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Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two part series. 
Part one addresses The Gospel in Miniature, and The Sad Realities of False Gospels.
This article discusses examples of false gospels.

The book of Galatians doesn’t specify all the different kinds of false gospels, but it does hint at some that were leading the Galatians astray, and from those hints, and from looking at history, we can deduce a number of other kinds of false gospels that might be enticing to our counselees.

The Obligatory Gospel

A perversion of the doctrine of grace, this is the gospel of legalism. One form of the obligatory gospel says, “I am saved by grace and kept by law.”  This was the Galatian problem. The Galatians acknowledged salvation by grace, but emphasized sanctification by law (3:2-3).  They thought they would please God by their fastidious law-keeping.

There are responsibilities for the believer in Christ, but these are only achievable by the power of the Holy Spirit (2:20; 3:5).  Any command we keep is because of God’s grace working in us, not because of any amount of self-righteousness. Everything we do and everything we are is the result of God’s grace at work in us.

Another form of the obligatory gospel says, “I am saved by grace, but salvation is full of duty, and we must keep these obligations…”  It is a gospel that emphasizes “grit-your-teeth” duty at the expense of joy. There is no joy in this gospel.

Yes, there are duties and responsibilities for the believer, but when they are done in the power of the Spirit and not the flesh, they produce joy and not duty (5:16, 22-25).  When the gospel is preached with grace, it liberates people to enjoy obedience to God instead of feeling the shackles of legalism and duty. If there is no joy in your obedience, it may because you are obeying out of a sense of legalism — “this is my lot in life, and I just need to do it.”

One wise Christian described the relationship between duty and delight this way:
Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her good night. Her answer is, “You must, but not that kind of a must.” What she means is this: “Unless a spontaneous affection for my person motivates you, your overtures are stripped of all moral value.”

In other words, if there is no pleasure in the kiss, the duty of kissing has not been done. Delight in her person, expressed in the kiss, is part of the duty, not a by-product of it.  If that is true — if delight in doing good is part of what doing good is — then the pursuit of pleasure is part of the pursuit of virtue. That means that obedience out of duty and without delight in God is a form of legalism that distorts and violates the principle of salvation by grace.  We have misunderstood grace if there is no joy in grace-filled, obedient sanctification.

The Therapeutic Gospel

This is the gospel which perverts the doctrine of man. Many of the current perversions of the gospel are perversions of the doctrine of man.  They fail to account for man’s sinfulness. The therapeutic gospel confuses our spiritual symptoms (a troubled marriage, fear, addictive behaviors, financial foolishness, broken relationships, or anger and bitterness) with our spiritual disease (sin).  The therapeutic gospel attempts to treat superficial problems as ultimate concerns. It does no good to use stitches to close a wound if the bullet is left in the body.

One version of this gospel is what has been called “the happy meal gospel.”  The goal of happy meals is not excellent food, but a toy and experience that makes children feel good.  For too many, God is like Ronald McDonald, dispensing happy meals to children, using the gospel to make us feel superficially happy, taking away conflicts and illness and failing to deal with the matters of the heart.  

We might call another version of this gospel the “Get us over the hump” gospel.  Like a car running low on gasoline, we just need a fill-up to meet our needs and then we believe we’re okay.  There’s no real problem; we just have a little deficiency in our self-image, and we’re experiencing a little too much guilt, and God just needs to remove those from us, and then we’ll be fine (just don’t use words like “sin”).  I heard of someone recently (Josh Hamilton) who has a recurring problem with sin, and one of his responses was, “I’m going to find out what happened to me…” as if the problem was outside of him…

The current worst form of this gospel is the “vending machine gospel” — the health and wealth prosperity gospel that suggests God is here to serve all your needs and that He will indulge your every wish and desire.  Some suggest things like, “tithe for three months and you will experience a financial windfall.” With a little investment, God will fix your problems.

The various forms of the therapeutic gospel de-emphasize or ignore the utter inability of man to do or accomplish anything for himself (Eph. 2:1-3; Rom. 1:18-32; Rom. 3:10-18).

Sinners like us don’t need therapy.  We need radical, reconstructive surgery that implants a new heart into us.  Our only hope is not getting a little bit of Jesus, but being renewed and given new life.    

