In recent posts and comment interaction we have tried to expose a certain fruitlessness in the debate regarding church planting methods. To a degree, this debate ignores what is most critical in church planting—our understanding, articulation, and embodiment of the historic gospel of Jesus Christ.

Are methods entirely untethered to gospel? Are there certain, more biblically faithful understandings of the gospel that will produce certain, more theologically faithful churches? If so, what about the gospel needs to be debated? What misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the gospel are we in danger of succumbing to?

In his newest book, Christless Christianity, Michael Horton argues that it is a semi-pelagian understanding of the gospel that most endangers the American church. He claims that American Protestantism has been dominated by semi-pelagianism, what I’ll call a 50/50 understanding of the gospel—we are saved by fifty percent grace and fifty percent works—God’s assistance in our choosing.

This gospel unabashedly undermines the doctrine of original sin and total depravity. We aren’t enemies of God; we’re just wayward souls in need of redirection. But did Jesus die merely to redirect meandering people? Surely his teachings would have sufficed to correct our wayward morals. No, Jesus died to atone for our high treason, both inherited and enacted, against the Lord of All. We have deliberately refused holiness and sought therapy for our sin sick souls. If we are not truly sinners and need just the divine assistance of a kindly Christ, then the gospel is reduced to moral rehabilitation and spiritual highs.

How does a 50/50 gospel affect church planting? A fifty-fifty gospel will produce a thrifty, nifty church. Like a church building I pass every time on my way to Dallas, we will end up offering “30 minute worship, guaranteed!” Harmless, cheap, convenient, or your money back guaranteed. A 50/50 gospel will inevitably lead to no gospel at all and a church that is reduced to attracting people interested in an occasional dose of moral redirection and a quick spiritual high. We will produce addicts not disciples, events not churches.

In the end, a 50/50 gospel will result in churches that are mainly services, places where the weary moralist turns up for a fresh filling of “you can do its” in order to continue tickering along in his own strength for his own goodness. This kind of gospel is worse that diluted gas. The human engine will putter along without ever knowing the difference between 100 proof gospel and 50/50, puttering all the way to hell. If  the American church is to faithfully embody the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will have to get our doctrine of sin and grace right, not just in our preaching but also in our planting.