In October 2010, 4,200 evangelical leaders from 198 countries gathered in Cape Town, South Africa, for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Hundreds of thousands more participated in meetings around the world and online. It was a big deal—the congress has gathered only three times since its inception in 1974.
Gospel purity and practice were the foremost matters of discussion for ten days in Cape Town. It was hardly surprising that the prosperity gospel, a real juggernaut on the continent of Africa, came under heavy rebuke in the confession they drafted.
The widespread preaching and teaching of “prosperity gospel” around the world raises significant concerns. We define prosperity gospel as the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the “sowing of seeds” through financial or material gifts. Prosperity teaching is a phenomenon that cuts across many denominations in all continents. . . .
We believe that the teachings of many who vigorously promote the prosperity gospel seriously distort the Bible; that their practices and lifestyle are often unethical and un-Christlike; that they commonly replace genuine evangelism with miracle-seeking, and replace the call to repentance with the call to give money to the preacher’s organization. We grieve that the impact of this teaching on many Churches is pastorally damaging and spiritually unhealthy. . . . The prosperity gospel offers no lasting solution to poverty, and can deflect people from the true message and means of eternal salvation. For these reasons it can be soberly described as a false gospel. We therefore reject the excesses of prosperity teaching as incompatible with balanced biblical Christianity.  The Cape Town Commitment Part II E 5, Rejecting the Idolatry of Greed https://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment
That part of TheCape Town Commitment is a clear and necessary formal rejection of the prosperity gospel. They rightly point out that it is indeed a “false gospel”—a perversion where health, wealth, and happiness have usurped the glorious gospel truths of forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life.
In light of such a strong repudiation, it was hardly surprising that the theological pendulum swung forcefully in the other direction. Large numbers of delegates at the Third Lausanne Congress pushed hard for matters of social justice to be enshrined in their doctrine statement. And that involved drafting an expanded definition of Christian mission that included a strong social dimension.
We commit ourselves to the integral and dynamic exercise of all dimensions of mission to which God calls his Church:
God commands us to make known to all nations the truth of God’s revelation and the gospel of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, calling all people to repentance, faith, baptism and obedient discipleship.
God commands us to reflect his own character through compassionate care for the needy, and to demonstrate the values and the power of the kingdom of God in striving for justice and peace and in caring for God’s creation.  The Cape Town Commitment Part I 10 B, The Integrity of our Mission https://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment
The second half of that definition sounds perfectly reasonable. As Christians, we should always conduct ourselves in a caring and compassionate way. But one enters dangerous theological territory when those good works become part of the gospel rather than a result of the gospel. And it certainly sounds that way when TheCape Town Commitment includes the alleviation of material poverty as a Great Commission responsibility.
We embrace the witness of the whole Bible, as it shows us God’s desire both for systemic economic justice and for personal compassion, respect and generosity towards the poor and needy. We rejoice that this extensive biblical teaching has become more integrated into our mission strategy and practice, as it was for the early Church and the Apostle Paul.  The Cape Town Commitment Part II B 3, Christ’s Peace for the Poor and Oppressed https://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment
So what’s the problem with broadening the scope of the Great Commission? Isn’t honoring God through personal sacrifice a repudiation of those who honor themselves for personal gain? Shouldn’t evangelism go beyond eternal matters to the rectification of problems in the here and now—especially when the added focus is on good works that are commended by Scripture?
John Piper, who was present at the Lausanne Congress, was hesitant to affirm those ideals. He was clearly troubled by the social gospel trajectory and expressed his concerns as to where it might lead:
I want to point out one [biblical] phrase which is indispensable in this congress if we’re to get the gospel right and evangelism right. . . . “We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” [Ephesians 2:3, ESV]. That’s terrifying. All human beings are children of wrath. . . . It’s their nature, my nature, your nature, is sinful and corrupt and rebellious.
Christ did not have to die merely because I’m a sinner. He had to die because God, in His infinite holiness and justice is angry at the world. We are children of anger. We are justly deserving of the wrath and the anger of God. This is the greatest problem for mankind in the universe. There isn’t anything that surpasses lostness and being bound for an everlasting suffering under the wrath of God. . . .
When the gospel takes root in our souls it awakens us to the horrible reality of eternal suffering in hell under the wrath of a just and omnipotent God. And it impels us out to rescue the perishing. We cry, “Flee the wrath to come, flee the wrath to come.” That’s our message because Christ has died. He has absorbed the wrath of God. He has cancelled sin. Everyone who is united to Him by faith alone is forgiven of their sins and counted righteous in Christ and has eternal life. . . . It is the most important news in the universe. . . .
What I want us to be able to say—could Lausanne say, could the global church say?—“For Christ’s sake we Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.”
The reaction by many at the conference to Piper’s last sentence revealed that his corrective was called for and his concerns were real. Robertson McQuilkin, a world-renowned missionary and former president of Columbia International University, wrote about the pushback he felt to Piper’s statement on the preeminent importance of eternal suffering:
Such a simple statement—how could anyone object? Yet many at Lausanne III objected. In fact, from the dozens of sermons at the conference, this one sentence in John Piper's presentation proved a lightning rod. Many quoted it to me with delight; but from Italy to England, to Bangladesh to America, I received feedback from representatives who went home incensed by the statement.
I wasn’t surprised that the battle raged. Why? I had read a position paper prepared for the conference by high-level evangelical leaders. They rejected the church’s historic position of giving priority to the evangelistic purpose of missions, so cogently expressed in Piper’s simple statement. . . .
So I was apprehensive about the outcome of Lausanne III. Imagine my delight to find, in the consensus documents emerging from the Congress, a reaffirmation of the historic position of the church that gives priority to the evangelistic mandate. But a very large minority of attendees waged war against this position in favor of giving equal emphasis or even priority to the social or cultural responsibilities of the church.  Robertson McQuilkin in Connection: The Magazine of Columbia International University (Columbia, SC: Columbia International University, Spring 2011) 10.
There are two major lessons in the Third Lausanne Congress when it comes to getting the gospel right. First, the right diagnosis of a problem doesn’t guarantee the right corrective treatment of that problem. Second, any attempt to expand the gospel’s range of meaning ultimately diminishes its true meaning.
Unity over what the gospel is also demands unity over what the gospel isn’t. The delegates in Cape Town recognized that fact by formalizing their opposition to the prosperity gospel. But many of them overcorrected, embracing the social gospel as an antidote. Moreover, they failed to recognize that the two seemingly antithetical views actually reflect the same theological deviation.
The prosperity gospel and the social gospel may look very different to the casual observer, but they both fall into the same deadly error of gospel expansion at the expense of the gospel. One adds temporal riches to eternal riches. The other adds the alleviation of temporal suffering to the alleviation of eternal suffering.
Good works should be commended, as they are in Scripture. But they are an extension of the gospel rather than a fundamental aspect of it (Ephesians 2:10). The gospel is the good news concerning the forgiveness of sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1–5). It is not subject to alteration (Galatians 1:8–9).
To expand the gospel’s meaning beyond its eternal ramifications is to dilute, and possibly jettison, those eternal ramifications. Being together for the gospel, by implication, demands that we stand together against all attempts to expand its meaning beyond its biblical boundaries.
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