This week, I discussed “counterfeit gospels” with a couple guys I am meeting with for discipleship. After unpacking the horizontal gospel and vertical gospel for the last three months (those are my terms for what Matt Chandler has called the “gospel in the air” and the “gospel on the ground”), things began to crystalize as we considered ways in which evangelicals misunderstand the gospel.
To that end—understanding and recognizing our deviations from the gospel—Trevin Wax’s book Counterfeit Gospels is a great aid. In three sections, he outlines the gospel in terms of story (creation, fall, redemption, and new creation), announcement (God sent his son to die in the place of sinners; he raised him to life on the third day for the justification of sinners; and any and all who trust on Christ for the forgiveness of their sins will be saved), and community (the people of God are formed by the gospel and are called to announce the gospel).
In each section, Trevin explains in detail what the gospel is, but then he devotes two chapters in each section to tackle what the gospel isn’t. And better than any book I’ve read on the gospel, his book exposes the false gospels of our day. What Counterfeit Gospels does so well is, borrowing the language of J. I. Packer, to show how half-truths masquerading as whole truths become damnable untruths—okay, so I might have added the anathema. But the point remains.
A Modern Evangelical Problem
As is too often the case, Christians who (I think) believe in the gospel fail to communicate the gospel. Instead of articulating the gospel in Scriptural terms, they dress it up in psychological language, reduce the weight of God’s judgment, and replace evangelistic witnessing with social action as the mission of the church. And these deviations does not include the false teachers who outright reject the true gospel or intentionally declare a false gospel.
Concerning the unintentional misrepresentation of the gospel, I heard a pastor recently preach a gospel-less Good Friday message. Yet, when I spoke with him about it later and asked him what the gospel was, he clearly articulated it’s meaning. What is going on?
Tragically, there continues to be a lack of clarity about the content of the gospel, which means there is a lack of power in the church’s witness, worship, and preaching. We need to continue to assert the gospel in no uncertain terms, and we also need to see with greater clarity ways in which our ecclesial history and personal disposition lend themselves to miscommunicating the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For that reason, I commend Trevin Wax’s illuminating book. Not only does it get the gospel right, it helps expose the false gospels that swim all around us and that reside within our own hearts. In his book, he includes six helpful charts that summarize six counterfeit gospels. I’ve included them below. Take time to consider where you see these counterfeits, and then go pick up his book and consider more fully the gospel’s story, announcement, and community.
Six Counterfeit Gospels
|The Therapeutic Gospel|
|Story: The fall is seen as the failure of humans to reach their potential. Sin is primarily about us, as it robs us of our sense of fullness.||Announcement: Christ’s death proves our inherent worth as human beings and gives us the power to reach our potential.||Community: The church helps us along in our quest for personal happiness and vocational fulfillment.|
|The Judgmentless Gospel|
|Story: Restoration is more about God’s goodness than His judgment of evil or His response to rebellious humanity.||Announcement: Jesus’ death is more about defeating humanity’s enemies (death, sin, Satan) than the need for God’s wrath to be averted by His sacrifice.||Community: The boundaries between the church and the world are blurred in a way that makes personal evangelism less urgent and unnecessary.|
|The Moralistic Gospel|
|Story: Our sinful condition is seen as the individual sins we commit. Redemption comes through the exercise of willpower with God’s help.||Announcement: The good news is spiritual instruction about what we can do to win God’s favor and blessing upon our earthly endeavors.||Community: The church is a place where people who believe like us can affirm each other in keeping the standards of the community.|
|The Quietist Gospel|
|Story: The Grand Narrative of Scripture is personal and applicable primarily to those areas of life that we define as spiritual.||Announcement: Christ’s death and resurrection is a private and personal message that changes individual hearts. It is not concerned with society or politics.||Community: The church focuses on self-preservation, maintaining its distinctiveness by resisting the urge to engage prophetically with culture.|
|The Activist Gospel|
|Story: The kingdom is advanced through the efforts of Christians to build a just society. We are the answer to our prayers for a better world.||Announcement: The gospel’s power is demonstrated through political, social, and cultural transformation brought about by involved Christians.||Community: The church finds its greatest unity around political causes or social projects.|
|The Churchless Gospel|
|Story: The storyline of Scripture focuses on an individual’s need for salvation and purpose. The community of faith is at the periphery of this narrative.||Announcement: The good news is announcement solely for the redemption of individuals.||Community: The local church is viewed as either an optional aid to personal spirituality, or an obstacle to be discarded in one’s pursuit of God.|
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
This chart is a combination of six individual charts interspersed in Trevin Wax’s excellent book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope (Chicago: Moody, 2011).