (perlocution).  The Gospel is a proclamation that is more than news; it is an offer of salvation to those who believe.  Its illocutionary force is an extending of grace.  God's redemption has been accomplished in Christ Jesus, and the reception of this good news in faith means that everything is now changed.  This illocutionary act in the Gospel proclamation aims at further action—at mission.  This further action in mission should be understood as holistic, since it does not cease with proclamation but continues in the formation of righteous communities engaged in good works and worship.

[1] Rollin G. Grams, ‘Transformation Mission Theology: Its History, Theology and Hermeneutics,’ Transformation 2007 (Vol. 24, 4): 193-212.
[2] Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979).
[3] See George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).
[4] Rollin G. Grams, ‘Transformation Mission Theology.'
[5] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), p. 399.
[6] Carl F. H. Henry wrote in 1964: ‘In our country [the United States of America], as I see it, Protestant forces seeking a better social order in America have mostly neglected the method of evangelism and the dynamic of supernatural regeneration and sanctification.  Instead, they have resorted to a series of alternative forces—at first, moral propaganda and education, then legislation, and more recently, nonviolent public demonstrations and even mob pressures against existing laws.  Now it is true that the Church has a legitimate and necessary stake in education and legislation as means of preserving what is worth preserving in the present social order, but it must rely on spiritual regeneration for the transformation of society.  The neglect of this latter resource accounts mainly for the social impotence of contemporary Christianity.’  Carl F. H. Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964).  The quotation comes from a republication of pp. 15-25 of this work in J. Philip Wogaman and Douglas M. Strong, eds., Readings in Christian Ethics: A Historical Sourcebook (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), p. 369f.
[7] Chris Sugden, ‘Transformational Development,’ p. 71.  Rene Padilla offers a longer discussion of the history of Evangelicals coming to accept social action as part of the mission of the Church on the Micah Network conference (Oxford, 2001); cf.:  Padilla’s longer history includes the Wheaton Congress on the World Mission of the Church (1966), the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1966, the Thanksgiving Workshop on Evangelicals and Social Concern  (Chicago, 1973), which produced the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, the International Congress on World Evangelization (Lausanne 1974), the International Consultation on ‘Gospel and Culture’ (Willowbank, 1978), the All India Conference on Evangelical Social Action (1979), which produced the Madras Declaration on Evangelical Social Action, the Second Latin American Congress on Evangelism (Lima, Peru, 1979), the International Consultation on ‘Simple Lifestyle’ (Hoddesdon, England, 1980), the Consultation on World Evangelization (COWE, Pattaya, Thailand, 1980), the International Consultation on the Relationship of Evangelism and Social Responsibility (CRESR) in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1982), and the Consultation on the Church in Response to Human Need (Wheaton, Illinois, 1983), which produced the Wheaton Statement.
[8] The covenant is available in the documents section at
[9] A recent publication by ‘Green Anglicans’ offers guidance for services during a liturgical season of creation that lack any Christology.  See: ‘Season of Creation 3’ online at  This distortion reminds us of just how important it was for the early Church to assert that Jesus was involved in creation (Jn. 1.3; Col. 1.16), is Lord of all (see the cosmic Christology of Ephesians and Colossians), and is engaged in a universal and eschatological restoration of all things (e.g., 1 Cor. 15.24-28; Rev. 21-22).
[10] As long as the sins of Israel in the Wilderness are left out of the story and as long as the Exodus Story is not linked (as it actually must be) to the Return from Exile narrative of the Old Testament prophets, the focus in the narrative can be on liberation from oppression by others rather than that we need deliverance from our own sins.
[11] See my blog ‘Issues Facing Missions Today 19: The Daniel Diet?!
The words of Matthew are not paralleled in Luke even though they relate to Acts 20.35, authored by Luke.  We are forced to compare words from different authors—Matthew and Luke.  Yet, if we accept that what they say is historical—as I do—then we might also accept that Luke may have been aware of these words of Jesus that Matthew alone records in Mt. 10.8.