The Judgment-less Gospel

As perversion of the doctrine of God, the judgement-less gospel that says we only need a little therapy because there is no ultimate problem with sin — God will not condemn people to hell.  “Don’t worry. ‘Love wins.’ Everybody will go to heaven. God is not so angry that He would send anyone to hell.” This is an attack at the essence and nature of God.

God is love, but none of His attributes ever will conflict or overrule any of His other attributes.  So one cannot say God is both loving and just, but His justice is subservient to His love. We must also remember that judgment is good news — it means that God is just and does not wink at sin (Ps. 96:9-13).  Evil will be vanquished and good will be vindicated. A judgment-less gospel will remove the urgency of sharing the gospel and will keep us speaking only about superficial ideas and needs.

The Victorious Gospel

This is a perversion of the doctrine of Christ.  We believe that the central part of the gospel is substitutionary atonement.  In some circles of the church, the essence of Christ’s work is not seen as that substitutionary atoning work, but that Christ is victorious over all — Christus Victor — and He then becomes our great Teacher and example to follow.  It is true that Christ is Victor. He is the great Teacher. He is our Example.  But more than all these things, He is our substitute. Christ must be our substitute preeminently because apart from His imputed righteousness, we are incapable of following His example.  Only when we have been declared to be righteous, and only when we have all the blessings of that imputed righteousness can we begin to follow and delight in His teaching and live victoriously as He is victorious.  If He is only my example without also being the One who willingly and joyfully took God’s wrath, I am still a dead man, and I am incapable of following His example.

The decisionistic gospel — a perversion of the doctrine of faith.  

This perversion of the doctrine of faith often elicits a common response to the gospel (in my part of the country and the “Bible Belt,” at least). “Oh, I’ve done that.  I prayed a prayer…I walked the aisle…” Those statements make the gospel something that we do one time, but never do it again. Instead, the gospel is something that is believed and lived out day-by-day in the life of the believer.  Faith is not a one-time decision; it is a way of living. It is a lifestyle.

Making the gospel a decision also minimizes the doctrine of repentance.  Biblical repentance means to turn away from something. To repent of sin means to repudiate and hate sin and have a desire to live to honor God (which doesn’t mean that the sin will never happen again, but that the sin is hated).  Decisionism says that none of those things matter. Just say, “I’m sorry” so all is well and nothing about your life needs to change. Our churches (especially in this part of the country) are filled with people just like that. They have not believed.

The Social Justice Gospel

Last is the perversion of the doctrine of hope. This philosophy has been popular in the past and known as the “social gospel,” but is now gaining interest again and being called things like “social justice” or the “activist gospel.” There are many battlegrounds for morality in our culture and it is angering. In the interest of cultural change, battles are waged against abortion, and alcohol, and drugs, and racism, and poverty, and education, and environmentalism, and for prayer in schools.  

The problem is that we’ve forgotten that the hope of the gospel is not cultural transformation.  The culture will never be changed until Christ does it Himself. The word “gospel” means “good news” — it is a spoken word declaring the truth about what Christ has done to enable us individually (not as a culture or nation) to see God and be with God.  The result of the gospel will be that we are compassionate towards the needy, but the focus of the gospel is not to meet their immediate needs.  If we do that, then we are in danger of sending them to Hell with full bellies.

Again, the hope of the gospel is that we get to see God — that He will change us from being idolaters to being God worshippers.  Beware of those who pervert that hope into things that are only temporal.

When you receive a new counselee, he will believe something about Christ and the gospel.  Your first task as a counselor is to help him see the truth of Christ and the gospel as revealed in Scripture.  Your task is to look for gospel counterfeits and point them to the hope of Jesus Christ. We have been given the treasure and ministry of the gospel.  Be careful. It’s a treasure and a stewardship from God. Do not corrupt it yourself (speak with clarity), and defend it against counterfeits.

Terry Enns is the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Granbury Texas. He has over twenty years of pastoral counseling experience, and is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC).  In addition to his preaching and pastoral duties at Grace, Terry maintains an active blog at Words of Grace.