Bill Gothard’s Powerless Gospel

Bill gothard gospel

(This originally appeared in the Winter 2001 edition of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 10)

By Dr. Harry Adams

Christianity is the faith of the cross. “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”(Gal. 6:14). The sufferings of Christ obtained for us what we could never obtain by ourselves with respect to salvation and sanctification. Therefore, the Apostles’ writings abound with references to the cross, the tree, the blood, and the sacrificial Lamb. They portray Christ crucified (Gal. 3:2), as the One who delivered Himself for our sins (Rom. 4:25), who gave Himself as our ransom (Mark 10:45), who humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:8), and who will be worshipped forever as the Lamb that purchased us by His blood (Rev. 5:8-9). The benefits of the cross are manifold including (but not limited to):

  • Peace with God (Col. 1:20);
  • The present intercession of Christ because He has entered Heaven with the blood of His suffering (Hebrews 7:25, 9:11-26);
  • Citizenship in Heaven (Phil 3:18-20);
  • Deliverance from the power of sin (Rom. 6:1-11);
  • Motivation for godly living (2 Cor. 5:15);
  • Crucifixion of the world to us, and us to the world (Gal. 6:14);
  • Victory over Satan (Rev. 12:11).

Clearly, the message of the cross is the power by which God transforms men. Pioneer missionary to the Moslems, Samuel M. Zwemer, testified to its power saying:

If the Cross of Christ is anything to the mind, it is surely everything–the most profound reality and the sublimest mystery. One comes to realize that literally all the wealth and glory of the gospel centers here … The more unbelievers deny its crucial character, the more do believers find in it the key to the mysteries of sin and suffering. We rediscover the apostolic emphasis on the Cross when we read the gospel with Moslems. We find that, although the offense of the Cross remains, its magnetic power is irresistible.1

Zwemer’s experience with Moslems bears witness to the truth proclaimed by Paul: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:17-18 NIV). Never do the Apostles let us forget the power of the cross.

But Bill Gothard does. The third chapter of his new book, The Sevenfold Power of First Century Churches and Homes, is concerned with the life-changing message preached by the Apostles. In it he attempts to explain why the Apostles’ teaching was so powerful. In the preface to the chapter, Gothard asks:

What teaching could be so powerful that it commanded the “steadfast” commitment of all the believers? What training could be so effective that it equipped believers to be powerful witnesses of their faith and to be joyful in the face of temptations, trials, and persecutions? …All who heard these teaching were astonished and the lives of those who followed them were transformed.”2

With this introduction, one would expect the chapter to present the apostolic preaching of the cross, but that is not the case. Gothard omits any reference to the cross. No mention is made of the sufferings of Christ, or of His shed blood.3 Instead, he argues the power that changed lives was a character message based upon the Sermon on the Mount. His thought is traced in the following statements:

The phrase “the apostles’ doctrine” is used only once in the New Testament. It defines the teaching that the apostles gave to the multitudes of new believers after the Day of Pentecost. … It is obvious that the teaching which the apostles gave came from the three years of training they had just received from the Lord Jesus Christ … What then was the basic content of the teachings of Jesus, also referred to in Scripture as the doctrine of Christ? “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.” The teachings of Jesus are clearly stated in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).4

Gothard thereafter gives his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.

Another curious feature of this chapter is the equal silence on the role of grace in transforming lives. Gothard’s sole reference to grace is when he says, “Paul combined the teachings of the grace of God with the message of the kingdom of God …”5 Did the Gospel of grace originate with Paul as Gothard here suggests? And does grace not play a vital role in sanctification as indicated in Titus 2:11-12 (NIV):

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. {12} It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age …”

Again, there seems to be a terrible omission from Gothard’s presentation of the Apostles’ teaching.

Any presentation of the Christian message that ignores the cross and minimizes grace is a serious matter indeed. Paul warned the Philippians about those who, while posing as Christian teachers, directed attention away from the cross:

“For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18).

