In his letter to the Galatian churches, the apostle Paul warns those early Christians against turning to another gospel and abandoning Christianity altogether:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:6-9)
So how might we see the gospel distorted today? What are some of the ways the gospel is presented so differently that it becomes another—entirely different—gospel?
Whenever the law is softened, when a commandment is made lighter or easier to keep, we’ve distorted the gospel. God’s rigorous standard is simple: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). If someone says this is not a hard commandment, then they don’t understand the severity of God’s law and cannot appreciate the generosity of God’s gospel. Doing your best and forgetting the rest is not good news—it’s terrible news.
When someone comes to you saying something like “You just have to be perfect! Try a little harder,” this is only an attempt to soften God’s strict and just law while ignoring the fact that we can never truly satisfy God’s law by our own obedience. The good news—or “gospel”—is that God has obeyed the law in Christ perfectly for us. I only need to remember that Jesus did his best, then I can forget the rest (of my sin, that is).
When the gospel is cheapened, the good news becomes meh. Some will compromise the truth in order to be relevant—when this happens, in reality, the church is assimilating into to the bloodstream of the culture. Doing this subtracts from the gospel, and its message ceases to be good news.
3. “You can do it!”
Another way the gospel is distorted is by making us responsible for earning or maintaining grace. If God is responsible for saving us, that’s the true gospel. If it’s a mixture of God and us, then it’s not the gospel. The bad news is that you can’t do it, but the really good news is that Jesus did do it. That’s a message worth believing.
Others will fall into clichés (hence, “Cliché-anity”). They will repeat old statements or phrases that have no meaning. For example, when you’re going through a hard time you hear the cliché, “You just have to let go and let God.” The Catholic church fell into a form of this same error in the middle ages when many of her own priests didn’t know how to read the Bible. We also see this in Fundamentalism, where people are irrelevant to the culture and don’t know how to speak the truth in love or how to speak the truth in our own time and place. A fairly common one in these circles is imploring the phrase “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” That is often used to silence the opposing view.
Words are restated without any explanation, and the use of the word is good enough to warrant orthodoxy. A very common one today is “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” It’s a nice sentiment, but it isn’t exactly honest about the fact that Christianity is a “religion” and it has been institutionalized in many different ways. Cliché’s like this aren’t helpful because they only teach partial truth.
Cliché-anity is also alive and well in the meaningless phrases we hear in Christian circles, like “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” “Let go and let God,” or “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
5. I Want…
Then there’s self-help and psychology—or as sociologist Christian Smith has dubbed it, “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This is the unchristian idea that God exists to fulfill me and make me happy. God is my cosmic candy machine—I press the right button and out comes my desired result.
There’s Better News Than That
Ultimately, this kind of false message turns the gospel into “good advice” instead of good news! It becomes tips for healthy living and leading a fulfilled life instead of an announcement of what God has done in Jesus Christ to redeem us from the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Don’t believe any of these fake gospels! They are all self-improvement plans and programs devoid of the truth, empty of all spiritual power, and that take your eyes off of Jesus.
Reject these false gods and turn to the one and only God who “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal 1:4-5).