A 'gospel' that Isn't "Good News"

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not  be a servant of Christ.” - GALATIANS 1:6-10

Let’s be clear from the outset…there is ONE Gospel. The “Good News” we celebrate each Advent Season is defined as such by the angel who spoke to Joseph saying, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

God and sinners reconciled. This is the Gospel.

Hence, when the Apostle Paul addressed the Galatian churches who had been led astray by a supposed Christ-following leader, what did he mean when he declared in Galatians 1:6-7, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one…”? The NIV translates verse seven as saying the alternative gospel “is really no gospel at all.“  And this translation has the benefit of being etymologically true, also;  a Gospel that doesn’t securely save us is not good news. 

Here in Prism’s neck of the woods, I’ve watched for the past decade as women and men from theologically orthodox churches embrace a gospel that is really no gospel at all. What is the common denominator of their experience? A variety of forces lock arms to produce in them a lack of confidence in Scripture’s trustworthiness and authority. Once Scripture is reduced in its role as God’s authoritative Word on faith and practice, some common manifestations result.

First of all, the prevailing religious culture redirects the Gospel away from the death of Christ as the only means of satisfying the debt of sin owed by sinful human beings. The refrain can be heard “the church talks too much about Jesus’ death and not enough about his life of good works.” Implied in the statement is that doing good works is ultimately what the Gospel is really all about. It is also clear that many of these folks now don’t think the angel’s declaration that Jesus’ was to “save us from our sins” means he would save us from sin’s punishment. 

Secondly, because there is a growing dissatisfaction with the perceived co-opting of Christianity by some politically conservative groups (something with which many orthodox pastors like myself are also not comfortable), an unfortunate reflexive response is occurring. Presumptively to reach millennials, many churches have now made their primary message about progressive politics. In the well-intentioned motivation to be salt and light in our culture, the Gospel of reconciliation (saving people from their sins) has been hidden behind a different kind of social action than the conservative version.

This tension isn’t new. Throughout the 20th century the social gospel influence within some churches dragged mainline denominations away from talk about Jesus’ atoning sacrifice in favor of a more socially palatable form of “do-goodism.” The result was a catastrophic decline in mainline church attendance and the drain-circling of mainline Protestant Christianity. The reasoning of a person would makes sense to me: “Why would someone get up on Sunday mornings and give money to an organization they don’t trust, when they can do the same good works through any number of terrific social organizations that don’t pick the absolute worst time of the week to meet?”

I believe one substantial issue in play for many who are abandoning the doctrines of orthodoxy for another ‘gospel,’ is what Paul references in GALATIANS 1:10 when he asks, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?” The Gospel of reconciliation with God through faith in Christ’s death will be a stumbling block to many (1 Corinthians 1:23). For many, needing Jesus for salvation logically implies some things that are offensive:

  1. We’re sinful…and not a little bit. It took the death of Christ to overcome this.

  2. We can’t save ourselves by our good works. We are helpless. We are broken.

  3. Other means of salvation are not only unavailable (otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have HAD to die), but unnecessary because Christ is Lord over all.

“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” - GALATIANS 5:16

According to the Apostle Paul (presuming you still believe that Paul had Apostolic authority and was inspired by the Holy Spirit), a person can’t be and isn’t justified by their obedience to the law. The GOSPEL says we are made legally right with God through our dependence on what Jesus had done to “save us from our sins.” That’s good news and the “Good News.”

However, it is accurate to say there are many evidences of a genuine experience with the Gospel. A growing reflection of the character and mission of Jesus in our lives is chief among them. But, when some say things like, “There can’t be a GOSPEL of Jesus without a GOSPEL of Justice,” they’re being linguistically reckless at best. At worst, they are conflating the means of grace, adding the requirement to do good works in order to merit a relationship with God in the first place.

Genuine encounter with Jesus definitely MUST produce growing evidence of passion for His Holiness (justice being one aspect of God’s Holiness).  But the grace of God in our lives would patiently celebrate “growing” evidence. As individual believers and a collective church in our generation, we’re imperfectly living out the mission. And don’t let anyone tell you that the first century church did so perfectly by comparison. They were as messed up sociologically as we are today, yet the church prevailed through the ages nonetheless. 

Raising specific manifestations of God’s holiness above others and saying “THIS is the real gospel” is misleading and unhelpful. It implies that if someone’s greatest passion isn’t everyone’s singular or current struggle to manifest God’s holiness, they’re not really experiencing Jesus. One could infer from that overemphasis that the Gospel isn’t the good news of Jesus giving his life as a ransom, but instead Jesus showing us how to be good people. And because a person can never know that they have been made right with God by their good works, whatever this so-called “gospel” is, it isn’t good news.

Chuck Ryor, Ph.D., is a Professor of Communication at Providence Christian College in Pasadena, California and the Pastor of Prism Church - a Sojourn Network congregation.

Chuck Ryor