So, was the substance of the apostolic message essentially a reiteration of the Sermon on the Mount as Gothard contends? And was the message of grace something added by Paul as Gothard suggests? After answering these questions, it will be possible to offer conclusions about Mr. Gothard’s presentation of the apostolic teaching.

The Apostles’ Teaching

In attempting to prove the Apostles’ teaching was based on the Sermon on the Mount, Gothard equates the biblical phrases “the Apostles’ doctrine” and “the doctrine of Christ” with it.6 He then asks, “What were the major themes of the doctrine of Christ that had such authority and power over those that heard them?”7 In the balance of the chapter, he argues that these themes were “The Message of the Kingdom” and “The Message of Character” as found in the Sermon on the Mount. Discussing the kingdom, he states that Paul combined the message of grace with the message of the kingdom, and continued to preach the kingdom up to the end of his life.

Does Gothard establish that the biblical references to “the Apostles’ doctrine” and “the doctrine of Christ” are equivalent to the Sermon on the Mount? No, he does not. The phrase “the Apostles’ doctrine” occurs in Acts 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” To determine more precisely what this phrase “the Apostles’ doctrine” meant, it is necessary to examine the teaching of the Apostles in the Book of Acts. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger summarizes the apostolic teaching in Acts this way:

By comparing the reports of the sermons preached by Peter and Paul and other leaders of the early church, scholars have ascertained the common core present in all of them. The following points were emphasized:

(1) The promises of God made in Old Testament days have now been fulfilled, and the Messiah has come:
(2) He is Jesus of Nazareth, who

(a) Went about doing good and executing mighty works by the power of God;
(b) Was crucified according to the purpose of God;
(c) Was raised by God from the dead;
(d) Is exalted by God and given the name “Lord”;
(e) Will come again for judgment and the restoration of all things.

(3) Therefore, all who hear the message should repent and be baptized.8

What was the relationship in Acts between this core proclamation and the theme of the kingdom of God? F. F. Bruce has this to say:

“The things concerning the kingdom of God” at the beginning of Acts are identical with “the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ” at the end of the book (Ch. 28:31; cf. also Chs. 8:12; 20:24f.; 28:23). When they related the story of Jesus, the apostles proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God – the same good news as Jesus Himself had announced earlier, but now given effective fulfilment {sic} by the saving events of His passion and triumph. We may reasonably conclude that the teaching which He gave the apostles about the kingdom of God during those forty days was calculated to make plain to them the bearing of these saving events on the message of the kingdom. Luke supplies a sample of this teaching towards the end of his Gospel, where he describes the risen Lord as opening His disciples’ minds to understand the Scriptures and as telling them: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name unto all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47).9

Thus, we see the preaching of the kingdom by the Apostles was not a retelling of the Sermon on the Mount, but the proclamation of the work of Christ. As Paul summarized his message in 1 Corinthians 5:3-4:

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”

Likewise, Gothard errs in equating “the doctrine of Christ” to the Sermon on the Mount, quoting 2 John 9: “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.” The context clearly shows that by “the doctrine of Christ,” John was here referring to the teaching of the incarnation.

For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.  Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward.  Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son (2 John 1:7-9, KJV).

The “doctrine of Christ” is the teaching that He has “come in the flesh.” At that time an early heresy called “Docetism” was being propagated. Docetism taught that Jesus only appeared to have a body, but was actually a spirit. This heresy was grounded in the belief that all things material are evil. Therefore, a sinless Christ could not have a material body. John sounded a warning against these heretics in 1 John 4:1-3 also: 

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.  Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:  And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

Any teaching that denies the incarnation effectively eliminates Jesus as Savior. His bodily identification with us is necessary to His mediatorial work on our behalf: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). So, the concern of John with respect to “the doctrine of Christ” had nothing whatsoever to do with teaching the Sermon on the Mount. Once more, Mr. Gothard has demonstrated how he twists Scripture to prove his point.

