Counterfeit Gospels

In light of Paul Tripp coming to Coral Ridge this weekend, I’ve gone back through a lot of my Paul Tripp books–he’s such a huge gift to the church!

In one of his books (co-authored with Tim Lane), How People Change, he identifies seven counterfeit gospels—-”religious” ways we try and “justify” or “save” ourselves apart from the gospel of grace. I found these unbelievably helpful. Which one (or two, or three) of these do you tend to gravitate towards?

Formalism. “I participate in the regular meetings and ministries of the church, so I feel like my life is under control. I’m always in church, but it really has little impact on my heart or on how I live. I may become judgmental and impatient with those who do not have the same commitment as I do.”

Legalism. “I live by the rules—rules I create for myself and rules I create for others. I feel good if I can keep my own rules, and I become arrogant and full of contempt when others don’t meet the standards I set for them. There is no joy in my life because there is no grace to be celebrated.”

Mysticism. “I am engaged in the incessant pursuit of an emotional experience with God. I live for the moments when I feel close to him, and I often struggle with discouragement when I don’t feel that way. I may change churches often, too, looking for one that will give me what I’m looking for.”

Activism. “I recognize the missional nature of Christianity and am passionately involved in fixing this broken world. But at the end of the day, my life is more of a defense of what’s right than a joyful pursuit of Christ.”

Biblicism. “I know my Bible inside and out, but I do not let it master me. I have reduced the gospel to a mastery of biblical content and theology, so I am intolerant and critical of those with lesser knowledge.”

Therapism. “I talk a lot about the hurting people in our congregation, and how Christ is the only answer for their hurt. Yet even without realizing it, I have made Christ more Therapist than Savior. I view hurt as a greater problem than sin—and I subtly shift my greatest need from my moral failure to my unmet needs.”

Social-ism. “The deep fellowship and friendships I find at church have become their own idol. The body of Christ has replaced Christ himself, and the gospel is reduced to a network of fulfilling Christian relationships.”

As I said two weeks ago in my sermon, there are outside-the-church idols and there are inside-the-church idols. It’s the idols inside the church that ought to concern Christians most. It’s easier for Christians to identify worldly idols such as money, power, selfish ambition, sex, and so on. It’s the idols inside the church that we have a harder time identifying.

For instance, we know it’s wrong to bow to the god of power—but it’s also wrong to bow to the god of preferences. We know it’s wrong to worship immorality—but it’s also wrong to worship morality. We know it’s wrong to seek freedom by breaking the rules—but it’s also wrong to seek freedom by keeping them. We know God hates unrighteousness—but he also hates self-righteousness. We know crime is a sin—but so is control. If people outside the church try to save themselves by being bad; people inside the church try to save themselves by being good.

The good news of the gospel is that both inside and outside the church, there is only One Savior and Lord, namely Jesus. And he came, not to angrily strip away our freedom, but to affectionately strip away our slavery to lesser things so that we might become truly free!

  •; Mark Wilcoxson

    WOW! Thank you for this, Tullian (and Paul)! I was blessed to have met and benefitted from Paul’s teaching gift at the recent Desring God Conference for Pastors (Feb. 2010). I have passed your timely reminder on to our elders, staff, and a couple of other friends who are pursuing a truly full-gospel (i.e., fully biblical approach) to all things in life, family, relationships, and ministry. May the Lord Jesus Himself deliver us from all manner of idolatry … in the church, and may we look to Him alone for our saving and sustaining grace! PEACE! mlw

    Mark Wilcoxson
    Senior Pastor
    Bethesda Church
    Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

  • bob

    great post. SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO helpful.

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  • 2Himalone

    Wow! This not only nailed it, but I can feel some of the nails dead center forehead. Ouch.

  • Scott Davis

    I really appreciated this list. It is pretty sound, covering all of our human gospels. Which one are we pastors most susceptible to preaching. As frail human beings we have needs to be liked and to be thought smart and to be considered successful. I have to watch my own heart on this. Great Post.

    Scott Davis

  • Ciera

    I would have to say I tend to lean more toward social-ism.

  • Tim Spartan

    I find it incredible that Christians talk all about ‘the gospel (good news)’ but it’s never the gospel that Jesus preached. Try Matthew 9:35 for starters.

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  • Brian Roberson

    My first confession: I haven’t read the book in question.

    In response, I must say, though, that these seven points, with Christ at the center, are not entirely wrong, but are examples of how Christians push Christ from the center, and move something else into His rightful place.

    Formalism– We ARE called to fellowship with God and other believers (1 John 1:3-7, 1 Corinthians 1:9, Acts 20:7– I can go on and on). The early church provides an example of dedication, and service.

