What the Gospel Is (Not)

A few months ago I was in a Sunday School class in which the leader brought up 7 common substitutes for the Gospel, as defined by Paul Tripp. That list has stuck out to me ever since. Have I fallen into any of them? Have you?

As you read my own descriptions of these substitutes, ask yourself – which best describes your version of Christianity?

Formalism

(The Gospel is reduced to participation in scheduled meetings and ministries of the church)

A couple years ago I talked with a woman who said she was a Christian. In an effort to determine whether she truly was or not, I asked her how she had come to faith.

“Oh, I’ve been part of the church since I was a little girl,” she explained. She told me how she was involved in this or that ministry, and how she read her devotional books every morning, and then finally offered to pray with me for the salvation of her surrounding neighbors.

I left her house feeling sorry for her, and kicking myself for not saying more. In her “testimony” there had been not one reference to God saving her. Everything she said was about herself – the traditions she was a part of, the things she had done.

Listen, going to church does not make you a Christian! Being involved in a ministry does not make you a Christian. Even being a pastor or playing on the worship team or serving as an elder does not guarantee that you are a Christian. Going through religious rituals, whether worship service or prayer times or devotional books or Bible studies or giving tithes does not mean you are a Christian. Even responding to an altar call and praying the “prayer of salvation” or getting baptized at some point does not mean you are a Christian.

But a lot of people, including the woman I talked to, fall into the trap of formalism. They assume that their showing up for church and being involved in religious activities makes them a good Christian person.

But throughout the Bible, God has had a lot to say to those who would show up to perform their religious duties – and that was about all they did. And He didn’t mince words either!

“. . .these people draw near with their mouths
And honor Me with their lips,
But have removed their hearts far from Me,
And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men” (Isaiah 29:13, NKJV)

30 “Son of man, your people talk about you in their houses and whisper about you at the doors. They say to each other, ‘Come on, let’s go hear the prophet tell us what the Lord is saying!’ 31 So my people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts seek only after money. 32 You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don’t act on it! 33 But when all these terrible things happen to them—as they certainly will—then they will know a prophet has been among them.” (Ezekiel 33:30-33, NLT)

“You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. . . They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!” (2 Tim. 3:1-2,5, NLT)

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 23:25-28, NKJV)

16 “They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.” (Titus 1:16, NKJV)

Legalism

(The Gospel is reduced to a careful keeping of the rules)

It’s very easy to accuse people of being legalistic and hypocritical. But it’s not so easy to recognize it in ourselves.

If your definition of Christianity is following a list of do’s and don’ts, then you have missed the entire point of the Gospel.

Jesus met a young man once who thought he was all set to get to heaven, because he had managed to successfully keep all the rules his entire life (or at least, in his opinion he had). But Jesus exposed that this young man’s heart wasn’t in the right place: he wasn’t willing to put God first and follow Him wholeheartedly. What about you?

The Pharisees were another group that are well-known for both their formalism and their legalism. In their case, legalism meant trying so hard to follow God’s rules, they imposed additional rules on people. God says not to work on the Sabbath? Ok, we’ll define work as traveling any farther than 1000 yards from your house. But wait, you need to get farther than that? Ok then, drop some belongings along the road every 1000 yards, and those will count as your “house”, so you’ll always be within the accepted distance. Sure, maybe God’s rule wasn’t being broken by basically restricting people to their house, but it was imposing a burdensome preciseness that God never required – and then they would be so technical about it that they’d find ways around it, and probably end up breaking the rule to begin with.

I think of the Little House on the Prairie books. I remember reading about how Laura Ingalls disliked when Sunday came around, because she had to sit quietly all day…. no smiling or laughing . . . no playing . . . no work . . . The only things that I remember she could do were to recite the catechism and read the Bible.

What happened to “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”?

Maybe we’re not being quite that technical and legalistic, but we may still be falling into the legalism trap without even realizing it.

I remember as a kid, I became prejudiced against certain things – I’d look around and judge people based on their appearances alone. A guy with tattoes, a girl with a shorter dress, a boy with earrings, a woman with hair dyed bright pink – my conclusion: none of them could be true Christians.

But as the prophet Samuel learned, God doesn’t look at the outward appearance; He looks on the heart. I still believe that many times a person’s outward appearance does tend to match what’s going on in the inside – but you can’t assume the status of their souls based on your own legalistic rule-sets or cultural presuppositions alone.

Legalism places a pressure on following rules and principles that may or may not exist in the Bible. But it’s works-oriented. And as the rich young ruler and the Pharisees discovered, keeping all the rules doesn’t guarantee you a spot in Heaven. Just because you do all the “right” things doesn’t mean that you’re a righteous person. The righteousness that lets us into eternity is not our own, but Christ’s.

8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9, NKJV)

8 “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men —the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, ‘All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.'” (Mark 7:8-9, NKJV)

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:8-9)

16 “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Gal. 2:16, NKJV)

Mysticism & Psychologism

(Mysticism: The Gospel is reduced to emotional or spiritual experiences, & Psychologism: The Gospel is reduced to healing emotional needs)

I lumped these two together because they focus on emotions, and I personally find them a little more difficult to describe. Maybe because I’m a non-emotional person, lol! 😉

If you look up “Christian Mysticism” on the Internet, you’ll find a lot of New-Agey-sounding stuff. With a focus on experiences, it’s a weird blend of “seeking God” but really seeking yourself, or finding god in yourself. It sounds like Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism, with a sprinkle of Jesus for good measure. Reasoning and logic are rather stomped on, and your own emotions and feelings are elevated.

That all sounds rather strange and foreign – but I think this category can apply in some less-obvious situations as well.

It could be found in the person who is always looking for spiritual highs and powerful emotions. More conservative people may want to point a finger at the tongues-speaking, prophecy-delivering, vision-seeing charismatics, but anyone can be guilty of this.

It can be found when I decide that I’m living out Christianity if I feel really close to God, if I experience His presence, if I’m filled with joy. But if God seems far away, or my faith seems frail, if I’m struggling with questions or doubts or moodiness (or simply dealing with hormones!) – then I must automatically assume I’m not in a good place spiritually, and I need to seek a way to get back on that spiritual-emotional high.

When you sing out your soul at church and lift up your hands in worship, who or what are you worshiping? Our glorious holy God? Or the swelling emotion you’re feeling in your heart?

When you show up at a revival meeting, what are you looking for? Are you giving God the opportunity to search your heart and expose your sin? Or are you just looking for an emotional experience to make you feel closer to God?

The problem with “mysticism” in any of its forms is that, whether consciously or not, you end up worshiping yourself instead of God. Your spiritual compass becomes your fickle, ever-changing emotions instead of the steadfast, unchanging truth of God. Remember, the heart is deceitfully wicked – who can understand it? Only God can, and when He reveals its inner depths, it’s not always emotionally stimulating.

We can’t just love God or the experiences He may sometimes give – we must follow Him, obey Him, fear Him.

Psychologism is similar in that it looks to God as a sort of Band-aid for our troubled souls. I follow Jesus because He makes me feel good. Because when I’m sad and I think about Him, it makes me feel comforted.

But again, the Gospel is about much more than our feelings. We need to be growing, not just in love & comfort, but in strength and wisdom and knowledge. We need to be caring as much for God and others as for ourselves. Those who make decisions and pursue “truth” based only on their emotions are the ones who will be the most-likely to be swayed to falsehoods.

3 “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.” (2 Tim. 4:3-4, NLT)

24 “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand.” (Matt. 24:23-24, NKJV)

21 Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt. 7:21-23)

14 “Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.” (Eph. 4:14-15, NKJV)

12 . .. Since you are so eager to have the special abilities the Spirit gives, seek those that will strengthen the whole church.” (1 Cor. 14:12, NLT)

Activism

(The Gospel is reduced to participation in Christian causes)

This is another one that’s linked closely to formalism. But while formalism is focused on rituals, activism would be focused on “good works.” These are your philanthropists and your charity volunteers, who go about doing a lot of good things – but missing the whole point of the “Good News.”

Picture the wealthy man giving liberally to humanitarian efforts – he’s laying up treasure in heaven, right? Or the woman who works day in and day out at a local charity – the more she does, the more good merit points she’s earning with God, right?

These are the people who will stand before God and say, “Look at all this good stuff I’ve done for You, Lord! I’ve been such a good person, Lord!” It’s like they think God is the ultimate Santa Claus – as long as you behave well, you’ll get some nice presents in the end.

And the sad thing is that He will tell them, “I never knew you. . . Depart from me!”