Grace in the Apostolic Message

When was the message of grace introduced? As seen above, Gothard teaches it was something added by Paul. However, the evidence of the New Testament does not bear this out. The Lord Jesus Christ first proclaimed grace, and it was from Him the Apostles learned this message. Luke 4:22 makes this clear:

And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”

Literally, the Greek text says they wondered at “the words of grace that proceeded out of his mouth.” This can either refer to the manner of Jesus’ speaking, or the content of His speech. If the former, it means nothing more than Jesus was a very pleasant speaker. If the latter, it means He talked about grace. The latter seems to be the case given the context. Recall that in verses 18 and 19 He has just quoted Isaiah 61:1-2a:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

“Acceptable” translates the Hebrew word “rasón,” an equivalent term to the Greek word for “grace,” which is “charis” Jesus then proceeded to give two examples of undeserving Gentiles who were objects of grace (which prompted the mob to try and hurl Him from the cliff). Therefore, “words of grace” must mean He was teaching about the grace of God. Accustomed as they were to a “works-righteousness,” this amazed the audience.

The introduction to the Gospel of John also attributes the origin of the message of grace to the Lord Jesus (John 1:14-17, KJV):

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. {15} John bare witness of Him, and cried, saying, This was He of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for He was before me. {16} And of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. {17} For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

Jesus was full of grace; from Him we received abundant grace (grace upon grace), and He taught grace in contrast to Moses who taught the Law. 

While the Gospels do not often use the term “grace” in connection with the teaching of Christ, the offer of grace is clearly present. It is seen in parables like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), in forgiveness like that shown to the woman taken in adultery (John 8:2-11), and in miracles like the healing of the cripple let down through the roof (Mark 2:1-12). Even in His final moments, Jesus showed grace to an undeserving thief on the cross next to Him (Luke 23:42-43). Peter certainly considered his message to be one of grace as seen in his remarks to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:7-11 where he contrasts the “grace” of our Lord Jesus with the “yoke” of the Law.

 The experience of the undeserved, unmerited grace of God has a softening and transforming effect on the heart. This has already been noted in connection with Titus 2:11-12. Paul testified to the power of grace upon his life when he said, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, KJV). The thought of the loving, unmerited gift of Christ on his behalf resulted in a life of dependent faith. Later, he would explicitly attribute victory over sin to grace, not the Law: “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14, KJV).

Without a doubt, all the Apostles, having learned of grace from Jesus, proclaimed His message of grace. Grace, not a better, more searching statement of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, transformed the lives of those who believed. It still does. 

Conclusion 

Saint Augustine once said, “He who would give the meaning of Scripture, but does not derive it from the Scripture, is the enemy of Scripture.” Bill Gothard does not derive the meaning of the message preached by the Apostles from the Scripture. On the contrary, he imposes his own moralistic ideas on the New Testament; ignoring the cross and minimizing grace in the process. The verdict of Dr. Ronald Allen says it all: “Gothard’s use of Scripture is so suspect as to render him a poorly informed and untrustworthy teacher.”10Ω

Dr. Harry Adams is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and was in pastoral ministry for over 25 years. In late 1997, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, ending his pulpit ministry. He continues a writing ministry.

© 2015, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.

 

  1. Samuel M. Zwemer, The Glory of the Cross, {n.p., n.d.} pg. 6. Quoted by John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., 1986. Pp. 42-43
  2. Bill Gothard, The Sevenfold Power of First Century Churches and Homes, Institute in Basic Life Principles, Oak Brook, Illinois, 2000. Pg. 57
  3. This omission is consistent with what we find in the Basic and Advanced Seminar textbooks. They also lack any discussion of the cross as a factor in Christian living
  4. The Sevenfold Power, pp. 57, 58, and 59
  5. The Sevenfold Power, pg. 61
  6. The Sevenfold Power, pp. 57, 58
  7. The Sevenfold Power, pg. 59
  8. Bruce Manning Metzger, The New Testament: its background, growth, and content, 2nd edition, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1992. Pg. 177
  9. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on The Book of The Acts, Wm. F. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1977. Pg. 34
  10. “Issues of Concern – Bill Gothard and the Bible,” Dr. Ronald B. Allen, 1984

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