First, note that J. I. Packer is speaking to the evangelical church, over fifty years ago! He has absolutely nothing to say here about the liberal church. And, he accuses the fifty years ago (!) evangelical church of great error by saying “part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” Packer’s definition for this half-gospel strikes at the heart of the current theological crisis.
One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be “helpful” to man—to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction—and too little concerned to glorify God.
The identified consequences for preaching this half-gospel are disturbingly familiar.
The new gospel conspicuously fails to produce deep reverence, deep repentance, deep humility, a spirit of worship, a concern for the church.
Note also that he is not addressing an issue that has suddenly appeared, but rather one that:
… during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing.
Thus, this error is something that has deep, broad roots in our history. Perhaps the words from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, almost a century earlier (March 4, 1865) provide an insightful view into a source of our current crisis.
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.
Our sixteenth President is here speaking about the cataclysm of the ongoing Civil War, and the irreconcilable conclusions reached within a nation that reads “the same Bible and pray[s] to the same God.” The Civil War certainly was an event (among others) of sufficient power to turn an entire nation into new, unanticipated theological directions.
The nature of this new theological direction described by J. I. Packer sounds quite contemporary with just a few updated words. For example, in the following sentences, I substitute “me” for “man” and “affirmed” for “better,” (word substitutions in bolded square brackets) with the following result.
But in the new gospel the centre of reference is [me]. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach men to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making [me] feel [affirmed]. The subject of the old gospel was God and His ways with men; the subject of the new is [me] and the help God gives [me].