They spent their lives doing instead of becoming: serving fellow man instead of truly serving God. In the end, their works and their money could not save them.

See, the Law was summed up in two commandments: Love God, and love others. Not just one. Both. It’s possible to love others without truly loving God. And it’s also quite possible to assume that your service is out of love to others, when really it’s just out of love to yourself.

When you help out at your local charity, what are your motives? Is it about serving the people there? Or about making your life feel meaningful? Or about glorifying God and making Him known to those around you?

When you donate money to a Christian organization, why do you do it? To check off your to-do list that you’ve given your expected tithe? Out of genuine love for those that money will be helping? Out of a desire to honor God with your resources?

. . .”Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? 37 Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:34-37, NKJV)

“They trust in their wealth
    and boast of great riches.
Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death
    by paying a ransom to God.
Redemption does not come so easily,
    for no one can ever pay enough
to live forever
    and never see the grave.” (Psa. 49:6-8, NLT)

27 So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27, NKJV)

25 “Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. 27 And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:25, NKJV)

Biblicism

(The Gospel is reduced to mastery of Biblical and Christian theology)

This is another easy one to fall into. I know I enjoy to pour over the Bible, to learn new things – whether spiritual truths or simply interesting facts. The more I know, the more mature I feel as a Christian.

But while studying Scripture is certainly a good thing and can help you to grow as a believer, there is so much more to Christianity than simply learning about God.

After all, what’s the point of knowledge if it’s never used?

As Francis Chan vividly describes it, too often we are making ourselves obese on knowledge that we never exercise!

In the end, does it matter whether I form a theology on salvation, if I never share the message of salvation with anyone? Does it matter if I can quote whole chapters of the Bible, if I keep my mouth shut around those who need to hear it most? Does it matter if I come to an understanding of end-times prophecies, if I’m not living my life with an eternal perspective? Does it matter if I read my Bible diligently every day if I never showed kindness to my family during the day?

“Therefore to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17, NKJV).

“. . . though I . . . understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2, NKJV).

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17 ,NKJV)

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. . . 26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:22, 26-27, NKJV)

26 “But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: 27 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.” (Matt. 7:26-27, NKJV).

Socialism

(The Gospel is reduced to fellowship with the body of Christ)

Community is important – I just blogged about it, actually. But being a Christian is more than simply fellowshipping with other Christians.

Going to youth group or Wednesday night Bible study, attending church service and Sunday School, and hanging out regularly with other believers (or church-goers at least) is not a bad thing – but if that’s the extent of our Christianity, we’re missing something.

Look at this way – if you had only a high-school education and worked a job as a plumber, but all your friends were highly-educated scientists, could you go around saying that you were a scientist just because you hang out with scientists all the time? Of course not! You don’t have the education, the training, the experience, or the job of a scientist – so you couldn’t possibly call yourself one.

So don’t assume that you’re a believer just because your friends are. You have to be one yourself!

Judas spent three years hanging out with Jesus Himself and His closest earthly friends. But in the end, he denied the One he called Lord, betrayed the One he called Friend, and died in misery.

What would you do if you felt pressured to leave the truth? What will you do when being a Christian isn’t the “cool” thing to do? What will you do when you realize that being a follower of Christ means making an individual choice for yourself instead of just following the crowd?

“6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 6:6-7, NKJV)

“14 You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:14, NKJV)

7 “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham” (Gal. 3:7-9)

Conclusion

So, if I asked you, “How do you know if you’re a Christian?” – what would you answer?

  • “I go to church every Sunday, and I serve in such and such ministry and . . . “
  • “I try really hard to do what the Bible says and not mess up anymore. . . “
  • “I’ve experienced His Presence in such a powerful way, so I know that He is definitely with me. . .”
  • “I’m a good person, and I do a lot of good things, and I know that I’m doing what He’s called me to do. . .”
  • “I read my Bible every single day, and I have learned so much about God and His ways . . .”
  • “I’m involved with church and Bible Study, and I regularly fellowship with other believers so I can be connected to the Body . . . “

Or . . .

“Christ has saved me and changed me, and now by His grace I seek to love, serve, and glorify Him in all that I do. . . “

13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:

Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
14 For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil.” (Ecc. 12:13-14, NKJV).

 

36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”

38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:36-28, NKJV)

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