What the Gospel Isn’t: Four Errant ‘Gospels’

In his little book, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, Southern Baptist pastor Mark Dever defines the gospel as follows:

The gospel is the good news is that the one and only God, who is holy, made us in his image to know him. But we sinned and cut ourselves off from him. In his great love, God became a man in Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law himself and taking on himself the punishment for the sins of all those who would ever turn and trust in him. He rose again from the dead, showing that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and that God’s wrath against us had been exhausted. He now calls us to repent of our sins and to trust in Christ alone for our forgiveness. If we repent of our sins and trust in Christ, we are born again into a new life, and eternal life with God. (43)

This is the simple and saving message of Jesus Christ. For more than twenty centuries, it has been proclaimed to kings and criminals, housemaid and headhunters (cannibals, that is; not corporate matchmakers). This message is God’s power unto salvation (Rom 1:16), but because it comes in verbal form, it also has been misunderstood, distorted, and caricatured. While upheld by God himself; the gospel, as a message carried by humans, is an endangered species.

Therefore, in every generation, Christians must reiterate what the gospel is and what it isn’t. Like Pastor Dever and the New Testament apostles, we must be able to explain the gospel simply and clearly. But we must also be able to spot leaks in our gospel, lest our ship (the church) be submerged by the brackish waters of the world.

Thankfully, we are not saved by the purity of our doctrine, but the purity of our Savior. Nevertheless, our spiritual joy and evangelistic witness is determined by the doctrines we hold. Therefore, it is good to take inventory of our gospel understanding, and to plug any holes that might harm Christ’s church. In what follows, let me suggest four common errors that threaten the gospel today.

1. The gospel is not therapy for a human malady. Whereas many therapeutic gospels rightly esteem human value, offer spiritual comfort, and remind us of God’s love; they fail to address the wickedness of our sin, the reality of the world’s evil and suffering, and the fact that God is more glorious than any of his gifts. The true gospel is a message of comfort and love, but one that grounds those promises in the words of Scripture, not some kind of pop psychology. The therapeutic gospel offers help; we need resurrection!

2. The gospel is not the universal removal of judgment. Some believe that everybody goes to heaven, or at least that people who want to go to heaven will get there. This is a judgmentless gospel. In it, people are still sinful, but sin becomes an unfortunate human problem, or a series of honest mistakes, instead of a hell-deserving judgment before a holy God. Tragically, such a gospel rejects God’s holy character and zeal for justice. By contrast, the true gospel affirms the holy wrath of God, and it declares that on the cross, Jesus Christ extinguished the judgment of God, so that we could be children of God, beloved by the Father. The judgmentless calls sinners misguided souls; the true gospel crucifies them in Christ and raises them to new life.

3. The gospel is not a moral revolution or a resolution to do better. The problem with the morality gospel is that is focuses on outward behavior, appearance, and personal association. It makes Jesus look like Uncle Sam, saying to the best citizens, “I want you!”  People who believe in a morality gospel go in search of good recruits for Jesus team. But this turns the gospel on its head. Jesus did not go to Golgotha to assemble a band of good people. He screamed in tortured agony to pay the sin debt of wretched sinners, who he has made new creations. Neither personal nor political morality is the gospel; singular trust in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is.

4. The gospel is not a dose of spiritual inspiration. For many, Jesus is loved and adored, not because he bled and died for their sins, but because he provides for them a beautiful model of life, love, and light (think: the Sermon on the Mount). But these things replace the main point with a handful of subpoints. Jesus came to provide propitiation for our sins, not inspiration for our souls. The activist gospel centers on Jesus, but as an inspirational figure, it could just as well be Helen Keller, William Wallace, or Winston Churchill. Often it is: When activists get tired of Jesus they look for the Tim Tebows of the world to supply new inspiration. In this case, the activist gospel minors on what Jesus has done for you, and majors on what you can do with him.

We could go on, but these four errant gospels are sufficient to show how easy it is to have Jesus but not salvation (read Matthew 7:21-23). Might we learn by comparison where the leaks in our own gospel are, so that we might ever trust more deeply in Christ’s finished work and not our own endless efforts.

(For more on the idea of errant gospels, make that ‘counterfeit gospels,’ see Trevin Wax’s illuminating book by the same title: Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope. His book provided much insight into the four selections above, and he includes number of other points as well).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss