The temptation when writing a book like Counterfeit Gospels is to focus on everything wrong with everyone else. I didn’t want to write that kind of book, as it didn’t strike me as particularly constructive.

Instead, I thought long and hard about the doubts and struggles of people in my congregation. I also looked within my own heart to see the kinds of counterfeits that appeal to me in one way or another.

Ultimately, I narrowed the list to six counterfeits. Then, I sought to hold them up to light of the biblical gospel in a way that exposed their flaws and made them less attractive to us.

Below is a list of counterfeits I considered. I’m interested to see which ones you think are most prominent. Take the poll below and let me know the six you would have chosen. Then, leave a comment telling me why you made the choices you did. I’m curious to see how your choices line up with the six I put in the book.

Therapeutic Gospel: Sin robs us of our sense of fullness. Christ’s death proves our worth as humans and gives us power to reach our potential. The church helps us find happiness.

Formalist Gospel: Sin is failing to keep church rules and regulations. Christ’s death gives me an agenda, so I can begin to follow the predescribed forms of Christianity.

Moralist Gospel: Our big problem is sins (plural) and not sin (nature). The purpose for Christ’s death is to give us a second chance and make us better people. Redemption comes through the exercise of willpower with God’s help.

Judgmentless Gospel: God’s forgiveness does not need to come through the sacrifice of His Son. Judgment is more about God’s goodness, not the need for human rebellion to be punished. Evangelism is not urgent.

Social-Club Gospel: Salvation is all about finding fellowship and friendship at church. The gospel is reduced to Christian relationships that help us enjoy life.

Activist Gospel: The kingdom is advanced through our efforts to build a just society. The gospel’s power is demonstrated through cultural transformation, and the church is united around political causes and social projects.

Churchless Gospel: The focus of salvation is primarily on the individual, in a way that makes the community of faith peripheral to God’s purposes. The church is viewed as an option to personal spirituality, or even an obstacle to Christlikeness.

Mystic Gospel: Salvation comes through an emotional experience with God. The church is there to help me feel close to God by helping me along in my pursuit of mystical union.

Quietist Gospel: Salvation is about spiritual things, not secular matters. Christianity is only about individual life change and is not concerned with society and politics.

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25 thoughts on “Which Counterfeit Gospels are Most Prevalent Today?”

  1. Drewe says:

    The Quietist Gospel!

    As an introvert, this one calls me all the time. Christ is my personal decision. I don’t need to share it. I don’t need to even say the word church. I don’t need to talk to people. It’s their business. God will call them if he wants (extreme Calvinist).

    Wrong! I know it’s wrong, but it is definitely the one that calls me all the time!


  2. Tim Harrigan says:

    They’re all relevant issues that you’re talking about, but you did ask for six; here they are in no particular order.

    Therapeutic Gospel – I remember reading a book by Michael Horton. He used a term ‘therapeutic Deism’ in his book “Christless Christianity”. A lot of American churches have become these type of places, where I can go and come out feeling good. That feeling good has become the prime motivator for going to church. Unfortunately, those type of churches are collapsing as the old congregations get older, and they die off.

    Formalist Gospel – I had a problem with this, as I thought it had more to do with liturgy; based on how you described it, I would have to rank this one high, as it removes Jesus from the picture. It’s based on my willpower, instead of the shed blood of Christ redeeming me, and my sin nature.

    Judgementless Gospel – In witnessing, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this one. I always hear, “My God wouldn’t stop me from going to heaven. My God is a good God!” He’s a feel-good type of God. Unfortunately, this God doesn’t exist, and is a manifestation of what is being preached a lot today. It’s as if we can party down without their being a hang-over the next morning. Unfortunately the hang-over is hell, and it’s eternal.

    Activist Gospel – Your description, you mention the whole church getting behind ‘cultural transformation’, instead of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which is the most important. Cultural transformation is a result of this relationship with Jesus, so it’s akin to putting the cart in front of the horse; it kind of goes with the ‘therapeutic gospel’.

    Churchless Gospel – Again, in witnessing, you hear this one a lot also. I don’t need to go to church to have a relationship with God. Church is full of hypocrites. Unfortunately this is a self-inflicted wound that a lot of churches are responsible for. A church should preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. It needs to be open, and welcoming, and preach the Word of God unashamedly. This community of like-minded believers in understanding the Word of God, would not be so concerned with ‘What Would Jesus Do’, but would remember what He did for them, and go out and tell others.

    Quietist Gospel – Spiritual things, not secular things; this one is dangerous because what we do is build up a wall of separation from the world, and before you know it, we have another cult. Jesus was right in the thick of things, and we need to be there also. We don’t need to do the secular things, but we need to be insular, with the Word of God to protect us, yet we do need to be involved, and pray, and act.

  3. Jason Kanz says:

    Trevin, I think they all have a place like Tim said. Interestingly, this list is similar to methods of Christian externalism proposed by Tim Lane and Paul Tripp in their book “How People Change”.

    Here were their basic core methods of externalism:
    Formalism–“the gospel is reduced to participation in church meetings and ministries in the church.”
    Legalism–the focus here is on keeping rules as a way of earning God’s favor.
    Mysticism–“the gospel is reduced to dynamic emotional and spiritual experiences.”
    Activism–Activists focus on fighting whatever evils or ills they encounter around them (abortion, human trafficking).
    Biblicism–“the Bible is reduced to a mastery of biblical content and theology” rather than a focus on the Gospel.

    I wasn’t sure if you had a chance to look through their list, but though you may want to know about it as you prepare your book.
    Psychology-ism–Jesus is seen as a great therapist who heals our emotional needs.
    Social-ism–Church becomes a social club and a way to have interpersonal needs met.

    Tim, the idea of therapeutic deism is a scary one indeed. I remember hearing Mike Horton (or perhaps Greg Koukl) interviewing Christian Smith, the guy who came up with the idea of moralistic therapeutic deism, which to me, seems to be a tool of Satan.

  4. Trevin Wax says:

    Thanks for the comments. Interesting to see your choices and the reasoning for them.

    I loved Lane & Tripp’s “How People Change.” Though my take on some of these counterfeits isn’t exactly like theirs (not that they contradict, but that it’s merely a different approach), there is a lot of resonance between them.

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. Hashman says:

    I’m not sure which one it would be, but I think in the south the most devastating false gospel is the

    “Just squeeze my hand” or “fire insurance” gospel, which is basically take Jesus to get out of hell, but not even mention his Lordship. That’s my #1

  6. Ben Simpson says:

    Trevin, of your list, I would go with these six: therapeutic, moralist, activist, churhless, mystic, and quietist.

    However, I agree with Hashman’s comment that a major one that is missing is what he calls the “fire insurance gospel,” which is basically a no-requirement or no-strings-attached understanding of the gospel leading to antinomianism. Sticking with the one word format, it might be best to call this “The Insurance Gospel.”

    Also, another major one that seems to be missing is “The Prosperity Gospel.” I know there’s been so much written on this one, but it’s so prevalent today worldwide and so dangerous. I wrote a critique of this gospel at my blog here.

    I guess the book is already finished though. I’m really looking forward to reading it!

  7. Jason Kanz says:

    Cool, I am excited to see where you will go with this!

  8. Dan says:

    Yesterday I looked over an updated version of a popular old evangelism training material. The updated presentation is therapeutic. They justify it as contextualization for a postmodern generation.

  9. Allen says:

    Formalist Gospel:

    I was baptized in the Church of Christ (denomination-they say they are not). I was immersed in the idea that right doctrine and write practice assured my salvation. It took me years to get beyond this, but still, I can spot a heretic a mile away :)

  10. Dan Stringer says:

    My false dichotomy sensor seems to be going off a bit here. Some of these labels also come across as straw men portrayals of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Given the multitude of ways Scripture articulates the scope of the good news, I’m not quite sure why the “Biblical Gospel” must be defined so narrowly as to exclude things like wholeness, comfort, fellowship, character formation, Christlikeness, public witness and yes, even a good old-fashioned “personal relationship with Jesus.”

    Yes, the unmerited grace poured out on our behalf at Calvary for our justification is central, but might there be such a thing as a counterfeit gospel of atonement-only reductionism?

    As Tim Keller likes to say, the means of the Gospel is sheer grace not works, but the trajectory (purpose) of the Gospel is the renewal of the whole creation.

  11. Trevin Wax says:


    These are sound-bite descriptions of counterfeit gospels. I fully recognize that they lack the nuance needed for a full treatment (which I hope they are treated better in the book). There’s a chart in the book that shows how each counterfeit affects the gospel Story, gospel Announcement, and the gospel Community. But the chart describes each one in the most charitable way possible, so that it looks good, even if a bit off (the definition of a counterfeit after all). More on that later… Thanks for the comment.

  12. Barry says:


    Your Therapeutic Gospel is very similar to feminist theology. I, however, think there is some truth to it, even if it needs development before it becomes more sound.

    Check out these authors if you’re interested:

    Elizabeth A. Johnson : She Who Is

    Sallie McFague : Models of God

    Another text is Horizons in Feminist Theology

    While I don’t agree with everything they write, I find their theology compelling. It has a lot of weaknesses, but it’s also a recent formulation and isn’t drawing as heavily from centuries of white male theologians.

  13. James Krieg says:

    The Therapeutic Gospel and the Activist Gospel. Deep down, the Therapeutic is what we all want because of our existential angst (and we want to see ourselves as victims of it, not perpetrators), but because it feels a bit selfish at times, we balance it off by the Activist Gospel, which sounds the most other-person-centred (and is also the most attractive to a world that sees the church as irrelevant and useless)

  14. Susan says:

    Trevin, I was drawn to your site by the title of your forthcoming book. I’ve been deeply concerned for my own church which I have attended for 42 years. Historically the church was evangelical and evangelistic. About six years ago I began to notice that we were no longer (as a church) interested in evangelism. I mentioned this to my pastor and he was dismissive. I realized that the reason for this was that our pastor no longer encouraged evangelism. His emphasis shifted decisively toward deed ministry in an effort to redeem culture. According to our pastor we are to be bringing about “human flourishing”, “shalom”, “becoming fully human”, “living out of the gospel”….He says, “I used to think it was all about saving souls” etc.

    More recently i have discovered the crux of the shift i’ve observed. I began to transcribe sermons and had a NT scholar take a look. He confirmed that our pastor was preaching N.T. Wright (NPP). Once I familiarized myself with the NPP I could hear it in many sermons. Our pastor does not preach the true gospel. It is often most apparent as I pay attention to what he consistently leaves out. He doesn’t talk about the ‘bad news’, man’s problem of separation from God…the wrath of God (all he has said about Hell in years is that it exists–brief comments on one day). He doesn’t describe why Christ had to die and what was accomplished by it (Justification and propitiation). His gospel seems to be about aligning ourselves with Christ’s agenda because Christ is king and His kingdom has entered…..we are given grace for the purpose of attending to social justice issues. Our pastor never talks about spiritual warfare, nor Satan. He doesn’t talk about heaven, but rather the new heaven and new earth and that our work now (employment) will remain and continue. He says that if we think of the scribes and Pharisees as ‘bad guys’ that is because of preachers who don’t know what they are talking about. He says that John the baptist was calling them to repent of their political agenda (not sin and self-righteousness).

    All of this probably sounds like furtile ground for a false gospel to you, but it has come in very slowly and subtly from the pulpit. All of the pastors and leaders are onboard with this teaching because our pastor assigns reading to them from Wright, and Walter Brueggemann and the like.

    We have been bringing two unchurched kids to church with us for many months now. One day I asked the 13 year old girl if, now that she had been attending for awhile, she knew how a person became a Christian. She didn’t skip a beat saying, “By becoming involved in the community”. I think that her answer accurately reflects what we hear week after week….and community involvement is emphasized in the youth groups as well as from the pulpit…..while the true gospel is eclipsed. Our church is now a social gospel church.

    I hope you have addressed these issues in your book. It might be a very useful tool as a few of us seek to alert some unaware elders. There has been a large-scale, slow frog-boiling. Our pastor intimidates with anger those who would dare to express agreement with him. Some elders who have tried to speak with him ended up leaving. We only know of one or two elders remaining who see that things are not right.