    Legalism– I DO NOT advocate legalism, or by extension Pharisee-ism, but in Romans 7:7, we are shown that the Law isn’t sin, and in 7:6, we are “released from the Law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit” (NIV). We have Grace applied where Law once served. Romans 3:20 states that through the Law we are aware of sin. Are we serving the tenets of the Law, or the One who gave it to us? The indwelling Holy Spirit uses the Law to show us sin in our lives. But when we use that Law to convict others, we become as the Pharisees, unable to remove the plank from our own eyes.

    Mysticism– David was a man after God’s own heart, and his Psalms are a constant praise, and crying out to God for that intimacy. If the intimacy with God is self-serving, then we have pushed Christ out of the center. Intimacy and deep connection with God are to further glorify Him alone. In a marriage, does intimacy with your wife or husband purely serve yourself, or is it to please him/her? We are the Bride of Christ, and a relationship without intimacy through the act of worship is a relationship in which we aren’t pleasing and exalting our King. He bids us to come to him. Do we go to Him to receive his undeserved favor (grace)? Then we are beggars– a needy, pitiful excuse for His bride. Do we go to Him to exalt Him and worship Him and give Him glory? Then we are His bride as He intends for us to be. On a personal note, “mysticism” has become a “Christian dirty-word” and often decried by those who have not felt the incredible presence of God or hear the whisper of His Voice in an audible way. “Mystic” is often synonymous with one who is fit for the Christian loony-bin. Perhaps, even me, as I had once such experience. And though my own heart longs to be back there, in HIS presence, hearing HIS voice, to inordinately yearn for that again is sinful. Where the threshold is for longing moving into sin, I do not know. But do not knock God’s ability to reveal his Glory to us in small doses. What I experienced was overwhelming and incredible, and His voice still echoes in my ears today.

    Activism– The Great Commission is not a great suggestion. Jesus doesn’t say, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you–IF YOU WANT TO.” (Matthew 28:19-20a, with my addendum, NIV) 2 Timothy 2:15. We must correctly handle the Word. We are called to be the salt of the earth. Salt is a pure substance in which bacteria cannot live. Too much salt, even on popcorn, chips, or french fries, is ruinous. We should season our speech, actions accordingly, to not be unpalatable to those around us with whom we are sharing the Gospel. Nothing puckers someone’s mouth up and kills their appetite like too much salt. Think Hell-fire-and-brimstone-Bible-beaters. I love the Lord, but I can’t stand to listen to them, so what of those who don’t love the Lord? Do we try to share the love of Christ with people, or do we try to scare the love of Christ into people?

    Biblicism– see above: 2 Timothy 2:15. Verse 24 in that same chapter requires the Lord’s servant be able to teach– which requires knowledge of the word. Hebrews 4:12 states that the Word of God is sharper than a two edged sword. Do we use that to bring healing, as doctors and surgeons do, or do we use it for malice and destruction, like a sword in battle?

    Therapism–Christ is Son of God first and foremost. Then Savior. He deserved our worship and praise before he died and was resurrected. He was a Healer as well. Hurt often comes as a result of many of the foul spirit-servants of darkness. Jesus came to bind up the broken-hearted and set captives free (Isaiah 61:1, Psalm 147:3).

    Social-ism– We are to fellowship. (see above, 1 John 1:3-7.) Eccelsiastes 4:9-12 states we can’t do it alone. To quote Joshua Harris, “A lone ranger is a dead ranger.” (from “Sex is not the Problem, Lust is”) 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 talks about our unity and purpose as individual distinct members of the Body of Christ. We are not called to place others above Christ, but he ordered, “Love the Lord your God” as the first and greatest commandment. THEN we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Matthew 22:37-28)

    I firmly believe that we believe the same thing at heart. But mysticism is not wrong, nor is adherence to morals, nor is proselytizing nor looking to Christ for healing. Christ is first, and all these other things come, too. (Matthew 6:33) But placing these above Christ as the Son of God, is idolatry.

    I will read this book soon. This blog post has my interest piqued. Thank you for sharing.

  • Susan

    Humm….. unfortunately, our church and pastor have currently sold out to the ‘activism’ gospel. Oh how my heart aches :-( Our churches history was very evangelistic… more. What to do….



  • Andrew

    This list includes the lowest common denominators of the said “Gospels” and in all honesty misrepresents what those terms actually stand for. Being an activist or a mystic, for example, does not exclude you from being a Christ-follower. Deeming these forms as an important dimension to the Gospel is very healthy & appropriate. It makes sense that–when those who hold these dear to the hearts–have other Christians refer to them as “idols”, we have communication break-downs. Or does one tradition of Christianity have a monopoly on truth and today exists above accountability?

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