Nobody wants to believe a lie. Nobody wants to invest their lives in something just to realize that it’s fake.
Yet both happen often in the church.
This world is filled with distractions that can shift a Christian’s focus from the true gospel to something else. These often are good things that deceptively sneak in, sidestep our good intentions and disguise themselves as true Christianity; when in reality they are false gospels.
These gospel distortions are dangerous because they add to or subtract from the perfect and glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In How People Change: How Christ Changes Us By His Grace, Paul David Tripp and Timothy Lane share several of dangerous distortions of the gospel that are often accepted as a part of Christianity. (I explain the distortions and quote Tripp and Lane below.)
7 Distortions of the Gospel Commonly Accepted as Christianity
This gospel distortion has many external signs of cultural Christianity. A typical Christian who has fallen into formalism thinks that their external actions like church attendance and service are enough, and often neglect a real heart change that comes from encountering the living God.
These people may find it hard to see their need for God’s grace because of their external performance. This view reduces the gospel “to participation in the meetings and ministries of the church.”
Legalism seeks to achieve righteousness by following God’s commands through a rigid list of do’s and don’ts.
Tripp and Lane helpfully explain, “Legalism ignores the depth of our inability to earn God’s favor. It forgets the need for our hearts to be transformed by God’s grace. Legalism is not just a reduction of the gospel, it is another gospel altogether (see Galatians), where salvation is earned by keeping the rules…”
This gospel distortion places more importance on a special spiritual experience or feeling (the subjective) than on true biblical faith that rests on Christ (the objective). Christianity is a religion that touches all of life and the human experience, including emotions and the experiential.
The error of mysticism overemphasizes the emotional and experiential dimension of Christianity, forgetting that God works in our lives through the gospel even when we can’t feel it directly. We are to pursue Christ first and the experiences will follow. This view “reduces the gospel to dynamic emotional and spiritual experiences.”
This type of gospel distortion makes a usually important issue (often a social issue such as abortion) an ultimate issue that acts as a litmus test to see whether someone is a ‘true Christian.’ Tripp and Lane explain that activists overemphasize the evil outside of them to the neglect of the evil that is inside them. This distortion defines Christian maturity as “a willingness to defend right from wrong” and often reduces the gospel to participation in activism activities.
Biblicism takes something good God has given and twists it into a potentially harmful thing. People who fall into Biblicism often know Scripture and theology well (often at an advanced level), but fail to live out the Christian faith practically. Faith is reduced to a mere knowledge of truth or having “good theology”; forgetting vital elements of faith like living with grace and in submission to Christ.
Tripp comments, “[The Biblicist] has invested a great deal of time and energy mastering the Word, but he does not allow the Word to master him. In summary, Biblicism reduces the gospel to a mastery of biblical content and theology.”
This view often regards Christianity primarily as a self-help philosophy of dealing with emotional hurts like neglect and rejection instead of God graciously dealing with humanity’s sin problem and allowing us to worship Him through a personal relationship with Christ.
The worst sin in this view is the sin of others, and often the self is the mere victim of sin. Tripp explains, “Whenever you view the sin of another against you as a greater problem than your own sin, you will tend to seek Christ as your therapist more than you seek him as your Savior. Christianity becomes more a pursuit of healing than a pursuit of godliness. The gospel is reduced to the healing of emotional needs.”
This view emphasizes social relationships within a church and often caters to people who find a new and special social acceptance in a church group. A strong community of Christ-followers is a special thing, but it can easily turn into a social club that emphasizes relationships over growing in Christ.
When the community begins to change or staple programs and retreats get cut, the Christian who falls into “socialism” might be disillusioned in his faith and even stop attending church altogether. For this person, “the grace of friendship replaced Christ as the thing that gave him identity, purpose, and hope. The gospel had been reduced to a network of fulfilling Christian relationships.”
Often, these distortions begin with good intentions, but are hijacked by our flesh and transformed into destructive idols. We need to fight against these distortions of the gospel that can so easily sneak into our lives.
The gospel is not about merely knowing all the facts, merely having a lot of Christian friends, or merely doing the right things on the outside; the gospel is about the saving work of Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection that reconciles us to God through faith in Christ.
How can we avoid these distortions?
Chances are that each of us will struggle with one or many of the above distortions over our lifetimes. The solution to these issues is to not lose sight of the gospel of God’s grace as revealed in the Scriptures and to pray that we would become shaped and discipled by the true gospel.
Once we drink deeply from the riches of God’s grace, we can all of the good things that we distorted into proper gospel perspective.
Titus 2:11-14 explains it this way:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
May we remember the true gospel of grace in Christ and learn to depend more on Him and that grace each day.
This post was adapted from content in chapter 1 of How People Change by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp.
This post was originally shared March 4, 2014.