The gospel is good news, but not just any good news. As Christians, we believe in a particular good news message that gives purpose and helps us navigate life well. The message you believe determines the choices you make, so it’s important to believe the right message. Believing the wrong message is like navigating with an inaccurate map.
This Christian gospel message is sometimes hard to make out in the midst of all the other messages floating around. Marketers, co-workers, friends, family members and even the voice in your head whisper and shout competing messages of supposed “good news.” But these messages are anything but good. They may sound logical and worthy of belief at first, but dig below the surface and you’ll find they’re messages of despair. Here are five of the most tempting false gospels – messages that, if you believe them, will steer you in the completely wrong direction.
The gospel of “Do What Works” (aka Pragmatism)
The message of pragmatism is that whatever works is right, good and just and that those who are successful must be doing it right – whatever it is. Pragmatism leads us to admire and imitate those who are successful at whatever kind of success we want. So we imitate big church leaders (look how God is blessing them!), or busy professionals (they’re the ones getting ahead!), or hyper-controlling moms (their kids are captains on the soccer team and one got a scholarship to Yale!).
Not only will pragmatism drive you nuts while you scurry about trying to find and do what works, but it also tempts you to treat God like one more way to get what you want. The true gospel doesn’t just upgrade your efforts at getting what you want; it actually changes what you want.
The gospel of “Try Harder” (aka Legalism)
The message of legalism is to find the right rules and follow them – all the way. This “good news” promises certainty by knowing what’s right and doing what’s right. At first glance, it’s nice and airtight. But legalism also has a certain odor to it. Do you smell it? It’s the nauseating smell of burning flesh and singed hair because legalism is straight from hell. How’s that for being subtle?
If legalism stinks so badly, why do we believe it so much? We believe in the gospel of “try harder” because it promises to put us in control. Legalism is the message that if we try hard enough God must bless us, or forgive us, or help us, or whatever it is that we want. And if you don’t believe in God you can still be a legalist if your value and identity revolve around following a certain set of rules.
Not only does legalism kill your soul by blaming every downturn on your lack of effort, it also decays in you a harsh spirit and critical presence. The only person a legalist is harder on than himself is everybody else.
The gospel of “Let Feelings Be Your Guide” (Sentimentalism)
If navigating life according to a set of rules is really bad news, then what about believing the message of “no rules?” This is essentially the message of sentimentalism, which tempts us to believe and do what feels right. Anything you feel strongly about must be important, so let that bring purpose and provide direction for your life.
The last article C.S. Lewis wrote before his death in 1963 was a response to a letter from Clare, a married woman in the U.S. who wanted to divorce her husband and marry her lover (who also needed to leave his current wife) because they loved each other and made each other happy. After all, Clare asked, didn’t one have an obligation to pursue happiness? Lewis responded by pointing out that our feelings very often make false promises and that real happiness comes not from pursuing whatever feeling has hold of us in a moment, but in pursuing that which is unchanging and life-giving.
The gospel of “Here’s What I Think” (Opinionism)
When I’m making coffee, I filter the water in order to remove all the chemicals and impurities that could pollute the taste of the finished cup of joe. The filter works by removing the bad and keeping the good. What’s good for coffee is bad when it comes to a gospel for life.
Too many of us pass God’s truth through the filter of our own opinion, using our own “good judgment” to discern what part of God’s truth we should buy into and what we should reject. This is a false gospel that allows us to conform God’s message to our opinion instead of the other way around. When we read something in the Bible that doesn’t make sense to us, the good news is NOT that we have the freedom to twist or reject or ignore it, but that we have the potential to be formed by it.
The gospel of “All About Me” (Egoism)
Of all the fakest, falsest, and most destructive gospel messages, this one is perhaps the worst because it so cleverly hides pride behind a masquerade of kindness, service, and goodness. It shows up in many forms. The pastor who wants “to reach all the lost in this city” is really driven by the status a big church will provide him. The mother who adopts orphans from Africa (or Belarus or Haiti or wherever) is really driven by the need to be messiah. The soup kitchen volunteer needs to demonstrate just how much better he is than his uncaring neighbors. The wealthy benefactor harbors a snob-soaked attitude disguised as generosity. The list goes on.
Egoism fuels character corruption by taking a bad thing (pride), aiming it in a good direction (service), so that good works can become a source for more pride.
As you can see, false gospels are not good news. But enough with the negativity; what about the true gospel? Well, the true gospel really is good news. It’s the good news that there is a God who loves us in spite of all the lies we believe and perpetuate. This loving God wants us to join his loving family, and he’s even made a way for that to happen. If you’re curious about that, read the good news book of John in the Bible.
And let God redeem the false gospel(s) you may have believed. Here’s a start:
In place of pragmatism, God offers you wisdom.
In place of legalism, God invites you into loving obedience.
In place of sentimentalism, God demonstrates sacrificial love.
In place of opinionism, God brings authority.
In place of egoism, God grants the freedom of humility.
What about you? What’s your history with false gospels? Maybe you’d add a sixth or seventh to this list. Or maybe you have a story of overcoming one or more of these. Take time to reflect, and then share if you’d like.