A year or so ago, a Christian friend described how he was beginning to bring the gospel his softball team. He had joined the local league that spring—partly for the fun of the game and partly to get outside his Christian bubble and to meet non-believers.
They agreed and stopped (for the most part). He deemed this “cleaner language” an evangelistic victory. It hinted that his teammates might be choosing the right path.
He felt that somehow the gospel had been advanced. Next he planned to ask them to stop drinking.
Something about my friend’s story felt discordant. I didn’t sense anyone closer to God.
Somehow, I felt the gospel had been perverted.
But I wasn’t exactly sure why
The world is filled with brokenness and oppression. We should be men and women who fight for justice, loving our neighbor as ourselves. But that activity isn’t the gospel.
Linking the cessation of cussing to introducing the gospel unsettled me. It was like a slightly off-key singer or a slightly out of tune instrument. The soft dissonance of his story kept disturbing. I couldn’t shake it. But I wasn’t quite sure why.
Then last weekend I heard someone critique the modern version of the gospel:
He said the modern gospel is: Sin less. Work harder. Give more.
And that’s just wrong. It is a counterfeit gospel, and counterfeits succeed only when they look like the real thing. The problem with the false gospel portrayed above is that everyone smitten by the gospel will sin less, and will work harder, and will give more.
It’s just not the gospel. It’s a result of the gospel, but it isn’t the gospel.
It’s also not just a modern counterfeit
I’ve asked a dozens of people (believers and non-believers) who the greatest enemies of Jesus were. Virtually everyone says the same thing: the enemies of Jesus were the Pharisees, the religious leaders, or the scribes.
No one—not one—answered: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, or the adulterers (or the cussers).
Isn’t that weird? People of all religions—even non-religious people—consider Jesus to be a great moral teacher. And yet, his greatest enemies were the moralists; and some of his greatest friends were society’s sinners. It seems upside down. Wouldn’t a moral teacher’s friends be the moralists, and his enemies be the sinners?
When asked by Pharisees about his upside down living, Jesus answered,
Healthy people don’t need a doctor—the sick do … I came to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. (Matt. 9:12-13)
Jesus didn’t say that the Pharisees were healthy and the tax collectors were sick. He said that the tax collectors knew they were sick; the Pharisees thought themselves healthy.
Someone is going to say I’m against morality. I’m not. I wish everyone in the world were a thousand times more moral. Including you and me. But in our morality we need to be cautious. It can lead us—ever so slowly—to feel good about ourselves, which can lead us—ever so slowly—to self-righteousness. Which is the enemy of the gospel.
Another counterfeit gospel is when we say, “Hey, I’m not so bad. I’m okay, you’re okay.” It’s a modern version of the ancient Pharisee. We don’t see our need. And such self-righteousness is killing the world.
The key difference between the sinners and Pharisees was they knew they were needy.
One way the Secret Service trains agents to spot counterfeits is to spend lots of time handling genuine currency. The best way to spot a counterfeit is to know the real thing.
So, what is the real gospel?
- The gospel is not us being good so God will like us; it is God loving us despite our brokenness and sin. All we really need is need.
- The gospel is not us giving God a good report card; it is Jesus living a perfect life and giving us a good report card. All we need is need.
- The gospel is not us emptying our bank accounts to give to God; it is God pouring out his riches on us, the morally bankrupt, to make us rich. All we need is need.
- The gospel is not us cleaning up our acts or our families or our relationships or our mouths; it is God cleaning them up for us. All we need is need.
Tim Keller says the gospel is like a two-sided coin: we are more wicked than we have ever dared admit; and we are more loved than we ever dared imagine.
Or, we were in such a dreadful moral condition that the death of the son of God was our only cure; and his love for us was so great that he died for us joyfully.
When we admit we are needy—in real need of a heart transformation, then the receipt of unjustified love for us changes us, it gives us the needed transformation.
When we can admit that we are really no better than anyone else AND that we are also incredibly loved, then—and only then—are we going to be able to love those around us who don’t live up to our moral standard.
Because—like others—we didn’t live up to them either; but he loved us anyway.