  15. James Krieg says:

    This is very interesting,as well as disturbing, as I see it happening a lot in a number of churches that would still be classified as ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Bible believing’. John Piper makes a point in his book ‘The Future of Justification’ that there is teaching which, while in itself cannot be explicitly labelled as ‘heresy’, it nevertheless lays a foundation of fertile soil for heresy to begin growing. My experience is that it is not always directly the NPP that does it, however many who are heading in that direction tend to like NT Wright, even if they pick and choose the bits of him that resonate with their own lack of confidence in the Gospel.
    At the same time, having just re-read and studies Romans 2, I always need to be careful that I don’t speak as a judge, as my flesh tempts me to water down the Gospel every time I stand up and preach or have an evangelistic conversation. Unfortunately, making a choice to distance ourselves from ministries that are losing sight of the Gospel may often lead to accusations of judgmentalism – we need to make sure we are above reproach in what we do and say. Praying for wisdom and grace for you, Susan…

  16. Susan says:

    James, thank you for your response and especially for praying for me….”wisdom and grace”…..that’s what I need. I think you are right that there are other influences in the mix. Piper’s words are prophetic. From where I sit I consider Wright’s teachings very dangerous…precisely because he is respected among evangelicals and he does get some things right…such as his defense of the resurrection. I often find myself thinking, “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light”…..the more subtle…the more deceptive. Wright does serious damage to the gospel by eliminating the concept of imputation/sola fide. As MacArthur puts it, the gospel rises or falls on the doctrine of justification. It is perhaps the single most important doctrine of the gospel to get right. Without it there is a gravitational pull toward works righteousness. I can see all of the changes which have occurred in our church over the past few years. Things are getting worse. As time goes on our pastor is preaching more and more from the books of questionable scholars and less and less from God’s word. It’s a slippery slope.

  17. I was saved when I was 19 years old. I never encountered any of the “counterfeit” “Gospels” in Trevin’s list. I think he has some good points, but I am not sure how they relate to how a person gets everlasting life. The “counterfeit” that I encountered back when I was younger was whether or not my faith was of the saving kind or not. If my faith was not the “saving kind” then it was counterfeit.

    I know now that there is no such thing as a “saving kind” of faith that does not save. 1 John 2:2 teaches that Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of all men for all time. Nobody goes to hell to pay for their sin because Jesus paid for them all.
    John 3:16 clearly teaches that if a person believes (i.e. is intellectually convinced of the promise Jesus makes) in Jesus as the sole granter and guarantor of everlasting life, then they have everlasting life. No other activity or performance is needed or required for salvation, or assurance of it. From that moment on I had 100% assurance of going to be with Jesus when I died, because it had nothing to do with my performance, before or after that moment of “belief” in Jesus.
    I think that anything other that what is taught clearly and succinctly in John 3:16, 5:24, 6:47, 11:25-27, 20:31 IS the counterfeit Gospel. The things Trevin lists are indeed related to living a life that is in fellowship with God, but have nothing in terms of “Gospel,” which usually means, what a person has to do to get everlasting life as an irrevocable gift at the first moment of faith in Jesus for that gift.

    – Don Reiher

  18. Christiane says:

    There are four Holy Gospels . . . and we are told to teach others everything that Christ did and said and taught . . .

    some of those ‘false Gospels’ listed do carve out some of what He taught and diminish it.

    Christ IS ‘the Gospel’ . . .
    to carve out and set aside and diminish any of His teachings in order to support those of a particular denomination’s definition of ‘the biblical gospel’ seems not to point to Our Lord, but instead to the doctrines of that particular denomination.

    How do people ‘qualify’ ‘God is love’ in order to diminish it, and put it ‘in its place’ ?
    I’m sure they feel justified in doing it, but it cannot be ‘fractured’ . . . it is a statement of God’s integrity as God.

    Want to create a firestorm among fundamentalists? All you have to do is to uote this passage, and stand back for ‘incoming':

    ” … God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (from 1 John 4:16)

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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