What is the gospel?
It seems like such a simple question, doesn’t it? Yet, if you ask 10 different people, you might get 12 different answers.
Why is that? Why is it that there seems to be so much confusion over what all who profess faith in Christ believe is the greatest news of all?
Why have we traded something so glorious for a pale substitute—a counterfeit? That’s the question at the heart of Trevin Wax’s new book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope.
So why do we fall for counterfeits in the first place? Why are they so alluring? The reality, according to Wax, is that they’re just easier than the real gospel. Counterfeits don’t cost us anything, and indeed, they can make us quite popular in the eyes of non believers.
Yet a counterfeit gospel will always leave our souls impoverished at just the point we should be enriched. Counterfeits leave our hearts and affections for God depleted at just the time we should be overflowing with passion to share the good news with others. (p. 13)
Our acceptance of counterfeits has led to a threefold crisis within the Church. Where we should have clarity of the gospel story, we have confusion. Where we should have bold proclamation, we lack conviction. Where we should have vibrant gospel community, we instead retreat from society or become exactly like it.
I greatly appreciated reading Wax’s succinct identification of the crisis within Evangelicalism; indeed it was something of an “aha” moment for me as it described many of the frustrations I have had when speaking with fellow believers in my community. This is in no way meant to malign anyone in our city, but when churches see themselves as “homeless” because they’re between buildings or believers don’t feel like they can share their faith with someone because they don’t have any answers to hard questions that might arise, there is something wrong.
Wax quickly moves from identifying the problem to the solution, tackling each aspect of what he describes as the three-legged stool of the gospel, first by unpacking the genuine article followed an examination of the counterfeits.
The Gospel Story. Leg one focuses on the big story of the gospel—Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. The story the context that gives the announcement meaning and fulfillment. To say that Jesus Christ died in your place so your sins could be forgiven doesn’t have sufficient weight unless you understand the back story. “Christ died… in accordance with the Scriptures,” wrote Paul. Wax describes a story answers the deep questions we have about life and existence because it ties all our individual “stories” to the big story of Jesus, and this is a glorious thing, indeed.
Wax follows up his overview of the gospel story by examining two counterfeits. The first is the therapeutic gospel. This counterfeit targets the fall; confusing “our spiritual symptoms (a troubled marriage, anxiety, anger, addictions) with our spiritual disease (sin). . . . Sin is recast as an obstacle to finding happiness. It’s whatever gets in the way of my becoming all that I ought to be.” (p. 44)
This counterfeit manifests itself in ideas such as “God wants me to be happy,” that sin is a lack of self-esteem (so we shouldn’t talk about it because it just makes people feel bad), that Jesus will make my life better, or that God is some sort of cosmic vending machine who is obligated to bless you for your obedience. This inevitably leaves us in a place where we become “more interested in the gifts than the Giver.” (p. 56) We don’t want God, just what He can give us.
The second counterfeit is the judgmentless gospel. This counterfeit “diminishes the need for the gospel announcement, and eventually changes the make-up for the gospel community as well. . . . Our efforts to minimize boundaries between who is ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the kingdom dilute the power of our witness.” (pp. 68-69)
This counterfeit manifests itself in modified forms of universalism that suggest that heaven is the norm, or in the downplaying of the afterlife for a focus on the “missional life,” the thought that “God doesn’t send anyone to hell, people choose to go there,” or even a twist on “God knows the heart,” turning the warning into a promise.
The Gospel Announcement. Leg two is the key—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus change everything. He announced the arrival of God’s kingdom, His perfect life is offered to all who trust in Him and we are declared righteous in God’s sight because of it, and His death and resurrection bring about the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God. It’s truly the news that changes the world!
Yet, we again find counterfeits. We trade the glorious announcement of Christ for a moralistic gospel. Here, we tell people they need to get right with God without telling them who God is; we offer good advice instead of Good News (“Good advice sells books, but the gospel changes hearts. Good advice is popular, but the gospel is powerful,” writes Wax [p. 112]); we begin with grace and move back to the law, forgetting that its whole point is to show us why we need to be saved; and we even spiritualize the gospel announcement so it becomes a form of self-help, rather than something that fills us with awe and wonder.
We also trade the announcement for the quietist gospel, turning the good news into a message that is only personal. It becomes only about individual salvation; it creates a false dichotomy between the sacred and secular, heaping guilt upon those who work regular jobs instead of being in some form of full-time vocational ministry; and it tries to push Christianity out of politics, forgetting that while faith isn’t a political weapon, it always has implications.
The Gospel Community. Leg three deals with the implications of the gospel—the birth of the Church. The gospel announcement brings about the formation of gospel community, one that “is empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a blessing to the nations by bringing the good news of salvation and living distinctly from the world for the good of the world.” (p. 170)
Like the rest, this too has its counterfeits. The first, and one of the most popular today, is the activist gospel, which “unites us around social action or political causes rather than the gospel itself” (p. 174). And it’s incredibly appealing because it brings immediate results to those who pursue it, even as it completely wears them out.
Where the quietist gospel tries to limit the impact of the gospel announcement, the activist gospel focuses only on its impact. So we find ourselves in culture wars, speaking “out against adultery in society while overlooking the adulterer singing from the choir loft” (p. 175), raging against our hobby horses, but not doing battle with sin. We serve as errand runners in the quest to make the world a better place, believing that politics is the primary way to change the world. We look to education as the solution to the world’s ills, ignoring the truth that ignorance isn’t our biggest problem—our rebellion against God is far more serious.
This counterfeit is probably the most personal to me as it impacts my day job (I work at for a Christian NGO) and, I’ve seen how easy it is to get sucked into this trap. Activism is very alluring, but the cause can too easily supplant the gospel. Reading this chapter offered me an opportunity to recalibrate and refocus my attention on where it needs to be, especially as I write.
The final counterfeit Wax describes is the churchless gospel. This counterfeit reduces the importance of the local church to the degree that people do not see the importance of the institution at all, or don’t see the need to attend regularly.
One variation is put forward in Pagan Christianity by Barna and Viola, who paint everything about the institutional church as utterly pagan and worthy of opposition, and the only hope for restoration if to abandon the organized church and adopt structureless forms of Christian fellowship. Another suggests that the local church is optional, but if you have fruitful Christian fellowship through a parachurch organization or college ministry, then you don’t really “need” it. The third most common variation suggests that the church is actually a hindrance to true spiritual growth for people who love Jesus and want to be like Him.
Countering the Counterfeits
Wax ends Counterfeit Gospels where he begins, reminding readers again of the beauty of the true gospel and a plea to counter the counterfeits by telling the gospel story, making the gospel announcement and inviting others into the gospel community. This is a challenge all of us, myself especially, need to hear. The truth is, counterfeit gospels are ugly—pale imitations that fail to help, encourage and save. We need to immerse ourselves in the gospel as we find it in Scripture and let that drive our motivations.
Instead of the activist gospel, we should pursue gospel-driven activism. Instead of fleeing from the institutional church, we should embrace the opportunity that God has offered for our sanctification to increase and to serve others in love and humility. Instead of relying on politics or education to change people, we need to bring the light of the gospel to politics and education. And instead of offering good advice, we need to start announcing good news. If you’re inspired by the gospel, if you want to be captivated by its beauty, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to read Counterfeit Gospels.
Title: Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope
Author: Trevin Wax
Publisher: Moody Publishers (2011)
This review is based on a galley copy provided by the publishers.